In Patrick O'Brian's 'Men-of-War', it says (apparently referring to around the time the Victory was built [1759-65]),

...most of the British ships were not nearly so well built as the French or the Spanish: they were often slow; they nearly always carried too many guns; they were sometimes very crank - that is, they leaned over in a wind so that they could not open the lower gun-port or the sea would rush in; and occasionally they fell to pieces in a storm.

He then goes on to cite the example of the 'Forty Thieves' (ships of poor construction due to some 'dubious practices' according to Wikipedia), and says that sometimes the royal yards were not much better. Despite this, O'Brian notes that the Royal Navy won all the great fleet battles for a variety of reasons (better gunnery, seamanship etc). Wikipedia also mentions financing, superior tactics and other factors, but states that design and construction were not superior up until around 1750.

O'Brian also notes that British ships were sometimes built

...following the plans of the beautiful and fast sailing French or Spanish ships that were captured

Given Britain's maritime history and the critical role the navy has played in defending the country (e.g. against the Armada, and note also the successful invasions by the Vikings and William the Conqueror in the times before Britain had an effective Navy), why was British ship-building of such a low standard (leaving aside the specific case of the 'Forty Thieves') compared to its main European rivals in the first half of the 18th century?

I have read SE:H question 'What is the origin of the English Ship Building Philosophy?' and the answers there. Rather than answering my question, David Paigen's answer seems to indicate that English shipbuilding skills declined from the 16th century. Is there any particular reason for this?

  • 5
    There is the possibility of O'Brian's quote being a literally device ("oh, we are facing so bad odds! Luckily we are so smart to win anyway!")? What the wikipedia says is not that the British ships were inferior, but that they did not have superiority in shipbuilding (i.e., the fact that they were not better than other countries'ships does not mean that they were worse). There is any more explicit source for the claim?
    – SJuan76
    Sep 30, 2017 at 8:02
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    You might be interested in Patrick O'Brian's Navy, a historical companion to his novels. I have a copy. It's a very easy read and very informative.
    – Schwern
    Sep 30, 2017 at 17:32
  • @ Schwern. Appreciate the suggestion. Sep 30, 2017 at 23:19

2 Answers 2


I think that N.A.M Rodger covers this quite well in chapter 27 of his book "The Command of the Ocean".

It was for long an article of faith among naval historians that eighteenth century British warships were inferior to their French and Spanish opponents, because British shipwrights remained wedded to craft traditions while their continental rivals were men of education who applied mathematics and science to the solution of their problems. This judgement flattered, and sometimes still flatters, a range of agreeable prejudices. It fitted the eighteenth-century upper classes' admiration for France as the home of social glamour and prestige. It expressed British sea officers' conviction that as men of honour they were both morally and practically superior to civilian technicians; it magnified their courage and judgement when they won, and excused their failures when they lost.

That is the British of the time had good reason to be overly critical of their own vessels and the British have always seen glory in being the successful underdog. However, a key consideration is the purpose to which the ships were put:

Moreover the comparision between 'good' French and 'bad' British design rests on the naive assumption that the two were directly comparable, that British and French designers were building the same size and types of ship, to fulfil the same functions - in other words that the strategic situations of the two countries was the same.

and Rodger adds,

The proper question to ask of all ship designs is not how well they compared to one another, but how well they corresponded to each country's strategic priorities, and how wisely those priorities had been chosen.

That can be seen in how the British deployed their ships compared to the French and Spanish. As the century passed, the British aimed for what Mahan called "Sea Power", ensuring that their merchant fleet was protected and that their enemies' fleets were not free to move on the oceans. This required vessels that were able to stay at sea for long periods in all weathers. By comparison, the French and Spanish deployed their ships for specific missions, keeping them sheltered in port when not otherwise required. So their vessels didn't require the endurance of the British ships. The strategic priorities would determine the number of ships needed and their roles. The British approach needed lots of ships so even if the rivals had the same levels of naval expenditure, the British would have to spend less per ship (in both construction and maintenance) than the French and Spanish.

The fighting ability of a sailing warship is not simply a function of the vessel itself. The quality of the officers and crew were just as important (and were possibly more important) in determining how each individual vessel performed. In fact, the same ship with a different crew might handle very differently.

Another factor in how an ship handled is how the ship was loaded and trimmed. A ship just out of port on a long mission with a full load of stores and provisions with a fresh crew would be a different proposition to the same vessel on the return being lightly loaded with an experienced crew.

I think some care needs to be taken when talking about the idea "that British ships were sometimes built...following the plans of the beautiful and fast sailing French or Spanish ships". When foreign warships were captured, they were handed over to naval architects who made detailed plans of the vessels (Many surviving plans of French and Spanish vessels only exist because of this practice). If the warship was seen as worthy then the British often made a copy based "on the lines" of the foreign ship. This means that they copied the hull form (shape) rather than it being an exact copy in all details. The British still used their own construction methods to build the ship and they followed their own standards for fitting out the vessel. Given the primitive state of scientific understanding of what made a good ship, this approach makes sense. Copying a good working design was cheaper and less risky than developing a new one from scratch.

In addition, mention of the 'Forty Thieves' in this context is misleading since these vessels were built and put into service in the early nineteenth century. The issues with these ships had more to with the particular circumstances of their procurement than with general standards of ship design and building of their time.

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    An excellent answer which seems to cover all the issues. Sep 30, 2017 at 23:15

The British ships were not really comparable to the Spanish (and French) ships because they were built under different circumstances for different fighting conditions and philosophies.

The Spanish, and later the French, had an early lead in "modern" (sail driven) vessels, because of their greater proximity to the main Mediterranean and subtropical Atlantic trade routes. They were also richer countries, earlier. As a result, they developed large, heavy "fairweathered" ships with heavier guns that relied on "brute force" (firepower, boarding, ramming) for fighting.

The British couldn't afford such amenities from either the cost or the operational standpoint. They built smaller, more maneueverable ships that were more suited to the rougher, shallower, narrower waters of the English Channel and the North Sea. They also used a lighter, longer ranged, smoothbore cannon, the French culverin to a greater extent than the French did. Fired singly, these guns did less damage than French or Spanish guns, but the greater maneuverability of these guns and their ships meant that these guns could be fired simultaneosly in "broadsides," instead of the French and Spanish practice of firing only their "fore" (or "aft") guns at one time from a narrower base.

These differences were illustrated in the Armada Battle of 1588. The Spanish navy had fought with great distinction at Lepanto in 1571, against the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, but they were not up to fighting in the English Channel and North Sea. The British sank only five or six of these ships but "shot through" (wounded) most others, and many came apart as they headed through the rough waters of the North Sea. In order to get home to Spain, they had to sail east, and north, around the tip of Scotland, before heading south, because the more maneuverable British fleet had blocked the way west.

The reason why the British ships took off after 1750 was because the "Age of Sail" was ending, and the early throes of the industrial Revolution was about to begin.

  • 1
    "The Spanish, and later the French, had an early lead in "modern" (sail driven) vessels, because of their greater proximity to the main Mediterranean and subtropical Atlantic trade routes" - I've come across this point before somewhere and was looking for it when framing the question. Do you have a source for this? Sep 30, 2017 at 23:23
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    @LarsBosteen: Here is some aditional info. There is a link to "Moors," the first word. history.stackexchange.com/questions/4403/…
    – Tom Au
    Oct 1, 2017 at 0:21

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