The Rules and Regulations for Composite Ships

October 2023

In the archives of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation is a stunning hand-illustrated portfolio of the Rules of Composite Ships. These were a set of rules regulating the construction of this new type of vessel born of the industrial revolution. Half iron and half timber, these ‘composite’ ships transformed maritime capability whilst at the same time challenging existing knowledge of shipbuilding. The illustrated portfolio is the work of Harry Cornish, once Chief Ship Surveyor at Lloyd’s Register, a marine classification society. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Max Wilson, archivist of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation archives. They explore the Cornish drawings as well as the ship plans of several famous composite ships, including the most famous of them all – Cutty Sark.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Now one of the joys of being a historian is coming across something very special in the archives. And for me, that’s usually in illustrated form. It’s all very well reading endless words, but I do like a picture. You might be flicking through the leaves of a diary and suddenly, the diarist has decided to draw what they saw rather than describe it, and sometimes they are exceptionally talented artists. As a historian, I think that this brings you immediately closer to the past, in particular, closer to the person whose work you are holding in your hands. Every now and again, I come across something truly exceptional. And in the collections of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s archives, I was presented with something I absolutely loved; a hand illustrated portfolio of the rules of composite ships. I’ll just say here that a composite ship is one that is made from both timber and iron, and that the Lloyd’s Register rules and regulations were a set of defined standards and frameworks for regulating the construction of ships. Now, this particular example was heavily embellished and it was illustrated by a guy called Harry Cornish chief ship surveyor at Lloyd’s Register from 1900. It was so fantastic that we’ve made a 3d animation based on the drawings bringing them to life, and I also travelled to London and met Max Wilson, archivist at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, who told me all about Harry, and all about the importance of the Lloyd’s Register rules and regulations for composite ships. You can watch the animation on our YouTube channel in a separate video, you can also watch the film of this interview, which includes a little wander around behind the scenes and some beautiful close ups of key documents, not just the illustrated Harry Cornish drawings, but also ship plans from one of the most famous composite ships of the mobile Cutty Sark. Enough for me, let’s take you into the slightly echoey entrance hall of Cannon House in London, itself a beautiful historic building in Woolwich Arsenal, a stone’s throw from the river. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him here is the effortlessly erudite and endlessly knowledgeable Max.

    Sam Willis
    Max, what are the rules and regulations?

    Max Wilson
    So the Lloyd’s Register rules and regulations are defined standards and frameworks for regulating the construction, maintenance and design of vessels throughout their lives.

    Sam Willis
    Why were they needed?

    Max Wilson
    Historically, there were very little guides dating back to the 18th century that really actually codified particular modes or advised modes of construction. And so these types of rules and regulations were very useful as a guide for shipowners. And for shipbuilders to be able to inform how they were building their vessels and what safety standards what particularly defined standards will be will be most useful for them. But also more than that, as throughout the 19th century, technology started to move on and you have changes in materials from you know, from woods to compensate, or to iron, and steel. And obviously, changes in modes of propulsion shipping became infinitely more dangerous as well. And so there was even more guidance that was sought from classification societies like Lloyd’s Register, from shipbuilders and ship owners who were looking to try and regiment and and standardise their practices and minimise risk.

    Sam Willis
    It’s always a problem with any kind of rules and regulations. There were two problems. Actually, the first problem is how do you get people to follow them? So it’s all very well, just coming up with some rules and regulations, but actually getting people to follow them is difficult. And the other problem is, how do you change them if you need to kind of keep abreast of developments? So two questions there. One, how do they get people to follow their rules?

    Max Wilson
    What’s quite interesting about the rules and regulations and these the ways in which they’re formed is that often it’s it’s usually from shipowners and shipbuilders. They’re usually the ones that are crying out for regulation. Classification has always been particularly sought after as a means of not only being able to mark their vessels with a standard of quality, but also obviously to be able to regulate their own means and modes of shipbuilding. So what’s generally been found is that ship owners and ship builders have approached Lloyd’s Register throughout their life. So the very first iron ship enters Lloyd’s Registers rules in 1844. And though it’s given an A1 status, as long as the vessel has been surveyed, and it’s been found it to be made of good materials, then it’s eligible for an A1 status, but obviously that’s really it. So it’s very brief. And of course, it’s another 11 years or so before the rules and the rules for the construction of iron ships are brought out in 1855. And again, this is something that’s seen as being again, not not really prescriptive enough, it doesn’t particularly favour one mode of construction over another, it doesn’t really give an awful lot of guidance on on materials, it’s still largely being calculated on the basis on the understanding of timber vessels. And so, even though there are various relaxations in the rules that come after that, you know, and by the time you get to 1862, you have a major break within within shipping, and that comes with the formation of the Liverpool Underwriters Register for iron vessels. Well, the Iron Register, which was formed in 1862, by the Liverpool Underwriters to try and regulate iron shipbuilding and what they felt was an overly cautious approach by Lloyd’s Register.

