UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


19th Century Shipbuilding

The strenuous years that formed the beginning of the new century in which England was constantly at war, gradually increased the size of her Navy to the enormous total of 644 ships which was reached in 1813. But this number had as quickly diminished to 114 four years later, when the outlook of peace seemed bright and hopeful.

A powerful influence was exercised over British naval architecture by Sir Robert Seppings. It was he who in 1804 introduced the round bow in place of the straight wall-liks structure which had been inherited from the previous centuries. Similarly, instead of the square stern, he gave his ships a circular one. But more important still was the diagonal method of placing the timbers of a ship which he introduced in 1800. The advantage of this was increased strength and ability to resist the hogging strains, which the Egyptians also had to overcome. The system, while no doubt being efficacious in preventing the "working" of a ship's component parts, must necessarily have added very considerably to her weight. It was about this time, too, that teak was used occasionally for the construction of ships.

During the first quarter of the century whatever improvements were made in British naval architecture owed their origin almost entirely to the knowledge gained from the numerous prizes captured from the French. One of the finest ships ever built in France was the Sans Pareil, which we had taken from the enemy in 1794. She was of 2242 tons and carried 80 guns. The influence which this vessel exercised over our naval architecture was not inconsiderable. So much admiration did she receive that as late as 1845 there was designed on similar lines and laid down at Devonport a British shin. She was never launched, however, as another Sans Pareil, but while on the stocks was altered, her length was increased, and she was eventually given the addition of a screw propeller, and thus launched in 1851.

The rates of the Napoleonic period were: first-rates, above 100 guns ; second-rates, ninety-eights and nineties (the remnant "in ordinary"); third-rates, eighties, seventy-fours, and sixty-fours; fourth-rates, fifties; fifth-rates (frigates), forty-fours, forties, thirty-eights, thirty-sixes, thirty-twos ; sixth-rates (frigates and corvettes), twenty-eights, twenty- fours, and twenties; below these came sloops, brigs-of-war, cutters, and small craft. Intermediate classes in each rate, such as the 56-gun ships, were prizes from the enemy left with their original armaments.

The rates and types of vessel remained fairly standard for over a century. After 1815, but before the steam era, there were changes in the number of guns carried by frigates. Frigates of 52, 46, 42, 28, 26 and 22 guns were common Most ships of the line carried either 120, 100, 90, 84, 76, or 74 guns. The only notable change was the general increase in the size of vessels.

The system of rating however was radically false, for the official ratings took no count of the carronade armament that every British ship carried in addition to her broadside guns, although these pieces, at the close quarters at which we fought, were every bit as destructive as the long guns. For instance, British 32-gun frigates, if they officially carried 32 long guns, mounted 6 carronades as well, making 38 pieces in all; nominal 38-gun frigates actually carried 46 pieces ; 40-gun and 44-gun frigates actually 48 and 50 pieces. And the same with line-of-battle ships, though here the proportion of carronades to broadside armament was less marked.

It was only in 1817 that, by an Order in Council, carronades were first reckoned in a ship's armament, and a ship's nominal force brought into accord with her real fighting strength. The result was that new ratings had to be established with a new distribution of armaments in each class. First-rates henceforward comprised the larger three-deckers, mounting 104 guns and over, up to 120 guns ; all smaller three-deckers (including the last of the ninety-eights) being classed second-rates. Third- rates included the entire two-decker class, ranging from 92 guns to 58; the one-decked classes comprising ships mounting from 52 to 20 guns, which were all rated broadly as frigates. Corvettes, and sloops, brigs, and so forth, were under 20 guns.

This general re-arrangement was simplified by degrees by eliminating intermediate armaments, which, in the course of the next few years disappeared as the older ships passed away. So the old hundred-and-fours, ninety- eights, and seventy-fours of Nelson's time vanished, giving place to the hundred-and-twenties, hundred-and- tens, ninety-ones, and eighties of the later years of our sailing Navy, with no intermediate classifications at all, and so on with the classes below, the old sixty-fours and two-decked fifties, which were similarly improved out of existence.

The usage of building ships under cover, suggested by the Venetian practice, was instituted (after 1792), with the practical result that the ships lasted twice as long as before. Towards the close of the Napoleonic war improvements of vital importance in the framing and strengthening of the hull were introduced by Sir Robert Seppings, one of the most eminent of constructors. These were the filling in of the openings between the timbers of the frame; the trussed frame and diagonal rider; the permanent fastenings of the beams to the sides by shelf-pieces; thick water-ways and side binding-strakes; and the laying of decks diagonally.

