Gazing upon monstrous hulks: landships, stone frigates and buildings that wander


“Everything degenerates in the hands of man…He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons… He turns everything upside down; he disfigures everything; he loves deformity, monsters”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) Emile or On Education

And thus Rousseau launched what would become the Romantic movement, a rallying cry issued at the brink of the first wave of the Eighteenth century’s revolutions. So much was about to change – new orders of politics, manufacture and ideas. But Rousseau saw in the Enlightenment not a will to order and sense making, but a multiplication of forms, an acceleration of man’s warping of otherwise static, given ways of things. The emergent brave new world was increasingly jumbling things up.

Imagining mills as landships

Not all saw this shock-of-the-new as a bad thing though, and some sought to apply the rules of the sublime (until then a characteristic of the awe-inspiring otherness of the natural world at its extremes) to man-made sights. There was a frisson to be savoured in that uncomfortable –  uncategoriseable – sense of gazing at something new and unfamiliar.  Thus, in June 1790, gazing for the first time upon Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills, the world’s first factory scale cotton factory, a traveller – Viscount Torrington – wrote in his travelogue – groping for a metaphor by which to circumscribe this exceptional place:

“seven stories high and fill’d with inhabitants, remind me of a first rate man of war; and when they are lighted up on a dark night look luminously beautiful”.

For this was a place that – by the standards of the day – was infeasibly large, purposeful and which resisted the century old environmental command that the waning of daylight is the signal of the end of the working day. Torrington gives us a glimpse here of an embryonic industrial sublime, something echoed in Joseph Wright of Derby’s contemporaneous painting shown above, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night (c.1783) – the frisson of the new, a pride in progress of the new ‘manufactories’ and their entrepreneurs. Around this time the block form of Arkwright’s buildings, now modest in scale to our eyes given what we know of what came next, reverberated across Georgian popular culture – the factory, positioned as picturesque object, amidst greenery as decoration to drawing room wall or hand painted dinner plates, alongside representations of the ascendant British Navy and its infeasibly large and purpose-filled vessels.

In this piece I want to take for a walk (or a sail) the rebellious image of building-as-ship. This is a deviant proposition, for if there is one thing taken for granted with buildings it is that they do not move, they are fixed (in law ‘real estate’ denotes a type of property that is characterised by its very immobility). In short, a ship and a building are meant to be unrelated concepts. A building is not a ship, and a ship is not a building. Normally.

Stone frigates and military bureaucracy

15 years after Viscount Torrington gazed at Cromford Mills, and saw a stone building as a galleon, the British Navy commissioned a rocky isle in the West Indies as a frigate, adapting its caves as cannon emplacements from which to harry the Franco-Spanish navy as part of what would become known as the Trafalgar campaign.  By virtue of the vagaries (and bureaucracies) of the laws of war the British felt the need to regularise their possession of the island and did so by classifying it as an enemy sloop, and as a ‘prize’ of war thereafter commissioning the island as a frigate in service of the Crown: HMS Diamond Rock. In doing so a new naval category was formed – that of the ‘stone frigate’, a landship having the status of a seagoing naval vessel for the purposes of military law. Subsequently naval on-shore establishments became known as stone frigates, and were regarded as landward extensions of seafaring ships to whom they affiliated. They needed to be affiliated to sea vessels in this way, because the Admiralty was concerned that these landward places might otherwise be undisciplined – for the Naval Discipline Act of 1866 only applied to personnel enrolled upon the books of a warship.

To my mind the most inland and unseaworthy stone frigate is the colossal concrete bunker known – until 1998 – as HMS St Vincent, the Admiralty citadel in Whitehall. Overlooking Horse Guards Parade, this naval bunker was built in 1940, replete with a 20 feet thick concrete roof. In recent years Russian vine has been encouraged to grown upon its Brutalist flanks. Shorn of this greenery, the citadel looks like the approximation of an oil tanker, but also has primal – ark-like – connotations. It looks very immovable though.

Buildings that become ships

One of my kids’ favourite picture books was The School that Went to Sea. In that story a flood upends a classic village schoolhouse and the teacher and a few pupils must convert the standard fare of a school building into a sailing ship. Fortunately for them they manage this task and by the book’s end find themselves and their ship’ sailing into a sunny New York harbour, to be met with cheery smiles from an assembled welcome party.

