Before the Ironclad - Warship Design and Development 1815-1860, David K Brown


Before the Ironclad - Warship Design and Development 1815-1860, David K Brown

In the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the appearance of the first major ironclad ships the Royal Navy got a reputation for being a rather conservative organisation. This was the first major study of British warships design during that period, and it helped prove that this simply wasn't the case.

The Royal Navy of 1815 was the largest and most powerful navy in the world, and thus had no interest in upsetting the status-quo. Their plan for the post-war world was to avoiding introducing any new type of warship that would force them into a major construction programme unless another country's actions made that absolutely necessary (a viewpoint expressed in writing when the Warrior was being planned). Any short-term advantage that the French, Russians or Americans could gain by introducing a new type of warship first could easily be overtaken by Britain's superior industrial base.

Although the Admiralty wasn't interesting in spending vast amounts of money replacing the existing sailing fleet, that doesn't mean it didn't experiment or adopt new technology. This period saw a massive increase in the size of the largest warships, all made possible by a British innovation, the introduction of steam engines, paddle steamers, iron built warships and screw propellers, all adopted by the Royal Navy. One of the reasons this level of innovation isn't always appreciated is the visual similarity between the massive steam powered screw ships of the line and their pure sail equivalents of the Napoleonic period - the later ships were much larger than their predecessors, but their funnels could be retracted and they retained the basic layout of the earlier period. A fleet of steam ships of the line of the Crimean period might look similar to Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, but it was a much more powerful fighting force.

This book traces the development and adoption of new technologies in the Royal Navy, in a period when it wasn't clear which new technologies would succeed. Not every development that was embraced by the Navy worked, with the most obvious failure being iron hulled ships. After quite a few had been built it became clear that iron hulls were too vulnerable to battle damage, producing deadly splinters when hit by gun fire and suffering from severe corrosion problems. Their thin iron hulls made them more efficient ships, but unsuitable for use as warships, helping prove the validity of the Navy's caution when adopting new technology.

The section on the trials between propeller and paddle driven ships includes some interesting surprises - I hadn't realised that the screw driven Rattler actually had more engine power than the paddle drive Alecto, making her victory in the tug of war rather less impressive. The big advantage of early screw ships wasn't their speed or power - it was actually the removal of the armoured boxes needed for the paddles, which freed up part of the side of the ships for more powerful broadsides.

Although this period didn’t include any major fleet actions, it does include the Crimean War, in which these new types of warships were tested and their effectiveness proved. Ironically this came just before they were all swept away by the new ironclads.

The text goes into plenty of technical details and is supported by a large number of tables and quotes from contemporary documents, but despite that it remains very readable. The text is supported by excellent plans and pictures, including a mix of drawings, paintings and early photographs.

This is a valuable study of a previously unappreciated period that has triggered a revival of studies in the period, but that still remains an essential read for anyone interested in this period.

1 - Victory 1793-1815
2 - Science, Seppings and the School
3 - Resources, Money and Men
4 - Swansong
5 - Steam
6 - Paddle Fighting Ships
7 - Iron Ships
8 - Condemnation of Iron Ships
9 - Screw Propulsion
10 - HMS Rattler and the Other Early Screw Ships
11 - The Screw Fleet: The Build-Up to War
12 - The War with Russia 1954-1856
13 - The Last Wooden Ships
14 - Warrior

Author: David K Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2015 edition of 1990 original

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