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Seven things you (probably) didn’t know about Portsmouth Dockyard


The history of Portsmouth Dockyard can be traced back over 800 years. During that time it’s been the country’s first dry dock, ordered in 1495 by King Henry VII, and later played a part in the construction of the Dreadnought. But how much do we really know about Britain’s oldest dockyard?

1. For more than 100 years it was the biggest industrial site in the world

At its peak – during the First World War – the dockyard employed over 25,000 people, and 1,658 warships were dry docked or hauled up onto slipways for repairs. A German Zeppelin carried out a raid on the dockyard in September 1916, dropping bombs which fortunately all fell into the harbour. In the Second World War air raids were a much greater menace, and the dockyard and its ships were frequently damaged, and lives lost, during the 67 air raids suffered by Portsmouth.

2. At the start of the First World War only 50 women were employed there

In occupations such as flag making women replaced men who had gone to the front or filled new vacancies to cope with the wartime workload, growing to 1,750 by 1917. At first they often received a hostile reception from the men, suffering abusive taunts and jostling. But they soon adapted to the unwelcoming environment and took on a wide range of semi-skilled tasks including operating machine tools, acetylene welding, refitting ships’ boats and driving lorries. Most left the yard after the war but in the Second World War women were again recruited in numbers, peaking at 2,617 in 1944.

3. The great battleship HMS Dreadnought – which introduced steam turbines and an all big-gun armament to battleships – was built in the yard

It was boasted that she had been completed in the record time of just a year and a day. Her launching by King Edward VII on 10 February 1906 was a fairly low-key affair though, because the court was still in mourning following the death of the King of Denmark, father of Edward’s consort, Queen Alexandra. Dreadnought gave her name to a new breed of battleship, of which eight more were built in the dockyard. In the First World War Dreadnought was notable for being the only battleship to sink a submarine.

4. The first dockyard at Portsmouth was established by King John in 1212

Intriguingly, to supervise the project he appointed the Archdeacon of Taunton, William Wrotham – who in fact was also the Keeper and Governor of the King’s Ships, in an unusual example of multi-tasking. This dockyard was short-lived because its position near the harbour entrance made it vulnerable to storm damage, given the paucity of sea defences at the time. The next dockyard was established further up-harbour by Henry VII in 1495, on a site that is still part of the dockyard.

5. In the eighteenth-century domestic animals belonging to workers, including hogs, sheep, goats, fowls and rabbits, as well as dogs, often roamed loose in the dockyard

They caused ‘interruption and hindrance to Her Majesty’s works by their nastiness and running amongst the workmen.’ One dockyard commissioner said the ‘routing and turning up the earth rendered it unsightly and inconvenient’ and described the scene as resembling a farmyard. In 1703 – 1759 the standing order prohibiting livestock from running loose in the yard had to be issued six times by successive commissioners, largely it seems to no avail.

6. In 1802 Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designed for Portsmouth what is often said to have been the world’s first mass production flow-line

Using steam powered machines, it manufactured ships’ blocks – wood-enclosed pulleys used in the running rigging and gun handling gear of ships. Admiral Lord Nelson visited the block mills on the morning of 14 September 1805, the day he embarked from Portsmouth to board HMS Victory in St Helens Road and thence to the battle of Trafalgar. The hero of the sailing navy thus glimpsed the dawn of the steam age in the Navy.

7. Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is one of the top tourist attractions in the country, with some 750,000 visitors each year

The biggest attractions in the dockyard are the historic ships – including HMS Victory - Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar, the revolutionary HMS Warrior - the world’s first large iron-hulled warship, M33 - the first world war monitor which fought in the Dardanelles campaign, and Mary Rose – an important Tudor warship which was raised after spending over 400 years on the seabed. The dockyard is also home to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which will soon include the Royal Marines Museum on the same site, all housed in some of the fine Georgian and early Victorian buildings that grace the site. The remaining, operational part of the former royal dockyard is now HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, the home port for the Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers and some of the Type 23 frigates.

By Paul Brown

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