The Royal Navy at the time of the Great Fire of London: Charles II’s Navy
The 1660s were a time of great turmoil in England. In 1666 the great fire of London had destroyed much of the country’s capital and just a year earlier the great plague had killed a fifth of the city’s population. In amongst this chaos the new King, Charles II, recently restored to the throne after the English Civil War, began to build an extraordinary navy. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards the capabilities of seapower dramatically and exponentially increased. European powers began to take up permanent positions in foreign countries laying the foundations for the subsequent colonialism that shaped the modern world. Whilst they vied for control of the new global trade that linked east with west, that rivalry led to some of the largest-scale fleet battles ever fought.
To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Richard Endsor, a world-renowned historian who has has dedicated his life to studying the structures and building processes of seventeenth century ships. Richard has written several award winning books including The Master Shipwright’s Secrets for which he was awarded the prestigious Anderson Medal for the best maritime book published in 2020.
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we are travelling back in time to a period I consider absolutely fascinating. And I think we need far more people researching it to bring it all back to life. From the mid 17th century onwards, the capabilities of sea power dramatically and exponentially increased. European powers began to take up permanent positions in foreign countries, laying the foundations for the subsequent colonialism that shaped the modern world. Whilst they vied for control of the new global trade that linked east with West that rivalry led to some of the largest scale fleet battles ever fought. To help bring it all to life we’ve animated a cutaway drawing of a first rate ship; you will know what I mean. It’s one of those drawings where you view a ship from abeam, but the hull planks have been removed so you can see inside. It feels like a modern idea, but it’s not at all. And we’ve brought to life one of the oldest surviving examples from 1701. So please make sure that you check it out. It will be on our YouTube channel and across our social media. To find out more about this image and more broadly about the navy of Charles the Second, I spoke with Richard Endsor. Richard began his career as an engineer, and has dedicated his life to studying the structures and building processes of 17th century ships. He’s written several award winning books and I would particularly recommend the Master Shipwrights Secrets for which he was awarded the prestigious Anderson medal for the best maritime book published in 2020, and the Certificate of Merit for the best illustrated book at the Mountbatten Maritime Award for Best Literary Contribution in 2022. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. If ever an historian was an embodiment of the effort, energy and knowledge it took to build a ship of the line in the 17th century, then here is your man, not old and creaky, but strong and majestic, a work of art as much as a historical weapon. Here is the brilliant Richard.
Richard, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.
Well, thank you for inviting me Sam, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
I should say that for all of our listeners we’ve created a really wonderful little animation of an early 18th century or late 17th century ship. And I first asked Richard to help me out with that, because he is the man who knows more about 17th century warships than anyone else. So let’s start by telling me a little bit about Thomas Phillips and his painting of the first rate.
Yes, it’s a very, very lovely painting as you’ve seen, a section through the middle of a first rate ship. The paintings came about the result of a print. The print was made from a drawing, and the drawing was done by Thomas Phillips. So Phillips, who’s an engineer, not a naval man, did a drawing from which the print was made. We know that because it says Philips on the print, so the origin of it came from Philips. And from that it appears this painting was made. Now, the painting may not have been by Philips, of course, it may have been done by somebody else copying the print. But it’s obviously attributed to Philips because it’s obviously based on the print. That print is interesting as well, because it must have been very famous in its time because I’ve actually got a copy of it, but it’s an Austrian one. It’s exactly the same, but it’s all in German, and with the double Eagle flag on the stern and things like that. So it was obviously pretty popular at the time.
Now it’s great because it’s a cutaway. So it’s like one of those very famous images you get maybe in the Guinness Book of Records or something. It’s a big ship cut through on the side so you can see everything that’s going on inside. Well it’s got some really interesting technology; Let’s talk about a few of the things that it shows and how it helps us understand first rates of this period.
