The warships of the period from the accession of Charles I until the end of the age of sail were rated according to the number of cannons they carried. It was all started in 1677 by Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, and was reclassified in 1714, 1721, 1760, 1782 and 1801. In basic terms, the higher the rate, the more guns the ship carried. So at the time of Nelson, a 'first-rate warship' had between 100 and 120 guns. There were six rates in all and the lowest rate had between six and 18 guns. Rates First, Second and Third, were classed by the term 'ship of the line'1. First- and second-rate ships of the line also had three gun decks and the height and mass to take and administer great damage. This meant the ships were able to endure a battle and exchange broadsides with the largest of enemy ships. Third-rate ships often had two decks but were still powerful enough to engage in the line of battle.
The Rating Of Ships Of The Line
For ships of the line, the rates were as follows:
- A ship with more than 90 guns: First-rate
- A ship with more than 80 guns: Second-rate
- A ship with more than 54 guns: Third-rate
Other rated ships:
- A ship with more than 38 guns: Fourth-rate
- A ship with more than 18 guns: Fifth-rate
- A ship with more than 6 guns: Sixth-rate
The ship guns of the Trafalgar period were classed by the weight of the shot they fired (the solid round shot known as cannonball) and varied in size from the 42-pound cannon, to the 12-pound carronades on the upper deck.
The largest gun, the 42-pound cannon, had a range of 1.1 miles (1.7km). Although this was impressive, it was bettered by the 32-pound cannon which had a range of 1.2 miles2(1.9km). At short range these cannons could smash through the reinforced oak of a ship's hull up to a metre thick.
The Gun Crew
The large cannon of a ship of the line needed a crew of up to eight men to load and fire it and another six to eight men to man the recoil rigging and run out the gun when loaded. The gun crew included:
- Gun captain
- Second gun captain
- Assistant loader
- Assistant sponger
The shortest range was the 12-pound carronade, which had a range of half a mile (0.79km).
In order to understand the way these battles were fought, a brief explanation of the tactics used is necessary. The British navy's tactics at the time were, in the main, to fire solid shot into the hull of the enemy ship, thus trying to sink it outright.
They used to do this by timing the firing of the guns so that the ship fired its broadside 'on the downroll' ie, when the roll of the ship was such that the guns were aiming lower. This, incidentally, caused enormous casualties on the other side: not from cannonballs piercing the hulls of the enemy ship, but rather from the splinters of wood shooting across the inside of the enemy gundecks whenever the outside of the hull was hit by a cannonball. The French, on the other hand, used much more grapeshot and fired 'on the uproll', aiming for the masts and rigging of their enemies, with the final aim of simply disabling the enemy ship before closing to board and capture it.
This is one of the reasons for the disproportionate casualty figures3 of battles such as the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar.
Royal and Private Dockyards
Regardless of type, the construction of all rated ships had normally had three masts, with a typical configuration (from the front) of foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast. Schooners could only have a single mast, and all ships that had less than three were normally either brigs or sloops. If the ship was in the command of a captain, then it was classed as a frigate, as this was the smallest that could be assigned to a captain.
The Royal dockyards of Sheerness (established 1665), Plymouth (1690), Devonport (1690), Chatham4 (1567), Portsmouth (1495), Halifax (1759) and Pembroke (1815) Dockyards along with the yards on the Thames at Woolwich (1512), Harwich (1722) and Deptford (1513) built the majority of the navy's ships. Not all were built in England. Gibraltar Dockyard was established in 1704, and some ships were built in India due to the timber supply and could be modified in order to suit local conditions. Dockyards were also established in Jamaica, (1675) and Antigua (1671). The ability of the private yards to build ships was impressive: Blackwell built ten frigates in 1812.
The royal dockyards or government yards built ships of all sizes: 120, 100, 98, 74, 40 and 18 guns. The private yards5 were commissioned to build the smaller ships of 74, 40 and 18 guns.
The amount spent by the Government on ships of all sizes in the year 1795 was close to £6.25million. In the years just prior to Trafalgar the total had gone up to over £15million. HMS Victory was built at the cost of £63,175 in 1765.
Ships' Boats and Service Craft
In order to carry out the daily routine and service the ships, all of the fighting ships of the time were equipped with a variety of small rowing boats. They were:
The Pinnace: 28-feet-long boat used by officers for going ashore or for travelling between ships as the need arose.
The Launches: 34-feet-long workboats of the navy, used for all the day-to-day tasks such as fetching supplies, carrying equipment and landing the marines during costal raids.
The Cutters: 18 to 25-feet-long vessels used for carrying men from ship-to-ship and to shore. They were the boat of choice for tasks such as the close surveying of coastlines and rivers.
The Admiral's Barge: A 32-feet-long vessel found only as a flagship, for the exclusive use of the Admiral. It was often manned by a hand-picked crew and these men were often issued a ceremonial uniform.
