The painful transition from Sail to Steam: 1840s


I’m fascinated by the way that navies – and most especially the Royal Navy – adapted organisationally and professionally to the advent of steam power from the 1840s onwards. The transition was long and painful – some five decades – and during this period the majority of vessels carried both forms of propulsion. An important factor was that, despite the increasing efficiency of steam power, sails provided a high degree of independence from shore support and fuel supply, especially on foreign station.

I was therefore all the more interested to find an extract from a book entitled “Two Admirals”, published in 1909 by Admiral John Moresby (1830 – 1922) which relates to the experiences of his father, also an admiral, as well as of himself, in the period 1786 to 1877. The younger Moresby as responsible for the exploration of the coast of New Guinea in the 1870s and Port Moresby, Papua-New Guinea’s capital, and which was to play such a vital role in WW2, was named after him.

HMS Basilisk (1848) on left – Moresby used her in exploration of the New Guinea coast

Moresby’s description of the navy when he entered in in the late 1840s is somewhat of a shock, as indicated in the following extract:

“The officers, with few exceptions, were content to be practical seamen only. They had nothing whatever to do with the navigation of the ship or the rating of the chronometers. That was entirely in the hands of the master, and no other had any real experience or responsibility in the matter. I may instance the case of a captain whose ship was at Spithead. He was ordered by signal to go to the assistance of a ship on shore at the back of the Isle of Wight. In reply he hoisted the signal of ‘Inability: the master is on shore.‘ ‘Are the other officers on board?’ he was asked. He answered ‘Yes,’ and to the repeated order, ‘Proceed immediately,’ he again hoisted ‘Inability’, and remained entrenched in his determination until a pilot was sent to his assistance.”

Given the standards of professionalism which were to be enforced from the mid-19th Century onwards it is hard to imagine any captain thereafter hesitating to get under way on receipt of an order to go to the assistance of a ship in distress, whether the navigating officer was on board or not. In the 1840s however, and on account of the long period of virtual peace for Britain which had followed after Waterloo, neither the navy nor the army were in the state of high efficiency of the Napoleonic War years.  On both services the Crimean War in 1854-56 was to reveal shortcomings and inefficiencies that were to cost Britain – and her fighting men – very dear indeed.

Referring to the Crimean War Moresby wrote:

“Public opinion resented the revival of the press-gang; therefore the only alternative was the offer of a large bounty, and by this means the ships were filled with counter-jumpers and riff-raff of all sorts, and rarely a sailor amongst them. What this meant only those who had to do the necessary slave-driving can tell. . . . In the (HMS) Driver . . . we may have had twenty seamen as a nucleus. The rest were long-shore fellows, and when Admiral Berkley came on board and told us that the Russians were at sea, and probably in a few days we should be in action, there was a strong dash of anxiety in our satisfaction.”

HMS Driver (1840). In 1846-47 she was the first Royal Navy steamship to circumnavigate the globe.

Moresby thought she was less well prepared for taking on the Russians in 1854!

It is interesting to note Moresby’s longevity. He entered a navy officered – and not always very efficiently, judging by his own account – by men who had come to maturity in the Age of Nelson. He was to live to see the naval forces of WW1 utilise aircraft and submarines, turbines and torpedoes, wireless and predictor-controlled gunnery. And yet, more important than any technological change was the creation of a professionalism he had not seen in his youth.

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