The Models

HMS Royal George

Maritime Innovation in Miniature

HMS Royal George: A Ship for a King


"Very early on in our project we were lucky to work with the team at the National Maritime Museum in London. We wanted to film two different types of models, from two different periods, which highlighted different ship design and construction techniques. The National Maritime Museum holds the largest collection of ship models in the world - around 3500 items dating back to Ancient Egypt - so this was a serious challenge! Under advice of the curator of ship models Simon Stephens, we settled on the models of HMS Royal George and the SS Great Eastern.

The Royal George was filmed in the Board Room of the National Maritime Museum, in the Park Row wing of the building. This is a magnificent room, panelled with oak from what was once the Caird Library. The model is usually on public display in a gallery and was brought into the room by a team of conservators and placed on a table in the centre of the room, which allowed the film crew a full 360-degree access to this remarkable work of art. It is without question one of the finest ship models of the eighteenth century.

The model was built in the 1770s as means of inspiring King George III to take an interest in his navy. George III was the first monarch of the House of Hanover to be born and brought up in England and to speak English as his first language. This model was an important part of his education as a British king.

The ship that it represents, the First Rate Royal George, had been built a generation before, in 1756. It had been built at a time of great improvement in the Royal Navy, and in particular in the design and construction of the largest, most powerful and most symbolic ships in the fleet, the First Rate ships of the line. She was built at the royal dockyard of Woolwich in London over ten years and at the time of her launch was the largest warship in the world.

First Rate warships were the largest in the fleet. They were designed to carry at least 100 guns and they sailed with a complement of up to 1000 men.  She would have been 54.3 metres long - a little over two tennis courts - and 15.8m wide. To our modern mind this might seem small but for a wooden ship, it was enormous.

The exquisite model was made by a team of the finest craftsmen in the country. It is a work of art as much as it is a model. It has even been decorated with bone and pearl to make it gleam in flickering light. The stern is particularly heavily decorated to emphasise the importance of this area, where the officers slept and dined.

The painted bulwark screens at the top of the hull show mythical sea creatures, foliage, and trophies of war. The gunports, shown open as if ready for action, are painted with a lion’s head. note how they are staggered vertically so they do not fall one above the other, an innovation that ensured the stresses of broadside gunfire were spread evenly as each port was, potentially, a weak spot in the framing.

The model is made planked on one side, but open on the other, to reveal the glorious complexity of her hull construction. These ships required vast quantities of timber: as many as two thousand trees or sixty acres of forest for a ship this big. The rudder would have been almost eleven metres tall and nearly two metres wide at its broadest point.

The model is not rigged but the ship would have had three huge masts, the tallest around 62 metres high. She would have carried an immense cloud of canvas, but it was common practice in the eighteenth century to omit rigging on models as it was both time consuming and expensive to make in miniature.

Her hull is shown here unpainted but in the middle decades of the eighteenth century it is likely that she would have been painted red; distinctly different from the yellow and black colour scheme that became famous later in the century under the influence of Horatio Nelson.

The intricate figurehead depicts the youthful King George III in classical warrior’s uniform. The horses’ heads show the pulsating veins and flared nostrils,  a moment of energy and violence frozen in time. The figurehead represents a clear moment of innovation in the changing decorative designs of the bow. Here the figurehead is shown as a double figure in mirrored relief; before then the figurehead was a single complete statue on top of the bow.

Here there are only three rails connecting the figurehead to the bow where previously there would have been four. This was all part of a process of reducing weight on the bow to improve seaworthiness. The beakhead area of the bow is decorated with carved and painted motifs. The semi-circular roundhouses were the toilets for the officers, whilst the crew used the more basic `seats of ease’ shown here as four rectangular stools. The large angular beams protruding out from the bow were known as catheads which supported the heavy iron anchors.

The internal fittings of this model have been constructed with as much care as the external. We can peek inside the model in the senior officer’s cabins and see the parquet flooring, inlaid doors, and metal fire hearth. 

A ship of this size required a large double wheel operated by four crew when the weather conditions were bad. The quarter deck and poop deck above the wheel was where the ship was commanded. Along the edge of the poop deck above the wheel is an inclinometer to show the ship’s angle of heel when under sail, an important safety feature.

The middle of the ship, known as the waist, is where the ships boats were stored and provided access to the decks and hold below via the hatches. The large gratings provided light as well as ventilation to the decks below.

The crew of a vessel such as this needed hot victuals to work effectively and efficiently. Although not visible here, the galley of the Royal George was of a very modern design. Traditionally this was provided by a brick firehearth with a large copper kettle as the principle means of cooking. By the mid-eighteenth century the heavy brick structures were replaced by iron stoves, some with their own innovative features. We know that the stove of the Royal George had a turn-spit for roasting meat.

Her chain pumps which kept the ships’ bilges dry were also state-of-the-art. They were reliable, powerful and robust, and stood out as an example of exception British maritime engineering. These were designed with a continuous loop of circular plates that trapped water between them and were fed into the bilges either side of the mainmast by a winch. Bilge pumps were so important to the safety of a ship that they were subject to almost continuous minor improvement. By the time of the construction of the Royal George they had a cistern at the top, linked axles that allowed two pumps to be turned at once and long crank handles that allowed up to thirty men to pump at a time.

Magnificent ships like this were born from four centuries’ worth of learning the art and science of constructing large ships. And yet there was still much to learn. The Royal George enjoyed a good career but was lost in 1782 when she capsized at anchor off Spithead with immense loss of life – around 1200 people died. it still remains one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters."