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THE HISTORY OF  DOCKYARDS.

BY

BERT SHARDLOW.

(Transcibed  from his  1ST manuscript,  by Colin Penney.)

 

To men who had served a lifetime in the dockyard and the Royal Navy something seemed to out of their lives when an establishment closes its gates for the last time.

 

Enclosed in the original geographical boundary of  Kent there have existed in a period  of 500 years no fewer than 7 active Royal Dockyards , that is without including any of the  Cinque Ports Naval Stations such as Hythe and Sandwich . Of the seven ,Deal navy Yard which closed in 1864 had its origin in the days of the Cinque Ports Navy .Erith was a Royal Dock from about the year 1485 as a convenient port for repair and laying up of the fleet, but after finalising the fitting out of the Woolwich built “ Great Harry “ it sank into gradual oblivion.

 

Deptford had a known history from 1485 until closure in 1869 although it ceased activities for a period of 24 years  1818 to 1842 in the later year it was re-opened and saw the introduction of  steam in the Royal Navy.

 

The first ship accepted as being specifically built as a man-of-war  ,the Henry Grace A Dieu  or Great Harry was laid down at Woolwich in 1512 to the design , it is believed , of Master Shipwrights brought from Florence by Henry VIII the principle being Brygandine and the design of ornate carvings remained for years to distinguish naval ships from private ones. It  is not believed that Woolwich was a Royal Yard at the time of the building of the Great Harry because the shipwrights and the caulkers were pressed into service from Harwich and members of the Pett family began their connections with the Royal Dockyards at that time. The Woolwich Yard can be said to have  existed under the Crown  from 1516 to 1869 and throughout its history was known  as the “ Mother Yard “ ,but this referred to the modern navy and  the birthplace of the Great Harry. Southampton ,Burlseden,  Hythe and Portsmouth had earlier connections dating from the reign of King John  and the latter port had a dry dock of boats as early as 1490 .Deptford and Woolwich Dockyards ,although closed in 1869 retained naval connections until recent years  and although utilised  for various purposes both yards have original buildings and docks which remain as left in 1869.

 

In historical order Chatham was the fifth of the Royal Yards in Kent. Originally known as Gillingham Water it was established in 1547 and  adopted its present title of Chatham some 20 years later and remains today ( 1990) the only Royal Dockyard in Kent .

1667 was the year of the establishment of  the Royal Dockyard of Sheerness although the site had been used by Chatham Dockyard for 30 years before that time for the cleaning and caulking of the hulls of North Sea vessels .Sheerness actually replaced Harwich in Essex  as an offensive yard  for the repair of the North Sea fleet .Harwich was founded by Cromwell in 1650 and continued as a Royal Yard ( part Royal , part private ) and private until transferred to the Post Office in 1827 in case it was said that it might be required again by the Navy.  It was , but not until 1940 when it was utilised for repairing minesweeping trawlers.  With the exception of the small Dover dockyard which was founded in the early part of  the present century  as an appendage to trhe naval station and found to be within easy reach of German guns all had the same purpose.  The traditional wars with France  , Spain held Netherlands and Holland the defence of the English Capital and protecting the trade routes to the Baltic and the Scandinavian countries particularly the latter on whom we depended for the supply of timber and iron for our war and merchant ships

The  dockyard commenced at Greenhithe  and abandoned in 1680  had the same purpose strategically as its predecessors, sufficient rise and fall of the tide for careening ships,  plentiful local timber ,good roads and a close proximity to the Wealds of Kent and Sussex for iron.

One timber not native to these Isles but necessary  for ships of war with large seas to patrol was the pine for masts and for those who depended on the Baltic and Scandinavian countries until the New England colonies provided supplies of even better quality ,and so we kept on good terms with the Baltic countries as did our traditional  enemies who blockaded the Thames to hinder supplies to the Thames and Medway yards. In the south , Portsmouth was brought back into use as a Royal yard when Sheerness was established and Plymouth Dock later named Devonport founded in 1692. Both had sheltered harbours and plentiful timber supplier . Leith in Scotland was a Naval base in 1700 and a Dockyard in Rosyth  was proposed in 1710 . But it was 200 years before this came to pass. A naval base existed in Southern Ireland in 1650 in the Fourth of Kinsale County Cork , but it was not until 1864 that Maulbowling Dockyard was established. When because of the loss of the American Colonies and the precarious retention of Canadaand the Franco-American Alliance  against Britain , a base further west than Plymouth was desired Milford  Haven was selected in 1794 as an offensive Royal Yard for quick repairs after action at sea , peculiarly  enough on land leased from Nantucket Mass . .Another pecularity  of the MIlford yard  was the fact that on the orders of George III the refugees from Napoleon ,Louis and Charles Baraliar  were installed as Joint Master Shipwrights . This yard was abandoned  in 1814 and a new one built at  Pembroke Dock coincidental with the rebuilding of Sheerness Dockyard  1814 to 1823 with the same civil engineers John Rennie Senior .This yard closed in 1926 but throughout its history of 100 years was the most prolific of all the Royal yards in the matter of building ships , 300 being built from wooden walls to battleships of 19,000 tons ,to submarines and oil tankers  it remained supreme and on its closure and with Maulbowling being included in the Irish  Republic no dockyard remained to guard the Western Approaches. The proposed dockyard at Northfleet of 800 acres to replace  all the Kentish yards did not materialise although lined out by John Rennie in 1808 and he was compelled against his will to improve the Thames Yards  Chatham and rebuild Sheerness.

