‘A Valuable and Useful Member’ – The Life of Sir Robert Seppings
“Robert Seppings, one of the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Navy and a Gentleman… being desirous of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, we whose names are hereunto subscribed do, of our personal knowledge, recommend him as worthy of that honour, and likely to become a valuable and useful member.”
-Recommendation letter to the Royal Society on behalf of Robert Seppings (1814)
The 25th April 2020 will mark 180 years since the passing of naval architect and innovator Sir Robert Seppings. From humble origins, Seppings rose to the position of Surveyor of the Navy, responsible for the design of Britain’s warships in the early 19th century. HMS Unicorn is now the sole survivor from his lifetime of shipbuilding.
The son of a cattle dealer, Robert Seppings was born on 11th December 1767 in the small market town of Fakenham, Norfolk. His uncle – a retired naval captain – managed to find work for young Robert at Plymouth and he became an apprentice to the master shipwright John Henslow. So began a long and remarkable career. In 1804, Robert was promoted to master shipwright at Chatham Dockyard and within a decade had risen to the position of Surveyor of the Navy (1813 – 1832).
His first innovation was not in shipbuilding but in ship docking. In the late 18th century, he invented the ‘Seppings Blocks’, which consisted of an arrangement of wedges placed underneath the keel of a ship when in dry dock. This system reduced the length of time required to repair a ship in dry dock and Seppings received £1,000 from the Admiralty for his invention.
As Surveyor of the Navy, Seppings was able to implement his innovations in shipbuilding and design. Quoted as saying, “partial strength produces general weakness,” he focussed on improving the strength of ships. Seppings embraced the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution and introduced a greater use of iron into the ships of the Royal Navy.
In 1819, the House of Commons singled out the work of Seppings as having introduced many of Britain’s, “most valuable improvements in naval architecture.” They concluded by commenting that although his work may, “have nothing of that brilliancy which forcibly excites public admiration, it will continue to confer a lasting benefit on the British nation, long after that period when the beneficial effect of victories, however splendid, shall have passed away.”
This lasting benefit is still remembered to this day. British naval architect David K. Brown has written that the growth in size of wooden warships was, “due almost entirely to the structural methods introduced by Seppings.” Also, noted naval historian Brian Lavery has argued that of all the Surveyors of the Navy during the Great Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “only Seppings was to have any major influence on shipbuilding.”
HMS Unicorn is a lasting testament of that influence and a fine example of the work of Sir Robert Seppings. A naval architect and a naval vessel; both products of Britain’s great industrial age.