    Sam Willis
    Composite ships particularly are interesting in this period when there’s a mixture of iron and timber, tell us about that.

    Max Wilson
    Composite ships are slightly unique their frames are made of iron, and they’re usually wooden planked all over, in addition to the frame, the standing rigging the masts also iron as well. So the sort of the age of sail reached its zenith between 1850 and 1870, with the era of the clipper ship and the composite clipper, which was probably the most famous examples of the composite ships that have been built, but this unique structure meant that obviously they had the strength of iron with the frame, but they had some flexibility when it came to the sort of the wooden planking and so they were very agile, and they could be driven at unprecedented speeds. Part of the issue was that with Lloyd’s Register surveyors, they were seeing increasing numbers of composite ships that were being put to them, but almost all of them had wildly different designs. Not only did you have shipbuilders then starting to advocate for the need for composite ship rules, but you also have the surveyors themselves crying out for regulation.

    Sam Willis
    And one of those was Harry Cornish, the famous Harry Cornish with his wonderful illustrations. Tell us about Harry,

    Max Wilson
    Harry John Cornish. He was born in Devonport in 1839. And he later would go on to start his career as a naval architect with Charles Langey’s Deptford Green shipyard where actually interestingly one of his very early jobs was working with John Scott Russell, with the construction of some of the fittings for the Great Eastern All right, he joins Lloyd’s Register in 1863, as a ship surveyor. His entry to Lloyd’s Register coincides with the decision by our committee of surveyors or a subcommittee of surveyors in 1863, to take on this challenge of composite shipbuilding. So he arrives at a really interesting time in Lloyd’s Register’s history. They agreed to start putting these rules together in 1863. And they wouldn’t be published finally, until about 1868. But Lloyd’s Register, one of the things they started to do was to advertise sort of advertise a competition amongst all of the surveyors, who were all skilled draughtsman and, and artists in their own right, to be able to design these illustrations for the composite ship rules. It went out to a competition and Harry John Cornish won this competition. And so he’s really amazing sounding designs. They’re extraordinary feature, you know, centrally within the composite ship rules, and they were exhibited in Moscow and in Paris at an international exhibition, where in Moscow, it won a gold a gold medal, and then in in Paris, it won a bronze medal. So they were amazing, amazing pieces.

    Sam Willis
    So it’s a very clever technique, I think.

    Max Wilson
    what was also particularly interesting is that you know, Harry John Cornish, he’s well known within Lloyd’s Register for having created and illustrated the Rules for Composite Ships. Those composite ships also see his own design creep in for the Lady Badge, the literally the logo for Lloyd’s Register as well, within those rules, and his designs ended up being seen across several different publications. Yeah, subsequent rules and regulations. But he also did other publications and social pamphlets and leaflets and things like the cricket club minutes and everything else. He illustrated all of those. So he Yeah, he was a very, very keen draughtsman. And it’s noted in one particular record that frequently when he was out on surveys, he would take a notebook with him. And if there were any points where he had to wait around where he was waiting to meet somebody, he would just sketch.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, that’s lovely. It was really nice working with those original drawings and creating an animation out of them showing how composite ships were put together. It felt like a real nod to an artist from the past. And that’s something I’m particularly proud of. Now, here, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation archives, you have some wonderful material relating to composite ships. Tell us about what you’ve got here.

