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The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries$

Ralph Davis

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780986497384

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9780986497384.001.0001

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Ships and Shipbuilders in the Eighteenth Century

Ships and Shipbuilders in the Eighteenth Century

(p.55) Chapter 4 Ships and Shipbuilders in the Eighteenth Century
The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Ralph Davis

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the developments in shipbuilding and the evolving role of shipbuilders across England over the course of the eighteenth century. Like the previous chapter it often compares British shipbuilding with Dutch shipbuilding due to their interlinked histories and the presence of Dutch prize-ships across England as a result of the Dutch wars. Shipbuilding in the eighteenth century is examined closely to determine the extent to which British ships began to resemble Dutch flyboats. It also considers changes in manning levels as technology increased; the shipbuilding efforts on colonial land; the capture of prizes; and the threat of cheaper American shipbuilding disrupting Britain’s global shipping precence. The latter part of the chapter traces the development of shipbuilding technology and the necessary physical changes to the ships themselves. It concludes by asserting that British merchant ships developed tremendously in over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though not nearly as sharply as they would with the arrival of steam.

Keywords:   British Shipbuilding, Dutch Shipbuilding, Seafaring Conditions, Dutch Wars, Shipbuilding Technology, Dutch Flyboats, Regional Shipbuilding

In the days of sail the cost of sea transport was principally the cost of paying and feeding a crew. During the seventeenth century the Dutch had led the way in operating ships that needed small crews in relation to the cargo they carried, and the English had followed their example, when they could, by using captured Dutch-built ships. In the eighteenth century, however, English shipbuilders made their own way towards operational efficiency. The clearest way of measuring their success is by looking at the gradually decreasing ratio of crew to tonnage; that is, to use the somewhat artificial concept of "tons served per man." The picture can be drawn with some accuracy from 1726 onward, when this sort of evidence can be extracted from the records of "Seamen's Sixpences"1 but to point the contrast it is as well first to glance back briefly at the manning position in the previous century, so far as this is possible.

It is clear that in the early decades of the seventeenth century, ships going southward from England - to Spain and Portugal, the Biscay coast of France, the Mediterranean and the East Indies - were very heavily manned. These vessels had to defend themselves against the corsairs who were ready to prey without limit on English shipping in the Mediterranean and off the Atlantic coast of Europe, until naval expeditions began to curb their eagerness. The guns which ships carried might well have to be used, and it was a good thing to carry a crew which could at least man a single broadside. But as the dangers declined, so crews were reduced gradually towards levels determined by the requirements of serving the ship; curiously enough, the number of guns carried was little if at all reduced, though they could no longer be fully manned. In the thirties, the English ships going to Cádiz and Málaga for wine and fruit carried crews averaging one man to 6.7 tons;2 in 1686-1687 the corresponding figure is 7.7 tons.3 This is the only trade for which the very early data are plentiful, (p.56) but it certainly reflects the experience of all other trades which took ships into water swept by the corsairs. The small changes indicated - representing the reduction of the crew of a 150-ton ship by two or three men - were unrelated to technical improvement; such trades continued to be operated with "defensible ships" though with crews less adequate to defence. Both the government and the Levant Company tried to limit the temptation put in the way of the corsairs by ensuring that ships engaged in the most valuable branch of Mediterranean trade were manned adequately for defence; an act of 1662 required that ships over 200 tons entering the Mediterranean should carry at least sixteen guns and thirty-two men, on pain of paying extra customs duties,4 while the Levant Company ordered in 1688 that ships in its service should carry at least fifteen men per hundred tons.5 Both efforts were quite ineffective, because such levels of manning were more appropriate to the twenties and thirties than to the time of Charles II.6

In most trades, a slow improvement in manning evidenced itself between the last years of Charles II and the thirties and forties of the next century; figures which are available for the trades with Spain and Portugal, Virginia and Maryland, and the West Indies (apart from Jamaica)7 show that rather smaller crews were carried in 1726 and 1736 than half a century earlier:

London Ships: Tons Served Per Man





Spain, Portugal




Virginia, Maryland




West Indies (except Jamaica)








(p.57) In the English Channel and the Spanish and Portuguese trades economic conditions favoured the use of small ships whose manning per ton was necessarily heavier than that of bigger vessels;9 improvement might have occurred if the southern countries had possessed competing merchant fleets. The transatlantic trades were sheltered by the Navigation Acts from foreign competition and did not follow up the possibilities which had been suggested in the seventeenth century by their tentative use of Dutch flyboats.

On the other hand, the North Sea and Baltic trades, even quite early in the seventeenth century, present a quite different picture. They were exposed to the competition, first of the Dutch carriers and later of the efficient native shipping of Scandinavia. Moreover, though the Moorish corsairs did occasionally appear in the Straits of Dover and perhaps, in the early twenties, in the mouth of the Thames, their regular beat did not extend far into the English Channel, and ships which would not go west of the Straits of Dover had no need to be equipped for encounters with them. Endeavour of Shields, of 140 tons, carried only nine men (one to 15.5 tons) on a series of coastal and Norway voyages in 1632-1633,10 while the collier Edward and Sara in 1650 needed only thirteen men to serve her 280 tons (one to 21.5 tons).11 During the wars of the sixties and seventies colliers were expected to surrender for naval service men in excess of a ratio of one to twenty tons.12 The Dutch themselves hardly managed with less in their own flyboats; but it is impossible to say how representative these two English examples are.

When the first substantial body of statistics is available for use, in 1726,13 a level of one man to about twenty tons is found to be characteristic of almost the whole of London's vast traffic to Norway and Gothenburg - a traffic which accounted for nearly a quarter of the tonnage of ships entering London. The ratio of 20.3 tons per man found in 1726 was not improved upon in the next half century. Ships similarly manned were finding their way into the Baltic trades to Sweden, Danzig and the newly acquired Russian ports of the North Baltic. These trades did not yet employ a great total tonnage, and many quite small ships, whose size inevitably meant heavier manning per ton, were still engaged in them, so that the average in those trades was only thirteen or (p.58) fourteen tons per man. However, all the larger vessels entering the Baltic achieved the high manning ratios of around twenty tons per man. The coastal coal trade, too, was using ships manned at much the same levels as the Norway and large Baltic traders.14

This means that in the northern trades and in the coal trade, from the time of the first Dutch flyboat prizes in the 1650s, if not earlier, there must have been a continuous supply of cheaply operated ships; that when the last Dutch prizes taken in 1674 had worn out or been lost, there was already an alternative source of supply of the same sort of vessel. Some further prizes, it is true, were taken in the later French wars, but not enough of them were of the flyboat type to replenish virtually the whole northern fleet. The conclusion is inescapable that by the last decades of the seventeenth century English shipwrights had started to build their own version of the cheaply operated ship, and that they were turning it out in large numbers during the long period of peace whose centre is 1726.

