Portsmouth Dockyard

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HM Naval Dockyard Portsmouth
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Portsmouth in England
Site information
OperatorNavy Royal
Commonwealth and Protectorate Navy
Royal Navy
Controlled byNavy Board
Board of Admiralty
Admiralty Board
Royal Dockyards Management Board
Site history
In use1496-1971 changed status to a Naval Base
Installation information
Resident Commissioner Portsmouth
Admiral-Superintendent, Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard or formally HM Naval Dockyard Portsmouth was the first Royal dockyard to be built by King Henry VII at Portsmouth in 1495. Regarded as one of the oldest dockyards in the word, and still in operation today, Portsmouth Dockyard was used throughout Henry VIII’s reign (1509–1547). It was then neglected until the English Civil War (1642–51) when new buildings were erected and permanent officers appointed. Extension and improvements continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. This expansion, plus transfer of major naval operations to the western approaches, made Portsmouth the most important dockyard in the country from the mid-18th century. By the 19th century it had trebled in size; the most notable additions being the Steam Basin, two locks, three docks and three basins. Expansion continued in the 20th century and by 1971 its function as a shipbuilding yard ceased it was then reclassified as a Portsmouth Naval Base and is still in use by the Royal Navy today.

The dockyard was the main naval facility of the Portsmouth Station.


Sixteenth Century
The first recorded dry dock in the world was built in Portsmouth by Henry VII in 1495. The first warship built here was the Sweepstake of 1497; of more significance were the carracks Mary Rose of 1509 and Peter Pomegranate of 1510—both were rebuilt here in 1536. The wreck of the Mary Rose (which capsized in 1545, but was raised in 1982), is on display in a purpose built museum. A fourth Tudor warship was the galleass Jennett, built in 1539 and enlarged as a galleon in 1558.

The appointment of one Thomas Jermyn as Keeper of the Dock at Portsmouth is recorded in 1526, with a Clerk of the Stores being appointed from 1542.[1] Contemporary records suggest that the dry dock was enlarged and rebuilt in 1523 in order to accommodate the Henry Grace à Dieu (the largest ship of the fleet at that time); but a hundred years later it is described as being filled with rubble.[2]

Following the establishment of Chatham Dockyard in the mid-1500s, no new naval vessels were built here until 1648, but ships from Portsmouth were a key part of the fleet that drove off the Spanish Armada in 1588. There are no on-site remains of the Tudor Dock and Yard.

Seventeenth century
Naval shipbuilding at Portsmouth recommenced under the English Commonwealth, the first ship being the eponymous Fourth-rate frigate Portsmouth launched in 1650. (Portsmouth had been a parliamentarian town during the civil war). A resident Commissioner was first appointed in 1649 (fifteen years later the Commissioner was provided with a house, and extensive gardens, at the centre of the yard) A new double dry dock (i.e. double the standard length so as to accommodate two ships at once) was built by the Commonwealth government in 1656, on what was then the tip of land at the north-west corner of the yard. It was joined by a single dry dock, just to the south; the yard's one shipbuilding slip (completed in 1651) stood between the two docks. These would all have been built of timber, rather than stone.

By 1660 the dockyard had, in addition to these large-scale facilities for shipbuilding and repairs, a new ropery (1,095 ft in length) and a variety of small storehouses, workshops and dwellings arranged around the site, which was now enclosed by a wooden palisade. After the Restoration, there was continued investment in the site with the building of a new mast pond and mast house in the 1660s

Eighteenth century
Between 1704–1712 a brick wall was built around the Dockyard, following the line of the town's 17th-century fortifications; together with a contemporary (though altered) gate and lodge, much of the wall still stands, serving its original purpose.[3] A terrace of houses for the senior officers of the yard was built at around this time (Long Row, 1715-19);[4] later in the century it was joined by a further terrace (Short Row, 1787).[5] In 1733 a Royal Naval Academy for officer cadets was established within the Dockyard, the Navy's first shore-based training facility and a forerunner of Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.[6]

Nineteenth century
In 1800, the Royal Navy had 684 ships and the Dockyard was the largest industrial complex in the world. In 1805 Horatio Nelson toured the newly-opened block mills before embarking from Portsmouth on HMS Victory, leaving Britain for the last time before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. From 1814 wooden covers were built over the slips and some of the docks to designs by Robert Seppings.

From 1815 the system of Dockyard apprenticeship was supplemented by the establishment of a School of Naval Architecture in Portsmouth (for training potential Master Shipwrights), initially housed in the building which faces Admiralty House on South Terrace.[7] Taking on students from the age of 14, this was the forerunner of Portsmouth Dockyard School (later Technical College) which continued to provide specialist training until 1970.[8]

Twentieth century
In 1900 the Third class cruiser HMS Pandora was launched, followed by the armoured cruisers Kent in 1901 and Suffolk in 1903. Two battleships of the pre-Dreadnought King Edward VII Class were launched in 1904—Britannia and New Zealand. The first modern battleship, Dreadnought, was built in 1905–06, taking one day more than a year. Further dreadnoughts followed—Bellerophon in 1907, St. Vincent in 1908, Orion in 1910, King George V in 1911, Iron Duke in 1912 and Queen Elizabeth in 1913.

