Between the 17th and 19th centuries the general design of Royal Navy warships changed very little. The designs were standardized by the system of Establishments.

You may be surprised by how little warships changed between 1650 and 1815. There were no technological breakthroughs in the 18th century that significantly altered their design. The classic features – three masts with square sails – were already well established by 1650. They remained until steam began to replace sail in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, new ship types were developed and it was the French who were the most inventive. Until about 1750, the Royal Navy was extremely conservative, with development and experimentation being greatly restricted by the system of Establishments.

The Establishments

From the late 17th century, the Royal Navy began to standardize its ships. This developed into the system of the Establishment of Dimensions. The Establishment of 1706 laid down principal dimensions for each class of ship. The sizes of ships were increased by the Establishment of 1719 and again by revisions of 1733 and 1741. From 1719 the structure and layout of hulls were also much more rigidly defined.

The Rates

'Rating' was a system of classifying warships. It originally referred to the rates of pay of their captains but by the late-17th century the Rate was calculated by the number of guns a ship carried. The ships of the line were the First to Fourth Rates.

The general system was:

  • First Rate – ships of 100 guns (later also 104, 110 and 120 guns)
  • Second Rate – ships of 90 guns (later 98 guns)
  • Third Rate – ships of 80, 74, 70 and 64 guns
  • Fourth Rate – ships of 60 and 50 guns
  • Fifth Rate – ships of 44, 40, 38, 36 and 32 guns
  • Sixth Rate – ships of 28, 24 and 20 guns

From the early 18th century vessels of less than 20 guns were not rated. First Rates of more than 100 guns were developed only at the very end of the 18th century.

The end of the system

The Establishment of 1745 allowed an even greater increase in the size of ships but those of 90 guns were still no larger than many French 74s.

It soon became clear that the British vessels were poorly designed and inferior to those of France and Spain.

The threat of war with France in the 1750s and the appointment of less conservative men in key positions brought about the end of the system. Very soon new types of British ship appeared – the 74, the frigate and the ship-rigged sloop.