Maritime Portsmouth

Maritime Portsmouth

by Paul Brown


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For three centuries Portsmouth has been the leading base of the Royal Navy, although the history of the port can be traced back to Roman times. From the Roman walls of Portchester to the best preserved Georgian dockyard in the world, and HMS Victory, the most illustrious survivor from the sailing navy, Portsmouth can lay claim to being the most important naval site in the UK and, perhaps, the world. Certainly no other yard has as complete or varied a selection of buildings from all periods. This colorful book focuses on the history and present status of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and its preserved ships such as Victory, Warrior,and Mary Rose. It also considers the other historic sites in Portsmouth and Gosport, including the harbor fortifications, Submarine Museum, and the Royal Marines Museum.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750965132
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2016
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Paul Brown was born and brought up in Gosport, Hampshire, as part of a naval family. With a life-long interest in the Royal Navy, maritime affairs, and the maritime history of Portsmouth, he is a retired academic and now a writer, researcher, speaker, and photographer on maritime subjects. He has also lectured at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. He lives in Northamptonshire. He has previously written Maritime Portsmouth: A History and Guide and Historic Sail for The History Press.

Read an Excerpt

Maritime Portsmouth

By Paul Brown

The History Press

Copyright © 2016 Paul Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6871-3



Portsmouth Harbour is a natural sheltered harbour that has for many centuries provided a haven for the navy and a port of embarkation for successive armies. It is complemented by the anchorage at Spithead which, like the harbour entrance, is shielded by the Isle of Wight from the prevailing south-westerly winds. These advantages have led to 2,000 years of maritime activity there, and to Portsmouth's role as Britain's most important naval port during crucial periods in its history.

The Romans built a stronghold at Portchester in the third century, as part of a chain of forts from Brancaster (in Norfolk) to Portchester. They kept ships there to repel Saxon raiders. Portchester was then known as Portus Adurni and, around ad 286, the Roman emperor Maximian appointed a Count of the Saxon Shore to take charge of operations against the raids by the Teutonic tribes of the Saxons and Franks. This man, Caius Carausius, was a Belgian sailor and he became rich and powerful through captured booty and proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain. Maximian and his brother Constantius retaliated by sending a fleet to fight Carausius. Before they could land, Carausius was killed in York in ad 293 by a fellow commander, Allectus. Allectus then assembled a large fleet at Spithead, which sailed to intercept the fleet of Constantius. However, the two fleets passed each other in thick fog and no battle took place. Allectus was later killed by Roman soldiers but his men seized London. Part of the Roman fleet arrived on the Thames and quashed the rebellion, rounding up and butchering Allectus' men.

Portchester has the most complete Roman walls in northern Europe. They are 20ft thick, and the front face contains bastions which accommodated ballista (Roman catapults). By ad 501 the Roman occupation had declined and a Danish Saxon named Port came with two ships to 'Portsmutha' and seized land from a noble Briton. Other raids and invasions by Danes and Teutonic Saxons followed in the ensuing centuries. Portchester was used by the Saxons, probably as a defence against Viking attacks, until some control was gained by the ships of King Alfred and his successors in the late ninth and tenth centuries. However, Saxon kings were to rule England in the early eleventh century and Harold Godwinson sent his fleet to Spithead and the Solent in the summer of 1066, expecting an invasion by William of Normandy. After six months the fleet dispersed, many of the ships returning to London, and William landed at Pevensey.

