Royal Navy Ships 1714–1815 II

HMS Victory 104-guns on ‘The Fleet Offshore’, 1780-90, an anonymous piece of folk art now at Compton Verney.

The Royal Navy’s transformation in the 1750s and 1760s into a superficially French-style fleet based on seventy-four-gun line-of-battle ships and 12-pounder frigates was a belated recognition that the Dutch Wars were over. Political rather than technical weakness had arrested, or at least slowed, the evolution of British warships into types suitable for the oceanic warfare of the eighteenth century. The ships which Sir Thomas Slade designed during his fifteen years as Surveyor (1755–1771) were admirably adapted to Britain’s strategic requirements. Seaworthy, weatherly and tough, with stowage for long cruises, they were the ships needed to dominate European waters in all weathers, and to reach out if necessary to distant waters. By common consent, Slade was the greatest British naval architect of the century. His First Rate the Victory, one of the fastest three-deckers in the world, was the darling of British admirals for half a century, constantly kept in repair when a lesser ship might have been broken up and replaced. The Navy was still building ships to Slade’s designs well into the nineteenth century, and it was generally agreed (even by themselves) that his successors, though competent designers, never matched his genius.

It is important to understand, however, that at no stage from the 1750s was the Navy building as many ships as it needed. As the century progressed and the dockyards came to be devoted almost completely to repairs, prizes made an essential contribution to keeping up the numbers of the Royal Navy. Even if French ships were unsatisfactory, it was necessary to use them, and the Navy Board reduced its prices in proportion to their lower usefulness. There was moreover a high political value in filling one’s fleet with obviously foreign names, every one an advertisement for a victory. Many of these names became traditional in British service, even names like Foudroyant and Téméraire which mean nothing in English. At this day (2004) the Royal Navy still has three ships in service named after Louis XIV.

While the British were evolving new warship designs with the help of foreign borrowings, the Spanish navy was doing the same. The English and Irish constructors recruited in the 1740s were replaced twenty years later by French builders, as Spain’s foreign policy became aligned with France’s, and they in turn were succeeded in the 1780s by Spanish naval architects whose products were regarded by many British officers as the finest in the world. Spanish ships of the line were big, handsome, very well built and long-lasting, though not particularly fast. Meanwhile the French navy was not evolving. In the American War France had succeeded for the first time in imposing the sort of long-range cruising war, with a maximum of movement and a minimum of fighting, which favoured French designs. This confirmed the French navy’s already high sense of the superiority of its ships, and led in 1786 to the adoption of what amounted to an establishment, fixing the designs of all French warships. This was a political and scientific rather than technical or administrative move, the ultimate triumph of the gentleman philosopher (in this case the ex-artillery officer and geometer the chevalier de Borda) over the dockyard shipwrights. Borda could not design a ship himself, but he found a talented young constructor in need of a patron, Jacques-Noel Sané, who was ready to do what he was told. The Borda-Sané ‘establishment’ ossified French warship design into the 1820s.

Only a few French experts seem to have had some awareness of the dangers of immobility. Captain the comte de Kersaint, who visited England in 1785, urged that:

We must copy the workmanship of their shipwrights whose exact joints contribute so much to the longevity of their ships; we must copy the seamanlike proportions of their masts, the cut of their staysails, the strength of their rigging, the perfection of their blocks and cordage. We need their capstans, their cables, above all their anchors which hold better than ours. We must study their shiphandling, and copy their distribution of men for working ship. We must try to adopt their discipline and internal organization, that spirit of order and obedience without which there can be no navy or army.

Sané’s rival Pierre-Alexandre Forfait, who was in England in 1788, admired many details of British shipbuilders’ work, and regarded them as ‘more expert than ours’ in construction, if not design. He was especially dissatisfied with the extremely taunt French rigs, which were demanding in manpower, and destructive of the seakeeping, stability and weatherliness of the ships. All this was true, but the official Borda-Sané line was that the French navy had achieved perfection, and nothing could or should be changed. On a summer’s day in light airs a French ship fresh off the stocks still showed to fine advantage: ‘I never saw vessels sail as they,’ as Captain Lord Cochrane wrote to his commander-in-chief, explaining how his sloop had been captured: ‘everything is calculated for the Mediterranean, light sails, small ropes, prodigious masts and yards…’ – but this was a recipe for disaster in heavy weather.

