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Portsmouth Dockyard

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Portsmouth Historic Royal Naval Base and Devonport Dockyard. Portsmouth as long been a major naval base for the Royal Navy. Shown here are old photographs and naval prints of Portsmouth base during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Royal Dockyards

           Much has been heard by the Englishmen of the younger generation of that Navy which is their defence and their pride.  Its ships, by pictures and descriptions, have become familiar as household things.  Their sufficiency, both in number and quality, is the subject of frequent discussion.  The movements of the fleet are constantly reported, and its manoeuvres and exercises are the theme of the daily press.  Its officers and men are much in the public mind also.  The opinions of prominent seamen are cited and there services described, and all stand very high, and deservedly high, in our national regard.  But there are some matters concerning the Navy about which Englishmen are not well informed.  They possess no adequate knowledge of the Naval bases, of those dockyards which are the life of the fleet, and in which ships are built, armed, fitted, and stored with everything necessary, from which, when commissioned, they are despatched to their duties at sea, and to which they return for repair, docking, refitting, coaling, and victualling, again and again, until the time comes when they go to sea no ore.  All things necessary for their service to the state are found in the dockyards, and the resources, which these establishments furnish, are far more vital in these times of steel and steam than ever they were in the days of the hemp, canvas, and wood.

           The series of articles of which this is the first is intended to make good the deficiency.  By an unrivalled series of illustrations, it will bring our great naval base vividly before the reader, and it will be my object to deal with the several Royal dockyards historically, and in regard to the highly important duties they fulfil.  Already I have been able to describe the victualling yards, the current discussion of the victualling question having seemed to make it expedient to describe these before the dockyards themselves, though that subject, even now, is not exhausted.  No better beginning of the present series could be made with Portsmouth, because it is not only our most important Naval arsenal, but also the greatest naval port in the world.  A writer who described Portsmouth in 1729, considering the question of its possible capture by a superior force, remarked that if the Navy could not defend the place, England would then no longer be England, and we must all submit to the conqueror, so close did he think thee relationship of Portsmouth to the national welfare.  Happily, what he said of it actual situation is now as true as it was in his day-that it may be accounted strong and sufficient for its purposes, which is for the security of the Navy in essential matters and the provision of the good harbour which is its necessity, making it a place, indeed, as he said, of the utmost importance.  Like all our other dockyards Portsmouth has advanced by leaps and bounds, on order it might be fitted to meet the demands of the expanding fleet.  It may not be generally known that under the Naval Works Act, since 1895, a sum of something like twenty-four millions sterling is being expended on very important operations, including the enclosing of the harbour of Portland, Dover, and Gibraltar, the deepening of harbours and extending of works at Gibraltar, Keyham, Simon’s Bay, and Hong Kong, and in building naval barracks and other works at Portsmouth, Chatham, and elsewhere.  So great, however, had been the increase in the resources of Portsmouth already, that not so large an amount is absorbed there of the sums recently voted as at some places which had been neglected.  The intimate relation of Portsmouth to the fleet, and thereby to the national welfare, had made it impossible that it could ever lack far behind.

The Old Semaphore Tower at Portsmouth (1901).

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The Main Gate of Portsmouth Dockyard (1901).

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There has existed a harbour they’re, resorted to by fighting ships, from the most ancient times in our history.  The Romans undoubtedly used it when they had their stronghold at Portchester, and appear to have named it Portus Magnus, or the great Port.  The footsteps of the Roman provincials and of the Saxons and Normans may be traced, and from those times onward the name of Portsmouth occurs frequently in our History.  The place had attained some measure of importance in the reign of Henry I.  Richard Coeur de Lion set sail thence when last he left the shores of his kingdom, and in the time of his successor a Naval establishment existed at the port.  Each successive king did something for Portsmouth, and Henry III. Edward I., and other English sovereigns assembled their fleets there.  Twice the French came and burned the place, but in 1377 they were repulsed with great slaughter after thee raid, and fled.  The coming and going of ships at Portsmouth was constant in mediaeval England, but the place was not established as a Royal dockyard in a complete sense until Tudor times.  Under Henry VII and his successors it assumed greater importance with the larger development of maritime interests, and from that time forward we can clearly trace the growth of the dockyard step by step up to the present day.

           It is worthy of remark that the position of Portsmouth grew as that of the Cinque Ports and the Thames, Naval base, declined.  Sir John Leake’s list of war-ships in 1685 shows that of the first rates then in the Navy, three had been built at Portsmouth, the “Royal Charles,” the “Royal James,” and another, four on the Thames, and two at Chatham.  Between the second rates the proportion was three for Portsmouth and nine for the Thames, and something like this proportion held good for ships of other classes.  But shipbuilding for the Navy long ago ceased on the river, and has only been revived in modern times, and most of the activity, which departed, found its opportunities at the Hampshire port.