In matters of external and internal color and ornamentation a notable change was made early in the nineteenth century. From 1700 to about 1801 blue upper works and canary yellow sides, with wide black strakes at the water-line, were usual for the exterior of ships, and blood-red for inboard surfaces. Lord Nelson, for reasons of his own, introduced in his fleet the chequered side, black and yellow-the exterior of the hull black all over, with a yellow strake along each tier of ports, the exterior of the port lids also being black; and after Trafalgar the "Nelson mode," as it was called, was adopted throughout the service, white being later substituted for yellow. At the same time green (occasionally in a few ships buff or a pale brown colour was preferred) began to be adopted for the inboard colour, as a substitute for red. The inner sides of the portholes, however, continued until quite recently to be red. Later, early in her present Majesty's reign, white came into favor in place of green.

In 1812 the unfortunate war broke out between the United States and Great Britain, and for another two years naval activity was renewed. What the immediate result of the American war had on the development of the sailing ship is not difficult to estimate. As regards English shipbuilding, owing to the great success of the American frigates and then superiority to British vessels, a sudden wave of enthusiasm swept over the British naval authorities for frigates. In the panic, this was pushed to foolish extremes, and bigger ships were cut down and converted into frigate-shape. In America, the building of frigates of such unusual size first called the attention of naval architects to the advantages and possibilities of large vessels. It was thus that the way was paved for the coming of the early clippers in 1851.

Sir Robert Seppings was succeeded by Captain Sir William Symonds, R.N., who was Surveyor to the Royal Navy from 1832 to 1847, years full of importance in the history of the sailing ship. The old Navy attained its extreme development after 1832, when, on the appointment of Captain Symonds, a naval officer of high attainments, as Surveyor of the Navy, all restrictions as to dimensions and armament were at last removed. Complete discretionary power was now given the Surveyor, with the result that ships soon became the embodiment of efficient construction, each class exactly suited to its work.

The slavish copying of French models which had been a feature of British naval architecture was now to end. Just as before, and many times after, England had shown herself to possess a genius not so much for inventiveness as for improving on the ideas of others, so now she began to design and build vessels that could not be surpassed even by the French themselves. During Symonds' regime the golden age of the wooden walls of England was reached. It was he who was responsible for the design of such sh.ps as the Vernon (fifty guns), the Queen, and about one nundred and eighty others. Seaworthiness combined with speed were their outstanding virtues, and these he obtained by improving their underwater lines and making them less heavy and clumsy.* Internally the ships were constructed so as to provide more room and air. Symonds completed the work of Seppings in getting rid of the mediasval stem which had lingered with certain modifications for so long a period. Instead of the circular, he gave his ships an elliptical stern, and devised a system whereby not only were the different spars of one ship interchangeable, but the spars of different ships and different classes of ships.

The institution of a system of experimental trials with ships of various classes of the new types greatly furthered the advance made. This was the era of the magnificent 110-gun ship Queen, of 4,476 tons displacement (3,104 tons burden, old measurement), launched in 1839, and the 80-gun ship Vanguard, of 3,542 tons displacement, launched in 1835. The special features of the new ships were increased speed and stability, greater breadth, loftier 'tween decks, and more roomy batteries. In the Vernon type of 50-gun frigate (2,388 tons displacement), launched in 1832, the British Navy found its ideal sailing cruiser.

Between 1850 and 1860 came the final advance in dimensions for the large first-rates, vessels such as the grand 131-gun ship Duke of Wellington, and the later and still larger 121-gun ships Marlborough and Howe (note the reduction in armament), with which the sailing Navy of England reached its climax and its close.

Marlborough was a 1st rate three-decker, converted to screw on the stocks before being launched 31 July 1855. With a wooden hull, she had a length 246 feet and a crew of 1,100.

The official navy List of 1856 showed a number amounting to 456 ships and vessels of every denomination comprising the British fleet. Of this force 301 ships and vessels were in commission and employed in various ways, as 131-gun line-of-battle ships down to the 1-gun. mortar, or gunboat, and the steam-yacht mounting no armament at all. Ten years earlier there were only had 233 vessels as a grand total of all classes in commission, and nearly all those were sailing vessels. By 1856 the character of the service was so thoroughly changed that nearly all were steamers, and such few sailing vessels as were yet doing duty were being set aside as fast as their terms of commission expire. Thus that noble three-decker, the Neptune, 120, Captain Button, was laid up in ordinary, to make room for the more modern steam bulwark, the Marlborough, 131.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:28 ZULU