Britain's first submarines were a secret. In fact it was so secret only a few senior officers and the people directly involved with them even knew of their existence. The subs were named for their inventor, John Phillip Holland, an American originally from Ireland. His boats were the first to use electric motors to run submerged and fossil fuel engines to run on the surface. Holland tried for years to get the U.S. Navy interested in his designs, and they finally bought 6 subs for testing.
By this time, Holland had needed and got additional investors and launched the Electric Boat Company. Initially, the US Navy wanted steam power, and Holland built one after losing the argument with the Navy and Congress. The boat got so hot inside that it never left the dock. That was the end of steam powered submarines.
In 1900 the Brits finally ordered 5 boats after much hand-wringing over the moral implications of sudden death without warning from beneath the waves. The giant Vickers shipbuilding concern built the boats under license for £35,000 each at their facilities in Barrow-in-Furness. Since then, about a gazillion Brit subs have been built there. The 5 subs were 63 feet long, had Wolseley 4 cylinder 160 hp gas engines, and one 70 hp electric motor. They could go 7.5 knots on the surface and 6 knots submerged. Their only weapon was one torpedo tube. With a crew of seven, they could theoretically dive to a hundred feet.
Model of Holland boat by Rémi Kaupp
Holland No. 1 was built in a building named "yacht shed" to keep construction a secret. She was armed with torpedoes, and made her first dive in 1902. For these early days, the Hollands were all right. Holland 2 put to sea in 1902 and by then the British submarine secret was out in the open. Holland 4 was the first and only Holland class sub to get a conning tower. Holland 5 was the last boat and may have had a periscope installed. There was actually a Holland 6 that was built also, but it was heavily modified from the original boats and became the first of the British A-class submarines.
The submarine fleet of five Hollands were assigned to "defend" Portsmouth Harbor during fleet maneuvers in 1904. Admiral "Jacky" Fisher stated the the submarine was here to stay, and wondered why no one could see this coming. The entire fleet of Hollands went to war in 1905, after the North Sea Incident, where the Russian fleet attacked a fleet of British fishing trawlers, killing and wounding some British nationals. The Russian fleet was on it's way to war in the far east, and was particularly jumpy due to the invention of torpedo boats, which could take out a capital ship, and false rumors of Japanese torpedo boats in the area. They were so jumpy, in fact, they fired over 500 rounds at the small fishing fleet, and even attacking their own ships. The Hollands were sent out to make amends, but were recalled when the war was settled by diplomacy.
What happened to them?
Holland 1 was being towed to the scrapyard and sank in severe weather off Eddystone Lighthouse. She was found again in 1981 and raised in '82. She was put on display in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, but started corroding badly.. She finally got her own climate controlled building where she lay now, at Gosport, close to the Isle of Wight.
Holland 2 accidently set the depth record for the Holland fleet by diving to 78 feet. She was finally sold in 1913, along with Holland 3, which had also sunk once during trials in 1911. Holland 4 foundered in 1912, salvaged and blasted to pieces as a gunnery target in 1914.
Holland 5 foundered off Beachy Head in 1912, while being towed to the scrapyard. It was discovered in 2000, and became protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act, and licensed dives were allowed as part of a research program. It has been discovered lately a torpedo hatch had been stolen from the wreck. Holland 6, as British Submarine A-1, was run over and sunk by a passenger liner in 1904 with the loss of the entire crew. She was raised and put back into service, and finally succumbed as a gunnery target in 1911. Would be interesting to learn the final details of Holland 2 and 3.
Video of Holland 5