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Home of the Fleet
A Century of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in Photographs
By Stephen Courtney, Brian Patterson
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Brian Patterson and Stephen Courtney
All rights reserved.
The Victorian Period, 1837–1900
No other period in naval history has seen such change in thinking and design of warships as the Victorian era. When the young Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the British battle fleet still consisted of sail-of-the-line warships of the Trafalgar period. True, there were improvements in design, but to all outward appearances the wooden bulwarks of old England, manned by men with hearts of oak, seemed unchanged. The smooth-bore cannon still lorded the waters within its small and inaccurate range.
When the great queen died in 1901, the seeds of the Dreadnought battleship were germinating in the minds of men: engines capable of driving the ship through the water at 22 knots, electricity, the locomotive torpedo, wireless telegraphy, telescopic gunsights and rangefinders controlling guns that were able to throw an 850lb shell more than 10,000 yards. The submarine and torpedo boat were matters of concern for the far-seeing naval tactician. In these weapons they could see an end to the close blockade, the principal weapon for an island race against its European enemies. With weapons such as these in enemy hands, British squadrons would be prevented from sitting on the doorstep of an enemy port. Such was the change in sixty years.
To the British public in general it was 'sixty glorious years' of towns growing up around the artisan's dwelling place, of gardens, bathrooms and forecourted houses. Gas and electricity were revolutionising domestic living standards, while trains and trams unified distant parts of the country. London was now within one and a half hours' travelling time of Portsmouth by rail, a far cry from the days of the stagecoach. Towns boasted of their water and sewage treatment plants, their schools and lending libraries, their churches, and people's parks where the populace could walk on a Sunday afternoon. The seaside was accessible to the inland population of the country and a new development, the Victorian seaside pier, became a much-sought-after attraction. It was to Portsmouth, with its seaside resort of Southsea, that the populace came and paid their tuppence for a deckchair in which to sit on the beach, eating their winkles and whelks from rolled-up cones of newspaper, as they stared out across the historic waterway of Spithead, while the great ships of the world's most powerful navy rode at anchor, or steamed majestically in and out of Portsmouth Harbour past the seafront. They felt safe and secure behind this sure shield, with an immense pride that their country was the head of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen, one on which it could truly be said that the sun never set.
For the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth it was sixty years of continuous change. Steam had revolutionised the dockyard, but it was the increase in the size of ships that made it grow in overall area. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 Portsmouth boasted the world's first steam-operated dry-docking complex, comprising six stone dry docks surrounding the 'Great Stone Basin' (No. 1 Basin). These were all interconnected by underground culverts terminating at an underground reservoir, which was originally built as a wet dock. It was emptied by pumping into the harbour, using a Bolton and Watt steam engine, installed in 1798. Mobile steam pumps were introduced in 1803. Steam made possible the first mechanised wood mill and later the world's first mass-production factory for the manufacture of ships' pulley-blocks. There was also a highly mechanised copper mill. All this naturally increased the demand for fresh water and so its extraction from wells was mechanised, using steam as the motive power. Naysmith demonstrated his steam hammer in 1832 at the dockyard smithery. Steam was also introduced for the testing of ships' anchors and chains in Stoney Lane in the dockyard. Despite all these changes the general size of the dockyard had hardly changed, but for a few acres.
The first Victorian expansion of the dockyard was brought about by the need to build, service and install steam machinery into ships of the fleet. The Steam Basin (No. 2 Basin), the surrounding dry docks and workshops were built between 1843 and 1848, with further buildings and docks being added over the next ten years.
When Queen Victoria opened the Steam Basin on 25 May 1848 it marked the final acknowledgement that steam was to be the prime motive power for the fleet in the foreseeable future. These new works confirmed the prestigious position the dockyard had held for many years as one of the largest industrial complexes in the world.
Who could have foreseen that within twelve years this great new steam complex would be rendered inadequate with the building of the iron battleships Warrior and Black Prince, the largest warships in the world? Portsmouth had only one dry dock that could accommodate these two new leviathans, No. 11 Dock, and this was still in the process of being built. A further dock could be gained if the caisson dividing Nos 7 and 10 Docks was removed. As these ships would become the rule for future naval construction and not the exception, then clearly a whole new complex of dry docks and basins would have to be built.
So it was that in 1864 the Lords of the Admiralty were granted the necessary parliamentary powers to enclose 180 acres of harbour mudlands and part of Portsea Island for the building of four basins, three dry docks and two locks, with the provision for a further two dry docks at a later date to accommodate a new fleet of Warrior-type warships. It is mainly this complex of docks that serves today as the Naval Base Repair Facility. From the building of the Warrior until the 1880s the Royal Navy was to see many strange types of warships added to the strength of the fleet. In common with other navies of the world of this period, fleets progressed from the broadside ship of the sailing era to the armoured-citadel type vessel, through to the muzzle-loading turret and on to the open-barbette battleship, finally emerging as the turbine-driven, all-big-gun battleship of the Dreadnought class.
