HMS Spiteful was one of about 60 torpedo boat destroyers built for use by the Royal Navy between 1893 and 1900 to the specifications of the Admiralty; she was also the 50th ship built for the Admiralty by Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company, and the 12th torpedo boat destroyer built by them. By the time of her construction, Palmers had come to be regarded as one of the "more successful builders [of this type of ship]". She was laid down on 12 January 1898 at Palmers' Jarrow shipyard and launched on 11 January 1899, at a cost of £50,977. She arrived at Portsmouth for completion on 31 August 1899, and this was achieved in February 1900.[Fn 1]
Her design was a development of that for Palmers' Star-class torpedo boat destroyers, which had been completed between 1897 and 1899, although most changes were minor. For example, whereas the Star-class ships had three funnels, of which the middle one was more substantial, Spiteful had four, of which the central two were grouped closely together.[Fn 2]Spiteful's length overall was 220 feet (67.1 metres), her beam was 20 feet 9 inches (6.3 m) and her draught was 9 ft 1 in (2.77 m). Her light displacement was 400 tons (406.4 tonnes).
In common with similar Royal Navy ships of the time, Spiteful's forecastle was of the "turtle-back" type with a rounded top: this design was intended to keep the forecastle clear of sea water, but in practice had the adverse effect of digging a ship's bow into the sea when it was rough, thereby making ships lose speed, besides making them "wet and uncomfortable".[Fn 3] Wetness was mitigated by screening across the rear of the forecastle and around the forward gun position, below which was the enclosed conning tower.[Fn 4] A foremast stood behind the conning position and was fitted with a derrick.[Fn 5] She was armed with a QF 12-pounder gun located in the forward gun position; five QF 6-pounder guns, four of which were arranged along her sides and one located centrally towards her stern, and on a raised platform, as a rear gun; and a pair of 18-inch (460-millimetre) torpedo tubes on a horizontally rotating mount located on deck towards the stern, ahead of the rear gun.[Fn 6] The crew numbered 63 officers and men, for whom the accommodation on this type of ship was "very cramped; usually the captain had a small cabin but ... other officers lived in the wardroom."[Fn 7] The remainder of the crew slept in hammocks.[Fn 8] As ordered Spiteful probably carried four boats, comprising a gig, a dinghy and two lifeboats of the Berthon type.[Fn 9]
Admiralty specifications in force at the time of her construction required that she should be able to steam at 30 knots, and from this she was one of a group of torpedo boat destroyers known informally as "30-knotters".Spiteful's propulsion was through two propellers, each driven by one of two triple expansion steam engines that were powered by four coal-fired Reed water tube boilers operated at 250 pounds per square inch (1,724 kilopascals).[Fn 10] In ships of her type the boilers were installed in a line fore-and-aft and in pairs, so that in each pair the furnace doors faced each other: thus one group of stokers could tend two boilers simultaneously, and only two boiler rooms, also known as stokeholds, were required.[Fn 11] In sea trials it was found that, when run at 29.9 knots, she consumed 2.3 pounds (1 kilogram) of coal per indicated horsepower (IHP) per hour, which was considered low, and a speed of 30.371 knots was "easily maintained".[Fn 12] At 13.05 knots it was found that her capacity of about 116 tons (118 tonnes) of coal, consumed at a rate of 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) per IHP per hour, gave her a steaming range of about 4,000 nautical miles.[Fn 13]
Torpedo boat destroyers of the 30-knotter specification featured watertight bulkheads that enabled them to remain afloat despite damage to their hulls, which were thin and lightly built for speed. Conversely the thinness of their hulls meant that they were easily damaged by stormy seas and careless handling. Those that were based in British ports, as Spiteful was, were originally painted black overall, but they would have been painted grey by about 1916, from which point they would also have had their pendant numbers painted on their bows.[Fn 14]Spiteful and her sister shipPeterel, also built by Palmers and launched later the same year, formed the Spiteful class.[Fn 15]
At the time of their construction a specification of 30 knots made for a fast warship, but:
[t]here seems to have been little rational discussion of why high speed was necessary ... Speed was seen as a good thing in itself. It became a subject for international competition. The specialist torpedo boat firms all competed for the fastest speed on water. ... [However] very few of the "30-knotters" could make more than about 26 knots, if that, in service and this was only in calm conditions.
[t]he best advertisement for [the 30-knotters] lay in the fact that they were worked very hard during [the First World War] and, though most of them were twenty years old by 1919, they remained efficient. This [also] speaks well for their builders ...
These builders were all private British enterprises that had previously specialised in building torpedo boats, and, regarding their designs for 30-knotters, it was specified that they should be given "[a]s free a hand as possible". In 1996 David Lyon, curator of ships’ plans at the National Maritime Museum, wrote that Palmers' torpedo boat destroyers in particular "eventually would, by common consent, be considered the best all-rounders of all".