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Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3

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" Our strength, wealth, and commerce," said Mr. Cobden, in a speech delivered in the year 1862, "grow out of the skilled labour of the men working in metals. They are at the foundation of our manufacturing greatness."

We have seen how important a part the workers in metals have played in the development of railways. But for the iron rail, and the steam locomotive, also constructed of iron, - not to mention the iron bridges, - railways could never have attained the overwhelming importance in the world which the forty years since their general adoption have sufficed to give them. In another vast field of commercial industry, embracing shipping and the art of navigation, the services rendered by the workers in metals have in recent years produced a revolution, only second in importance to that which has followed the introduction of railways. By the substitution of steam power, and of the paddle and screw for the propulsion of vessels in place of sails spread before the wind, the whole aspect of navigation and maritime affairs has been changed; and the change has mainly taken place within the last twenty years. How vast has been the progress of the shipping interest of Britain within that period will appear from a brief review of the results of which we have official record.

Shipbuilding, of which we will first speak, has become one of the most important branches of the mechanical industry of the United Kingdom. The progress made in recent years presents two remarkable features. Not only has the number and aggregate tonnage of the vessels constructed been rapidly increasing; but, what is even more important, there has been a very large increase in the number of iron steamers, and a large decrease in the number of sailing-vessels, constructed in later as compared with earlier years. In 1851 the total number of vessels built and registered in the United Kingdom was only 672, and their aggregate tonnage 149,637 tons. Of this number, 594 were sailing-vessels, with a total tonnage of 126,914 tons. Only seventy-eight were steamers, and their tonnage was 22,723 tons. In 1871 the total number of vessels built and registered in the United Kingdom had increased to 1,022, with an aggregate tonnage of 391,058 tons. The number of steam-vessels was 537, or nearly seven times as many as were built twenty years before. Their aggregate tonnage was 330,798 tons, or more than fourteen times the tonnage of the steamers built in 1871, The sailing-vessels, on the other hand, had decreased from 594 in 1851 to 485 in 1871- a decrease of twenty per cent, in number. Their tonnage had decreased from 126,914 to 60,260 tons - a decrease of more than fifty per cent. These numbers, however, do not indicate the whole of the additions which have been made in the carrying power of the British merchant navy. For a steamer engaged in the home and coasting trade can do four or five times as much work as a sailing-vessel, and for long voyages their value is three times that of sailing-vessels. The carrying power of the whole of the vessels built in 1871, when this difference between the value of steam and sailing vessels is allowed for, will, in fact, be found to amount to nearly eight times as much as that of the whole number built twenty years before. Another change observable in the class of steam- vessels constructed at the later period is their large increase in size or tonnage. The average tonnage of steamers built in 1851 was 291 tons; in 1871 it was 616 tons, or more than double the average tonnage of the steamers of the earlier date.

The shipping built for and sold to foreign nations and the colonies forms an important item in the exports (It may here he pointed out that the value of the shipping sold to foreign nations and the colonies has never yet been included in the official returns of the exports of the United Kingdom, nor do the imports include the shipping bought from foreigners or the colonists. No reason is assigned for these omissions; nor can the returns of imports and exports be considered complete so long as these important items are excluded.) of the United Kingdom. In 1870 there were 102 vessels constructed in this country for foreigners, two of the number being war-vessels. In 1871 the total number built for the same class of customers was eighty, of which eight were war-vessels. The total tonnage of these vessels was 51,651 tons in 1870, and 36,703 tons in 1871. Besides these vessels, there were, in the earlier year, 297 other vessels transferred from the British register as sold to foreign or colonial buyers; their tonnage was 102,916 tons. In 1871 there were 284 vessels so transferred and sold, their tonnage being 104,724 tons.

