Life at a Royal Naval Dockyard

Royal Naval Dockyards were used to build navy ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Navy Board was responsible for running them.

In the 17th and 18th centuries there were six Royal Naval Dockyards in operation in England – Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Plymouth. The Board of Admiralty appointed officers at the yards, but otherwise they were under the administration of the Navy Board, represented at the dockyard by a resident commissioner.

Who ran the Royal Naval Dockyards?

Henry VIII established the Navy Board in 1546 and it was responsible for running the dockyards and for the repair and building of all naval warships.

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
  • Clerk of the Cheque: mustered the workmen, looked after expenses and earnings
  • Clerk of the Survey: checked the details of all stores received, and issued and surveyed materials.

In 1822 a number of posts were abolished, including Clerks of the Survey. 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 and replaced by a captain or admiral superintendent.

What would you find at a dockyard?

As well as dry docks for building ships, and wet docks for fitting them out, all dockyards had a large mast pond where long lengths of timber were soaked before being used to build ships. The wood had to be well seasoned so it wouldn’t split or shrink in the water.

The earliest dry docks had a wall of mud blocking one end. When a ship was ready to be launched it took 20 men one month of digging to remove the wall so that the dock could fill with water. Launching vessels became much easier after flood gates were introduced in 1574.

Storehouses were needed for masts, rigging and ‘cooperage’ (making storage barrels). In 1570, privately owned ropeworks were set up in Woolwich and Deptford to supply rope for rigging. There were also workshops and houses for the senior officers and their families. Each dockyard was a self-contained community of highly skilled craftsmen.

Who built the ships?

It took roughly 140 men to build a ship. Caulkers, joiners, carpenters, riggers, sailmakers and labourers were all paid a basic rate, often supplemented by overtime during busy periods.

Find out more about England’s Royal Naval Dockyards