The ‘True Frigate’ 1748-1778 Part I

The 1745 Establishment was largely about battleships. The Admiralty’s main concern in appointing the Norris committee was to improve the ships of the battlefleet, and in particular to have the much-maligned three-decker 80-gun ships superseded by what they called ‘two and a half decked ships’ – French and Spanish style 74s. A less overt agenda was to force the retirement of the aged and autocratic Surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, who was virtually omnipotent in matters of design. In both they failed: the committee refused to give up the 80s, and the best that could be achieved with Acworth was to appoint a professional rival, Joseph Allin, as joint Surveyor in 1747. The Admiralty lost confidence in the 1745 ships before any had entered the water, and took steps to circumvent the provisions of the new establishment before it even came into force.

The most influential critic of current ship design was Anson, who balanced his Admiralty duties with command of the new Western Squadron, which was evolving a more aggressive strategy that involved a main fleet being kept down-Channel (effectively, to windward with the prevailing westerlies) where it could protect the incoming trade and be ready to swoop on any French squadron venturing out from Brest. This required stronger and more seaworthy ships, as it was planned to keep the fleet at sea for longer and to operate in almost any weather; equally, its success depended on good intelligence of French movements, so there was a renewed emphasis on the reconnaissance role of frigates. No existing British Fifth or Sixth Rate was up to the task, and Anson’s judgement was scathing – ‘all our frigates sail wretchedly’ – but he had a radical proposal: copy a captured French ship.

The notion of British ships built to the lines of French prizes was to become very familiar, so it is difficult to appreciate that at the time it was completely unprecedented. It was indeed a revolutionary idea, but Anson wanted a revolutionary ship, and he knew he would never get one through official channels. However, his initiative was carefully considered, the combined product of extensive private correspondence with some of the more forward-thinking shipwrights and his personal experience of the performance of captured French cruisers in his fleet. These were longer, lower and more lightly built than anything in the Royal Navy and British naval officers were greatly impressed by their speed and weatherliness.

Although its significance only became evident in retrospect, French designers had achieved an important advance by a subtle alteration in the layout of ‘two-decked’ cruisers. British 24s had a heavily framed full-height lower deck, necessary to fight the guns and to allow rowing with standing oarsmen; the position of the deck itself was determined by the need for a safe freeboard to the ports. By contrast, in the latest French ships the lower deck was little more than a light platform, with much reduced headroom, and the deck itself, at its lowest point, positioned just below the waterline. This compressed the height of the topside, while the forecastle and quarterdeck were unarmed and had virtually no barricades or rails to catch the wind; combined with fine lines and light framing, this made for fast and weatherly ships. Credit for this innovation goes to Blaise Ollivier, the constructor at Brest, and was first applied in 1741 to the Medée of twenty-six 8pdrs. This formula was eventually adopted by all the major navies, and was dubbed the ‘true frigate’ form, in retrospect, by naval historians.

Four of the first eight such ships were captured during the war, and the largest of them, the 746-ton Ambuscade, soon established a fine reputation with Anson’s fleet. However, the ship Anson proposed to copy was not a national frigate, but a privateer called the Tygre, at 576 tons closer to the 24-gun ships he wanted to replace. Acting on the advice of Benjamin Slade, the Master Shipwright at Plymouth, he chose this ship because ‘she has a great character [ie reputation] for sailing’ and although the Admiralty decided against purchasing the Tygre herself, they instructed Slade to take off the lines ‘in the most exact manner’ and ‘have a perfect draught drawn thereof, and to take an exact account of all the scantlings, dimensions, form and manner of framing, scarphs, fastenings and every particular relating to her hull, masts and yards’. Then on 29 April 1747 two new 24-gun ships were ordered to be built ‘without the least deviation’ from this draught, one at Deptford and one by Slade himself at Plymouth, such being the priority that they were to be ‘carried on in preference to all other new works’.

