Richard Endsor. The Master Shipwright’s Secrets: How Charles II Built the Restoration Navy. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2020. 304 pp, Images, Tables, Illustrations, Appendices, and Index. £65.00GBP hardcover; £54.60GBP digital.
By Dr. Samuel McLean
In maritime history, as with many historical fields, there is an artificial distinction between proper history, written by professionals and published by proper publishers, and everything else. The reality is that there are huge opportunities for individuals to produce work that will greatly enrich the learning of all those interested in the subject.1 The Master Shipwright’s Secrets: How Charles II Built the Restoration Navy is absolutely one of those books. Author, painter, engineer and naval historian Richard Endsor continues along the path he established with his prior books.2 Here, he particularly focuses on the 1647 building (or rebuilding) of the 4th rate Tyger (Tiger). This focus allows him to discuss in good depth a number of different aspects of English warship construction during the latter half of the 17th century, and the relationship between King Charles II, the Navy Board, and the ships of the Royal Navy.
This book is curiously organized but can be divided into two main sections: those which deal with the design, construction, and fitting out of the Tyger, and those which provide auxiliary information to those chapters. However, these non-Tyger sections are scattered between those focusing on the ship which makes for a sometimes frustrating reading experience. The book’s organization might have benefitted from more levels of subtitles, with clearer grouping of sections so that these chapters would flow more easily. That said, the writing is clear and the information presented well. In addition, it seems Endsor hasn’t foregone a single opportunity to illustrate the topics. Sometimes this is done through historical artwork and drawings, but frequently the author has provided his own excellent illustrations. This is where his prior career as an aerospace engineer is certainly a benefit to his work.
The historical and original illustrations are combined very effectively. Additionally, Endsor includes tables of costs and details that provide important context. The Shipwright’s Secrets really demonstrates the wealth of documents about shipbuilding during the 17th century and also displays how a skillful combination of research, primary documents, and self-made diagrams and illustrations can very clearly communicate information to the reader.
The bulk of the chapters deal with the Tyger. Starting with Chapter 3, Ensor considers the ship’s early service before it was rebuilt. Chapter 4, “Planning a new Tyger” really brings the book’s focus from general discussions of shipbuilding to the specific context for the rebuilding of the Tyger as a ship with oars. His discussion of the Royal Navy’s acquisition of ships in the Mediterranean Sea and along the Barbary coast provide important context. Further, Endsor does not neglect the political events back in England. Chapter 6 returns to the Tyger with a discussion of the ship’s draught. Since no such draught (or plans) exist, Endsor uses the models of two different ships built around the same time as starting points to make estimations for the Tyger. Endsor’s discussion of the Tyger’s construction continues in Chapter 7 exactly in the same mold as the previous chapters. That is to say: Very detailed, and accompanied by many illustrations. Endsor iterates through various parts of the ship’s hull and shows how they would be built—this chapter is extremely thorough. Chapter 8, “The New Tyger Commissioned” describes the process of launching, fitting out, commissioning and the early years of the Tyger’s service. This chapter focuses on the Tyger’s upperworks in its diagrams, including spars, and sailplan. The chapter ends by discussing the misfortune of the Tyger’s voyage to Tangiers in 1682, where both the Lieutenant and Captain Charles Berkeley both succumbed to disease. Finally, Chapter 9 goes into details about Gun Establishment of 1677, manning, gun carriages, the quarter bill (with an example from the Saphire). Like with the chapter on building the Tyger, Endsor discusses the changes between various Navy Board plans for arming the Tyger and the input of individuals like Captain Berkeley.
The remaining chapters focus on subjects that inform the chapters specifically on the Tyger. Chapters 1 and 2, entitled “The Master Shipwright’s Considerations” and “Inventions and Innovations” take a bit of a scattershot approach to providing the reader with a very broad but sufficiently detailed introduction to the entire topic of how Royal Navy ships were built in the 1670s and who was involved in that process. The second chapter convincingly portrays an atmosphere of innovation around shipbuilding and Charles II’s personal interventions in some of them. In Chapter 5, Endsor moves away again from his narrative about the Tyger with an in-depth and technical discussion of John Shish’s methods for determining and modeling the ship’s hull, with references to other shipwright’s mathematical treatises as well. Finally, Chapter 10 is an unexpected jewel. Endsor publishes what appears to be the entire contracts for the Foresight (1649), St Patrick (1665), two proposed 4th rates (1673), Mary Galley (1686), and Norwich (1692). This is followed by appendixes which contain further primary documents, such as a warrant for building a 4th rate and the 1681 survey of the Mordaunt before her purchase.
The Master Shipwright’s Secrets is a traditional academic publication that resembles a coffee table book in the best of ways. I can’t think of anything similar except for Jean Budriot’s classic series Le vaisseau de 74 canons, but Endsor’s book is much more readable and provides so much context for the drawings of the ships. This book is an important addition to naval history literature, yet I find it frustrating. A large part of that frustration is down to the organization of the book—some would argue that it should really be two books, one a narrative history and the other presenting the technical information and the primary sources. I feel, however, that separating the two would be a mistake. Whatever criticisms I may have about the organization, they don’t detract from the quality of the work and the clarity of each individual chapter. This should quite simply be in every library that has books on maritime, naval, or early modern history and any researchers going forward who wants to do work about the post-Restoration Royal Navy will find this book a treasure-trove of references and of practical illustrations.
- A good discussion of this can be found on David Davies’ Blog https://jddavies.com/2017/09/18/gentlemen-and-players-further-thoughts-from-the-state-of-maritime-historical-research-conference-2017/.
- The Restoration Warship: The Design, Construction and Career of a Third Rate of Charles II’s Navy (2009), Warships for the King: Ann Wyatt (1658-1757) Her Life and Her Ships (2012), and The Warship Anne: An Illustrated History (2017).