Research guide B5: Royal Naval Dockyards

This guide is a brief introduction to Royal Naval Dockyards and the records of each dockyard held by the National Maritime Museum, followed by a selected bibliography of books in the Museum's Caird Library. It will be of particular interest to those researching naval, dockyard and family history.

Records of individual yards include manuscripts (reference numbers are shown where relevant), plans and other material. The Manuscripts Department also holds a card index of senior dockyard officials from the mid-17th century to 1832, which is compiled from The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) classes ADM6,11 Commissions and Warrants Books).

Introduction

In the 17th and 18th centuries there were six Royal Navy dockyards in England, at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Plymouth. There were also a number of outports in England and overseas yards, including Gibraltar, Halifax and Jamaica.

Officers at the yards were appointed by the Board of Admiralty, but otherwise yards were under the administration of the Navy Board, represented at the yard by a resident commissioner. The principal officers at each yard were:

  • Master Shipwright: responsible for most workmen and all construction and repair work.
  • Master Attendant: managed the ships in harbour and saw to the maintenance of the ships in Ordinary, i.e. when the ship was laid up.
  • Clerk of the Cheque: mustered the workmen, looked after expenses and kept accounts of earnings
  • Clerk of the Survey: checked the details of all stores received, and issued and surveyed materials.
  • Clerk of the Ropeyard (at Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth): mustered the men, and received and issued stores.

In 1822 a number of posts were abolished, including Clerks of the Survey and Ropeyard. In 1832 the Navy Board was abolished and the yards came under the principal officers of the Navy at the Admiralty. Resident commissioners were discontinued in favour of a captain or admiral superintendent.

Overseas dockyards and outports in England were similarly organised. They received stores, usually from Deptford, but had fewer facilities and personnel.

The dockyards

Chatham Dockyard

Established as a royal dockyard by Elizabeth I in 1567, Chatham became important in the Dutch wars owing to its strategic position (on the River Medway), and by the late 17th century it was the largest dockyard. It was superseded first by Portsmouth, then Plymouth when the main naval enemy became France, and the Western approaches the chief theatre of operations. In addition, the Medway had silted, navigation was more difficult, and Chatham became a building yard rather than refitting base.

In the 1860s the yard had a large building programme and St Mary's basin was constructed for the steam navy. When the yards at Deptford and Woolwich closed in 1869, Chatham again became relatively important and remained so until 1983 when it closed. The site is now a museum, the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.

Records: 1,063 letterbooks containing correspondence between yard officials, the Admiralty and Navy Boards, 1669–1900; internal yard records; and a collection of 67 plans of the yard, 1718–1867.
Mss ref: CHA/: ADM/Y/C/:

Deptford Dockyard

Founded 1513, it was the leading dockyard in the 16th century, but due to the silting of the Thames by the 18th century its use was restricted to ship building and distributing stores to other yards and fleets abroad. It shut down 1830–1844 and closed 1869.

Records: Twelve plans. Five show the whole yard; two date from around 1740 and the others from 1810, 1845 and 1878. The 1878 plan includes the adjoining victualling yard. Subsequent alterations are shown in plans for a new entrance to the wet dock, 1813; mast pond, 1828; and slips off the basin, 1844. A plan of three detailed sections through the single and double docks shows dimensions and building materials, 1838.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/D:

Gibraltar Dockyard

The dockyard dates from 1704 when Gibraltar became a British possession.

Records: Forty-six plans, 1704–1875. Two small-scale maps show Gibraltar about 1704 and two show fortifications early in the century. Twenty-seven plans, elevations and sections show the New Mole and Fort, 1728–1751, with proposed alterations and additions to facilities. Fourteen plans and designs, 1734–1747, are for a new hospital. One map shows the dockyard, victualling yard and hospital in 1875.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/G:

Halifax Dockyard

The yard was formally established in 1759 but had a Master Attendant from 1757, and the Admiralty ordered the construction of docks and wharves in 1758. By 1774, it had two careening wharves for refitting ships, and these remained largely unchanged until the mid-19th century when a graving-dock, coaling facilities and torpedo boat slip were added, between 1881 and 1897. In 1907 the yard was handed over to the Canadian Government.