OK. One of the most notable things is that it doesn’t have a ship’s steering wheel. This is because the ship’s steering wheel was only invented in about 1703, something like that. And before that the end of the tiller, you’ve got the rudder coming up at the stern, and then moving the rudder you’ve got the tiller, just like on a small boat. But the front of the tiller is either controlled by ropes and pulleys with the ship’s steering wheel, or before that in this time, we’ve got just a simple lever called a whipstaff. So one guy is moving this tiller around with this whipstaff. It’s just the lever which pivots in the deck. The big disadvantage was that especially on a first rate like that where you’ve got three decks, the guy is deep down in the ship and can’t actually see where the ship’s going. He can’t see the sails or anything like that. So he has to be conveyed, conned as they called it, with instructions from the decks up above; that was a big disadvantage with it. Apart from that it seemed to work quite well. So you know, when they invented the steering wheel, as you can see on the Victory today, the guy is up there at the top, and he can see exactly where he’s going, he’s not going to hit anything. So yes, it was a big advantage when they discovered the use of a ship’s steering. wheel.
What do we know about that invention? Did some someone suddenly come across it, or was it a slow progress towards the obvious solution?
Well, do you know what, there’s nothing in the records, certainly not that I’ve seen, which indicates who invented it or anything, it just came about. Well, the thing was
British, Dutch, anybody.
I only studied the English side of it. And I think it came from our side, it was first used in the Royal Navy as far as I can tell. But they used blocks at the side of the ship to move the tiller in storms and things like that when the whipstaff wasn’t enough. So they had that. But then taking those ropes up to the top deck and putting the wheel there, in the first instance it wasn’t the sort of standard steering wheel. It was kind of a drum with a pulley on the end, which they moved round. That was the first use of it. And it’s such a simple modification, it appears that that was handed down by mouth, and the ship’s carpenter could make that equipment. Certainly in any shipyard they’d soon knock that up, no problem at all. So it came about, one of those really important inventions came about. It didn’t require any great design, or anything like that. It just sort of happened. So it’s quite interesting, actually, the way it did appear. It appeared the first use was in 1703, something like that. It appears on models about that time as well.
Yes, the pumps are also fascinating. Let’s talk about the pumps, the chain pumps on a first rate. Was it only the very biggest ships that had these pumps; let’s listen to what a chain pump was, let’s do that first.
Yes, the idea of course is with a wooden ship moving in the sea you’re always going to get leaks; they come in through the seams of the plank. It’s quite healthy in many ways, it keeps the bottom of the ship damp. When it’s always wet it doesn’t rot. It’s sometimes wet, sometimes dry. So it’s not a bad thing to have a certain amount of water coming into ships. But of course, to get that water out, you need to draw it out from the very bottom of the ship, take it up to the level of the gun deck, the first deck above the waterline, and then take it through tubes to the side of the ship. And to do that they didn’t use a suction pump, they used a tube and which they drew on a wheel, a chain with valves on it. So the valves drew the water up the pump and expelled it into a cistern at the top, and from there it flowed to the side of the ship. And they were always trying to improve this invention, there’s countless documentation. Some of them were quite hilarious actually about the experiments that took place to improve ship’s pumps, they’re always trying to improve them. And in fact, they hardly changed at all. Look at the 17th century pumps and those on the Victory. They’re almost identical. They’ve just made wooden bits out of iron and things like that. So although they did change, the principle remained the same. They were used as you mentioned on quite small ships to the very largest ones. The very smallest ships, tiny ships, had suction pumps. And suction pumps were also used on big ships as an option just to bring water up for washing the decks, things like that. So big ships like those big third rates, they had four pumps. Around the middle of the main mast there was generally two behind the main mast and two in front, one each side. And on two decker ships, third rates, fourth rates, fifth rates, sixth rates, there were just two pumps behind the main mast. So they were well covered, they needed to be very reliable. The ships carried lots and lots of spare parts for these things. You see always lists of all the S hooks and the valves and things like that, all the extras and spare parts they’d need, because they are absolutely vital of course to keeping the ship afloat.