Henry I built a castle within the Roman walls at Portchester and embarked from Portsmouth on several occasions for Normandy, as did his grandson, Henry II, in 1174. After Henry II's death in 1189 his eldest surviving son, Richard the Lionheart, landed at Portsmouth as King of England. In 1194, King Richard I ordered the building of a dock in the area called the Pond of the Abbess, at the mouth of the first creek on the eastern side of the harbour, which was later to become the site of the gunwharf. Here ships could anchor, and on the creek's mudflats they could be hauled out of the water for repair or cleaning. The dock was enclosed by order of Richard's brother, King John, in 1212 and Portsmouth became a principal naval port, superseding the Cinque Ports. John directed the sheriff of Southampton to 'cause the docks at Portsmouth to be enclosed with a strong wall for the preservation of the king's ships and galleys'. It is believed that a lock was built near the high-water mark, which was blocked with timber, brush, mud and clay walls at low tide, with a wooden breakwater and a stone wall to protect it, and penthouses were built to store sails and ships' equipment. The lock may have been built of stone and probably led into a wet dock or basin. A fleet led by the king sailed early in 1214 for La Rochelle and Bordeaux in an unsuccessful attempt to regain lost territory in France. Around 1228, but not for the first time, the dock was badly damaged by storms and high spring tides. It may have been this that caused Henry III in 1228 to command the constable of Rochester 'to provide wood to fill up the basin and to make another causeway there, notwithstanding that King John had caused walls to be built close by for the protection of his vessels from storms'. The dock was abandoned and in 1253 Henry III demolished the wall and reused the stone to repair his town house. It seems that, given the paucity of sea defences at that time, the dock had not been well sited and subsequent naval docks were to be built further up-harbour.

Despite the lack of enclosed docks, Portsmouth was used to prepare expeditions to France by Henry III, and in 1346 Edward III sailed from the port with a fleet for Normandy and victory at the Battle of Crécy. In 1415, King Henry V assembled his fleet at Portsmouth and Southampton and, embarking from Portchester Castle, sailed for France and the Battle of Agincourt. On his return, he ordered the building of the Round Tower, beginning the construction of the port's defences. He also purchased land to the north of the old docks for the construction of 'The King's Dock' but, as a result of his death in 1422, it was not built and most of the king's ships were sold.

The Tudor Dockyard

The next, and highly significant, event was the ordering, in 1495 by King Henry VII, of what is usually said to be the country's first dry dock. This was to be built on the land that Henry V had bought, in the area now occupied by No. 1 Basin. It was built to accommodate the new Sovereign and Regent which were bigger than their predecessors. The timber-lined dock was first used by the Sovereign, which entered in May 1496. Once in the dock, after gravity drainage at low tide, the entrance was sealed with wooden gates and clay, and the remaining water was then pumped out using horse-driven pumps. In 1497 the first ship was built at the new dockyard. She was the Sweepstake, of 80 tons, and was later renamed Katherine Pomegranate by Henry VIII in honour of Katherine of Aragon (the pomegranate was part of the coat of arms of the city of Granada). Shipbuilding temporarily became a more important part of the dockyard's work when Henry VIII was on the throne, with the construction of the Mary Rose and Peter Pomegranate helping to establish a permanent navy. Henry VIII is often seen as the founder of the Royal Navy since he commissioned the first ships that had an offensive role rather than primarily being transports for the army. Thus the Mary Rose can be considered to be the first true English warship. The dockyard was expanded due to its strategic importance under the threat of French invasion and incursions such as that in 1545 when the Mary Rose sank. During this period the navy grew from having only twenty-one ships in 1517 to fifty-eight in 1546. Thereafter the dockyard went into relative decline, and the navy contracted so that by 1578 there were only twenty-four ships – rising to thirty-four in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. Though small, the Elizabethan navy was very successful, and for the first time came to national prominence through the exploits of Drake, Frobisher, Grenville, Hawkins, Howard and Raleigh. They used both the queen's ships and privateers, but their forward anchorage was Plymouth. In 1623 Portsmouth's original dry dock was filled in.

Apart from the construction of one small ship in 1539, there had been no further shipbuilding at Portsmouth since the Peter Pomegranate in 1510. Shipbuilding resumed in 1649, under the Commonwealth, with the Fourth Rate Portsmouth and thereafter became a more or less continuous activity for 300 years. Portsmouth had been loyal to Parliament and prospered under the Commonwealth. Also, war had broken out with the Dutch and investment in the dockyards and the navy was at a high level. The navy grew rapidly to have 102 ships in 1652, when the first Dutch war started, and 173 ships in 1688. By 1656, when a new double dry dock was ordered, the yard at Portsmouth had a new ropery, a slipway and a surrounding brick wall of over 400 yards in length, as well as numerous workshops and storehouses. The dry dock was completed in 1658 but the dockyard's growth was slow compared to Chatham which, like Deptford and Woolwich, benefited during the Dutch Wars from its geographical position. During the final years of King Charles II's reign, Portsmouth received a mast house (1685), and, under King James, a further dry dock and twenty new storehouses were authorised. James' successor in 1688 was King William III who recognised the importance of sea power and was to initiate a high level of expenditure on the navy and the development of the dockyards that is exemplified by the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth.