On 8 April 1913, Portsmouth Dockyard opened the first of two new large 850 ft long drydock locks directly connecting Portsmouth Harbour to No.3 Basin, the first named 'C' Lock. A year later, 'D' Lock was opened in April 1914.[9]

First World War
The largest vessel launched at Portsmouth during World War I was the 27,500-ton battleship Royal Sovereign in 1915. The only other launchings during the war were the submarines J1 and J2 in 1915, and K1, K2 and K5 in 1916. Some 1,200 vessels, however, underwent a refit at Portsmouth during the course of the War, and over the same period 1,658 ships were either hauled up the slipways or placed in dry-dock for repairs.[10]

Inter-war years
The period after the war was inevitably a time of contraction at the Dockyard, and there were many redundancies. In accordance with the Government's Ten Year Rule the Dockyard worked over the next decade and a half with a presumption of enduring peace rather than future conflict.[11]

The majority of warships launched at Portsmouth following the end of the War were cruisers—Effingham in 1921, Suffolk in 1926, London in 1927, Dorsetshire in 1929, Neptune in 1933, and Amphion and Aurora in 1934. There were also four destroyers—Comet and her sister Crusader in 1931, and the flotilla leaders Duncan in 1932 and Exmouth in 1934. The only other vessels launched between the wars were the mining tenders Nightingale in 1931 and Skylark in 1932.

New Dockyard facilities included a Steel Foundry, built in 1926. The "Semaphore Tower" was opened in 1930, a facsimile of its namesake (1810–24) which had been destroyed in a fire in 1913. The arch beneath incorporates the Lion Gate, once part of the 18th-century fortifications.[12] The original Semaphore Tower nestled between a sizeable pair of buildings: the Rigging Store and Sail Loft (both of 1784) which perished in the same fire; in the end only one of the pair was rebuilt, as a five-storey office block.

Second World War
The destroyer flotillas (the capital ships having been evacuated to Scapa Flow), were essential to the defence of the English Channel, particularly during Operation Dynamo (the Dunkirk evacuation) and against any potential German Invasion. The base itself served a major refit and repair role. The Germans realised this importance and the city and base in particular was heavily bombed.

Portsmouth and the Naval Base itself were the headquarters and main departure point for the military and naval units destined for Sword Beach on the Normandy coast as a part of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. Troops destined for each of the landing beaches left from Portsmouth aboard vessels such as the armed merchant cruisers HMCS Prince Henry and HMCS Prince David, escorted by the Canadian destroyers HMCS Algonquin and Sioux. The majority of the naval support for the operation left from Portsmouth, including the Mulberry Harbours. Boathouse 4 (built around the start of hostilities) contributed to the construction of landing craft and support vessels as well as more specialised craft such as midget submarines.

Post Second World War
There was much rebuilding, demolition and consolidation of bomb-damaged buildings in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Administration of the Dockyard

From 1546 until 1832 prime responsibility for administering HM Dockyards lay with the Navy Board, and its resident commissioners of the navy, who were naval officers though civilian employees of the Navy Board, not sea officers [13] in charge of the day-to-day operational running of the dockyard and superintendence of its sea officer and ratings staff, following the abolition of that navy board its functions transferred to the Board of Admiralty who created a new post to manage dockyards called the Admiral-Superintendent, the admiral-superintendent usually held the rank of Rear-Admiral though sometimes Commodore and Vice-Admiral. In 1964 the Board of Admiralty was aboloished and responsibility for administration of the yards passed to the Admiralty Board until August 1969. The superintendents immediate subordinate was an officer known as the Captain of the Dockyard later called the Captain of the Port from 1969. In September 1969 responsibility for administering the work and staff of all dockyards passed to Royal Dockyards Management Board that was headed by a civilian Chief Executive of the Royal Dockyards.[14] On 15 September 1971 Admiral-Superintendents ceased to be appointed in the royal navy and those remaining post holders were renamed Port Admirals.[15]

Senior Officers of the Yard

Resident Commissioner Portsmouth (1649 to 1832)

Admiral-Superintendent, Portsmouth Dockyard (1832-1971)



  1. "Portsmouth Historic Dockyard timeline".
  2. "Dockyard Timeline 1495-1690". Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  3. "Dockyard Wall victory Gate and Dockyard Wall". Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  4. Historic England. "Long Row (1715-19) (1272307)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  5. Historic England. "Short Row (1244549)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  6. "Former Royal Naval Academy (Buildings Numbers 1/14, 1/116-19) and Attached Railings". Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  7. "Former School of Naval Architecture (Building Number 1/22)". Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  8. "School History leaflet" (PDF).
  9. "The Great Docks". portsmouthdockyard.org.uk. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  10. "Portsmouth Dockyard timeline".
  11. "Dockyard timeline".
  12. "Portsmouth Dockyard timeline: new semaphore tower".
  13. Archives, The National. "Royal Naval dockyard staff - The National Archives". The National Archives. the National Archives. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  14. "House of Commons 15 October 1969". Hansard.
  15. "Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust".

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