The Royal Navy’s Wood Crisis

Few know about the resource crisis the Admiralty faced when the Seven Years War broke out in 1755. For the record, the North American theater of this global conflict is known as the French and Indian War. England already had the most powerful Navy in the world, but the Admiralty was very concerned that it did not have the material to support the Royal Navy and its merchant ship fleet.

England had the people, money, shipyards, foundries for build cannon and metal fittings, but it naval stores – rope, pitch, tar, turpentine, varnish and wood had to be imported if it were to meet its needs.

During the Age of Sail, oak was the steel of the day. Ship builders needed long, tall trees from which to make planking and knees (where a large branch bent away from the trunk), from which to make the supports for decks. The Royal shipyards also needed trees with large diameter trunks from which to make masts which were divided into three categories by diameter of the log in inches – 6 – 12, 13 – 24 and 24 – 36.

As early as 1696 during the Nine Years War (1690 – 1699), the English government assigned its Board of Trade the task of finding a steady and reliable supply of naval stores and it turned to Britain’s Thirteen North American colonies. For the most of the first half of the 18th Century, England was at war. It fought the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1713); and the British Spanish War (1727 – 1729) and Seven Years War (1755 – 1763) before the American Revolution.

When The Seven Years War began, New England had replaced England’s traditional suppliers in Riga, (now the capital of Latvia) and Norway for 24 – 36 inch masts. These became known as “New England Masts” and their quality was superior to what the British bought from European suppliers.

Admiralty records from 1756 show the Thirteen Colonies were also becoming the principal suppliers of pitch, tar and turpentine along with wood for planking and supports even though it was more expensive than what they could buy in Europe. In the eyes of the Admiralty, a British colony was a more reliable source and worth the extra material and shipping cost. During the Seven Years War, escorting merchant ships carrying naval stores from the colonies became a priority mission for the Royal Navy.

Then 1775 happened. British merchants supplying the Royal Navy quickly learned that colonial merchants raised the prices significantly and/or weren’t interested in selling to the hated English. It tossed the Royal Navy into a crisis because it lost one of its primary sources of supply and many of the ships carrying what they could purchase in the Colonies were captured by rebel privateers or Continental Navy ships.

In the end, the Royal Navy managed to muddle through but as soon as the war ended, naval stores became a primary export of the nascent United States of America and helped rebuild its shattered economy.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.