Portsmouth Royal Dockyard, founded 1496, still in service as a Naval Base.
Portsmouth Royal Dockyard, founded 1496, still in service as a Naval Base.

Royal Navy Dockyards (more usually termed Royal Dockyards) were state-owned harbour facilities where ships of the Royal Navy were built, based, repaired and refitted. Until the mid-19th century the Royal Dockyards were the largest industrial complexes in Britain.[1]

From the reign of Henry VII up until the 1990s, the Royal Navy had a policy of establishing and maintaining its own dockyard facilities; (although at the same time, as continues to be the case, it made extensive use of private shipyards, both at home and abroad). Portsmouth was the first Royal Dockyard, dating from the late 15th century; it was followed by Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and others. By the 18th century, Britain had a string of these state-owned naval dockyards, located not just around the country but across the world; each was sited close to a safe harbour or anchorage used by the fleet. The Royal Dockyards had a dual function: ship building and ship maintenance (most yards provided for both but some specialised in one or the other). Over time, they accrued additional on-site facilities for the support, training and accommodation of naval personnel.

For centuries, in this way, the name and concept of a Royal Dockyard was largely synonymous with that of a naval base. In the early 1970s, following the appointment of civilian Dockyard General Managers with cross-departmental authority, and a separation of powers between them and the Dockyard Superintendent (commanding officer), the term 'Naval Base' began to gain currency as an official designation for the latter's domain.[2] 'Royal Dockyard' remained an official designation of the associated shipbuilding/maintenance facilities until 1997, when the last remaining Royal Dockyards (Devonport and Rosyth) were fully privatised.

Function

Careening wharf and storehouses built by the Royal Navy in the 1760s, Illa Pinto, Port Mahon, Menorca.
Careening wharf and storehouses built by the Royal Navy in the 1760s, Illa Pinto, Port Mahon, Menorca.

Most Royal Dockyards were built around docks and slips. Traditionally, slipways were used for shipbuilding, and dry docks (also called graving docks) for maintenance; (dry docks were also sometimes used for building, particularly pre-1760 and post-1880). Regular hull maintenance was important: in the age of sail, a ship's wooden hull would be comprehensively inspected every 2–3 years, and its copper sheeting replaced every 5.[3] Dry docks were invariably the most expensive component of any dockyard (until the advent of marine nuclear facilities).[2] Where there was no nearby dock available (as was often the case at the overseas yards) ships would sometimes be careened (beached at high tide) to enable necessary work to be done. In the age of sail, wharves and capstan-houses were often built for the purpose of careening at yards with no dock: a system of pulleys and ropes, attached to the masthead, would be used to heel the ship over giving access to the hull.

18th-century storehouse, 19th-century dry dock and 20th-century warship preserved at Chatham
18th-century storehouse, 19th-century dry dock and 20th-century warship preserved at Chatham

In addition to docks and slips, a Royal Dockyard had various specialist buildings on site: storehouses, sail lofts, woodworking sheds, metal shops and forges, roperies (in some cases), pumping stations (for emptying the dry docks), administration blocks and housing for the senior dockyard officers. Wet docks (usually called basins) accommodated ships while they were being fitted out. The number and size of dockyard basins increased dramatically in the steam era. At the same time, large factory complexes, machine-shops and foundries sprung up alongside for the manufacture of engines and other components (including the metal hulls of the ships themselves).

Barracks accommodation alongside No.5 Basin and the former coaling wharf at Devonport
Barracks accommodation alongside No.5 Basin and the former coaling wharf at Devonport

One thing generally absent from the Royal Dockyards (until the 20th century) was the provision of naval barracks. Prior to this time, sailors were not usually quartered ashore at all, they were expected to live on board a ship (the only real exception being at some overseas wharves where accommodation was provided for crews whose ships were being careened). When a ship was decommissioned at the end of a voyage or tour of duty, most of her crew were dismissed or else transferred to new vessels. Alternatively, if a vessel was undergoing refit or repair, her crew was often accommodated on a nearby hulk; a dockyard often had several commissioned hulks moored nearby, serving various purposes and accommodating various personnel, including new recruits.[4] Things began to change when the Admiralty introduced more settled terms of service in 1853; nevertheless, thirty years were to pass before the first shore barrack opened, and a further twenty years before barracks at all three of the major home yards were finally completed.[2] Through the course of the 20th century these barracks, together with their associated training and other facilities, became defining features of each of these dockyards.

