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1770 - Fire in the Dockyard

27th July. At about 5 o’clock on the morning of 27th July 1770 a sentinel on duty in Dockyard discovered a fire that had burst into life in the middle of the Laying House and quickly spread through temporary building attached to it, to the Spinning House. Other buildings in the vicinity were quickly consumed by the inferno such as: the Oar House, Carpenters house and Mast House. In fact so widespread was the fire that not one department of theDockyard escaped injury. The loss of valuable stores was considered a national disaster. At one point the ferocity of the inferno that was assisted by the wind, threatened to engulf the town of Portsea. Towns people, marines, sailors from neighboring ships and dockyard men fought with unremitting vigour to contain the fire to the confines of the yard, when, as if by the hand of God, the wind slightly abated and turned to another direction. By the evening it could be seen that the battle had been won, but for the second time ten years, almost to the day, the Dockyard had been virtually destroyed. It would rise like the mythical Phoenix from the smouldering ashes.

The confusion that surrounded the fire and the events during the blaze was said to have prevented a timely inquiry. As to the cause no reasonable explanation was ever given; suspicion fell on emissaries from Spain. Agents of France were also viewed with suspicion. Circumstances seemed to support the opinion of it being the work of treacherous foreign incendiaries, this was fuelled by the fact that more foreigners than usual were seen in different parts of the town, and had now mysteriously disappeared. It was remarked at the time that French ships had been seen off the coast but now not one could be seen. So satisfied was the Admiralty that the fire was the work of foreign emissaries, that they offered a reward of £1000 for information leading to their arrest.

John Wesley who visited Portsmouth soon after recorded his impressions:

“I walk around the Dock, much larger than any in England. The late fire began in a place where no one comes, just at low water, at a time when all were fast asleep, so that none could doubt of it being done by design. It spread with amazing violence among tow and cordage and dry wood, that none could come near without the utmost danger, nor was anything expected but that the whole dock would be consumed if not the town, But God would not permit this.”

The material lost within the fire was said to be the equivalent of equipping 30 men-of-war. Yet within five years a writer described the Dockyard in 1775:

“It resembles a town in the number of its dwelling houses, offices, storehouses, lofts, and other edifices erected for the carrying on the various purposes of the yard. It contains amazing quantities of everything necessary for the Royal Navy. There are never less than 2000 men employed in it and in time of war upwards of 2500.”