The transformation of the British fleet in the mid-century required something like a revolution in attitudes. Afterwards, the Admiralty and Navy Board seem to have been more open to technical innovations great and small, including new types of ship and vessel. The 1757 landings on the coast of France, for example, revealed that ships’ boats were inadequate for large troop landings. On 7 April 1758 the Admiralty approved a design for a new type of ‘flat-bottom boat’ or landing craft. On the 26th the Board saw the first boat in action at Woolwich, and ordered twenty to be built for the forthcoming expedition. On 23 May the flat-boats were ready at Portsmouth, and on 8 June they led the landing at Cancale. From the issuing of the first sketch design for the new type to its first use in action had taken two months. These flat boats became a standard part of the equipment of all British amphibious operations.

In guns, as we have seen, the Ordnance Board grappled for much of the century with the problems of poor design, compounded by the industrial and technical consequences of the collapse of the Wealden iron foundries. There was no change in the basic patterns of naval guns until the American War, but there was a valuable technical innovation: gunlocks. Great guns had been fired since the sixteenth century with a linstock, which was a length of burning slowmatch held in a stick. Having pierced the cartridge in the gun, and poured priming powder into the touch-hole, the gun-captain touched his linstock to the priming powder to fire the gun. This was slow and dangerous and made accurate shooting from a moving ship impossible since the gun had to be fired from the side and did not reliably go off at once. Gunlocks were first issued not later than 1745, but spread only slowly, mainly it seems because they could not be fitted to the older patterns of gun. As late as the American War it seems to have been unusual for a ship’s whole armament to be fitted with locks. The gunlock, which was simply a modified form of the firing mechanism of a flintlock musket, was used in conjunction with a quill or tin tube filled with priming powder, which was pushed down the touch-hole to pierce the cartridge. With no loose priming powder the process of priming was quicker and safer, and the gun could be fired with a lanyard by the gun-captain standing in the rear, beyond the recoil but positioned to sight along the gun. This was an important aid to fast and disciplined firing, still not generally adopted in the French navy at the time of Trafalgar.

The first important innovation in gun design was also introduced during the American War. One of the new foundries established in the 1760s, at Carron, near Falkirk, developed an entirely new type of gun intended for the defence of merchant ships. The ‘carronade’ was a short, light gun with a large calibre but a very small charge. It could easily be handled by a few men, the small charge meant low recoil forces and allowed a simple swivel mounting, and at short range the large shot with low muzzle velocity had a formidable ‘smashing’ effect. Loaded with grape or canister instead, the carronade was a deadly weapon against boarders at close quarters. The Carron Company built up a healthy market during the American War among merchant ships seeking defence against privateers. It was harder to persuade the Navy that it might have a use for a short-range gun, and to persuade the Ordnance Board to deal again with a company which had acquired a reputation for incompetence and sharp practice. The company overcame these disadvantages with the powerful advocacy of Charles Middleton, a fellow-Scot (and possibly a shareholder). He in turn persuaded Sandwich, and in the teeth of determined opposition from the Ordnance Board and many of the admirals, they succeeded in having carronades mounted in a number of ships, usually in place of the light guns on quarterdeck and forecastle. The result was some spectacular victories, notably in September 1782, when the new 18-pounder frigate Hebe surrendered to the elderly forty-four Rainbow, which had been experimentally rearmed entirely with carronades. This was the fruit of surprise, and experience was to show that a ship with no long guns was very vulnerable to being attacked at long range, but as a supplement to a conventional main battery, especially for frigates, the carronade was a considerable addition of strength. Moreover French gun-foundries were unable to match the carronade for more than twenty years. Here, as in so many other areas of naval warfare, it was British technology rather than French science which made the difference in war.

