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Ship of War: Models 1660–1815
Conservation in Action: Ship of War gallery, 1660–1815
Location: National Maritime Museum, Floor two
An age of conflicts
The Royal Navy was at war for 71 of the 163 years between the start of the First Dutch War in 1652 and the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. During that time, its ships grew steadily in size, armament and in number. It emerged as the world's leading naval force. These wars were fought by the types of ships on display in the gallery.
From about 1745 the pace of technical advance quickened – new types of ships appeared and the size of the fleet increased dramatically.
All but two of the models in this gallery were made about the same time as the ships they represent and are the finest examples in our collection of this period.
The following sections explain aspects of the models themselves – how they were made and for what purpose – and provide a short guide to the range of the Royal Navy's ships and how they developed during the 18th century.
Why models were made
The Navy Board model
You are to prepare and send with your Draught a Solid or Model shaped exactly by the same with the Load Water Line, the height of the Decks and Wales, the Channels, Chainplates, Ports, Gallerys etc marked thereon; And that everything proper to explain your Design be done both on the Draught and Solid in as particular manner as possible for our consideration and directions therin before you proceed on your Building or Rebuilding.
Letter from the Navy Board to the Master Shipwrights at the Royal Dockyards, 1716
Many of the models in this gallery were probably made to comply with the Navy Board's order. The Board was the professional administration of the Royal Navy and it is likely that it formally asked for models so that its masters – the Lords of the Admiralty – could see the appearance of a proposed ship. The shape and decoration would be much clearer on a model than on a plan of that time.
However, detailed scale ship models were made long before the Navy Board's order – probably from the beginning of the 17th century. It seems that they were a normal part of the design and commissioning process.
Although most models were made to show a general design, some were made for discussion of particular changes or developments. The model of the Bellona was probably commissioned to gain George III's support for the costly programme of sheathing the bottoms of the Navy's ships with copper. The model of the 70-gun ship of 1717 was almost certainly made for the discussion of changes to be made to this type two years later. Models were also commissioned for presentation to naval officers and other dignitaries.
The Establishment of Dimension
You may be surprised by how little warships changed between 1650 and 1815. There were no technological breakthroughs in the 18th century which 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.
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.
'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.
Although some 're-rating' occurred, 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.
Despite the system of Establishments which hindered the advance of ship design, there was a steady improvement in the efficiency of vessels. Important changes took place in steering, sails, guns and the underwater protection of hulls.
You will see that some of the models have a white underwater hull. This represents graving – smearing with a compound, such a mixture of tallow, sulphur and resin, to repel wood-boring 'ship-worm' and other molluscs like barnacles. This was a common method of protection but it did not stop weed growing on the hull. Marine growth such as shellfish or weed affected sailing ability.
After much experimentation, it was found that covering the underwater hull with copper plates kept off both worm and weed. Between 1778 and 1781 most of the fleet was coppered. You can see copper-sheathing on two of the models.
The number and types of the guns allotted to each ship type were formally laid down in periodic Gun Establishments. By 1700 bronze or 'brass' guns had been largely replaced by cast iron, which was much cheaper. Bronze, however, was still used for the guns of First Rates for some time.
In 1716, guns lost their medieval names and became known by the weight of the shot they fired. The 42-pounder – the old cannon-of-seven – was the largest but it was found only on the lower deck of the First Rates. The principal weapon of ships of the line was the 32-pounder – the largest gun which could be used efficiently in action.
An important innovation was the carronade which appeared in service in the late 1770s as an extra weapon on large ships. This large-bore but lightweight gun threw a heavy ball at low velocity over a short range. Far fewer men were needed to operate it than were required for a cannon.
Modelling styles, makers, materials and measures
While almost every model is different in its treatment of hull form and details, they fall into two principal types: the frame model and the block model.
The Frame model
A clear convention is to plank only the topsides, leaving most of the hull open to show the frames. The framing is itself stylised. On full-sized ships, the frames were much closer together, as can be seen on the modern model of the Egmont (1768). Only a few 18th century models were made in this more realistic way.
Dolphin (1731) and Royal George (1756) have one side completely planked and the other showing the frames. Dolphin is particularly interesting because one side shows her as a ship of 20 guns and the other as a fireship. The model of Caledonia (1808) also has two differing halves. Its style is quite distinct – it was made to show changes in shipbuilding methods.
