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Royal Naval Biography/Cowan, Malcolm


MALCOLM COWAN, Esq.
[Commander.]

Was made a lieutenant in Nov. 1790; presented with the Turkish gold medal, for his services during the Egyptian campaign in 1801; and promoted to the rank of commander Oct. 23d, 1802. In 1805, he published an essay on the construction of the sails of ships and vessels, with plans and descriptions, showing the many dangers that may be avoided, and the advantages derived from adopting sails of his own invention; and on the 24th Aug. 1809, we find him writing to the Navy Board as follows:–

“Honorable Gentlemen, – As it appears that proposals for the advantage of H.M. naval service, or for the saving of the public money in the naval department, have hitherto been chiefly referred to your Honorable Board, I beg leave to lay before you the enclosed observations on the dangers to which H.M. ships and vessels are unnecessarily exposed, from the present mode of making sails; and, in consequence, the very great and unnecessary expence attending them, which I request you will be pleased to take into your serious consideration, with the reports from experienced officers on the new sails that I have had the honor of laying before your Honorable Board, from time to time, for these four years past. In the latter, you will find proofs that all our ships with the old sails are, in particular situations, exposed to unavoidable destruction. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Malcolm Cowan.”

Observations on the Dangers to which his Majesty’s Ships and Vessels are unnecessarily exposed, from the present mode of making Sails in his Majesty’s Navy; and on the unnecessary Expence attending them. By Captain Malcolm Cowan, R.N.

“The sails of ships and vessels, from being made with the cloths and seams in a vertical instead of an horizontal direction, are more liable to split up and down, and to be blown to pieces, either when carrying a press of sail in a gale of wind on a lee shore, or from the shaking of the sails; and a ship and crew might be lost from a few inches of a vertical seam giving way, when there might not be time to take the sail in to repair it.

“From the experiment that has been made in the royal navy, the difference in the duration of the sails made with horizontal cloths, and those of the old make, has been proved to be as eighteen months to eleven[1], making a difference of seven months wear in favour of those with the horizontal cloths; and they are every way stronger, more effective, and stand nearer to the wind.

“By the old method of reefing the courses on the yard, the loss of a ship and crew in a gale of wind on a lee-shore, may originate from either of the following apparently trifling accidents, which the old sails are liable to, and which could not happen to the new sails[2] that reef at the foot; namely:

Number of
Accidents,
“Courses that are half-worn may require reefing to preserve them from splitting, when there may not be sea-room to perform the operation, and either of them may split. 2
“From the splitting of the courses in hauling them up to reef on the yard, or afterwards in setting them. 4
“From carrying away either of the two clew-garnets to each course in hauling them up to reef, which might split the sail by shaking it. 4
“From carrying away either of the four buntline legs, or of the two buntline whips belonging to each course, in hauling up the courses to reef, which might split the sail by shaking 12
“From carrying away either the tack or sheet of each course in setting the sails after reefing them 4
“Number of accidents the courses of the old make are liable to 26

“It is to be observed of these twenty-six accidents that the old courses are liable to, and any one of which unnecessarily exposes a ship to great danger, and in some situations to certain destruction, that there is not one of them wherein the resources of seamanship might not prove unavailing to remedy the accident in time to save a ship, when she is in that horrible situation) that the loss of a sail would cause her to drive on shore. It is well known to intelligent seamen, that the difficulty of performing any operation necessary to the preservation of a ship, increases with the danger; and that the loss, or want of one of the dependant sails for a few minutes only, might prove the loss of the ship.

“The want of a chasing reef at the foot of the top-sails and top-gallant-sails may be sensibly felt, when it may be necessary to carry a press of sail in squally weather to avoid a lee-shore; or in chase; or when obliged to haul suddenly to the wind from sailing large. Men of-war in chase cannot always risk carrying sail through a squall, and by lowering these sails down to reef at the head, they lose time; and the sails are partly aback whilst they are reefing.

“By diminishing the dangers of the seas (many of which might be easily averted) the attractions to a sea life are increased, and the sum of human misery reduced; for every individual in the country is at this present period deeply interested in the preservation of the valuable lives of British Seamen.

(Signed)Malcolm Cowan[3].”

