Science blog

19 July 2017

A Treasure Ship in the Patent Office Library

The Patent Office Library was one of the British Library’s founding collections and we are currently incorporating its books into the Library’s main collection. Recently I came across a forgotten treasure, a large coloured lithograph (24” x 52”) showing in great detail the interior of a Victorian battleship. The ship was HMS Royal Albert , the largest first rate sail battleship ever built for the Royal Navy. At 5000 tons displacement and with 131 guns it greatly outclassed HMS Victory’s 3500 tons and 104 guns. The Royal Albert was laid down in 1844 in Woolwich Dockyard at the very end of the Navy’s tradition of wooden construction. This also marked the final years of the Thames as the centre of the ship building industry. The invention of screw propulsion had just made one of the great leaps forward in marine technology and so the Royal Albert was adapted in 1852 while still on the stocks to take a 500hp auxiliary steam engine and a propeller. She sailed on to be the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet and saw action in the Crimean War. However the dockyard modifications proved faulty, the propeller shaft leaked, and the ship was broken up in 1884.

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Section of a first class, first rate line of battle ship of 131 guns with screw propeller and auxiliary steam power. To Captain….Sir Baldwin Walker, Surveyor of the Navy. This print is with permission respectfully dedicated by his obliged and obedient servant Charles Lewis Pickering. Paris and New York. Goupil & Vibert. 1852

The library’s fold out collection item, a cutaway view, was a novelty for its time and is a forerunner of those much loved illustrations in the Eagle comic of the 1950s and 60s. The cutaway shows the layout of masts, engines, guns, store rooms and all the equipment of a warship. The particular charm of this piece is the lively human detail that is so often missing from ship paintings, a gun crew at their mess table, sailors in their hammocks, the marine band practicing, blacksmiths at work and the Captain’s wife in full crinoline standing in their cabin.  

Why this unusually large print by the artist Charles Lewis Pickering was published is not known but its quality suggests that it was made to commemorate a significant event for the Royal Navy, perhaps the ceremonial launching of the Royal Albert by the Queen. Further research on the artist drew a blank until I checked the British Newspaper Archive which holds millions of digitised newspaper pages from the British Library's collection. There I found an account from the Bury Post of July 1853 which shows how desperate Charles Pickering was to market his production:

“Impudent imposter – Last week a person waited upon Earl Jermyn, at his town residence, and presenting a card with the name “ Mr Charles Lewis Pickering” represented himself as brother-in-law to the Editor of this paper, and solicited his Lordship’s patronage for an engraving of a screw steamer, dedicated to the Surveyor of the Navy. The Noble Lord, deceived by this representation and by the signatures of Members of both Houses of Parliament and other gentlemen with whom he was acquainted was induced to add his subscription and his guinea but afterwards discovered that the trick had been practised upon another Member by precisely the same tale of connection with the Editor of a Paper in the town represented by that Member. We hope it will not be inferred from the occurrence that newspaper Editors are especially addicted to solicitations of the patronage of their representatives.”

The middle of the nineteenth century saw an arms race in ship design. In 1859 HMS Warrior was laid down as the Navy’s first all metal hull and two years later HMS Prince Albert was the first ship to mount rotating gun turrets and lack mainsails. In a decade, warships had progressed from the wooden walls that Nelson would have recognised to something close to a modern warship’s silhouette. And for a contemporary contrast, the Queen Elizabeth, the largest capital ship ever built for the Royal Navy, sailed on its sea trials recently, powered by 100,000 hp electric motors and displacing 70,000 tonnes.

Richard Wakeford is an information specialist in the Science Reference team.