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Wooden Warship Construction: A History in Ship Models

13 Oct 23


(Seaforth Publishing – £13.35)

ISBN 978 1 4738 9482 2

128 pages

Capt M. K. Barritt (retd.)

Some NR readers may remember the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in the 1960s, an age when less space was devoted to interpretational material and hence more exhibits were on display. The East Wing, now out of the public domain as the administration building, was chock a block with most of the ship model collection with pertinent paintings and drawings nearby. Here we could prowl for hours, fuelling our imaginations and understanding. Afterwards, in the bookshop, blissfully free of ‘souvenirs’ and other ‘tat’, we could equip ourselves to carry some of that understanding away, purchasing R.C. Anderson’s fine Catalogue of Ship Models (Scale Models) – no images therein, but we could match it with the black and white photographs in G.P.B. Naish’s A Picture Book of Ship-Models.

Yet, how much did I take in as I circumnavigated the cases? I suspect that the fully rigged models lured me away from the more revealing ones which form the back-bone of the book under review. Now available in paperback and as an e-book, it permits the arm-chair reader to tap into the NMM’s collections. Guided by the expert author, the Picture Library staff have supplied excellent coloured images of the models, many now scattered to Chatham Historic Dockyard or lying in storage. These are matched with well-chosen paintings and other manuscripts. High-lights include a lovely panorama of the Orwell river showing the rural setting that Barnard’s yard shared with many of the other private ship-builders.

As the title proclaims quite clearly, this is not a book aimed at model-makers. The author has used the remarkable models as the back-bone of an accessible account of warship construction, which they were indeed originally designed to demonstrate. This is a salutary exercise for researchers like myself, focussed on operations and inclined to take the complexity of the ship platforms for granted. The flowing text reflects the author’s renowned command of the sources. The opening chapter provides international perspective before conveying the sheer scale of the administrative, supply and industrial organisation that underpinned the Royal Navy of wooden warships in the Georgian era. There is also a useful early reminder of the scale of the bigger ships in that navy, whose broadside “was equal to that of a whole army or one of the large fortresses on shore”.

Succeeding chapters then take the reader through the starting of the ship and then the addition of frames, outside planking, the inside of the hull, the fittings, and the final fitting out once the ship was in the water. There is much to learn here. How gun ports were staggered to avoid cutting frames. How the strakes next to the keel were left till last to allow water and detritus to escape during the building process. Developments such as those famously championed by Robert Seppings are explained and illustrated. The frailty of the traditional construction of the stern with its galleries, and the influence on the tactics of frigate captains, are noted.

In the good list of references the author includes the Deptford Dockyard Letter Books amongst records in the National Archives, noting that they “contain many deeply-hidden gems”. He uses these in masterly fashion to bring life to the text as we hear the voices of administrators and skilled specialists and gain glimpses of the work-force. An apprentice whose work lets down his fellow shipwrights is surrounded, borne aloft and dumped outside the dockyard gate. In winter the caulkers, cramped under the hull, struggle to perform their task in the failing afternoon light. Another well-exploited source is the group of remarkable models of the royal dockyards that were made for Lord Sandwich, from which we are shown extraordinary detail in close-up photographs. Here it is  worth noting that whilst e-book format is not so good for viewing the many images that straddle a page-opening, the facility to zoom in on the high quality images is immensely rewarding.

Perhaps inevitably some terms appear in the text before the associated image in which they are carefully labelled. A glossary might have been a more useful appendix than the lengthy table of the plan for the shipwright’s work on ships of different rate. This book, however, is probably one to add to a shelf of other reference works, several by the same author. Its purpose is not, for example, to provide a detailed description of ships’ rigging, but rather to give an insight into that aspect of constructing a ship and the length of time that it took. In 1764 the Deptford officers estimated that 20 riggers and 10 labourers could rig a 74-gun ship in 46 days bare time i.e., without overtime or double days.

In summary, in this book Brian Lavery has exploited the best of contemporary publishing skill, especially in colour illustration, to provide a synthesis of the insights available in his earlier major works such as The Ship of the Line and The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815.  Here his years as senior curator at NMM bear further fruit, and this authoritative account in affordable and handy format cannot be commended too highly.