The new Blomefield guns, and the new carronades, had reached the whole Navy by the end of the French Revolutionary Wars, though as late as the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 there were serious casualties from the bursting of guns of the old Armstrong pattern. The new cylinder gunpowder was on general issue from 1803, its greater explosive force requiring a reduction in powder charges. During the Napoleonic War a number of experimental lightweight guns were produced, intended to combine some of the advantages of carronades and long guns, but in action they proved unsatisfactory. A completely new weapon in European warfare was the rocket, as designed by William Congreve, and first tried in action against Boulogne in 1806. The rocket proved to be exceedingly inaccurate, but an effective incendiary weapon against large fixed targets, and frightening to horses or inexperienced troops.

During the Great Wars with France, while French warship design stagnated, British designs continued to develop. During the six years (December 1794 to February 1801) that Lord Spencer was First Lord of the Admiralty, there was a clear tendency for the size of British ships to grow. Under his successor John Jervis, Lord St Vincent (1801–4) there was a reaction to smaller, more old-fashioned designs, and a leaning to French inspiration. Partly this was no doubt a difference of generations: Spencer was a young civilian with no inherited prejudices; St Vincent was an old admiral of the generation formed by the experiences of the 1740s. St Vincent was also a Whig, identified with the traditional francophilia of the nobility at a period when Pitt and George III had captured patriotic Britishness. The generally poor performance of these French-inspired designs, and those of the exiled French engineer Jean-Louis Barrallier, finally discredited French ideas. They were particularly unsuitable for blockade stations because their narrow holds could not stow sufficient for the cruises of twenty weeks or more which were becoming commonplace. The big building effort of the Napoleonic War, necessary to replace the ships of the Anson-Sandwich generations as they finally wore out, was mostly based on adequate if uninspired British-style designs.

The most important innovations of these years were in building practice rather than design. The shortage of compass timber and knees, and the urgent need to strengthen older ships for extended lives, led to the adoption of a number of novelties from Gabriel Snodgrass, master shipwright of the East India Company, especially the use of diagonal riders, bolted down in the hold over the existing structure of old ships to stiffen the frames. This in turn was an essential element of the ‘system’ adopted by Robert Seppings, Surveyor of the Navy from 1813 to 1832, whose diagonal timbering allowed new ships of much greater length to be built without loss of rigidity. Also during the Napoleonic Wars many knees were replaced by iron plates bolted through simple chocks (wooden blocks). ‘Wall-sided’ ships, with vertical topsides rather than the traditional tumblehome, saved on compass timber for the toptimbers, gave more room within board, greater stability at large angles of heel, and a better spread for the rigging. Shortage of timber inspired the softwood-built ‘fir frigates’, which were light and fast but had very short working lives. More successful was the building of ships in teak at Bombay Dockyard during the Napoleonic War. Though difficult and expensive to work, teak is a superb shipbuilding timber which is virtually immune to rot and amenable to iron fastenings. During the lifetime of the master shipwright Jamsetjee Bomanjee the management and quality of workmanship of Bombay yard was very high, but after his death in 1821 the building programme was brought to an end by mismanagement, corruption, and the exhaustion of the Malabar teak forests. Other important innovations were in fittings. Davits made it much simpler and safer to put a boat in the water. New patterns of anchors, and the first chain cable, improved ships’ chances of surviving an onshore gale. Iron water-tanks, fitted permanently in the bottom of the hold in place of the traditional tiers of casks, saved the men much time and labour in watering, eased the ship by carrying weight lower in the hull, and saved space in the hold for other stowage.

The Spencer Admiralty was notably open to experimental designs. These included the double-ended sloops of Samuel Bentham, and Captain John Schank’s sloops with sliding keels, none of which were unequivocal successes, though the problem with Schank’s keels was maintenance rather than performance. Most radical of all was Lord Stanhope’s Kent Ambinavigator, which if she had worked would have been the world’s first steam warship. The American engineer Robert Fulton, having failed to interest the French authorities in his ideas for submarines, and his ‘catamaran’ (a sort of floating mine), came to Britain in 1804. The Admiralty was interested, and the ‘catamaran’ was demonstrated in a trial, but failed completely in action.

