The Naval Defence Act 1889
was an Act
An Act of Parliament is a statute enacted as primary legislation by a national or sub-national parliament. In the Republic of Ireland the term Act of the Oireachtas is used, and in the United States the term Act of Congress is used.In Commonwealth countries, the term is used both in a narrow...
of the Parliament of the United Kingdom
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom, British Crown dependencies and British overseas territories, located in London...
, instituted on May 31, 1889 to increase the United Kingdom's
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the formal name of the United Kingdom during the period when what is now the Republic of Ireland formed a part of it....
naval strength and formally adopt the country’s "two-power standard." The standard called for the Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...
to maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world which at that point were France and Russia.
The act was passed under the government of Lord Salisbury
Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, KG, GCVO, PC , styled Lord Robert Cecil before 1865 and Viscount Cranborne from June 1865 until April 1868, was a British Conservative statesman and thrice Prime Minister, serving for a total of over 13 years...
and facilitated spending £21,500,000 over five years toward fleet expansion. Initially Parliament opposed the increase in naval expenditures. Parliament’s stance on the issue shifted due to several factors. First, expert naval opinions presented to Parliament in December 1888 and February 1889 rendered critical views on the state of the navy. The buildup of the French and Russian navies was another factor pointing to purported British weakness. As a result, public support for proposed naval growth grew and placed further pressure on Parliament to support the act.
In reality the two-power standard had been informally used over the past seventy years and for a brief period during the 1850s Britain had met the standard. Britain already enjoyed international naval superiority. The Naval Defence Act reasserted the standard by its formal adoption and hoped to improve British naval supremacy to an even higher level.
The expansion came in the form of ten battleships, forty-two cruisers, and eighteen torpedo gunboats. The battleships were the centerpiece of the legislation. Eight first-class battleships of the Royal Sovereign class
The Royal Sovereign class was a class of pre-dreadnought battleships of the British Royal Navy. The class comprised seven ships built to the same design: HMS Royal Sovereign, , HMS Ramilles, HMS Repulse, HMS Resolution, HMS Revenge, and HMS Royal Oak, and a half-sister built to a modified design: ....
and two-second class battleships, the Centurion
were ordered. The Royal Sovereign
class was the most formidable capital ship of its day, fulfilling the role of a larger and faster battleship unmatched by those of Russia and France. The cruisers were aimed at protecting British supply lines. The act provided for nine first-class cruisers of the Edgar class
The Edgar-class was a nine-ship class of protected cruiser built around 1891 for the Royal Navy.-Design:Crescent and Royal Arthur were built to a slightly modified design with a raised forecastle and a pair of 6 inch guns replacing the forward 9.2 inch gun, and are sometimes considered a...
, twenty-nine second-class cruisers of the Apollo
The Apollo class were a class of second-class protected cruisers built for the Royal Navy in the late 19th century that served during the Boer War and World War I....
The Astraea class was an eight ship class of protected cruisers built for the Royal Navy during the 1890s. The ships served on a number of foreign stations during their careers, particularly in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and around the Cape of Good Hope...
classes, and four third-class cruisers of the Pearl class
The Pearl-class cruiser was a class of nine third-class cruisers designed by Sir William White, five of which were paid for by Australia under the terms of the Imperial Defence Act of 1887 to serve in Australian waters.-Design:...
. The remaining eighteen torpedo gunboats served to support and protect the main battle fleet.
The primary rationales behind the Naval Defence Act were military and economic. Militarily the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Hamilton
Lord George Francis Hamilton GCSI, PC, JP was a British Conservative Party politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.-Background:...
, argued that the size and scope of this new building program would deter the naval ambitions of other powers. By deterring other powers’ naval growth at present, the British would be able to spend less on shipbuilding in the future. The large upfront cost offered immediate economic incentives as well. Previous shipbuilding efforts had been halted due to an insufficient annual allowance. Without the funds to complete the warships, production took longer and cost more. By financing the expansion over a five year period, residual balances from one year could be transferred over to the next, allowing production to continue uninterrupted at greatly reduced costs. This method also aimed for the British completion of her warships more quickly than its rival powers. In theory, the scope and speed of production would not only cut costs but also deter other powers hoping to match British production.
Results and consequences
In practice, the Naval Defence Act of 1889 had limited economic success but failed as a deterrent. The financing of the warships over five years allowed production to continue uninterrupted with low cost overruns and limited delays. A coinciding demand for merchant vessels built in the same private shipyards as some of the warships led to minimal increases in the cost of labor and material. Lord Hamilton’s hopes of reducing future naval expenditures were dashed as the increased British production saw matched attempts at naval expansion by France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...
. In fact, the French and Russians built a combined twelve battleships in the period from 1893-94, compared to Britain’s ten. Another British expansion effort, known as the Spencer program, followed in 1894 aimed to match foreign naval growth at a cost of over £31 million. Instead of deterring the naval expansion of foreign powers, Britain’s Naval Defence Act contributed to a naval arms race. Minor powers including Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...
and the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
bolstered their navies in the following years as Britain continued to increase its own naval expenditures.
- Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914, (New York: Routledge, 1993)
- Lawrence Sondhaus, Naval Warfare, 1815-1914, (New York: Routledge, 2001)
- Roger Parkinson, The Late Victorian Navy: the Pre-Dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War, (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008)
- James Levy, review of The Late Victorian Navy, by Roger Parkinson, Journal of Military History, January 2008, 293-294.
- "England's New Fleet." Article from the Washington Post, June 29, 1890.
- Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 3-4, 29-30.
- Victorian Royal Navy
- History of the Royal Navy Pax Britannica, 1815–1895
- History of the Royal Navy Age of the battleship, 1895–1919