There were many hundreds of apprentices in Naval Dockyards years ago working from 7am to 5pm and studying in the evenings. It was very competitive and only a very small number of students succeeded after four years and became Naval Constructors. William White was a brilliant Devonport student and he became a great ship designer and was influential in preparing Naval Dockyards for building large warships for the Navy before the First World War.
William Henry White was born in Drews Cottage, Devonport, on 2nd February 1845 and he became a dockyard apprentice on 1st July 1859 aged 14 having passed the entrance examination. William was a clever student and he gained an Admiralty Scholarship in 1863 and was selected for the Royal School of Naval Architecture having headed the list of students from all the Dockyards. He completed the course in top position and then worked at Devonport and Chatham on ship designs.
At the end of his apprenticeship he entered the Admiralty and was employed on specifications for ships, calculations and estimates of weight and speeds. Then he became secretary to Mr Nathanial Barnaby, Director of Naval Construction and was an Instructor on Naval Design and became involved with all the work done by the Admiralty design staff. In March 1873 he became Assistant Constructor and his Manual of Naval Architecture was published in 1873 and became a world-wide best seller. In 1880 he submitted a Memorandum recommending the formation of a Royal Corps of Naval Constructors which was established in August 1883.
William White left the Admiralty in 1882 to work for Sir William Armstrong, Mitchell & Co as Warship Designer and Manager of their Warship Construction branch and became responsible for their early Elswick cruisers. On the resignation of Sir Nathanial Barnaby in 1885 William White again entered the Admiralty and this time as Director of Naval Construction and Assistant Controller of the Navy on 1st August 1885 when he was 40 years of age. He then set about the reorganisation of the Royal Dockyards and eventually the Royal Dockyards became the fastest and cheapest constructors of warships in the world.
In 1888 William White produced his revolutionary design for the Royal Sovereign Class of battleships. For many years our armoured ships had suffered from low forecastles and flooding of weather decks and slower speed through the water because of the increased water resistance. Therefore he proposed to have a high freeboard, ie the height of the weather deck above the sea. To meet this requirement he used light-weight gun mountings called “Barbetts” and an extra deck which enabled an 18ft freeboard with main guns at a height of 23ft. He also planned for special armour protection of the hull and decks and made all the necessary stability calculations. Sir Arthur Hood, The First Naval Lord at that time, however preferred the turret ships and the Naval Board finally agreed to approve the building of seven Royal Sovereign Class Battleships and a battleship named HMS Hood to be built at Chatham with turrets and not barbettes.
From views of Royal Sovereign Class battleships you can see the four 13.5 inch guns (two fwd and two aft), the ten in number six inch Quick Firing guns (five in casements on each side of the weather deck). Thus all the main armament is on the weather deck. There are also sixteen in number six pounder Quick Firing guns and twelve in number three pounder Quick Firing guns positioned around the ship. These ships were coal-fired and carried about 1,100 tons of coal with eight boilers and two sets of High Pressure Steam Engines. All these ships were built between 1889 and 1895 and William White was knighted in 1895. He also became President of many engineering societies and he had provided the Royal Navy with the finest group of fighting ships afloat at that time which sat the water with distinction.