I wonder if anyone’s actually done any proper work into what spare parts sailing warships took with them? It’s a fascinating question because they have to be completely self reliant. Later on in the period you can go across the to the Caribbean or you can go and find a dockyard in Antigua or whatever, and you can mend your ship, and there are some resources there. But for a very long time before that the vessels had to be entirely self sufficient. And I’m assuming there’s an enormous amount of space set aside for spare canvas and spare spare timber as well, I think it’s interesting. Is there any sense of how much spare timber they took with them.
Quite a lot Sam. On the orlop deck, the deck underneath the main gun deck, actually just below the water leve, there was a carpenter’s stores, and he kept all sorts of pieces of timber, specialist pieces of timber, already made up, spare spars, lots of different timber. Of course, most of the things he can actually make, there were lots of blocks, things like that kept as spars. There were many suits of sets of sails, about four sets of sails, kept in the sail room on this deck as well. So yes,, lots and lots of spare parts, gun carriages. There was a whole lot of spare parts, and as we said, spare parts for pumps and things like that. So yes they did carry an awful lot of extra equipment which they would need as parts broke, which they inevitably did of course. Rope as well was another thing; they carried a huge amount of ropes, huge amount of anchor cable, things like that.
And spare anchors.
Spare anchors of course, yes.
Thinking about the wood, they must have had different types of wood because different types of wood have different jobs on a sailing warship, so you’ve got pine for the planks, you’ve got oak for the frames, you’ve probably got some kind of green oak; do you you know what they used for making the blocks out of ?
The blocks themselves, generally the shells are made of elm. Different materials for the pulleys, but they mostly carried oak, and most of the outside planking was oak as well. They carried a lot of deal, softwood for bulkheads, they were always putting up temporary cabins or permanent cabins. They used a lot of soft wood, things like that. And some of the very upper decks were also soft wood as well to keep things light. And at the very top of the ship at the sides, they called it quick work. And that was softwood as well to keep these very upper parts of the ship light. The Great Ship that Phillips did in his print a few years earlier when they started making ships like that, they called them frigate built, because they were more lightly built than the earlier Great Ships. The Great Ships early in the 17th century were massively built. But then they discovered this way of building which they called frigate built, and you even see large ships called frigate built, so they kept the upper works as light as possible. They were really aware of the design concept of weight and strength, so important when you’re building the ship. So yes, a lot of things to consider when you’re designing, building, and repairing ships like that.
Yes, fascinating as well. I should say that with this first rate, we know it’s a first rate that he’s drawn but we don’t know which one. Do we think it was a specific vessel?
There were some earlier thoughts on this and I can’t remember which one it was supposed to be. I think someone suggested it was the St. Andrew. But the great expert on identifying these ships, Frank Fox, he’s closely studied it. I don’t know if you’ve met Frank but he’s a really nice guy and he did a lot of study on it. And he he concluded that it wasn’t any particular ship. I mean, most drawings of ships at this period they are generi, they’re not actually of a particular ship. Models are much the same, very difficult to pin down a model or a drawing to a particular ship. And Frank ca me to the conclusion this wasn’t any particular ship, it’s just a generic first rate ship of the line, very similar in concept to a drawing in the Pepys library that Dummer did. He’s got a a drawing through the centre of a three decker like that, done a few years earlier. So it was the sort of thing they did around this time.
Well, it’s good to bring up Pepys actually, let’s talk a little bit about him and about this whole period. So it’s Charles the Second and Samuel Pepys. Tell us about what they got up to and how they improved the Navy.
Yes, I mean, so controversial Pepys you know, you read his diary, and if you’ve read his diary, you can’t help but like him. But of course, he was a terrible womaniser,and you can say it’s abuse. But I think the things he writes in his diary; one of his maids, he would love to grope her breasts, but he dare not least she be an honest woman and tell my wife.