Cromwell established the Harwich Dockyard in  1650 for the especial purpose of  protecting the North Sea shipping route from the Thames to the Baltic and Scandinavian Countries in which manufactured cotton and woollen goods were exchanged for the timber and pitch oils  required for shipbuilding and houses especially the tall straight pines for masts . In  1653 it was claimed that with far less men than the total of Chatham, Woolwich and Deptford it could double their combined output and had as its Master Shipwright Anthony Deane who later organised Portsmouth  to become the greatest naval base of all time.

 

Well situated for a defensive yard for building and long refits its strategic was too remote to ward off the blockade set up by the French and the Dutch at the Thames Estuary . At its largest it was only 165 yards by 75 yards with a treadmill crane still on the foreshore and dated 1660. The yard however was unpopular with the local shipwrights who preferred private  employment and regular wages .So in 1665 the Surveyor of the Navy in company with Samuel Pepys selected the site at Sheerness for the founding of a Royal Dockyard as being superior for the purpose than Queenborough ,Grain , and Greenhithe although Queenborough had been a fleet base from medieval times. Defences of a kind had existed at Sheerness for many years and for 30 years men from Chatham had refitted North Sea cruisers on the mud flats by careening.  Although the Great Plague of 1665 and the Dutch occupation of Queenborough intervened , it was on Christmas Day

1667 that Joseph  Shish ,assistant Master Shipwright of Deptford Yard took charge of the new Sheerness Dockyard ,a sum of £ 7,000 being allocated for Peter Pett –Master Shipwright at Chatham to supply the men and materials for the work previously done at Harwich and apparently to found the Yard , There being a plague at Chatham , Shish brought with him men from Deptford and Woolwich by water . The plague was caused by the fleas carried by black rats from ships from abroad. The Great Fire of London  had reduced the plague and brown rats killed off the black ones in the London suburbs .The plague at Chatham accounted for the lives of  900 of a population of 3,000 in 1666-1667 . The site was unhealthy and the land rough and to prevent erosion and to give foundations to the new yard, ships were sunk and the ground firmed by filling in on the landward  side . In 1673 three ships were sunk and five more in the next 10 years . About 35 hulks were sunk between the opening of the yard and 1737 , that is , 70 years  and 8 of the best of these were fitted out as living accommodation for dockyard families including the largest the  “Sunderland “ .The others were also used by prostitute people and tuberculosis was rife. Although the hulks were intended as a temporary expedient as far as accommodation was concerned  houses built by the Navy Board were immediately occupied by the Military who resented the naval intrusion into the garrison area  and this bad feeling together with the wholesale theft of stores caused Samuel Pepys to recommend the yards closure  an d with Daniel Furzel as the Assistant Master Shipwright this was put into effect in 1686 . Because of shortage of work and although after the Dutch Wars 2040 men were employed in all yards only 15 of those were at Sheerness . The hulks however remained as dwelling places until 1802. The few men affected transferred to Chatham but 2 years later the yard reopened not as a completely  independant  establishment but as an  adjunct  to Chatham under the control of the Commissioner of that Yard . It was from the year 1688 that then destiny of the Sheerness Yard took place.

It is here that it should be stated that at this time the Commissioners took over control of the dockyards from the Master Shipwrights .Although Pepys had slandered the Master Shipwrights both  privately and state employed .The Dockyard Master Shipwrights for a mere pittance were expected to be in the role of that now occupied by perhaps four individuals .the Admiralty Superintendent , the General Manager , the Designer , and  the Surveyor. And to attempt to get work out of men who  were unpaid for years and had been pressed into service . Pepys  had a dislike for people who worked with their hands and also for those whose skills he did not understand. Little wonder that corruption was rife and tim ber meant for dockyard work found its way into private yards and for the building of workmans houses .To prevent abuse the Navy Board introduced the Broad Arrow  stamp and all cordage rope had a coloured thread throughout its length  to denote the yard of origin .The odd pieces of timber “ chips “ were the perquisites of the men and the right to have them in lieu of higher wages caused trouble for nearly two centuries.

 

 

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Bert was a very keen and a  very helpful historian  . As a very senior Dockyard Foreman ,a post equilavalent,  to say a Managing Director of a very large Business ,he had access to all Naval Dockyard records and  after his retirement  was allowed access  to all Naval Establishments for his research . Most of his research he sent to The Maritime Museum who were very grateful  for Bert’s interest , he spent a lot of time there with his research. 

He also researched his Family Tree , the Ratcliff family and many Queenborough Families. And he helped many people sort out their Family Tree problems.

 

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