The History of the Royal Navy - Part 3 (1815 - 1914) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of the Royal Navy - Part 3 (1815 - 1914)

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History of the Royal Navy
Part One - 882-1660 | Part Two - 1660-1815 | Part Three - 1815-1914 | Part Four - 1914-1945 | Part Five - 1945-2005
HMS Warrior.

In the second entry (1660-1815) we saw how, after many years of war, the Royal Navy had come to dominate the sea. The eighty years of near-peace that followed were known as the 'Pax Britannica', but despite the lack of constant conflict this era saw many improvements in sea warfare - ultimately leading to an arms race with Germany at the start of the 20th Century.

The Last Battles of the Sailing Ships

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Navy no longer required the assistance of the Barbary states of North Africa (Tunisia, Libya and Algeria), having previously relied upon them for supplies in the Mediterranean. The Barbary states were well known for their practice of taking Europeans into slavery, but now the Navy was free to exert political pressure upon them to end the practice. In 1816, Admiral Sir Edward Pellew sailed with a small squadron to Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers1, with all three states agreeing without resistance to stop taking slaves. However, some confusion in Algiers led instead to the slaughter of two hundred European fishermen, and so Pellew returned with Dutch help to force the release of the slaves. Pellew had surveyed the town and knew of a blind spot in the layout of the harbour defences, and so he placed most of his ships there. Allied casualties were heavy, but the Dey of Algiers eventually gave in and freed a thousand slaves. Pellew was subsequently created Lord Exmouth.

The West Coast of Africa Station

With an 1807 Act of Parliament having outlawed slavery, the Royal Navy were now tasked not just with rescuing European slaves but with preventing the slave trade across the seven seas. The West Coast of Africa Station, also known as the preventative squadron, was set up in 1819 to work against the slavers, with many small boats being used to pursue slave ships close to the shore. The conditions for men operating out of the station were naturally worse that those experienced by sailors closer to home, with the act of searching disease-ridden slave ships taking a toll on their health so that one in twenty crewmen died each year.

The Greek Revolution

The Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) took place as Greece fought the Ottoman Empire for the right to be a separate country. After several years of skirmishes, Britain, France and Russia stepped in, threatening that they would sail against the Turks and so enforce peace if hostilities continued. The Ottoman Empire refused a ceasefire and an Ottoman-Egyptian fleet set sail for Navarino, a port on the southern Greek mainland. Admiral Codrington2, sent by the Navy to deal with the situation, kept the Turks inside the bay while the French and Russian navies arrived. As negotiations took place, the allies started to anchor inside the fleet of Turkish and Egyptian ships, which had formed a horseshoe in the bay. Codrington noticed that the Turks were apparently setting fire to a fireship near the British formation and so sent the frigate HMS Dartmouth to ask them to stop, but the Turks fired upon the vessel as it closed. Soon the entire bay was heavy with cannonballs and smoke, but the allied forces proved to be too much for the Turks. After much negotiation, withdrawals and some further fighting on land, Greece effectively gained its independence in November 1828.

The Steam Age

As the industrial revolution began to take hold in Victorian Britain it became clear that steam was the power source of the future. The first steam-powered ship crossed the Atlantic in 1819, and by 1833 the journey took only 22 days. Steam ships were soon employed on all the major trade routes, and fierce competition led to continuous technological improvements. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's paddle steamer, the SS Great Western, made the crossing in 15 days in 1837.

Meanwhile, the Navy began to adopt steamers to lead sail vessels out of harbour against the wind, with HMS Comet and Monkey being completed in 1821. In 1824, the Lightning accompanied another expedition to Algiers, making it one of the first steamers to put to sea as part of a Navy squadron. During the 1830s and 1840s steam engines were still in their infancy and were used only during battle and for travelling against the wind, with all boats still retaining their sails.

The Siege of Acre

Another political task for the Navy soon came about, allowing them to make use of a mixed fleet of sailing ships and steamers. In 1832 Mehemet Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, had invaded Turkish Syria3 in a bid for independence from the Turkish empire. The Egyptians declared independence in 1838 and repelled the Turkish army in 1839, and eventually the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, decided that Britain should support Turkey. The British Army and Royal Navy were sent off to repel the Egyptians from Syria, with the Navy driving the Egyptians out of the ports while the Army defeated them on land. Soon the city of Acre was the only remaining stronghold.

