Monday, May 11, 2015

HMS Taunton 1654, the first ship known to be built on Rotherhithe for the Royal Navy

London in the 1600s, showing a mainly rural
Rotherhithe at far right
Rotherhithe was a major ship-building centre from at least the 17th Century until the late 19th Century.  The superb shipbuilding heritage of Rotherhithe is often forgotten, but it was the main industry in Rotherhithe for 150 years and defined the Rotherhithe peninsula during that time.  The fact that its shipbuilding heritage has vanished so completely from Rotherhithe's landscape and memory is so sad.  There are of course traces - inlets here and there along the Thames frontage that mark the places where shipbuilding docks once operated, and the still intact Nelson Dock, where both naval and commercial ships were built for over a century.  But most of the story of Rotherhithe's shipbuilding past lies in the records that remain of ships built along the foreshore, their careers, the people who served on them, the battles in which they served and the places with which they traded.  With England at war throughout much of the 18th Century, all parts of the country were impacted, and it is easy to forget that war and warships were front-line activities for London shipbuilders.

HMS Taunton is one of a handful of 17th Century ships built in Rotherhithe of which I have been able to find a record.  She was the first warship known for certain to have been constructed at Rotherhithe and was launched by William Castle in 1654 and lasted for a truly impressive 65 years, seeing considerable naval action during her lifetime. Brothers William and Robert Castle appear to have been well established by the time that Taunton was built.  HMS Taunton is the first of their ships to be recorded in Rotherhithe, but others were also built at the yard including three 8-gun yachts, Monmouth, Navy and Kitchen in 1666, 1666 and 1670 respectively, a 25-gun fireship called Griffin in 1690 and the 10-gun ketch Hart in 1691.  The exact location for the shipyard remains elusive.  The Castle Shipbreaking site has this to say on the subject:

The first we learn of the Castles occupying land on the Thames at Rotherhithe is from a map belonging to the Earl of Salisbury dated 1610. The exact location of the Yard is not easy to pinpoint but it is known to be a shipbuilding facility which William Castell was operating.  Most of the land shown on the map is located to the east of the Neckinger thus placing it fairly close to the site of the well-known Cherry Garden Stairs. It is certainly clear that the family were probably active in the shipping business during the late Elizabethan era.

Research has shown that William Castle was born in 1590 and was probably responsible for building up the business at the Rotherhithe site.  His father John who may have negotiated the terms of the tenancy in the early 1600s more likely achieved the acquisition of the site.

HMS Taunton or HMS Dover, both built by
William Castle
This description is consistent with the 1600s maps of Rotherhithe (see, for example, the Blome 1673 map at the top of this page), which show all the Thames frontage activity at Rotherhithe village or upriver from it;  downriver there appears to be very little activity at that time.

The Castles were well attested in records of the time, and are mentioned several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who considered William Castle to be an expert in the production of 3rd Rate ships of the line.  Although perhaps most famous for his diaries, Samuel Pepys was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, and his opinion mattered.  William Castle's warships were characterized by the unusual feature of having one more port on the upper deck than the lower deck.  The Castles were deeply embedded in the London shipping scene, and very well connected. William Castle married the daughter of Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy.  For more about the Castle shipbuilding and breaking family see the Castles History Project website. 

HMS Taunton was originally designed as a 40-gun two-deck 4th-rate 545-ton full-rigged frigate, a ship of the line built in 1654, three years after the end of the English Civil War, a year into the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell and a year after the outbreak of the First Dutch War. She was one of the ships ordered in the "Thirty Ships Programme" issued by the parliament in 1652.   HMS Taunton was 104ft long (measured along the keel), with a 31ft 8in beam and a hold depth of 13ft.  She cost £3484 (according the the National Archives Currency Converter, in 1650, £3,484 0s 0d would have the same spending worth of 2005's £263,251.04). Like most ships of her time she was modified during her career, with alterations that significantly changed her vital statistics.  Ships are often described in terms of the classes to which they belonged, a designation that refers to specific designs made by often famous ship designers, and Taunton was a Ruby Class ship.  The first Ruby Class ship was HMS Ruby, built by Peter Pett II in Deptford in 1651.  Taunton was the ninth of the Ruby Class Fourth Rates.  The model of her above is a photograph from Riff Winfield's "British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714" and is probably either HMS Taunton or HMS Dover.  It shows an additional port on the upper deck mentioned above, a characteristic of William Castle's warships. 