And in a modern context, it’s very inappropriate of course. And of course, he was corrupt as well in many ways, he receives gloves and presents and prime gifts of gold, things like that. But he was a great administrator. And when I think of Pepys I think of his huge great achievement which he was famous for in his own time. And that was the building of the 30 ships of 1677 just after the third Dutch war. The English navy was at the best only equal to the Dutch and the French navies, and Pepys persuaded Parliament himself to vote money to build a whole new fleet of 30 ships, this is a fleet of ships, ten of them were going to be great three decker’s and the other twenty were going to be third rates, two deckers, ships of the line. And once Parliament had voted 600,000 pounds to build the ships they wanted to make sure, because they always accused Charles of spending money where he shouldn’t, they wanted to make sure that it was well spent. So the Pepys and the Charles the Second’s administration made sure that it didn’t happen. First of all Charles took over at the Admiralty Board meetings where he’s always attended more meetings than anybody else. Charles looked at what parliament had voted, 900 tons, as big as any third rates built. Charles knew the future enemies would probably be the French and not the Dutch, so they’d need to sail further, these ships, so he insisted they’d be made bigger. He actually wrote out himself the actual dimensions these ships would be, much to the worry you can imagine of other Admiralty Board meetings going against parliament. He upped them to 1100 tons from 900 tons, and he also came up with innovations like having a more upright stem rather than the curved stem, because these fine line ships tended to pitch in the sea. And by having a more upright stem you’d increase buoyancy at the bow, so the ships wouldn’t pitch as much, and that was Charles’s idea. As Pepys says, the King would happily explain to anybody who he thought would have the understanding of it, his new concept. So Charles was innovative, he knew an awful lot about shipbuilding, he made friends of Master Shipwrights. Anyway, with the specification agreed by Charles
Interrupting you, how did Charles know all about this? There are many examples of Kings and Queens, even Kings and Queens of England, who knew nothing at all about sea power?
Well ,Charles, as we all know is famous for his pleasures. And what people didn’t publicise so much at the time was that one of his major pleasures, which he spent more time on than anything else, was in fact the Navy. He did attend more Admiralty Board meetings than anybody, attending more or less every one.
Did he get it from his dad?
I really don’t know. I mean his dad took an interest as well actually. We know he visited shipyards. It was the biggest spending department of course, in the economy. It was the first big industry, the shipbuilding industry. He took a huge interest in it. You can say he made friends of people like Phineas Pett, he spent an awful lot of time with shipwrights. He wanted to know how ships are built and the principles of the design. He made it his business to know a lot about shipbuilding, as well of course appointing all the officers himself. He more or less knew all his officers, even Warrant Officers, during this period, lowly Warrant Officers, a carpenter of a ship, you find their warrants all signed by King Charles himself. So he took an enormous interest in the Navy. And you know, once he’d agreed the principle of just what the specification of the ships would be, it came over to Pepys and the administration to implement it. And to make sure the money wasn’t spent on anything else all the Yards had an area fenced off, where all the materials bought to build these 30 ships was to be kept, so it couldn’t be used on anything else. They also had account books kept for every ship, everything that went to the ship was listed, every nail, bits of rope, everything was listed and costed so they knew how much exactly was spent on each ship. And on top of that the Master Shipwrights had to write a weekly progress report, to make sure all those men employed were doing what they were supposed to do. So it was a brilliantly organised programme. And as a result of all this control, and all these innovations, they were innovations at the time, all this control, as a result these 30 ships are delivered on time, on budget, and they were a huge success. And they made Britain the most powerful navy in the world for the next 250 years. It was the beginning, this 30 ships, of our great maritime strengths. So that is all down really I think to Samuel Pepys, and most importantly to King Charles the Second himself.
Wonderful. Where were the ships built? Which yards were they?
