Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Seppings, Robert

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SEPPINGS, Sir ROBERT (1767–1840), naval architect, born at Fakenham in Norfolk in 1767, was son of Robert Seppings and his wife Lydia, daughter of John Milligen, a linendraper at Harleston. Sir Robert's birthplace is eight miles from Burnham Thorpe, where Nelson was born in 1758. His father was a cattle salesman, but his business did not prosper, and Seppings in his boyhood had to contribute to the family's income by carrying letters to a neighbouring town on a mule. Subsequently his mother's brother, John Milligen, a retired naval captain who had settled at Plymouth, adopted, in the place of children of his own, his nephew Robert, as well as the two daughters of his brother, Thomas Milligen. One of these, Charlotte, became Seppings's wife, while her sister Martha married Richard (afterwards Vice-admiral Sir Richard) Dacres, G.C.H., and her sons became Admiral Sir Sidney Colpoys Dacres [q. v.] and Field-Marshal Sir Richard James Dacres [q. v.]

In 1782 Captain Milligen apprenticed his nephew Robert, then fifteen years old, as a working shipwright in Plymouth dockyard. His education was very limited at the time, and his knowledge of mathematics was always slender; but he rapidly acquired a deep interest in his profession, and displayed an inventive genius which industry, determination, and the rapidity and accuracy of his powers of observation enabled him to turn to practical uses.

His first important invention may be referred to 1800. He was then master shipwright assistant at Plymouth dockyard. His chief work was to shore and lift ships in dock, and he was impressed by the time wasted in the processes employed. He sought a method by which ships might be suspended instead of lifted, and with this end in view, after experimenting with models in his cabin on the dock, he constructed new machinery, formerly called ‘Seppings blocks.’ By an arrangement of three wedges—two being placed vertically beside the ship, and one set horizontally across the other two—the examination of the keels and lower timbers of vessels was accomplished with comparative ease and rapidity. Where the old system needed the services of five hundred men, Seppings's system required but twenty men and two-thirds of the time formerly required. A vessel could, in fact, be docked and undocked by means of Seppings's blocks in one spring tide. A trial of the blocks was first made at Plymouth dockyard in September 1800, on the large Spanish first-rate San Josef. A dock at Plymouth was first fitted up with the blocks in 1801 by order of the navy board. For this invention Seppings was granted 1,000l. by the admiralty, and the Copley medal on 23 Nov. 1803 by the Society of Arts. In the ‘Proceedings’ of that society, vol. xxii., is a detailed account of the system of blocks, with diagrams.

Although the admiralty habitually discouraged innovation, Sir John Henslowe, the surveyor of the navy, was in full sympathy with Seppings's efforts. Owing doubtless to his representations, the navy board, in defiance of its traditions, gave practical proof of their appreciation of Seppings's ingenuity by at once removing him to Chatham, and by making him in 1804 a master-shipwright. Meanwhile, Seppings had begun another series of experiments on the construction of ships, which resulted in his invention of the system of diagonally bracing and trussing the frame-timbers, an invention of the first importance in shipbuilding. Hitherto, ships of the first class had suffered from the arching of their keels, technically called ‘hogging.’ This arose from the irregularity of the weight occasioned by greater upward pressure in the centre than in the extremities. When a first-rate ship entered the sea, she was usually found to have dropped two to five or six inches at head and stern. To prevent this result Seppings suggested that the frame-timbers should not, as had previously been done, be merely placed square and rectangular to each other, but that they should be braced together by trusses laid diagonally, and forming a series of triangles. While at Plymouth in 1800 Seppings had experimented in this direction on the Glenmore, an old and weak vessel of 36 guns. His success induced him, on his promotion to Chatham, to extend his operations in 1805 to the Kent, 74 guns, when docked for repairs. The plan answered all his expectations, and in 1810 it was applied with excellent effect to the old Tremendous (74). The Howe, launched on 28 March 1815, was the first ship laid down and wholly built on the diagonal principle. The system met with bitter opposition from the older shipwrights; it was pronounced to be ‘without sense or science,’ but Sir John Barrow [q. v.], second secretary of the admiralty, regarded it with favour and described its merits in an article in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ Barrow induced Charles Yorke, first lord of the admiralty, to direct its adoption in the government shipyards. Seppings fully and clearly explained the new system in a paper read before the Royal Society on 10 March 1814, and supplied a print of a section indicating the arrangements in detail. He showed how a barred gate was stiffened by fixing across it a diagonal strip of wood, and proved that the diagonal braces and trusses placed on either side of the ship, with cross-bracing between the port-holes, and the attachment of the beams to the sides of the vessel by small timbers, rendered the ship one mass, and attained the essential qualities of ‘strength, safety, and durability.’ In conclusion, Seppings acknowledged the honourable spirit of liberality which dictated ‘the orders for carrying out this new principle of constructing his majesty's ships.’ A second paper, read before the Royal Society on 27 Nov. 1817 (Transactions, 1818), showed the success of the principle on its trial on the Howe (120), the St. Vincent (120), and the Justitia (74), an old Danish ship. Critics of ‘high mathematical talents, who generally approved of the system’ (Knowles, Principles, &c., p. 12), controverted some of its details; but Seppings, who had no mathematical training, proved them in the wrong by actual experiment.