This conclusion raises an important question about the shipbuilding industry. In the early seventeenth century the northern trades had used ships built in East Anglia, as well as a few from Newcastle and adjacent ports. All the East Anglian building centres were overwhelmed by the torrent of Dutch prizes and never recovered. Ipswich, Woodbridge, and the rest, with their large and old-established yards, still cherishing occasional contracts for East Indiamen, Levant traders and even warships, were too slow to adapt themselves to the new requirements of the coal and timber trades. Who, then, met these new requirements?

There is no direct evidence about shipbuilding in the critical period, from about 1680 to 1720, when the flyboats were wearing out and the English were compelled to build their own coal, timber and flax carriers. Four things are certain, however; that shipbuilding on the north-east coast was of small importance during most of the seventeenth century; that by the early eighteenth century considerable numbers of ships were being built somewhere in England for great stowage and cheap operation; that by the middle of the eighteenth century Whitby and Scarborough ships had a special reputation for just such qualities; and that, when the registration of ships began in 1787, the north-east coast from Newcastle down to Hull was by far the largest seat of the shipbuilding industry, and had obviously been so for a very long time. I take this as indicating - in the absence of positive evidence - that the north-east coast was the place where sprang to life, in the decades around 1700, the new industry with the future in its hands, the building of English ships which could adequately (p.59) replace the vanishing Dutch flyboats. John Cremer went to Leghorn in 1715 in "a North Country Cat about 300 tons or more. An old Vessel noe body could tell her age" with a crew of fifteen. This was the kind of ship which, forty years earlier, writers said was not built in England.15

Enormous opportunities were open to shipbuilders who could fulfil this need, and it is not surprising that the opportunities should have been seen most clearly in the region which had particular use for such ships. Unhampered by the strong traditions and the more varied opportunities of the East Anglian builders, favoured by the longer survival of the woodlands of the Trent and Ouse valleys,16 with nearby iron manufacturers to supply their needs, the local builders of modest keels and coasters turned to bigger subjects and were justified by huge success. Possibly they were reinforced by immigration from East Anglia; there are indications of a squabble over Ipswich shipwrights at Newcastle.17 It may be significant that Ambrose Crowley's great ironworks, which in London was particularly concerned with ships' fittings, moved to Sunderland in 1682, taking many of its craftsmen with it.18

The chief places of building were Whitby, Newcastle and the banks of the Tyne down to South Shields, Scarborough, Stockton and Sunderland. Whitby, much the most important during the middle decades of the eighteenth century, had always had a small shipbuilding industry; a few ships of over a hundred tons were built there in the early seventeenth century.19 Yet it was eclipsed at that time not only by the industry of the south but even by that of nearby Tyneside. It was primarily a fishing village, owning a handful of ships. Certainly it was growing fast towards the end of the century; both Blome's Britannia (1673) and the 1695 edition of Camden's Britannia describe it as (p.60) owning a large number of ships20 and in 1710 there were said to be 120, of sizes ranging up to 350 tons.21 At this time it was the sixth shipowning port of England, outdistanced only by London, Bristol, Newcastle, Yarmouth and probably Scarborough.22 The growth of shipping is not proof of the growth of shipbuilding, but in this case the two are likely to have gone together. When, in 1702, parliament provided for substantial improvement of the piers, they were to be paid for in part by a toll on all coal laden in Tyne ports (except in Yarmouth ships);23 this was the first of a series of such measures, among which the act of 1726 was particularly important in making possible the building of very large ships in Whitby harbour.24 The improvement in the harbour was no doubt essential to further growth; but the demand for it, and the acceptance of a general levy on almost all coal shipping, is surely indicative of the growing importance of Whitby to the coal trade. By 1733 Whitby owned 120 ships "and most of them are the largest that are employed in the coal trade,"25 and in 1738, when the Newcastle hostmen had grievances about the irregular loading of coal ships, they made them to the shipowners of Whitby and Scarborough.26 The Thameside public house, "The Prospect of Whitby," is traditionally so named because it looked out on a stretch of the Thames up which the collier fleets passed to the City. Though the tradition may be implausible - it is more likely the house was established by some retired master of Prospect, of Whitby it shows clearly the connection in the public mind between Whitby and the Tyne-London coal trade. Nor was it the coal trade alone that Whitby served. In 1751, more than half the English ships entering London from Norway, and one in five of those entering from the Baltic, were Whitby-owned, (p.61) and these were generally large ships of 300-500 tons.27 By this time, a very rapid expansion of Whitby ownership was taking place, though as a trading port Whitby remained insignificant.28

There is little record of early Whitby shipbuilding; indeed, the historian of Whitby dates the building of large ships from 1730.29 Thirteen years earlier, however, Jarvis Coates had built William and Jane of 237 tons, and there is no reason to suppose that this was the first ship of such a size; Coates had been in business since 1697.30 The first dry dock was built in 1734, and in mid- century there were many builders at work: Benjamin Coates, Robert Barry, Thomas Fishburn, the Dock Company's Partners, and William Coulson, who had come from Scarborough fifteen or twenty years before. At Fishburns' yard a 369-ton collier barque, Earl of Pembroke, was built; this was the vessel selected in 1768 by the Board of Admiralty for an expedition to the South Seas; renamed Endeavour; it was commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, who sailed up the east coast of Australia and claimed it for the British crown.31

Scarborough was of less importance, though for a time it was the leading collier-owning port of England. It appears to have grown in stature during much the same period as Whitby. Two 100-ton ketches for the navy were built there in 1691 - the only naval ships built north of Hull before the middle of the eighteenth century.32 As at Whitby, the remodelling of the harbour (in 1733) was financed in part by the collection of tolls on coal loaded at north-eastern ports (except in Yarmouth ships).33 There was far less space for shipbuilding than the great sheltered river mouth of Whitby provided, and the industry never approached Whitby's in size. Nevertheless, it was a substantial (p.62) one. The local historian34 records a handful of seventeenth-century shipbuilders; the Tindalls, who were still building in the nineteenth century, had records dating back to 1691 and claimed that the family business was operating much earlier. By the middle of the eighteenth century Scarborough building was probably passing from its highest level.