The Admiral Superintendent's House at Portsmouth (1901).

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The Shipbuilding Mould Loft (1901).

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 Before I turn to the recent history of Portsmouth Dockyard, or describe the resources for ship-building, repairing, and equipping vessels of all classes with boats, stores, and everything that is necessary to fit them for service, it will be well for me to explain something of the method of work at the dockyards in relation to the Naval construction.  This, indeed, is the principal business, which we associate with them, and, of course, in a large sense, construction implies much more than the mere building of ships, for the work of the constructive department is only a part of the vast operations in which the store and other officers of the yards are concerned.  The building and maintaining of the fleet in complete effiency abreast of the latest scientific developments and the most recent triumphs of mechanical skill is obviously vast, complex, and of supreme importance, and the enormous progress made since the introduction of steam has brought with it a wonderful development, both in the departments at Whitehall, and in the related branches at the yards. 

           The control and administration of these establishments is subject to the Director of Dockyards, under whom is the building, repairing, and maintaining of ships and boats of all classes, though there seems to be some conflict of jurisdiction, for the Director of Naval Construction is responsible, not only for the design of ships, but for their actual construction.  When he has made his design, working with the director of Naval Ordnance, the Assistant Director of Torpedoes, and the Engineer-in-Chief, and when it has received its approval and sanction of the Admiralty Board, it is sent with specifications and bills of quantities to the dockyard where the ship is to be built, and the plans begin to take practical shape in the hands of the dockyard officials.  The initial step is to “lay off” the ship to her full size in the “mould loft” of which the floor is practically a huge drawing board.  One of the illustrations accompanying this article shows the mould loft at Portsmouth, in which the practical work upon many of our finest ships has been begun.  When the vessel has been duly laid off, the preparation of the working drawings commences, and when these are complete, and have been examined by the gunnery and other responsible officers of the yard, they are sent to the Admiralty, where they are considered afresh, being sometimes amended, and afterwards approved, while the financial officers have been dealing with the matter of expense.  Thereupon the director of the Navy contracts arranges contracts for the materials of the ship, which, in due course, are delivered at the yard.  Probably few are aware how wide are the ramifications of the work of providing materials for shipbuilding.  Much of the machinery is supplied from outside, although some propelling machinery has latterly been manufactured in the public establishments.  All the armour plating comes to Portsmouth and the other dockyards from the manufacturing firms.  Steering engines, machinery for air-compressing, dynamos, distilling apparatus, boat hoists, crank-shafts, piston and connecting rods, cylinder covers, steel springs, tubes of many classes, gauges, forgings, and a hundred other parts of the ship are often, or even generally, obtained from private firms in the country.

The Portsmouth Coaling Station (1901).

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Portsmouth Docks No.7 and No.10 (1901)

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Those who have visited Portsmouth Dockyard and have watched the operations of that hive of industry, have perhaps realised how vast is the business of bringing together this huge aggregate of materials, and creating from them that mighty organism, the modern ship of war.  An army of artisans and labourers is employed, and out of apparent chaos order is evolved, for every man knows his duties and his place.  The more this stupendous work is considered, the more does it impress the imagination and seem to merit explanation and enquiry.  A high-water mark of Naval construction was reached at Portsmouth when the “Majestic” was built there.  There had been a wonderful shaking-up in the dockyards, which, as a former chief instructor at Portsmouth told a Parliamentary committee, had been put on their mettle, for they had been placed in competition with private establishments, and with each other, and their officers were imbued with the idea that they must show good results.  They gained freer hand, and when once contracts were signed they could enter into direct relations with the contactors, which was, and is, most advantageous, and many details, which before had been submitted to Whitehall, were thenceforth settled in the yards.  The result was much greater rapidity of work, and, with that, much greater cheapness.  Indeed, at Portsmouth Yard, battleships have been built at a cheaper rate than has probably ever been attained by any foreign establishment.  There had often been delays in delivering material.  Steel castings, angles for the construction of ships frame’s, and armour plating would fail to arrive.  Great improvements were, however, made in that matter, and the rapidity of our constructive work became the admiration of foreigners, and the example, which they set before themselves.  There has been a falling-off unfortunately, and delays have recurred, but the fauly has not lain with the dockyards, and we may reasonably hope that construction will not be further retarded, since the specific causes which led to the infortunate result have been removed; and it is recognised that, though to lay down many ships is desirable, to complete them is the real achievement.  It has been remarked that a ship of war is the finest practical creation directed by the human intellect, since it embodies within itself a complete organisation fitted for its life afloat, and depends only for its efficiency upon its resources, personal and material, which the dockyards, regarding them as Naval bases in the largest sense, provide.  It is, therefore, pre-eminently necessary that the operations of the dockyards should be thoroughly efficient, and the establishments themselves capable of meeting very varied needs.

