Before the Ironclad: Warship Design and Development 1815-1860


Before the Ironclad: Warship Design and Development 1815-1860. By David K Brown. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2015
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P Gilbert.

THE late David K Brown was a prominent naval architect and member of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors (RCNC) who wrote five classic books on the design and development of British warships. His works represent a high point in our knowledge of warship technology. They were written in the 1990s at a time when naval engineering was transitioning from an era of large in-house design teams consisting of subject matter experts to an era of project managers, contracted designers and external consultants.

David Brown’s books represent the culmination of over 180 years of naval engineering design and development within the Royal Navy and by default the Royal Australian Navy. They represent the outstanding achievements of British sea power mostly at a time when the power to rule the waves was supreme.

Seaforth Publishing have re-released the 1990 test of Brown’s Before the Ironclad: Warship Design and Development 1815-1860 in a larger hardback format with additional images and enhanced print quality. Although I read the original edition when published I never did buy a copy. This latest edition is a production masterpiece which should grace everyone’s bookshelves.

The first half of the 19th Century was a period of unprecedented technological change – a period where the Royal Navy led much of the design and development in warship technology. Technological change did not occur overnight but evolved gradually, often taking many years from concept to implementation, the result of steady but constant evolution of design and development.

One of the most important decisions for the future of Royal Navy’s technological superiority was taken by the Admiralty in 1809 when it established the School of Naval Architecture. Some 20 or more years later graduates of this specialist school became a body of subject matter experts on the design, development, build, trial and upkeep of British warships. Naval marine engineering specialists were also provided with suitable training and over time also became subject matter experts in warship machinery. This knowledge was not available in private companies because it was clear to the Admiralty that warships were very different from commercial shipping.

The introduction of iron warships into the RN is a case in point. Although small iron ships had been built for commercial purposes since the late 18th century, larger iron ships capable of carrying the weight of a large steam engine and heavy naval guns were not designed until the 1830s. Commercial usage led the push towards iron steamships, with substantial pressure from prominent politicians and people of influence, but there were a number of concerns that needed to be addressed by the Admiralty.

The iron structure affected the ship’s compass leading to major challenges when precise navigation was required. RN warships often had to operate in wartime conditions in which commercial vessels would avoid by remaining safely tied up in a nearby harbour. The lack of anti-fouling paint at the time meant that substantial marine growth attached itself to the iron hulls and reduced warship speed substantially within a matter of months. Unless marine growth was removed regularly the iron ships could become inoperable as warships. But these were not the primary Admiralty concerns with iron warships. They needed to understand how the iron hulls reacted to battle damage and so during the 1840s a number of test firings against iron structures confirmed that ‘the iron warship had not been adequately tested and proven against the effects of gunfire’ (p. 93). As a consequence iron warships would not be used for the RN fleet until the introduction of armoured warships in the 1860s.

For most of the years covered by Before the Ironclad there were few instances of actual conflict that could verify the scientific testing that was undertaken to support warship design and development. The war with Russia of 1854-1856 (often called the Crimean War despite the number of naval operations occurring in the Baltic), however, did confirm many of the predicted damage assessments, while raising several new requirements that challenged naval designers over the subsequent 50 years or so. These included the use of armoured batteries, mines and the supremacy of steam powered line-of-battle ships.

The book concludes with the design and development of HMS Warrior which was launched in December 1860. ‘Warrior was a revolutionary ship, but she was also the end of the evolution described in this book. Iron hulls, screw propeller and armour had at last come together in a comprehensive and effective ship design’ (p. 200).

Some readers may find parts of Before the Ironclad too technical or dry. It is true that some may get lost from time to time in the detail but this can mostly be ignored without losing track of main story. A number of the Appendices are designed for those with at least a college level in mathematics. As an aside, when I worked for the Naval Engineering Division with over 300 specialists during the mid-late 1980s, the Australian Navy had seven design directorates (note design was not then a dirty word) working on all aspects of naval design and development, from womb to tomb. Commercial designers were used extensively to provide details of equipment and systems but they could not be given access to proprietary or foreign government-to-government information.

Today it is unclear to me where the equivalent subject matter expertise lies. It is not in-house with Navy or Defence, it is not held by a stand-alone agency, and no matter how good commercial designers may be they cannot represent the Commonwealth of Australia when it comes to warship design and development.

Before the Ironclad should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in naval warship acquisition, upkeep, and modernisation. It deserves a permanent place on a modern naval professional’s bookshelf. Hopefully Seaforth will also prepare new editions of the remaining books in the series. I, for one, look forward to having my own copy of Warrior to Dreadnought.


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