One of my formative childhood moments was – in contrast – watching the Monty Python short 15 minutes film The Crimson Permanent Assurance, that ran as the opener to their (not great) Meaning of Life (1983). In Crimson an elderly crew of insurance clerks find their company taken over by “The Very Big Corporation of America” and its slick young executives. Throughout the ensuing mutiny the clerks convert their Edwardian office building into a gallon (with builder’s hording providing convenient sails) and having gruesomely killed their officers (the Americans) with improvised cutlasses, pull up anchor, detach from the city street and sail off to do rebellious battle with other offices, in other financial centres around the world.


Watching the film as a young boy it was the oddity of buildings becoming ships that had left its lasting impression – but watching it again now it’s the viscerality of the inter-generational / 1980s City of London ‘Big Bang’  and corporate takeover tensions that strike me most. But, it still remains – thanks to Terry Gilliam’s animation – a magical vision of a building becoming a ship and leaves you looking at the city-scape through new eyes. What if these buildings started moving?

And sometimes they do. There’s an uncanny echo of Crimson in this 1961 newsreel, which shows how an Elizabethan house was jacked up onto wheels and tugged to a new location in Exeter, out of the path of an impending motorway. Watch out in particular for the moment at which the building is seen to start moving from its resting position – in a way that challenges the viewer’s in-built assumptions about the static essentiality of buildings – and then the view of this house on wheels as it slowly crawls up the hill with Gilliam-like monstrousness.


Ships that become buildings

It is – of course – more common for ships to become buildings. In addition to ships at sea and stone frigates the Royal Navy in the Nineteenth century increasingly utilised old warships as dock accommodation – barracks, stores, hospitals and prisons. Via incremental adjustment these once-were-ships steadily changed into approximations of the functional buildings which they aspired to be. For example, in Cardiff, HMS Hamandryad an elderly 46 gun man-o-war was retired by the Admiralty to become in the 1860s a dockside hospital for sailors, eventually being replaced by a brick-built hospital of the same name in 1905 (when the sanitary status of mixing the proposition ‘hospital’ and ‘old ship’ no longer appeared to fit together). In turn that building was removed (in the de-institutionalisation drives of the 1980s) and the ship’s name now adheres to a nondescript steel and cement Community Mental Health Centre.



Hamadryad Hospital Ship:

Former HMS St. Vincent: The Admiralty Citadel:

Auguste Mayer (1815) The Capture of Diamond Rock:

‘Sails’ of the Crimson Permanent Assurance:

Joseph Wright of Derby (c.1783)  Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night:

Waddell, M. & Hartas, L. (1993) The School that Went to Sea:

Moving the house that moved:



About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

8 Responses to Gazing upon monstrous hulks: landships, stone frigates and buildings that wander

  1. Katy says:

    HMS St Vincent, from the air, in the sunshine June 1950; being used as a vantage point by spectators at Trooping the Colour. A bit like mountaineering.

    • Thanks Katy – the weird thing is how incongruous the Citadel is compared to all the promp and twirl of the imperial buildings that surround it. This is certainly the case wandering the streets and looking at the juxtaposition of the facades. Seemingly it’s also the case when viewed from above via your picture.

      • Katy says:

        I get more of a feeling of the building’s anonymity; it is both squat and squatting on that corner of the site, previously a garden (we do have some pre-War coverage of the spot too, which is also online at Britain from Above, it’s a pity the air quality is so poor because it affects the image quality). I think it’s hilarious that people are climbing on it in those shots from 1950. Without your blogpost I’d not have noticed the building, although I see that our online volunteers have done some good labelling. Thanks for helping me to learn a little bit more!

      • Yes – it sort of hides in plain sight doesn’t it! It’s so big and monolithic that you just don’t ‘see’ it.

  2. dobraszczyk says:

    Really enjoyed reading this Luke. I’m now tying to think of other films in which buildings move – Howl’s Moving Castle and Up spring to mind. I also liked that comparison of an early mill to a galleon. A whole new symbolic field to think about…

  3. Philip says:

    Of course, one word for ‘building’ in French (besides the usual ‘bâtiment’) is ‘immeuble,’ i.e. immobile.

    (I say ‘of course’ — I learned this yesterday!)

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