Both launched in December 1748, they became Unicorn (Plymouth) and Lyme (Deptford). Carrying only twenty-four 9pdrs on the upper deck, they were the first British ships of this new frigate form.

The First 12-pounder Frigates

The Unicorn and Lyme set a number of important administrative precedents: first, that the Admiralty could depart from the Establishment if it felt the need; second, that it could determine the design (by insisting that a particular model be copied); and third, by extrapolation, that in future there would always be more than one source of design. Henceforth, there were always to be at least two Surveyors during wartime, and when there was only a single incumbent, he was supported by a highly regarded Assistant Surveyor who was clearly seen as a full Surveyor-in-waiting. In this case, the comparative principle was honoured by allowing Acworth and Allin, the two Surveyors in post, to design their own alternatives to the French-derived pair, equally untrammelled by Establishment restrictions. Both the resulting Seahorse from Acworth and Allin’s Mermaid were a conceptual halfway house between the old 24s and the new frigate form – they had no gunports on the lower deck but, having much the same headroom between decks, the height of side was not significantly reduced, and being shorter than the Unicorns, they did not perform so well. When the time came to build more Sixth Rates in 1755, there was no debate about which model to chose, and two slightly modified Unicorns were ordered. Now rated 28s, this type became the standard light cruiser for over two decades

In the interim a parallel argument was developing about the Navy’s heavy cruiser, the two-decker 44-gun ship. As early as 1747 the Navy Board was fending off suggestions that a frigate-form ship would be preferable, arguing – as they had in defence of the three-decker 80 – that multiple decks made them better fighting ships: there was more room on the gundecks to work the guns, and the crews were better protected than those on the long exposed quarterdecks and forecastles of frigates. They were prepared to admit that, being taller and more heavily built, British 44s were not such good sailers, but they denied that they could not open the lower deck ports in any sort of seaway – their lower tier could be opened in ‘any fighting weather’ and their battery of twenty 18pdrs was superior to the thirty 12pdrs proposed. Furthermore, as these two-deckers were often convoy escorts as well as cruisers their defensible qualities were as important as speed under sail.

As so often, France took the lead by building the Hermione, the first 12pdr frigate, in 1748, and thereafter no more French two-decker 40s were ordered. However, there was clearly a degree of uncertainty about the ideal size, armament, and even design features, of the new type. The first ship, measuring 811 tons by British calculation, had an unusually deep hull, with six ports on the lower deck when captured in 1758 (although none was armed; the ship may have been built with oar ports on this deck) and a main battery of twenty-six 12pdrs. The next ship was rather smaller with only twenty-four guns, while the two after that were far larger and carried thirty 12pdrs. There was never to be a remotely standard French 12pdr frigate, although a typical ship would measure about 900 tons and carry twenty-six 12pdrs and six 6pdrs on the quarterdeck.

By contrast the Royal Navy knew exactly what it wanted from its first 12pdr frigates, the specification being ships of about 650 tons and a battery of twenty-six 12pdrs; the dimensions did not vary by more than about 10 per cent during the three decades such ships were built. The disparity in size was partly the product of the typical British policy of building the smallest viable unit (so the maximum number could be built for any given budget), but in any case the true comparison is not with the handful of 12pdr ships France built before 1764 but the substantial numbers of large but 8pdr-armed frigates that formed the core of the French frigate force during the Seven Years War.

By 1755 both Acworth and Allin were dead and had been replaced by joint Surveyors of a far younger generation in Thomas Slade and William Bately. Following the new comparative policy, each was set to produce a draught to the same general specification for a 32-gun ship of about 125ft on the gundeck. Bately, a competent but unoriginal thinker, produced a slightly longer, narrower and shallower hull form based on a long-established fast-sailing tradition preserved in the yacht Royal Caroline but ultimately derived from Lord Danby’s work at the beginning of the century. His Richmond was a modest success, despite not being as fast as expected, and six ships were built to this draught during the war; astonishingly, the design was revived in 1804 for a further eight ships when it was decidedly obsolescent, although it has to be said that at the time a small, cheap design was politically expedient.