In 1689, William III embarked on a war with France. Because of its Channel position Portsmouth experienced a period of renaissance and was second in importance to Chatham. A large ropery, mast pond, numerous stores and workshops, and dockyard officers' houses had been built. Two new wet docks and two dry docks (later known as Nos 5 and 6 Docks) were constructed on reclaimed marshland to the north of the existing yard. By 1698, when the wet dock which became known as the Great Basin in the nineteenth century was opened, Portsmouth had again become the most important dockyard, serving a navy that had expanded rapidly during the eight years of war. By 1697 the fleet contained 323 ships, including 112 with fifty guns or more. The area now known as the Historic Dockyard is mainly of Georgian origin.

The dockyard includes, as its oldest buildings, a number built in the early eighteenth century, including the Porter's Lodge (1708), the adjacent Main Gate (now known as the Victory Gate) and Dockyard Wall (1711), the elegant Dockyard Officers' Houses in Long Row (1717) and the impressive Royal Naval Academy (1733). In 1717, new gates were fitted to the Great Basin (now known as No. 1 Basin, adjacent to the dry dock now occupied by the Victory). Two of the dry docks (Nos 5 and 6) in this area were built in 1698 and 1700 respectively and are the oldest remaining dry docks at Portsmouth. No. 5 Dock and a similar one constructed at Plymouth were the first stone-sided dry docks in Britain, though the floor of each dock was still made of wooden planks positioned on piles. Previously dry docks had had timber sides, and the new stone construction gave greater strength and water-tightness, as well as making it easier to shore up a vessel with timber baulks. No. 6 Dock was originally constructed of wood but was rebuilt with stone sides in 1741. The other dry docks (Nos 1–4) adjoining the Great Basin had stone sides and masonry floors, and were complete by 1803.

The early part of the eighteenth century saw battles with Franco-Spanish fleets during the War of Spanish Succession, and other wars with the French ensued, culminating in the Seven Years War of 1756–63. A large navy was maintained – in 1756 there were 320 ships, including 142 ships-of-the-line (First to Fourth Rates). Following peace, expansion and development of the dockyard continued, with an ambitious plan which took in new ground to the north and south-east, and made extensions to docks and slipways. No. 5 Dock, originally known as the Great Stone Dock, was altered in 1769 by moving it a little to the east so that the Great Basin could be extended. This allowed the basin to berth twelve ships-of-the-line for repairs afloat. When the Basin was enlarged, the original 1495 dry dock was uncovered. The other wet dock (the Upper Wet Dock) was converted into a vast reservoir into which the dry docks could drain, and from where water could be pumped. This reservoir still lies underneath the Block Mills. In 1770 the yard had a workforce of 2,155, compared to 1,080 in 1728.

The Great Ropehouse, some 1,030ft in length, was built in 1770. The upper floors were used for spinning yarn and on the ground floor this was twisted into rope as the forming machine travelled the length of the laying floor. Spinning and forming were manual operations but steam assistance was introduced to ropemaking in the early nineteenth century. Also remaining are the Hatchelling House, the Hemp House and the Hemp Tarring House (all built in 1771). Hemp stored in the hemp house was taken for hatchelling – straightening and untangling the fibres by drawing them across rows of spikes on boards. It was then transferred to the spinning lofts via a covered bridge. Some of these buildings replaced those lost in two disastrous fires in 1760 and 1770. There was another fire in 1776, started by the arsonist Jack the Painter, who was sympathetic to the American Independence cause. Because it was built of brick rather than wood, the new ropehouse survived but the interior had to be rebuilt. Jack the Painter was hanged on 60ft-high gallows at the dockyard gate and his remains were suspended in chains at Fort Blockhouse for several years as a warning to others. With the advent of the steam navy, demand for rope reduced and the ropery ceased production in 1868; the buildings were then used as storehouses. So effectively had the ropery split the dockyard in two that the opportunity was taken to drive an archway through it.

