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Early Steam Warships

The principles and methods of naval construction have altered so radically and quickly in the present century that the important developments in steam warship design during the last century are apt to be forgotten or underestimated


THE FIRST IRON-BUILT AND ARMOURED WARSHIP in the Royal Navy was H.M.S. Warrior, built at Blackwall, on the River Thames, in 1859-61. Of 9,210 tons displacement, the Warrior had a length of 380 feet and a beam of 58 ft. 4 in. On either side of the ship her armour belt was 213 feet long. Her engines indicated 5,470 horse-power, and she attained a speed of more than 14 knots.

ONE of the most striking contrasts in the whole world of ships may sometimes be seen in Portsmouth Harbour — Nelson’s Victory in her concrete dock and, floating proudly, the mighty Hood or some other of the capital ships in the King’s Navy. His Majesty’s ships of war have been evolved during a thousand years, and that evolution has been marvellously accelerated in the last century.

In the United States Navy Department at Washington is a set of plans representing Robert Fulton’s design for the world’s first steam warship. Fulton prepared the design in 1813 when America was at war with Great Britain, and the proposed vessel was to take the form of a floating battery for coast defence to counter the British blockade. The ship was built at New York and launched under the name of Fulton the First in 1814. The ship had two hulls, with a paddle wheel placed between them for protection from gunfire.

A steam engine with a single cylinder of 4 feet bore and 5 feet stroke drove the vessel, which was of 2,475 tons. She had a length of 156 feet, a beam of 56 feet and a depth of 20 feet. The paddle wheel, which gave a speed of 5½ miles an hour, was 16 feet in diameter and 14 feet wide.

The vessel’s armament comprised a battery of twenty-six 32-pounder guns taken from a captured British ship, and special provision was made for the heating of red-hot shot. There can be little doubt that a broadside of red-hot iron cannon balls could prove a serious inconvenience to a wooden vessel.

The war ended, however, before the Fulton the First could be tried in action, and in 1829 she was accidentally blown up at her moorings off Brooklyn. Only her original plans remain, and a photograph of these plans may be seen at the Science Museum at South Kensington.

In this way was inaugurated a new phase in naval warfare, but for many years the “wooden walls” remained, although equipped with paddle wheels and steam engines.

The adoption of steam propulsion in the British Navy was a somewhat slow process, but in 1821 the famous engineers Brunel and Rennie persuaded the Admiralty to order the building of a wooden paddle steamer of 238 tons driven by an engine of 80 nominal horsepower. This vessel was H.M.S. Comet and, launched at Deptford Dockyard in 1822, she was the first naval steamship to be built to Admiralty orders. In 1821 a similar vessel, the Monkey, newly built at Rotherhithe, had been bought for naval use.

These pioneers were followed by other vessels, although they could scarcely be classed as warships. Their armament was of only a light nature, and they were used mainly as tugs for the great wooden ships-of-the-line or as dispatch vessels.

A noteworthy dispatch vessel, launched in 1831, was H.M.S. Black Eagle, formerly named the Firebrand. She was timber-built and fitted with paddle wheels driven by side-lever engines of 140 nominal horse-power. Later these engines were replaced by direct-acting oscillating engines of 260 horse-power that gave the vessel a speed of 11 knots. She was armed with one gun weighing 38 cwt., firing 18 lb. shot. Her length between perpendiculars was originally 155 feet, but this was increased in 1843 by 13 feet, which increased the tonnage from 494 to 540 tons. In 1856 the Black Eagle was used as a paddle yacht, and she was not broken up until twenty years later.

After the dispatch vessels came the famous wooden paddle frigates and sloops. An early example of these fine old ships was the frigate H.M.S. Gorgon of 1837, which is fully described in the chapter “Early Nineteenth Century Marine Engines”. An early paddle sloop was H.M.S. Acheron, designed by Sir W. Symonds and launched at Sheerness in August 1838. Her side-lever engines gave a speed of over 10 knots and her armament comprised two 9-pounder brass guns. The vessel was of 722 tons, 150 feet long, 32 ft. 9 in. in beam and 18 feet deep. She carried a crew of sixty men. Steam frigates continued to be built of wood and, in addition to their paddle wheels, they were fully rigged for cruising under sail alone.

