Registration number 498
Status National Historic Fleet

Previous names

  • 1939 - 1941 Unicorn II
  • 1941 - 1959 HMS Cressy


Function Fighting Vessel
Subfunction Frigate
Location Dundee
Current use Museum based
Available to hire No
Available for excursions No


Builder Admiralty, Chatham
Built in 1824
Hull material Wood
Number of decks 3
Propulsion Sail
Primary engine type None
Boiler type None
Boilermaker None


Breadth: Beam
39.90 feet (12.17m)
13.11 feet (4.00m)
Length: Overall
165.90 feet (50.60m)


HMS UNICORN was designed as one of the successful LEDA class frigates, whose lines were based on a French frigate HEBE, captured in 1782. Her keel was laid in February 1822 on No. 4 slip in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and she was launched on 30 March 1824. She was roofed over immediately and laid up in reserve, or 'ordinary', as it was then called and so she remained.

From 1857 to 1862 she was lent to the War Department for use as a powder hulk at Woolwich, and on her return was laid up again at Sheerness. By then the sailing warship had been well and truly outclassed by steam power, but UNICORN's sheltered existence meant that her hull was in excellent condition and she was selected for conversion to a Drill Ship for the Royal Naval Reserve at Dundee.

In November 1873 UNICORN sailed for Dundee in tow of HM Paddle Sloop SALAMANDER and on her arrival she replaced HMS BRILLIANT, who was taken to Inverness and later renamed HMS BRITON. In 1906 UNICORN was taken over by the newly-formed Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and when the Reserves were combined after the Second World War she came under the new, unified Royal Naval Reserve. During both World Wars she played an important part as the Area Headquarters of the Senior Naval Officer, Dundee. In 1939 when the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Stanhope, was asked to select a name for a new aircraft carrier, he picked UNICORN and the frigate's name was changed to UNICORN II in 1939.

In 1941 she became HMS CRESSY when it was found that having two UNICORNs in the Navy caused confusion with mail and drafting. In 1959, after the aircraft carrier was scrapped, the frigate was renamed HMS UNICORN by Mrs W F Keay. For almost a century, UNICORN had been berthed in the Earl Grey Dock, but in 1961 it was announced that this dock was to be filled in to make way for the new Tay Road Bridge, and it was decided that the ship should be scrapped. At the last moment, Captain Anderson, a former Captain of UNICORN, succeeded in having the decision changed and in 1962 UNICORN was moved down river to a new berth.

1967 saw work started on the Tay Division RNR's new shore headquarters, now HMS CAMPERDOWN, and once again UNICORN's future hung in the balance. Captain Stewart started a move to ensure her permanent preservation, and the outcome was the formation in 1968 of the Unicorn Preservation Society, chaired by Lord Dalhousie. On 26th September 1968, Prince Phillip accepted HMS UNICORN from the Navy on behalf of the newly formed Society. UNICORN has since been relocated to the Victoria Dock, Dundee.

The Unicorn Preservation Society is working to protect and preserve HMS UNICORN for future generations to enjoy this incredible museum and piece of world history.  Since 2014, The Unicorn Preservation Society (UPS) has been working to create a sustainable future for HMS Unicorn, which has led to the development of a major maritime project: Operation Safe Haven. HMS Unicorn is acting as a catalyst as Dundee re-discovers and celebrates its maritime past with the next stage of development of the city’s waterfront. Operation Safe Haven will see Unicorn moved to the East Graving Dock where conservation work will continue.

Update, November 2022: HMS UNICORN won the Martyn Heighton Award for Excellence in Maritime Conservation 2022 at the National Historic Ships UK Awards.


  1. What is the vessel’s ability to demonstrate history in her physical fabric?

Evidence for designs, functions, techniques, processes, styles, customs and habits or uses and associations in relation to events and people.  How early, intact or rare these features are may impact on significance.