    Max Wilson
    So we’re very lucky that some of the some of the members of staff at time were obviously very keen naval architects at the time. And so, Bernard Weymouth, who joined as a ship surveyor, in 1853, and would later go on to be a secretary of Lloyd’s Register, was responsible for designing both the Thermopylae in 1868 and the Leanda in 1867. So the Thermopylae in particular is a is a really good example of a composite clipper ship. You know, she was designed by Bernard Weymouth and she would go on to set the world’s fastest record at the time between the passage between London and Melbourne in just 60 days. So these composite clipper ships were, you know, were incredibly exciting, they were quite revolutionary, and they could be, they could be driven at these really unprecedented speeds and it’s obviously worth noting that obviously, this time you have the establishment of the great tea races, you know, where it becomes so famous, you know, so very highly, highly popularised in the media at this time. So with obviously both the Leander and the Thermopylae we have their survey reports and we have their their ship plans. And the other famous vessel that we have is the Cutty Sark, which was built in 1869. In Dumbarton obviously was a very you know, one of the very early competence ship clippers to be to be built by the rules for composite ships. By the time the rules were published, ironically, composite ships were had sort of had their heyday really they were already on the way out, and many of these composite clipper ships would end up being switched from the tea trade to the Australian wool trade where it was believed that steamships remained an economical for such long distances. But we’ve always had a particularly long relationship with Cutty Sark, not only did we survey her during her construction and design despite the technology having moved on, she was later sold out to the UK as she went into, to Portugal. And when she eventually would come back into UK ownership in 1921, there were very few people who are experienced enough to survey composite clippers. So the photostat copy that we have of her midship section is from a London surveyor who originally came to Lloyd’s Register, having worked for the Liverpool Underwriters Registry for Iron Vessels, which we eventually amalgamated with. And he was brought out of retirement in his 90s, to come back and survey the Cutty Sark – Yeah, to those original rules and regulations, because quite understandably, the things had moved on so considerably at that point. And there were very few people who were qualified to be able to do that kind of survey.

    Sam Willis
    That’s fascinating, really, really intriguing. And then how did the rules and regulations change over time.

    Max Wilson
    So the experience of developing the iron ship rules, and then later the composite ship rules would have a greater effect on how the rules and regulations were put together. Later, when the iron ship rules were put together, they were being formulated on the basis of the understanding of timber ships, so Bernard Weymouth come up with this system and made the point that with timber vessels, the calculations for constructing their scantlings had been formulated based on what was a proposed tonnage. That was usually been specified by contract. And what he decided really was that because iron was such a different material to work with, actually, it made much more sense to base those calculations on the length of the proposed vessel in proportion to its proposed breath as well, which would then allow for a greater distribution of material throughout those vessels making them lighter, more economical, more affordable. These amendments to the original Iron Ship Rules would occur in 1870. And it would then have a knock on effect with other subsequent changes to the rules and regulations, notably the 1888 rules for the construction of steel ships,

    Sam Willis
    How strict with these rules?

    Max Wilson
    So the rules, initially were I would suspect, fairly fluid really, generally speaking, the engines the machinery, in the very early days needed to be surveyed and classified and there needed to be a relevant certificate that could be provided. And there was very little instruction about modes of shipbuilding in the very early days with timber vessels. By the time we get to the era of the sort of steel vessels, the regimented way in which the rules are being put together was actually not particularly helpful for the shipping industry, that they were taking far too long to put these rules together. And they weren’t allowing great enough deviation from the rules and innovation is worth pointing out that when the rules for steel ships came into play in 1888, they would at 90% of the ships that Lloyd’s Register was surveying were made and constructed from mild steel. So what’s particularly interesting with all of this is there will be subsequent additions to those rules as they went forward. And by the time we get to the 20th century, those like our then Secretary would then make the point that the rules and regulations shouldn’t be fixed. They shouldn’t be unchangeable, but they actually needed to rely on continual data that had been received and informed and amended. And once again, to go back to the example of steel shipbuilding. Yes, the rules were created in 1888. By the time that we get to Harry John, Cornish surveying incredibly large, large vessels like the Mauritania and the Aquitania, which were were record breaking vessels. These vessels were steel built, but they were existing outside of the proportions that have been set in the 1888. So what you tend to find then was that Lloyd’s Register would then you would then amend its rules and so amended them in 1909 in the face of that particular particular issue. And later on, again, as ships got even larger and larger, those steel rules would be amended in 1921, and then again in 1947. So it’s it’s a particularly big feature really, of the rules. Lloyd’s Register had initially moved from that 30 year gap to wait for 30 years worth of evidence down to a 10 year gap. And what was particularly interesting in 1914, when they put these rules together for for diesel engines, was that they preempted this particular technological innovation, there were only 47 ships that they’d seen, which were either in the yards or on the sea. And so they put these out, almost as soon as they started to appear to try and preempt that. So what Lloyd’s Register started to become was more of a reactive organisation to these changes.