Frigates were built to increasingly large dimensions, and a typical vessel of the 1840 period was of 1,400 tons displacement, with a length of 210 feet and a breadth between paddles of 40 feet. Sometimes a telescopic funnel would be fitted, and two specially built flat-bottomed boats were used as covers to the paddle-boxes. Typical armament consisted of some thirty-two guns, often 32-pounders, carried on two decks. In addition, two powerful guns on slides and traversing carriages were placed fore and aft on the upper deck.

The machinery usually consisted of the famous side-lever engines, and the speed was between 7 and 12 knots. For a few more years the steamships of the Royal Navy continued to be built of wood, but the days of these fine vessels were numbered. Wood was to give place to iron, steel was in due course to replace iron, and then was to begin the long contest between hardened steel plate and armour-piercing shell.

The first iron-built frigate, designed by John Laird in 1836, was built at Birkenhead in 1842. At that time, however, the Admiralty had not been persuaded that iron was a suitable material for His Majesty’s ships, and the ship was sold to Mexico and named the Guadaloupe. Two heavy guns were carried fore and aft on the upper deck, and the vessel was 175 feet long with a beam of 30 feet.

In the Crimean War

Three years after the launch of the iron Guadaloupe, the unrepentant Admiralty ordered the building of yet another wooden paddle frigate at Deptford. This vessel, designed by Oliver Lang, was at the time one of the most powerful steam warships in the world. She was named the Terrible, and the hull was strongly built to carry her heavy armament and machinery. So closely fitted was the framework that the vessel was watertight before the addition of the external planking. Her engines indicated 2,059 horse-power and were of the twin-cylinder type similar to those illustrated in the chapter “Early Nineteenth Century Marine Engines”. They had four cylinders of 6 feet diameter and 8 feet stroke, and drove 34-feet paddle wheels, giving a speed of just under 11 knots.

The original armament of the Terrible comprised twenty guns, four 56-pounders and four 68-pounders on either of her two decks. In addition there were three 12-pounders and a field gun. During the Crimean War the vessel played an active part in the siege of Sevastopol, and her excellent machinery saved her from disaster on the shores of the Black Sea during a disastrous gale in 1854. In 1869 the Terrible assisted in towing Bermuda’s first floating dock (illustrated in the chapter “Floating Docks”), across the Atlantic.

Wooden steam warships were built by the Admiralty as late as the 1860s, but, despite doubts as to the suitability of iron ships for naval warfare, orders were given in 1845 for the construction of an iron paddle frigate of 1,400 tons. She was named the Birkenhead, and was launched at that town, in 1846.

The Admiralty carried out a number of experiments with an iron vessel to determine the effect of gunfire on the plating. In accordance with these experiments the Birkenhead and two iron screw frigates, H.M.S. Simoom and the Megaera, were converted into troopships. The Birkenhead was serving as a troopship when she was wrecked in the historic tragedy of 1852, described in the chapter “Heroism and Disaster at Sea”.

Among the early iron vessels in the Royal Navy were a number of paddle gunboats that took part in the operations against Russia in 1854-55. These, in common with the wooden steamers, sloops and frigates, were mainly employed in towing the great sailing line-of-battle ships in and out of action during the bombardment of Sevastopol. A typical iron-built paddle gunboat of the period was H.M.S. Caradoc, designed by Sir W. Symonds and built at Blackwall in 1846-47. She had a speed of 13 knots and was 191 ft. 7 in. long. Armament comprised only two 6-pounder brass guns and her crew numbered sixty-five.

HMS Prince Albert was a vessel of 3,687 tons displacement, built at Blackwall in 1864

CONVERTED INTO A TURRET IRONCLAD, H.M.S. Prince Albert was a vessel of 3,687 tons displacement, built at Blackwall in 1864. She had four revolving turrets, all placed on the midship line and protected by 5.5-in. armour. In each turret was mounted a 9-in. 12-tons muzzle-loading rifled gun. The Prince Albert was 240 feet long and had a beam of 48 feet.

When the vessels were used for towing purposes such a limited armament was adequate, but other steamships built for service m the Crimean War were far more heavily armed. Two iron paddle gunboats obtained from the Prussian Government, the Recruit and the Weser, are noteworthy. Either vessel was 178 feet long, 26 feet in beam and displaced 468 tons. The ships were double-ended and had a speed of 11½ knots ahead or astern, with a cruising range of 2,000 miles. They drew only 7 feet of water. The armament comprised four 8-in. shell guns of 65 cwt., capable of firing abeam and also fore and aft.