The other enclosures were as follow:–

H.M.S. Thisbe, Falmouth, Feb. 13th, 1805.

“I am happy to inform you, that I had an opportunity in the late gale of trying your reef, which I approve of more than ever. Captain Norway, of the Tromp, and another gentleman, came on board this morning to look at it. They highly approve thereof, and think it a most excellent plan. My officers and men, from seeing the sail reefed in the gale, are quite delighted with it, now they perceive its utility. Depend upon it, no seaman can start an objection, when they have seen your sail reefed in a gale of wind. At the time when I made the experiment, it blew excessively hard, and the Thisbe shipped several very heavy seas.

(Signed)Lewis Shepheard, Captain.”

To Capt. M. Cowan, R.N.

H.M.S. Thisbe, Guernsey, Mar. 13th, 1805.

“Sir,– I beg you will acquaint my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that I had an opportunity of trying a main course, on Captain Cowan’s plan, on the 12th ult. in a very strong gale of wind from the E.S.E.

“I had occasion to reef the courses, and the main one was reefed in two minutes, without a man going aloft, and with very few hands. The sail remained perfectly quiet during the gale, without the least fret or chafing.

“It has many advantages over the former construction; not only for expedition, but when weakly manned, particularly on a lee-shore, when it would not be prudent to start either tack or sheet; and the reef can as expeditiously be let out, should there be occasion to chase.

“I find the sail to haul up far more snug than by the old way, and, in my humble opinion, I cannot find one objection against it; and every seaman must feel himself very much indebted to Captain Cowan for his most excellent plan. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Lewis Shepheard, Captain.”

To William Marsden, Esq. Admiralty.

H.M.S. Minotaur, off Ushant, April 6th, 1805.

“I have tried Captain Cowan’s main-sail, and find it a very good thing; write to him, and say that I have written to the Admiralty and Navy Boards on the subject. I can reef it in two minutes: I practise my people at it very often, and it is much approved of by all my officers.

(Signed)C. J. M. Mansfield, Captain.”

To the Rev. George Jope, Plymouth Dock.

H.M.S. Loire, Plymouth, June 13th, 1805.

“The day after we sailed we bent your new main-sail, and during our cruise we had frequent opportunities of trying the reef, which the oiHcers and myself could not too much admire. Such an excellent invention, ere long, 1 have no doubt, will be generally adopted.

“To the merchant service it is of the greatest consequence, for it is so plain a thing, that the utility of it must strike every person who has ever been at sea.


(Signed)James Lucas Yeo, 1st Lieut.”

To Captain M. Cowan.”.

“H.M.S. Apollo, Spithead, Oct. 30th, 1805.

“To the mode of reefing the courses by the foot I am happy to give my decided approbation, as you are enabled to reef a course without losing the effect of the sail, it requires but a very few men to take in the reef; it is done in a shorter time than could possibly be expected, and I hope it may be adopted generally throughout the service.

(Signed)E. Fellowes, Captain.”

To Captain M. Cowan.

Ship Queen, Barbadoes, March 29th, 1806.

“With respect to my patent fore-sail, I had it bent during the bad weather at our first sailing, and it certainly answers every purpose that the patentee intended it; for at different times during the hard weather, I sent the watch forward to reef the fore-sail, which could be done in three or four minutes, without starting tack or sheet.

(Signed)John Ponler.”

To Lawrence Bruce, Esq. Jamaica Coffee-House, London.

London, May 28th, 1806.

“Sir,– Having tried your course in H.M. sloop Surinam, under my command, during the winter, when we had almost incessant gales of wind, and in the Bay of Biscay, when it became necessary to reef without otherwise shortening sail, I beg to assure you that we found it answer every end you propose; and I have no doubt, when better known, it will be generally adopted.

(Signed)Alex. Shippard.”

To Captain M. Cowan.

London, May 29th, 1806.

“I hereby certify that H.M. sloop Nautilus, late under my command, was supplied with a set of the courses on the plan of Captain Malcolm Cowan, and that having tried them in bad weather, I much approve of them for many superior advantages over the old sails, and consider it an invention of extraordinary benefit to the sea-service in general, particularly to merchant vessels, as tending immediately to their preservation on a lee-shore.