Sunderland had a very rapid rise, both as a coal-shipping and a shipbuilding port, after measures were taken to improve the depth of the harbour in 1717;35 Newcastle (or South Shields) and Stockton also built considerable numbers of colliers.

There is some reason to suppose that the ships being built in these places around 1700 resembled the Dutch flyboats, though the evidence is exiguous. In the late seventeenth century the term "pink" was sometimes used almost as a synonym for "flyboat" - as when the Council of Trade in 1672 directed that encouragement should be given to "the Building of Pinkes, Flutes and other great Ships, for the more convenient carryage of Masts, Timber and other Bulky Commodityes. "36 Now a pink was simply a pink-sterned ship, and a pink stern was one, very narrow at the top and broadening below, whose description tallies quite closely with the typical flyboat stern. Not all pinks were flyboats, for there were many small pink-sterned craft, but it may well be that the eighteenth-century vessels described as pinks included many of the flyboat type. There are large numbers described as pinks in the ships' passes from the 1680s onward until the middle of the next century.37 Ships belonging to the north-east coast ports were not heavily represented in the trades for which passes were needed; it is noteworthy, though, that in 1732-1733 nearly two-thirds of the three-masted ships belonging to the north-east ports which did obtain passes were described as pinks; the corresponding proportion for London was one-sixth, and for the west coast ports one-sixteenth.

If this is so - and it is admittedly conjectural - the main technical development in English shipbuilding of the early eighteenth century was the adoption, for appropriate purposes, of the hull forms used earlier by the (p.63) Dutch, which made possible a high carrying capacity in relation to the ship's main measurements. This is the explanation of the small crews of English ships in the northern trades, where great stowage was particularly important.

Another new source of supply for the English shipowner was in the colonies of the American mainland, and especially in New England.38 Ships built there ranked, for all the purposes of the Navigation Acts, as English-built, and English owners could acquire them without any disabilities. All along the northern part of the New England seaboard, shipbuilding timber grew close to the shore, pitch and tar were easily obtainable; iron was beginning to be worked in America late in the seventeenth century. The English government tried from time to time to encourage the export of shipbuilding materials from the colonies to England, but they had little success except with tar and pitch.39 The cheaper kinds of timber could not bear the cost of shipment across the Atlantic, but if it were turned into ships on the spot these could carry their own cargoes eastward. Shipbuilding was begun on a small scale in the earliest settlements; it grew rapidly and after the Restoration was supplying all North America's own needs, for coastal craft, West Indies schooners and the fisheries, and was turning out many ships for the trade of New England with Europe.

Sir Josiah Child saw and dreaded these possibilities. "There is nothing more prejudicial and in prospect more dangerous to any Mother Kingdom," he wrote, "than the Encrease of Shipping in her Plantations, Colonies and Provinces."40 He died just too soon to read the persuasive advocacy of extensive colonial shipbuilding by the author of Considerations on the East India Trade in 1701,41 who proposed to use the cheap timber, pitch and tar, with negro slaves to do the work and Dutch mass-production methods. "This were a surer way, and less odious to our Neighbours, than any Act of Navigation, for only English bottoms to be employed."

(p.64) Ships built in New England nevertheless played only a small part in English traffic during the seventeenth century. By 1686 half the vessels trading between New England and Old England were American-owned and presumably American-built; but outside this particular trade American-built ships were rarely employed in English affairs.42 Some ships were bought in America by English merchants even before the English Civil War, but as late as 1668 such purchases were still, apparently, regarded as a little unusual.43 Wars, which hampered English imports from Norway and the Baltic, assisted the New England shipbuilding industry, and by 1689 the industry was sufficiently large and well- established to take advantage of English demand in the wars which filled most of the next twenty-four years. From the nineties until the Peace of Utrecht references to English purchases in the colonies are abundant. With the ending of the war, these English purchases dropped for a time to a lower level; but English-owned colonial-built ships were being used in some numbers in all the trades with the North American colonies, and to a small extent to the West Indies. On the whole, they were quite small ships; the great bulk-cargo carriers were not American products, and the advantages of American-built ships were not in cheap operation - at this time they were manned on the same levels as English- built ships - but in cheap building.

Nevertheless, the Thames shipwrights complained in 1724 that

By the great number of ships and other vessels lately built, now building and still likely to increase to be built, in New England and other parts of America, the trade of the petitioners is much decayed… great numbers of those able shipwrights, brought up and employed by Petitioners, for want of work to maintain their families, have been necessitated to withdraw themselves from their native country into America and other foreign parts.44

On this the Council of Trade reported that "We have good reason to believe, the number of shipwrights in Great Britain is diminished one half since 1710. This diminution is chiefly owing to the great numbers of ships built annually in (p.65) your Majesty's plantations, but particularly in New England."45 Currency manipulation and consequent inflation in Massachusetts and Rhode Island soon afterwards gave the American industry a setback;46 but apart from this interval in the thirties American supply showed an upward trend in the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, with great temporary expansion in each war. Perhaps by 1730 one English ship in every six was American-built, and by 1760 one in four.47 In the late sixties, however, the pace of American shipbuilding quickened, and for a few years large ships as well as small poured out of the yards for English owners. Richard Champion stated in 1774 that nearly a third of British-owned ships were American built (2342 out of 7694).48

Purchase from America came to an end when independence thrust the new nation beyond the pale of the English Navigation laws. "A very important advantage [of the American War] was the recovery of the valuable trade of shipbuilding, which had in great measure been, very impolitically, sacrificed to the zeal for promoting the prosperity of the colonies."49

In the eighteenth century, as in the seventeenth, wars yielded a harvest of foreign prizes. The numbers, in the sixty years to the end of the Seven Years' War, were much the same as in the previous sixty years, but of course in 1739-1748 and 1756-1763 they were added to a merchant fleet far larger than it had been. (p.66)







These ships were of all kinds; English ships recaptured; German, Dutch or Scandinavian vessels seized for infringement of the blockades; a handful were Spanish or Portuguese; the majority were French. While no doubt many were Dutch-built there was not in these wars an accession of ships, largely of a single type, radically changing the make-up of the English merchant fleet, such as the Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century had provided. The eighteenth-century wars contributed a well-balanced addition to total English shipping, leaving the English shipyards, on their side, the task of meeting a demand for a variety of types.

