The first cruisers were built around 1880. Cruisers were smaller than battleships but were designed to be faster. They were basically large fast ocean-going warships. Cruisers had a top speed of around 30 knots and had a crew of roughly 600 men. There were two main types of cruisers. The first was known as the heavy armoured cruiser. It was generally 10,000 tones in weight and had very strong side armour. It was mainly designed to be an assistant alongside the bigger battleships in battles with other fleets. The Royal Navy built 42 armoured cruisers between 1885 and 1907. After this date armoured cruisers were gradually replaced by battlecruisers.
The other type was known as a protected cruiser. This vessel's weight could range from anywhere between 2,000 and 14,000 tones. These cruisers had deck armour but had absolutely no side armour which was a major problem if these boats became involved in sea battles. The main tasks of these vessels included guarding trade routes, troop-ships and outposts. Between 1885 and 1907 the Royal Navy built 101 protected cruisers.
Between 1907 and 1913 Britain built 15 scout cruisers for this specific purpose and a further 21 larger cruisers called town class ships, were built for long-range operations.
The wartime-designed cruisers were made much lighter and faster and were mainly intended for scouting and screening operations. These boats were built in great numbers by both English and German fleets and played an important role in all the major North Sea battles during the First World War.
Older cruisers were kept busy during the war as they were used as protection against the German surface raiders. The got a helping hand from old passenger liners that had been converted into armed merchant cruisers. In the latter part of the war old British cruisers were used as long-range convoy escorts.