           The system of work at the yards is characterised in its organisation by its simplicity.  Each morning the principal officers, who are the Admiral Superintendent, the Chief Constructor, the chief Engineer, the Naval Store Officer, and some others, meet for discussion and the arrangement of administrative and practical business.  Thus in each branch of the work the orders of the Admiralty are completely understood, and every principal officer is well informed of all that is going forward.  The system of personal intercommunication contributes very greatly to facilitate business.  His Majesty’s dockyards are, above all things else, practical, and Portsmouth is the best example among them, which is not to say that Devonport, Sheerness, and the other dockyards are any less efficient, but only that Portsmouth, by virtue of its position and pre-eminent importance, is greatest of them all.

Enlarging one of the Docks (1901).

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The Lawn of Admiralty House (1901).

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Having now indicated a few prominent landmarks in the early history of Portsmouth, and having written some account of the present importance of the dockyard in relation to Naval construction, it will be well to sketch the later history of the place preparatory to giving a description of things as they are.  In Tudor times the establishment was confined to an area of about eight acres, directly opposite to the present Gosport Victualling Yard, and where the old dock and ship basin are.  Queen Elizabeth further fortified the place, and Charles II modernised and perfected it with bastions, demi-bastions, counter guards, curtains, ravelins, ditches, and generally with the elaborate system of works usual at that time.  The importance of the situation was fully realised, but Deptford, ever to be associated with many pages in the diary of Pepys, was still the principal dockyard, with Chatham as a growing rival.  There is said to have been a dry dock at Portsmouth as early as 1496, closed by means of two overlapping walls, and having the opening between them filled up with mud, but it ceased to exist after 1620, and had no successor until 1654.  In other respects the importance of the establishment had grown, largely owing to the influence of Buckingham, lord high admiral in 1619, whom it will be remembered, was stabbed to the heart at Portsmouth by Felton in 1628, while he was fitting out the second expedition for the relief of Rochelle.  Not until 1638 was a master shipwright in permanent residence at the yard.  Thereafter it seems to have been well managed, and acquired a reputation for economical work.  Yet its comparatively small size or unimportance, about the middle of that century, entitled it to only thirteen watchmen, while Deptford had eighteen, and Chatham thirty two.  

Completing HMS Canopus at Portsmouth.

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Visitors Welcomed at Portsmouth (1901).

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The addition to the new dry dock, however, which was completed at a cost of about £2,000, was the presage of greater expansion, and in 1691 another dry dock and two wet docks were put in hand.  Meanwhile, the area was enlarged, two acres being added in 1658, eight more in 1663, and ten in 1677.  William III.  Instituted a policy of reclaiming land from the mud flats, and many acres were added before 1710.

           This expansion of the Naval resources of Portsmouth was due to its unrivalled situation, which already marked it out for the great naval port of the future.  The coming and going of ships was frequent, and the magnificence of the harbour, and the growing facilities of the yard for the building, docking, fitting, and supplying of ships, made Portsmouth every day a place of greater and greater importance.  I have already alluded to the building of ships of the line in the yard in the seventeenth century, a matter in which the port was presently to eclipse its rivals.  Steven Martin Leake of the Navy pay office, and subsequently Garter King of Arms, who described Portsmouth in a letter in 1729, gives a glowing impression of it.  “The harbour is certainly one of the finest in the world,” he says, “safe and commodious, and secure against an enemy.  And it ought to be well secured, seeing it contains near one-third of the British Navy, and is so conveniently situated for fleets or convoys, to annoy the enemy and protect our trade.  It is surprising to see a great ship sail into the harbour by so small an entrance, and when you are through that narrow passage, to see such a spacious harbour, and the great ships lying at their moorings for three or four miles up, and a harbour for a mile at least on each side covered with buildings and thronged with people; the water covered with boats passing and re-passing like as on the Thames, and the boats exactly like the wherries, only the head not so pointed and sharp; and these I have seen go off of ships at Spithead full of passengers in very bad weather.  The prospect from the middle of the harbour gives you the idea of a great city; and, indeed, the whole, as it appears on both sides taken together, is equal to most cities in England, and in consequence, equal to any but the metropolis.”

