On the Mode of Improving the Navy.

In a Letter from Gabriel Snodgrass, Esq. to the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, &c.&c., and to the Hon. the Chairman, the Deputy Chairman, and Court of Directors of the East India Company; with an Appendix.

I am sensibly flattered by your permission to dedicate to you the result of the experience which I have acquired in a series of years in the East India Company's Service. It is a reward of which an honest Man may be fairly proud — the approbation of his services by those who are the best able to appreciate their value.

While an attention to my duty produced Improvements in the building and repairing of the Company's Ships, I could not but feel an anxiety to extend those Improvements to the Navy; in consequence, my strenuous endeavours have not been wanting to afford to my Countrymen, in the fullest extent, what I conceived to be advantages material to Great Britain.

If the arguments I use in support of these opinions be too desultory, and if I express myself in a style not sufficiently polished, I am persuaded you will pardon these faults. I impute blame to no Individual; I mean not to offend; if I speak truth you will approve it: — your approbation, and that of my Country, is all I desire.

In the first place, I take the liberty of asserting (and from experience), that the East India Company's Ships, as now constructed, are the first and safest Ships in Europe. In support of these assertion which I have made in favour of the construction of those Ships, I beg leave to submit in the Appendix (No. VII,) a List of the number of Ships built and repaired under my inspection, from the year 1757 to 1794, making in all 989; of which (as will appear by the said paper) there was only one, the Earl of Chatham, which was supposed to have foundered. If the Improvements adopted in those Ships were extended to the Navy, much labour and expense would be saved to the Nation.

Upon that idea the following remarks are founded; but, before I proceed to enumerate the particular circumstances which render the Company's Ships superior to our Ships of War, I must be permitted to remark, with deference to the opinions of the persons employed by Government in the department of Ship-building, that radical errors appear to prevail respecting the article of timber.

In the first place, a much greater quantity of rough timber than can be necessary is kept in store; for I must contend that a Stock sufficient for One Year's consumption would equally serve the purposes to which it is at present applied in any of His Majesty's Dock-yards.

No Ship was ever yet built entirely with timber that had lain to season three years, two years, or even one year; consequently, that part of the Ship which was formed of the most unseasoned wood must be expected to decay first; and thus a progressive decay in the several parts of the Ship subjects her to the necessity of continual repairs, at an immense expense, and to the detriment of the service.

A second error is in the preparation of timber for service. Upon this and upon the other point above mentioned, I cannot submit better information than what is contained in my answers to question put to me by the Commissioners of the Land Revenue, in the year 1791, (Appendix, No. II,) which are published in their Eleventh Report to the House of Commons.

I there recommended that Government should always have twenty or thirty Sail of Line of Battle Ships constantly on the Stocks, to be built by contract, and to stand to season under cover, (as is described in my answer to the thirty-fifth question,) by which means the Ships would last from eighteen to twenty years, instead of only eleven years and three quarters, which is said by the Navy Board to be the average duration of Ships of the present Navy.

Indeed, I hope I shall be forgiven in requesting particular attention to those answers, as containing, in my humble opinion, suggestions which, if carried into execution, would be the means of reducing, not only the consumption of oak timber, but also the expense of building and repairing Ships in the Navy, by at least one-half. My opinions still continue the same as those which I then expressed.

No Ship should ever have what is called a thorough repair, or any timbers shifted; instead of this, their bottoms and upper works should be doubled with three-inch oak plank, from keel to gunwale, and strengthened with iron knees, standards, and even with iron ryders, if necessary; all which might be done are a small expense; and Ships so repaired would be stronger and safer, and be able to keep the Seas longer, in the worst weather, than any new Ships in His Majesty's Navy.

This measure would be the means of saving great quantities of valuable straight and crooked (commonly called compass) oak timber, which otherwise must be expended by giving Ships through repairs; and it should be more especially adopted with respect to such Ships as have their top-sides of the absurd old fashion of tumbling in, (Appendix, No. III,) than which nothing can possibly be more extravagant and ridiculous, as many of the timbers must be much weakened by being cut across the grain; and such Ships as have had a second thorough repair, must also be further weakened, as the timbers are always considerably reduced in the moulding way on each repair, and those timbers are originally much too slight; on the contrary, great advantages would be derived from having little or no tumblehome to the sides, as it gives more room upon deck, a greater spread to the shrouds, additional security to the masts, makes the Ship stiffer, a much better Sea-boat, and in every respect safer, stronger, and better.

As all Ships of the Navy are every way deficient of iron to strengthen and connect the sides and beams together, they should be built with diagonal braces (Appendix, No. II,) as described by me in the aforesaid Eleventh Report, and with the knees, standards, breast-hooks, and crutches of iron, it being obviously impossible, by any means, to make a Ship equally strong with wooden knees, &c. The iron may be made to any size, strength, and length, so as to admit of as many additional bolts as may be judged necessary.

