Sixth Rate of 1719-45

In the naval architectural sense, the only specialist cruiser design in the first half of the eighteenth century was the Sixth Rate of 20 guns (24 guns from 1733), a two-decked ship with no guns on the lower deck. This model is not only one of the most detailed of the type, but also the most accurate representation of their earliest appearance.

This impressively detailed model with its finely rendered rigging has most of the features of a 1741 ship, except that the oar ports have been moved to the upper deck, which was one of the changes contemplated by the 1745 Establishment. The 24-gun ships of the new dimensions were based on the Garland, a lengthened version of the 1741 design being built at Sheerness Dockyard while the Norris committee deliberated about the new establishment. The construction of Garland was strung out across four years, over time the ship gradually adopting the features that came to mark out the 1745 ships – a longer quarterdeck, the fore and main channels moved above the upper deck ports, and the oar ports transferred to the upper deck. This last was a matter of debate and indecision, as there are draughts relating to the 1745 Establishment showing the oar ports on either deck, and in many cases on both. None of the draughts shows the exact configuration of this model, but nevertheless it reflects that uncertainty: note there are no oar scuttles above the fore and main channels – sweeps here would have been difficult to employ without fouling the shrouds – so an uninterrupted array of oar ports would have to wait until the channels were raised.

The final manifestation of the Establishment Sixth Rate, a model of a 1745 ship with a large and eye-catching stern gallery.

1719 Establishment modified in 1733 and 1741

Hitherto cruiser design had been forged in war, but the 1719 ships were shaped by peace. That is not to say there was no action at sea during their careers – far from it – but the Anglo-French alliance that lasted from 1716 to 1731 kept the two great maritime rivals from all-out war. The battlefleet was typically employed in a deterrent role or to exert political pressure. Substantial forces were committed to the Baltic in the years between 1715 and 1721, initially to protect Britain’s vital trade (particularly in naval stores) during the Great Northern War, but later to dissuade the Russians from pressing their advantage against Sweden in an effort to restrain Peter the Great’s expansionist policies. Many of the operations took place in shallow waters, where the main protagonists employed specialist inshore flotillas of oared craft, and it is very likely that this was the motivation behind the renewed interest in rowing exhibited in 1716-17 when the old Fifth Rates were rebuilt. Elsewhere there was ongoing tension with Spain, which came to blows in 1718 (at Cape Passaro, in the greatest Royal Navy victory nobody has ever heard of) and in 1727 when Gibraltar was besieged. However, in none of these conflicts, hot or cold, was there a major campaign against commerce.

The Sixth Rates saw a lot of service in the 1720s and ’30s, but it tended to be on detached and often distant operations. They were regularly assigned as ‘station ships’ in the Caribbean and North America, helping to stamp out the piracy that was endemic in those parts, combating smuggling, or in carrying out surveys. All of these roles tended to mean long commissions. This influenced the development of the 20-gun ships in two ways: firstly, it placed greater emphasis on the habitability of the ships than their fighting (and sometimes even their sailing) qualities; and secondly, it meant that most of them required a major rebuilding at least once in their careers. This should be kept in mind when considering the many models representing ships of this type, which display a great variety in their details.

The first obvious deviation from the 1719 Establishment specification was the extension of the very short quarterdeck, which originally did not even reach the mizzen mast. This was almost certainly driven by the need to move the steering wheel to a position which would give the helmsman better allround vision. Originally the wheel was squeezed in between the mizzen and the cabin bulkhead under the overhang of the quarterdeck, where the man at the wheel had a very restricted view of the set of the sails and none at all of sea conditions. Models with the extended quarterdeck usually show a wheel moved up to that deck, although it may be ahead of or abaft the mizzen. Both the wheel and the helmsman were very exposed in that position and there must have been a temptation to provide some protection against the elements in the form of rails and weather cloths, and eventually more permanent bulwarks. By 1728 the Navy Board was instructing the yards to remove all unofficial additions, like heavy awning frames ‘and other unnecessary encumbrances’ from sloops, and this surely applied to Sixth Rates as well.