HMS UNICORN is the most complete and least altered example of a British-built sailing frigate from the Georgian era. Launched in 1824 as a 46-gun, 5th rate, Leda class frigate, she is one of the six oldest large ships surviving anywhere, and the oldest British-built historic ship still afloat. UNICORN is now a unique exemplar of Britain’s great deterrent fleet in Ordinary, and her unexpectedly sheltered life in reserve under a roof, with no battles, sea-service or modern re-building, means she is accepted as the most original old ship in the world. The hull has only ever had minimal repair, mainly to external planking above the waterline and some deck planking on the two highest decks, representing an estimated 8-10% of the ship’s structure measured by volume of material.

Constructed during the transition from wooden to iron shipbuilding, her design displays important structural innovations developed by Sir Robert Seppings.  UNICORN contains early examples of ironwork including her tiller and the diagonal bracing straps through the hull and iron knees which support the decks. These features strengthened wooden sailing ships and allowed them to carry a more powerful armament. Another of Seppings' innovations was an elliptical stern which gave a greater arc of fire to the defensive guns and improved strength. Externally UNICORN appears a traditional oak-built warship, but structurally her design shows the first signs of the Industrial Revolution which, within twenty-five years of her launch, was to result in steam-powered, iron-built ships. The design innovations exhibited in UNICORN were a vital step in the move from timber and sail to steel and steam, and no other surviving historic ship illustrates so effectively the start of this crucial transition. Her half-sister, HMS Trincomalee, belongs to an earlier batch of Leda-class frigates and represents a step towards the fully developed Seppings system seen in UNICORN.

The fabric of UNICORN provides evidence of her long working life in different roles. For instance, the boxing-in of much of the ironwork in her lower hull with wood is evidence of her role as a powder hulk in the mid-nineteenth century and is in accordance with contemporary instruction to prevent sparks. The installation of casement windows within the gunports may also date from this period when there would have been a permanent staff living on board. In 1874 the vessel was modified for use as a Royal Naval Reserves Drill ship.  Several training guns were installed, a signal mast was stepped, and the roof was probably raised to create more headroom.  The port side stern towing bollard was also removed in the 1950s to improve headroom on the deck below.

Although suffering from visible deterioration, UNICORN’s hull is a rare treasure trove of authentic Georgian craftsmanship. Timber markings, both formal and ‘scribbled’, tool marks, joints, fastenings, etc, all still exist unaltered and are augmented by ‘witness’ marks of almost all the minor alterations and additions of her service life.  Her copper sheathing was last repaired in 1873 and is now possibly the most authentic sheathing left in existence.  As she was never rigged for sea service, some important hull fittings (such as chain wales) were not fitted.  Internal bulkheads were designed to be removable when the ship went into action and have been shifted and altered over the years. Though a high proportion are of original fabric, only some are in their original positions.  Later additions to the ship include the GRP moulded battery guns pioneered in the 1970s and the figurehead re-carved in 1990.  A canopy to cover the forecastle section of roof that was removed in the 1970s was installed in 2006, followed by further extensions in 2010.  In 2023, a temporary plastic steel coated roof was fitted overall to make the structure watertight.


  1. What are the vessel’s associational links for which there is no physical evidence?

Associations with people or places.  Off-ship research.

The only historic warship in Scotland, UNICORN is a national focal point for naval heritage and remembrance. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy backed up its world supremacy with a vast fleet of ships maintained in ‘ordinary’ or reserve. UNICORN is now the sole surviving vessel that can tell the story of that great fleet, yet her actual wartime contributions were made in the twentieth century. Unusually amongst large ships, UNICORN's main life-story is of one place, Dundee, where she pre-dates many of the main city buildings and has become woven into the fabric of local communities in a way unusual for ships. 

Whilst she retains associations with Chatham Historic Dockyard as her place of build, as well as with Medway and the Thames where she was held in reserve before being used as a powder hulk at Woolwich, she became the Royal Naval Reserves and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves drill ship in Dundee in 1873.  She served in that role for almost a century, acting as Dundee’s naval headquarters in both World Wars. Hundreds of recruits from UNICORN joined the Royal Naval Division in WW1. During the Second World War the ship became the administration centre for non-civilian shipping on the Tay and also for nearby HMS AMBROSE, the multi-national Ninth Submarine Flotilla base, which was home to the international squadron of submarines from invaded countries.