It is upwards of twenty-four years since I first introduced in the East India Company's Shipping the mode of fastening on the outside and inside plank with bolts, and leaving the tree-nail holes open for air until the Ships were nearly finished and ready for caulking, which has been, and is now universally acknowledged to be, the best method of seasoning the timbers and plank of any yet adopted. But although this is a matter of so much importance to the preservation of the Ships of the Navy, it has not been practised in His Majesty's Dockyards, nor have I ever heard of its being introduced into any contract for building Ships of War in the Merchants' Yards.

It is more than seventeen years since I brought into use, for the East India Ships, round headed rudders, requiring no rudder-coats. Experience taught me how dangerous the old fashioned rudder-coats were, particularly in small Ships of the Navy, many of which, I cannot doubt, were lost from the Sea having carried away their rudder-coat.

The round-headed rudders are now universally acknowledged to be much superior, in every respect, to the square-headed rudders of the Ships of the Navy; and I am very anxious that these should be introduced into all Ships to be built in the King's Yards, and provided for in the Contracts made, in future for Ships of War to be built in Merchants' Yards.

About twenty-seven years ago I also introduced four-inch bottoms to Ships for the East India Company's Service, instead of three-inch bottoms; and there are Ships of less than six hundred tons burthen, built for that service, with four-inch bottoms, also with sheathing of three-fourths of an inch thick, and coppered as usual; whilst, on the contrary, there have been Frigates of a thousands tons burthen, lately built for Government in Merchants' Yards, with three-inch bottoms; and a Ship of eight hundred tons, with a fir bottom only three inches thick; and there are Ships of seventy-four guns, now building in those Yards, of eighteen hundred tons burthen, with not more than four inch bottoms; which Ships, I presume, are intended to go to Sea, as usual, without any wood sheathing.

It appears to me that continuing the practice of thin bottoms tends to risk the loss of the Ships, and the lives of His Majesty's Subjects, more especially if fir be taken instead of English, Quebec, or East Country oak-plank, which may always be procured. In my opinion, no Ships of four hundred tons and upwards should have less than a bottom of four-inch oak plank; — all Ships of the Navy, of eight hundred tons and upwards, should have not less than five-inch plank; — Line of Battle Ships should have bottoms at least six inches thick; — and all Ships should have the addition of wood-sheathing. The thickness of the inside plank of those Ships may be then generally be reduced in proportion.

It is many years since the keels of all the East India Ships have been rabbitted in the middle, which is certainly safer and better than having the rabbit on the upper edge, as is the practice in the Ships of His Majesty's Navy at this time.

About twenty-six years since, I had the capstands to the Ships in the Company's Service fitted with an iron spindle, paul-head, and catch-pauls. This has ever since been allowed effectually to prevent the people from being thrown from the bars, which, it is well known, has frequently happened on board of His Majesty's Ships, and whereby many lives have been lost, and great numbers crippled.

Every old capstand in the King's Ships should be fitted with and iron spindle and catch-pauls, which may be done in a short time, and at a very moderate expense, compared with the great safety and other advantages that must attend this improvement.

I have made it a practice, for many years, to add iron knees under the beams to all old Ships in the Company's Service; and, of late years, to such Ships as have made three Voyages I have frequently added an iron knee under every beam of the lower and middle decks, from the fore-mast to the mizen-mast, where there has not been a standard. If his Majesty's Ship the Centaur (although French-built), and others that have foundered at Sea, had been fitted in this manner, it would have prevented their sides from separating from the ends of their beams; and consequently might, in all probability, have prevented those Ships from foundering.

Indeed, I am persuaded that the loss of most of the Ships of War, and even Merchant Ships, that have foundered at Sea, has been occasioned by their having been insufficient in point of strength.

After having stated, in my answers to the questions put to me by the commissioners of the Land Revenue in the year 1791, every alteration I then thought necessary to be made in future, so as to prevent accidents of that kind, even in the worst weather, I cannot but sincerely regret that my remarks have not been attended to. I feel this the more when I consider the frequent losses of the King's Ships, particularly the very recent catastrophe of His Majesty's Ship Leda, when (as it is said) only seven of the whole Crew were saved.

Out of the great number of Ships that have been lost from getting on Shore, or striking on the Rocks, there can be no doubt many of them might have been saved if their bottoms had been thicker when originally built, and the old Ships doubled with three inch oak plank when they required considerable repairs.

Whenever a Ship is lost at Sea, a strict inquiry ought to be made of the Survivors as to every particular, in order that the cause of such loss may be ascertained: — the result of such inquiry should be made as public as possible to the eye of observation.

The great number of King's Ships, of all Rates, which have foundered at Sea, and the number of Lives that have been lost in consequence, are striking proofs that those Ships were not constructed, in all respects, as they might have been, so as to encounter the most severe Storm. I am fully convinced that all Ships may be so constructed, and I presume I have pointed out, in the different parts of this Publication, effectual means for the purpose.