A wooden paddle steamer that was to have an interesting history was built at Portsmouth in 1861-65. This was H.M.S. Helicon. She served as a dispatch vessel until 1885, when she was converted into an Admiralty yacht and renamed Enchantress. The lines of H.M.S. Helicon were altered by Sir E. J. Reed to test a theory that had been held for many years. The theory was that a projecting cutwater or “plough bow” conduced to an increase of speed. The altered Helicon was accordingly tried against H.M.S. Salamis, a vessel of the same size and fitted with similar engines. The ships, of 945 tons displacement, were 220 feet long between perpendiculars, with a beam of 28 ft. 3 in. The engines were of the oscillating type with twin cylinders of 5 ft. 1 in. diameter and 4 ft. 6 in. stroke, driving feathering paddle wheels of 20 ft. 6 in. Diameter.

In 1865 a number of trials showed that the Helicon was from 1 to 1½ knots faster than her sister ship and subsequently the British and French Admiralties adopted the plough bow in their early ironclads. The engines of the Helicon indicated 1,610 horse-power and gave a speed of 14½ knots. The vessel was armed with two 20-pounder Armstrong breech-loading guns and had a complement of 80 men. H.M.S. Salamis indicated 1,618 horse-power and steamed at just over 13¼ knots. She was armed with one 9-pounder Armstrong gun and carried a crew of sixty-five men.

Another contest of the greatest importance was held in 1845, between the Rattler and the Alecto. A picture of this trial appears in the chapter “The Development of the Screw Propeller”, and in this instance the tug-of-war was between the paddle wheel and the screw. The screw won, but apart from its efficiency the propeller held advantages of the utmost importance for naval use. It was protected from gunfire by the water in which it worked, and its driving engines could be placed well below the water-line. In addition to the vulnerability of the paddle wheel, its position precluded the disposition of guns to the best advantage at the side of the ship.

Screw Propulsion Adopted

Frigates, sloops and corvettes were favourite types of warship in which screw propulsion was first adopted. Generally these vessels were built of wood, and among early screw frigates was H.M.S. Arrogant, designed by John Fincham, Chief Constructor at Portsmouth, from which yard the ship was launched in 1848. The machinery comprised a set of horizontal direct-acting trunk engines by John Penn. These engines were the first of the type to be used, and gave a speed of over 8 knots. The ship was of 2,615 tons displacement and the length was 200 feet between perpendiculars, with a beam of 45 ft. 8 in. Her armament consisted of sixteen 32-pounders and twelve 8-in. guns on the main deck, sixteen 32-pounders and two 68-pounders on the upper deck. The complement was 450. H.M.S. Arrogant saw service in the Russian War of 1854-55, and assisted in the bombardment and silencing of the forts at Frederikshamn in Finland.

After 1847 the larger sailing ships of the Navy were fitted with auxiliary screws and a number of vessels were adapted for screw propulsion (in addition to their sails) during their building. H.M.S. Sans Pareil, a second-rate line-of-battle ship, provides an instance of a sailing ship converted for screw propulsion before her launch in 1851. H.M.S. Duke of Wellington, a first-rate line-of-battle ship, was also laid down as a sailing vessel, but was adapted for screw propulsion and finally launched in 1852. This ship was a great four-decker and carried 131 guns. Of these, ten 8-in. and twenty-six 32-pounders were mounted on the lower deck. On the middle deck were six 8-in. and thirty 32-pounders. The main deck carried thirty-eight 32-pounders, and on the upper deck were twenty 32-pounders and one 68-pounder pivot gun. The complement was 1,100 men. The ship was fitted with horizontal geared engines of 1,979 indicated horse-power and had a speed of 10¼ knots. The displacement of the Duke of Wellington was 6,071 tons, her length between perpendiculars 240 ft. 7 in. and her beam 60 feet.

HMS Helicon became the Admiralty yacht Enchantress in 1885

DESIGNED AS A DISPATCH VESSEL and built in 1861-65, H.M.S. Helicon became the Admiralty yacht Enchantress in 1885. The Helicon, a sister ship to the Salamis, was given a projecting cutwater, or “plough” bow. The Salamis retained the more usual form of bow, and proved to be more than one knot slower than her sister ship, which attained a speed of 14½ knots. Of 945 tons displacement, H.M.S. Helicon had a length of 220 feet and a beam of 28 ft. 3 in.

