"The Great Harry, the first big battleship of the British navy" (Fields, facing p.70). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

The Royal Navy is the most senior of Britain's armed forces. As might be expected from an island country, sea power was a priority for the British from the earliest times, and the navy's origins can be traced back to the ninth century under Alfred the Great. However, the Royal Navy as such is generally felt to have been founded in Tudor times, with the dozen or so ships serving Henry VII. As Cyril Field says, this was the monarch who "laid the foundation-stone upon which his successor built" (69). When developing an efficient sea-going force, Field adds, Henry VIII "depended greatly on hired merchantmen — we do not despise this method of augmenting our navy even at the present day — but he resurrected the Royal Fleet," and it was on this fleet that, Field continues proudly, "under the good providence of God, the wealth, the prosperity, and the peace of these islands, and of the Empire, mainly depend" (69).

Field was writing after the close of the Victorian period, and indeed, the navy's engagements, and, moreover, its expeditions, explorations and discoveries, had been the very key not only to the country's security, but to its reach and influence in the world. It was often underfunded, and was dogged earlier in the period by unprofessional and even inhumane practices, especially impressment, the buying of commissions, and abysmal conditions on the lower decks. But the navy had been vitally important in protecting trade and establishing and maintaining communications, as well as defending the country's territories and interests. The colonial past, in other words the British Empire itself, is no longer celebrated — quite the contrary. But it is worth remembering not only the navy's great victories but also its commendable work in putting down piracy, dealing the final death-blow to the slave trade, and, above all, opening up and connecting all the far-flung regions of the globe.

The uniform of a Royal Navy Paymaster. [Click on this and the following images for more information.]

Enormous changes took place in the navy during the nineteenth century. They reflected the general progress of the age: improved organisation, a process of professionalisation, reform of living and service provisions for the ordinary seamen, and, of course, rapid technological development.

As for organisation, on land, the Admiralty succeeded the old Navy Board (which itself had grown out of the medieval office of the Keeper of the King's Ships) in 1832. A new breed of administrators now operated from Admiralty House, next to Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, ably presided over by five sea lords. Professionalism took a leap forward with the founding of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which opened in 1873, and where two earlier institutions were then housed as well: the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth and the Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, formerly in South Kensington (see Winton 269). For recruitment, not to mention morale, reform was all-important. Here, Lord Somerset, the first Lord of the Admiralty from 1859-66, oversaw an initial programme of reforms that began to make life easier for the naval ratings (see Rasor, Reform in the Royal Navy, 10, 119ff).

Technology advanced exponentially. At the beginning of his social history of the Victorian navy, Eugene L. Rasor notes that many historians have now written accounts of the

design of ships, new technology in engineering and weaponry, and doctrinal rectification in strategy and tactics. Change is the theme: from sail to steam power, from propulsion using wind to paddle-wheels and screw-propellors, from guns using smooth-bore and muzzle-loading to rifled and breech-loading barrels, and from divergent basic doctrines to an analysis of sea power which all could espouse. [Reform in the Royal Navy, 7]

H.M.S. Glory (1899).

Vast amounts of manpower were involved in all this, both on sea and land. In April 1856, for instance, "after the Russian War, there was a fleet at Spithead of 25 sail of the line [i.e., fighting ships with as many as a hundred guns] and some 200 other classes of ships, with combined ship’s companies of more than 26,000 men" (Winton 263). As well as administrators and seamen, there were the many workers at the Royal Naval Dockyards. There were six such dockyards until Deptford and Woolwich closed in 1869, and then others, notably Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth, expanded: in all, the "shore establishment ... employed over 30,000 personnel by 1900" (Rasor, "Navy," 536).

Then there were the private shipyards, the great ship building and armaments industries in the private sector. In this sector, no one was more important than Baron Armstrong of Cragside, in Northumberland. A major figure in the engineering world, he was knighted in 1859, on becoming superintendent at Woolwich. In the outposts of the British Empire, such as at Gibraltar and Malta, there were further supporting establishments.

William Bell Scott's painting, In the nineteenth century the Northumbrians show the world what can be done with iron and coal (1861).

The Royal Navy protected trading vessels and continued to recruit seafarers from them, particularly for its naval reserve force. For example,

An Order of June 29th, 1895, authorised the entry of 100 officers of the mercantile marine (nearly all of whom were of the Royal Naval Reserve) as Supplementary Officers of the Royal Navy in the ranks of Lieutenant and Sub-Lieutenant, and provided for their full pay, half pay, and retirement. An increase of this number was subsequently ordered. The total strength of the Royal Naval Reserve at the end of the nineteenth century was 28,700 officers and men. [Clowes 19]

Even this body of men could be augmented when necessary, so that "The whole number of officers and men, including the active list and all reserves, at disposal for naval services was, nominally, 145,532" (Clowes 19).

A Note on Terminology: while experienced sailors could be recruited (and earlier on, impressed) from the trading sector, it is worth pointing out that the Merchant Navy is quite distinct from the Royal Navy. The title itself is misleading: it is an umbrella or collective term covering numerous private commercial enterprises, and was only coined by George V in the twentieth century, when he formalised it by appointing the then Prince of Wales "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets" (see "The Merchant Navy"). As for R.M.S., a prefix dating from 1840, this denotes not a ship with the Royal Navy, which would be H.M.S. for "Her (or His) Majesty's Ship," but simply one with a contract for carrying Royal Mail. This included the liner R.M.S. Titanic.

Link to Related Material


Clowes, William L. The Royal Navy: A History, from the Earliest Times to the Death of Queen Victoria. Vol. VII.. 7 Vols. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1897. Internet Archive, from a copy in the Wellcome Library. Web. 30 December 2023.

Coad, J. G. Historic Architecture of the Royal Navy: An Introduction. London: Gollancz, 1983.

Field, Cyril. The British Navy Book. London: Blackie, n.d., but the prologue to this edition carries the date A.D. 1915. HathiTrust, from a copy in the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles. Web. 30 December 2023.

Lambert, Andrew. "The Shield of Empire, 1815-1895." The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Gen. ed. J. R. Hill. Pbk ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

"The Merchant Navy." The Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Web. 31 December 2023.

Rasor, Eugene L. "Navy." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York: Garland, 1988. 534-37.

_____. Reform in the Royal Navy: a social history of the lower deck, 1850 to 1880. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Royal Naval Dockyards. Royal Museums Greenwich. Web. 31 December 2023.

Wilson, Ben. Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2013.

Winton, John. "Life and Education in a Technically Evolving Navy, 1815-1925." The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Gen. ed. J. R. Hill. Pbk ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 250-79.

Created 31 December 2023