British Cruisers of the Victorian Era

Author: Norman Friedman
Publisher: Seaforth Publishing (UK) Naval Institute Press (US)
Year: 2012
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Oh, Norman Friedman, how you beguile me sometimes. You have this amazing knack of hunting down obscure bits of information and incorporating it into your books. You make the frustrating and arcane process of ship design and naval architecture seem really interesting. You make me care about naval tactics, the politics of national defense, block coefficients, and low-angle fire control. You somehow have this amazing ability to combine all this stuff into a single cohesive naval history book. But darn it, as an actual human being, reading your books can put a real strain on my mental facilities. It usually pays off in the end, but I sometimes find myself having to put together a sort of "cheat sheet" halfway through. But I love your stuff anyway. Why?

I'm one of those odd people who's more interested in studying naval architecture and the warship design process than I am the stories of the individual ships and their crews. I've read five of Friedman's "Illustrated Design History" series from cover to cover,  and I've been on a bit of a British warship kick this last year. I've always loved the design of British fighting ships from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if only for their ridiculously cluttered upper decks and the totally illogical placement of their secondary batteries. When I found out that Norman Friedman was going to be doing an entire book devoted to British cruisers of this period, my curiosity was definitely piqued. Maybe some of my questions would be finally answered.

Lately, Norman Friedman has turned his attention from the United States Navy to the Royal Navy. Since 2006, he's written four books on British warships, the other three being a two-volume study of destroyers and frigates, and a book on cruisers built between World War I and the end of World War II. The scope of this book is fairly impressive, since the Victorian definition of "cruiser" was quite different from "bigger than a destroyer but smaller than a battleship." From the 1840s to the construction of the first Dreadnought-era battlecruisers in 1906, the Royal Navy's defined a cruiser as anything from a small steam corvette or torpedo gunboat, to a large armored ship armed with 9.2-inch guns, designed to defeat second-class battleships.

British Cruisers of the Victorian Era has a lot going for it. At a cursory glance, the production values are superb. The hundreds of photographs from the archives of the National Maritime Museum are of excellent quality, as are the dozens of minutely detailed plan and elevation drawings of ships by Friedman's long-time partner A D Baker III. The pages are printed on high-quality glossy stock, and with other Naval Institute titles, the binding feels quite strong. At 352 pages, and measuring 9.5 by 11 inches, this is one pretty substantial book. I wouldn't recommend throwing it down a flight of stairs, but I think it would survive mostly intact.

When Friedman is in his element, this book is superb. The early sections go into intricate but readable detail on the political situation of post-Napoleonic Europe, the evolution of British fleet tactics in the early steam era, the design of steam engines and boilers, the types of guns used by these ships, and the creation of ships for trade protection and duty on overseas stations. Friedman dovetails these developments with the difficulty of "selling" ships to a fickle English government, and the problems associated with procuring and maintaining enough ships to protect distant British possessions from whatever the Royal Navy's current "future enemy" might be. Concept wise, this book is really no different from his Illustrated Design Histories on American warships. The focus here is more on the evolution of the different ship designs than on the finished product. Little bits of insight ("the lower deck casemates tended to be wet in all but calm seas," etc.) are included here and there, and many of the photo captions serve as capsule histories of the ship pictured, but as a whole, it's not a detailed operational analysis, nor does it seem like it was ever meant to be.

The real problem with British Cruisers of the Victorian Era is that it's a stylistic and editing nightmare, and I place most of the blame on Seaforth Publishing. Friedman is Friedman; if you've read any of his books from the '80s, the writing here is really no different. Photo captions tend to go on for paragraphs, chapters end abruptly, and details frequently get as thick as your Grandma's fudge brownies. The real problem is that this serious, top dollar military reference book is presented in a manner that seems more fitting to a coffee table book collecting dust in Barnes and Nobles' bargain books section.

Call me an old fart, but I really think books of this sort work better when they're laid out in a simple and straightforward manner. I  purchased the classic British Battleships of World War Two around the same time, and was shocked to see how logically and consistently that book was able to present an enormous amount of rather raw data. This book? Not so much. Most of the photographs are of superb quality, but too many of them are spread across two pages and details fall into the tight binding. This wouldn't be a problem if it was an e-book, but by the fifth instance of seeing an entire mast or funnel falling into the "gutter," I found myself audibly sighing in frustration. The book as a whole feels more like a Frankenstein affair than a carefully polished and edited product. Ship specifications and class breakdowns are included as appendixes, rather than in the main text where they would have been more useful. Typos appear every other page, and smaller photos are plopped incongruously atop larger ones. So many different ship types are described in this book, I think that a "family tree" printed on the inside cover showing British cruisers built between 1840 and 1905, would have eased my frustration as a reader immensely.

Is British Cruisers of the Victorian Era still a worthwhile book for British warship fans? Despite what I've said earlier, I think it is. I don't intend this review to be a criticism of Friedman's work as a whole. His books have provided me many hours of thought-provoking reading in the past. Unfortunately, this is one his weaker  books, although it still contains plenty of good information for serious naval enthusiasts. Those who are merely "interested" in the subject will find it a frustrating experience. The text is fascinating and insightful, the photos are great, and the drawings are superbly executed, but I can't help but see this as a masterpiece torpedoed by sloppy production.