Vice Admiral Sir Robert Stopford, in charge of the Mediterranean Fleet along with a few Austrian and Turkish ships, sailed to within half a mile of the walls of Acre and bombarded the city. The Egyptian gunners defending the city misjudged the range of the incoming ships, overshooting with the only shots they would get at their opponents. Due to rigorous training at HMS Excellent4, the Navy's first salvo of shots were directly on target, immediately destroying the Egyptian defences and later rupturing their ammunition depot. After the city had been significantly softened up, the Army moved in, losing only 18 men while securing Acre. With the fall of his last bastion in Syria, Mehemet Ali agreed to withdraw, being made monarch of Egypt in return.

Boards and Screws

Up until 1832, the Royal Navy had been run by two separate organisations. The Admiralty, created when the Earl of Rutland was made the first Lord High Admiral during Richard II's reign (1377-1399), had always been in command of the navy, while the Navy Board5, the successor to Henry VIII's Council of the Marine, were responsible for the administration of the force. Since 1806, the Admiralty had become an authority managed by a civilian council and the professional head of the Navy was officially the First Sea Lord, and so the Admiralty and the Navy Board were merged into one administrative organisation.

The next technological breakthrough after the steam engine came with the invention of the screw propeller. At first, all steam ships were paddle-driven, but the greater efficiency of the screw propeller led to the Admiralty deciding that it should be used on all new ships. The first screw steamer, the HMS Agamemnon6, was ordered in 1849, and screw battleships had become widespread by the 1850s through rapid construction and conversion of old ships as the Navy fought to be the most advanced in the world.

The First Opium War

Around the 1820s, trade of expensive goods such as silver and tea between Britain and China had reached a peak. However, to keep trade going with China Britain had started to buy silver from Europe, a method which had begun to prove a little too costly. Instead, Britain began to import opium into the trading ports of Canton7, leading to a reversal of the silver trade as addicts popped up across the region. By 1839, China was very unhappy with the situation and took great lengths to ban the trade and destroy incoming supplies, but this led to a group of British sailors rioting. After confusion over who should try the rioters, the Chinese demanded that all British traders agree to follow Chinese laws and should stop smuggling opium. Refusing to hand over the British suspects from custody, Admiral Charles Elliot called for the British Community to leave Canton and for trading with the Chinese to stop.

The problems began when a Quaker ship, the Thomas Coutts, decided to sail into Canton and trade under Chinese terms. Elliot quickly moved into position to prevent others from following, but was forced to fire a warning shot at the trading ship Royal Saxon. The Chinese fleet moved in and shots were fired, but the Navy under Elliot were too much for them and several Chinese ships were sunk. The Navy then moved to capture the mouth of the Pearl River between Hong Kong and Canton, and by 1842 they had captured the Shanghai and the mouth of the river Yangtze, China's other trading river. Though it took thousands of innocent lives, the First Opium War proved to China that they could not match Britain's Navy, and they were forced to sign the first Unequal Treaty, so-called because of the one-sided way in which Britain dictated new trading rules to the Chinese.

The Crimean War

During the 1850s, arguments between Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem came to a head, with the Ottoman Empire eventually siding with the Catholics, who were protected by the French. Russia used this as a pretext to invade the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, thus incurring the wrath of the Turks. In 1853, the Russians launched their fleet and completely annihilated the Turkish navy at Sinop, making it possible for the Russians to invade the Ottoman Empire with ease. After the failure of negotiations, Britain, France and Sardinia were forced to step in to prevent Russian expansion, and the Crimean War (1854-1856) had begun.

In the main theatres of the war, the Navy took part in the famous Siege of Sebastopol8 in which the Russians were forced to scuttle their Black Sea fleet to protect the harbour, and later bombarded Taganrog9 as part of a campaign to disrupt supplies to Russian troops in the Crimea. An embarrassing moment occurred during the siege of Taganrog as the HMS Jasper ran aground while trying to move upstream, as a Russian fisherman had moved the buoys that indicated safe passage.

Meanwhile, another campaign took place in the Baltic Sea, where a large Anglo-French fleet forced the smaller Russian fleet to hide around strong fortifications, effectively making the theatre a stalemate. The Navy were forced to simply attack trade convoys and small Finnish ports for most of the war, but some action came when the fleet attacked the Russian dockyards at Sveaborg10 in 1855. Despite the bombardment destroying the fortifications and yards through three days of mortar and rocket launches, the Russians apparently held the fortress. Another allied fleet was soon readied for use against Sveaborg, but by that time the Russian army had fallen at Sebastopol and the war was over.


