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Shipbuilding & The Dockyard
While history suggests that Portsmouth’s ‘sea-inlet’ has actually been considered a safe-haven ever since the third century, although in fact it was down to ‘Bad King John,’ who, in 1212, in reputedly realizing its potential, had fortified the harbour’s surroundings, and where, in 1495, the first dry dock would be constructed. From this period, therefore, Portsmouth could rightly be classified as Britain’s first naval dockyard, and, by 1511, be aptly described as the centre for “Building of the King’s Ships.” After which, and in line with the nation’s increasing dependence on Sea Power, steady expansion then followed, and, as a consequence, by 1800, Portsmouth Dockyard was truly to be described as, “the largest industrial complex in the world,” and, with a workforce of nearly 8,000 persons and an annual total budget of £570,000, was rightly deserving the description “a northern city in a southern setting.”
From 1905, however, in line with the arms race with Germany and the construction of the newly designed, and much larger and formidable, Dreadnaught Battleships, dramatic changes were now to take place within the confines of the dockyard, for, not only were much of the nation’s surface fleet now obsolete, but, as it turned out, so were the Dockyard’s very own dry dock facilities, the legacy of which, with the subsequent construction of even larger dry docks is still evident to the modern day visitor. Moreover, as a consequence of the arms race and changes in ship construction, old and well-established trades, or crafts, all associated with Sail and wooden Ship-building, were now giving way to more modern technology, with one example being, the replacement of steam with electrical power, changes all associated with an increase in the workforce to nearly 15,000, and from which the joint economies of Portsea, Portsmouth, and Gosport, had most certainly benefitted.
With the arms race with Germany almost inevitably intensifying into fully fledged sea-warfare, Portsmouth Dockyard was increasingly significant to the Nation’s security, and as such, the number of employees would rise to an approximate 23,000. Although, in conjunction with the Dockyard’s increased war time importance, had come to greater bargaining powers for the workforce, proof of which being the Whitley Committee[i], and ultimately, official recognition of Dockyard Trade Unionism. Whilst not forgetting, however, that in response to the needs of war removing many of the previous male labour force, and, as demands on the Dockyard increased, for the first time, females had now been considered as being a significant part of the Dockyard’s workforce, the consequence of which, by 1917, an estimated 1750 female workers were now to walk through the Gates of the Dockyard alongside their male counterparts.
Following the eventual outbreak of peace, however, and the implementation of the Geddes Act[ii], by the mid 1920s Governmental cutbacks had now meant a reduced labour force of approximately 8,000. Although a decade later, and in line with the Government’s current programme of fleet modernisation, Portsmouth Dockyard was again expanding, and, during 1939, with a European war now imminent, the Dockyard workforce was now to be estimated at around 14,000, and expanding, amongst whom, on the actual outbreak of war, were to be 132 permanent female employees.
As with the Dockyard of World War One, the needs of war were inevitably to bring changes, both structural and social, changes that eventually created, though on a temporary basis only, a significant breakdown of the gender division. Therefore as the Second World War progressed, a workforce, now approximately 45,000, both men and women, laboured alongside each other, day and night, and where, before the 1945 peace came, Portsmouth Dockyard’s workforce would in fact refit or repair approximately 2.500 vessels. Unlike post-World War One, however with its implementation of the 1920s Geddes Act, the workforce of this immediate post-war period, was only to be reduced down to an estimated 17,000, though clearly still recognizable as a preserve of the male worker . Although, as the post-war decades progressed, by 1981, and in accordance with the Governmental white paper “The UK Defence Programme – The Way Forward,” a Dockyard labour force, now a little over 7,000, had been reduced to an approximate 1,200.
On the other hand, in compensating in some degree the Dockyards decline, the 1980s Portsmouth’s “Historic Dockyard” now acquired several significant attractions, the Mary Rose, which tragically sank off Southsea Castle in 1545, but successfully raised from the seabed, October 1982, and now displayed within the 12 acre site partitioned off from the main working Dockyard. And where, nearby this pride of the Tudor Navy, can also be viewed the glory of Nelson’s Navy, HMS Victory, brought into No 2 Dock, 1922, and where, since 1928, has both attracted and enthralled visitors to Portsmouth. Two noble vessels to be joined, June 1987, and a full 58 years since she last left Portsmouth, by HMS Warrior, built and commissioned in 1861, and, with her 9,210 tons displacement, and fully 60% larger, totally surpassed France’s aggressive ship building programme, and the world’s first iron-clad warship, La Gloire.
With regards to Portsmouth Dockyard’s latter day ship building legacy and destiny, from the 1960s HMS Rhyl, Sirius, and Andromeda, to the 2002 arrival in the Dockyard of Southampton’s Vosper Thornycroft, ship building in the Dockyard will almost certainly continue, admittedly to a more limited degree when compared to past generations, and as such, is fittingly endorsed by the workforce now currently employed in constructing the stern sections of HMS Elizabeth, one of the two proposed new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, HMS Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
- HMNB is one of three operating bases in the UK for the British Navy.
- Napoleonic semaphore is a system of conveying information by means of visual signals.
Semaphore Tower is home to the Queen’s Harbour Master which manages radar coverage of the port approach channel.
- Channel 13 is generally used by naval ships.
- The information is recorded by radar and CCTV’s
- The harbour is under the control of the Queen’s Harbour Master, an area of approximately 50 sq miles
Author: Mrs Lines
[i] Established, 1917, by John Henry Whitley, as a process of regular formal consultative meetings between workers and employers, considered vital to good industrial relations, particularly during a time of war.
[ii] Geddes Act (Eric Geddes) 1922-23, advocated a total defence expenditure cut of approximately £90 million.