“They can be reefed while set on the ship, without lessening any other part of the effect of the sails, and in a simple maimer by few hands, and the reef let out again with great expedition in the worst weather. They are also less liable to split in taking in or setting.

(Signed)John Sykes.”

London, July 10th, 1806.

“Being first lieutenant of his Majesty’s ship Minotaur, I had frequent opportunities of trying your new main-sail, that reefs at the foot, which answers beyond expectation, having repeatedly taken in the reef, and let it out, three or four times a day, which was done in a few minutes, without taking the sail off the ship. But it was particularly of service to us, after the action off Trafalgar, while carrying sail off the lee-shore, and here we found the greatest benefit, in being able to take the reef in during the heavy squalls, and let it out again so expeditiously when it moderated.

(Signed)J. Stuart.”

To Captain M. Cowan.

Batson’s Coffee-House, October 20th, 1806.

“It gives me great satisfaction to inform you, that I have received a very favorable account of the great advantages of your valuable sails from the master of the ship Cognac Packet, belonging to Hull, who has had one of them in constant wear for these twelve months. It is my intention to adopt them in every ship I may be concerned in.

“I have heard that Captain Hornby, of the Birna, of Grimsby, tried your sails in a voyage to Greenland, and speaks very highly of them, and recommends them strongly.

(Signed)Edward Harper.”

To Captain M. Cowan, R.N.

December 1st, 1806.

“I approve of Captain Cowan’s sails very much: the experience I had of them during our voyage to Davis’s Straits, convinced me they answered every purpose set forth in the directions; and as long as I am enabled, I shall not go to sea without them.

“I am well aware there are men in most professions wedded to old customs and opinions, and vain would it be to attempt to point out to them their utility; but to me the satisfaction I experienced in reefing courses without starting tack or sheet, or shaking the sail, will never be effaced from my memory: and let those seamen who were never on a lee-shore, or in a narrow passage, in a ship badly manned, in a gale of wind, reflect that they are still liable to such cases, and then disapprove of it if they can.

“These sails do not shake in hauling up to reef, therefore must last longer.

(Signed)Francis Hornby.”

Liverpool, December 27th, 1806.

“This is to certify, that the Lark, Dublin packet, of Liverpool, has had a patent fore-sail, and main-stay-sail, made with the cloths and seams horizontal, which, after trying in very hard gales of wind, I found to answer as follows.

“The sails are stronger, stand nearer the wind, and can be reefed with great ease and expedition, without starting tack or sheet.

(Signed)Hugh Williams, Master.”

Hull, Nov. 2d, 1807.

“Dear Sir,– I think it but justice to give you a further account concerning your valuable improvements in reefing sails at the foot, and making them with the cloths horizontal.

“With respect to your courses that reef without starting tack or sheet, the Cognac Packet has had one in use above two years; and from every account I hear, that very easy, expeditious, and safe plan of reefing cannot tail of being generally adopted ere long.

“Respecting the horizontal cloths, I had a main-top-sail and main-stay, sail made for her on that plan a year ago at Liverpool, and I have examined them after the many hard gales they have stood, and I find them much less chafed, &c. in proportion, than any sails in her on the old plan.

“So perfectly convinced am I of the superior saving and safety of your mode of reefing, and making with horizontal cloths, that I have had a fore-ssil on that plan made here, and I shall; in every ship that I am concerned in, not fail having my sails made on your plan.

“I suspect few men who have experienced a severe gale of wind on a lee-shore, will for a moment hesitate in believing your mode of reefing, without starting tack or sheet, and strengthening sails by making them with horizontal cloths, will be the means of saving lives and property.

(Signed)Edward Harper.”

Sunderland, January 30th, 1808.

“Mr. Stafford has had some more sails (with horizontal cloths) made for the Hero, and a main-sail, top-sail, and fore-top-mast stay-sail, made for the John; the main-sail and top-sail were made by Mr. Randolph, who objected very much at first to make them after the patent mode; but Mr. Stafford insisted on having them made with horizontal cloths. The sails gave great satisfaction, and Mr. Randolph now speaks of them in the highest terms of approbation.