    Sam Willis
    One of the questions that always strikes me when you’re dealing with rules and regulations is that there are probably unwritten rules and regulations which exist alongside the actual written ones. Do you get any sense of that in the kind of the practice of shipbuilding that, yes, you had these written down rules, but there was also a kind of stuff that existed between the lines.

    Max Wilson
    The human element was always something that was, there was, you know, as almost an unwritten area, really, it was always something that was seen to be a particularly large part of any disaster, really, obviously, you can blame a ship’s construction or its maintenance. But obviously, it’s that human element. So often that exacerbates those risks and those disasters, even though they’re not in the rules and regulations, the register of ships includes from 1764 onwards lists of the Masters and the captains that are there in charge of each of these vessels. And that’s a feature of the register of ships all the way up until 1921, for steamers and then for 1947. For for sailing vessels. So it does show really that, you know, the reputation of masters and their ability to navigate is is paramount. And

    Sam Willis
    And it’s not just a question of unwritten rules and regulations, but of interpretation. That’s another human aspect. You ever get a sense of some surveyors interpreting the rules one way or the other surveyors interpreting it in a different way?

    Max Wilson
    Absolutely, yeah. All you have to do is go into the ship plan survey port collection, which is online, and what you can usually find is that you have arguments between surveyors and committees, and surveyors and other surveyors who are all sort of calling on each other for how a particular rule could be interpreted. You know, that’s particularly evident even with some of the earlier correspondence about different types of timber that are used in 1837, you get one early addition to the rules, which is the the specification of things like timber, and what kind of scantling dimensions were required for use with those timbers. But again, there’s hundreds of different types of words, you know, and of course, you have one particular surveyor in Canada saying that, you know, he has a shipbuilder, who’s using this particular piece of timber, but there’s no guidance for it is there any way of making it equivalent to this that is listed and right, looking at the correspondence, you have the letters, you usually have sort of little scribbles around the side where the committee have made a note for it to be filed, and then sent back and something formal written. And, you know, if a surveyoe, is particularly bothered by the way that the committee have interpreted the rules, what they will do is they’ll sometimes call in another surveyor to then again, give their opinion on the matter. But obviously, the committee’s decision is always final. But again, as you can see, with the rules and regulations, that emphasis on flexibility, and not trying to, to hamper progress, and innovation is really key to the decision-making in the formulation of those regulation.

    Sam Willis
    So how do these written rules and regulations relate to other content that you have in the archive here,

    Max Wilson
    They provide the rationale for how they were operating. So crucially, the surveyors that were operating all around the world, these are the rules and regulations that they were using, which were governing their activities and their operations wherever they were based. So when we’re looking at survey reports, or at correspondence, you’ll sometimes see references to specific rules and specific lines within the rules. And so if nothing else, what it does do is it it provides a greater context to how they were working, what basis they were operating on, and, why they were making the decisions that they were making. So, you know, as far as the technological innovations that we see within the ship plans, survey report collection, you can chart all of those changes quite radically. Obviously, the rules and regulations have changed so much. So obviously, you can look at timber vessels in the 1830s and 40s. And then you can look at things like iron shipbuilding the advent of the advent of iron shipbuilding, the the move into composite ships and into steel. Obviously, most of these today are governed by a great deal of these rules and regulations are governed by the now the International Maritime Organisation from 1958 onwards, you know, so areas like structural fire protection, life saving appliances, stability, they’re all governed by international treaties, but there’s still a huge amount, you know, which which, which comes from the Lloyd’s Register rules and regulations. So being able to go back and look at those alongside survey reports and certificates, and it just provides a great deal of context to why they are the way that they are.

    Sam Willis
    Right. It’s a fascinating aspect of maritime history. I look forward to finding out some more. Thanks, Max. Thank you

    Sam Willis
    Now if you’ve enjoyed this and want to see more don’t forget to check out those various videos on YouTube. One is the animation of the Harry Cornish drawings and two is a video of our interview with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation have also made certain that these rules and regulations are freely and fully available through the history and education centres website@hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. The rules between 1834 and 49 can be found within the digitised online versions of the register of ships where they were originally bound. Those from 1849 to 1976 can be found as separate publications. Please remember that this podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. You’ve already heard all about the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. So please make sure that you check out the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk Where you can join up it’s a brilliant way not only of learning about our maritime past from the very best of the business, but also of meeting people and having a very nice time.

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