The Laird rams were two ships secretly funded and constructed at Birkenhead, England on behalf of the Confederacy between 1862-1862. Iron-hulled from the keel up and fitted with two revolving turrets, these ships posed a grave threat to the sea-going force of the United States Navy and its blockade on Southern ports; strong diplomatic pressure led to their seizure by the British government and eventual commissioning into the Royal Navy.
John Laird (14 June 1805 – 29 October 1874) was a British shipbuilder of Scottish descent, eldest son of William Laird, who had already founded a company in Birkinhead devoted to iron working. Together, they formed their own company - William Laird & Son - and constructed steamships for both Britain and the United States. John Laird was among the first to realize that ships could be constructed of iron in a fashion similar to that of boiler making, and from there his firm would construct the steamships John Randolph, Robert F. Stockton (both for the U.S.); Nemisis for the East India Company; and HMS Birkenhead, a frigate eventually wrecked off the South African coast with terrible loss, resulting in a famous Runyard Kipling poem.
Building for the Confederacy
Retiring in 1861, the business was taken over by his sons William, John and Henry; together they would construct and build Alabama for the Confederacy, which would be a thorn in the side of U.S.-British relations for many years. Two other vessels were on the stocks about the time Alabama was launched: El Monassir and El Tousson, apparently intended for Egypt, and advertised for all intents and purposes as "merchantmen".
Both of these vessels were the result of secret negotiations between the Laird brothers and Confederate Naval Captain James Dunwood Bulloch, who arrived in Liverpool in March, 1862 with the blessings of Stephen Mallory and President Jefferson Davis; both of Bulloch's superiors insisted that the ships which would come out of the yards there be unlike anything encountered in Naval warfare; capable of fighting in the shallows as well as the deep ocean, and to that end they gave Bulloch almost-unlimited funding and free reign to implement his own ideas. The first idea he had was obvious: put the guns in revolving turrets; both of his vessels carried a pair of them, one between the fore and main masts forward of the stack; the other between the main and mizzen masts. Portions of the hull's sides (gunwales) could be lowered to allow the turrets broadside firing, which was further augmented by tripod masts, eliminating much of the rigging which would have normally been in the way. Both were steam-powered with a single screw propeller, and carried a barque sail rig for use at sea. And mounted to the bows was a seven-foot ram made of cast iron. Such a configuration aroused the interest of American representatives, who realized that a small, backwards country such as Egypt would have no need for them.
Their interest would pay out: the ships - which they called the "Laird rams" - were intended for the Confederacy; "El Monassir" was to be called Mississippi upon delivery, and "El Tousson" was to be named North Carolina. Strong diplomatic pressure by the United States led the British government to seize the two ships in October 1863, while they was fitting out. This action undoubtedly prevented the Confederate Navy from posing an extremely dangerous threat to the Federal blockade and to the Northern seaboard, as both ironclads would have been more than a match for all but one of the United States Navy's seagoing warships.
HMS Wivern (ex-Mississippi)
Purchased for the Royal Navy in early 1864, the ship was renamed Wivern and completed in October 1865. She served with the Channel Fleet until 1868. Following a refit that eliminated her square sails in favor of a fore and aft rig, the turret ship served for several months in 1870 as coastguard ship at Hull but then spent nearly a decade in reserve. In 1880, Wivern was returned to active service and sent to Hong Kong as part of that colony's defenses. In 1904 she was reduced to harbor support service. HMS Wivern was sold for scrapping in June 1922.
HMS Scorpion (ex-North Carolina)
Commissioned in July 1865, Scorpion was assigned to the Channel Fleet until 1869, with time out for a refit that reduced her sailing rig from a bark to a schooner. In late 1869, the ironclad was sent to Bermuda for coast and harbor defense service. Scorpion remained there for over three decades before being removed from the effective list. She was sunk as a target in 1901 but raised the next year and sold in February 1903. The former HMS Scorpion was lost at sea on June 17, 1903 while under tow to the United States, where she was to be scrapped.