Changes in the Royal Navy, 1790-1918


Reduction in the size of the navy after 1815

  • No navy left which could threaten Britain.
  • Became more important to police trade and protect commerce.
  • Abolished slavery in 1807- Royal Navy enforcing ban on international and British waters
  • Most of the Battleships which fought against Napleon were decommissioned 
  • 1817- 13 battleships still on active service.. 
  • Main strenght came from frigates, sloops and brigs. 
  • Reorganised into squadrons- North America, South America, West Indies, Western Mediterranean, West Africa, Cape Colony, East Indies and Eastern Mediteranean.
  • Gunboat diplomacy- Algiers 1816, Acre 1840, retalliation for acts thought to be against British interests
  • Ottoman Fleet destroyed in 1827 at the Battle of Navarino
  • Royal Navy stopped Iberian fleets acting effectively, thereby helping revolutionaries 1820s
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The Shift from Sail to steam

The Shift from Sail to steam:

  • HMS Meda & HMS Gladiator first steam driven ships
  • Not until 1850, did Britain begin a programme of building steam powered battleships using a scre propeller, rather than a paddle.
  • French began introducing steam engines in the early 1840s
  • First steam powered battleships- HMS Agamennom was built in 1852. HMS Devastation, first ship without regging in 1873

Wood to Iron:

  • First fully iron Warship was launched in 1860- HMS Warrior
  • Allowed for heavier ships
  • Better gunnery- Armstrong Whitworth 110 pounders. 
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Graham's reforms, 1832

New ships and gunnery:

  • Could call on a handful of large battleships with 120 or 80 guns, but most carried 74 or 60 guns. 
  • The navy had been reduced too far and Graham began a systematic programme of refitting existing ships and building new battleships.
  • Felt the art of gunnery had been neglected- issued an order that all crew should practice to improve skills. Also set up a school of gunnery and commissioned the HMS excellent, for the particular purpose. 


  • 800 captains on active service. Those without a ship were put on half pay. Based on influence not intelligence. Graham introduced a regulation that set out a minimumamount of service an officer had to have in order to move up the ranks. 


  • Abolition of the Naval Office and Victualling board- placed under naval control.
  • Five principle officers would each be in charge of a certain area. Principal officers worked at the adimirality and communication became quicker
  • Graham also extended the widening of Royal Navy control to the dockyards.- Greater efficiency in servicing and resupplying ships
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Fisher's reforms at the admiralty, 1904-1910

Changing role of the navy:

  • Blockades, prevent foriegn invasion, protect trade, protect food imports.

Two power standard:

  • Naval defence Act 1899- Britain's naval strenght should be at least equal to its two biggest rivals. (France and Germany)
  • Germany- unified 1871- all ships were modern and had more industrial capacity. Some Royal Navy ships were not fit for service.
  • Tirpitz- German Navy 2/3 of the Royal Navy it could defeat it. 
  • Lead to the arms race 

Jackie Fisher:

  • Reforms of officer trading- all officers taught together until 22 years old. 
  • Officer cadets would all have to study history, navigation and seamanship, along with science, mathematics and engineering. 
  • Also bought in officers whose technical expertise he valued. 
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Fisher's reforms at the admiralty, 1904-1910 (Part

Balancing the budget:

  • Sold off 90 ships and put 64 in reserve- too weak to fight and too slow to run away
  • Created the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in order to augment the Royal Navy Reserve. 
  • Britain had a large reserve to call on in times of war 
  • The strenght of the Mediterranean Fleet was reduced to 12 ships and the 5 battleships stationed in China were sent back to Britain. 
  • South Atlantic fleet was abolished. Channel Fleet moved to Gibraltar and was renamed the Atlantic Fleet.
  • Home Fleet became the Channel Fleet. Reserve Fleet stationed at the Thames.

Effect of the Russo-Japanese War:

  • Showed the importance of having more and bigger guns
  • Importance of Submarines
  • Building of Battle cruisers

HMS Dreadnought:

  • 20,000 tonnes. Ten 12" guns. Could fire 18,000 yards and a top speed of 21.6 knots.
  • Had technology which could take into account the direction and speed of the target
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Naval Arms Race

  • Germans started the construction of 9 dreadnoughts in 1908
  • By 1914, Germany would have 17 dreadnoughts to Britain's 29. The French would have 10, the Russians 4 and the Austrians 3
  • Orion class (Super Dreadnought)- 22,000 tonnes, 13.5" guns.
  • 1912- Queen Elizabeth Class- 27,00 tonnes and armed with 15" guns. 
  • Germany realised their primay aim was to defeat France on land, so stopped their dreadnought programme and focused more of their resources on the army.
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