Sir Robert Seppings of Fakenham: From Rural Messenger Boy to Surveyor of the King's Navy
A boy, born in the small town of Fakenham in rural Norfolk, was an unlikely candidate to later hold the position of Surveyor of the Navy, the top shipbuilding post at the Admiralty. He first came to prominence when serving as Assistant Master Shipwright at Plymouth where he invented a system that did away with the back-breaking task of lifting a ship in dry-dock in order to repair the bottom strakes of the hull. After promotion to Surveyor, he introduced a method of strengthening the hulls of wooden ships to a degree never before achieved anywhere in the shipbuilding world. His strengthening of the bow sections of ships greatly reduced the number of casualties when a ship was raked by canon fire. He also encouraged the substitution of iron for some of the major wooden fittings in ship structures. Seppings also designed the first steam driven vessels in the Royal Navy – the very first of which called the Congo – has been largely forgotten as it was never commissioned into the Royal Navy as such. Seppings was the ablest of all the men who held the post of Surveyor of the Navy and was arguably the greatest builder ever to construct wooden ships. He lived to see his methods adopted all over the world.
Peter Elphick's careful and meticulous research uncovers this unlikely back-room hero of the Napoleonic wars. Seppings' work cut the turn-round time of ships in dry-dock by about half during a period when the Royal Navy was always short of ships. This, together with his other improvements and inventions, were vital in forestalling Bonaparte's plans for a cross-channel invasion of Great Britain and to the wrecking of most of his other maritime ventures too.