Richard Endsor

The Master Shipwright's Secrets

My book Restoration Warship covered a great deal about seventeenth-century shipbuilding. However, it was not quite the complete story as I was aware of one or two unpleasantly difficult subjects I had not really addressed. I skipped over them at the time being fairly confident that no one would notice and take me to task. My conscience troubled me and as I consider myself a reasonably decent sort of fellow I felt obliged to spend countless hours putting things to rights in this new book, The Master Shipwright's Secrets. While I used the 3rd rate Lenox as the star character for The Restoration Warship I used the fourth rate Tyger of 1681 for The Master Shipwright's Secrets.


The first difficult subject I addressed was how the Master Shipwrights obtained their rising and narrowing lines used to control the hull shape. Several contemporary treatises on the subject exist, such as Anthony Deane's Doctrine of Naval Architecture. Although incredibly useful, its explanations are in basic form using simple arcs of a circle when they must have been much more complex in reality. One of the great engineers of the Restoration age, Sir Henry Sheers, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Samuel Pepys concerning shipwright's secrets and their mysterious lines "the rising and narrowing of the breadth, floors, etc are all marked up on moulds and rods which lay up and down among the workmen and marked upon the timbers themselves which marks and measures are the results of those mysterious lines as they are called by which a ship is built."


The ever-inquisitive Samuel Pepys kept a paper written by the shipwright, John Shish, containing the three-dimensional digital co-ordinates of the mysterious lines for every frame position defining the hull surface of a fourth-rate ship. By working backwards from his calculations, the jealously guarded formulae used by Shish has been revealed for the first time in 340 years. Doing the sums for this would require the mathematical genius of an Isaac Newton or Alan Turing. Without their help, I resorted to the modern computer and tested possible formulae in a loop which gave instant results and at the same time compared the computer-generated test results against the seventeenth-century originals. Although of fundamental importance and interest to the Master Shipwrights in building their ships it is probably a sad fact that books about sums may not be hugely popular. Happily, the formulae are based on geometry and I was able to describe them with illustrations. With some ingenuity, I managed to use only 11 pages on the subject out of the 304 available.


Almost as elusive is the way moulds were made and used to mark out the frame timbers. These fundamental skills have almost been forgotten and required considerable research along a neglected and almost forgotten path. Contemporary or near contemporary descriptions are almost impossible to follow and reading the works before bedtime is not recommended as they can lead to frightening nightmares. A bit like watching a television programme about quantum mechanics and realising how very simple-minded you are. Once the penny eventually dropped I realised how much easier it is to understand the different types of moulds by illustrating them rather than using the written word alone.


The book follows how King Charles enthusiastically embraced ship development and was interested in fast ships suitable for use in the Mediterranean. He unsuccessfully tried true galleys, then hybrid sailing ships that could be rowed, the galley frigates. After they were criticised, he developed the concept which was to result in the Tyger. Under mysterious circumstances following the political turmoil caused by the Popish Plot, Charles rebuilt the old Tyger of 1647 which had been broken up years earlier. The only person privy to his devious plan was his Master Shipwright at Deptford, John Shish. This beautiful ship is fully reconstructed and illustrated with many large-scale drawings. Charles's experiments were a path that led to the evolution of the frigates of the eighteenth century.


Similar ships to the Tyger built along the same stretch of Thames during the same period are also described and illustrated in detail. Also examined are other successful and unsuccessful developments of the age and the manner of rebuilds and alterations. The time and expense taken to keep a wooden ship repaired and maintained ready for sea service are also studied. Among the findings in the book is a particular style of ship model making used at Deptford which helps in the identification of surviving models from the period.


A daunting task for the student of seventeenth-century shipbuilding is reading and understanding contemporary contracts. The difficulty is due to the obscure words used and barely legible writing. To interpret and make them usable, five important surviving contracts for fourth-rate ships have been transcribed with headings while every mentioned ship part is indexed with reference to a visual glossary. They span the years from 1649 till 1692 and expose all the changes and developments that took place during that time.


The large-format book has four sections of fold-out plans at 1/72 scale of three fourth-rate ships built during the 1680s, the Tyger, Mordaunt and the St Albans. All are in colour as are the hundreds of other illustrations. The book is primarily aimed at ship technology historians, archaeologists and those who delight in the beautiful ships of the seventeenth century. Another community who may be interested are the model makers. I hesitate to mention them as this is primarily a book about ships and not about models. One model maker criticised The Restoration Warship as I used the Dutch artist Van de Velde's drawing of the stern of Lenox rather than use an inferior plan of my own. Having said that, there are scale plans enough to build a model of any one of several ships.


I do have to thank the publisher, Osprey, an offshoot of Bloomsbury Publications for producing such an impressive book at such a modest price. To layout, such a book with so many foldouts and illustrations, many of which had to be in precisely the right place next to the accompanying text, took an awful lot of hard work. One or two minor illustrations had to be dropped to save space while in other places one or two fill-in images were added. It is to the credit of publisher, author and the poor guy who did the layout, all kept our nerve and patiently toiled away until we got it right. Right up to version 18.




© 2020, Endsor

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