The world's first seagoing ironclad, a wooden boat covered with thick metal sheets, was launched in 1858 by the French. This revolutionary new ship, the Gloire was quickly matched by the HMS Warrior of 1860. This led to the need for shell-firing guns onboard ship along with the deck-mounted turret technology required to make full use of the guns. However, this led to the problems with turrets firing into the ships' masts, and so ships with special elevated rigging were designed. HMS Monarch showed how this was possible, but a lack of careful weighting led to the more ambitious Captain capsizing in the Bay of Biscay, killing most of the crew. The solution was to give up on sails completely, with coal stations being set up around the world to provide fuel for trade ships and battleships alike. Despite the existence of armour-piercing guns, ramming tactics were also popular during the 1860s and 1870s, and toughened ramming bows often led to severe damage when ships accidentally collided during peacetime.

The Siege of Alexandria

In 1882, rioting broke out in the centre of the Egyptian town of Alexandria, leading to the threat of a coup by the popular Egyptian military figure Ahmed Orabi. Although many Europeans were killed, the British and French forces occupying the city made no move, instead waiting for reinforcements. The rioting was eventually put to an end by an order from Orabi. However, once naval reinforcements had arrived, Admiral Seymour threatened Orabi with action if any more guns were mounted in the forts of Alexandria. Orabi refused, and Seymour had the pretext needed to bombard the forts. The shelling lasted for a whole day, with the Royal Navy's largest ironclad ships destroying Forts Adda and Qaitbey while causing some damage to nearby mosques and houses. While the town itself was left unharmed, more rioting and pillaging followed, with no land forces moving in to quell the disturbance. Altogether, the siege would seem an ill-planned move, as Orabi himself escaped and found fortification elsewhere. However, British forces later landed and occupied the entire country.

Torpedoes and Submarines

The first 'torpedoes' appeared during the Crimean War when HMS Merlin and Firefly hit sea mines placed by enemy forces. In the 1860s, engineer Robert Whitehead developed an air-driven torpedo, and in 1877 the HMS Shah became the first British boat to fire one in anger11. Motor torpedo boats soon appeared around the world, and the Navy was forced to respond with torpedo boat destroyers, with HMS Havock and Hornet first appearing in 1894.

With the advent of petrol engines and electric batteries, the submarine became possible at the turn of the 20th Century. The Navy's first submarine, Holland 1, was purchased from John Holland of the USA in 1900, and the design was soon adopted by the Admiralty. However, the Navy also designed their own submarines as improvements upon Holland's design, with HM Submarine No. 1, the first 'A' class, being completed in 1902. The first submarines caused many problems, with malfunctions and explosions causing trouble onboard while the risk of collision with surface ships led to several peacetime disasters. The Navy continued to develop better subs, with the 'E' class being the most cutting-edge at the start of the First World War.


With the alliance of France and Russia and the rise of a German nation at the end of the 19th Century, the Navy was continually pressed to become strong enough to defend an isolated Britain. As the threat from torpedo boats and subs became greater, the Navy constructed the world's first 'all-big-gun' warship, HMS Dreadnought. Weighing over 18,000 tons, forty times more than Henry VIII's Mary Rose, the ship revolutionised naval tactics, making the smaller guns of other ships obsolete. Its construction led to an arms race between Britain and Germany, with more and more Dreadnought-class ships being built each year. Battlecruisers, lightly-armoured battleships designed for speed to allow them to catch and defeat smaller ships, also appeared, but eventually proved useless with the development of properly-armoured fast battleships during the Second World War.

A More Modern Navy

With his appointment as First Sea Lord in 1904, Admiral John Fisher began to push the Navy to accept all of the new technology available. Responsible for the Dreadnoughts, Fisher also changed the Navy by scrapping many old ships and planning the construction of many new ones. With constant expansion, the Royal Navy was always ready to face the German High Seas Fleet.

Meanwhile, other parts of the Navy were changing quite radically. By the start of the First World War casual employment had come to an end, with crews now being full-time members of the armed forces with good conditions onboard ship. Rigorous training was required to teach the men to use the new technology, allowing better use of new guns and torpedoes, with the bases at Dartmouth and Greenwich were established for this purpose. By the time Gavrilo Pricip had shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Royal Navy had become a force not dissimilar to the one in existence today.

1The capitals of Tunisia, Libya and Algeria respectively.2Not to be confused with Admiral Haddock. Pubs named after Admiral Lord Codrington can be found in Chelsea, Brompton, South Kensington, and even next to the canal basin in Coventry, although the rationale behind the location of the latter is unclear to this Researcher.3In those days Syria included most of the modern-day 'Holy Land' now shared by Israel and Palestine.4The Navy's land base in Portsmouth.5Not to be confused with the modern Navy Board, which is a different organisation.6Named after the Greek leader at Troy, in case you were wondering.7Modern-day Guangzhou.8A city on the Crimean shores of the Black Sea.9A port in the Azov Sea, the sea separated from the Black Sea by Crimea.10A port just outside Helsinki, now known as Suomenlinna.11It missed.

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