A SURVEY BY DR PHILIP MACDOUGALL
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The Royal Navy has long been considered the first line in the nation's defence. Able to control the seas which surround the British Isles, Royal Navy warships have helped negate countless attempts at invasion. But in telling the story of our island's survival the fundamental role of the nation's royal dockyards has been too often ignored. Rarely has attention been given to the organisation and effort involved in both building and maintaining ships that not only fought in European waters, but went on to dominate the oceans of the world. Not surprisingly therefore, the emergence of an English navy during the reign of Henry VII coincided with the establishment of the first permanent royal dockyard. This was at Portsmouth which, in 1496, received a purpose built dry dock that allowed warships to be drawn out of the water so that their hulls might be repaired and cleaned.
From that date onwards a number of additional naval dockyards were soon established, a fair proportion of these sited along the banks of the Thames and Medway. This latter tendency was no simple coincidence, ships of the Royal Navy having to be on hand for the defence of London. In addition, all newly built and repaired warships would have to be eventually brought into the Thames, so that they might receive their guns and powder from the ordnance store that then existed in the Tower of London.
To be a little more precise, these particular yards were established at Woolwich (in 1512), Deptford (1513), Chatham (1570) and Sheerness (1665). In addition, two further, but comparatively short-lived, yards were also created at Erith (in existence from 1514 to 1521) and at Harwich (with a Navy Commissioner first appointed in June 1653). Of all the naval yards in this period, Chatham was undoubtedly the most important, with the vast majority of warships invariably given winter moorings in the Medway. This meant that any repair work was automatically undertaken at Chatham, Sheerness merely supplying support facilities.
Yet the Thames and Medway yards were soon to enter a period of decline. For the most part this resulted from the many difficulties encountered by larger warships when attempting to reach these yards. Apart from possessing several hazardous sandbanks, the Medway, in particular, has a great many twists and turns that require a very precise wind direction. As a result, a newly fitted warship had sometimes to wait as long as three weeks before the coincidence of a suitable wind and tide.
Another factor in the decline of the Thames and Medway was that of enforced changes in naval strategy. During the 16th and 17th centuries, any potential enemy was always to be found concentrated in the east, with the Dutch eventually to emerge as a major rival to British maritime prosperity. In the 18th century the French became an even greater threat.
As a result, the fleet was soon directed to the south coast, where it could more immediately counter the movement of French warships operating out of Brest, L'Orient and Rochefort. A rapid expansion of Portsmouth was undertaken with a new dockyard at Plymouth also created (c. 1690).
Taking each of these yards in turn, it is possible to identify certain characteristics that were to last into the 19th century. Largest of these yards was Portsmouth, important both for the construction of warships and the provision of repair and maintenance facilities. In addition, the adjacent harbour, among the safest in England, was used for the laying-up of warships in time of peace while the Spithead anchorage served as a rendezvous point for convoys during times of hostility. The frequent sailing of warships meant that docking facilities at Portsmouth were always in great demand, with numerous hulls having to be examined, repaired and cleaned of various accretions that might otherwise impair a smooth sailing performance.
Plymouth, by the late-18th century, had become the second largest Royal dockyard and was also involved in the construction of new warships. In addition, it helped maintain ships of the Channel Fleet, serving as a base for cruising squadrons of the Atlantic. Its only real disadvantage was that of having a narrow and crooked entrance to its harbour, this sometimes proving dangerous for larger ships. As with Portsmouth, the harbour also served for the laying-up of ships.
To a certain extent, Sheerness had a similar role to the two south coast yards. Within easy reach of the North Sea, and able to service warships anchored in the Thames estuary or moored in the Medway, its fleet maintenance facilities were under particular pressure during periods of hostility. At other times, Sheerness might be expected to undertake new construction work.
Chatham, Deptford and Woolwich, on the other hand, were far less accessible than the other Royal dockyards, with these yards most advantageously used for long term repairs and ship building. Chatham was also particularly busy during periods of mobilization, the Medway having long been an important peace time anchorage, with moorings for more than fifty ships.
In addition to its repair and building functions, the dockyard at Deptford undertook certain other tasks that resulted from its proximity to London. For one thing, it was the yard most frequently chosen for any new experimental work, with members of the London-based Navy Board (the body primarily responsible for the administration of yards during this period) in a position to visit the yard in order to monitor progress. Deptford was also responsible for supplying naval equipment to other Royal dockyards, both home and abroad.
This last function arose from a Navy Board policy of purchasing material through the commercial markets in London, with Deptford conveniently situated to supply the necessary storage facilities.
Apart from the various home yards, it also became necessary to create a number of overseas yards, their role entirely directed to fleet maintenance. First of these to be created was at Port Royal in Jamaica and established in the 17th century. In later years, a large number of foreign dockyards were to come into the possession of the Royal Navy, with those at English Harbour (Antigua), Gibraltar, Port Mahon (Minorca), Ireland Island (Bermuda) and Malta among the most important.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars witnessed a huge growth in the size of all the Royal Dockyards, with this period culminating in the establishment of a further home yard at Pembroke. Unlike other home yards, Pembroke specialised exclusively upon the building of new warships and possessed no repair and maintenance facilities.
The introduction of steam ships in the Royal Navy resulted in the construction of two steam yards at Woolwich, the first opened in 1831 and the second in 1843. Other steam yards were built at Devonport (the yard at Plymouth having been re-named in 1843) and constructed on a completely separate seven acre site. Connected to the original yard by a 900 yard tunnel, the new steam yard (which adopted the name Keyham) was constructed around two enclosed basins. Even larger however, was a new steam yard at Portsmouth. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1848, this was a twenty-acre site immediately to the north of the earlier yard.