Nevertheless, the effect of the capture of prizes must have been to depress English shipbuilding. The physical loss of English ships was probably on a smaller scale. After 1692 France abandoned attempts to dominate the seas, to give permanent protection in wartime to her long-distance trade, while turning from naval actions to commerce-raiding. English blockade in wartime became fairly effective, compelling France to look to neutrals to supply her, and the French mercantile marine languished. The vast numbers of English ships captured by the privateers were not wanted, therefore; they would have been so many more to rot at anchor in the mouth of the Garonne or the Seine. English ships bound homeward with bulk cargoes of the kinds badly needed in France would be taken into French ports, but many of the others were ransomed. In such a case, any specially valuable portable cargo was transhipped from the captured vessel, a hostage (usually the chief mate) was taken into the privateer; the master was required to sign a form53 undertaking to pay a specified sum of money on his arrival in port (perhaps no more than a quarter or a fifth of the value of the ship and cargo); and the ship was released, with a protection valid for twenty-four hours against other French privateers. It is impossible, for this (p.67) reason, to estimate how many English ships were physically taken into French possession; the figures quoted for captures include a large number that were ransomed.54

Thus the old shipbuilding industry of London and the East Anglian ports was threatened from three sides. It is not surprising that it languished, faced as it was by the competition of the new yards of the north-east coast which were almost monopolizing the building of bulk-cargo carriers, and with that of American builders who could provide ships for the transatlantic and southern trades at lower costs, as well as being periodically overwhelmed by the influx of scores of thousands of tons of prize ships of every variety. London shipbuilders remained important, because they kept the monopoly of building East Indiamen, and ships for the Levant trade and some of the larger West Indiamen continued to be produced on the Thames. All round the coast small local shipbuilders or carpenters continued to supply local needs for small ships, and in a few ports ships of some size were constructed. But the construction of large ships - except the very largest - had shifted decisively to the north-east coast, and in the late sixties and seventies, to a lesser extent to America. Accurate statistics are available only from 1787, when registration began, and the situation had by then changed markedly from that which had obtained a decade earlier, both because a substitute had had to be found for American shipbuilding and because commerce had grown. Nevertheless, some of these statistics are worth reproducing.

Tonnage of Ships Built in England, 1790-1791 (two years)

Tonnage Built

Number of Ships Built

Number of Ships Over 200 tons





East Anglia




South Coast




Bristol Channel and Wales




North-west Coast




North-east Coast








(p.68) In the last two or three decades before American independence, these various suppliers of ships to English owners developed their techniques in ways which made possible marked reduction in the size of ships' crews. The table below illustrates the change.

Average Tons per Man, British Ships Entering London56






Hamburg and Bremen












Spain and Portugal









Riga and Petersburg









Other West Indies





Virginia and Maryland





Translated into more concrete terms, this means that the 120-ton ship coming home from Cádiz, for example, which in the 1630s would have carried eighteen or nineteen men and in the 1680s fifteen or sixteen, dropped one or two more in the next half century and then came sharply down to a crew of nine after 1760. The 200-ton Virginia trader, during most of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, carried twenty or twenty-one men; by 1766 the normal crew would be more like thirteen.

This drastic reduction in crew size in the middle decades of the eighteenth century bespeaks a technical advance of some magnitude. For obvious reasons, it did not affect warships, whose superior size and self-importance, matched by superior documentation, has caused them to monopolize the attention of writers on the history of ships. No expert on ship design has ever examined in any detail ordinary merchant ships of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and, apart from East Indiamen, only the types that developed at the very end of the 1790s are at all known. The evidence of such a development in merchant ship design is, therefore, indirect. It is nonetheless conclusive.

The tables used here are constructed entirely from the records of Seamen's Sixpences57 (whose general accuracy has been discussed elsewhere) (p.69) or, for the year 1686, from the Registers of Passes. Suspicion about any eighteenth-century statistic is, no doubt, well justified, but the internal consistency of the data that can be built up from these particular records must convince anyone who works on them of their general validity. Moreover, long before I discovered the records of Seamen's Sixpences, this particular fact about the rapid decline in size of crews had been impressed on me by the abundant and incontrovertible evidence in Court of Admiralty cases, mostly concerned with crews' wage claims. To take examples from slightly different cases, the owners of the Newcastle collier Hunter, of 300 tons, declared in 1759 that she "had on board in the Service of the said Ship eleven Mariners officers included which was and is a full and sufficient Complement or Number of Hands to navigate the said Ship or any other Ship of the like Burthen and Rigging in the like Voyage."58 Similarly Betsey and Sally of 170 tons was said in 1766 to be navigated to Portugal by a crew of nine "which was and is a full and sufficient complement or number of Hands to navigate her or any other Ship of the like Burthen and Rigging in the like Voyage."59 Both these ships were involved in collisions, and the owners were anxious to show that their crews were large enough for proper handling. The suggestion that these were adequate crews for such ships would have been laughed out of the court a hundred, or even fifty years earlier. Again, the manning scales which were taken for granted by officials and writers in the late eighteenth century were ludicrously small by comparison with those found a hundred years earlier. George Chalmers, writing in 1790 on the alleged shipping tonnage of 1688, goes on to "allow them to have been navigated at the rate of 12 mariners to every 200 tons;"60 nobody in 1688 would have allowed such a thing, except in reference to the largest colliers and timber carriers.

