Evolution of the Royal Navy – Wood to Iron, Sail to Steam
- September 1988
- Date, John C., ex RANVR
- Naval technology
- None noted.
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
Through the reigns of Queen Victoria 1837- 1901 to the Edwardian era of 1901-1910, the navy was completely transformed from wooden walls of Nelson’s time to the steel dreadnoughts of the 20th century.
As the Victorian era began, the Royal Navy regarded itself as heirs to an unconquerable tradition, sea rulers by birthright, controlling frontiers to the enemy coasts.
The sea horses of the day were undoubtedly:
- Frigates – acting as scouts of the fleet, chasing pirate ships and protecting trade. Nominated by the armament carried – 28 to 50 guns of 32 pounders (later addition of 8″ shell guns), they carried the same canvas as battleships, but on a lighter hull, and so able to average 8 knots (reaching 10 knots in good sailing conditions).
- Sloops (later called corvettes) – the most numerous of ships and overseas possessions, either two masted brigs or three masted ship rigged with 8 to 10 guns on upper deck only.
The magnificence of style was portrayed in the great ships of the line. In 1837 they looked much the same as in Nelson’s day, with only small alterations, such as:
- Change from raised quarter deck and fo’c'sle, to a continuous upper deck
- A shallow V shape bottom replacing U bottoms
- Armaments were standardised from 32, 20, 18, & 12 pounder cannon, to one calibre of cannon throwing a 32 pound ball and a one type of 18″ shell gun.
By the time of the Crimean War in 1854- 55, steam had made its presence felt with side (elliptical) paddle-wheel propulsion, followed by auxiliary engines driving screw propellors.
Introduction of engineering for power was slow, being ‘more to supplement established ways of the navy, rather than to progress to a technical change or to accept a new technique to gain advantages.
In 1852 the first new screw ship of the line emerged with the 91 gun HMS Agamemnon capable of a speed up to 14 knots. She carried 500 tons of coal but with only boiler pressures up to 25 lb square inch, meant that the engines were consequently inefficient, resulting in a low steaming range and thus the new power was regarded strictly as an auxiliary for emergencies in battle.
Also, back in 1854, came the introduction of steam gunboats. About 100 feet in length, flat bottomed with a shallow of 61/2′, square-bilged and blunt ended timber vessels, they became a practical and popular vessel for close inshore duties. Each carried one 68 pounder and a 32 pounder mounted on traversing wooden slides on a flush upper deck at the bow and stern to command either broadside.
A significant breakthrough came in 1861 with a new class HMS Warrior. She was long and graceful as a huge clipper, with a yacht like bow, two telescopic funnels between the fore and main masts and a good speed of 14½ knots under steam making her the fastest warship afloat. She carried heavier guns, 110 pounder Armstrong breech loaders and also 68 pounders, higher out of the water behind 4½” wrought iron bolted to 18″ thick teak extending for five feet below the water line to the upper deck.
Now industrial and marine engineering supremacy had transferred easily into naval superiority under new conditions. Soon the first generation of ironclads became obsolete before they were completed and many were altered while building to take successively heavier guns. Ramming tactics began to receive more attention and next came the placing of batteries of guns, to fire forward as well as broadside.
In 1873, HMS Devastation was commissioned, usually regarded as the first ‘modern’ battleship, 9,330 tons, 285′ long by 62′ wide, 14 knots and 12″ wrought iron armour protection. Now the mounting of guns was by weight, 35 tons, with 2×12″ guns fore and 2×12″ guns aft capable of penetrating 15″ wrought iron at 1,000 yards distance.
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