In 1851 the mercantile navy of the United Kingdom, with the Channel Isles and the Isle of Man, comprised no fewer than 24,816 sailing-vessels of 3,475,657 tons burden, and 1,227 steamers of 186,687 tons burden; forming a grand total of 26,043 vessels, with a tonnage of 3,662,344 tons. In 1871 the merchant navy comprised 22,510 sailing-vessels with 4,374,511 tons, and 3,382 steam-vessels with 1,319,612 tons. The total number of vessels was therefore 25,892, or 151 fewer than in 1851 while the tonnage was 5,694,123, or 2,031.779 tons more than in 1851. The increase in the number of the steam vessels in the twenty years was 2,155, and in their tonnage it was no less than 1,132,925 tons. While the number of; steam-vessels had therefore increased nearly threefold their tonnage had increased sevenfold. While the total tonnage of the mercantile navy has therefore only increased nominally by about fifty-five per cent., the real shipping power of the United Kingdom, when we take into account the far higher value of steam-ships as compared with sailing-vessels, has been increased in the twenty years by more than 125 per cent. - that is, has been considerably more than doubled. The number of registered vessels employed in the home and foreign trade, exclusive of the river steamers, was 18,184, with a tonnage of 3,360,935, in 1851; and 22,207, with a tonnage of 5,633,561, in 1871. The steamers so employed numbered 520, with 144,741 tons, at the earlier date; and 2,557, with 1,290,003, at the more recent date - that is, five times as many vessels, with eight times the tonnage.

The number of merchant seamen employed in the coasting and foreign trade stood at 141,937, of whom 10,660 belonged to steamers, in 1851; while in 1871 they numbered 199,738, of whom 58,703 were employed on steam-vessels - that is, more than five times as many as in 1851.

The increase which has taken place in the shipping trade of the United Kingdom is shown by the total tonnage of the vessels which entered and cleared at the various ports of the country. In 1851 this amounted to 15,980,198 tons; in 1871 it was 41,547,878 tons, or nearly three times the total at the earlier date. Of the total in 1851, 9,820,876 tons belonged to British vessels, and 6,159,322 tons to foreign or colonial vessels. In 1871 the proportion belonging to British vessels had increased to 28,034,748 tons; that belonging to foreign and colonial vessels was 13,513,130 tons. The British tonnage had therefore increased to nearly threefold the amount in the interval, while that of the rest of the world engaged in the same trade had little more than doubled. The tonnage of foreign and colonial steamers entered and cleared at British ports was only 331,694 tons in 1851, and 2,480,490 tons in 1871. That of British vessels, which amounted to 1,895,076 tons in 1851, had increased to 15,361,202 in 1871. The tonnage entered and cleared of British steam-vessels at both periods therefore was, roughly speaking, about six times as much as that of the foreign and colonial steamers trading at the ports of the United Kingdom.

The merit of establishing the value of iron in the construction of ships, as well as in bridges and in other novel applications,. belongs mainly to Sir William Fairbairn. " The iron ship," he tells us, " in lightness, durability, and capacity of cargo, is infinitely superior to a vessel built of wood; and, if properly constructed and carefully looked after, will last more than double the time of vessels composed of the best teak and English oak. It is not, however, durability alone that constitutes the value of the iron ship; its superior strength insures greatly increased security to the owners, and, what is of much greater importance, to the crew and passengers. Again, as regards cargo, there is less risk from damage, as the iron ship is virtually without joints, perfectly water-tight, and free from bilge-water and that creaking motion observable in the joints of a wooden vessel plunging in a heavy sea. No such motion occurs with an iron-built vessel, as the sheathing plates, when carefully riveted, embody a principle of homogeneity sufficiently powerful to withstand the repeated shocks of the elements, to which a similar structure of wood would succumb. Another advantage s of iron vessels is their superior lightness and increased area of space. In the iron ship this enlargement of the interior contents is so great as to enable the vessel to carry from one-eighth to one-tenth more cargo on the same draught of water than a vessel built of wood." " Even so recently as 1845," the same writer remarks, " iron ships were scarcely known; and it required another decade to convince the public that iron was a lighter, safer, and more durable material for shipbuilding than wood." And he has since added, prophetically, " I have no doubt that the iron ship of British origin will yet ride triumphant on every sea, as the harbinger of peace, the supporter of commerce, and the great and only security of national defence."

The earliest mention of iron in the construction of vessels is in connection with the navigation of canals. In the year 1812 or 1813 certain iron boats are spoken of as plying on canals in the county of Stafford. Ten years later the first iron steamer that went to sea was built. This was the Aaron Mariby, which was navigated by Sir Charles Napier from London to Havre, and thence up the Seine to Paris. In 1824 a small iron steamer was constructed by Mr. Grantham, and sent to Ireland, where it was employed on the Shannon. About tho same time Sir William Fairbairn built four iron vessels, two of which, the Lord Dundas and the Manchester, were in use for many years in Scottish waters.