In 1985 Parliament was given the following description of the functions of the two then remaining Royal Dockyards: "The services provided by the royal dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth to the Royal Navy fall into five main categories as follows: (a) Refit, repair, maintenance and modernisation of Royal Navy vessels; (b) Overhaul and testing of naval equipments, including those to be returned to the Director General of Stores and Transport (Navy) for stock and subsequent issue to the Royal Navy; (c) Installation and maintenance of machinery and equipment in naval establishments; (d) Provision of utility services to Royal Navy vessels alongside in the naval base and to adjacent naval shore establishments; and (e) manufacture of some items of ships' equipment".[5]

Nomenclature

Woolwich Dockyard, pictured in 1790. Ships under repair and construction are prominently seen on the yard's two docks and three slips; shipbuilding timber is stacked in every available open space across the site.
Woolwich Dockyard, pictured in 1790. Ships under repair and construction are prominently seen on the yard's two docks and three slips; shipbuilding timber is stacked in every available open space across the site.

For a long time, well into the eighteenth century, a Royal Dockyard was often referred to as The King's Yard (or The Queen's Yard, as appropriate). In 1694, Edmund Dummer referred to "His Majesty's new Dock and Yard at Plymouth"; from around that time, HM Dock Yard (or HM Dockyard) increasingly became the official designation. While, as this phrase suggests, the primary meaning of 'Dockyard' is a Yard with a Dock, not all dockyards possessed one; for example, at both Bermuda and Portland dry docks were planned but never built. Where a dock was neither built nor planned (as at Harwich, Deal and several of the overseas yards) the installation was often designated HM Naval Yard rather than 'HM Dockyard' in official publications (though the latter term may have been used informally); they are included in the listings below.

While the term 'Royal Dockyard' ceased in official usage following privatisation, at least one private-sector operator has reinstated it: Babcock International, which in 2011 acquired freehold ownership of the working North Yard at Devonport from the British Ministry of Defence, reverted to calling it Devonport Royal Dockyard.[6]

Historical overview

Portsmouth: surviving  dry-docks at No. 1 Basin (one of which dates from 1698).
Portsmouth: surviving dry-docks at No. 1 Basin (one of which dates from 1698).

The origins of the Royal Dockyards are closely linked with the permanent establishment of a standing Navy in the early sixteenth century. The beginnings of a yard had already been established at Portsmouth with the building of a dry dock in 1496; but it was on the Thames in the reign of Henry VIII that the Royal Dockyards really began to flourish. Woolwich and Deptford dockyards were both established in the early 1510s (a third yard followed at Erith but this was short-lived as it proved to be vulnerable to flooding). The Thames yards were pre-eminent in the sixteenth century, being conveniently close to the merchants and artisans of London (for shipbuilding and supply purposes) as well as to the Armouries of the Tower of London. They were also just along the river from Henry's palace at Greenwich. As time went on, though, they suffered from the silting of the river and the constraints of their sites.

Covered slip no. 1, Devonport: the only complete surviving eighteenth-century slip on a Royal Dockyard.
Covered slip no. 1, Devonport: the only complete surviving eighteenth-century slip on a Royal Dockyard.

By the mid-seventeenth century, Chatham (established 1567) had overtaken them to become the largest of the yards. Together with new Yards at Harwich and Sheerness, Chatham was well-placed to serve the Navy in the Dutch Wars that followed. Apart from Harwich (which closed in 1713), all the yards remained busy into the eighteenth century – including Portsmouth (which, after a period of dormancy, had now begun to grow again). In 1690, Portsmouth had been joined on the south coast by a new Royal Dockyard at Plymouth; a hundred years later, as Britain renewed its enmity with France, these two yards gained new prominence and pre-eminence.

Furthermore, Royal Dockyards began to be opened in some of Britain's colonial ports, to service the fleet overseas. Yards were opened in Jamaica (as early as 1675), Antigua (1725), Gibraltar (1704), Canada (Halifax, 1759) and several other locations.[7] Following the loss of the thirteen North American continental colonies thet formed the United States of America in 1783, Bermuda assumed a new importance as the only remaining British port between the Maritimes and the Floridas (where the Spanish Government allowed Britain to retain a naval base; once the United States took possession of Florida, Bermuda was the only British port remaining between the Maritimes and the British West Indies, being somewhat nearer Nova Scotia). Being more defensible than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in a position to command the American seaboard (the nearest landfall being Cape Hatteras at 640 miles), the Admiralty began buying land at Bermuda's West End in 1795 for the development of what would become the main base, dockyard and headquarters for the North America and West Indies Station until United States Navy control of the region under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation led to HMD Bermuda being reduced to a naval base from 1951 until its final closure (as HMNB Bermuda) in 1995 (and to the abolishment of the America and West Indies Station in 1956).

