Little Boxes made of Tin by Simon Evans

Issue: 9
System: Space 1889
Publisher: GDW

"Little Boxes made of Tin"
River Monitors for Ironclads and Etherflyers and Sky Galleons of Mars
by Simon Evans


For those who don't know, a monitor is a shallow draft vessel mounting a very heavy armament in relation to it's size and used for bombardment or coastal defence. The name was coined in 1862 by the designer of a new form of ironclad ship to take on Confederate forts during the American Civil War. This new vessel was named Monitor, the definition of which is 'one who admonishes another as to his conduct'. Given the weight of her arms and armour the name was extremely apt.

The low, heavily armed and armoured style of Monitor caught on with a number of powers for coastal defence, or patrol duties on rivers like the Danube. The Royal Navy built about twelve beginning in 1862, hut they were of almost no value for anything other than colonist defence. On Earth therefore the monitors of the Royal Navy were soon paid off or converted to floating gunnery schools, but the establishment in 1872 of British holdings on Mars was to give the monitor a new lease of life.


Britain's first foothold on Mars, a permanent trading concession in the city of Parhoon in 1872, did not require anything in the way of naval vessels as all commerce was carried out through Martian canal traffic. As trade expanded, some British merchants began to purchase their own craft and move goods themselves. This, coupled with the upheaval of the Gorovaangian War following the assassination of the Anwaalt of Parhoon in 1878, caused a fundamental reappraisal of the situation The war ended with Gorovaan annexed to Parhoon and the British commissioner suddenly found himself with nearly four hundred miles of Grand Canal to police between the two cities.

In 1879 the Canal Patrol Service was established operating initially out of Parhoon with three converted Martian sailing barges equipped with Nordenfelts and Gatling guns. This small force performed well as a customs and patrol service until the outbreak in 1880 of the Second War of the Parhoon Succession. Although this war was a complete success for the British and Parhooni forces and led to the annexation of Syrtis Major and its client states Haatt and Avenel, it showed up the inadequacies of the Canal Patrol Service. Clearly the force needed to be strengthened and expanded, especially as the Crown now had approximately fifteen hundred miles of Grand Canal to patrol. Given the size of the task it was taken out of the commissioner's hands and placed under the control of the navy.

Renamed the Royal Naval Canal Squadron, the Canal Patrol Service was increased in size to twenty vessels, twelve of them converted Martian fast merchants and the remainder purpose-built gunboats. The Royal Navy utilised its considerable experience of patrolling the China Station to build improved river steamers with exception range and endurance and a very respectable armament. These vessels together with the twelve saIling boats gave valuable service and proved a vital asset to the Imperial forces in suppressing pirate activity.

By 1882 Meepsoor and Moeris Lacus had become treaty dependencies of the Crown and in 1887 Slaastapsh was brought under British control Over two and a half thousand miles of Grand Canal required patrolling and the RN Canal Squadron expanded to eventually number some sixty vessels. In 1888 these craft were joined by the first of a class of eight armoured patrol vessels, the first purpose built monitors in the Royal Navy for over a decade.

Monitors had been proposed for use on Martian canals as early as 1873, but were dismissed after cursory investigation in favour of Martian sailing vessels. These performed well but as noted earlier they were unsuitable for prolonged operations in time of war. Gunboats were the next logical step and came into service as the Canal Patrol Service was brought under naval control. In certain areas though, the gunboats were found wanting, vulnerable to ambush by aerial vessels or destruction by larger Martian warships or strongholds mounting heavy ordnance. Once again the possibility of using monitors was raised.

The impetus came from an officer who had served briefly on monitors with the Channel Squadron when he was a midshipman. It occurred to him that what was good for coastal defence would be just as good on the relatively shallow and restricted waters of a Grand Canal. He sketched out his ideas on the back of an old chart and submitted them to the squadron commodore who approved the idea in principle and made representations to the High Commissioner. He was still smarting from an official reprimand following the loss of a gun boat and two sailing barges at the hands of a pirate stronghold, and authorised the design and construction of eight of the canal monitors. The young officer was John 'Jackie' Fisher and he would rise in due course to he Admiral of the Fleet, laying the foundations for the 'dreadnought' battleships along the way.

