Select Naval Documents - The Coppering of Ships


IN the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Great Britain speedily regained the prestige lowered so dangerously in the previous war.

As in the preceding sections, no attempt is here made to traverse the whole period historically. The documents selected illustrate partially two crises - the outbreak of the naval mutinies, and the invasion schemes of 1803-5. The selection aims primarily at presenting problems as they appeared to the chief contemporary actors.

Though administration remained far from perfect and abuses survived, British superiority not only in the quality of officers and men but in the number of ships available for service was apparent throughout this period. Only in the black year of mutinies (1797) was public confidence in the service shaken, and even that year witnessed two of our greatest naval victories.

Memoranda of Advice. Forethought and Preparation. (By Sir Charles Middleton, almost certainly intended for Lord Melville, on his appointment as First Lord, May, 1804. N.R.S. xxxix, p. 24.)

From every information I could pick up for guarding iron bolts in ship's bottoms against the corrosive effects of copper, I was convinced in my own mind that we might with safety copper the bottoms of every ship in the fleet and by that means increase our activity, as far as doubling our force in numbers. The measure to be sure was not only bold, but arduous. I proposed it privately to Lord Sandwich; but he hesitated, and, after several conversations and assurances, he mentioned it to the king. I afterwards accompanied his lordship to Buckingham House and explained the whole process in so satisfactory a manner that he conceived it at once and ordered it to be carried into execution. Having succeeded so far, I authorised our copper contractor to purchase whatever quantity of copper he could procure from the several companies, and which was executed so privately that we secured as much as would cover 40 sail of the line without any increase of price, and actually coppered twenty in six weeks, and, before the war ended, every ship fit for service. The effects of this measure were soon felt; and so much was the activity of the fleet increased that Mr Rigby, in his witty way, observed that, unless the captains were coppered also, we should have none to serve. Admiral Barrington, amongst others, declared that the ships would sink at their anchors. They were ignorant of the means used; and so far were we from meeting accidents, that the enemy had not a line of battle ship of ours in their possession to boast of at the end of the war, while many of theirs had, in consequence of it, been added to ours.

The war being ended and the shattered condition of the fleet well known to me, I saw the necessity of getting forward as fast as possible with our line of battle ships; and notwithstanding we had upwards of thirty new ones in a state of great forwardness, yet, without continued exertion in every part of the department, we should not be able to cope with France and Spain united. The first thing, therefore, was to take in hand, immediately, all the ships that were in want of small repair. We were by this time strong in the number and quality of our shipwrights and caulkers; the stores were greatly increased, and all our storehouses arranged with separate berths for every ship's stores; so that instead of having all the storehouses looked over for single ship's stores, every ship had the power of carrying off her own in 24 hours, instead of weeks, according to the old custom. The general storehouses, instead of having the new stores thrown over the old, as had been customary, to the utter destruction of the latter, were fitted with receiving and issuing rooms for each article, and the oldest expended first. Timber was procured for the several services; and such was Mr Pitt's liberality in the grants, that by the time I quitted the navy board we had upwards of 90 sail of the line fit for service, and all their stores ready for putting on board. Hospital ships, port-admiral's ships, and receiving ships, which were the first wanted, [and which] had been invariably left unprovided, and of course interrupted and kept back our fitting ships for the sea, were all provided; and as many old 40-gun ships coppered and converted into transports as would contain 4 or 5000 men. The advantages arising from these preparations are incredible in the hands of an active administration. The having so many ships prepared for sea, and everything else that belonged to them, ready; the having coppered transports of our own instead of waiting for hired ones, and upwards of 3,000,000 in necessary stores in our arsenals, gave such advantages that the fleet, in my successor's time, was fitted out with a rapidity never known before, and the credit of it imputed to him who had scarcely warmed his seat.

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