HMS York in Admiralty Floating Dock No. 1 at HMD Bermuda in 1934
HMS York in Admiralty Floating Dock No. 1 at HMD Bermuda in 1934

In the wake of the Seven Years' War a large-scale programme of expansion and rebuilding was undertaken at the three largest home yards (Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth). These highly significant works (involving land reclamation and excavation, as well as new docks and slips and buildings of every kind) lasted from 1765 to 1808, and were followed by a comprehensive rebuilding of the Yard at Sheerness (1815–23).[2]

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales under construction at Rosyth, 2013.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales under construction at Rosyth, 2013.

Through the Napoleonic Wars all the home yards were kept very busy, and a new shipbuilding yard was established at Pembroke in 1815. Before very long, new developments in shipbuilding, materials and propulsion prompted changes at the Dockyards. Construction of marine steam engines was initially focused at Woolwich, but massive expansion soon followed at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham. Portland Harbour was built by the Admiralty in the mid-19th century to help protect ships taking coal on board; because of its key position, midway between Devonport and Portsmouth in the English Channel, Portland was developed as a maintenance yard. A new maintenance yard was also opened on Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour. Meanwhile, the Thames-side yards, Woolwich and Deptford, could no longer compete, and they finally closed in 1869.

The massive naval rebuilding programme prior to the First World War saw activity across all the yards, and a new building yard opened at Rosyth. In contrast, the post-war period saw the closure of Pembroke and Rosyth, and the handover of Haulbowline to the new Irish government – though the closures were reversed with the return of war in 1939. A series of closures followed the war: Pembroke in 1947, Portland and Sheerness in 1959/60,[8] then Chatham and Gibraltar (the last remaining overseas yard) in 1984.[9] At the same time, Portsmouth's Royal Dockyard was downgraded and renamed a Fleet Maintenance and Repair Organisation (FMRO). In 1987 the remaining Royal Dockyards (Devonport and Rosyth) were part-privatised, becoming government-owned, contractor-run facilities (run by Devonport Management Limited and Babcock Thorn, respectively); full privatisation followed ten years later (1997).[10] The following year Portsmouth's FMRO was sold to Fleet Support Limited.[11] As of 2019, all three (along with other privately owned shipyards) continue in operation, to varying degrees, as locations for building (Rosyth) and maintaining ships and submarines of the Royal Navy.

Organisation

Senior personnel

Commissioner's House, Chatham (1703: the oldest intact building in any Royal Dockyard).[12]
Commissioner's House, Chatham (1703: the oldest intact building in any Royal Dockyard).[12]

Management of the yards was in the hands of the Navy Board until 1832. The Navy Board was represented in each yard by a resident commissioner (though Woolwich and Deptford, being close to the City of London, were for some time overseen directly by the Navy Board). The resident commissioners had wide-ranging powers enabling them to act in the name of the board (particularly in an emergency); however, until 1806 they did not have direct authority over the principal officers of the yard (who were answerable directly to the board). This could often be a source of tension, as everyone sought to guard their own autonomy.[13]

The principal officers varied over time, but generally included:

(In practice there was a deliberate overlap of responsibilities among the last three officials listed above, as a precaution against embezzlement).[4]

The Principal Officers of a Dockyard were customarily housed in a terrace of houses, as seen here at Sheerness
The Principal Officers of a Dockyard were customarily housed in a terrace of houses, as seen here at Sheerness

The next tier of officers included those in charge of particular areas of activity, the Master-Caulker, Master-Ropeworker, Master-Boatbuilder, Master-Mastmaker.[13]

In Dockyards where there was a ropewalk (viz Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth) there was an additional officer, the Clerk of the Ropeway, who had a degree of autonomy, mustering his own personnel and managing his own raw materials.[7]

Ships in commission (and along with them the majority of Naval personnel) were not under the authority of the Navy Board but rather of the Admiralty, which meant that they did not answer to any of the above officers, but rather to the Port Admiral.[4]

After 1832

With the abolition of the Navy Board in 1832, the Admiralty took over the dockyards and the commissioners were replaced by Admiral-Superintendents.[7]

The Clerk of the Survey post had been abolished in 1822.[7] The office of Clerk of the Cheque was likewise abolished in 1830 (its duties reverting to the Storekeeper), but then revived as the Cashier's Department in 1865.[14]

With the development of steam technology in the 1840s came the senior Dockyard appointment of Chief Engineer.