Well, primarily parliament was worried about a war with the French, and they wanted the money spent quickly to make sure Charles didn’t syphon it off because it’s very political at the time, this is Popish Plot time. They stipulate they’re all to be built within two years, which is almost impossible. But they allocated the ships out to the Royal yards, Deptford, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Chatham, those major places. But of course, that wasn’t enough. And some of them had to be built by contract by the Thames shipbuilders, and one was built at Bristol. They would have all been built on time as well, except for the Popish Plot time. Pepys himself was kicked out of office and so that slowed it down. But basically these ships are all built exactly according to contract. There was a bit of a difficulty with the cost because the ships are much bigger and I believe that Parliament had voted for guns to be supplied with these ships, but I noticed that most of these ships didn’t have new guns. They were supposed to have 32 pounder demi cannon on the gun decks and 12 pounders on the upper. Now nearly all of them didn’t have 12 pounders, they used existing guns. Guns last longer than ships as you can imagine, so most of them had existing guns. Nothing wrong with those old guns, a lot of them were Browne’s fine metal guns, or even these fabled Rupertinoes were used on these ships; ships didn’t suffer, the money was spent where it should have been spent. When you think Sam, this compares with the modern thing like HS2, the budget over spent already on that, and even in the Navy, the Type 45 frigates are way over budget and they’re still sitting around in Portsmouth Harbour many of them, still not gone to sea because they’re not completed yet. So yes, I honestly do believe that administration was absolutely tops.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, to build a ship you need an enormous amount of timber, maybe timber from a thousand trees off the top of my head, something like that. It all needs to be seasoned. So how did they deal with that because you can’t suddenly build one ship let alone build thirty. Had they been planning it for long, was there enough seasoned timber in the yards to cope with such a new order?
Of course not, no. The third rates, the smaller ones, 2000 oak trees were needed to build one of them, an enormous amount of timber. So it wasn’t all sitting around waiting for them being seasoned, they were cutting down the trees and making them into ships straight away. So they were totally green. This has been an advantage; it’s a lot easier to work when it’s oak especially. Try working in that when it’s well seasoned. Oh my god, it’s like iron you know, you can’t. To build it in green wood is fine, but course they need an awful lot of care once they’ve been built to make sure they season when they’re in the water. And things went a bit wrong there and many of these ships suffered from rot in the preceding years and needed a lot of repair work; all ships did. All the old fleet need a lot of repair work as well. the main reason was a mini ice age. They’re freezing cold winters which are opening up the planks, followed by hot summers. And you needed a lot of care to make sure the ships were well looked after, which they didn’t get because of the Popish Plot, and the new naval administration which Parliament insisted on, which of course didn’t have naval experts as the Pepys era had, so yes, it’s a very complex subject. There’s lots of instructions about how to look after ships. For instance, when it’s hot and sunny, all the hatches open, the gun ports open. When ships are in Ordinary, just sitting there in harbour, they have their five Warrant Officers and their servants to look after the ship, that’s their primary duty. And they’re supposed to when it’s hot open up all the gun ports, open up all the hatches, lift up the movable deck planks in the hold where the orlop planks weren’t fixed, to make sure it’s all aired nicely. And when it rains, of course, they did the opposite, they closed it all up to make sure the rain didn’t come in. And when it’s hot, they’re supposed to water down the sides of the ship to make sure they don’t dry out too much. None of that happened, unfortunately, you know, in the years just after they were built because of the new administration.
I see. So yes, you’ve got this constant change of politics, constant change of people and this makes keeping it going over time very difficult indeed. Tell us about the skills of the shipwrights.