This vivid description of Portsmouth as it appeared with all its bustling Naval life more than one hundred and seventy years ago is just as applicable to the present day.  The place, it is true, is many times, and the shipwright’s hammer has a different ring, for we have passed from the ships of wood to the steel leviathans of the modern Navy, and the new basins and docks, the new electric shop, and the angle-iron smithery, the new boiler shop with its water tube generators, all bespeak the marvellous constructive, mechanical, and industrial progress of the present day.  But the object, and the importance of it are the same, and it is pleasant, and by contrast abundantly instructive, to cast back the mind to those days when the British Navy, as we know it, was slowly growing for the kingdom’s need, presaging the day when its lusty manhood should answer the Empire’s call.  Mr. Martin-Leake, in his time, thought the dockyard a fine place, and more commodious than any other, the docks being of stone, while in other dockyards they were of wood.  It was also more compact, and the officer’s houses appeared better than, if not so pleasantly situated as, those at Chatham; “but the officers are greater men here than anywhere, for they are all Commissioners.”  The yard had a chapel, and was enclosed by a high brick wall.  That part of it which yet remains near the main entrance of the dockyard on the Hard is considered the oldest survival of the past, its age being indicated by an oval tablet over the wicket entrance, surmounted by the Royal Crown and Cypher of Queen Anne, and bearing the inscription; “This wall was begun the 4 June, and finished year 13 December, 1711.”  Portsea and Portsmouth grew very rapidly throughout the eighteenth century, and Portsmouth Point, at the very mouth of the harbour, depicted to the very life in a well-known drawing of Rowlandson’s belongings to about the year 1799, became the scene of bustling activity and of many an escapade of tars returned from long service at sea.  Even in 1729 its character was confirmed.  To quote the same entertaining writer: “here the johns carouse, not being confined to hours, and spend the money for the good of the public, which make ale-houses and shops thrive mightily upon this spot.  Some have compared it to the Point at Jamaica, which was swallowed up by an earthquake, and think, if that was Sodom, this is Gomorrah; but is by no means so bad as some would make it, though bad enough.”  This, of course, was the Portsmouth of Smollett and Maryat, and of the Bowlings, the Chucks, the Simples, and many another character famous in nautical fiction.

The Electric Fitting Shop (1901).

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A Scene in the Boiler Shop (1901).

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   Misfortunes overtook the dockyard in that century, for thrice did fire visit it-that scourge and horror of the seamen.  In 1760 the destruction was vast, and the damage about £400,000; ten years later a quarter of that sum was wasted by the destructive element; and in 1777 a foul attempt at wholesale damage was foiled, and the miscreant captured and hanged.  There was always a danger in the Great War, when spies and traitors were everywhere, that such enterprises might tempt the malice of desperate men.  The French lived in terror lest Brest should be destroyed, and there was some ground for their apprehension, for in January 1804, the “Patriote” was actually fired in the dockyard.  The evildoer proved to be a Chouan, and not an Englishman.  The wretch who, in the year of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, made his attempt at Portsmouth, was an American desperado of Scottish origin-one James Hill, known by the sobriquet of “Jack the Panter,” who designed to extend his operations to Plymouth, and prepared for his work by carefully experimenting with various machines and fuses.  He was, however, only a tool, and a quarrel with his principal about payment for his foul and not very successful work led to his arrest.  He was tried at Winchester, and hanged at the mizenmast of the “Arethusa” at Portsmouth.  These successive episodes had a beneficial effect, for from that day to this there has been no serious outbreak of fire, and the dockyard is now provided with a fire-station, which will compare well with any in the country, possessing steam and manual engines, with all necessary apparatus to cope with any outbreak.  Over 250 men are regularly drilled in the work of fire extinction, and some seventy of them are always residents in the yard.

           While we have the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before us, it may be interesting to refer to the old semaphore tower at Portsmouth, which has been illustrated.  The system of semaphoring from the ports to the Admiralty was devised by the Rev. Lord George Murray, afterwards Bishop of St. David’s, and the stations between Portsmouth and Whitehall, erected about 1795, are said to have been Portsdown, Beacon Hill, Blackdown, Hascombe, Netley Heath, Cabbage hill, Putney, and Chelsea.  The last message made in this way from Portsmouth was on December 31, 1847, and it was received at Whitehall within about half-an-hour-no mean achievement truly.