The introduction of prize money was very useful as a means of acquiring ships. Any enemy ship taken in action was given a value by the High Court of the Admiralty as set out in the Cruisers and Convoys Act of 1708. The money was shared between the officers and crew of all ships involved in the action. To keep the system fair the involvement included all ships visible, even those on the horizon.
The way prize money was shared was strictly set down:
- Admirals: one-eighth's share.
- Captains: two-eighth's share between them.
- Ships Lieutenants, Masters, Surgeons and the Captains of Marines: one-eighth's share between them
- Ships Chaplain, Senior Warrant Officers and Lieutenants of Marines: one-eighth's share between them.
- Ships Midshipmen, Ordinary Warrant Officers, Senior Warrant Officer's Mates to the Senior Warrant Officers, Sergeants of Marines: one-eighth's share between them.
- The ships crew and marines and all others: two-eighth's share between them.
As an example of the potential income, four British ships took two Spanish frigates. Each captain took over £40,000 and even the lowest ranks on each ship collected £180. This made a big difference to those who were fortunate enough to have benefited, as the monthly pay for a Captain was £16 16s 0d and that of the ordinary seaman was £1 5s 6p. All sides in this conflict lost ships to the enemy. Over a ten-year period, starting in 1793, the approximate losses were: England suffered the capture of 51 ships, France lost 279 ships the same way and Spain lost 57. In battle, 5 English ships were destroyed, whereas France lost 99 (there are no records for the Spanish losses).
Armament And Shot
The guns (cannons) that the ship carried counted towards the ship's rate. All large, smooth-bore, muzzle-loading cannon counted toward the rating, the only cannon that was not included was the smaller 12-pound carronade.
The most basic projectile fired from a smooth-bore cannon. Solid cast-iron, with a diameter slightly smaller than the cannon used to fire it, it had the longest range and was the most accurate of the ammunition that was used in a cannon. Round shot was the most devastating of all the projectiles used against ships: at close range it could smash through the solid oak of a ship's hull.
The 68-pounder carronades6, known as 'The Smashers' on HMS Victory, could fire a canvas bag of 500 musket balls. As was shown at Trafalgar when the Bucentaure's stern was raked by one, the shot caused great numbers of casualities from end to end of the ship.
This was similar to grape shot: however, it consisted of half a pound of musket shot tightly packed in a metal container that burst on impact. The shot caused great numbers causalities in a more localised area of the ship. The effective range of this type of shot was 200 yards.
This made an appearance in 1665. It was made by attaching two round shots together with a length of chain. The chain could be up to two metres long, and the shot used could be cast as half-round. The important thing is that the size of the shot was smaller than the calibre of the cannon in which it was used.
The range was limited as the shot was a loose fit and much of the propelling force of the gunpowder was lost. Commonly used in navel battles the shot spiralled through the air and would cut rigging and smash yards.
Bar shot and expanding bar shot
It was made by attaching two round shots together with a solid or expanding (sliding) bar, The bar was short, and the shot used could be cast as half-round. Again it was important that the size of the shot was smaller than the cannon in which it was used. The purpose of bar shot was similar to that of chain shot.
When fired, the bar shot spiralled through the air, tearing sails and cutting rigging as it went. The point was to disable the ship's sails and take it out of the battle. It was the practice to attach canvas rags soaked in oil or tallow to the bar: this was set alight when fired, causing the extra hazard of fire on the enemy ships.
Without doubt, the best way to get an insight into the life on board a ship of the line during this time is to visit HMS Victory now berthed at Portsmouth dockyard in southern England. The 2,162-ton, first-rate HMS Victory was launched in 1765 and put into service in 1778. Victory was in action for 34 years. She was the last of five ships to be named 'Victory'7. At Trafalgar, the HMS Victory was commanded by Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy8 who had under his command nine officers, 21 midshipmen and 77 warrant and petty officers. The rest of the ship's complement was composed of 820 crewmen and 31 boys. The crew seemed to be remarkably multinational apart from the expected complement from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Men from nine European countries served on HMS Victory and surprisingly there were two from France, two from Switzerland and one each from the Netherlands, Portugal, Malta, Norway, Germany, Italy and Sweden. 17 men were from the US, two from Canada and four from the West Indies, along with one each from Brazil, Jamaica and India.
In addition there were 146 Royal Marines from Chatham Division. The Marine commander was a Captain Charles Adair.
After Trafalgar, HMS Victory was stationed in Portsmouth and was used in a secondary role for just over 100 years, becoming a monument to the memory of Nelson. In 1922, Victory was put into a dry dock at Portsmouth dockyard, where she was restored to her Trafalgar condition. The ship is now open to visitors. HMS Victory is the world's oldest commissioned warship, and is still manned by Officers and Ratings of the Royal Navy. Today she is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord of the Admiralty in his role as Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy's Home Command (CINCNAVHOME). At the time of writing9 that job is filled by Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns whose current commanding officer is Lieutenant Commander J Scivier.