UNICORN was an important training centre for the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRENS), helping to recruit radio operators, meteorologists, bomb range makers, coders, and boat crew. Over 1500 women trained on board, and the ship was also the telegraphy training administration centre for WRENS. The ship’s visitor book, which was started in 1926, reflects the relative importance of UNICORN during the Second World War. Among the signatures of the many important visitors during that period are those of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, King Haakon of Norway and General Sikorsky of Poland. 

Many other notable people have been associated with UNICORN's design, construction and working life. Designed by the pioneering naval architect Sir Robert Seppings, she is representative of the best of his work and the changes in warship design and construction that he initiated. Among her many other personal associations are those with prominent military figures. For example, her Senior Officer during WW2 (‘Kipper’ Robinson) had been awarded the VC in WW1, while her handover into preservation in 1968 was made by another VC holder, Godfrey Place. Possibly her most unlikely service was to take the surrender, on 14 May 1945, of a German U-Boat from its Commander Oberleutnant Karl Jobst, a unique achievement for a Napoleonic era warship.

UNICORN has now been on display as an historic ship for close to fifty years and has become integrated into the Dundee scene via museum visits and social events held on the covered upper deck. A high proportion of Tayside residents will have some connection to the ship. The Unicorn Preservation Society, which has cared for the ship since 1968, has been a pioneer of ship conservation in its approach, influencing many other maritime preservation projects.

UNICORN has been recorded on the National Register of Historic Vessels since 1996 with the status of inclusion in the National Historic Fleet.  She houses a unique collection of objects relating to her early years and time as a training ship.  The Society also retains a considerable archive of information relating to the history and development of UNICORN which includes photographs, drawings, paintings, documents and books.  Further original plans and records survive at the National Maritime Museum, National Archives and other repositories. UNICORN has featured in many Scottish tourist guides, as well as published works on the history of the warship and took part in the BBC series The Past Afloat (Anthony Burton, 1982).


  1. How does the vessel’s shape or form combine and contribute to her function?

Overall aesthetic impact of the vessel, her lines, material she was built from and her setting.  Does she remain in her working environment?

The primary function of HMS UNICORN was as a sailing frigate. Although she was never fitted for service at sea in this role, her hull below the water exhibits the fine lines of a warship designed for speed, now partially marred by the hogging she has sustained over time. The Leda class of frigates were based on the lines of the captured French vessel HÉBÉ (1782) and prioritised speed, tending to pitch in heavy weather and with poorer stowage than other British classes of vessel. While she does not display the vertical aspects (masts, yards and rigging) of a typical sailing naval vessel, the form of her oak hull is accentuated as a result including the circular stern and bow quarters which are a feature of her design. The visual impact of the hull is limited because of the protective roof, constructed over her top deck shortly after launch when she was laid up in reserve and from a distance, UNICORN has a long, low profile. In a close-up view, the dramatic head rails (original) and figurehead (a modern addition) stand out, and the powerful bows are impressive. The casement windows provide an exterior indication of the ship's work as a powder hulk and then as a training vessel in Dundee. It was made habitable for these purposes. The interior has an attractive patina of age, and the spacious interior of the upper deck is striking, especially in its contrast with the low decks beneath.  HMS UNICORN is berthed in Victoria Dock in Dundee, the city where she spent much of her career as a Drill Ship. She is open as a museum ship and offers extensive opportunities for volunteering and community engagement



Faye Hammill and Unicorn Preservation Society, 07 March 2023

Key dates

  • 1824

    Built at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham. Roofed over and placed in Reserve

  • 1857/1862

    Lent to the War Department for use as a powder hulk at Woolwich

  • 1873

    Selected for conversion to a Drill Ship for the Royal Naval Reserve at Dundee

  • 1906

    Taken over by the newly formed Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

  • 1939

    Renamed HMS UNICORN II to avoid confusion with newly built aircraft carrier

  • 1941

    Renamed HMS CRESSY when it was found that having two Unicorns created confusion

  • 1959

    Renamed HMS UNICORN when the other aircraft carrier was scrapped

  • 1968

    Unicorn Preservation Society formed

  • 1972

    Full restoration commenced

  • 1975

    Opened to the public


  • 2023

    Received £1,110,930 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to fund the necessary and urgent work required for the continued preservation of the ship.