Two things were happening. First, ships were being built, of almost every size, which could be manned by crews much smaller than those needed by the ships they replaced - except in the Norway trade, where a satisfactory manning level had been reached a century or more earlier. Second, the relative efficiency of the large ship was being increased, for the reduction in crew size (per ton) in large ships was, in and after mid-century, considerably greater than in small ones.

The size of ships was held down not by technical obstacles but by market possibilities; the larger the ship, the greater the risks of under-lading or of delay in securing a full lading. These risks were reduced, in each trade, as (p.70) the demand for tonnage in particular ports grew towards a point where any single ship's contribution to meeting that demand was insignificant; the Russian and Jamaica trades, that saw the most rapid growth in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, saw also the most rapid transition to the use of very large ships. The advantages of size in reducing running costs per ton had to be balanced against the increase in the risk of under-utilization, and the growth of most trades was gradually lowering that risk.

Towards the middle of the century, however, a new factor appeared. Until the 1730s or 1740s the economies of size, except in trades which carried goods with peculiar stowage requirements, such as timber, were quite small; the larger ship was in many trades operated at a cost hardly less per ton than a smaller one (below a certain minimum size, it is true, costs did rise sharply).61 Quite suddenly, the margin of efficiency of the large ship over the smaller began to increase rapidly. In the sixties the wage and victualling costs per ton of a large ship might be only two-thirds those of a ship half the size. Risks of under-utilization had to be large to outweigh such economies.62

By 1766, standards of manning of London ships in all the European trades had nearly reached those attained long before in ships going to Norway; the differences in average manning in that year revealed by the table on page 68 simply reflect the use of smaller ships in the trades outside Norway and the Baltic. In the transatlantic trades crews were much larger, but manning had nearly been assimilated to the standards of the Virginia traders, long the most efficient. East India ships were alone in maintaining very heavy manning.

Average Tons Per Man, in Ships of Various Sizes63


300 and over





under 50

Hamburg and Bremen














Spain and Portugal










Riga and Petersburg











Other West Indies






Virginia and Maryland





(p.71) It is to be hoped that nautical archaeologists will one day investigate these matters; in the meantime, we can only make tentative suggestions about the nature of the changes which led to the improved efficiency indicated by the declining crew size.

In the first place, the changes in hull design, introduced long before for the Norway and coal trades, were spreading to ships in other trades. It is significant that by mid-century the shipbuilders of Whitby were getting orders not only for timber-carriers and colliers but also for ships for the West India and other distant trades. It is not without importance, too, that the vessels chosen for James Cook's voyages of exploration were Whitby-built colliers. No two services could be more different than the coastal coal trade and the long ocean voyages for which Earl of Pembroke, collier, renamed Endeavour was engaged; if Whitby ships were suitable for such purposes they could be used in any trade where speed was not of the first importance.

The rule for measuring ships' tonnage, used by shipbuilders, by the Navy when hiring merchant ships, and by the Liverpool dock authorities, always produced a figure different from the tons burden which interested the merchant shipowner.64 The variation differed from ship to ship, but measurement was thought in the seventeenth century to produce, on the average, an excess of about thirty percent over tons burden. Late in the eighteenth century this difference had almost disappeared, taking the English merchant fleet as a whole, and for ships in many trades it had been reversed, tons burden exceeding measured tons. That is to say, late in the eighteenth century ships (particularly the larger ships) were carrying much more, in relation to their main dimensions, than they had done a century earlier. To do this, they were probably following the Dutch flyboats and the English colliers in the abandonment of fine lines, and coming closer to the shape of the oblong box which will - at its own pace - carry more than anything else contained within the same dimensions. "In time of war," said Captain Stevens in 1748, "ships are built sharp, and in time of peace, full…most ships are now built in such a manner as to take the Ground loaded," i.e., full-built, flat-bottomed.65 "Flat floors for stowing and carrying great burthens, or sharp floors for sailing fast," wrote William Hutchinson towards the end of the century.66

(p.72) It is possible to write much more positively about rig, for this has left ample evidence behind.67 The great step forward in late medieval times - the introduction of the lateen mizzen to the square-rigged ships of Northern Europe - had resulted, by the early sixteenth century, in a common rig of spritsail, foresail and foretopsail, mainsail and main topsail, and lateen mizzen. This rig, which has been supposed almost universal in ordinary merchant ships as late as the early eighteenth century68 was in fact being modified at least as early as 1600 in merchant ships of quite moderate size, and by 1700 was hardly ever to be found. After too many of the larger merchant ships carried a third (topgallant) sail on the mainmast; fore-topgallant sails were coming into use soon after, but were uncommon before the fifties. Both these sails were used increasingly, until by the 1720s all but the smallest three-masted ships carried at least one of them, and ships of quite moderate size had both. Stay-sails, too, were in use here and there early in the seventeenth century; they came quite rapidly into general use in the second half of the century, and were increased in numbers, so that a typical ship of the years around 1750 would carry two (usually maintop- and fore-staysail) and many carried three. The mizzen-topsail, again, was well-known before 1650 and spreading very fast into general use; by the eighties most ships had one. Throughout the seventeenth century the spritsail was very often supplemented by the spritsail-topsail; after the advent of the jib in the 1720s there was a period when these three sails were available for use simultaneously, but the jib gradually drove out its two rivals. Studding sails were known before the seventeenth century and very slowly spread into quite wide use, but many ships did not use them even in the middle of the next century. The growing practice of reefing sails is reflected in the disappearance of bonnets, carried by most ships of the 1650s but almost unknown after 1700.

There was, then, a steady growth in the complexity of three-masted rig. Robert Bonaventure, 150 tons, carried in 1644 a mainsail, main topsail, foresail, foretop-sail, mizzen and mizzen topsail, spritsail and spritsail-topsail, and one staysail. William and Mary, a ship of the same size just a century later, had all these except the spritsail-topsail; she had two staysails (main-topsail- and foretopsail-staysails) and was embellished additionally with main- (p.73) and fore-topgallant sails and a jib.69 These two ships were quite typical of their respective epochs.