           Early ion the last century docks Nos.2 and 3, entered from the old ship basin, were constructed, while the entrance to the basin was reconstructed and fitted with a caisson, the first built in England.  The area of the yard was at the time about ninety-five acres.  The period that followed was a quiescent one in regard to the Navy, and after the exhaustion of the Great War a decline set in.  The punishment of Barbary corsairs and the battle of Navarino did not stir either the public or the Government to keen interest in Naval affairs, and shortly before the death of William IV. -To whom, however, Portsmouth Dockyard owes much-the effective Naval Estimates were cut down to the narrowest limits, and did not exceed three millions sterling.  But the difficulty with Turkey, which culminated in the bombardment of St. Jeanne d'Acre, and the hostile attitude of France at the time, combined with the complete revolution caused by the introduction of steam and the screw propeller, and followed by the Russian War, caused a great outlay to be made upon the Navy, with which began the modern development of Portsmouth Dockyard.

           The steam basin, 900-ft. long and 400ft. broad, was formed to the north of the old dockyard and behind the building slips of 1756, with four large docks and new shops, and was completed in 1814, the whole addition, comprising some twenty acres, being opened in state by Queen Victoria.  Shortly afterwards a new impulse was given, and a vast sum was devoted to a further extension of the yard on the north side of Portsea as far as Pountain Lake in the harbour, and eastward to Plathouse Road.  Convict labour was largely employed, a procedure which at first caused great dissatisfaction, but which proved advantageous.  The great fitting, rigging, and repairing basins, covering about fifty acres, wee excavated to a depth of some 50-ft., and the docks and locks, which communicate with the tidal basins, were constructed.  This large addition to the yard was made possible by enclosing an area of about eighty-four acres, mostly covered by old fortifications, and by recovering ninety-three acres from the shallow part of the harbour.  It was a magnificent addition to the resources and facilities of Portsmouth Dockyard, and was completed by the construction of docks Nos. 14 and 15, capable of receiving the greatest battle-ships in the service, in 1896.  Since that time, by the construction of the new jetties and the dredging of the bar, the berthing accommodation has been increased, while new electric and boiler shops, a smithery, and a sawmill have been erected, and another building slip has been added.

           The huge work of excavation carried on after 1850 of course displaced a vast amount of soil, and it is wonderful to think that by depositing it in the harbour, Whale Island, which is a mile and a-half in circumference, has been crated, where now are the headquarters of gunnery in the British Navy, with a great battery of all classes of guns, and large drill and cricket grounds.  But about Whale Island, as about the latest additions to Portsmouth Dockyard, which call for description rather than history, something shall be said in another article.        

The Steam Boat Basin at Portsmouth (1901).

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The Unicorn Gate at Portsmouth (1901).

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  To enter Portsmouth dockyard is to penetrate a realm of wonders-a realm full of romance, wherein we seem to meet the shades of Hawke, Rodney, and Hood, of Nelson, St. Vincent, and Collingwood, and of a host of other great seamen who preserved England for Englishmen in times of supreme danger to the State.  Many are the memories of old men and old times that are apt to crowd upon us as we tread those precincts, but the busy evidences of the present day in this modern world of wonders are, after all, far more marvellous than ever the old seamen dreamed of.  Compare anything that is old in the dockyard with anything of like kind that is new, a “Victory” with a “Formidabl2,” for example, and you will realise how vast has been the progress made in every material respect, and will begin to understand how colossal are the operations now conducted in our dockyards.  Huge basins, docks, and building slips, mighty sheer legs for lifting 100 tons or more, steam-hammers striking Herculean bows, extensive smitheries and boiler, fitting, and electric shops, block-making works of astonishing productive power, long ranges of storehouses, and prodigious masses of coal-all these bring to the mind most vividly how enormous is the volume and how vast the importance of the operations carried forward at Portsmouth Dockyard.

           Here we may witness that wonderful creation of human ingenuity, the modern battle-ship, in every stage, from the laying-off of the ship in the mould loft and the placing of the first keel plate, to the actual completion, and we may follow in her later history when she comes into dockyard hands.  We realise the triumph of construction when we remember that 15,000 tons of material are built into this floating island, if the term may be permitted, and that, by a truly marvellous adaptation of means to ends, the result is a little commonwealth wherein 800 men may dwell, possessed of immense defensive force, and capable of expressing terrible destructive power.  Shipbuilding not less wonderful goes on also in private yards, but it is only in the dockyards that ships are brought to actual completion, so that they can be commissioned for their service.

