The Royal Dockyards


At the start of the 18th century it was unclear which of several European naval powers would go on to dominate the seas of the world. The Dutch navy was both large and very experienced, and had inflicted several defeats on her rivals in the previous century. France under Louis XIV had built a modern fleet that was the envy of all, while Spain’s huge empire gave her the financial clout to build some of the most powerful ships in the world. Few observers would have picked Britain as the country whose navy would come out on top. Comfortably the poorest of the four powers, she was still recovering from the political turmoil of her various civil wars and changes in regime. Yet a hundred years later the Royal Navy was able to take on and defeat the combined navies of those three rivals at the same time. Much of the credit for this huge shift in the balance of power was because of the development of the Royal Dockyards.


Warships in the 18th century were the marvels of the age. They took thousands of trees, miles of rope, acres of canvas and several years to build. Once completed, they were equipped with the very latest technology that science could provide. A seventy-four, the most common ship of the line, was virtually a floating town. It had a crew of 650, a greater weight of artillery than Wellington’s whole army at Waterloo and yet could survive on its own resources for months at sea without touching land. They were also colossally expensive to build and required constant maintenance. No private concern was capable of building a navy of such ships, which is why the state had to take on this task itself.


The first Royal Dockyard was established at Portsmouth in 1496, and was soon followed by several additional yards built in the Thames estuary at Woolwich, Deptford and Chatham. Each site differed, but they all had purpose-built slipways, where new ships could be built and dry docks, where existing ships could be brought in for maintenance. As the navy expanded, so did the yards. New specialist areas were added to them. Large ponds were dug, where stocks of masts and yards could be stored underwater. Roperies were built - astonishing buildings a quarter mile long and arrow straight, where huge ships cables could be woven. There were gun wharfs to supply the ship’s armament, and victualing yards to supply food. Soon high walls were built around the sites to deter pilfering, while outside the dockyard gates new towns grew up to accommodate the thousands of workers now employed.


Which yards expanded changed as the political threat to Britain shifted. When the Dutch were the main rival, the Thames yards where the most important. When France and Spain emerged as the navy’s principal opponents, Portsmouth grew rapidly and a huge new Royal Dockyard was built at Plymouth. Colonial expansion saw fresh yards established across the globe in locations as diverse as Halifax in Canada, Antigua in the Caribbean and Gibraltar in southern Spain.


The level of investment was colossal, and had to be sustained year after year because wooden warships afloat in salt water were very perishable. At no time during the 18th century did the British government spend less than a third of its peace time annual budget on the navy. This rose to over half in war years. Command of the sea was the only sure way that Britain could protect herself from her much larger European opponents, and only Royal Navy ships built and sustained by a network of Royal Dockyards could deliver this. But this concentration of activity had another, far more profound effect on the nation.


During the 18th century Britain was the first country to industrialise. The exact reasons why this remarkable change came about first on a small island on the edge of Europe are still debated by historians, but increasing attention is turning to the Royal Dockyards as possible incubators of industrial change. They were comfortably the biggest employers and were the first to introduce practices such as shift work, clocking on and off and paying overtime. Early steam engines were used to drive saw mills and to pump out drydocks. At Portsmouth in 1802 Marc Brunel (father of Isambard) established one of the world’s first powered production lines, designed to churn out the hundreds of thousands of standard rigging blocks required by the navy. Royal Dockyards also generated huge demand for industrial products from other suppliers. They needed thousands of high-grade iron guns, tons of gunpowder, enormous amounts of copper sheathing and canvas, all of which stimulated economic growth elsewhere. It is quite possible to argue that without the Royal Dockyards there might not have been an Industrial Revolution.

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