Slade, who by both contemporary and historical judgement was to become the best British ship designer of the century, did not excel with his first frigate class. Apparently a genuinely ab initio design based on no existing model, the Southampton class were strong, good sea-boats and performed well in heavy weather, but lacked speed. However, Slade’s most notable characteristic as a designer was a constant search for improvement, a self-critical faculty manifest in the many alterations to be found on his draughts. Often the advance was incremental – as seen in the many variants on his standard 74-gun ship classes – but in this case he took an entirely different starting point, developing the lines from the Tygre-derived 28s for the next class. As alternatives, he had offered the Admiralty an improved Southampton or a hull based on the extreme French form of the Amazon, the 20-gun Panthère captured in 1746, but as he was called to the Admiralty to discuss the options, it is highly likely that the final decision was largely based on his own preference. It was a good choice: the resulting Niger design provided the best British 12pdr class and, in terms of fitness for purpose, probably the best frigates of the Seven Years War. They were fast, weatherly, very handy and strongly built; more of them (eleven) were ordered than any other design, and it is entirely appropriate that when Lord Sandwich commissioned a spectacular structural model he chose one of these to be the subject. The Winchelsea model [SLR0339], complete on the starboard side but with the port side unplanked to reveal how such ships were built, was presented to George III in 1774 as part of Sandwich’s campaign to interest the King in his navy.

All the demands that were to be placed on heavier frigates during the war were met, and with total satisfaction, by the 12pdr 32; but before this became clear there were a couple of trials with more powerful ships. In July 1756 three enlarged Southamptons were ordered as the Pallas class and rated as 36-gun ships. At around 720 tons, they were about 11 per cent larger (and because costs were calculated on a £ per ton basis, more expensive pro rata) yet they offered only four extra 6pdrs by way of firepower benefit over the standard 32. No more 12pdr 36s were ever ordered.

More radical was an attempt to find out if Slade could make an acceptable cruiser out of the two-decker 44, the single example being launched as the Phoenix in 1759. Longer and narrower than its 1745 Establishment predecessors, this ship was the only 44 built during the Seven Years War, so even the advantage of an 18pdr main battery was not considered valuable at this time.

By 1757 Slade enjoyed the complete confidence of the Admiralty and was allowed considerable autonomy over ship design, totally eclipsing Bately in the process. He was permitted to build a frigate on extreme French principles – ‘stretching’ the Tygre hull form by 10ft and using very lightweight framing – and the resulting 32-gun Tweed showed all the advantages and disadvantages of the French philosophy: she was fast, very wet, tender (lacking stability) and short-lived. It was almost as though Slade was providing his masters at the Admiralty with an object lesson in how to prioritise their requirements.

Slade’s final contributions to frigate design had a curious provenance. In 1757 the Navy had captured a very large 950-ton ‘frigate’ constructed in Quebec. Everything about this ship was strange – including her name, L’Abenakise, which the English tried to render as Bon Acquis or Bien Acquis, although she actually celebrated the Abenaki tribe, one of the principal Indian allies of French Canada. The ship herself, though new-built, was a demi-batterie ship, like the purpose-designed commerce-raiders of half a century earlier, with eight 18pdrs on the lower deck and twenty-eight 12s above. Despite the anachronistic layout, Slade inspected the ship and, ‘approving very much of the form of her body’, suggested that she would provide the model for an improved frigate design. Slade’s enthusiasm was so infectious that the Admiralty ordered draughts prepared for five new classes, from a 74 to a sloop. This required a further lesson for Their Lordships on the difficulty of simply scaling a set of lines up or down, but the resulting designs utilised the principles of the French form and were described as ‘nearly similar to the Aurora’, as the prize had been renamed.

Both new frigate designs, the 28-gun Mermaid and the 32-gun Lowestoffe were slightly larger than existing ships but not the radical improvement Slade had hoped for.