           Although some matters touching Portsmouth lie outside the scope of this article, we must not forget that Portsmouth Dockyard and harbour are the training place of the officers and men.  In the dockyard its self is the Royal Naval College, while Whale Island, the creation of which has been described the headquarters of gunnery, is a point of great interest in the harbour, and there also lies the “Vernon,” the torpedo training ship, that busy scene of some of the most scientific work in the navy.  It is at Whale Island and in the “Vernon” that officers and men pass through those courses, which qualify them for special duties afloat.  Portsmouth also possesses extensive Naval barracks.  In order to find larger berthing facilities for ships it became necessary to remove the old depot hulks from the basins and elsewhere, and, at the present time, the building of three blocks of seamen’s quarters is rapidly progressing, while the War Office has transferred the Anglesea Barracks to the Admiralty.

The Residence of the Commander in Chief (1901).

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A Vickers Armour Plate for a Battleship (1901).

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 We may now enter the dockyard by the old main gate from the hard.  On the right is the road, which leads to St. Anne’s Chapel, where the bell of the “Royal George” hangs, and to the college and the official residences.  But in inspecting the yard it is usual to go straight forward, passing the steamboat camber on the right.  The way is margined by the mast and boathouses, and by lofts and storehouses, and there is a wonderful vista up Anchor Lane, where the mighty anchors necessary in these days are arranged in a long line and in regular order, each resting on its stock and fluke.  The visitor soon reaches the office of the Admiral Superintendent, Rear-Admiral Pelham Aldrich, from which “Admiral’s Walk” leads up to that officer’s official residence, while in front of the yard broadens out considerably.  At this point we are almost in the centre of an area of bought eight acres, which was the extent of the dockyard in Tudor times.  Here is the old ship basin, with the earliest of the docks in its close neighbourhood, going back to the seventeenth century.  All the docks in the Great War time radiated from this basin.  Here is No.2 Dock, 252-ft. 10-in. long, and No.3 Dock 30-ft. longer, both dating from the very beginning of the last century.  No. 4 Dock, 286f-ft. long, was constructed in 1772, and docks 5 and 6 in the same locality seem to be of unknown date.  Nos.3 and 4 have been lengthened within recent years, and fitted with caissons.

           The timber-yard and sawpits are here, as well as the sawmills, and the well-known block-mills, containing the machinery invented by Brunel, which is still a wonder, and the admiration of visitors, who witnessed blocks manufactured with a rapidity that is astonishing.  The arrangement made with the Admiralty by Brunnel was that he should receive for his invention the savings effected in one year in the provision of blocks for the Navy, which amounted to about £16,000, and, in addition, he had £1,000 for the models, and retaining fees for the inspection of the manufacture of the machines, bringing up the reward to about £20,000.  The first steam engine in Portsmouth Dockyard is said to have been erected by General Mentham, who in 1801, did much towards the reconstruction of the old ship basin and made other improvements in this part of the establishment.  We now reach Docks 7 and 10, which have been illustrated in an earlier article, and it is interesting to know that they are so arrange that, by the removal of a caisson, they can be converted into a single dock 684-ft. long.  Beyond these, opening to the harbour, are the building slips, which go back nearly to the middle of the eighteenth century, but have, of course, been reconstructed.  Behind these, are the smithery and boiler shops, with the Nasmyth hammer, which can strike a blow equivalent to 200 tons, and there are furnaces capable of dealing with bars approximating to 100-ft. in length.

A Steel Shield for a 9.2-in gun (1901).

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Air Compressing and Hydraulic Machinery (1901).

Reproduction of original photograph published 1895 - 1902  Price £25.  Click here to order.  ORDER CODE 13V120C

 At the smithery we have left the sailing Navy entirely behind us, and, with the steam basin, which lies to the east of the boiler shops, covering an area of about seven acres, and two large docks opening out of it (340-ft. and 427-ft. long, and both 70-ft. broad), we are brought fully in the presence of the modern fleet.  All about us are the evidences of the great work that is carried on.  The central pumping-station, with its enormously powerful apparatus for air-compressing and hydraulic work, is the place from which the gates of all docks and basins are operated.  At its northern end, the steam basin is separated from the tidal basin by a long jetty, while at its southern extremity further facilities for the safe handling of large vessels proceeding to and from the entrance locks have been provided within the last few years.  In the new works, the furnaces and appliances are upon an extensive scale, and the shops are provided with travelling cranes, and the latest machinery and tools for drilling and dealing with armour plates.  The iron and brass foundries are very commodious, and the new electric shop, which is of ample size, lacks nothing that makes it efficient.  The same might be said for the new boiler shop, which was completed about two years ago.  The new angle-iron smithery is still more recent.  It will thus be seen that Portsmouth Dockyard does not lag behind the times.

