It is common these days to call detailed local or regional histories ‘microhistories’ to get away from the perceived stigma of ‘local history’ being considered insular and self-absorbed. This study of a small and relatively unknown military industrial complex in the fjords of Norway is an excellent example of this new trend. Frederiksvern operated for a relatively short period to meet a particular defensive need resulting from the tensions between Denmark-Norway and Sweden in the mid-eighteenth century.

In the late 1740s Denmark-Norway began a period of naval expansion in preparation for a possible war with Sweden. A new building programme was started at the Holmen naval dockyard in Copenhagen, but in 1748 the Admiralty was asked by Christian VI to determine how many and what type of ships would be needed for the defence of Norway. So long as the Swedish navy did not expand, it was felt that a fleet of four frigates, ten galleys, six skerry boats and a number of smaller vessels would be sufficient. It was also felt that it would be cheaper and better to build the ships in situ in Norway, to avoid the unnecessary expense and inconvenience of transporting the timber from Norway to Copenhagen. 

In the spring of 1749 a commission investigated possible sites where a shipyard and naval station could be established. A site near Stavern was considered to be the most promising—it was close to Sweden, it allowed easy access to the Kattegat, ships could sail in and out of the harbour no matter what the wind direction was, and it was also free of ship worm. A decision was therefore made in early 1750 to establish a base by the name of Friderichs Vaern, but in order to manage the financial outlay it was to be built over a period of seven years. 

When the yard was first established the workers were initially quartered within the town of Stavern, but purpose-built accommodation was soon constructed, similar in concept to the Nyboder houses in Copenhagen, but made of timber. These provided accommodation for about 500 personnel and their families, and a hospital, church and school were also built as part of the new development. 

Frederiksvern was a military settlement and had its own particular form of society. No one lived there voluntarily and living conditions were basic. This naturally led to a range of conflicts and misdemeanours among the workforce. Like most government institutions it had its fair share of economic crimes, with the petty theft of materials commonplace, while larger crimes, such as the theft of 400 rigsdaler from the quartermaster’s office in 1776, were occasionally committed. Violence between workers, sailors and locals was a regular feature and Frederiksvern had its own court, which had jurisdiction over the shipyard and military personnel.

Raw materials were supplied to the dockyard in a variety of ways. Foodstuffs were originally supplied from Danish merchants, but from 1759 they were supplied directly from the naval provision store at Copenhagen. Iron spikes and nails were supplied locally from the major Norwegian ironworks, and cannon were supplied both directly from Copenhagen and purchased from local suppliers. The supply of timber was the largest operation and took the form of procurement from local merchants, who in turn acquired timber from farmers and landowners. Timber exports were one of the main sources of income for landowners and, in order to secure adequate supplies, a dockyard agent was also used in Arendal and Kristiansand to procure the best shipbuilding timber direct from the landowners. Frederiksvern did not have a free hand in the procurement however, as the prices had to be approved centrally in Copenhagen.

The development of Frederiksvern was a slow process and it took a full twelve years from establishing the dockyard to the launch of its first vessel. It took the navy a long time to decide on the nature of the ships to be built there and it was only in 1761 that the first construction drawings were approved. The first vessel was the 40-oar galley called Moss, which was launched in September 1762. Once the Admiralty had approved the quality of this first ship, the yard set up full production for another nine galleys. When these had been completed, the yard carried on with the construction of a number of smaller vessels in 1768-9. After much wrangling with the Admiralty, it was finally decided to build a frigate at Frederiksvern. This was constructed between 1772-4 and the 20-gun Christiania became the largest vessel built there.

The construction of the fleet was now complete, but it had taken far longer than anticipated and it ended up being one of the last galley fleets to be built in Europe. In the meantime the very fleet that it had been designed to protect against had changed character, with Henrik Frederik af Chapman introducing a new modern type of vessel for the Swedish navy.

When Gustav III seized power in Sweden in 1772 Frederiksvern had its first real test and was found severely lacking. Apart from having the wrong kind of ships, it lacked sufficient men and equipment for the fleet to be mobilised and it took months for reinforcements to arrive from Copenhagen. In order to improve the facilities at Frederiksvern the harbour was deepened and the dockyard fortified in the 1780s. However, the galley fleet was still not fit for purpose and in 1788 it failed to stop the Swedes from capturing a transport fleet. In the 1790s Frederiksvern was gradually run down, only to have one last hurrah following the Battle of Copenhagen when it was used successfully as a base for cannon boats in the fight against the British. Following the union with Sweden in 1814, Horten became the main Norwegian naval base and Frederiksvern played only a minor role until it was finally abandoned in 1896.

The title of the last chapter sums up Frederiksvern’s role succinctly: ingen stor suksess [no great success]. It took a long time to build and even longer to produce its first ship; it had the wrong type of ships, and was difficult to be kept in readiness for its role in defending the coast of Norway. Just about its only strong point was its geographical location.

In his introduction, the author states that it took nearly as long to finish this study as it did to build the first ship at Frederiksvern. The book has the feel that every last detail about Frederiksvern has been included and, consequently, some of those details are rather minor. However, such detail helps to bring the subject to life and never gets in the way of the story. This is a well-written book that adds new depth to our understanding of naval operations in Norway during the Danish-Norwegian monarchy. It complements Ole Henrik Gjeruldsen’s study of earlier operations Defensionsskipsordningen i Norge 1630-1704 (Oslo, 2002) in presenting the navy in Norway as virtually a separate force, with its own particular make-up and regional identity, though of course still linked structurally to the main Danish navy. The ‘Norwegian navy’ can be thought of as primarily a defensive force that allowed the main fleet at Copenhagen to take on a more offensive role.

This book presents an excellent microhistory of a temporary military industrial complex in terms of its physical establishment and operation as a military base and as a somewhat isolated community. It is also essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the operation and administration of the Danish-Norwegian navy from a more northerly perspective. It is beautifully produced with colour maps, plans and illustrations throughout, but sadly there is no index.