Home of the Fleet: A Century of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in Photographs

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Our library catalogue will be available online soon. Readers can also access the library and manuscript catalogues within the Reading Room for materials held in our environmentally controlled bookstore, Staff can advise readers on resources held within the library and on external sources of information, if necessary. We are able to provide a publicly accessible Kiosk scanner for researchers to make digital copies of material under normal copyright and conservation policies.

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A suitable USB device is required for this purpose but staff are able to provide a service for those who do not have such a device or do not have access to a PC at home. We are happy for researchers to use non-flash digital photography using personal cameras in the Reading Room. Download our policy and charges here. Naval shipbuilding at Portsmouth recommenced under the English Commonwealth , the first ship being the eponymous Fourth-rate frigate Portsmouth launched in A new double dry dock i.

As France began to pose more of a military threat to England, the strategic importance of Portsmouth grew. In , Parliament ordered one new dry dock and two new wet docks or non-tidal basins to be built there; work began in A building slip was also constructed, where the Mary Rose is now in No. The dry dock or "Great Stone Dock" as it was called was entered via what is now known as No. It was built to new designs developed by the naval engineer Edmund Dummer , surveyor to the Navy Board. He substituted brick and stone for wood and increased the number of altars or steps.

Home of the Fleet: A Century of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in Photographs

The stepped sides allowed shorter timbers to be used for shoring and made it much easier for shipwrights to reach the underside of vessels needing repair. Extensively rebuilt in , the Great Stone Dock is now known as No. As with all extensions, the new works were built on reclaimed land and the civil engineering involved was on an unprecedented scale. To empty the dry dock of water, Dummer designed a unique system which used water from the Upper Wet Dock to drive a water-wheel on the ebb tide , which in turn powered a set of pumps.

At high tide, an auxiliary set of pumps was used, powered by a horse gin. The second "Upper" Wet Dock was entered by way of a channel. In Dummer adapted the channel, enabling it to be closed off at each end by a set of gates, thus forming a second dry dock the "North Stone Dock" , which was rebuilt in and is known today as No 6 dock.

The Upper Wet Dock itself became a reservoir into which water from various nearby dry docks could be drained; vaulted and covered over at the end of the eighteenth century, it still exists today underground. Between a wall was built around the Dockyard, following the line of the town's 17th-century fortifications ; together with a contemporary though altered gate and lodge, much of the wall still stands, serving its original purpose. The second half of the eighteenth century was a key period in the development of Portsmouth and indeed of the other Royal Dockyards.

A substantial programme of expansion and modernisation was undertaken from onwards, driven as would be future periods of expansion by increases both in the size of individual ships and in the overall size of the fleet. Both its immediate predecessors were destroyed by fire in and and the current building was itself gutted by fire in as the result of an arson attack.

In the s the Wet Dock No 1 Basin was deepened, the Great Stone Dock was rebuilt and a new dry dock known today as No 4 dock was built alongside it. Further key engineering works were begun in the s, overseen by Samuel Bentham.

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He also made pioneering use of a " ship caisson " to close off the entrance to the basin. In a steam engine was installed the first in a Royal Naval Yard ; it not only powered pumps to drain the dry docks, but also drove machinery for woodworking. In , the Royal Navy had ships and the Dockyard was the largest industrial complex in the world. It was built alongside the steam engine house, over the newly roofed-over reservoir the former Upper Wet Dock. Marc Brunel , father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel , famously designed the machines, which manufactured the blocks through a total of fifteen separate stages of production.

From the system of Dockyard apprenticeship was supplemented by the establishment of a School of Naval Architecture in Portsmouth for training potential Master Shipwrights , initially housed in the building which faces Admiralty House on South Terrace.


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The adoption of steam propulsion for warships led to large-scale changes in the Royal Dockyards, which had been built in the age of sail. The Navy's first 'steam factory' was built at Woolwich in ; but it soon became clear that the site was far too small to cope with this revolutionary change in ship building and maintenance.

Therefore, in , work began in Portsmouth on reclaiming land immediately to the north of the then Dockyard to create a new 7-acre basin known today as No 2 Basin with a sizeable steam factory alongside; [20] new Brass and Iron Foundries were also built soon afterwards. Further developments in shipbuilding technology, however, meant that several of these new amenities had to be rebuilt and expanded almost as soon as they were finished. Technological change affected not only ships' means of propulsion, but the materials from which they were built.

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By wooden warships, vulnerable as they were to modern armaments, had been rendered largely obsolescent. The changeover to metal hulls not only required new building techniques, but also heralded a dramatic and ongoing increase in the potential size of new vessels. The Dockyards found themselves having to expand in kind. At Portsmouth, plans were drawn up in the late s for further land reclamation north and east of the new Steam Basin, and from work was begun on a complex of three new interconnected basins, each of acres.

