Roger Marsh Review: British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793 - 1817
- Created: 28 July 2012
- By Roger Marsh
Rif Winfield has made a lifetime's study of the sailing warship. This is the third and, until the present day, the last book published in his excellent series of sequential volumes from Seaforth Publishing (though it was the first of them written). This monumental trilogy, taken as a whole, details every single known British ship in service with the Royal Navy from 1603 to 1817, every vessel built, purchased or taken. As we have said before, nothing quite like this series of volumes has ever been produced.
This one spans the period from 1793 until 1817, from the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War through to the aftermath of the 22-year-long Great French Wars and of the more minor War of 1812 between Britain and the USA, both of which conflicts ended in 1815. The timescale takes us up to the armament re-rating of 1817 in the post-war period (the launch year of the frigate HMS Trincomalee).
At the peak of its power in 1809 the Royal Navy comprised one half of all the warships in the world, the first (and last) time any navy of the world achieved such dominance. This reference book outlines the history of every ship, built, purchased, captured or hired that served in the Royal Navy during the era of the wars of 1793 – 1815. Individual coverage totals well over 2000 vessels, ranging from 427 ships of the line and 463 frigates to 646 post ships and sloops, as well as a host of lesser craft.
As in the first two volumes chronologically, the list of vessels here is categorised by ships' rates, classification, class, and date, including prizes taken into service and purchased vessels, with technical information on size, dimensions, tonnage and armament, together with comprehensive service histories and the eventual fates of the vessels listed. We have called these books a 'monumental trilogy', but we must not forget that the age of fighting sail did not end in 1817 – we may expect Rif Winfield's great series eventually to be expanded to a quartet. The planned fourth volume, from 1818 up to the mid-Victorian era when sail finally yielded to steam in the British Royal Navy, is currently described by his publisher as "work in progress".
The range of illustrations featured here is far wider than those contained in that other great work on which Rif Winfield closely collaborated with the late David Lyon, 'The Sailing Navy List', and includes images of naval battles and charts as well as of the ships themselves. These are culled from the works of the major marine artists of the period, including their paintings, drawings, engravings and sketches. Apart from many illustrations taken from contemporary published prints and books, major suppliers of images were the important collections of the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth; the US Naval Academy Museum and the Beverley R. Robinson Collection, both in Annapolis, and the US National Archives in Washington DC. Three are from master-modeller Philip Reed. The superb range of general arrangement plans and line drawings of ships was specially commissioned from Norman Swales. Only the front cover illustration is from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, in London; it is really a shame that the NMM's policies make access to its vast and superb range of maritime iconographic material so difficult to achieve for publication. The painting used here is the well-known watercolour by Thomas Butterworth depicting the Advanced Squadron in close blockade of Cadiz, August 1797
Useful lists and appendices include a chronology of the naval wars 1792-1815, a list of fleet actions 1792-1815 naming ships of all sides which participated, annual expenditure on the Royal Navy and a comprehensive index.
As with the other three Rif Winfield volumes we have reviewed (including his First Rate), this volume is beautifully-produced by Seaforth Publishing to a very high quality level, and copiously illustrated – a large, most impressive volume and a mine of information. It enables anyone to follow up the most casual reference to any British warship of this period or to research in more detail a ship, a category of ships or a period; it will provide a solid core of information on which to base further study. It constitutes not only an essential work of reference for any researcher, maritime historian or serious student of the warships of the major seapower into which the Great Britain of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries had evolved, viewed at the peak if its power as a sailing navy, but is also in itself a source of great pleasure to read and handle.
Roger Marsh - March 2012
Author: Rif Winfield