The Block model
Where frames are not viable, the hull has usually been made from a block of wood carved into shape, often hollowed-out and sometimes planked. Royal William and Britannia (both 1719) are both hollowed block models made to separate at the waterline to show the layout of the deckbeams.
Centurion (1732) is included in the gallery to show another type of block model. It has not been hollowed and the gunports and other details are painted, not modelled.
This style became increasingly common but Centurion is unusual in also having the stylised representation of framing painted on the hull.
The names of the model-makers are mostly lost. We can link individuals with only two of the 18th century models in the gallery. One of these is the model of Dolphin (1731) which is associated with John Hancock of Deptford Dockyard.
It is not known whether it was the Master Shipwrights themselves, their subordinates or teams of men who made the models. We know of one professional ship model-maker in the 18th century – Allan Hunt – but there may have been more.
The standards set by these model-makers have inspired many modern models of 18th century ships. Included in this gallery are two outstanding examples by living model-makers – Bob Lightley's Granando (1742) and John Franklin's Egmont (1768).
Fine-grained fruit woods were generally used because they carve well. Pear is perhaps the most common but, for example, the hull of Britannia (1719) is pine. The skilful use of natural wood colour kept the use of paint to a minimum. Fittings and inlays are often of brass, pewter, ivory and mother-of-pearl with mica, a natural mineral, for the windows and lanterns.
Most of the models are 1/48th of the size of the ships they represent – ¼ of an inch on the model is equal to one foot on the ship. The same scale was used for drawing plans. Small boat models are often twice this size – ½ inch to one foot (1:24). There are few models at other scales.
'Royal George' – a First Rate model
Ships of the 18th century had much less carving and gilding than those of the 17th. However, First Rates were the flagships of admirals and the model of the Royal George shows how elaborately decorated such ships still were. The stern carvings include a bust of George II – after whom the ship was named – and figures of Britannia, Neptune, Ceres, Mercury and Hercules.
Great care has been taken over the smallest details – stern lanterns, gunport lids and balustrades. The cabin doors even have mother-of-pearl handles which is probably an ingenious way of representing a marbled paint effect.
Royal George has more features and fittings hidden within than any other model. Some are shown in the photographs on the gallery wall. They were taken with an endoscope passed through the unplanked port side.
An inquiry model?
Details such as the powder room and the chain pump are not needed for a model that is simply proposing a ship design. So why was this model made and when?
It is possible the model was made for the official inquiry into the loss of the ship. Clues include:
- The name painted on the stern. This was not standard practice in the Royal Navy until after 1771, 15 years after the ship was launched. The model may have ths been built after 1771.
- The ship was lost in 1782 when she suddenly capsized while a watercock was being repaired. Although we cannot find the watercock on the model, other parts of the drainage system such as the pump and the cistern are included.
The 74, a Third Rate, was the most important new ship-type of the later 18th century. The French had developed it in the 1730s as better armed and a better sailer than the British 70. But it was not until the 1760s that the Royal Navy began to build 74s in large numbers.
It became the Navy's standard large warship, dominating the line of battle for 60 years. Over 200 were launched. 74s formed nearly all Nelson's fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and half his fleet at Trafalgar in 1805.
Bellona was one of the most successful designs. Over 40 ships were near sisters of hers.
Designer: Sir Thomas Slade (Surveyor of the Navy, 1755–71)
Built: Chatham. Building began in May 1758 and she was launched in February 1760. The wood used in construction was equivalent to about 3400 mature trees. She had roughly 23.5 miles (37.5 km) of rigging.
Cost: £43,391 11s 4d (equivalent to over £1.6 million today) – almost a quarter of Parliament's annual grant for ship-building and repair. [amend]
Dimensions: length of gundeck – 168 feet (51 metres), width – 46.75 feet (14 metres), depth in hold – 19.75 feet (6 metres)
Armament: lower deck - 28 x 32-pounder cannon, upper deck – 28 x 18-pounders, quarterdeck – 14 x 9-pounders, Fo’c’s’le – 4 x 9-pounders (the 9-pounders were eventually replaced by carronades).
Coppering: the model of the Bellona in the gallery was probably commissioned to demonstrate coppering to George III. The ship was first coppered in 1780. Nearly 3000 plates were used. She was re-coppered seven times.
Crew: in action in 1761 Bellona had a company of 567 – 36 officers, 434 men and 97 marines. The official complement of a 74 at that time was 650.