Each basin served a different purpose: ships would proceed from the repairing basin, to the rigging basin, to the fitting-out basin, and exit from there into a new tidal basin, ready to take on fuel alongside the sizeable coaling wharf there. Three dry docks were also constructed as part of the plan, as well as parallel pair of sizeable locks for entry into the basin complex; the contemporary pumping station which stands nearby not only served to drain these docks and locks, but also delivered compressed air to power cranes, caissons and capstans. Before the end of the century, however, it was recognised that there would have to be still further expansion across all the Royal Dockyards in order to keep pace with the increasing likely size of future naval vessels.

The largest Naval ships were now too large for the interlocking basins, so to guarantee access to the new dry docks the intervening walls between the basins were removed to create a single large non-tidal body of water No 3 Basin , with a pair of ft entrance locks being built at the same time. Alongside the new Basins new buildings were erected, on a huge scale, to accommodate new manufacturing and construction processes.

These included a gun-mounting workshop , producing gun turrets , torpedo workshop , and the very large New Factory of , to the east of No 13 dock, which was soon put to the task of fitting out Dreadnoughts. Electrification came to the Yard with the opening of a 9,kW power station in When Queen Victoria opened the Steam Basin on 25 May it marked the final acknowledgement that steam was to be the prime motive power for the fleet in the foreseeable future. These new works confirmed the prestigious position the dockyard had held for many years as one of the largest industrial complexes in the world.

Who could have foreseen that within twelve years this great new steam complex would be rendered inadequate with the building of the iron battleships Warrior and Black Prince, the largest warships in the world? Portsmouth had only one dry dock that could accommodate these two new leviathans, No.

A further dock could be gained if the caisson dividing Nos 7 and 10 Docks was removed. As these ships would become the rule for future naval construction and not the exception, then clearly a whole new complex of dry docks and basins would have to be built. So it was that in the Lords of the Admiralty were granted the necessary parliamentary powers to enclose acres of harbour mudlands and part of Portsea Island for the building of four basins, three dry docks and two locks, with the provision for a further two dry docks at a later date to accommodate a new fleet of Warrior-type warships.

It is mainly this complex of docks that serves today as the Naval Base Repair Facility. From the building of the Warrior until the s the Royal Navy was to see many strange types of warships added to the strength of the fleet.

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In common with other navies of the world of this period, fleets progressed from the broadside ship of the sailing era to the armoured-citadel type vessel, through to the muzzle-loading turret and on to the open-barbette battleship, finally emerging as the turbine-driven, all-big-gun battleship of the Dreadnought class. It was many of these early types of ship that the First Sea Lord, Sir John Arbuthnot Jacky Fisher, referred to as 'too weak to fight and too slow to run away', in dealing with his great reforms of the Royal Navy. The policy of maintaining a fleet of twice the strength of the strongest European power ensured a steady naval building programme of which the dockyard at Portsmouth received a major share.

The introduction of the steam battleship also brought great fear to Britain, for now an invasion force could cross the Channel and land in a matter of hours. No longer would 'they' have to await favourable winds. This threat was eased slightly with the signing of the Franco-Prussian peace treaty, for it saw an end to the Bonaparte reign and the birth of the Third Republic.

Part of the treaty conditions was the splitting of the Alsace-Lorraine provinces, with their large iron- and coalfields, in Germany's favour. It was not long before Wilhelm, the German Kaiser, was to introduce and in time vigorously pursue a naval building policy that would be a direct challenge to the Royal Navy and the British Empire.

He insisted on taking office on 21 October, Trafalgar Day.


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Fisher had always stood for change, reform, efficiency and readiness. If war was to come to the Empire, as he believed it would, then he was determined to see a British fleet ready to 'hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting'. It was his vigorous reforms and building policy that were to culminate in a 'Grand Fleet' the like of which the world had never seen, nor would ever see again. Portsmouth's Royal Dockyard was destined to be the lead player in these great events, setting records which would be almost impossible to match even today as the great international battleship-building race gained momentum and hurtled towards the first great world war.

On 27 April Princess Louise opened the second great Victorian extension of the dockyard, which was made necessary by the increased length of the Warrior-class battle fleet.

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On that day she also launched HMS Inflexible, the first of the great Portsmouth-built armoured battleships. The walls of her armoured citadel were 24 inches thick, the thickest ever mounted in a ship. She was also the first ship to be launched and lit by electricity. It is said she had the dubious honour of being the first in which a sailor was killed by electrocution.

For the next thirty years battleship design took on some very odd shapes. Often the seeds of the modern battleship seemed to germinate only to wither on the vine of an industry not technically capable of producing the materials required. During this period man's ingenuity was often dogged by the puzzle of what form a modern naval battle would take, what range it would be fought at or what would be the best-calibre gun or the highest speed for the best coal consumption.

All these matters tended to cloud the illusion of the perfect battleship. For a maritime nation such as Great Britain, whose life depended on dominance of the world's sea lanes, these were perplexing issues. In competition with other sea-minded nations, the country entered a race that with the best endeavour could not be won: a race of guns versus armour.

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