Before the Ironclad

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  • This is the profusely illustrated, beautifully produced and very detailed story of British warship design and construction 1815-1860, from the sailing Wooden Wall to the Ironclad with its steam reciprocating engine and screw propulsion.

    The author, David K Brown (1928-2008), spent many years in the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, rising to Deputy Chief Naval Architect, which gave him insights denied to others. Further works of his have taken the story in three more stages to 1945. As to the RCNC he wrote its centenary history in 1983. Incidentally he should not be confused with David Brown of the RN Historical Branch who also publishes on naval subjects.

    We think of the period as the first half of the Pax Brittanica but as usual the RN was busy everywhere, for instance at the bombardment of Algiers (1816), the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Navarino (1827), in the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, and notably in the ‘Crimean’ War 1854-56 (which included operations in the Baltic and elsewhere, and exposed alarming RN skill fade).

    Hull design improvements, particularly in internal strength, owed much to Brown’s hero, Seppings, whose School of Naval Architecture trained a corpus of professionals from 1811 until it fizzled out in 1830, but whose graduates rose to positions where they could drive modernisation. Seppings’ successor, the innumerate Symonds was a retrograde influence until he was eased out in 1847, leading to the innovative Edye. All design progress suffered from drag from ‘seamen’ who assumed they understood naval architecture but didn’t, and luddites who distrusted science and theory; one could have hoped that lessons had been learned from the Vasa capsizing in front of the King of Sweden in flat calm in 1628! The Admiralty was forward in organising expensive competitive trials but there were so many variable factors that results were generally inconclusive. Eventually a compulsory trial took place off Crimea and in the Baltic of what short of ship stopped what sort of shot. As relations with France deteriorated to normal a building race started and the sailing warship was dead, its swansong the bombardment of Odessa in 1854; the best were converted to screw propulsion, which was cheaper and quicker than new build, and got round the shortage of timber, already causing the replacement of knee timbers with iron straps [as can be seen on board Unicorn in Dundee]. As to the new, the Victoria of 1857 was twice the size of the Victory of ninety years before. Steamers commonly had fewer, larger guns and those mounted on the upper deck included pivot guns from 1844. The inability of wood to carry ever-heavier machinery and guns led us to the 14 knot Warrior in 1861, the first RN iron hulled battleship and thus the first with internal watertight transverse bulkheads (go visit!).

    Steam engines presented their own problems - weight of machinery and coal against requirements for guns or freight, unreliability, rate of coal consumption, poor efficiency, soot and salinity, the need to continue to provide a sailing rig and availability of replacement coal supplies - the introduction of new technology could not be allowed to compromise global reach [it was our capture of her colliers that did for SMS Dresden in 1915; the RN still had coal burners in service, and coal in the Portland coaling pits in the 1960s]. The early nineteenth century was a time of intense experimentation and improvement with concomitant rapid obsolescence. The Post Office (whose ships were designed and ordered by the Admiralty) served as a stalking horse and led the way on short sea routes; steam tugs were an early success. By 1824 a steamer was used in action - in Burma - and by the 1840s speeds of 7 knots were being achieved. Paddles, obstructive of gunnery, gave way to the screw with the machinery below the waterline in greater safety. To get the engines this low in the hull Symonds’ rising floors were eventually abandoned.

    Iron presented its own issues including brittleness in water below 20° C. Compass correction was not achieved until 1838 (later improved by the Flinders Bar and Kelvin’s Balls) and effective anti-fouling (with Hays’ compound) until 1847. The first iron warship was HEICS Nemesis of 1840 and the RN followed in the same year, but its first fully seagoing iron warship did not commission until 1845.

    Brown takes us through all this in intense technical, financial and manpower (dockyard and naval) detail, supported by twenty pages of appendices, and records many naval milestones (including, for instance, the first ever naval minesweeping operation, off Sveaborg in 1855). The factors for and against each innovation are carefully explained.

    This is a new, updated and effectively (and fairly lavishly) re-illustrated edition by Seaforth - making good use of the unparalleled resources of the National Maritime Museum - of a work first published in 1990.

    I only have two nitpicks, and those minor. I wished the sources, always carefully annotated in the margins, had been collated into a formal bibliography; and that the artists were credited against the NMM illustrations. Will it fit your bookcase? The volume measures 11½” x 10”.

    If you want an informed and detailed survey of the transition from sail to steam and wood to iron in the RN’s warships you cannot to better than this, nor have a more knowledgeable guide. 4½ out of 5 (the missing half because the level of detail may make this work rather niche for some readers).

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