“Mr. Todd (sail-maker) is now convinced that any sail may be made with horizontal cloths, and he has made a fore-sail, top-sail, and top-gallant-sail for the ship Barbara and Ann, Captain Bowness, who is in the transport service, and wrote for them from Deptford, particularly requesting that they might be made with horizontal cloths, and the fore-sail with the patent reef,

“Captain Ditchbourn, of the Durham, says he has made use of the reef in his fore sail several times lately, in very heavy gales of wind, and it stands exceedingly well.

“Mr. Gregson, of the Speedwell, told me that he has found the reef in his top-sail very useful, and he is going to have a reef in his fore-sail, and intends to have all the new sails patent made.

“Captain Bowser desires me to inform you, that he intends to have all his new sails made the patent way.

“I have had a top-sail and jib made for the Good Intent, and I send you a certificate from the master.

“I find from the different captains belonging to the Port of Lynn, that the horizontal cloths are very well liked there.

(Signed)D. Trotter.”

To Captain Cowan.

Sunderland, December 6th, 1807.

“I have had a patent top-sail and jib made with horizontal cloths, and, . After trying, like them very well, for I find they stand nearer the wind than the other sails, and I think them much stronger.

(Signed)James Lamb, Master of the Good Intent.”

Sunderland, 28th December, 1807.

“This is to certify, that I have made several sails the patent way, and the method is much approved by those who have tried them. It is their opinion, that they will be a great deal stronger with the seams horizontal, and stand nearer the wind ; and it is also my opinion, as I have made some for our own ship (the Barbara and Ann) the patent way.

(Signed)Richard Todd, Sail-maker.”

Sunderland, May 1st, 1807.

“Having had a jib and top-gallant-sail made on your patent plan (with horizontal cloths) for the Hero, I find it will be a great saving, from their longer duration, than the former mode of making sails.

“I would recommend the patent mode of making to every ship-owner, for their interest.

(Signed)Anthony Stafford.”

To Captain Cowan.

Liverpool, April 7th, 1807.

“The sails that were made for the Lark brig and Lochneil sloop (with horizontal cloths) answer my most sanguine expectations, and I have no doubt but they will last much longer than those made in the old way.

(Signed)George Brown.”

To Captain Cowan.

“This is to certify, that the John and Hero, both of Sunderland, have had several patent sails (with horizontal cloths) in constant wear for several months, and we so far approve of the mode of making them, that we intend for the future to have all the new sails that we get made after the patent mode, as they stand nearer the wind, and we think them much stronger.

(Signed)T. Stafford, Master of the Hero.
(Signed)J. Brown, Master of the John.”

Sunderland, April 30th, 1807.

“Mr. Cuthbert Vaux, owner of the brig Durham, ordered a patent fore-sail of Mr. Todd, sail-maker. Captain Ditchbourn, of the said ship, finds it.to answer, both for reefing and standing upon a wind, much better than the former way of making.

(Signed)John Ditchbourn.”

The 20th volume of the “Naval Chronicle” contains “an examination of the notion generally entertained by seamen, that the weakness or looseness of a vessel's frame makes her sail the faster.” This paper was written by Commander Cowan, and some pertinent remarks on it appeared in the “Athanaeum” for Feb. 1809[4]. He also suggested to the Admiralty some improvements in the construction of ships, which, though not approved of at the time, have been since adopted. In a letter to a friend he says, – “I formerly proposed to the Admiralty to fill in between the timbers, and make all solid, and to caulk inside and outside before the plank was put on, and then not to plank the inside, but to lay riders fore and aft diagonal;” the diagonal riders, the vertical timbers, and the horizontal planks forming a series of triangles. It may not be amiss in this place to insert the following copy of a document presented to his late Majesty, when Prince Regent, by Mr. (now Sir Robert) Seppings, dated Mar. 1st, 1819:–

“The humble Memorial of Robert Seppings, one of the
Surveyors of His Majesty’s Navy:

