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Romans - 1495

1495 - 1690

1840 - 1914

1914 - 1984

1984 - Date


History 1690 - 1840


By the time of the later Stuarts, a major naval base had to have a dockyard capable of building and maintaining the largest warships. There had to be a secure anchorage where ships could be laid up or “put into ordinary”, and it had to be capable of arming, equipping and provisioning these ships when the time came for active service. In addition, it clearly needed to be strategically sited for the likely theatre of operations

As long as the Dutch were the chief maritime enemy, Chatham, with its sheltered and safe anchorage remained pre-eminent. Its chief disadvantage lay in its being a river yard with difficult access, but this was not so important while ships remained small. The English Revolution of 1688, the growing power of France, and attempts by English merchants to break the Spanish monopoly of trade, combined to increase the importance of the channel ports. In addition, Britain’s growing trade with her colonies made it highly desirable to be able to deploy fleets swiftly into the Atlantic. At a time when the sole motive power for a warship was wind, this put Chatham at a considerable disadvantage. But of course it took some time for major changes in infrastructure to be effected and it was not until about 1750 that the centre of gravity of naval operations had really swung towards Portsmouth and Plymouth. Plymouth had the advantage of being nearer the Atlantic but was exposed to the sea until the construction of Rennie’s breakwater in the nineteenth century; Portsmouth was near the new forest as a source of timber, and had good communication with London, and a good sheltered harbour.

In 1689, parliament ordered one new dry dock and two new wet docks (or non-tidal basins) to be built at Portsmouth and work began in 1691 around the area of what is now No. 1 basin. It was built to new designs developed by Edmund Dummer, surveyor to the Navy Board. He substituted brick and stone for wood and increased the number of altars or steps. The stepped sides allowed shorter timbers to be used for shoring and made it much easier for shipwrights to reach the underside of the vessel. As with all future extensions, the new works were built on reclaimed land and the civil engineering involved was on an unprecedented scale. The great stone dock as it was called (extensively rebuilt in 1769 as No.5 dock) was evacuated with chain pumps powered by horses. A building slip was constructed where the Mary Rose is now in No. 3 dock.


In 1708 the porters’ lodge was built next to the main gate and is now the dockyards oldest remaining building. The main gate itself (now called Victory Gate) was completed in 1711 but widened during the Second World War. In 1727, 27 acres were added to the northwest for building slips and in 1732 the Royal Naval Academy was built at a cost of £5772 as an experiment in the early education of naval officers. By 1759, there were 2099 men employed in the yard, with another 689 working on ships in ‘ordinary’.


Fire remained a constant threat. In 1760, lightning set fire to and destroyed the rope house that I mentioned earlier. Then in 1777, the notorious Jack the Painter attempted to fire the dockyard but succeeded in burning only the rope house (again). Jack the Painter, alias James Hill, James Hind and John Atkins was a Scotsman who hoped to help the cause of American independence by crippling naval bases in England. He was eventually caught and hanged from the main mast of HMS Arethusa, which had been re-erected at the main gate so that he might see the destruction he had caused before passing from this world to the next!

But it was during the latter half of the 18th century that redevelopment proceeded on an unprecedented scale. For nearly 40 years there was constant building activity and civil engineering. Between them the dockyards represented a very large proportion of the country’s annual defence expenditure and for year after year Portsmouth was filled with the men, the teams and the carts of the contractors.

By the early 1760’s, the dry and wet dock complex was inadequate and there was a need for more, larger docks and for better methods of draining them. A novel proposal, and one which remains in use today, concerned the north basin built earlier by Dummer. This was deepened, fitted with pumps and turned into a giant sump or reservoir. Most of the dry-docks were connected to this by culverts so that they could be drained at will and the water pumped out at leisure. Work on the completion of what is now No.1 basin continued until about 1805. Since then various minor alterations have taken place but nowhere else is it possible to see such a group of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century docks.


Anyone who owns and maintains even a small boat, knows just how much space is needed to store its equipment during a period of lay-up. A substantial proportion of these old wooden-walls remained in ‘ordinary’ for tens of years between commissions so a great many large stores were needed. Along with considerations of security and fire–risk, the Navy Board liked their storehouses to look aesthetically pleasing – a symbol of status and power. Nearly all the storehouses built between 1760 and 1790 still survive but probably the most handsome and best preserved are Nos. 9, 10 and 11, in part now used by the Royal Naval museum.


For much of this time however, the fleet was extremely active. In the outside world, the American colonies were gaining their independence, and war with France and Spain was waged on an almost global scale. From 1770 to 1815, the size of the fleet rose to an all time record for the sailing navy and this period saw many of our most famous naval victories.

From the 1790’s onwards, the dockyards were notable particularly for the introduction of new ideas and technologies. The steam engine was introduced well before the Admiralty accepted it for vessels. Portsmouth led the world in the use of machine tools for mass production and iron was employed as a structural material for buildings.

In 1795, General Bentham took up his post as Inspector-General of navy works and revived an earlier idea to use Boulton and Watt’s steam-driven fire engine for emptying the reservoir. The engine could also be used to power woodworking machinery, pump fresh water and for fire-fighting purposes. The reservoir was covered over with a series of brick vaults, built on two tiers with the upper level as a vast underground storehouse. It is a fascinating place, the brickwork still in excellent condition, and there are remnants of Napoleonic prisons and World-War II shelters.