Battle honours: took the French 74 Courageux, 1761 (single-ship action); Battle of Copenhagen, 1801 (with Nelson's fleet); attack on Basque Roads, 1809.
Fate: broken up in Chatham, 1814
The Ship's plan
Plans and models
Official models continued to be made in the 19th century but they were never as fine as those made during the 18th century. This was partly because ships themselves were less ornate and partly because ships’ plans became more detailed and the practical use of models lessened.
The plans and models were usually at the same scale ¼ inch to 1 foot (1:48), although it is not uncommon to find some differences between the two.
The lines plan
Plans are always drawn with the bow of the ship to the right. The shape of the vessel is given in the lines plan. It contains three sets of lines:
- The profile (side view): as well as showing some of the outboard appearance, some inboard details are also included.
- The half-breadth plan: the shape of the hull at a number of waterlines (shown as horizontal lines on the profile). As all these ships were symmetrical, only half the hull is drawn.
- The body plan: the shape of one half of the hull at a number of equally spaced points along the ship's length.
As the 18th century progressed other types of plan became increasingly common: the profile of inboard works and the deck plan showing the position of cabins and supporting beams. More rare are framing plans showing the assembly of the frames as well as their position. Ships' rigging was fairly standard, changing only slowly, and plans are extremely rare.
The Admiralty Collection of ship plans from the early 18th century onwards is kept in the National Maritime Museum. It contains about 8,000 plans representing around 10,000 ships.
Ships of the line
Sea battles were normally fought by two opposing lines of ships firing at each other. Thus the ships involved were called 'ships of the line'.
Only the larger ships fought in the line. From the early 18th century, ships of 50 guns and less did not usually serve. By the end of the century even 64-gun ships were thought too small.
Supporting the line – some small ships
Ships of less than 50 guns were too small to fight in the line of battle. These included general-purpose vessels such as the frigate and sloop and specialized attack craft such as the fireship and bomb vessel.
The frigate carried her main battery of guns on a single deck. Copying the French, the British were building large numbers of 28- and 32-gun frigates by 1756. During the American Revolutionary War, 36- and 38- gun frigates appeared. Used for scouting and convoy escort work, they also cruised in search of privateers. The promise of prize money made them popular ships to crew and command.
This was the largest fighting vessel commanded by an officer of lower rank than a captain and carried less than 20 guns. Early in the 18th century, sloops were two-masted with 8–14 guns.
In the middle of the 18th century they were replace by a larger three-masted (ship-rigged) type. These were built in very large numbers during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Fireships were often converted from small warships or even merchant vessels. They were sailed to collide with enemy ships, set alight and abandoned at the last moment. Their characteristic feature was gunports hinged at the bottom. These would fall open to create a draught through the hull which was filled with combustible and explosive materials. In practice they were not very effective except against a fleet at anchor.
The bomb vessel
Bomb vessels were a French invention which first appeared in 1682 and the English began building them five years. They usually carried two high-trajectory mortars which lobbed explosive shells at coastal defences. When not engaged in such work they could be rearmed with cannon and used as sloops.
The importance of models
A historical record
These models are of immense historical value. They are unique records of the development of warship design, exterior and cabin decoration, steering, capstans, armament and boat-handling gear.
Very little information is available elsewhere – almost no plans of the 17th-century ships survive. Even in the 18th century, rigging plans were rare and much of our knowledge is derived from models with original rigging.
This gallery displays about a third of out 17th- and 18th-century British ship models. We have the world's largest collection.
Several other museums in this country have examples, such as the Science Museum in London and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Others are in museums abroad, from Boston to Leningrad. Some are in private collections. It is not known how many have survived – there may be as many as 400.
Improvement or conservation
The main purpose of a model is, of course, to show the miniature appearance of a ship. This does not mean that they are fully realistic or complete and later owners have sometimes tried to 'improve' them. Few official models were rigged and some here were rigged long after the hulls were made.
This museum has rigged and coppered a few examples in the past but we now regard the models as historic objects in their own right. Our philosophy is to keep them as close to their known early appearance as possible. This is complicated because later additions may themselves be part of the historical record. It is important to preserve all evidence of the original model. Nothing is replaced or added – no material is removed even if it is incomplete or damaged. All repairs are made so that they can be detected and not mistaken for original work.