“Sheweth, – That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 26th August, 1800, proposed an alteration to be made in the braces and pintles, or mode of hanging ships’ rudders, to remedy the inconvenience, and to prevent the expence, arising in consequence of the wearing away of their crowns by the action of the rudder, which was immediately adopted, and generally introduced in His Majesty’s dock-yards per Navy Board warrant dated 28th August, 1800.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 1st January, 1801, proposed a plan for removing blocks from under ships in dock, to enable the workmen to remedy defects in ships’ keels, to make additions thereto, or to caulk the garboard or lower seams of the bottom, without lifting the ships. – The advantages of this plan in the saving of expence and labor were so obvious that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, by their letter dated 5th February, 1803, ordered it to be generally introduced in His Mijesty’s yards, and as a reward for this invention, your Royal Highness’s memorialist was presented with 1000l. by Government, and a gold medal from the Society of Arts.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 13th February, 1806, proposed a plan for scarphing strait timber to obtain a compass form, by the adoption of which the Warspite, of 74 guns, (which although ordered to be built many years could not be proceeded with for the want of compass timber) was completed in twenty-one months, including six months for seasoning: the other advantages arising from the adoption of this plan, are that of giving a ship’s frame an equal degree of seasoning, which was heretofore unavoidably composed of a mixture of seasoned and unseasoned materials, by which the timber in the same ship had different periods of durability, and that which was seasoned was affected by that which was in a green state, thereby occasioning rapid decay. – The importance of this plan was so obvious that it has been generally introduced in His Majesty’s dock-yards, by order of the Navy Board, dated let January, 1808.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 28th May, 1807, proposed a plan to build round bows to ships of the line, which gives great additional strength to the ship, more convenience and comfort to the crew, and security in time of action. The superiority of this plan was so apparent that it has been generally introduced in His Majesty’s navy, by directions from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 29th May, 1811.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, in the early part of the year 1800, partially introduced a plan of laying materials diagonally in His Majesty’s ship Glenmore of 36 guns; and on the 19th May, 1805, proposed a similar introduction of materials in the Kent of 74 guns, in consequence of her extraordinary defects arising from weakness, of which the Navy Board approved by their warrant dated 4th June, 1805.

“The advantages which resulted from a partial introduction of the diagonal system induced your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 5th February, 1810, to propose that it should be fully carried into effect in the construction and repairs of His Majesty’s ships, which has been the cause of a total change in our national bulwark, by the introduction of a diagonal trussed frame, the filling in of the spaces between the timbers, below the orlop-deck with wood and cement, a new mode of attaching the beams to the sides, laying the decks diagonally, and by omitting a considerable quantity of materials hitherto unnecessarily or injudiciously applied: the furtherance of this plan, and the bringing it to maturity by furnishing drawings, rules, regulations, and by giving active personal inspection, have been the labor of nearly nineteen years, by which the health of your Royal Highness’s memorialist has been much injured, and his domestic comforts much interfered with. – The results of this plan, generally introduced by directions of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 29th October, 1812, are, economy in the construction or repairs of His Majesty’s ships, by a saving of a considerable quantity of scarce and valuable timber, and substituting old ship-timber and new timber of inferior quality and lengths in its stead, which is peculiarly applicable to the new principle, and in many instances carried to a considerable extent. – It is difficult to make any calculation of the saving to the public by the increased durability of the ships, and the saving of materials to a considerable amount, great strength (however) is obtained, and the health of their crews promoted (with regard to the latter, see Sir Gilbert Blane’s “Treatise on the Health of the Navy”). All these have been proved by the severe trials to which several of the ships have been put, which have been constructed on this principle, and the success of which induced the Royal Society, in 1818, to honor your Royal Highness’s memorialist with their gold medal. – The account of this new principle of ship-building is published in the "Transactions of the Royal Society,” in 1814 and 1818.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 12th April, 1812, proposed to construct a sheer-hulk for Chatham yard, with strait fir timber, preventing thereby the consumption of much valuable compass oak timber, and causing a considerable saving of expence. – The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, hy their order dated 1st May, 1812, approved of this proposition being adopted, and the hulk has been found fully to answer the purposes for which it was constructed.

