Monday, 24 August 2009

Shiver my timbers

The other day, you remember, that day when the sun was shining, I thought about getting out and about with my camera.  One of the places I wanted to visit was Bucklers Hard, an attractive place in itself, but what interested me was that fact that it was an important centre for shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries, using timber from the New Forest.  Shipbuilders in those days were ideally located near both the ports they served and the sources of timber.  Association of ideas then took me off to the HMS Victory in Portsmouth which I saw earlier this year.

There were so many different woods used on HMS Victory, from the structure of the hull down to the food barrels and the brooms used to sweep the decks.

  • Oak
We probably all think of oak as being the timber used - "Hearts of Oak" - and it was, 90% of the Victory was oak.  It took the equivalent of 100 acres of woodland, and the need for regeneration of forests was understood even then.  Admiral Collingwood used to fill his pockets with acorns to scatter in suitable places, to ensure future supplies.  An act of considerable optimism.

  • Elm
Elm was valuable to ship builders because it doesn't rot when kept in water.  The keel of the Victory and the planking under the waterline were made from lengths of elm.  It was also used for casing the pumps, in the capstan used to raise the ship's anchor, in pulleys, and for the gun carriages.  Its strong and irregular grain and bendable nature made it ideal for planking in the ship's boats too, used not as lifeboats but as tugs or for transporting goods and people.

  • Pine
Scots pine, fir and spruce were used to make masts because they grow tall and straight, as well as being supple and lightweight.  As there wasn't enough Scots pine available, a great deal of wood had to be imported from the Baltic.

The figurehead would have been carved from elm or oak because it had to be able to withstand the elements in the very exposed position it held.

  • Ash
The wood from ash trees is strong and springy, and tolerates impact.  It  was used to make the ship's wheel, the tiller, poles to ram shot into the guns, and as levers and pulleys.

  • Yew
The wood from this tree was seen in contrasting places on HMS Victory. Below the waterline was the carpenter's store room and where the tool handles were yew.  High above in the admiral's quarters at the stern of the ship, some of Nelson's finest pieces of furniture would have been made from yew.  The beautiful deep colour was much sought after.

  • Hazel
Hazel wood is an inexpensive and widely available wood, that regrows quickly when cut back to the ground.  At the time of HMS Victory it was very widely used.  Being flexible and strong it was used for the hoops that bound together wooden casks that contained food such as peas, oatmeal, biscuit and other dried food.  It was also used for hoops on gunpowder barrels. 

  • Black poplar
For safety reasons cartridges were transported in boxes from the gunpowder store to the guns.  Boxes varied in size according to the type of cartridges needed for each gun.  They had to be lightweight so the cases were made from poplar and fitted with an elm lid.  There were 240 of these cases on the Victory.

  • Alder, birch, rowan and willow
These were all used in the making of charcoal which in turn was used to make gunpowder.  Charcoal was also used to keep the gunpowder dry.  Rowan wood had an additional use in bowls and plates.

  • Beech
Beech trees produce hard, fine grained, easily worked wood.  It was used for internal woodwork and furniture and pulleys

  • Silver Birch
Finally, last but not least, silver birch. Twigs from this lovely tree were plentiful and cheap. Brooms and brushes were made of them by the ship's boys who were given the most menial tasks. The youngest crew member on the Victory was just 12 years old.

After a long list like that, it's easy to see that woods and forests played a huge part but were quickly depleted.  Three of the ships built  in Bucklers Hard were at the Battle of Trafalgar so the demand for wood was high.  Nelson himself acknowledged the importance of trees to the success of the British navy and, in 1803, wrote to Parliament calling for more trees to be planted to safeguard ship building timber supplies.  Two hundred years after that battle, the Woodland Trust is engaged in a five year project to plant 12 million trees in 33 woods throughout the UK, the Trafalgar Woods project.  Each wood is named after one of the ships in the battle - 27 ships of the line plus support vessels.

The Project celebrates the crucial part played by timber in the UK's nautical past, links the past with the present, and regenerates the landscape.  It is a unique but very appropriate way to remember the battle, echoing commemorative tree-planting done at the time.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. That's truly amazing. I had no idea. And I would not have thought the masts would be made of pine since they would have to be very strong. But as thick as they were, I guess they were plenty strong. Very interesting post. :)

    Shiver "me" timbers, though. :)

  2. Now who was this Nelson fellow again?

  3. Very interesting this. Quite complicated making all these ships with so many different woods. We still use lots today but rarely think about it. Far too many woods/forests have disappeared.

  4. A terrific post - thank you. What people can tend to forget is that the warships of those days were
    technological marvels - every bit as advanced in their time as anything in our modern age.

  5. @Max, I understand the mast were made in three sections and the base would be made from up to 7 trunks which I imagine would give extra strength.
    "Shiver my timbers" is the written version from that prime source of pirate speak, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. You are at liberty to pronounce it in your own way, but no Disney here please.
    Nelson? Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB, to you. :)

    @Adullamite, it was a revelation to me when I read up about it. It makes you wonder what the New forest used to look like.

    @LR, many thanks. The more you go into it, the more amazing it is. The Victory fascinates me and I'd love to go on one of the special evenings to see the full thing and learn more, but at £25 per person it seems a bit steep. A lot steep.

  6. I also never knew the masts were made of different types of wood. However wood bends so it does make sense. Great info and photos.

  7. What a great and readable post! You know a Norwegian Viking is very familiar with woods and boats like that! :-)

    Happy Weekend!

  8. May be barking up the wrong tree (sorry), but was under the impression that the New Forest was planted by Henry VIII to avoid running out of trees to build the Royal Navy

  9. @PS, apparently on the larger ships they had to last several trees together for the lower sections of the mast.

    @Renny, thank you, especially coming from a Norwegian. :)

    @j, not according to the h'official website, or even, Wikipedia. It was William the Conqueror who wanted royal hunting grounds and so designated the New Forest as a Royal Forest. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book. The poor quality of the soil has meant that any forest cleared has turned into heathland rather than regrown.

  10. Wow! Beautiful pictures of the boat. Of course, I love eye candy.

  11. Very glad to stand corrected. Knew it had something to do with some blue-blood or other.

  12. childrens furniture8 January 2010 at 11:00

    The first ship picture reminds me of the Mary Rose which I saw as a kid in Liverpool Dock Yards (UK). They're incredible up close.


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin