How Much Did a Warship Cost?


by Barry Slemmings (barry.slembo@virgin.net)

Recently a question was asked on the Battleships V Battleships discussion site regarding the actual cost of WW1 warships. I realised that there was no 'one-stop' source on delivery costs and I put this list together from a variety of sources.

It will be noted that battleship costs rose fairly slowly during the 1906/1910 period [Lord Nelson was 1.5m and Dreadnought 1.8m] and this may reflect the belief - that by eliminating the medium guns and increasing the number of main guns - that economies of scale could be achieved on a larger hull. However prices clearly escalate when the 13.5-inch gun is introduced and when wartime inflation takes hold.

Sources are as shown...
Warship construction costs from "Jane's Fighting Ships," 1914 edition
Queen Elizabeth [then uncompleted] estimated at 2.5m but see below for a detailed breakdown
King George V - 1,965,000 or about 85 per ton
Colossus - 1,730,000 or 87 per ton
Neptune - cost to build 86.8 per ton, machinery only 258,000
Dreadnought - 1,797,497
Lion Class - average per ship 2m
Indefatigable - 1,547,426 or about 82.53 per ton
Invincible - 1,752,000 or about 101.6 per ton
Lord Nelson [est] - 1.5m
King Edward Class - 1.5m
Swiftsure and Triumph purchased from Chile for 949,900 but this price could be distorted due to the circumstances of the sale.
Queen and Prince of Wales - 'just over 1m' [see Swiftsure!]

Armoured cruisers:
Warrior - 1,180,000
Duke of Edinburgh - 1,150,000
Hampshire - 850,000
Kent - 775,000
Good Hope - 'just over 1million'
note: the Kent class was intended to be an 'economy' cruiser for service on distant stations and this is reflected in the price here.

Light cruisers - very few costings in Jane's.
Boadicea - 330,000
Adventure - 275,000
Forward - 289,000
Pathfinder - 273,000
Topaze - 240,000

German: [source Jane's 1914 - presumably calculated in sterling at the prevailing exchange rate]
Kaiser - 2.4m
Westfalen - 1,838,000
Moltke and Goeben - 2.2m
Von Der Tann - 1,833,000
Deutschland - 1.2m
Braunschweig - 1,160,000
Blucher - 1,349,000
Kolberg - 381,480
Stuttgart + Konigsberg - 319,000
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"Dreadnoughts in Camera" by Roger D.Thomas and Brian Patterson, devotes a whole section to warship costs. The authors point out there were price variations between Royal Dockyard-built ships and commercial yards. One example was Indefatigable [Devonport Dockyard] which was 220,000 cheaper than New Zealand which was built by Fairfield. They add: "In the majority of cases, however, the private yards were cheaper than the Royal Dockyards. With the Bellerophon Class, Armstrong Whitworth was cheaper by 74,615, and Vickers cheaper by 123,866 with the St.Vincent Class. Cheaper builds of around 35,000 were completed by W.Beardmore, Armstrong Whitworth and Thames Iron Works for the Orion Class..."

They also quote the variations in the Queen Elizabeth class [see Jane's estimate - above - for 'around 2.5m'.]
Queen Elizabeth - Portsmouth Dockyard - 3,014,103
Malaya - Armstrong Whitworth - 2,945,709
Valiant - Fairfield - 2,537,037
Warspite - Devonport Dockyard - 2,524,148
Barham - John Brown - 2,470,113

Thomas and Patterson add: "Costings were a complicated matter because methods of manning and squadding were different between the dockyards, which used the special category of skilled labourers, and the private yards where plating, riveting and caulking were listed trades." Significantly they say: "It was actually quite difficult for contemporaries to produce direct comparisons between the Royal Dockyards and the private yards in terms of cost, efficeincy and productivity." They also add that the Admiralty was rigorous over tendering after allegations of profiteering against some contractors - such as Fairfield - on cruiser contracts in the 1890s. Fairfield had been paying 20 per cent dividend to shareholders in 1902/3 which rose to 30% in 1905/6. A depression led to a change, however, with John Brown making a loss [amount not disclosed] on HMS Bristol. The Admiralty allowed 'reasonable' profit margins, say the two authors, because of the amount of investment and planted needed in a modern shipyard, plus the need to remain profitable.

It should be noted here [by Barry Slemmings] that my 'local' shipyard, Thames Ironworks, which built the last battleship built on the River Thames [HMS Thunderer] was driven out of business partly because of the rising cost of labour in east London. There were alternative jobs available in London to working in a ship-building yard. [Note: there was also the physical problem that the increasing size of warships made them more difficult to launch at the company's yard.]

In an article which I wrote about Thames Ironworks for a local newspaper I found that the Admiralty actually waived some previous 'late delivery' penalty charges against Thames in an effort to keep the company afloat [pardon the pun] as it struggled to meet the rising wage bill. Thames Ironworks eventually foundered [ouch!] but did leave east London with one continuing legacy. The company football team went on to become West Ham United F.C. and contributed the team captain and two key players to the winning English 1966 World Cup team!
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Other sources: "The Grand Fleet", by D.K. Brown, Mr Brown lists a variety of costs for British warships.
King George V - 1,950,000
Chatham class cruiser - 350,000
Acheron class destroyer - 88,000
D Class sub - 89,000
Flower Class minesweeper - 60,000

Coal-fired HMS Beagle was 106,000 but the oil-fired HMS Defender was just 83,000 though it should be pointed out that Defender was also 30 feet shorter.

War-time inflation also affected the cost of building:
Renown cost 3,117,204 [compare to Queen Elizabeth - and R had fewer guns]
Courageous cost 2,038,225
Hood cost 6,025,000 though it should also be pointed out that all three had the costlier 15-inch guns.

Page 61 of 'The Grand Fleet' also contains a table separating the cost of the guns from the cost of vessels from Dreadnought to Iron Duke.

D.K. Brown also lists the costs of some destroyers:
Beagle - 110,000
Acorn - 94,000
Acheron - 88,000
Acasta - 100,000
Laforey - 98,000
M class - 100,000
Later Admiralty M class with higher speeds [Page 73 of The Grand Fleet] cost 110,000 but the 'Specials' were faster and cost 127,000 each. Reflecting wartime inflation and the increasing size of later destroyers, the first five V&W destroyers were 200,000 each but were described as divisional or half leaders. Brown comments that they were some 6,000 dearer than some of the more expensive contemporary destroyers then being built. I hope this brief overview of construction costs is of some use.


Last Updated: 12 July, 1999.

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