The gain from this gradual multiplication of sails was an improved capacity for sailing close to the wind; since every voyage down the English Channel was likely to encounter the prevailing south-westerlies this was specially important to English shipping - though not so markedly as to make any clear impact on the rather vague records of average voyage times. Faster and safer voyages were made possible. In addition, the breaking up of the total sail area into smaller units should have made it possible to handle ships with slightly smaller crews.

To these gradual and continuous developments in rig was added, from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a new element in the adoption of two-masted rigs for larger ships. Nobody would have considered, in 1644, replacing Robert Bonaventure of 150 tons by a two-masted vessel; the owners of William and Mary in 1745 would find it difficult to decide between the two-masted and three-masted alternatives available to them. It has long been known that the large brig and snow had come into widespread use before the end of the eighteenth century; it is now possible to date their advent fairly precisely. Two sources point to the same conclusions. The Court of Admiralty appraisements show that, between 1680 and 1720, the dividing line between the normally two-masted and the normally three-masted ship came at fifty to sixty tons burden; that is to say, almost all ships other than coasters (outside the coal trade) and those engaged in traffic across the English Channel and the Irish Sea were three-masted.70 Change began to come in after the ending of the long war with France in 1713; by the early thirties the dividing-line between the two- and three-masted ship was at eighty to ninety tons, and was rising rapidly to well above 100 tons in the forties and 140-150 tons in the sixties. The evidence from ships' passes issued by the Admiralty71 leads to the same conclusion, though it must be remembered that passes were used mainly by ships trading outside the English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic. They show that in 1686-1687 there was only a handful of two-masted ships of more than forty to fifty tons; in the eighteenth century the dividing lines are as shown in the following table: (p.74)

Port of Ownership








Bristol, Liverpool, Whitehaven




North-east Ports




(a) Too few ships from these ports were engaged in trades needing passes, for any satisfactory estimate to be made.

The appraisements, of unquestionable accuracy, may be thought to be too few to support their conclusions adequately. The passes may be suspected of inaccuracies though they yield very large samples. But the two sets of evidence lead to an identical conclusion which can hardly be doubted - that the two-masted ship (generally, in the eighteenth century, described as a brig or snow) began to go up the scale of size at some date well on into the eighteenth century, the change reaching its fastest rate in the middle decades. The passes suggest - though this conclusion is less certain - that the north-east coast was the leader in this as in other shipping developments, and that plantation-built ships were, as yet, in no way in advance of English-built.

In the eighteenth century the word "snow" begins to appear in every casual aside in naval histories or in the accounts of ports or of voyages. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first printing of the word as applied to an English ship as 1722. The Whitby collier brigs are among the earliest merchant ships to have attracted the attention of the nautical archaeologists; who has heard of them before the eighteenth century? These two ships, the brig and the snow, may be called the typical ships of the middle decades of the eighteenth century. They were almost identical and both were used for all purposes, but the snow was more commonly the ocean voyager while the brig could be found most often in home waters, and particularly those of the North Sea. One of their best-known characteristics was the small crew they required.

With the growth in the number of different types of rig, the practice of classifying ships by rig began to appear late in the eighteenth century. The names did not correspond with modern usage; "brig" for example was simply an abbreviation of "brigantine" and the two terms were sometimes used interchangeably for the same ship. In considering the composition of the English merchant fleet on the eve of the American Revolution, size is still a more useful means of classification than rig; the build of hulls might be more useful still, but reliable information on this escapes us.

In 1774, all the larger ships - that is all ships over 300 tons and nearly all over 200 - were three-masted. A distinction was beginning to emerge, however, between the "ship-rigged" vessel with square sails on every mast (though of course the mizzen carried a lateen sail or a spanker as well) (p.75) and the "bark" (barque)72 with no square sail on the mizzen mast. After mid-century, the maximum size of merchant ships began to increase again, as it had not done since the last decade of the seventeenth century. East Indiamen, which had been vessels of 500-700 tons during much of the eighteenth century,73 passed the 700-ton level again in 1764 with Speke, and in 1769 Prince, Princess Royal and Bessborough of 860-870 tons for the first time exceeded the size of King William of 1690.74 In the Baltic trade, the typical 300-350 ton trader of the previous half-century was being replaced in the sixties by ships of 400-500 tons, and a few giants of 600 and even 700 tons were appearing in the North Russian timber trade. Outside the East India, Baltic and Russian trades the very large ship was rare, but on transatlantic routes vessels of 300-400 tons were frequently to be met. The large, strongly built, well furnished and handsomely decorated East Indiamen, and the largest West India traders, were Thames-built ships, costly to build and costly to run; the large Baltic traders were turned out of the yards of Whitby, Newcastle and Scarborough, and their function was cheap operation to carry cheap cargoes.

London had owned about thirty ships of 350 tons or more in 1640. By 1689 the number had more than doubled, to almost seventy, nearly half of them in the East India trade; in the next half-century, while the merchant fleet continued to grow, the number of ships of this size was not augmented.75 Between the end of the 1730s and 1774, however, the number of these large London ships doubled again to about 150, and the registration figures of 1788 show 200 ships of 360 tons or more belonging to London.76 There were probably less than half-a-dozen ships of this size belonging to the outports at any time in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century; their numbers began to go up in the 1730s as the larger timber-carriers passed this size and a handful of the largest Bristol and Liverpool ships attained it. In 1788 there were 110 ships (p.76) of 360 tons or more belonging to the outports, half of them to ports of the north-east coast.77

All these large vessels were ship-rigged. In the next range of size, from 200-350 tons, this can no longer be said. Ships of this size were still the mainstay of the transatlantic trades - many of them, in 1774, were American-built - and made up a majority of the Baltic and Norway traders and of east coast colliers. Some of the larger ships bringing goods from Spain and the Mediterranean were also within this range of size. Many of the east coast colliers were barques, and this rig may have been extended to some vessels in other trades.

Nearly all ships, however, were much smaller than 200 tons, even as late as 1788. The registration of that year enumerated 9355 ships owned in English ports; 7756 of them - five ships out of every six - were of less than 200 tons. The proportion would have been appreciably higher two decades earlier. In this range, where most ships were to be found, the two-masted ship now predominated. There were collier brigs - few colliers of less than 200 tons were three-masted - and brigs and snows carried on most of the trade with Southern Europe, Germany and Holland, and much of the transatlantic traffic. The colliers and some of the other craft trading in the North Sea were built on the north-east coast; a high proportion of the remaining tonnage must, in 1774, have been American-built.