Another important innovation of the Spencer years was the widespread use of troopships. It had long been a common practice of the French navy, sometimes imitated by the British, to fit ships of the line temporarily as troopships by landing their lower-deck guns. Such ships were often described by the French term armé en flûte (‘fitted as a transport’). The usual British practice was to move troops overseas in chartered transports drawn from the merchant fleet. The disadvantage was the long delays involved in chartering, assembling and moving merchantmen under convoy. During the Great Wars the strategic situation often required Britain’s small forces of troops to be moved fast over long distances. Beginning in the 1790s, the Navy therefore built up a large force of naval troopships. These ships were drawn from the old two-decker classes of forty-fours and fifties, now too small for the line of battle and outclassed as cruisers by the new heavy frigates. To them were added prizes, some former East Indiamen, and some old Third Rates, too weak to carry their main armament but still fit for service in a less demanding role. With their lower-deck guns removed, the troopships had a spacious troop-deck suitable for infantry (moving cavalry and artillery was always more difficult). Under naval command, they could be assembled and moved swiftly. Their main-deck guns were equivalent to the armament of a frigate (though the crews were smaller), so that troopships could look after themselves against anything below a ship of the line. There were also some naval store-ships converted in a similar manner, which accompanied overseas squadrons operating in hostile waters.

We shall see that the Royal Navy experienced some unpleasant shocks when it went to war against the United States Navy in 1812. These were sometimes attributed to superior American ship design, but in fact the seagoing ships of the US Navy were frigates and sloops very similar to their British contemporaries. The US Navy was constructed in the 1790s to meet a threat from Algiers, and its three biggest ships were intended to outclass Algerine 18-pounder frigates. These were the 24-pounder frigates United States, Constitution and President; powerful ships with the scantlings of a small ship of the line. Though not fast (the President perhaps excepted) or good seaboats, they were well adapted to act as the ‘capital ships’ of a small navy. There were a few similar ships in both British and French service, either built as such or ‘razees’, cut down from two-deckers by removing a deck, but the major navies tended to have limited use for a slow cruising warship which cost as much as a ship of the line. To match the big American ships the Royal Navy hastily built or converted a number of ‘super-frigates’ of its own, including some remarkable razeed seventy-fours which carried a 36-pounder main battery with 42-pounder carronades on quarterdeck and forecastle. These ships were the idea of Captain John ‘Magnificent’ Hayes (one of a family of shipwrights, and originally trained for the same profession), who took the first of them, the Majestic, to American waters in 1814, and had the satisfaction of taking the President soon afterwards.

The only US warships which were to an extent original were the least successful part of the fleet, the gunboats, whose inspiration was political rather than professional. Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, believed fervently that armies and navies were ‘pillars of corruption’, destructive of the political purity of the Republic, and that ‘gun-boats are the only water defence which can be useful to us, and protect us from the ruinous folly of a navy’. Much derided by subsequent American naval historians writing in support of a deep-water battlefleet, the Jefferson gunboats were in fact serviceable craft, useful for local defence in conjunction with properly sited batteries. They had little effect on the outcome of the war, because they were the product of an ideological and strategic vision which proved to be quite erroneous.

If there is a single lesson which can be drawn from the study of warships and their weapons, it is that the only useful measure of quality is fitness for purpose, and that the strategic judgement of what functions a navy is meant to fulfil, is even more important than the technical skill of the designer. British ships were more successful not because British warship designs were individually outstanding (though some of them were), but because the British had achieved by the 1760s, and never subsequently lost, a fair balance between their strategic requirements and the ships they built to meet them. France built ships with some good qualities, and Spain built ships with many good qualities, but in both cases their governments committed their navies to wars which they had not been designed to fight, and were not equipped to win. Traditionally minded French and Spanish naval historians have often excused their defeat as inevitable, given the disproportion of forces and resources. In fact France and Spain combined were superior in strength for much of the American War and the Great Wars. It is not unreasonable to guess that the same amount of money, spent on ships more suitable for the purpose, might have built fleets capable of beating the Royal Navy. It has to be realized, however, that the ships were the expression of an ethos as much as a strategy. It was not merely ship design which France and Spain would have to have changed, but the very structure of their navies, their training, organization and discipline – and if it had been possible to change all these things, then they might have won even with inadequate ships, as the Royal Navy did in the 1740s.


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