Other schemes to expand the various Royal dockyards were to coincide with the need to build ships of iron. During the 1860s a massive 380-acre extension was constructed at Chatham. Geared to the needs of steam powered iron battleships, it consisted of numerous workshops and factory buildings located around three enclosed basins and four dry docks. Following close upon the decision to build this extension at Chatham (completed in 1885) similar construction work was also planned and subsequently completed at Portsmouth (1867-1881) and Devonport / Keyham (1896-1910).
At Deptford and Woolwich, on the other hand, the story was not one of continual expansion but of permanent closure. Of limited space and inconveniently situated, it was decided that these facilities were beyond improvement. In 1869, both yards were duly axed, with part of the work force, some items of equipment and at least one major building moved to other yards.
This double closure did not mean that further dockyards were unnecessary. It simply meant that any new yards should be located in areas more suited to current naval needs. Indeed, the same decade that saw the closure of the Fleet Thames-side yards also saw construction work begin on a new dockyard on Haulbowline Island (Cork Harbour), this designed to provide additional facilities for ships operating in the Western Approaches.
It was changing strategic considerations that led to the establishment of Rosyth Dockyard, with construction work beginning in 1909. Designed to provide fleet maintenance facilities in the event of war with Germany, it was eventually completed in 1916 and soon played host to the massed warships of the Grand Fleet. The First World War saw the dockyards mainly engaged in repair and refit work, although a considerable number of new ships were launched from the slipways of Portsmouth, Pembroke, Chatham (mainly submarines) and Devonport. However, post-war economies saw the temporary closure of both Rosyth and Pembroke, with Haulbowline handed over to the newly emergent government of Eire.
The declaration of war in 1939 saw the immediate re-establishment of Pembroke and Rosyth, together with an expansion of the work force in all the other yards. Over the next five years the Royal dockyards laid down over thirty new ships and carried out more than 97,000 refits. This war time service did not prevent a series of post-war cut backs that resulted in the permanent closure of Pembroke (1947) and Sheerness (1960), together with an overall reduction in the number of overseas yards. However, the need to modernize the remaining dockyards eventually led to the creation of multi-million pound nuclear refit centres at Devonport, Chatham and Rosyth. Changes to the yards continued into the next decade with a further round of cut-backs. In 1984 both Chatham and Gibraltar (the last of the overseas yards) were closed. At about the same time, Portsmouth ceased to maintain its royal dockyard status, being redesignated a fleet repair base. As for Devonport and Rosyth, while still performing many of the time honoured tasks long bestowed upon naval dockyards, they too have undergone radical change. No longer a direct part of the Admiralty administrative structure, their privatised status ensures they must compete against one another, successes in one yard inevitably meaning disappointment to the other.
Not surprisingly, with the Royal dockyards able to boast some five hundred years of service to the navy, these sites boast an unequalled collection of historic buildings and artifacts. Beyond dispute, Chatham must be considered the unrivalled gem. As it stands today, it can claim itself to be an authentic and complete Georgian dockyard. Among features that are freely accessible to public inspection are a working ropery (1786-92), the largest naval storehouse in the country (1775-1805) and various workshops that include a sail and colour loft (1720s), hemp store house (1729) and mast house (1753).
In addition there are a number of buildings associated with the administration of the yard, these including the officers' terrace (1722-31), resident commissioner's house (1703) and a variety of offices. In addition to all this, however, Chatham also possesses five covered slips (once used for the construction of warships). These, between them, ably demonstrate how changing technology influenced the construction of these slipway covers, the earliest (1838) built entirely of timber while the later ones (1847-8, 1855) are of cast iron.
Only partially accessible are the buildings of Portsmouth dockyard, these sited within the historic enclave originally associated with HMS Victory. Among these buildings are three grand storehouses (1763, 1777 and 1782), the Porter's Lodge (1708), No 4 Boathouse (1939) and the No.7 Boathouse (1875). Glimpses may also be gained of the former double ropehouse (1776) and block mill (1806). Beyond this, however, permission must be sought for viewing or entry into a great range of historic buildings that include the dockyard church (1787), Naval Academy (1729-32), Commissioner's House (c. 1786) and the No.2 Ship Shop (1847-9).
At Woolwich, one of the two yards closed in 1859, the former dockyard area has long since been redeveloped. However, two 19th-century dry docks and Admiral Superintendent's house are located in accessible areas. At Deptford, where a complete restriction exists upon any form of casual access, both a covered slipway and the Master Shipwright's house are still to be seen. Similar restrictions exist at Sheerness (now a vibrant container port) where surviving buildings include docks, basins and storehouses built by John Rennie together with an impressive iron-framed boathouse dating from 1859. At Devonport, where all visits are by arrangement, a number of docks and basins are to be found together with a covered slip and former ropery (1766-71).
The frequent difficulties that exist with regard to gaining access to many of these important historical buildings (including others that are also to be found at Pembroke and Rosyth) are one of the reasons behind the recent formation of the Naval Dockyards Society. While this society is, by no means, exclusively directed towards British Royal dockyards, it does have as one of its objectives that of creating greater accessibility. In addition though, through the holding of regular meetings and the issue of a newsletter, it hopes to bring together those who have an active interest in the preservation and history of these massive heritage sites that are to be found around the coastal shores of numerous maritime nations.
Updated July 2013