“That from the great accumulation of small or frigates’ timber in the several dock-yards, remarked by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, on their visitation in the year 1813, your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 5th November of that year, proposed a plan for building ships of the line with timber hitherto considered applicable only to frigates, and applying that which was fit only for inferior uses to principal purposes; it also obviates the necessity of using compass timber for floors, transoms, &c. The expence of the frame of the Thunderer (now named Talavera) built on this principle by direction of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 2Sth February, 1814, and lately launched at Woolwich, is 900l. less than that of the Black Prince, a ship of similar dimensions, built on the old principle. This method of connecting the timbers was the ground work of the present mode of framing the British navy, by introducing the same union of materials in the ships built with large, that had been applied to small timber; and decreasing thereby, very considerably, the consumption of timber, and rendering the ships much stronger, as was ascertained by a trial of the frames of the before mentioned ships.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 25th April, 1815, proposed a plan for making top-masts by scarphing or lengthening the sticks below the cap, and substituting those of less dimensions, consequently of much less value. These have, on trial, been found fully to answer the intended purpose, as appears by a letter from Sir Benjamin Hallowell to the Navy Board, dated 28th July, 1818, enclosing a report from the captain and carpenter of the Ramillies, dated the 24th of the same month, in which ship they have been in use upwards of three years, and Are still in a good state. The saving produced by the adoption of this proposition, although considerable, is of little moment, in comparison with the inconvenience and delay before experienced for the want of the article, which, in many instances, could not be procured but with the greatest difficulty. The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty directed the introduction of this plan on the 3d February, 1819.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 7th June, 1816, proposed a plan for the introduction of circular sterns to ships, which causes a great increase of strength, forms a more extensive and efficient battery in the stern for attack or defence, affords protection when raked, prevents injury from explosion in firing the gnus, gives a facility of working those in the stern equal to those in the sides, – in fact renders that part of a ship capable of making resistance which was heretofore defenceless. In the event of the ship being pooped, no evil can arise; and, if required, the ship may be moored by the stern. With these advantages the consumption of compass timber is decreased. The general introduction of this plan was directed by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 13th June, 1817.

“That your Royal Highncss’s memorialist, on the 17th July, 1816, proposed a new method of raising the lower masts of ships out of their steps, by means of a simple and portable apparatus of his invention, which requires only four men to raise a first rate’s main-mast, instead of about ninety. The adoption of this method has rendered two sheer-hulks unnecessary, one at Portsmouth, and one at Plymouth, which had been kept up at an annual expence of nearly 2,000l. It has also, by the removal of the hulk lying at Plymouth to Sheerness, where one was required, caused an immediate saving of 14,000l., the expence incurred in fitting the Sampson sheer-hulk at Woolwich; and a similar sum would have been required to fit a sheer-hulk for Portsmouth, in lieu of the Neptune, which had been found so defective as to render it necessary to take her to pieces. In a series of years, this expence must again have been incurred (when from age or accident the hulks required replacing), which is now prevented. The risk and expence of moving either ship or hulk, which was before necessary, is avoided by this apparatus. The heels of the mast (resting on a pig of ballast) can thus at all times be examined (instead of being lifted as heretofore trlennially, at a very considerable expence), and the decay occasioned by their being stepped in the mortices prevented. This causes a saving beyond calculation. This proposition was approved of by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 2d September, 1816.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 8th October, 1816, proposed a plan for mooring ships in Ordinary with chain slip bridles, which affords a more easy way of extricating the ships from their moorings in case of fire, or the necessity of moving them, from any other cause, as well as removing a most injurious weight from their bows. It will also cause a saving in mooring ships in Ordinary of nearly one half of the quantity of chain, amounting in value to not less than 10,000l.; and, from the frequent necessity of changing the hempen bridles (where used) by their rapid deterioration to prevent accidents to the ships, will occasion an annual saving of some thousands of pounds.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 27th January, 1817, presented a plan for substituting iron chain or rods for harbour rigging, in lieu of cordage, which on adoption has caused a very considerable saving of expence; and a still further saving will be produced annually, by the durability of iron compared with that of rope. It also tends much to put a stop to extensive embezzlements. Its introduction was directed by the Navy Board’s warrant, dated 5th February, 1817.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 5th September, 1817, proposed a plan for reducing the length of the timbers of a ship’s frame, and doing away the chocks at their heads and heels, which chocks not only produce decay as it respects themselves, but infest the timbers with which they come in contact. The introduction by your Royal Highness’s memorialist, of coaks, and working the timbers with square heads and heels, has given a strength and connection hitherto unknown until introduced in the frame of the Thunderer (now Talavera). The simplicity of the workmanship, and economy in the conversion of timber, although of considerable moment, are of trifling importance compared with the plan of rendering timber generally more applicable to the frames of ships, which heretofore was only partially so, and causing them to possess greater strength and durability. As a proof of the utility of the plan, two 28-gun ships are now constructing solely of fir timber, which never was before done by any mode of framing, as considerable quantities of oak and elm timber were before introduced in the construction of what were termed fir frigates. This plan is generally introduced in all classes of His Majesty’s ships, by directions from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 4th February, 1818.