A third invention by Seppings was suggested by the loss of life on the Victory (100) at the battle of Trafalgar, owing to shot passing unimpeded through the boarding of the beakhead. In 1807 Seppings recommended the replacement of the beakhead of the ship by timbers run up the sides forming a circular bow. Subsequently he introduced a round stern, which became a formidable battery.

On 14 June 1813 Seppings was appointed by patent (Admiralty Bill Office Registry of Salaries) to the office of surveyor of the navy, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 10 March 1814. He received the honour of knighthood on 17 Aug. 1819 on board the Royal George yacht ‘under sail, the royal standard flying’ (Heralds' College). He received many other marks of honour at home and abroad. The Emperor Alexander of Russia, the kings of Denmark and Holland, all presented him with valuable gifts to mark their appreciation of his professional services. In 1836 the university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of D.C.L.

When, in 1832, Sir James Graham [q. v.], first lord of the admiralty, began a reform of the naval administration, Seppings resigned, on 12 June 1832, after nearly fifty years' service, his successor, Sir William Symonds, being appointed by warrant on 13 June 1832. After his retirement from Chatham, Seppings settled at Taunton, Somerset, where he died on 25 Sept. 1840. A small tablet in the chancel of St. Mary's there is inscribed with a brief record of his career.

By his innovations Seppings rendered ships in every way more seaworthy and better adapted for defence. In the museum of the Royal United Service Institution there is a fine model of a vessel presented by Seppings to the board of admiralty, which opens lengthwise, showing in opposite sections the two halves of a ship, the one with the old construction, the other with Seppings's improvements and inventions. His improved methods of shipbuilding are now universally adopted in all ships, whether constructed for the navy or the merchant service. In 1891, at the Naval Exhibition at Chelsea, the gallery in which models illustrating the progress of naval architecture were shown, was entitled the ‘Seppings’ gallery.

Lady Seppings died at Taunton on 22 Nov. 1834. Seppings's eldest son, John Milligen Seppings, filled for twenty years the office of inspector of shipping under the East India Company at Calcutta; with the death of his only surviving child (a daughter), the family in the male line became extinct. Another of Sir Robert's sons, Captain Edward Seppings, with his wife and two children, was killed at Cawnpore during the mutiny.

[Principles and Practice of Constructing Ships as mentioned and introduced by Sir Robert Seppings, by John Knowles, F.R.S., 1822; Gent. Mag. 1840, ii. 97; Philosophical Transactions, 1814, 1818; Proceedings of the Society of Arts, vol. xxii.; English Cyclopædia; Penny Encyclopædia, s.v. ‘Shipbuilding;’ The British Fleet, by Commander N. Robinson, R.N.; Statement of Case of Mr. Robert Seppings as to the Invention for obviating lifting Ships, Chatham, 1804; James's Naval History, ed. 1826.]

E. M. B.