For the last 500 years, the dockyard at Portsmouth has been one of our
country’s most important assets. For much of this period it was first
among the family of Royal Dockyards, without which the Royal Navy could
not have existed, let alone control the evolution of world history in
the way in which it did.
But the dockyards, and Portsmouth in particular, were also immensely
important because, up until the late 19th century, they were massive
players in the development and practise of engineering, and very large
employers of labour. Portsmouth dockyard was the raison d’etre of
Portsmouth itself and, in the agricultural society of the 18th century,
the Dockyard - with the victualling and armament yards which developed,
first in Portsmouth and later in Gosport - was the largest industrial
complex in the country and indeed the world. The Dockyard comprised a
closed society with its own culture and language – even today, a
Portsmouth-born citizen would be unlikely to refer to the “naval base”
but always to the “yard”.
The Navy is unique among the armed services in the way in which it has
endowed us with heritage sites. Today, much of Portsmouth Dockyard no
longer has any military purpose. But in descending the old dry-docks
(shaped to suit the wooden-wall ships–of-the-line) and in wandering the
storehouses, office buildings and cobbled alleys, one can hardly fail to
be moved by the sense of history and destiny that the “yard” conveys.
plan of the dockyard shows 3 basins, 17 dry docks, sufficient alongside
berths for half of the present surface navy, and a vast multitude of
buildings developed over the last 300 years. It comprises an area of
about 336 acres and nearly half of it has been built - spreading
northwards from the southwest corner - on land recovered from the sea.
The years since the end of World War II have so far been marked by a
steep decline in employed numbers. Today there remains little more than
a frail ghost of the great past – but Portsmouth has been in such dire
straits before and the recent transfer of VT shipbuilding from
Southampton opens up significant opportunities for re-generation.