Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy

By strengthening its Royal Navy, Great Britain committed itself to creating a naval force strong enough to face any possible combination of opponents. In the process, it unwittingly started a European armaments race that raised international tensions.

Summary of Event

Great Britain’s extensive foreign trade, its widely dispersed empire, and the security of its home islands were safeguarded by the Royal Navy, whose adequacy nineteenth century Britons took largely for granted. During the 1880’s, however, advocates of British sea power mounted a campaign in which they exposed the weakness of the Royal Navy. Significantly, the campaign coincided with the emergence of imperialism as a popular movement in Great Britain and with the collision of Britain and its chief imperial rivals, France and Russia, in geographic areas vital to British interests. Great Britain;Royal Navy
Royal Navy;strengthening of
Naval Defense Act of 1889
Shipbuilding;Great Britain
[kw]Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy (1889)
[kw]Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy, Great (1889)
[kw]Strengthens Its Royal Navy, Great Britain (1889)
[kw]Royal Navy, Great Britain Strengthens Its (1889)
[kw]Navy, Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal (1889)
Great Britain;Royal Navy
Naval Defense Act of 1889
Royal Navy;strengthening of
Naval Defense Act of 1889
Shipbuilding;Great Britain
[g]British Empire;1889: Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy[5610]
[g]Great Britain;1889: Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy[5610]
[c]Military history;1889: Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy[5610]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;1889: Great Britain Strengthens Its Royal Navy[5610]
Hamilton, George Francis
Beresford, Charles William de la Poer
Salisbury, third marquess of
Stead, William Thomas

After Admiral Horatio Nelson’s defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, Great Britain enjoyed a long period of world naval supremacy during which, in a literal fashion, “Britannia ruled the waves.” The expansion of the British Empire during the nineteenth century made the Royal Navy more vital than ever to the nation’s interests, but a spirit of complacency and long years of relative peace hindered naval growth and the development and implementation of new technology. This situation changed in midcentury with the shift from wooden sailing ships to ironclad Iron;and shipbuilding[Shipbuilding]
Shipbuilding;and iron[Iron] steamships. Steamships;naval The first French ironclad was laid down in 1858, and the British responded three years later. Britain’s competition with France was eased by the Franco-Prussian War Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)]
France;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] of 1870, which left France weakened and its navy neglected. Since there was no German navy Germany;navy at the time, the Russians were relatively weak, and the United States remained largely uninvolved in European affairs, Great Britain seemed to enjoy the benefits of maritime supremacy without corresponding naval expenditures.

This complacency came to an end in 1884 with the realization that the French, who had been engaged in an ambitious naval rebuilding drive, possessed a navy almost equal to that of Britain in modern, first-class battleships. To meet this new challenge, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone’s government allocated an additional 3.1 million pounds on warships and 2.4 million pounds for naval ordnance and coaling stations.

The situation seemed temporarily resolved, but even greater agitation for an even stronger British Royal Navy soon arose. The following circumstances explain why this should have been so. Anglo-French conflict centered on the Mediterranean, where the establishment of a French protectorate over Tunis Tunis;French occupation of in 1881 altered the balance of regional power. The British occupation of Egypt Egypt;British occupation of the next year, to protect the Suez Canal Suez Canal , caused a further deterioration of relations. Russia, too, entertained a historic and no less menacing ambition to be a Mediterranean power.

At the same time, Russian advances in Central Asia Central Asia
Russia;and Central Asia[Central Asia] threatened India and nearly led to war with Britain in 1885. When Britain reached agreement with Turkey in 1887 for provisional evacuation of Egypt, the accord was wrecked, not by France alone, but also by Russia, foreshadowing the alliance of the two powers from which the British had most to fear. The international situation had deteriorated to the point that German chancellor Otto von Bismarck considered it necessary to caution the powers concerned about the threat of war.

Great Britain had hitherto felt reasonably secure by virtue of possessing a navy whose fleet was larger by one-third than that of France, the only other considerable naval power in the world. British numerical superiority in ships, however, was deceptive. Every few years, new ships were designed with improved armor. Possessing more effective armament, such ships rendered existing vessels obsolete and made it possible for foreign powers to put their fleets on an equal footing with that of Britain. After 1878, the French program of naval construction gradually narrowed Britain’s numerical advantage in vessels. Moreover, the French were much quicker than the British in adopting innovations in guns and armor, which were the real determinants of naval power.