They of course served a lengthy seven year apprenticeship, and they seemed to be extremely capable. The ships could be built, Pepys wrote it himself, I could hardly believe it, he reckoned 100 men could build a third rate ship, one of these 1100 ton ships in a year. This is by hand from trees, I could hardly believe it. And I did a study on it and it’s actually true. A lot of things of course are brought in from outside like the masts, a lot of specialist stuff. But basically speaking yes, 100 men could do it This was 100 men working every day, but they didn’t always do that of course, you find that they obviously had time off. So it didn’t quite work out like that, but nevertheless, the first ship of this programme, the Lennox, built in 10 months, an incredible build rate to build a ship from nothing to have a ship on the water in 10 months. They were extremely competent, the ordinary shipwrights. Look at the carvings, they cost almost nothing in that time, 120 pounds compared with 12,000 pounds to build a ship. So the cost of the carving was minimal. But look at the carvings festooned in them, so huge skills which was known by more or less everybody, very different the skills of the ordinary shipwright who did that compared with the Master Shipwrights who actually designed the ships, he had different skills.
Yes. And that was all very secretive skills, wasn’t it? They were very protective. Tell us about that.
Well,my last book was based on that very principle. Pepys himself wanted to know the secrets of the Master Shipwrights, and he asked the Master Shipwrights for a little treatise about that shipbuilding, and his very good friend Sir Anthony Dean wrote him a fabulous treatise, Dean’s doctrine it’s called. It’s in Magdalen College, Cambridge, and it’s full of drawings, how to design a ship. The most important thing to control the shape of the ship’s hull is if you imagine, if you draw the shape of curves of a ship, when you build that in a yard, if you scale from a drawing, you’re going to be a long way out. So the major curves of the ships that control the shape of the ship are actually done by mathematical formula, so you’ve got a formula that defines a point in 3 D. So they actually could tell exactly the shape of the ship controlling the breadth and and the shape underwater. And this was the Master Shipwright’s secret. And whilst Dean describes how you do this, he uses very, very simple curves, he uses true arcs, which are easy to explain in this treatise. And of course he keeps his secrets because he’s not actually giving you how he did a real ship, because simple arts like that simply wouldn’t cut it. Now another treatise that was given Pepys was one by John Shish, the Master Shipwright at Deptford. And he had a completely different method of giving a treatise, he simply gave the dimensions of a ship, lots and lots of dimensions of a fourth rate ship. And he gives a length of all the decks, the height between the decks, the breadths at different points and things like that. But at the back of this little treatise there’s lists of columns of digital figures, and these are his actual curves, he’s actually written out the curves. He protects his secrets by not giving you the formula; I found that absolutely fascinating. So at the time, I was working in the aircraft industry, writing computer programmes on designing aircraft parts, and one of the things you can do with that software was to put a mathematical formula in there, especiallyl geometric ones, which is used to do this, put it in a macro with a loop, and the loop goes through all the stations along the ship. And I could even compare the results of a test formula with the results given by Shish, so instantly I can see how far out a test formula was. And of course I can instantly make an adjustment, and until I got to the actual formula used by Shish, the results came out more or less perfect. I could imagine I spent quite a lot of time playing around with that in my spare time. But yes that was the basis of books; I actually come across the formula actually used by Shish to define the shape of his ship, of his hull. And funnily enough, this fourth rate ship he described in his little treatise, he actually built a ship with almost identical dimensions some years later, a very fine line ship it was as well, the ship called the Tiger. So I thought I’ve got to write a book about that, So that’s where the book came from.
Well, it’s a wonderful book and I’d encourage all of our listeners to go and buy it and to check it out. Richard, thank you very much indeed for sharing this. It’s such a wonderful story and I’d love to get you back on to tell us more more about Samuel Pepys I think, to find out about the Administration.
OK, well thank you for having me, Sam. It’s been a real pleasure
Thank you all so much for listening. Now do please remember that the Mariners Mirror podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and you must do everything you can to find out what those brilliant Institutions are up to. In particular, please check out the YouTube channel of the Mariners Mirror podcast, it’s had well over a million views. It’s got some fabulous material on there, in particular this latest animation of a 17th century warship, which you really have to see to believe it. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation are currently publishing their excellent project Maritime Innovation In Miniature, building the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment. And you also have to see that to believe it, just Google Maritime Innovation In Miniature. That’s all for now, we’ll be back soon.
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