At the very bottom, the vast numbers of small craft of twenty, thirty, forty or fifty tons which carried on much of the coasting trade, which plied across the Channel and to Ireland, and were well-known in Amsterdam and Hamburg, included along with brigs and ketches a variety of one-masted craft - hoys, doggers, bilanders, sloops and a handful of schooners. They were the products of the small building yards still to be found in all ports of the English coastline.

In numbers, in build of hull, in rig, in size, English merchant ships had seen great change in the two centuries between the dates of the Elizabethan surveys and the beginnings of detailed registration of ships. The first portents of even greater changes, which would transform the shipping industry, were just visible to the most far-seeing; Fitch's steamboats were on the Delaware in 1785, Wilkinson's iron boat on the Severn two years later. Before their promise was realized, however, the operation of wooden sailing ships was to have another three-quarters of a century of expansion, on a scale as yet unprecedented.


(1) The payments at the rate of sixpence a month made by merchant seamen for the upkeep of Greenwich Hospital; see Ralph Davis, "Seamen's Sixpences: An Index of Commercial Activity 1697-1828," Economica, New ser., XXIII, No. 2 (1956), 328-343. Details of tonnage and crews of all ships entering London from 1725 are in Great Britain, National Archives (TNA/PRO), Admiralty (ADM) 68/194/218, ledgers of the Receiver of Sixpences.

(2) Data from charter parties in the High Court of Admiralty (HCA) records.

(3) TNA/PRO, ADM 7/75/6, passes.

(4) 2 and 3 Charles II, c. 12.

(5) Alfred C. Wood, A History of the Levant Company (Oxford, 1935; reprint, New York, 1964), 211.

(6) Statistics of manning in the Mediterranean trade are bedevilled for nearly a century by masters' habits of declaring their crews as thirty-two men; it is easy, though time-wasting, to fmd out, for example, that the 200-ton ship of about 1730 normally carried eighteen or nineteen men into the Mediterranean.

(7) Ships going to Jamaica were exceptionally heavily manned in 1726 and 1736 because of quarrels with Spain over smuggling in which Jamaica was especially concerned.

(8) 1686: TNA/PRO, ADM 7/75/76); 1726 and 1736: TNA/PRO, ADM 68/194-196, Seamen's Sixpences.

(9) The average size of ships in Spanish trade fell sharply in the third quarter of the seventeenth century.

(10) TNA/PRO, HCA 30/635.

(11) TNA/PRO, HCA 30/638.

(12) John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry (2 vols., London, 1932; reprint, London, 1966), I, 391.

(13) See page 56, note 8 above.

(14) See T.S. Willan, The English Coasting Trade (Manchester, 1938; reprint, Manchester, 1967), 16. The considerable number of north-east coast colliers whose masters paid their Seamen's Sixpences in London in the second quarter of the eighteenth century show manning ratios of twenty tons per man or more.

(15) John C. Cremer, Ramblin' Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer (London, 1936), 71. Two pinks of 200-300 tons were launched at Stockton in 1677; one of them "the largest vessel that ever came nigh Stockton;" TNA/PRO, State Papers (SP) 29/391/59. Ships described as pinks were very often of the new, flyboat-type construction.

(16) Roger Fisher, Hearts of Oak: The British Bulwark (London, 1763; reprint, Charleston, SC, 2010), 38-39.

(17) Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MSS, A. 177-167.

(18) Ephraim Lipson, The Economic History of England (3 vols., London, 1915; reprint, Ithaca, NY, 2009), II, 178-179. Crowley's bills continually appear among ships' papers in the late seventeenth century.

(19) Calendar of State Papers, Domestic (CSPD), 1625-1626, 532; and 1626-1627, 500.

(20) Blome said there were 100 ships; this at a time when the port of Hull, if the Mayor can be believed, possessed only forty-four; TNA/PRO, SP 29/325/127. Camden's editor says there were sixty ships of eighty tons or more; this would be sufficient to put it in the front rank of English seaports.

(21) The Case of the Town and Port of Whitby, in the North Riding of the County of York (London, 1710).

(22) British Museum (BM), Additional Manuscripts (Add. MSS.) 11,255.

(23) I Anne c. 19.

(24) Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons, Journals, 1745-1750, 910.

(25) Ibid., 1732-1737, 388.

(26) Frederick Walter Dendy (ed.), Extracts from the Records of the Company of Hostmen of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Durham, 1901; reprint, Charleston, SC, 2010), 196-197.

(27) TNA/PRO, ADM 68/199.

(28) See the figures in BM, Add. MSS. 11,255.

(29) George Young, A History of Whitby (Whitby, 1813; reprint, Whitby, 1976), 548-554.

(30) Richard Weatherill, The Ancient Port of Whitby and its Shipping: With Some Subjects of Interest Connected Therewith (Whitby, 1908; reprint, Whitefish, MT, 2009), 25-30.

(31) J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook (4 vols., Cambridge, 1967; reprint, Sydney, NSW, 2000), I, cxxiii-cxxviii.

(32) BM, Add. MSS. 9324.

(33) 5 George II, c. II.

(34) Arthur S. Rowntree (ed.), The History of Scarborough (London, 1931), 187-192.

(35) There is some information on shipbuilding in Sunderland, South Shields and Stockton in William Page (ed.), Victoria County History of Durham, Vol. //(London, 1907), 303-308. Though Newcastle was always a shipbuilding centre, there is virtually no information about it before the later eighteenth century. Much of the shipbuilding credited to it in the statistics was carried on at South Shields.

(36) Charles M. Andrews, British Committees, Commissions and Councils of Trade and Plantations, 1622-75(Baltimore, 1908), 128.

(37) One- and two-masted vessels were given type names descriptive of their rig.

(38) There is a useful summary of the history of American shipbuilding, with references to the literature, in John G.B. Hutchins, The American Maritime Industries and Public Policy, 1789-1914 (Cambridge, MA, 1941; reprint, Westport, CT, 1969), 144-157.

