The nineteenth-century Royal Navy was transformed from a fleet of sailing wooden walls into a steam powered machine. This book provides the first cultural history of technology, authority and the Royal Navy in the years of Pax Britannica. It brings to light the activities, backgrounds, concerns and skills of a group of actors who literally shaped the Royal Navy. The book demonstrates the ways in which naval architects shaped naval thinking about ship design and influenced how ships were employed in active service. The 1830 Whig government's Board of Admiralty abolished the Tory-controlled Navy Board and appointed Symonds to oversee many of its duties and made the self-fashioning of the enlightened 'sailor-designer' identity a priority. The book focuses on the implications of steam for the management of naval architecture. The shaping of the Warrior and the introduction of iron into the British warship took place against the backdrop of projecting naval power and actors building credibility for new materiel. HMS Captain fully represented Cowper Coles's ideas of what a turret ship should be, and her launch the culmination of over ten years' effort, to secure what he considered an ideal trial for demonstrating his design ideas. The Royal Sovereign was one of the Royal Navy's first warships built under the 1889 Naval Defence Act, which provided £21.5 million for ten battleships, thirty-eight cruisers and other smaller vessels. The Navy is one of the most historically significant, and yet singularly neglected, institutions in the history of technology and war.
Iron experiments and guaranteeing
The successful launch of the Warrior may be thought to open a new chapter in
the history of the British Navy. We cannot, indeed, regard the theory of ironcased ships as absolutely established, but there is certainly sufficient reason for
concluding that such fabrics must hereafter enter largely into the composition
of our national marine, and represent a most important element of our naval
strength. . . . Iron may not entirely supersede wood, any more than steam has
superseded sails, but in one shape or other it
Steam and the management of
During your tenure of office the Royal Navy has been converted from a sailing
to a screw navy, and the efficient vessels of every class which now constitute the
screw navy, bear testimony to the skill and intelligence which have been successfully bestowed on this most important subject.
W.G. Romaine, Secretary to the Admiralty, congratulates Baldwin Walker
on his tenure as Surveyor of the Navy.1
The Royal Dockyard of Portsmouth is well worthy of a visit. To me it was an
object of peculiar interest. I had only
Re-engineering naval power
The finishing years of the nineteenth century witnessed the final scenes of the
passing of the old Navy and heralded the birth of a new service – a service old,
indeed, in tradition and esprit de corps, but new, not only in material and the
fruits of invention, but also in ideas, in greater vision, and in the fuller knowledge
of the value and the uses to which that material could be put for the furtherance
of our strength afloat and our assured domination of the seas and oceans.
Reginald Bacon, first captain of HMS Dreadnought
you steadily persevere, your
permanent reputation will be established on a rock.
First Lord of the Admiralty James Graham reassures William Symonds,
Surveyor of the Navy, as criticism mounts of his ship designs.1
I know that you take a deep interest in Vernon, owing to so many contradictory
reports being spread about her . . . this is the ship I would sooner belong to than
any other in the service, although she is such a ‘dangerous’ vessel. You must have
perceived that I am become a regular Symondian; so must every unprejudiced
person be that has served in any of
which to ground your building system.
Viscount Palmerston exhibits his knowledge of hydrodynamics in
an 1845 speech in the House of Commons.1
To many readers, Viscount Palmerston’s speech on the problems that faced
Britain’s warship designers will be as surprising as the Victorian Prime Minister
was informed. It should not be so. Naval construction and ship design were
frequently the subjects of parliamentary speeches, newspaper articles and periodical
1 ‘Supply – the Navy estimates’, Hansard 78 (31 March 1845), 1290 –1.
Shaping the Royal Navy
In an evil hour there came a man of science with ideas about steam, and then
another with a notion of an iron plate, and between them they made wild work
of the old navy.
Late nineteenth-century authors grew increasingly fascinated by how the
introduction of steam and iron transformed the Navy, some casting the ‘man of
science’ in the ‘despicable’ role of bringing an end to the wooden walls.1
Modern science has, however, so changed the art of sea warfare that mere animal
courage is only one of the many elements required to make a great naval
between effective authority and social background,
especially in the Navy.1
This is in its way a very curious state of affairs. It is a unique state of affairs. If
twenty millions were to be spent on the construction of railways, for example,
or a fleet of mercantile steamers, there would be little or no room for discussion.
Why should naval construction present so remarkable an exception? The men
who design ships of war, admirals, captains, engineers, are shrewd and intelligent,
and intellectual enough. Are we to assume that the problem presented for solution is really
judge of ship performance, deserving
of government authority to direct the design of a sea-going turret ship.
In a series of articles in the Tory publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Captain Sherard Osborn analysed the recent history of material change
in the Royal Navy, and highlighted Coles’s turret system as essential to the
continued reconstruction of the Navy.3 Osborn had a public profile, thanks to
popular publications on John Franklin’s Arctic expedition and his own service
in China. He was appointed to Captain Coles’s first experiment with turrets,
Nineteenth-century photographs of the British naval community overseas
Navy, nation and empire
Navy, nation and empire: nineteenth-century
photographs of the British naval
This volume provides a timely opportunity to reconsider how we define
and approach British naval history. Ships and war are of course a fundamental part of this history, but so too are people – civilians as well as officers and sailors. This is particularly true in periods of ‘peace’, such as the
second half of the nineteenth century, when the Royal Navy depended
on a diverse range of personnel on the spot as much as its