It was many of these early types of ship that the First Sea Lord, Sir John Arbuthnot (Jacky) Fisher, referred to as 'too weak to fight and too slow to run away', in dealing with his great reforms of the Royal Navy. The policy of maintaining a fleet of twice the strength of the strongest European power ensured a steady naval building programme of which the dockyard at Portsmouth received a major share.
The introduction of the steam battleship also brought great fear to Britain, for now an invasion force could cross the Channel and land in a matter of hours. No longer would 'they' have to await favourable winds. This threat was eased slightly with the signing of the Franco-Prussian peace treaty, for it saw an end to the Bonaparte reign and the birth of the Third Republic. However, it also saw the unification of the South German states with the North German Confederation to form the German Empire. In January 1871 King William of Prussia was proclaimed the German Emperor at Versailles. Part of the treaty conditions was the splitting of the Alsace-Lorraine provinces, with their large iron- and coalfields, in Germany's favour. It was not long before Wilhelm, the German Kaiser, was to introduce and in time vigorously pursue a naval building policy that would be a direct challenge to the Royal Navy and the British Empire.
In 1903 Fisher became Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, the stepping stone to the First Sea Lord's position, which he was offered in May 1904. He insisted on taking office on 21 October, Trafalgar Day. Fisher had always stood for change, reform, efficiency and readiness. If war was to come to the Empire, as he believed it would, then he was determined to see a British fleet ready to 'hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting'. It was his vigorous reforms and building policy that were to culminate in a 'Grand Fleet' the like of which the world had never seen, nor would ever see again. Portsmouth's Royal Dockyard was destined to be the lead player in these great events, setting records which would be almost impossible to match even today as the great international battleship-building race gained momentum and hurtled towards the first great world war.CHAPTER 2
The Dreadnoughts 1900–10
On 27 April 1876 Princess Louise opened the second great Victorian extension of the dockyard, which was made necessary by the increased length of the Warrior-class battle fleet. On that day she also launched HMS Inflexible, the first of the great Portsmouth-built armoured battleships. The walls of her armoured citadel were 24 inches thick, the thickest ever mounted in a ship. She was also the first ship to be launched and lit by electricity. It is said she had the dubious honour of being the first in which a sailor was killed by electrocution. For the next thirty years battleship design took on some very odd shapes. Often the seeds of the modern battleship seemed to germinate only to wither on the vine of an industry not technically capable of producing the materials required.
During this period man's ingenuity was often dogged by the puzzle of what form a modern naval battle would take, what range it would be fought at or what would be the best-calibre gun or the highest speed for the best coal consumption. All these matters tended to cloud the illusion of the perfect battleship. For a maritime nation such as Great Britain, whose life depended on dominance of the world's sea lanes, these were perplexing issues. In competition with other sea-minded nations, the country entered a race that with the best endeavour could not be won: a race of guns versus armour. A bigger gun demanded thicker armour; thicker armour demanded a bigger gun to defeat it. In the end a battleship tended to be a compromise based on the material and finance available at the time of her building.
In 1904 Sir John Fisher, Britain's First Sea Lord, had all the pieces in place to produce a revolutionary, all-big-gunned battleship: the industrial base of Britain, with its huge iron and shipbuilding industries; the turbine, developed by Parsons, which would revolutionise ships' engine rooms and give him his superior speed; an ordnance industry capable of producing large-calibre guns; and a team of exceptionally talented men to bring the dream into reality. Fisher summed up the destructive power of the new ship with 'once the range had been obtained, a 12 inch gun would fire one aimed shot every minute. Six guns would allow a deliberately aimed shell with a huge bursting charge every 10 seconds, 50 percent of these should be hits at 6,000 yards. Three 12 inch shells bursting on board every minute would be hell!' Such was the dream.
Portsmouth Dockyard was chosen to build the new vessel. Since it was an enclosed government establishment, security and control of the project could be more easily achieved and this would be essential, for it was a mighty but necessary gamble and time was the enemy. Britain had maintained a system that expressed its maritime power in terms of numbers of capital ships compared with its nearest European rival. The new revolutionary warship would render all other battleships obsolete. If other major industrial nations realised what the British were doing, they would quickly follow in their wake, and if they could achieve a quicker building pace then supremacy of the seas would slip from Britain's grasp. The well- being of the Empire and the liberty of Britons would be at stake. The true merits of the new battleship would have to be concealed until after the conclusion of her trials. Speed of building was to be the very essence.
