SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS, 1637 & THE MASTER SHIPWRIGHT’S SECRETS

Reviewed by: David Childs

In several decades of writing reviews, I have never been presented with a task as difficult as that of writing up these two brilliantly illustrated, well-written and excellently presented books.  The reason?  I think that it is that neither has been produced to appeal to the membership of The Naval Review.  For example, Sovereign of the Seas was the most powerful warship of her time.  She took part in the First, Second and Third Dutch Wars.  Yet her fighting career of almost fifty active years occupies a third of a page in this 300-page book.  Because, that is not what this book is about.  This is an anatomical manual, with every detail of the skeleton but with no attempt to place flesh on the bones.  The Sovereign of the Seas as described in such loving detail in this book need never have gone to sea at all:  could have sunk on her maiden-voyage: her career is unimportant; she need never have been captained or crewed; never fought the Dutch at such close-quarters.  Indeed, this Sovereign is a model such as the portrayed in the National Maritime Museum sitting on a table and being much admired by her conceiver King Charles I.  The clue to the purpose of this book lies at the start of the 120 pages of detailed, gorgeously presented plates where it is written, “BUYING PLANS, Large scale copies of the drawings reproduced in this book can be obtained from the author”.

At first glance The Master Shipwright’s Secrets would seem to be similar.  Indeed, there is an illustration of a model built using the drawings from this book.  However, it most resembles the driver’s manual for a car but with anecdotes about other owners and other incidents inserted within the technical detail, and these are well worth reading whether or not one has an interest in futtocks or bumpkins.  The secrets are those of master shipwright John Shish, his relationship with his enthusiastic master, Charles II and the re-building of the fourth-rate galley frigate Tyger and to a lesser extent Mordaunt, built in 1681 as a speculative venture by Lord Mordaunt.  Much of the detail of Tyger‘s construction comes from a document entitled The Dimensions of the Modell of a 4th Rate Ship, a treatise written by Shish for the Secretary of the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys, which is transcribed in its entirety.

Around the bare ribs of this new ship the author tells the story of Charles’s desire to have galleys that could challenge the Algerine pirates at the entrance to the Mediterranean.  He also tells tales of shipwreck, accidents, leaks, girdlings and furrings, many of the disasters that wooden vessels were prone to.  And there is the perennial problem of funding with the Navy Board complaining that monies promised were either badly in arrears or non-existent until, in 1677 Parliament voted to raise £600,000 to build 30 new ships (40 new hospitals in today’s equivalent). Tyger was launched on 24 June 1681. On 28th June, Charles Lord Berkeley was appointed her Captain having spent just one year of his tender 19 at sea.

By 5 July she had a complement of 205 men; by 5 August 92 had deserted!  On 17th August the King arrived to inspect the ship in such poor weather conditions that, two days after his visit, Tyger grounded off the Downs.  Successfully re-floated she sailed for the British base of Tangier as escort to a large convoy.  But before this she had a complete change of her 44 guns which Berkeley had discovered were ancient and unreliable. The young captain did not serve long on the Mediterranean station for on 6th March he died, reportedly of the smallpox, although some suspected foul play – he was not a much-loved commanding officer.

As for Tyger, of her future career the author is silent, the shipwright and the shenanigans associated with her construction is the tale he wishes to tell, and tells well.  Whether, for the general reader, it is £65 of well told words, this reviewer has his doubts, except to say that for enthusiasts of 17th century ship models and construction this is a unique and thoroughly excellent revelation of the shipwright’s secrets.