An important craft in any dockyard was that of block making. Blocks (i.e. pulley blocks) for rigging and gun carriages were needed by the navy in their tens of thousands. Many were supplied by contract and by the end of the eighteenth century the Taylor family at Southampton had established a virtual monopoly. Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom, designed machinery to mechanise the process. This was installed in a purpose-built blockmakers shop built over the top of the reservoir and utilising the steam machinery. By 1808 forty-five machines were turning out 130,000 pulley blocks per year. Ten unskilled men were able to equal the output of 100 blockmakers and the capital cost of the project was recovered in three years. Brunel was paid a sum equal to the annual saving; in 1810 he calculated this at £21174 12s 10d.


Blockmaking was but one of dozens of skilled trades developed in the yard. I have already mentioned the ropehouses. Following the major fire in 1760 and a second more serious one in 1770, a new double ropehouse was built – with spinning on the upper two floors and laying-up on the ground floor. The building is 1030 feet in length and 58 feet wide. Ropemaking ceased at Portsmouth in the mid-nineteenth century when production was concentrated at Chatham and Devonport – but photographs taken at Chatham show what it would have looked like.


The rope was made from hemp. Three other basic materials were used in large quantities for a wooden warship – timber (oak, elm and pine), iron (for anchors, buckets, nails, locks, hinges, galley-fittings, knees, wrought-iron straps, etc), and canvas. Much tallow, tar, leather were also used along with lead, brass and copper, paint and varnish. As the leading national industry, the dockyard approach was to manufacture from all these materials in their raw state, so there were numerous foundries, smitheries and workshops where materials could be turned into finished or semi-finished products for fitting. Woodworking included steaming, and treenail making. Treenails are wooden pegs for holding together the hull and in a single year the dockyards would use more than 600,000. Boat building and oar making, sawing and mast-making, bricks and lime for building repair, mould lofts for laying off the lines of a ship, sail making……the list is endless! It was partly this propensity to be a world complete unto itself that contributed to the problems with the dockyards that became apparent in the 20th century.

Until 1832, the principal officers and commissioners of the navy, better known as the Navy Board, had charge of the dockyards as part of their overall responsibility for building, equipping and maintaining warships. (The Board of Admiralty was concerned principally with the strategy and tactics of the fleet). The Navy Board had a resident Commissioner in charge at Portsmouth who directed senior yard officials such as the master shipwright. He had a small staff of clerks, and Portsmouth was the first yard to have an office building with good internal communications. This building, now known as South Office Block faces the bows of HMS VICTORY and was built between 1786 and 1789.


Senior officials were expected to live within the yard in residences provided for them. In 1715, work began on a new terrace for nine officers, now known as the Parade. It acquired its rendering about 1833, but the rear elevation is still much as completed in 1719. This row was sufficient until 1777 when an additional small terrace, Short Row, was added for the surgeon, the clerk of the ropeyard, the master ropemaker and the boatswain.


The Commissioner had his own separate establishment. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the status of Portsmouth meant that the Commissioner often found himself accommodating and entertaining very distinguished visitors, including, for example, King George III. Building started on a new and grander property in 1784. During 1785, Prince William Henry, then a lieutenant in HMS HEBE, was a frequent visitor to the household, the attraction being the Commissioner’s 17-year old daughter! Knowledge of this romance, which was soon ended by royal order, may have helped the Navy Board to swallow a very substantial increase in building costs. The house is very grand and elegant and was one of the first in the country to be fitted with a flush toilet. It has been very little altered and now provides accommodation for the Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command and Second Sea Lord.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the creation of Port Admirals led to a typical squabble about accommodation. A house was rented in the town, but in 1832, the Port Admiral moved into the Dockyard to a new house attached to the end of the parade. He was there right up until 1994 when it was hijacked by the Commandant-General of the Royal Marines!


The provision of a chapel for resident officials and workforce was a relatively late development. The earliest chapel at Portsmouth did not survive but St Ann's church, which was completed in 1787, remains in daily use.


In the 18th century, it was a widely held view that French warships were technically superior to those of the Royal Navy. It was also realised that few of the master shipwrights, responsible for designing and building British warships had received any formal education. In 1806, it was noted that the only qualifications for a shipwright were that “he should be aged at least 14, in good health and be over 4feet 10 inches in height”! If he satisfied these requirements, he could begin a 7-year apprenticeship. To attempt to overcome this shortcoming, the Commissioners introduced a superior class of apprentice under a scheme that was funded entirely voluntarily by the Commissioner and his staff. Up to 25 apprentices were selected through an annual examination. In 1815, £6000 was included in the estimates for a purpose built school in a prominent position facing the Commissioner’s house and Naval Academy. The scheme was apparently scrapped in the early 1830’s but the tradition of sound education was not. To this day, there is little doubt that a Dockyard apprenticeship is one of the finest courses of technical training available.


When peace came in 1815, there were several ships building at Portsmouth but work now slowed to a leisurely pace. For the next 40 years or so, the rapid advances in technology produced some strange hybrids! The last sailing ship built was the “Leander” launched in 1848. But the “ROYAL FREDERICK” which was started in 1828 as a 110 gun, three-deck sailing ship was launched in 1860 as a two-deck screw steamship of 86 guns called the “FREDERICK WILLIAM”!