I sincerely hope that this will attract the attentions of Government, and also induce professional Men to make such further observations on building, constructing, and repairing Ships for the Navy of Great Britain, as may prevent the like dreadful consequences in future.

The principal causes of these misfortunes, in case of sudden violent Storms, or the Ships broaching to, appear to me as follow, viz.

In the first place, the deep waist in those Ships, and more especially in the Frigates and Sloops of War, which occasions them to ship a great deal of water on the main-deck.

Secondly, the ballast, water, and every thing in the hold, shifting and falling to leeward, from want of shifting-boards and the pillars not being properly secured to prevent the same, whereby the Ships are liable to become water-logged; and thus, before the Hatches are sufficiently secured, they may fill and founder.

Captain Inglefield's Narrative of the Loss of the Centaur of seventy-four guns, will clearly evince that not only small Ships, but all Ships of War, however large, should have shifting-boards in the hold, and the Pillars better secured; and as a farther security from the guns doing damage, in case of their breaking loose, I recommend substantial comings to all the hatchways, at least two feet above the decks, also thick pieces of oak in mid-ships, between the hatch-ways, let down upon the beams, equally well secured and of the same height above the deck as the comings, which must prevent the guns from going further to leeward.

The sterns of Ships of War should have little or no rake, in order to give an opportunity of fighting a greater number of stern-chase guns, which cannot be done with safety where the sterns have a great overhanging, as is the case with the Ships of His Majesty's Navy. There should be strong dead-lights to their stern windows, and no quarter-galleries, which are not only unnecessary in those Ships, (as when they are close hauled they very much impede their sailing,) but are also dangerous (particularly in small Ships), in case of the galleries being carried away; neither should there be any scuttles through the sides, or their [sic] tillars under the gun-decks of any Ship; there should be whole ports instead of half ports between decks, and no Line of Battle should work their cables on the lower deck.

I am confident if all Ships had firm and flush upper decks, in place of deep waists, (as I recommended in my answers in the year 1791, before mentioned,) they would be far superior, not only as Ships of War, but also in point of safety, as it would then be almost impossible (except through great neglect,) for any Ship to founder in deep water, even in the heaviest Seas or the most severe Storm. I feel myself so deeply interested in this subject, that I must take the liberty of referring to Steel's List of Ships [1] lost or foundered at Sea; and I am persuaded that I am rendering a service to the Community by pointing out what I am certain would prevent those fatal consequences in future.

In addition to the above suggestions, which come more particularly within the professed object of this Address, allow me, Honourable Sirs, to submit the following ideas to your consideration:

As it is apprehended there may be a want of oak timber in this Country, I presume it is now time that Government should give orders to plant and enclose every part of the King's Forests and waste Lands with Oaks, as I recommended in a Report to an Open Committee of the House of Commons, printed in the year 1771 [2].

I would further recommend that, whenever a Peace should take place, all those Ships that were contracted for, or built for the East India Company's Service, and purchased by Government, should be returned to be employed in that Service again, which would be the means of saving a great quantity of oak timber.

I am confident that the Surveyors of the Navy may form such bodies for Line of Battle Ships as would answer equally well for Trade in times of Peace; and such Ships may be lent out to be employed in the East India Company's Service as Merchant Ships. This measure would not only save an immense consumption of oak timber, give further time for improving the King's Forests, and prevent the Ships from rotting in the Harbours, but would also save the Public the usual expense of repairs, and they may be returned to Government when required.

In my opinion, a great deal too much has been said in favour of French Ships. I cannot myself see any thing worthy of being copied from them but their magnitude: they are, in other respects, much inferior to British Ships of War, being slighter and weaker, in general draw more water, and they likewise commonly exceed the old Ships of the present Navy in the absurd tumble-home of their topsides. It must appear very extraordinary, that there are several Line of Battle Ships and large Frigates now building for Government from Draughts copied from those ridiculous Ships.

with respect to these humble ideas on the foregoing and other matters relating to Ships of the Navy, and of Shipping in general, formed from long experience in that line, and which are more fully stated in my answers in the Eleventh Report before mentioned, it does not become me to say why my Plans were not thought worthy of adoption; but I owe to myself to explain to you, Gentlemen, upon whose good opinion I set so high a value, that I have left no proper means untried, from time to time, to impress on those who superintended the Naval Department of England, considerations which, as an Englishman, I thought it my duty to submit to them.

May I be permitted to add, that a principal inducement for troubling you with this Address is that, under your auspices, the considerations contained in it may challenge a degree of attention, which, as the suggestions of an humble Individual, they could not otherwise claim. I have the honour to be, very respectfully,

Your most obedient and
Faithful humble Servant,
East India House,
the 9th November, 1796.

1) Appendix, No. I. Back

2) Appendix, No. III. Back

Naval Chronical Vol. V (1801), pp 129-135.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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