Records: Sixty-six commissioners' and officers' letterbooks, 1783–1887.
Mss ref: HAL/:

Harwich Dockyard

The yard was especially important during the Dutch wars, serving as a small refitting and storing base throughout the 18th century and until it closed in 1829. During World Wars I and II it was a base for coastal forces.

Records: Nine plans of the yard. Five dated between 1722 and 1748. Another unfinished and undated plan includes the street pattern of the town. Three other plans are undated but of the same period; two of the slips in the yard, the other shows a boiler for steaming timber.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/H:

Jamaica Dockyard

From at least 1675, a naval officer was stationed at Port Royal and from then onwards ships were careened there. In the reign of Queen Anne a hulk was established there, and between 1735 and 1744, two careening wharves, capstan houses, storehouses and accommodation for officers and workmen were built. The yard's wharfage and storage capacity was also increased; coaling sheds and wharves were added in the mid-19th century and a torpedo boat slip was installed in 1900. The yard closed in 1905.

Records: Eight letterbooks and two plans.
Mss ref: JAM/: ADM/Y/PR:

Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua

The harbour at Antigua was first used in 1671 as a hurricane shelter and for the careening of warships. The British began to use it as a Naval Dockyard in 1725 when the first buildings were constructed. The Dockyard was developed extensively after 1743 and most of the buildings seen today date from 1785–1792. It was Nelson's principal base in the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars. The yard fell into gradual disuse and was closed by the Royal Navy in 1889.

The Friends of English Harbours reconstructed the site which reopened in 1961.

Pembroke Dockyard

Established 1815 when equipment and personnel were moved from Milford Haven, which had been a small building yard administered by the Navy since 1800. In 1930, Pembroke yard was reduced to a naval store and fuel depot.

Records: Sixty-four commissioners' and officers' letterbooks, containing letters, 1783–1887.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/PE:

Plymouth Dockyard

Plymouth yard, also known as Plymouth Dock and since 1824 as Devonport dockyard, was founded in 1690. In wartime it maintained the Western squadron during the 18th century. In peacetime it built and repaired ships. It was extended in the 18th century, but the period of greatest expansion came when the Keyham Steam yard was constructed north of the old yard 1844–1853; Keyham Extension was undertaken from 1896–1907.

Records: Seven plans of the earlier south yard, c.1720, 1748, c.1760, 1808, 1821, c.1840, and 1864. Only the 1821 and c.1840 plans are not to scale. All are either labelled or have a key to facilities shown. The c.1760 plan gives the cost of each building; the 1808 plan shows a proposed reservoir and the course of cast-iron pipes for fire-fighting and watering ships. Most records are held at The National Archives (ADM/174)
Mss ref: ADM/Y/PD:

Portsmouth Dockyard

This yard was established in 1495 and used throughout Henry VIII's reign. It was then neglected until the Civil War when new buildings were erected and permanent officers appointed. Extension and improvement of facilities continued during the Dutch wars, and again between 1684 and 1690, 1694 and 1704, and 1716 and 1723. This expansion, plus transfer of major naval operations to the Western approaches, made Portsmouth the most important dockyard from the mid-18th century. During the 18th century the yard had more than doubled in size. In the 19th century it trebled; the most notable additions being the Steam Basin, built 1843–48, and between 1863 and 1868, two locks, three docks and three basins. Expansion continued in the 20th century and the dockyard remains in operation today. See Kitson, H, The Early History of Portsmouth Dockyard, 1496–1800, parts 1–4, The Mariner's Mirror, (1947).

Records: 147 plans for the yard, 1715 to 1884; and 566 volumes of correspondence between yard officials, the Navy Board and the Admiralty, 1675 to 1899 (the volumes are in four groups, relating to the resident commissioner, admiral superintendent, the yard officers and miscellaneous).
Mss ref: POR/: ADM/Y/P:

Sheerness Dockyard

Situated at the mouth of the River Medway, the dockyard was founded in 1665, initially for storing and refitting ships. In 1720, a second dry dock was built and it became a ship construction yard, mainly for fourth- and fifth-rate ships, chiefly in peacetime. Between 1815 and 1826 it was completely rebuilt, and in 1854 a steam yard was established. It closed in 1957. See Fellows, J, Shipbuilding at Sheerness: The Period 1750–1802, The Mariner's Mirror (1974).

