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The Dockyard Apprentice

A selection of PRDHT artefacts are on display in the Historic area of the Dockyard in a permanent exhibition, "The Dockyard Apprentice". Sponsored by Hampshire County Council & the Naval Base Property Trust, the exhibition was opened in Boathouse No. 7 in 1994 to tell the story of Dockyard life during the early years of the 20th Century when the great Dreadnought battleships were being constructed.

After walking through the "Dockyard Wall", the visitor is invited to become an apprentice for the day, clocking in at the Victory Gate, experiencing the sounds, smells and ambience of the old Dockyard, and learning about the crafts and skills which once made Portsmouth Dockyard the greatest shipbuilding centre in the world. The exhibition is maintained by members of the PRDHT Support Group who have prepared the Layout Guide that you may download here. During the last 10 years the exhibition has received some 600,000 visitors. Take a preview!

Royal Dockyard Apprenticeships

The Royal Dockyards & other Naval Establishments, both in United Kingdom & Overseas, trained specialist Apprentices to become Craft Tradesmen. 

Over time, particularly during the 20th century, changes in technology with computers, automated machinery and the introduction of Nuclear Reactors, Gas Turbines, Guided Missiles, etc required Shipbuilding, Repair, Maintenance & Upkeep techniques to advance rapidly. These changes were reflected in the syllabi of the apprenticeship courses.

The number of Trades diminished sharply during the second half of the 20th century through amalgamation, and this has caused loss of identification with the past. But the past should not be forgotten; our forbears undertook work in a manner and often under extremely difficult conditions that persons today would not even contemplate. Knowledge of the past is fading fast, but may to some extent be sustained by written articles, taped interviews and the necessary work to preserve them. Shipbulding and shiprepair will always require the ‘hands on skills’ of a craftsperson. After all, even the machines & computers, etc that are now controlling work practices require design, manufacture, installation, repair & upkeep by craftspersons to achieve the end product in ships. It is an ever evolving cycle requiring skills, training & people.  

The Royal Dockyards Shipbuilding / Repair Industry had buildings, locks, docks, basins, slipways, cranes, transport, ships, machinery, plant, tools, utility systems, generating stations, fire-fighting and victualling services, etc all inside the Dockyard walls and largely oertated and maintained by Dockyard craftsmen.

A Craftsman was a person who had successfully completed and passed a formal training scheme over a number of years. This included academic studies & examinations appropriate to the relevant Trade. A description of the several Trades may be found here.

An Indentured apprentice was a person who was legally bound by ‘Deeds’ - originally for 7 years, then in 1930s reducing to 5 years, and subsequently in 1967 reduced to 4 years. Test pieces had to be manufactured to exacting acceptable standards (repeats were common), and all associated Trade lectures completed satisfactorily. Workshop & shipboard learning skills were attained by apprentices on large variety of different work usually with their own appointed mentor skilled tradesmen. Personal standards had to be maintained throughout - as John Regnard, a 1951 entry Ship Fitter and member of the PRDHT Support Group, describes in the Rules & Regulations. College academic attendance & examinations had to be passed, drawing office training (for some) satisfactorily undertaken. Finally, apprenticeship ended with a ‘final year test piece’ embracing a multitude of skills associated with the Trade of the apprentice. The apprentice became a ‘Journeyman’ (Craftsman) after successfully completing the full term of training years.

Indentured Apprentices, on successful completion of their training, were encouraged to continue employment in the Dockyard Service worldwide. Many Craftsmen continued working with their tools throughout their career. Most took great pride in & derived enjoyment from the ‘hands on’ experience. A policy of promoting the Dockyard-trained Craftsmen into Management posts worldwide gave opportunities for personal advancement in a Dockyard Managerial rewarding career and ensured that the higher calibre employees remained loyal to Dockyard Service throughout their working lifetime.

From 1956, the National Dockyard Entry Examination was dropped and a dual-stream entry scheme introduced - comprising Student apprentices (to be trained to become Inspectors or Draughtsmen) and separate Craft apprentices (to be trained as craftsmen with limited promotion opportunities). Student Apprentices were trained over 4 years but, if academically unsuccessful in gaining professional qualifications or otherwise unsuitable, were not employed as a Craftsperson (because, it was considered, that they had undertaken insufficient craft training) and were discharged from service. The Student apprentice scheme ceased taking in new students after 1965.

The introduction of the Technician Apprentices scheme recruitment into Mechanical, Constructive or Electrical Specialisation overlapped and replaced the Student scheme. The Technician Apprentice followed the standard 5 year general specialisation ‘craft trade’ training and included drawing office techniques and management training in their studies to equip them for appointment as Draughtsman or Technical Grade Officers. The Dockyard Technical College was recognised as a centre for the awarding of Ordinary and Higher National Certificates in Naval Architecture, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and the syllabus was amended accordingly.

In 1969 female apprentices were allowed to be trained in selective Craft Trades although females have worked in an Industrial capacity for centuries & particularly during the war periods - hence the ‘Craftspersons’ terminology now in use.

The intake of apprentices into Royal Dockyards ceased in 1981 with the final Craftspersons completing apprenticeships in 1983. However, in 1984 Dockyard apprentice recruitment recommenced on a very limited basis into a smaller number of  Trades within a single stream entry. Initial ‘off job training’ and academic studies were undertaken at external Colleges. Progression to higher posts within Dockyard Service remained open to all based on the qualifications and calibre of each individual.