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1495 - Worlds First Dry Dock

Henry VII bought 8 acres of land to build the first dry dock in the world.

The designer of the Dock was Sir Reginald Bray who was described as a sage and grave person but a lover of justice. He was one of the trusted councillors of King Henry VII, being made Treasurer and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was also an architect and credited with St. Georges chapel at Windsor and Henry‟s chapel at Westminster. At first glance there seems to be no evidence to suppose Bray had any maritime experience. However in 1488 he was requested by Henry VII to dismantle the ship Henry Grace a Dieu and from the pieces construct a new ship to be called the Sovereign, having a displacement of 600 tons and carried 141 serpentine cannon. It was this ship that was the first to use the Great Dock. The practice of dismantling wooden ships and building a new one from the pieces was a very common practice and continued well in to the 19th century. It was to Robert Brygandine who, as Clerk of the Ships and officer in charge of construction that the task of overseeing the new “Doc” fell.

The “Doc” was begun of 14th July 1495 and continued until 29th November when work stopped for the winter. Work started again on 2nd February when the great gates were built and hung. These great gates were staggered in their position at the entrance to the “Doc” and reached across the width of the “Doc”. The intervening space was filled with clay and shingle to form a watertight middle dam. All work was completed by 17th April 1496, the cost of construction was said to be a princely £193. 0s .6pence and 3 farthings. Then came the great day when on 25th May 1496 the Sovereign entered the Dry Dock. It took between 120-140 men who were employed for a day and a night before the ship was dry docked. The majority of the men were employed on infilling with the clay and shingle. The water was removed from the “Doc” by an”Ingyn” this was probably a bucket and chain pump worked by a horse-gin. Getting the ship out of the “Doc” was a more lengthy procedure as all the impacted clay and shingle had to be removed from between the great gates before they could be opened and we are told it took 20 men 24 days to open the “Doc”.

Although the precise site of the dock is not known it is generally thought to have been about 50 ft. astern of where HMS Victory lies today in No. 2 Dry Dock. During the enlargement of the Great Ship Basin in late 1790‟s the remains of an ancient dry dock were discovered in that position. However it is possible that these remains may be from one of the old 17th century dry docks although its construction would suggest otherwise. It is described in ”The Illustrated History of Portsmouth” by William G. Gate as being formed of timber and trunnelled together, the sides being composed of whole trees. On the removal of this, many large stone cannon-balls were found. It was called Cromwell‟s Dock, but it seems these remains were those of the dock of 1496. It was thus described at the time of discovery: Old dock of wood, length from head of pier to head of dock, measured along the side, 330 feet on each side; the bottom of the dock 395 feet long; depth 22 feet; the wharf on the outside of the piers 40 feet on each side and depth of 22 feet.

Presumably the piers were standing out from the dock sides and are where the gates were hinged from. No width of the dock is mentioned in the description but it may be possible to make a reasonably assumption. The difference in the lengths quoted is 65 feet and we are told that there were two Great Gates, one on each side of the dock entrance hinging in opposite directions. The inner most gate hinging outwards and the outer gate hinging inwards. When open the gates laid flat along the dock entrance wall. To achieve this the distance between to two gate hinges (in the dock length) would have to be at least the width of one of the gates, so we can assume the width of the dock to be in the region of 65 feet. The length of 330 feet would not have been the docks original length as we are told it was enlarged later in its life.

What ever the faults of the Great “Doc” it was a vast improvement on anything that went before and can be seen as a turning point in the style and methods of ship construction and the way future dockyards would be laid-out and used. The Dockyard had come-of-age and for the foreseeable future only the materials of which the ships were built would have any serious impact on the way a dockyard was laid out and used. The dock was filled in 1623(See 1523) In the harbour approaches the Square Tower and adjoining Saluting Platform to the south were built.

Earliest map showing town, harbour and dockyard.