(39) See Robert G. Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 1652-1862 (Cambridge, MA, 1926; reprint, Annapolis, MD, 2000), 238-245.

(40) Roger Coke, A Discourse of Trade in Two Parts (London, 1670; reprint, London, 2011), 223.

(41) John Ramsay McCulloch (ed.), Early English Tracts on Commerce (London, 1856; reprint, Cambridge, 1952), 610.

(42) TNA/PRO, ADM 7/75-76.

(43) TNA/PRO, SP 29/242/64. See also S.E., The Touchstone of Money and Commerce (1660).

(44) TNA/PRO, Colonial Office (CO) 5/869/67.

(45) Ibid., 915/430. The year 1710 was a serious one for London shipbuilders because it saw the end of naval contracts to private yards, which were not resumed until 1741.

(46) Peter Faneuil wrote in 1736, "It is much cheaper to buy Vessells in the River of Thames than to have them built here for the present;" William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789 (Boston, 1789; reprint, London, 2011), 484.

(47) These approximate figures may be deduced from passes, assuming that very few American ships were employed in the Baltic and North Sea trades.

(48) Richard Champion, Considerations on the Present Situation of Great Britain and the United States of North America, with a View to Their Future Commercial Connections, Particularly Designed to Expose the Dangerous Tendency of a Late Pamphlet (London, 1784; reprint, London, 2010), 14-15. Chalmers' figures for the same date show 2311 out of 6219 as American-built, but these are based on Lloyd's Register of Shipping and are incomplete and probably selective; George Chalmers, Opinions on Interesting Subjects of Public Law and Commercial Policy Arising from American Independence (London, 1784; reprint, London, 2010), 99.

(49) David MacPherson, Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, and Navigation, with Brief Notices of the Arts and Sciences Connected with Them (4 vols., London, 1805; reprint, Charleston, SC, 2011), IV, 10.

(50) TNA/PRO, SP 30/774.

(51) TNA/PRO, HCA 32/94/160, index. Warships are excluded from all these figures. The HCA records probably represent total prizes accurately after the exposure of scandals in the war of 1702-1713.

(52) Ibid., 32/161/259.

(53) The fact that these forms were printed (in French on the front and in English on the reverse) with special headings for each of the French admiralty jurisdictions, indicates that great numbers were used. One in the HCA dated 1712 is numbered 4246, from the admiralty of Dunkirk (HCA, r5-29; Hope). The practice of ransom was not a new one, but it had been less widely used in the past.

(54) Purchase abroad was not unknown in the eighteenth century. For a few years, indeed, foreign-built ships occasionally obtained the freedom of English-built by means of private acts of parliament; but this practice was ended after petitions in 1709 against "the excessive number of bills brought in for naturalising foreign-built ships" (House of Commons, Journals, 1708-1711, 148, 150 and 151). Failing such naturalization, these vessels were restricted by the Navigation Acts to a very narrow range of uses; but there was nothing to stop the owner of a ship built in Sweden, for example, employing her in trade with that country. His difficulty was that he had practically no alternative trades to fall back on.

(55) Ronald Stewart-Brown, Liverpool Ships of the Eighteenth Century (Liverpool, 1932). The largest individual shipbuilding ports, after London, were Newcastle (12,444 tons), Whitby (11,945), Hull (8193), Liverpool (6710), Yarmouth (4302), Sunderland (3951), Whitehaven (3630) and Bristol (3071).

(56) TNA/PRO, ADM 68/194/203.

(57) Ibid., 68/194 et seq.

(58) TNA/PTO, HCA 15/53.

(59) Ibid., 15/57.

(60) George Chalmers, An Estimate of the Comparative Strength of Great-Britain during the Present and Four Preceding Reigns; and of the Losses of Her Trade from Every War since the Revolution (London, 1794; reprint, London, 2012), 57.

(61) About fifty tons in European (other than timber) trades and 100 tons in transatlantic trade.

(62) The larger ship cost a little more per ton to build and repair, but the difference this made to operating costs was trivial.

(63) TNA/PRO, ADM 68/203, ships entering London.

(64) See page 7 above.

(65) House of Commons, Journals, 1745-1750, 761-765.

(66) William Hutchinson, A Treatise on Naval Architecture Founded upon Philosophical and Rational Principles, Towards Establishing Fixed Rules for the Best Form of Merchants Ships and also the Management of Them (London, 1794; reprint, London, 2010), 19. See also the drawings of an English West Indiaman in F.H. Chapman, Architectura Navalis Mercatoria (Stockholm, 1768; reprint, New York, 2006), plate 52.

(67) A ship arrested by order of the High Court of Admiralty might ultimately be sold, or might be released on a money security being given. In either case the ship was appraised, and a complete inventory of everything removable was made. The many hundreds of appraisements and inventories which are in the court records (HCA 4) make it possible to trace in great detail the developments in equipment - including sails - for ships of every size, from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

(68) G.S. Laird Clowes, Sailing Ships: Their History and Development (London, 1932; reprint, London, 1962), 89.

(69) TNA/PRO, HCA 15/5 and 15/43.

(70) There is no significant difference in this respect between English-built ships and foreign-built ships in English ownership (Rawlinson MSS, A.295-87 - a list of foreign ships made free, 1674-1676).

(71) TNA/PRO, ADM 7/75 et seq.

(72) This term, again, was not consistently applied; see William Falconer, A Universal Dictionary of the Marine; or a Copious Explanation of the Technical Terms and Phrases Employed in the Construction of a Ship (London, 1769; reprint, London, 2010), under "BARK."

(73) See page 251 below on ambiguities in East India tonnage.

(74) The 1690 figure for King William is probably of tons burden; the other figures for East Indiamen are measured tonnage, which at these dates was probably slightly more than tons burden.

(75) William Maitland, History of London from Its Foundation to the Present Time (2 vols., London, 1756; reprint, London, 2003), II, 1259-1262, lists sixty-eight ships of 350 tons and over belonging to London in 1732.

(76) TNA/PRO, Customs (CUST) 17/10.

(77) Ibid;