Magnificent though they were, however, the fine old wooden walls, even with their somewhat incongruous propellers, stood powerless against the march of progress in the design of warships. With improvements to engines and boilers, sails fell into disuse. Increase in gun power spelt the doom of wooden walls, and necessitated the provision of armour, first of iron, then of steel, increasing steadily in thickness and in strength.

The ascendancy of shell fire over the inadequate protection afforded by wooden hulls was strikingly demonstrated to the world in 1853, when a Russian squadron totally destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope, in the Black Sea. The French were the first to take up the challenge of superior gunfire, and m 1854-55 they built five wooden floating batteries armoured with iron plate for use against the Russian shore batteries at Kinburn, in the Black Sea, bombarded in 1855.

The batteries held their stations within 1,000 yards of the Russian guns, yet escaped all damage. Plans of these batteries were sent to the British Admiralty and three similar ships were built for a proposed attack on the fortifications at Kronstadt, in the Gulf of Finland. These three batteries, the Erebus, Terror and Thunderbolt, were the first armoured iron warships built for the British Navy, but were not tried in action because the Russian War came to an end.

First Ironclad Man-of-War

H.M.S. Erebus was built and engined by R. Napier and Sons, and launched at Glasgow in April 1856. The hull was built of iron and the topsides from the gunwale to a distance of 2 feet below the water-line were sheathed with teak 6 in. thick. Outside the teak was a belt of iron armour from stem to stern with an average thickness of 4 in. The vessel was propelled by an 8-feet two-bladed screw driven by horizontal direct-acting engines of 1,900 horse-power that gave a speed of 5½ knots. The ship’s displacement was 1,825 tons, her length 186 ft. 7 in. and her beam 48 ft. 6 in. The armament comprised sixteen 68-pounder 95-cwt. guns, and the complement numbered 200.

These floating batteries were not strictly sea-going warships, and it was not until November 1859 that the world’s first ironclad man-of-war was launched by the French. This vessel was the Gloire, a wooden frigate built at Toulon. She was armoured with a belt of iron from stem to stern that extended from the upper deck to 6 feet below the water-line. The armour belt comprised an upper band approximately 4 in. thick and a lower band with a thickness of nearly 4¾ in. Her engines indicated 3,200 horse-power and gave her a speed of 13½ knots. The length of the vessel was 253 ft. 5 in., the beam 53 feet and displacement 5,675 tons. The original armament of the Gloire

consisted of thirty 36-pounder smooth-bore guns, afterwards replaced by six 9.4-in. breech-loading rifled guns behind armour on the main deck. On the upper deck were mounted two 6.4-in. breech-loading rifled guns. There was also an oval conning-tower protected by 4 in. of iron armour plating.

In the year following the launch of the Gloire the British Admiralty replied with the famous Warrior, launched at Blackwall in December 1860. This vessel was the first iron-built and armoured sea-going warship and may be said to have introduced the modern era in shipbuilding for the Royal Navy. She carried sail, however, and may in some aspects be regarded as a link between the ships of Nelson’s time and the mighty vessels of Jutland and the period following the war of 1914-18.

HMS Devastation was completed at Portsmouth in 1873

BUILT ON THE CELLULAR PRINCIPLE with a double skin, H.M.S. Devastation was completed at Portsmouth in 1873. Seven continuous longitudinal girders in conjunction with the lighter transverse floors constituted the double-bottom framing. The model illustrated shows a half midship section of the Devastation as originally designed in 1869.

The Warrior was built by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company,

and a sister ship, H.M.S. Black Prince, was built at Govan in 1860-62. The armour-plating of H.M.S. Warrior was of iron 4½ in. thick, with a backing of teak planking to a thickness of 18 in. On either side of the ship the armour belt was 213 feet long, and extended 6 feet below the water-line and 16 feet above it. The ends of the armour belts were joined by transverse iron bulkheads 4 in. thick, backed by 12 in. of teak. The unarmoured ends of the ship were specially subdivided, and placed aft on deck there was a conning-tower of 4 in. iron plating. The Warrior and her sister ship were the most formidable fighting ships of their time.