The other feature rapidly discarded was the lightweight quarter badge, which was soon replaced by a more commodious gallery, giving the captain more room and flattering his sense of importance by making his command look more a rated warship and less like a sloop. The open rails in the waist did not last long either: they were berthed-up solid to the planksheer rail. This was undoubtedly to keep as much water as possible off the decks – although the crew berthed below, breaking waves in the waist inevitably meant wet and uncomfortable conditions below, and on long deployments the health, if not the comfort, of the crew mattered. Nevertheless, it represented a little more weight and windage aloft.

Despite these minor accretions, the 20-gun ship remained basically unchanged for a decade, but in 1730 two ships were ordered to be built with the beam increased by over 2ft from the established dimension. There is a model with the increased beam [SLR0437] that otherwise conforms to the main features of the 1719 ships, which may have been the original intention for the new pair, Sheerness and Dolphin, but there is evidence that they did not look like this in service [see SLR0226]. This broadening was one of the first signs of dissatisfaction with the 1719 Establishment that would eventually lead to the proposed revisions of 1733. These universally added breadth to all rates, perhaps suggesting a concern with the stability of British ships; but there was a more influential factor at work, and that was the desire for a substantial increase in firepower; heavier guns, of course, would require a broader beam. In parallel with the Navy Board’s deliberations about dimensions, the Board of Ordnance was working out a revised establishment of guns, which if adopted would mean a substantial increase in the broadsides of most rates but at the expense of greater weight of metal on most decks. For Sixth Rates the increase was to be huge: twenty 6pdrs of 18cwt (totalling 360cwt or 18 tons) were to be replaced by twenty-two 9pdrs of 24cwt and two 7cwt 3pdrs, aggregating 542cwt, or 27.1 tons – an increase of 50 per cent.

Neither the ship nor the gun establishments of 1733-34 were officially adopted, but they formed the guidelines for future construction. For Sixth Rates this meant a major transformation. Although they had enough ports for all the 9pdrs, the aftermost was in the captain’s cabin and usually contained nothing more warlike than a casement window, so in a return to the practice of the 1690s one pair of guns was allocated to the lower deck. A gunport for this purpose was added abaft the mainmast but, curiously, there was a second right aft in the gunroom; the smaller ballast port was retained amidships along with the standard eighteen sweep ports. The function of the second gunport was a mystery even to the shipwrights in charge of construction, so the Surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, was forced to explain that only the foremost port was designed for a gun; the other was ‘to be used occasionally – it being extremely improper to carry a gun there, not only on account of the tiller but it being far aft and in the wake of the cabins’. By the time Acworth wrote this in 1742, the issue was a dead-letter: a new and more radical revision was introduced in 1741, when the pair of gunports on the lower deck were moved close together so either could be used for a gun.

The impetus to revise the establishment came from the final flaring of open war with Spain in 1739 following decades of low-intensity conflict between British traders and Spanish guarda-costas in the Caribbean. Much of this activity was outside the rule of law – smuggling and illicit trade on one side, dubiously sanctioned revenue protection on the other – and all characterised by the arbitrary use of force. The guarda-costas were effectively privateers, sometimes licensed but rarely restrained, and when one of them cut off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins, an ‘innocent’ British trader, it was only one of many minor atrocities regularly perpetrated. Although this severed appendage did not cause the war, it became a potent symbol for its advocates, so it is appropriate that the conflict was called, then and since, the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

Its supporters, harkening back to the days of Drake and Hawkins, envisaged a trade war against a decadent but rich Hispanic empire, ending in massive commercial concessions on the part of the defeated Spaniards. There was a trade war – but in its first two years the ratio of merchant ships captured was three-to-two in favour of the Spanish. This of course led to a reconsideration of convoys and cruisers, and the design of the ships that performed these roles. In truth, after a generation without all-out war, the Navy’s whole order of battle needed rethinking, and the proposed establishment of 1741 certainly increased the sizes of most rates.

In wartime one might expect enhanced sailing qualities to be a priority for cruisers, but although the 1741 ships were significantly increased in size (from 106ft to 112ft on the gundeck, 430 to 498 tons), the main developments added to their upperworks. The quarterdeck was now a fighting deck with carriage guns and swivel stocks mounted on it, protected by more substantial rails (no doubt unofficially berthed-up when action was in prospect); the forecastle went the same way, while the flat beakhead bulkhead could be an impediment in a head sea. None of these features would have improved their speed or weatherliness, but Spanish ships were not renowned for their sailing, so perhaps it was not an issue. However, this was to change dramatically when the French entered the war in 1744.


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