  • 2023

    Received £20,000 from Dundee TSI - Communities Mental Health & Wellbeing Fund

  • 2023

    Received £30,000 from Northwood Charitable Trust: core funding

  • 2023

    Received £100,000 from Headley Trust: towards the replacement of missing or rotten timbers and engineering works to strengthen the ship’s weakest points

  • 2022

    Received £20,000 from Museums Galleries Scotland Capital Resilience Fund: for museum cases

  • 2022

    Received £20,000 from Imperial War Museums: 14-18 NOW art commission

  • 2022

    Received £57,130 from National Lottery Heritage Fund: for development of Operation Safe Haven

  • 2022

    Received £81,500 from Museums Galleries Scotland Recovery Fund: for core funds and Friends membership consultation

  • 2021

    Received £39,789 from Gannochy Trust: for Volunteering, Engagement and Learning Officer salary

  • 2020

    Received £63,200 from Heritage Emergency Fund

  • 2020

    Received £20,000 from Historic Environment Scotland: for capital works, learning and engagement, and professional fees

  • 2020

    Received £15,000 from Northwood Charitable Trust

  • 2020

    Received £10,000 from Fife Environment Trust: for roof repair

  • 2019

    Received £20,000 from Garfield Weston Foundation: core cost

  • 2019

    Received £15,000 from Northwood Charitable Trust

  • 2018

    Received £28,900 from Heritage Lottery Fund: Resilience Fund money for admin and marketing

  • 2018

    Received £15,000 from Dundee Common Good Fund: for planning and capacity building

  • 2018

    Received £32,580 from Dundee Historic Environment Trust: for conservation

  • 2018

    Received £23,400 from Northwood Charitable Trust


Atkinson, Dan. Shipbuilding and timber management in the Royal Dockyards 1750-1850: An archaeological investigation of timber marks. PhD Thesis, University of St Andrews, 2007.

Brouwer, Norman J.. International Register of Historic Ships. Anthony Nelson, Edition 2, 1993, p 178.

Goodwin, Peter. The Construction and Fitting of the Sailing Man of War, 1650-1850. Conway Maritime Press, 1987.

Milne, Scott. “Digital scans will help show damages to historic Dundee ship.” Dundee Courier,, 8 July 2019.

Packard, J.J.. “Sir Robert Seppings and the Timber Problem.” Mariner's Mirror 64.1.  1978. pp. 145-56.

Rolt, Peter. “Tell Tales, Unicorn in need of funding.” Classic Boat, September 1999

Stewart, W. R.. “The Guns of the Frigate Unicorn.” Unicorn Preservation Society, 1978, revised 1980.

Stewart, W. R.. “Welcome Aboard the Frigate Unicorn.” Unicorn Preservation Society, 1982.

Stewart, W. R.. “Unicorn’s ‘Roof’ - A Unique Georgian Relic or a Victorian Monstrosity?.” Mariner’s Mirror 72.1. 1986. pp 77-78.

Stewart, W. R.. “Restoration  (or 'Renovation') versus Conservation: Some Thoughts.” Mariner's Mirror 74.3. 1988. pp 289-90.

Stewart, W. R.. “The Frigate Unicorn - preservation of the hull.” Mariner's Mirror 71.71, 1985, p 436.

Sullivan, Dick. Old Ships, Boats and Maritime Museums. Coracle Books, 1978.

Unicorn Preservation Society Archive. General History. W.R Stewart Collection.


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