           The tidal basin, to which reference has been made, and which has a broad opening to the harbour, was one of the first of the new works to be put in hand when the great extension of Portsmouth Dockyard began, about the year 1864.  From its broad surface access is gained to the whole of the additional basins and docks, which have been created from that date up to the present time.  The deep dock, 460-ft. long, 82-ft. wide at the entrance, and 41-ft. 6-in. deep at high-water of ordinary spring tides, is entered directly from this basin on its eastern side, and on the same side are the north and south locks, which are 466-ft. long, and will admit the largest ship we possess.  These were constructed in 1876, and give admission to the vast repairing basin, which has an area of twenty-two acres, and a high-water depth of 32-ft. 6-in.  At its eastern end are colossal sheers, operated by steam, and capable of lifting fully 160-tons, while they will extend over the water 40-ft. from the coping.  The four great modern docks are on the south side of this huge basin, the smallest of them being 456-ft. long and 80-ft. wide at the entrance, and the largest 564-ft. long and 94-ft. wide.  Two of these were constructed in 1876 and two in 1896, and all are magnificent examples of masonry.  Here may be seen ships of al classes, battleships and cruisers of the latest construction, and often their predecessors of classes slowly tending towards obsolescence.  On the north side of the repairing basin is the rigging basin, which has an area of fourteen acres, and is1, 250-ft. long, and this opens on the west to the fitting basins, which is of an irregular shape, and has also an area of fourteen acres.  It communicates directly with the tidal basin.  These four great basins, and the docks and locks that are connected with them, represent the vast modern extension of Portsmouth Dockyard.  It was work of the utmost importance to the Sate, initiated and carried forward during the reign of Queen Victoria, who was ever keenly interested in its progress.  Though few records of her reign contained references to it, it was in truth one of the greatest achievements of the age.

           From this side of the yard, Whale Island, otherwise “His Majesty’s ship ‘Excellent,’” the gunnery school, is a prominent object on the north, while the “Vernon,” and other interesting Naval Features are in view, and there is a great outlook over the whole of the splendid harbour.  In this part of the establishment are the huge coaling station, where stocks of 18,000 tons are kept, and where ample facilities for dealing with coal are available.  Some new coaling arrangements were provided for in 1899-1900.

           Having surveyed the latest additions to Portsmouth Dockyard, we may make our way back to the main gate, noting that the Unicorn Gate is on the left as we return.  Here, in the older part of the yard, we pass the official residences, including that of the Admiral Superintendent, standing pleasantly in a retired position.  Near by is the fire station, to which allusion was made in the last article, and behind it may be seen some excellent examples of old figureheads.  In this old part of the yard also stands the residence of the Commander-in-Chief at the port, Admiral Sir C. F. Hotham, K. C. B., which is commodious, and had recently undergone some enlargement.

           An illustration of the house accompanies this article.  In front of it lies a pleasantly shadowed tennis and croquet lawn, in the centre of which stands a statue of the sailor King to whom Portsmouth owes a good deal.  Opposite to Admiralty House, across the lawn, is a terrace of houses used officially, which one served as the Naval Technical School under the well-known Dr. Woolley.

           The visitor of Portsmouth Dockyard has paused to look at an abundance of interesting things in his inspection which cannot be alluded to in this article.  He has gained a knowledge of what was suggested at the beginning-that the dockyards are the true homes of the fleet, the places in which ships have their origin, from which they issue for their first commission, and to which they return in due time for repair, refitting, and, it may be, reconstruction.  He also has been able to appreciate how truly stupendous are the achievements of Portsmouth Dockyard which, historically and practically, is the most interesting in many ways of all our Naval establishments.  The staff Captain and King’s Harbour Master is Thomas J. H. Rampson, R. N., the Chief Constructor, J. A. Yates, Esq., and the Chief Engineer, John T. Corner, Esq., and the Superintending Engineer, Colonel S. H. Exham, R. E.                 

Extract from "The Navy and Army Illustrated" - by John Leyland.

Portsmouth Dockyard from the Railway (1901).

Reproduction of original photograph published 1895 - 1902  Price £25.  Click here to order.  ORDER CODE 13V118A

The old Round Tower at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour was begun by Edward III and finished by Henry VIII. At its base may be seen the chains which reached across the harbour, at this point only a quarter of a mile broad. In the days of torpedo-boats, Spithead was no longer a safe anchorage, and in times of war, the great ships would probably be collected in the harbour, so that some kind of boom would be needed across the entrance to afford protection, as was usual in the old days. In the photograph the flagship Majestic is seen entering the mouth of the harbour.