Other buildings still surviving from this period include the three Great Storehouses (1763, 1776 and 1782), which can be seen on the left of the road between the Victory Gate and HMS Victory. Originally they stood on the water's edge and there was a jetty on the harbour side of the buildings allowing boats to come and collect gear and stores, often for transfer to ships lying at Spithead, since sailing ships would usually avoid the tricky business of getting in and out of the harbour unless they were going into dock for repairs. The rudimentary jetty became part of the Camber (1785), which was built of stone (not to be confused with the commercial Camber in Old Portsmouth). This small inner harbour can be seen near the Semaphore Tower, behind the South Railway Jetty. The clock house on No. 10 Storehouse was installed in 1992, replacing the original which had been destroyed by German incendiary bombs during the 1941 Blitz on Portsmouth. No. 11 Storehouse, the oldest and most northerly of the three, now houses the Royal Naval Museum including the Sailing Navy Gallery and the Nelson Exhibition, whilst No. 10 houses the twentieth-century gallery.

Built around the same time as the Great Storehouses, and opposite them, running parallel with the Great Ropery, are three more storehouses – the East Sea Store, and the West and East Hemp Houses. Another group of four Georgian storehouses was constructed to the east of the Great Basin around 1782 of which three survive – the twin South-East and South-West Buildings and the North-West Building. The South-East (now No. 25 Store) is architecturally the most attractive, having been altered less than the other two.

The Royal Naval Academy (1733) was a college for naval officers with accommodation for a professor, a governor and forty young gentlemen aged 13–16, who were the sons of noblemen and gentlemen. The original curriculum included French, drawing, fencing and the use of the firelock, as well as Latin from 1749 onwards. However, the college was not welcomed by naval officers because it undermined their own privilege of patronage in appointing boys to their ships. The education given at the college was poor and the scholars gained a reputation for swearing, drunkenness and idleness. In 1766, an inquiry by the Port Admiral led to the dismissal of the headmaster, mathematics tutor and a number of scholars. In 1773 there was a series of reforms, and the admission rules were altered to allow boys as young as 11, who were sons of naval officers, to be accepted. By then the curriculum included writing, mathematics, navigation, gunnery, fortifications, dancing and the use of the firelock. Scholars could stay for up to five years – but problems with their behaviour persisted. They stayed out all night drinking at 'bawdy houses' and their heads 'abounded in vermin'. In the summer they went to Grange, near Gosport, to fight with the gypsies who camped there. They had instructions 'not to throw stones over the wall, or go to a billiard table'. In 1801 Lord St Vincent wrote, 'The Royal Academy at Portsmouth, which is a sink of vice and abomination, should be abolished ...' It was not abolished but was reconstituted in 1806, renamed the Royal Naval College, and finally gained some respect and credibility. In 1874–75 the activity was transferred to Greenwich and later Dartmouth. The building continued to be used for officer training, and from 1906 to 1941 was the Royal Naval School of Navigation (HMS Dryad). It became a staff officers' mess, but this closed on 14 June 2007.


Excerpted from Maritime Portsmouth by Paul Brown. Copyright © 2016 Paul Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


1 The First Dockyard,
2 The Georgian Dockyard,
3 The Victorian Dockyard,
4 The Edwardian Dockyard,
5 The Dockyard in the First World War,
6 The Dockyard in the Interwar Years 1919–39,
7 The Dockyard in the Second World War,
8 The Post-war Dockyard,
9 The Run-down of the Dockyard,
10 Portsmouth Naval Base,
11 Mary Rose,
12 HMS Victory,
13 HMS Warrior,
14 HM Monitor M33,
15 Steam Pinnace 199,
16 Portsmouth's Shore Establishments,
17 Fort Blockhouse and HMS Dolphin,
18 HMS Alliance,
19 Other Submarines,
20 HMS Hornet,
21 Historic Military Powerboats,
22 Gosport's Naval Support Establishments,
23 Old Portsmouth,
24 The Spithead Sea Forts,
25 The Commercial Port,
26 Maritime Museums and Exhibitions,
Select Bibliography,

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