In 1875, the Master-Shipwrights were renamed Chief Constructors (later styled Manager, Constructive Department or MCD).[15]

In the latter half of the 19th century, those being appointed as Master Attendants (in common with their namesakes the sailing Masters) began to be commissioned. They began to be given the rank and appointment of "Staff Captain (Dockyard)" (modified in 1903 to "Captain of the Dockyard"). In several instances, the appointment of Master Attendant or Captain of the Dockyard was held in common with that of King's or Queen's Harbour Master.

For much of the twentieth century,[16] the principal Dockyard departments were overseen by:[17]

Associated establishments

View from the Commissioner's house in Bermuda: Ordnance Yard (in the Keep), Victualling Yard, Dockyard, Casemates Barracks and Upper Ordnance Yard.
View from the Commissioner's house in Bermuda: Ordnance Yard (in the Keep), Victualling Yard, Dockyard, Casemates Barracks and Upper Ordnance Yard.

Ships' ordnance (guns, weapons and ammunition) was provided independently by the Board of Ordnance, which set up its own Ordnance Yards alongside several of the Royal Dockyards both at home and abroad. Similarly, the Victualling Board established Victualling Yards in several Dockyard locations, which furnished warships with their provisions of food, beer and rum. In the mid-eighteenth century the Sick and Hurt Board established Naval Hospitals in the vicinity of Plymouth Dock and Portsmouth; by the mid-nineteenth century there were Royal Naval Hospitals close to most of the major and minor Naval Dockyards in Britain, in addition to several of them overseas (the oldest dating from the early 1700s). As the age of steam eclipsed the age of sail, Coaling Yards were established alongside several yards, and at strategic points around the globe.

In addition to naval personnel and civilian workers, there were substantial numbers of military quartered in the vicinity of the Royal Dockyards. These were there to ensure the defence of the yard and its ships. From the 1750s, naval yards in Britain were surrounded by 'lines' (fortifications) with barracks provided for the soldiers manning them. A century later these 'lines' were superseded by networks of Palmerston Forts. Overseas yards also usually had some fort or similar structure provided and manned nearby. Moreover, the Royal Marines, from the time of the Corps' establishment in the mid-18th century, were primarily based in the dockyard towns of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham (and later also in Woolwich and Deal) where their barracks were conveniently placed for duties on board ship or indeed in the Dockyard itself.

United Kingdom dockyards

A lively depiction of Deptford Dockyard in the mid-eighteenth century (John Cleveley the Elder, 1755).
A lively depiction of Deptford Dockyard in the mid-eighteenth century (John Cleveley the Elder, 1755).

See also: List of Royal Navy shore establishments

Royal Dockyards were established in Britain and Ireland as follows (in chronological order, with date of establishment):

15th century

16th century

Shipbuilding slips at Chatham
Shipbuilding slips at Chatham

17th century

Royal Navy Dockyard, Pembroke, 1860
Royal Navy Dockyard, Pembroke, 1860
HMS Westminster undergoing refit in a covered dry-dock at Devonport, 2009.
HMS Westminster undergoing refit in a covered dry-dock at Devonport, 2009.

19th century

Naval Storehouses (c.1820) at Haulbowline (now Republic of Ireland)
Naval Storehouses (c.1820) at Haulbowline (now Republic of Ireland)

20th century

Other

Other, minor yards (with some permanent staff and basic repair/storage facilities) were established in a number of locations over time, usually to serve a nearby anchorage used by Naval vessels. For example, during 18th century a small supply base was maintained at Leith, for ships on Leith Station; but there was no strategic impetus to develop it into a full-blown Dockyard.[2] Similar bases were established during the Napoleonic Wars at Falmouth (for vessels in Carrick Roads) and Great Yarmouth (for vessels in Yarmouth Roads); but both were relatively small-scale and short-lived.[4]

A different (and, within the UK, unique) establishment was Haslar Gunboat Yard. Gunboats were small, shallow-draft vessels, developed after the Crimean War, which benefitted from being stored ashore rather than left afloat, to help preserve their light wooden hulls. From 1856 Haslar provided the means to house, launch and haul them ashore by means of a steam-driven traverse system. Overseen by a Master-Shipwright, the Yard stayed in use until 1906, after which it remained in Naval hands as a base for coastal craft until 1973.[29]

