Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire


Steven Gray is Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy at the University of Portsmouth, UK, where he teaches on the MA in Naval History. His PhD, completed at the University of Warwick, won the British Commission for Maritime History Doctoral prize for the best doctoral thesis in 2014.

The nineteenth century, bookended by the Napoleonic Wars and the Anglo-German arms race, can be said to be overlooked by historians of war and of the armed forces, particularly when compared to global conflicts which preceded and concluded it. Yet this belies the fact that it was a time of immense change, where the relative stability of British control of trading routes, empire, and other interests obscured the plethora of change which affected the systems, actors, resources, bureaucracies, strategies, and means of deterrence which underpinned them. Each was crucial to maintaining British naval supremacy, and therefore its global trade and empire.

To highlight the importance of such practical, dare one say logistical factors in the functioning of the Royal Navy, or indeed any service, is hardly ground-breaking. The structures and systems that supported war in the Eighteenth Century have been well covered by historians, particularly in terms of victualling and state finance. Similarly, the need for oil after the First World War and the subsequent effects this caused in the Middle East, with their ongoing relevance, has also been the subject of much scholarly attention. Yet when it comes to the nineteenth century has been, however, the period has been approached primarily with an eye to the development of technology within the fleet, often with focus upon the ultimate development of the HMS Dreadnought: the epitome of the change which had transformed naval armaments in the century post-Trafalgar. Even in imperial historiography, where the navy remains shockingly marginal, it is the warship which is seen as a tool of the empire, with precious little written about the vital infrastructure and systems which enabled it to function as such. It is this lacuna within the scholarly literature, that I hope my book Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire c. 1870-1914, will address.

Steam Power and Sea Power begins with the launch of HMS Devastation, on 12 July 1871. The ship marked the beginning of the new era of mastless steamship in the Royal Navy, ships whose decks allowed better positioned guns, making warships far more formidable in battle. It is not surprising therefore that HMS Devastation has an iconic status in naval history, marking a watershed moment in ship design.  Described by contemporaries as ‘by far the most formidable of its kind yet constructed’, with ‘exceptionally heavy armour and armament’, its mastless design gave the impression of something rather otherworldly. An American commentator, aboard for a sea trial, questioned whether it was even a ship at all:

the Devastation moves slowly ahead, and glides through the water as if she were a ship, instead of being a sort of infernal machine created by some tremendous engineering mind, when in a state of nightmare. In fact she is more like one’s infantile idea of a bogie than anything we have ever seen.

It may have been otherworldly to contemporary eyes, but it proved far from a nightmare, except for Britain’s enemies. Instead, it was concluded that ‘she can steam; she can fire; and all works well … she is a wonderful vessel’.

Although never designed for long cruises of imperial waters, the Devastation was still ‘able to steam over long distances and keep the sea for a considerable time’, as a result of her large coal bunkers. Unlike her predecessors who could rely upon wind power, it goes without saying that coal was not naturally occurring at sea. As James Goldrick has rightly argued with regards to the First World War, this new generation of warships made coal and its supply, an issue of the highest importance to navies the world over. Whilst more hybrid ships with sail and steam engine were built for the navy after 1871, the last of these was launched just four years later. It would not be long until the vast majority of the navy was reliant on coal. But supplying this coal was beset with a myriad of problems, and would have global ramifications.

It is these problems and ramifications that Steam Power and Sea Power assesses. As Britain had huge global oceanic interests to defend, places to store fuel were needed worldwide, close enough together to allow ships to travel between on one load. There was, moreover, little point in spending huge sums on state of the art warships if the fuel fed to their engines was below par. Thus, the coal available at each station not only had to be sufficient for those ships that called in, but also of the highest quality to ensure maximum performance from the fleet. The shift from sail to steam also led to geostrategic weakness.

The ability of a rival to take, or destroy supplies, and thus leave British ships impotent, meant that these key infrastructural nodes would in themselves need to become a key part of global defence strategy. By the late 1880s these problems were largely solved, with a chain of coaling stations supplied by high quality Welsh and Westport coal, supplied through a relatively efficient ‘contractor state’.

The book does not merely concentrate on decisions at home, though: the need for solid fuel had ramifications across the empire. Coaling stations became centres of indigenous labour, loading tons of coal onto British warships. Moreover, the need to stop after at most seven days of steaming meant that sailors became fixtures at many stations. Often given lengthy leave ashore, they had enormous effects on localities, as customers, reminders of imperial power, trouble makers, and customers for prostitutes. The influx of other nations’ sailors as the period went on created spaces of unparalleled diversity, where British sailors mixed with people of ‘pretty much every nationality’. These experiences were recorded in published books, as well as articles in the press, and postcards, thus presenting to the domestic public a version of empire as exciting, exotic, and other.

The period where coal alone was the fuel of choice for state of the art British warships was relatively short lived, lasting less than half a century. Yet the shift from sail power to steam power had global ramifications. Moreover, it allowed Britain to remain the global maritime power in the nineteenth century, protecting its enormous overseas trade and interests. It should not be forgotten, moreover, that the Royal Navy faced its biggest challenge in a century, the First World War, with a largely coal-fuelled fleet.

Image: Coaling party of HMS Indefatigable, on the North America and West Indies Squadron at Halifax, Nova Scotia, c. 1896-1904, via wikimedia commons.   


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