HMS ROYAL OAK: Transition of the Royal Navy from Wooden Walls to Iron-Clads
HMS ROYAL OAK and other iron-clad ships were introduced as a direct response to the threat from France. In 1850 the Royal Navy’s line-of-battle ship remained unaltered from those of centuries ago. The world changed with the introduction of steam power and shell fire.
In March 1858, the world’s first sea going steam powered Ironclad were ordered by the French Navy. Of the four ships of the 1st Group, three were wooden-hulled ironclad. LA GLOIRE was the first to be completed, with armour between 4.3 – 4.7 inches thick, backed by 26 inches of timber. The fourth ship built was an iron-hulled Ironclad.
THE BRITISH RESPOND
The ordering of these ships gave rise to the “1858 Naval Scare”, the design of RN ships of the line had become obsolete. A Parliamentary Committee was formed to assess relative naval strengths of Britain and France.
The Admiralty was in a quandary with divided opinions:
- to follow the French lead by pursuing iron-hulled ships
- to proceed with both Ironclads and wooden ships
- to build up RN superiority again along traditional lines with required numbers being fulfilled with wooden ships
It was decided that a further programme of wooden ships-of-the line would be put in hand; only those completed as Ironclads would ever be put to sea. A year later in 1859, the Navy suspended the building of all-timber ships in favour of iron-clad ships.
The first sea-going British ironclads were ordered and built in commercial shipyards. The first two were WARRIOR and BLACK PRINCE completed in 1861 and 1862 respectively followed by a further four ships.
ROYAL OAK IS CONVERTED
In May 1861, the Controller of the Navy proposed that the timbers of some of the wooden line-ships that had had their construction suspended later to be completed as wooden-hulled iron-clads. HMS ROYAL OAK was one of those ships that mid-build was converted into an ironclad from a wooden ship of the line. She would become the Navy’s seventh iron-clad ship.
She was the first British wooden-hulled ironclad warship. The original design for the ship was a 2nd rate, 91-gun, ship of the line.