This painting is actually from 100 years after Taunton was
sunk and shows the Battle of Chesapeake, but is a  useful
illustration of how ships engaged in the line of battle
The First Dutch War was fought mainly with small ships, with only 11 out of 103 having ships of over 50 guns.  Most had between 30 and 44 guns. Ships of the line were rated from 1 (the biggest, most prestigious, heavily armed and expensive, but also the most ponderous and least manoeuvrable) to 4 (5th and 6th rates were never used as ships of the line).  The rating system was based on the number of men that a ship could hold.  Ships of the line all had the same basic job, which was to present arms in the so-called the line of battle. As with many land battles, this was a tactic of open confrontation.  Warships on opposing sides lined up from bow to stern to present their broadside guns to each other.  The first single-deck frigates built in Britain were constructed in the 1640s in response to a need for smaller, faster ships, but were found to be too small to accommodate sufficient men for battle conditions and in the late 1640s and early 50s some were given an extra deck.  After the First Dutch War it was determined that larger ships were far more advantageous in battle, and in the future bigger and stronger ships were commissioned which were better able to withstand the stresses of battle and were more difficult to board. 

The Battle of the Texel, 11–21 August 1673 by Willem van de Velde I
The Protectorate lasted until 1959, when it was dissolved, but the commonwealth only lasted another year and in 1660 the monarchy was restored to power under Charles II. Presumably in celebration, Taunton was renamed HMS Crown. Under her new name HMS Crown participated in a number of placements and engagements, listed by Riff Winfield in "British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714" as follows, under a number of different commanders.  I've listed them just to show how a warship of the period was deployed:
  • With Sandwich's squadron at Tangier 1661
  • With Lawson's squardon in the Mediterranean in 1662
  • With Allin's squadron in the Mediterranean in 1665
  • At the Four Days Battle  in 1666, with 8 killed and 15 wounded
  • At the Battle of Solebay in 1672
  • At the Battle of Schoonveld 1673
  • At the Battle of Texel, also in 1673
  • In the Mediterranean 1674
  • In the Mediterraneqan in 1680
  • In home waters in 1685
  • In the Turkey convoy in 1687
  • Rebuilt at Woolwich in 1689

By 1666 she had been fitted with a further eight guns to take her up to a total of 48 and was manned by a crew of 170.  She was rebuilt again in 1689.  In 1704 following the outbreak of war in 1702 she was refitted at Deptford by shipwright Fisher Harding, and relaunched as a 552 long tons 4th-rate ship of the line with 50 guns, again a fourth-rate ship of the line.  She was 126ft 8in (measured along the gundeck) with a 34ft 5.5in beam and a hold of 13ft 6in (4.1m) deep.  She was again full-rigged.  She sailed from Deptford under Captain Thomas Lyell and again travelled widely under a number of different commanders:
  • In the North Sea 1704
  • In Barbados 1706
  • In 1708 with Baker's squadron on the Dutch coast
  • In the Channel 1709, and from there to Lisbon and then Jamaica in the same year
  • In Jamaica 1710
  • Back to England in 1711
  • In the Mediterranean in 1712
  • Major repair at Woolwich in 1717 costing £2007.
  • Recommissioned 1718

There is some confusion about who commanded HMS Taunton during which periods. Different accounts from the period place different commanders in charge of her simultaneously.  It seems clear that she was launched under Captain Richard Lyons and was soon under the command of Captain Thomas Vallis when she was at Tunis with Blake's fleet in the Mediterranean.  She came under Lyons again in 1655, after which he resigned and was than assigned once again to Blake's fleet under Capitan Nathaniel Brown.  She was back on the Thames in 1656 but was once again under Blake, this time taking part in the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1657.  She had numerous other commanders in her 65 year history, some of whom are listed on the threedecks website.

HMS Crown was "bilged and sunk" (Riff Winfield 2009) on 21st January 1719 under St Julian’s Fort at the entrance to River Tagus in Portugal.  At 65 years of age she had a long life, always a challenge for a wooden warship in active service. She was awarded battle honours, and had a successful and worthy career.

The Four Days Battle of 1666, in which Taunton (by then HMS Crown)
took part.  By Pieter Cornelisz van Soest.


Linda said...

Fascinating post. Thank you so much for sharing.

Andie said...

So pleased that you found it interesting Linda.