Having convinced himself of the applicability of iron to the building of ships, Sir William Fairbairn came to London, and in 1835 founded the first great iron shipbuilding yard at Milwall, on the Thames. Within fourteen years from that date he had built more than a hundred and twenty iron ships, some of them of more than two thousand tons burden. In the meantime the new idea was taking root in other parts of the kingdom; and the foundations of the great establishments on the Clyde, on the Mersey, and on the Tyne, were laid by the Napiers, Lairds, and others. The steam riveting-machine devised by Sir W. Fairbairn materially contributed to the progress of this new branch of industry.

The first very large iron vessel was the Great Britain, built in 1845 by Mr. Brunei. She was of double the tonnage of any vessel previously afloat. She made her first voyage in 1845, and reached New York in fourteen days twenty-one hours, where her unusual proportions and novel character created much astonishment. As with so many of Brunei's great creations, this vessel was destined to meet with misfortune. She left Liverpool on the 22nd of September, 1846, and within ten hours struck on the Irish coast. The attempts to float her again involved a series of operations, attended with vast expense, and it was not until August, 1847, that she was at length got again into the water. But these misfortunes were not without their use. Indeed, a more satisfactory proof of the value of iron in the construction of ships could hardly be desired than that which was supplied by this accident. For a whole winter - indeed, for nearly a whole year - the Great Britain was exposed to the action of heavy seas beating her upon the sands and rocks of Dundrum Bay, and she went through this ordeal without suffering any serious damage in her hull or in any other part. A vessel of wood could not have survived under similar circumstances, but would have quickly gone to pieces. The strength of iron and its value in shipbuilding was indeed triumphantly vindicated by this practical test, which only confirmed the scientific experiments made by Professor Hodgkinson, who showed that the comparative resistance of wrought iron to a direct crushing force is more than seven times as great as that of the best British oak.

Ten years after the construction of the Great Britain Mr. Brunei commenced the Great Eastern, by far the largest vessel ever built. Mr. Scott Russell was the naval architect, and the wave principle and lines he advocated were adopted in the construction of the vessel. It was built in the yard at Milwall, where Sir W. Fairbairn first applied iron on a large scale in shipbuilding. The dimensions of the vessel are extraordinary. Her length is 680 feet, her breadth 83 feet, her depth 58 feet. Mere numbers, however, fail to give an adequate idea of the vast proportions of the vessel. It has been well said that the Great Eastern is as big as a cathedral. The largest cathedral in the world, that of St. Peter at Rome, is only 613 feet long in external measurement, so that the Great Eastern is longer than St. Peter's by nearly seventy feet. The vessel could, in fact, be fitted up so as to carry comfortably the whole population of a town of 10,000 inhabitants. Her tonnage is 23,000, and she carries when loaded 18,000 tons of coals and cargo. Her paddle-wheel engines are of 1,000 nominal horse-power, and her screw-engines 1,600. The paddle-wheels are fifty-eight feet in diameter, and therefore advance sixty yards in a single revolution. Her screw is twenty-four feet in diameter, or four and a half times the average height of a man. This magnificent vessel, however, as a commercial speculation, proved a failure. After a vast sum of money had been spent on building her, it was found that the preparations made for launching her were quite inadequate, and it required months of labour and an additional expense of 70,000 before that object was attained. This, however, was only the beginning of her financial troubles. She was intended to carry the India and China mails on the long route, round the Cape, but the idea had to be abandoned. In 1859 a destructive explosion took place on board while she was in the Channel off Hastings. After this she encountered a hurricane in the Atlantic, which damaged her paddles and disabled her rudder. She afterwards ran upon a rock at New York, and broke her bottom plates for a length of eighty feet. Another proof of the value of iron in shipbuilding was, however, afforded by these accidents; for though they would have destroyed any wooden ship, the Great Eastern received no material injury either to her hull or machinery. The vast gap which was made in her by the accident near New York she was capable of repairing without going into dock, and while still afloat, since, as is usual in iron ships, she had an inner and an outer skin. She had, in fact, a system of water-tight compartments; and further, what is less general in vessels of iron, these compartments were longitudinally divided by fore and aft bulkheads. Thus the vessel might be pierced and rent open in several compartments at once, and yet she would not sink. A large portion of her hull is double, and the outer skin, which is two feet from the inner, is connected with the latter on the cellular or tubular principle. Thus, though an iron ship, the Great Eastern, from the mode of her construction, is not only the safest, but also the strongest vessel in the whole mercantile navy of the world.

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Pictures for Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3

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