Did the Navy Destroy Our Ancient Woodlands?

The British required themselves to have a navy twice the size of the next largest navy and of the highest quality. The French were their main rival in this area.

For the construction of Victory’s framework, a crew of 150 craftsmen was enlisted. The ship’s creation required approximately 6,000 trees; 90% were oak, with the remainder being elm, pine, fir, and a trace of lignum vitae.

The hull’s wooden components were secured with copper bolts spanning six feet, complemented by treenails for smaller attachments. After assembling the ship’s frame, it was customary to shield it for several months, allowing the wood to naturally dry or “season.”

Due to the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, Victory remained in this state for almost three years, a factor that contributed to its enduring lifespan. Construction resumed in the fall of 1763, leading to the ship being launched on 7 May 1765.


HMS Victory

In July 1759, at the Royal Navy’s Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway in Kent, shipbuilders began constructing what would become one of the most iconic warships ever, HMS Victory, which later became synonymous with Nelson.

Lord Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory in 1944, minus her top-masts and bowsprit. Lucky to survive the bombing from the Luftwaffe, as 20% of Portsmouth was bombed and destroyed. However, she did receive some damage to her hull during one raid in 1941. Can you imagine seeing this incredible piece of history in flames. Thousands of Oak trees were used
Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory in 1944, minus her top-masts and bowsprit. Lucky to survive the bombing from the Luftwaffe, as 20% of Portsmouth was destroyed.

After a year of deliberation, the ship was named, with some speculating that the choice was in honor of Britain’s triumph over the French in Quebec that September. The construction of this grand vessel is believed to have consumed around 6,000 trees. A staggering 90% of the ship was fashioned from oak, with some of the timber pieces being over half a meter in thickness.

Read More:A Victory and 1.2 Million Oak Trees

400 Year Old Trees

Some of the trees used to construct the ship had been standing for over four centuries, witnessing monumental events in history. Their existence spanned the reigns of numerous kings, the global voyage of Francis Drake, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

They stood tall during times of plague, uprisings, and numerous public executions. They were present when London faced the devastation of the Great Fire, when Shakespeare penned his legendary works, and when English forces clashed with Scottish clans at Culloden.

Ancient oak
This ancient oak is in a former forest – hunting forest

Yet, it was the era of exploration, discovery, commerce, and conquest that brought about significant change for these ancient trees. The age demanded ships, and building ships necessitated timber. The ship’s keel was forged from massive elm trunks, while fir and spruce were employed for its decks, yardarms, and masts.

Read More: Kett’s Rebellion & The Hangman’s Oak

Each of these masts was crafted from seven individual trees. As the Seven Years’ War drew to a close, the ship’s structure was covered and left untouched to mature for three years. This resting period is often cited as a primary reason the HMS Victory remains in such remarkable condition today, housed at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

14 Million

Construction resumed in 1763, and by May 1765, the Victory, a majestic three-deck ship boasting 100 guns and crewed by up to 875 sailors, made its debut. The entire venture set the treasury back about £63,000, equivalent to roughly £14 million in today’s money.

Throughout its tenure, the ship witnessed numerous battles and underwent several renovations and upgrades, inevitably consuming even more timber. By the culmination of the Napoleonic Wars, the Victory had effectively been withdrawn from active sea duty.

HMS Foudroyant, one time flagship to Lord Nelson, is wrecked off Blackpool in 1897. Thousands of Oak trees were used
HMS Foudroyant, one time flagship to Lord Nelson, is wrecked off Blackpool in 1897.

In 1926, American historian Robert G. Albion presented his doctoral dissertation titled, “Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 1652–1862”. In this work, he theorised that the Royal Navy’s insatiable appetite for timber, essential for the construction and maintenance of its wooden vessels, resulted in a significant depletion of forests. He referred to this as “the timber problem.”

Read More: Kett’s Rebellion & The Hangman’s Oak

Later, Albion pioneered the field of oceanic history at Harvard, his alma mater, influencing subsequent maritime historians with his teachings.

Oliver Rackham

Due to his research, many came to believe that shipbuilding during the 18th and 19th centuries significantly contributed to the deforestation across the British Isles. Subsequent analysis by British historians led to a revised perspective on the topic.

In his 1990 book Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britain’s Trees, Woods and Hedgerows, Oliver Rackham wrote that “the ‘tradition’ that [shipbuilding] destroyed woods is implausible.”

“The dockyard had a wide, but by no means universal, impact on woodland,” he said.

Book by author oliver rackham
‘A masterly account…of supreme interest…a classic of recorded field work and meticulous scholarship’

A historical ecology expert at the University of Cambridge argued that due to the resilient nature of trees and the careful management of British forests, they withstood the intense human activity.

Read More: Ancient Woodland Indicators

“Since Rackham, the argument has been taken beyond the claim that cutting for ship timber did not cause deforestation, to the claim that shipbuilding had little or no effect on the landscape whatsoever,” Patrick Melby wrote in a 2012 Western Oregon University paper, Insatiable Shipyards: The Impact of the Royal Navy on the World’s Forests, 1200-1850. (this is a fantastic read by the way.

Navy Timber Shortages

Melby clarified that shipbuilding required only select types of trees, and only a limited number from these species were extracted from a particular area simultaneously, ensuring that entire forests weren’t razed just for ship construction.

“When examined in this light, it is easy to dismiss the concept of timber shortages,” he noted. “Woods continued to exist through to the 19th century and continued to produce new growth.”

charcoal burner in the woodlands with a charcoal kiln
Before 1760, producing a ton of wrought iron demanded 50 cubic meters of wood.