In view of rising international tensions and the danger of a war in which sea power would play an important and perhaps decisive role, British naval propagandists were able to argue effectively that the existing Royal Navy was inadequate and had to be strengthened. The first salvos were fired in “The Truth About the Navy,” a series of articles published late in 1884 in the Pall Mall Gazette
Pall Mall Gazette , whose editor, William Thomas Stead, Stead, William Thomas was an influential naval propagandist. These articles were immediately reinforced by an outcry from the press and the public, and in Parliament by Lord George Francis Hamilton Hamilton, George Francis , first lord of the Admiralty, ably assisted by his fourth sea lord, Captain Lord Charles William de la Poer Beresford, Beresford, Charles William de la Poer who had taken part in the Nile expedition in 1884-1885. A modest program of naval expansion and improvement followed, but it was not sustained.

In 1888, agitation for strengthening the Royal Navy received a fresh impetus when French naval activity at Toulon raised fears that France was planning an attack on the Italian fleet. Because the British Mediterranean squadron was inferior to that of the French in both size and quality, a French defeat of the Italian fleet would have seriously weakened the British position in the Mediterranean. The clamor of a thoroughly frightened British public prompted Prime Minister Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of to propose legislation to strengthen the navy. The Naval Defense Act was passed in 1889.


The 1889 act was a triumph for advocates of a larger navy. At the cost of 21.5 million pounds sterling, the act laid down a building program more ambitious by far than anything hitherto attempted. It called for eight first-class battleships larger than any then in use in the Royal Navy, two second-class battleships, nine large and twenty-nine small cruisers, four gunboats, and eighteen torpedo boats. The act was also significant in establishing the principle that the British fleet had to be equivalent to at least the combined strength of the two next strongest navies in Europe, which were those of France and Russia at that time. This principle, known as the “two-power standard,” afterward dominated naval thinking. It was applied, however, only to battleships and first-class cruisers.

By committing itself to the two-power standard, Great Britain precipitated, however unwittingly, the naval arms race which helped to poison the relations of the European powers and bring on World War I only twenty-five years later. In 1891, the French announced a shipbuilding program no less ambitious than that of the British, while Russian Russia;navy naval expenditure increased by 65 percent between 1889 and 1893. By that time, the combined naval budgets of France and Russia exceeded that of Great Britain. By then, the specter of a Franco-Russian alliance had materialized and had produced another navy scare in 1893, followed by another British building program. The competition for bigger and more powerful navies was becoming a headlong race that no one could win.

Further Reading

  • Clowes, William Laird. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900. 7 vols. London: Chatham, 1997. First published in 1897, this massive book remains a very readable history of British naval history through the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Herman, Arthur. To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Well-written and engaging history of the Royal Navy whose underlying theme is that the British Empire provided a foundation for the modern world, and the empire’s own foundation was the Royal Navy.
  • Hill, J. R., and Bryan Ranft, eds. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Collection of essays on each major period in British naval history, including the late nineteenth century. Equally useful to both students and scholars.
  • Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare. New York: Viking, 1988. This book’s section on the World War I Battle of Jutland contains a brief but revealing review of developments in naval design and strategy in the years leading up to the war. An outstanding military historian, Keegan places the events of the time into proper perspective from both a military and a political point of view.
  • Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976. Contains an informative discussion of the supposed danger in which the British felt themselves during the 1880’s and how this led to the decision to adopt the “two-power” naval standard.
  • Massie, Robert. Dreadnought. New York: Random House, 1991. Although this volume has the post-1900 naval arms race as its major focus, it gives an informative review of the earlier British decision to expand and modernize its fleet.
  • Padfield, Peter. The Great Naval Race. New York: David McKay, 1974. As with the Massie work, this book concentrates on the years immediately preceding World War I but does place that contest in the context of earlier British actions, most notably the Naval Defense Act of 1889.
  • Stokesbury, James L. Navy and Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1983. Thorough review of Great Britain’s dependence upon naval supremacy for its imperial position. This volume has an informative discussion of the Royal Navy’s strategic thoughts during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

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