“This Foul and Hellish Fraud”: Shipbuilding and Scandal During the Napoleonic Wars
By Frances Reynolds, author of The Wallflower
In the prologue of The Wallflower, the sinking of a Royal Navy ship on its maiden voyage leads to the discovery of fraud committed against the Navy and the Crown by multiple shipyards. These shipyards used shoddy materials and false components such as “devil bolts” (more on those later) to put more of the contracted price in the shipbuilders’ pockets, endangering lives and possibly the outcome of the war itself.
It sounds like a fiction, and though the HMS Moyne and the hands lost aboard her was my own invention, as was the more salubrious involvement of one Mr Edward Gardiner in related events, such frauds were a fact of shipbuilding during the Age of Sail.
The importance of the Navy to Britain during the war years can hardly be overstated. Warships of all sizes and classes were needed not only to battle the enemy’s ships, but to move troops and supplies, enforce blockades, and protect England and its vital trade routes. The Navy expanded rapidly during the war years, and while ships captured from the enemy were an important addition to the fleet, many new ships were being made in British shipyards as well. Some of these ships were built by the Navy in its own yards, but others were constructed in private, commercial shipyards by contract with the Admiralty.
Though these contracts with merchant shipyards were responsible for more than twice the tonnage the Navy produced during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). they did not always proceed smoothly or produce quality ships. Part of the problem was the ability of merchant yards to deliver contracted ships on schedule: an Admiralty document on privately built ships from 1801 to 1806 listed completion of nearly half of over 500 ships as “late”.
Although the Admiralty relied upon merchant shipyards to produce so many vessels, trust was in short supply. The Navy Board preferred to concentrate these contracts in shipyards near London, where inspectors could be deployed at the first rumor of malfeasance, due to several incidents in the preceding half-century:
There are plenty of documented occasions when standards fell short, such as a visit in 1755 by the Surveyor, Sir Thomas Slade, to Adams’ yard at Bucklers Hard, when he found substandard work on the frame of a frigate: 'came away very angry’. Blaydes’ yard at Hull began to acquire a bad reputation when the Temple sank after only three years’ service, when the Ardent was found to be rotten not long after launching. In 1775 Barnard’s yard at Harwich used treenails made from inferior timber.
This distrust seems not to have been misplaced. In May of 1805, Lord Darnley called for an investigation into merchant shipyards, describing ships “ill-built, so utterly disproportioned in their masts, rudders, ropes, rigging, and guns, and so high above the water, as to be totally unmanageable and unfit for service”, which were “under fifty guns, and yet the cost the government as much as seventy-four gun ships built in his majesty’s dock-yards.”
It was alleged elsewhere that devil bolts—“neither more nor less than the heads and tails of bolts, about two inches long, cut off and placed where the builder supposed the entire bolt to have gone through, the intermediate part being filled up with a wooden plug or trenail, whilst the head on the outside, and the tail forelocked within, gave the deceitful promise of security”—were responsible for the sinking of the HMS York in 1804 and the HMS Blenheim in 1807, “and the Albion of 74 guns we know to have been very nearly the victim to this foul and hellish fraud”.
Claims of ships lost to shoddy construction were nearly impossible to prove, and indeed would still be today despite advances in technology, but these fraudulent practices were discovered and documented by inspectors and sailors in ships that had not (yet) sunk. It is quite possible, even likely, that lives were lost to this wrongdoing. The greatest fiction of the shipbuilding scandal I created for The Wallflower may lie in the prosecution of the perpetrators, for I have yet to find any mention of consequences beyond lost contracts and damaged reputations.
Devil Bolts and Deception https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/21533369.2003.9668328?needAccess=true&role=button
House of Lords, 24 May 1805, State of the Navy https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1805/may/24/state-of-the-navy
The Royal Navy and The Peninsular War https://www.waterlooassociation.org.uk/2018/06/26/the-royal-navy-and-the-peninsular-war/
Life and Correspondence of John, Earl of St. Vincent: Volume 2, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=4dABAAAAMAAJ&rdid=book-4dABAAAAMAAJ&rdot=1&pli=1
The Role of The Royal Navy In The Napoleonic Wars After Trafalgar, 1805-1814 https://www.jstor.org/stable/c876467b-9dc2-3b3f-8959-b5a963014f20?seq=12
Shipbuilding on the Thames at Redriff, Thomas Whitcombe (signed and dated 1792). (Neg. no. BHC1868, © National Maritime Museum) - Public domain
Launch of a sixth-rate on the River Orwell, John Cleveley (the Elder).(Neg. no. BHC1044, © National Maritime Museum.) - Public domain
The Board of Admiralty: Engraving published as Plate 3 of Microcosm of London (1808)
Author Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers) - Public domain
The wreck of the Copeland of South Shields, at Scarborough, 2 November 1861 (painting by Joseph Newington Carter) - Wikimedia Commons