The first monitor, HMS Severn, was commissioned on April 3rd 1888 and stationed at Moeris Lacus. On June 2nd she went into action against a pirate stronghold which had been disrupting trade between Moeris Locus and Shastapsh. The pirates gave Severn a hot reception but were shocked when their shot merely bounced off her armour. The monitor then proceeded to fire forty-seven rounds of six-inch ammunition into the fort and blew it to pieces. Severn herself was undamaged. The monitors were comprehensively vindicated in their first action and very soon gained a reputation as tough and effective vessels.

The Monitors Described

The canal monitors began his as a class of eight identical vessels, but operational and budgetary reasons saw this change to six with slight variations between them. The first constraint on their construction was the Grand Canals themselves. In order to use the locks, vessels must he no more than 220ft long and 55ft wide with a draft of 25ft, and in addition masts over 40ft in height need to be collapsible to negotiate the many bridges.

All the canal monitors are 220ft in length with a beam of 50ft, but they draw only 7ft. They are all fitted with force-draught boilers developing 2500 hp and providing a theoretical maximum speed of 15 knots, although 12 is the usual maximum. They have an endurance of twenty days which enables them to patrol considerable distances should the need arise. Armour is standard on all six monitors and consists of a midships belt protecting the engine room, full deck armour and armoured bulkheads fore and aft internally. The deck armour is vital as a protection against aerial vessels and has saved more than one monitor from destruction.

Armament was originally conceived as a twin six-inch turret forward and a pair of single five-inch howitzers aft, with four 3-pounder HRC and six five-barrelled Nordenfelts distributed port and starboard. Only the lead ship of the class was completed in this configuration. The next two had only a single six-inch gun forward and two of the Nordenfelts were replaced with Gatling guns. The final three monitors reverted to two six-inch guns, but in single mountings forward and aft, dispensing with the five-inch howitzers. The close-range armament changed again to four Gatling guns and two 3-pounder HRCs.

The monitors were all named after British rivers and came into service from early 1888 beginning with HMS Severn. She was followed in the same year by Clyde and Thames, with Mersey and Avon following in 1889 and Humber in l890.

Game Information

The following information is based on the lead monitor of the class, HMS Severn. As noted above armament differs between vessels but the other information is common to all.

Hull size: 5. Cost 50,000

Propulsion: Forced draft boiler size 20. Weight 100 tons. Cost 40,000. Coal bunker size: 40. Weight 400 tons. Endurance 20 days.


  • 2 x 6" (turret) F. Armour 5. Weight 275 tons. Cost 9,500
  • 2 x 5" Howitzer (pivot with shield) P & S, A. Armour 1. Weight 120 tons. Cost 2,100
  • 4 x 3lb HRC (pivot) P & S, B, Weight 40 tons. Cost 540
  • 6 x Sb Nordenfelt (pivot) P & S, B. Weight 15 tons. Cost 300

Armour: Belt (midships only) 4, Weight 200 tons. Deck 2. Weight 500 tons. Bulkheads (F & A, internal) 2. Weight 100 tons. Total cost of armour 80,000

Mass: 7
Speed: 15 knots
Abbreviations: F - Forward, A - Alt, P- Port, S - Starboard, B - Broadside.

These stats were worked out using the ship design rules in Ironclads and Etherflyers. You will notice that I haven't included any information on the size and composition of the crew. Under the Ironclads and Etherflyers rules exact crew numbers are not necessary. However, if you feel the need (as I do) to populate your monitors, the crew can be calculated using the information in Sky Galleons of Mars. This would give a crew as follows:

Captain plus 3 officers, Helmsman, Trimsman, Signaller, 4 petty officers, 18 gunners, 20 engineers, 5 deckhands.

The monitors can he used in any of the games in the Space: 1889 system. Try pitting screw galleys against a monitor, or using one to attack canalside forts in concert with an aerial gunboat. Models for use in the games can be made from balsa or plastic card thanks to the simple shape of the monitors. Alternatively, metal models of monitors are available from Navwar and Skytrex.