Records: Fifty-one plans, mostly 18th century. There is no known body of plans for this yard, although there are individual volumes elsewhere in the collection.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/S

Woolwich Dockyard

Founded in 1512, followed by a ropeyard half a mile away in 1610, it was particularly important during the 16th and 17th centuries. But its value gradually declined owing to limited space, facilities and the silting of the Thames. By 1800 it was restricted to shipbuilding, fitting vessels built at Deptford or merchant yards, and refitting small ships from the Nore. In 1839 a steam factory was established at Woolwich. The ropeyard closed 1835 and the yard in 1869.

Records: Fifty-four plans; dated early to mid-18th century, except one produced 1846. There is no known body of records for the yard.
Mss ref: ADM/Y/W:

Bibliography

The following is a selected list of books on Royal Naval Dockyards held in the Library of the National Maritime Museum

  • Barry, P, Dockyard Economy and Naval Power (London: Sampson Low, 1863) 623.81(42)
  • Barry, P, The Dockyards, Shipyards and Marine of France (London: Sampson Low, Son and Marston, 1864) 623.81(42)
  • Betts, Reg, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (Andover: Pitkin, 1992) 623.81(422.7)
  • Burns, K V, The Devonport Dockyard Story (Maritime Books 1984) 623.81(423.5)
  • Crawshaw, J D, History of Chatham Dockyard (I.Garford 1999) 623.81(442.3)
  • Davey, Wilfred, The Royal Marines and the Dockyards 1755-1949 (Southsea: Royal Marines Historical Society, 1986) 355.353.4
  • Duffy, Michael, The New Maritime History of Devon (London: Conway Maritime, 1992-1994) 623.81(423.5)
  • Endacott, Andy, 300 years Devotion to Duty (Saltash: Andy Endacott, 1991) 623.81(423.5)
  • Great Britain. Hydrographic department. Tides and Tidal Streams at Dockyard Ports (Taunton: Hydrographer of the Navy, 1969) 551.465(422)
  • MacDougall, Philip, Royal Dockyards (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1982) 623.81(42)
  • Morriss, R, The Royal Dockyards During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Leicester University Press 1983) 623.81 (42) A17/18"
  • Patterson, B H (comp) A Dictionary of Dockyard Language (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Society, 1984) 623.81(422.7)(038)
  • Patterson, B H, Giv'er a cheer boys': the Great Docks of Portsmouth Dockyard 1830–1914 (Portsmouth: Royal Dockyard Historical Society, 1989) 623.81(422.7)
  • Pringle, Sir Steuart, The historic Dockyard: Chatham, Kent: Four Hundred Years of Naval and Architectural Heritage in One Unique Historical Site (London: Honourable Company of Master Mariners, 1991/1992) 623.81(442.3)
  • South East Arts, Last One, Best One: Drawings of the Chatham Naval Dockyard by Jane Stanton, Charles Shearer and Paul Osborne...touring exhibition (South East Arts: Tunbridge Wells, 1983) 623.81(422.3)
  • Robertson, D H V, HM Dockyard Chatham: the Historic Dockyard, Recovery and Regeneration (London: D H V Robertson, 1983) 623.81(422.3):623.1
  • Watson, P H, The Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Halifax Dockyard (Halifax (NS): Maritime Museum of Canada, 1959) 355.49"1759/1760"(714)
  • Webb, John, An Early Nineteenth Century Dockyard Worker (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Museums Society, 1971) 623.81(422.7)

Royal Dockyard models

Six models of Royal Dockyards – Sheerness, Plymouth, Chatham, Portsmouth, Woolwich and Deptford – are also in the Museum collections. Commissioned by the Admiralty under Lord Sandwich and produced between 1772 and 1774, they were made to a scale of 1:480. They include houses, offices, workshops, stores, dry docks and building slips of the yards and between them show ships of all the main types in every stage of construction.

View the models online:

Next steps

Other guides in the series which may be useful for researching Royal Dockyards:

For general research help see:

Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.

Last updated March 2010

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