Portsmouth Harbour and Dockyard from Gosport Hard, 15th January - 10th February 1906. 

HMS Victory at her moorings, HMS Drake in the background.

A reproduction of this original photo, size 10" x 7" approx available.  Order photograph here  © Walker Archive. Order Code  COM0011

Admiralty Inspection Royal Navy Depot Portsmouth in 1902

© Christopher Swindlehurst

Royal naval Ships at Portsmouth Dockyard Portsmouth 

A reproduction of this original photo / photo-postcard size 10" x 7" approx available.  Order photograph here  © Walker Archive. Order Code PHX288

Royal navy battleship at Portsmouth 1931

A reproduction of this original photo / photo-postcard size 10" x 7" approx available.  Order photograph here  © Walker Archive. Order Code PHX289

Royal Navy ships at Portsmouth 

Portsmouth in the 1870s.  Sent in by Terence Malone.     (Image emailed by contributor. Not available for purchase.)

Portsmouth Harbour and Floating Bridge.

A reproduction of this original photo / photo-postcard size 10" x 7" approx available.  Order photograph here  © Walker Archive. Order Code  PHX016

Battleships at Portsmouth Harbour c.1904. ©Tony Davies

Reproduction of this photo is available by permission of the owner, Photographic image size 10" x 7" approx , and mounted price £25 plus £3 post for UK £10 overseas, recorded airmail order photograph here

HMS Devastation at Devonport Dockyard. c.1904

A reproduction of this original photo / photo-postcard size 10" x 7" approx available.  Order photograph here  © Walker Archive. Order Code PHX290

Portsmouth Basin No.5 showing HMS King Alfred, HMS Terrible and HMS Suffolk.Contributed by email.

The Skeleton Crews of the Portsmouth Reserve Ships Mustering for Duty on Board.

the picture shows an everyday incident in the Dockyards: the mustering after dinner of the skeleton crews to march on board the ships in reserve and look after the engines, guns and equipment. Every ship in reserve at the Dockyards has a proportion of her complement sent on board twice daily. In the photograph (taken at Portsmouth) the men in white working dress are seamen stokers and (in rear) marines. Those in blue (drawn up at side) are stoker recruits going out for instruction in preliminary drill. On the right are some of the A reserve ships kept ready for sea; in the centre, in the background, are storehouses where the stores for every ship in reserve are kept; on the left are the Marlborough, Duke of Wellington, Hannibal and Asia, where are berthed the men of the Portsmouth Naval Depot.

Portsmouth Harbour 1902

The County Class  Cruiser HMS Kent in one of the docks at Portsmouth before she was launched.

Naval training on Shore - "Form Rallying Group" (1895)

No kind of training comes amiss to the British bluejacket, and with that view he is specially trained to take his part in warfare, whether on sea or ashore, under all conditions of service.  Here we have a party under instruction on Whale Island, at Portsmouth, thrown into what the soldier calls the "Prepare for Cavalry" formation.  In the background are the Naval barracks, and other buildings of this important establishment.

Reproduction of original photograph published 1895  Price £25.  Click here to order.  ORDER CODE 1V24A

"Excellents" being instructed in machine gun construction (1895)

Nothing that concerns the gunner's art is left untaught at the school on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, which is named after the old "Excellent".  Not only does the sailor learn there to handle every kind of gun in the service, but the study of every detail of a gun's make and mechanism forms part of the course.  Here is a class engaged in learning some of the mysteries of machine gun construction.

Reproduction of original photograph published 1895  Price £25.  Click here to order.  ORDER CODE 1V24B

Maxim Gun Practice at Whale Island, Portsmouth. (1896)

The two seamen of the "Excellent", the Portsmouth gunnery ship, shown in the picture, are practicing with a Maxim gun, the latest type of machine gun adopted by the Navy.  The special feature of the Maxim (so named after its inventor) is its automatic action.  The firer presses a button and the gun goes on firing of itself until its ammunition - carried on a belt from 150 to 200 cartridges  - stops.  The belts are quickly replaced, and 600 shots a minute, in a continuous stream of bullets, can be fired.

Original magazine photo page published 1895 - 1902.  Price £25.   Or reproduction of photograph ready mounted. Price £25. Click here to order.  ORDER CODE 1V48


Everything we obtain for this site is shown on the site, we do not have any more photos, crew lists or further information on any of the ships.


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