It was originally intended to mount forty 68-pounder smooth-bore guns on the battery deck, nineteen on either broadside, with a pivot gun forward and aft on the upper deck. In 1855, however, Mr. G. A. Armstrong (afterwards Lord Armstrong) had introduced his famous breech-loading rifled gun with a screw breech-block similar in principle to that used at the present time. Accordingly the Warrior’s armament was changed before her completion, and the use of smooth-bore cannon was abandoned in favour of the new Armstrong gun. In 1863 the ship was re-armed with muzzle-loading rifled guns made at Woolwich. The new armament comprised four 8-in. 9-tons and twenty-eight 7-in. 6½-tons guns, mounted along either broadside, with the exception of two of the 7-in. guns, which were placed, with some lighter guns, forward and aft on the upper deck.

The engines indicated 5,470 horsepower, and were of the horizontal trunk type. They were made by John Penn and Son of Greenwich, and resembled somewhat the machinery fitted in H.M.S. Northumberland and illustrated in the chapter “Trunk Engines”. On her full-speed trials in 1861 H.M.S. Warrior attained a speed of nearly 14½ knots. The displacement of the vessel was 9,210 tons, and the length between perpendiculars was 380 feet, with a beam of 58 ft. 4 in. The complement was 638.

The Warrior was followed by other ironclad vessels with hulls built of iron, but during this period the Admiralty also cut down six of the wooden line-of-battle ships and converted them into armoured ships. For several years, also, the large stocks of timber at the Royal Dockyards were used to build iron-armoured wooden frigates.

With the introduction of armour, however, came a corresponding increase in the size and power of guns. In this manner was begun a competition between “attack” and “defence” that has been carried on ceaselessly ever since. With increase in their size, the number of guns that could be carried in a warship was necessarily reduced, a factor that led to the introduction of the revolving armoured turret. It is the turret system that survives to-day, affording the maximum protection to the main armament and giving the best possible “field of fire”.

Four Turrets in Line

The revolving turret was introduced by John Ericsson in the famous Monitor, built by the Americans in 1862. The first large turret ship in the Royal Navy was the Royal Sovereign, an old wooden line-of-battle ship that was dismasted and cut down in 1864. The vessel was provided with side armour and four revolving armoured turrets in line fore and aft. Each turret contained one 9-in. 12-tons muzzle-loading rifled gun. The forward turret originally mounted two guns.

The first large British warship to be converted into a turret ironclad was H.M.S. Prince Albert, launched by Samuda Bros, at Blackwall in May 1864. Her protection comprised a belt of iron armour 4½ in. thick, diminishing to 3 in. at the extremities and backed with 18 in. of teak. The armoured belt extended 4 feet below the water-line. In this vessel, also, there were four revolving turrets along the centre line. The guns were similar to those in the Royal Sovereign. The displacement of the Prince Albert was 3,687 tons and her speed was 11¼ knots.

The first mastless sea-going ironclad for the Royal Navy was H.M.S. Devastation, completed at Portsmouth in 1873. This warship was built on the cellular principle with a double skin, and was protected by a 9-feet broad belt of armour, 12 in. thick above the water-line and 9 in. thick below it. The iron plating of the turrets varied in thickness from 6 in. to 12 in. The Devastation was of 9,387 tons displacement, and had a speed of nearly 14 knots.

In course of time these ironclads, wonderful ships in their day, gave place to steel-built ships with steel armour-plate of enormous resisting power. Turrets, guns, armour, machinery, displacement, details of construction — all have altered so that there is probably a greater contrast between modern warships and the early ironclads than between those vessels and the “wooden walls” that won the battle of Trafalgar.

HMS Gorgon, 1,111 tons, had six guns mounted on her upper deck.

A STEAM PADDLE FRIGATE, built of teak in 1836-37, H.M.S. Gorgon took part in the bombardment of Acre in 1840. This was the first serious engagement in which steam warships were actively engaged. The Gorgon, of 1,111 tons, had six guns mounted on her upper deck. She was 178 feet long, with a beam of 37 ft. 6 in. and a depth of 23 feet.

You can read more on “Modern Marine Boiler Types”, “Oscillating Paddle Engines” and

“The Queen Mary’s Engines” on this website.