“That your Royal Highness’s memorialist, on the 15th January, 1819, proposed a plan for the introduction of iron laid diagonally, instead of wood> in frigates, which will cause considerable durability to the ships, and prevent the consumption of much useful timber. It will also give greater room for stowage, shorten the fastenings, and consequently give increased strength. This plan has been directed to be generally introduced by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 23d January, 1819.

“Your Royal Highness’s memorialist was apprenticed in March 1782, to Sir John Henslow, late Surveyor of His Majesty’s Navy, who was then Master Shipwright of Plymouth Yard; and was at a considerable expence to his friends during that apprenticeship; and by regular gradations, after a service of more than thirty-one years, arrived at the situation which he now fills, making at this time a servitude of thirty-seven years. That your Royal Highness’s memorialist has had no pecuniary or other advantage (except in one instance as herein stated) for the numerous inventions and improvements which are here detailed, and for others of minor consideration, which have been introduced in His Majesty’s naval service, notwithstanding such immense sums have been saved to the public by the adoption of the plans of your Royal Highness’s memorialist, and on which Government have expended, and are expending, to the amount of some millions of money; and that in point of fact he sacrificed comfort and gained no emolument (as stated by the Select Committee of Finance in their 6th Report, page 190[5]), by leaving the situation of Master-Shipwright of Chatham dock-yard, and accepting that of Surveyor of His Majesty’s navy, and which he was induced to do only from the consideration that he would be empowered thereby to protect those plans which he had brought forward, and to introduce others for the good of His Majesty’s service. Models, drawings, and descriptions of the several inventions herein detailed, are in the possession of your Royal Highness’s memorialist, which will more fully explain what he has endeavoured to describe.

“Your Royal Highness’s memorialist therefore prays that your Royal Highness will be pleased to take into consideration the many and important services that he has rendered to his Country, with the heavy responsibility he incurred in carrying his plans into execution; and that your Royal Highness will be graciously pleased to confer on him such reward as your Royal Highness may consider him deserving.

(Signed)R. Seppings.”



  1. “The common made sail lasted eleven months; the sail with horizontal cloths and seams eighteen. A top-sail for a 64-gun ship costs 80l.
  2. “A line-of-battle ship can reef one of the new courses in two minutes, without hauling it up, or starting tack or sheet. This fact is well known among the officers of the navy.
  3. For a particular account of this improvement in ship’s sails, vide the Naval Chronicle for April 1806, November 1807, and November 1808.
  4. See Nav. Chron. vol. 21, pp. 138—143.
  5. “While calling the attention of the House to this particular branch of scientific instruction, your Committee deem it their duty particularly to notice Mr. Seppings, one of the surveyors of the navy, to whose abilities and exertions this country is mainly indebted for many of its most valuable improvements in Naval Architecture, the ingenious models of which have been submitted to the inspection of your Committee, with all the necessary explanations of their several uses and application. Your Committee do not pretend to describe or appreciate with accuracy the value of these improvements, to estimate which to their full extent requires considerable professional experience. They are, however, fully convinced that the result of them will be to effectuate in the construction of ships of war, a great saving of expenditure to the public, and to secure a proportionate economy of human life, arising from their superior durability and greater power of resistance to the elements, and to the casualties incidental to nautical life, which the modern system of keeping our fleets at sea, at all seasons and in all weather, has rendered of the utmost importance. These services, although they have nothing of that brilliancy which forcibly attracts public admiration, will continue to confer a lasting benefit to the British Nation, long after that period, when the beneficial effects of victories, however splendid, shall have passed away.