1698 - The First Dry Docking Complex

In the late 1690’s work started at Portsmouth on a new dry dock that had been drawn up by Edmund Dummer, Surveyor to the Navy Board. Dummer’s career started as a shipwright apprentice at Portsmouth under Sir John Tippets, the Master Shipwright. he was sent abroad by the Navy Board to study shipbuilding. On his return he applied for the position of Master Shipwright at Woolwich but he failed to attain it. He was made First Assistant Master Shipwright at Chatham, became Assistant Surveyor of the Navy Board and finally appointed surveyor to the Navy Board on 9th

August 1692. Later the Navy Board finally appointed him Surveyor to the Navy Board on 9th August 1692. His new plan called for the construction of a non-tidal basin with a dry dock leading off from it. Adjoining this was a wet dock; this is really another name for an enclosed basin. All would be constructed in stone and not timber as on previous occasions. The construction of the enclosed basin overcame many of the problems which arose as the tide went out. The effect was almost like enclosing part of the deep-water channel and moving it into the dockyard. In the basin, the ship could be moored along side the jetty where the water would remain at the same level;not go up and down with the tide.

To achieve this Dummer hung a double set of doors at the basin entrance so that, depending upon the state of tide, water pressure would act on either the outer or inner set of gates keeping them shut at all times. The dry dock (now known as No. 5 dry dock) for its time was revolutionary in that it had steps rising from the dock floor at an angle of approx 45 degrees to the broad altar, (a much broader step than the others). Smaller steps formed the dock walls from the broad altar to the coping or dock edge.

The wet dock had a lock connecting it to the harbour. The drainage of the dry dock was unusual and, had it been in another part of the world, may have worked well. On dry-docking the ship, the gates to the basin and dry dock would be opened at high water; the ship would be brought into the dock through the basin. All the gates would then be closed trapping the high water in the basin. Penstocks would be opened to let the water trapped in the dry dock escape into the wet dock. When the water had drained to the lowest level of the tide, another set of penstocks were opened to allow the trapped water in the basin to escape but, in going through a culvert, the water ran over a water wheel that turned chain pumps that should have removed the last of the water from the dry dock. Unfortunately the tide does not always rise to the same height, so only too frequently there was insufficient water to work the chain pumps. However for its day it’s thinking was inspired. The tidal wheel within a few years made way for a hose gin.

Today the “Great Ship Basin” is known as No.1 Basin, although much enlarged from those days. With the “Great Stone Dock”, No. 1 dock, the complex must be held as starting points in the maritime industrial revolution of the World.

Dummer had his career abruptly brought to and end when he was accused of accepting bribes by a contractor called John Finch. Finch had been working on building Dummer’s dock and basins when he was himself dismissed for poor workmanship when part of the wet dock wall collapsed. Dummer was determined to prove his innocence and started a civil law suit against Finch, but the Admiralty Board’s decision to dismiss him was irreversible and in September Dummer was duly discharged from office.

However the court up held Dummer’s plea and he was awarded £500 damages against Finch; Dummer died in 1713 no doubt a bitter and resentful man against the Admiralty Board. Despite the unrest this may have caused in the Navy Office, Dummer’s daughter Jane was awarded a pension of £150 in 1714. In its time this was a considerable sum and an indication that someone in the Navy Office acknowledged Dummer’s genius and his unfair treatment.

The first ship to use the Great Stone Dock was the Royal William on 22nd June 1698.

1698 - The First Dry Docking Complex