The first keel plates were laid at No. 5 Slipway on Monday 2 October 1905. By 25 November the main deck-beams were being erected. On 10 February, just four months after the laying of her keel plates, she was launched with a bottle of Australian wine by King Edward VII, watched by a jubilant Fisher. The speed of building was unprecedented and is still a record for an armoured ship. All the boilers were in place and over 2,000 tons of armour erected by 6 March. In June her turbines were installed, along with six of her big 12in guns. July saw the installation of the other four 12in guns and by August her displacement had risen to 15,380 tons. In October, a year and a day after her laying-down the Dreadnought went to sea for trials. On 11 December 1906 HMS Dreadnought was commissioned into the Royal Navy. Previously, average building times for battleships of the Royal Navy had been thirty-three months.
In was an impressive achievement and the rest of the world looked on in wonderment. The London Times correspondent in Washington reported, 'That such a ship could have been built so quickly and so secretly astonishes naval experts.' Many believed her building was a direct result of lessons learnt in the recent Russo-Japanese war, where it was known that Japan had allowed Royal Navy observers on board Admiral Togo's fleet. A close relationship had developed between Japan and Britain, and especially between the Royal Navy and the fledgling Imperial Japanese Navy, which many other nations viewed with mistrust. But to the people of Portsmouth it was a matter of great pride in their dockyard and in the people who worked there, for they knew that the eyes of the world were on them and that the world was asking, 'How did they do it?'
It was estimated that the speed of building the Dreadnought gave Britain about a three-year lead. To achieve such a building pace required a highly skilled craftsman-based industry and demanded huge expenditure of overtime. At times the average working day was eleven and a half hours long, six days a week. Of the 8,000 men in the yard at that time, nearly 3,000 were involved in the work on the Dreadnought at peak periods, and the men knew that if the ship was successful other orders would follow.
In the ships that followed Dreadnought, Portsmouth built the lead ship of all the Admiralty-planned battleship classes, a statement of the high regard the Admiralty had for the expertise in the dockyard at that time. Between 1904 and 1915 nine Dreadnought battleships were built in the dockyard on the same slipway, No. 5. The Dreadnought was the smallest of all the Dreadnoughts, being a mere 21,845 tons when fully loaded. But at the time of her building she was the largest battleship afloat. In building her, Portsmouth Dockyard was faced with an age-old problem. Only one dry dock, No. 15, could safely accommodate her 82ft beam. More importantly, the locks used as canals to move ships from the harbour to the inner repair basins, and whose entrances were also 82ft wide, could no longer be used for this purpose. Only the entrance to the Rigging Basin in Fountain Lake at the north end of the dockyard could be used (this entrance was closed in May 1923). Unfortunately the depth of water over the entrance sill restricted movement to only fourteen times a year. Lord Charles Beresford, then Parliamentary Representative for Portsmouth, was told by Mr McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, that when the Dreadnought was fully loaded at her deep draught, she could only pass through the Fountain Lake jetty entrance on three days a year. Clearly something would have to be done and done quickly.
By the end of 1906 plans were being prepared for new docks in Portsmouth Dockyard that would give a length, with their caisson in the outer stops, of 921ft 6in. These were eventually to materialise as the present-day C and D Locks. The walls dividing the Victorian extension basins would be removed to form one large inner basin, now known as No. 3 Basin. The east–west centre wall of the basin was reduced to half its length to form a promontory on which was built a large hammer-head crane with a lifting capacity of 250 tons. The hammerhead crane was so-called because the jib was shaped like the metal head of a claw hammer seen in profile. It was to dominate the Portsmouth skyline for seventy-three years. No. 14 Dry Dock would be rebuilt to a larger format. A new machine shop known as the MED Factory, one of the largest machine shops in England, was also opened at this time specifically for the Dreadnought-building programme.
Excerpted from Home of the Fleet by Stephen Courtney, Brian Patterson. Copyright © 2013 Brian Patterson and Stephen Courtney. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface and Acknowledgements,
1. The Victorian Period, 1837–1900,
2. The Dreadnoughts, 1900–10,
3. The First World War Period, 1910–20,
4. The Battleship Holiday, 1920–30,
5. Rearmament, 1930–9,
6. The Second World War Period, 1940–50,
7. The Cold War Period, 1950–60,
8. The Atomic Age, 1960–70,
9. Cuts! Cuts! Cuts! 1970–80,
10. The Falklands to the Gulf, 1980–90,
11. Towards the New Millennium, 1990–2000,