Overseas dockyards

Part of Nelson's Dockyard in Antigua
Part of Nelson's Dockyard in Antigua
The floating dry dock Bermuda, sheerlegs, Storehouse, and Casemates Barracks at HM Dockyard Bermuda
The floating dry dock Bermuda, sheerlegs, Storehouse, and Casemates Barracks at HM Dockyard Bermuda
Dockyard Commissioner's House in Bermuda (1823–31)
Dockyard Commissioner's House in Bermuda (1823–31)
HMD Bermuda circa 1899, showing the new South Yard under construction (left) and the old fortified North Yard (right)
HMD Bermuda circa 1899, showing the new South Yard under construction (left) and the old fortified North Yard (right)
Canada: former Naval Storehouse (c.1815), Kingston, Ontario
Canada: former Naval Storehouse (c.1815), Kingston, Ontario
Former Royal Dockyard, Gibraltar
Former Royal Dockyard, Gibraltar
Dockyard building of 1807, Mumbai
Dockyard building of 1807, Mumbai
Naval Storehouse, c.1890, Garden Island, NSW, Australia
Naval Storehouse, c.1890, Garden Island, NSW, Australia
Former mast house and sail loft of 1815 at Simon's Town; now the South African Naval Museum
Former mast house and sail loft of 1815 at Simon's Town; now the South African Naval Museum

See also

References

  1. ^ Hawkins, Duncan (Spring 2015). "Deptford's Royal Dockyard: archaeological investigations at Convoy's Wharf, Deptford, 2000–2012" (PDF). London Archaeologist. 14 (4): 87–97. Retrieved 6 June 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Coad, Jonathan (2013). Support for the Fleet: Architecture and engineering of the Royal Navy's bases, 1700–1914. Swindon: English Heritage.
  3. ^ English Heritage: Thematic Survey of Naval Dockyards in England
  4. ^ a b c d e Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy. London: Conway.
  5. ^ "Devonport and Rosyth". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 89. House of Commons. 20 December 1985. col. 375.
  6. ^ "Devonport Royal Dockyard". Babcock International. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l [1]
  8. ^ a b c Copy of government briefing paper
  9. ^ "Defence". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 26. House of Commons. 1 June 1982. col. 1068.
  10. ^ "Sales of the Royal Dockyards" (PDF). National Audit Office. Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  11. ^ "1998 - F.M.R.O. taken over by Fleet Support Limited". Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  12. ^ Listing text Part of the 17th-century Officer's Terrace survives in Devonport, but it was mostly destroyed in the Blitz
  13. ^ a b J. D. Davies, Pepys's Navy: ships, men and warfare 1649–89, Seaforth Publishing 2008.
  14. ^ "Portsmouth Dockyard timeline".
  15. ^ "Portsmouth Dockyard timeline".
  16. ^ "Portsmouth Dockyard timelines".
  17. ^ Puddefoot, Geoff (2010). Fourth Force: The Untold Story of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Since 1945. Seaforth Publishing. p. 75. ISBN 9781848320468.
  18. ^ BBC news report
  19. ^ Rodger, N.A.M (1997). The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain. Vol 1., 660–1649. London, England: Penguin. pp. 222–223. ISBN 9780140297249.
  20. ^ Childs, David (March 2010). Tudor sea power : the foundation of greatness. Barnsley, England: Seaforth Pub. pp. 252–253. ISBN 9781848320314.
  21. ^ Rodger, N.A.M (1997). The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain. Vol 1., 660–1649. London, England: Penguin. pp. 222–223. ISBN 9780140297249.
  22. ^ Naval Dockyards Society
  23. ^ History of the South Yard. (The town of Plymouth Dock had already been renamed Devonport on 1 January 1824).
  24. ^ local news report
  25. ^ Pembroke Dock: History Archived 7 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ local history site Archived 18 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ "1912 – Largest Floating Dock Arrives Portsmouth". Dockyard Timeline. Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  28. ^ "History". Cromarty Forth Port Authority. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  29. ^ "Historic Buildings Report" (PDF). English Heritage. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2015.
  30. ^ Ram, Krishnamurthy Venkat (2009). Anglo-Ethiopian Relations, 1869 to 1906: A Study of British Policy in Ethiopia. New Delhi, India: Concept Publishing Company. pp. 37–41. ISBN 9788180696244.
  31. ^ Jones, Simon (12 April 2016). "Story behind historic map of island's reefs". The Royal Gazette. City of Hamilton, Pembroke, Bermuda. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  32. ^ Lagan, Sarah (8 April 2016). "Families brought together for launch". The Royal Gazette. City of Hamilton, Pembroke, Bermuda. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  33. ^ "Fort Lennox National Historic Site of Canada". Canada's Historic Places. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  34. ^ Hansard Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine