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.
The 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.