Steam and the Royal Navy – the big transition

 

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For 400 years, until the Treaty of Washington in 1922, the navies of England then Britain held dominion over the oceans of the world. With the destruction of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 Britain really did rule the waves until Kaiser Wilhelm’s rearming nearly a century later. But this history had led to complacency and there was little renewal or invention in naval affairs during most of the 19th century. The development of vessels built of iron and powered by steam was anathema to the Admiralty until 1858 when the Germans (ironically) warned the British about France’s naval building programme (the Gloire et al). The first iron warship built in Britain was the 40-gun HMS Warrior delivered to the Navy in 1861 after Queen Victoria had asked the Admiralty if the Navy was adequate for the tasks ahead. Gladstone was, as today, not the first Prime Minister to oversee extensive cutbacks in military expenditure. Disraeli succeeded him in 1874 but still failed to make up for earlier deficiencies. Finally, when in 1889, it was discovered that France had almost reached navy parity, Britain woke from its sleep and in 1889 Lord George Hamilton, the First Lord of the Admiralty, introduced the Naval Defence Act to Parliament. Lord Salisbury, now the Prime Minister, moved the second reading of the Act which you can read here. The Act was passed (ostensibly to deter the ambitions of other great powers) making £21,500,000 available for the purpose of building 70 new ships: ten new battleships, thirty-eight new cruisers, eighteen new torpedo boats and four new fast gunboats.

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