However, procuring timber apt for shipbuilding was a different challenge. “There was neither a sudden wood shortage brought on by shipbuilding demand, nor was the regenerative nature of trees able to cope entirely with the demands placed on woodlands by the Royal Navy,” Melby noted.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

“Instead, the rate of usage likely outpaced that of regeneration. There may not have been a universal wood shortage as Albion suggested, but consistent removal of great oaks for shipbuilding very likely stripped suitable oaks from the landscape more quickly than they could reproduce, causing a gradual, dispersed reduction in the quality and quantity of available timber.”

The Country’s Forests

Melby pointed to historical records highlighting Britain’s dwindling capacity to provide oak timber and its growing dependence on imported wood. He mentioned an 18th-century depiction linking British naval strength to oak trees, advocating for the country’s forests as the “pillar of England’s destiny.”

Such was the demand that the Royal Navy expanded its search for the right timber well beyond the British Isles, sourcing from places like Scandinavia, the Baltics, Germany, Russia, and even from New England and today’s Maritime provinces.

sawpit with an oak log over it
How oak tress were planked

He highlighted that the conflicts and subsequent growth of the Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries “represent not the start, but an intensification of demands on a habitually taxed system.” By the mid-1600s, the demands of the British navy and its shipbuilding had expanded to such an extent that Sweden secured control over the straits that separated it from Denmark.

Read More: The Impact of the Loss of Our Ancient Woodlands

This strategic move aimed to facilitate smoother access to its main timber trading partner and capitalise on associated levies, tariffs, and transportation fees. Tensions over shipping led to a brief closure of the straits in 1654.

The Navy Needed 50,000 Loads

Admiral William Monson observed during this period that England’s forests were “severely depleted,” and Ireland’s woodlands were on a similar trajectory. By the late 1700s, the navy’s appetite had grown to 50,000 oak loads annually—nearly one-fourth of the nation’s overall demand. Recognising the need for resources, Britain initiated shipbuilding endeavors in its overseas territories, including the Caribbean, North America, and India.

oak tree
But did the demands of the navy really deplete our woodlands?

In the year 1801 alone, Britain sourced 1,186 masts from the Baltic and an additional 198 from North America. However, many of these masts didn’t meet the quality standards, compelling shipbuilders to piece together multiple segments, which were reinforced at the junctions with iron bands.

Read More: A Guide to the Wildflowers of our Ancient Woodlands

Gaining access to American white pine invigorated the shipbuilding industry, according to Melby. “The size, quality, and abundance of masts to come out of New England and Canada surpassed that found anywhere else, and they were added to domestic oak hulls, and topmasts and planking from the Ukraine, Poland, Norway and elsewhere to carry the Royal wooden fleet to its peak.”

Enormous quantities of wood were needed to fuel the fires used in crafting ship components. With the technologies available before 1760, producing a tonne of wrought iron consumed 50 cubic metres of wood. The need for naval resources played a significant role in shaping England’s foreign policy.

Sending in Diplomats

During the 18th century, England dispatched envoys to the timber-abundant Baltic nations to ensure a steady supply of naval materials, while simultaneously trying to prevent maritime rivals like France from accessing the same resources. In the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, this issue sparked three separate confrontations between 1800 and 1815.

It took up to 6000 trees to build ships for the Royal Navy

Melby posits that the scarcity of appropriate wood likely impacted the operations of the Royal Navy over time. He suggests that today’s challenges in regrowing oak in Britain might stem, in part, from historical timber harvesting that altered soil conditions and nutrient levels. He emphasised that the repercussions of Britain’s drive to establish and sustain an empire resonated globally.

Read More: Uses for Oak, Ash, Beech, Elm and Birch

“Beyond Britain’s borders, trade in masts, planking, oak, pitch, and tar demanded far more from woodland sources than were ever felt at home, and stretched the Royal Navy’s reach to diverse ecosystems around the world,” he wrote. “As research continues, the full extent to which the construction of the wooden Royal Navy consumed both domestic and foreign woodlands must be recognised.”

New Forest Act 1697

The New Forest Act 1697 (also referred to as the 9 Will. 3 c. 33) was an Act of Parliament in England that sought to address the issue of deforestation in the New Forest, a region that had been a royal hunting ground for many centuries. The Act came about due to concerns about the decline of timber in the New Forest, which was vital for shipbuilding, an essential component of the nation’s naval power.

Ancient woodland
New Forest Act 1697 was an early form of environmental legislation

One of the main features of this Act was its stipulation that encroachments upon the forest—essentially, illegal land grabs, where people would try to claim forest land for their own private use—be removed. This was to prevent further depletion of the forest resources and to maintain it as a source of timber, particularly for the construction and maintenance of the Royal Navy’s ships.

Read More: Pest Houses in England that are Still Standing Today

In essence, the New Forest Act 1697 was an early form of environmental legislation, designed to protect and preserve a valuable natural resource that was under threat from both industrial demands and local encroachments.

The Answer to the Question

While shipbuilding accounted for only a minor portion of England’s environmental impact between 1200 and 1850, this fraction significantly affected global forests. The belief that shipbuilding couldn’t lead to timber shortages, as proposed by Rackham, may be overstretched.

Read More: Do You Live Near One? Turnpike Roads & Cottages

Although general timber scarcity wasn’t solely due to shipbuilding, a looming dearth in shipbuilding timber was a plausible consequence of the pre-industrial naval expansion. The demands of shipyards exceeded what woodlands could replenish, adding further strain to ecosystems already burdened by fuelwood production and other industries.

A comprehensive study on this subject must consider the ecological ramifications of continuous naval development, including the persistent harvesting of mature oaks, and the subsequent operational challenges the Royal Navy encountered.