Royal Navy Dockyard

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Portsmouth Royal Dockyard, founded 1496, still in service as a Naval Base.

Royal Navy Dockyards (or Royal Dockyards) were harbours where commissioned ships were either built or based, or where ships were overhauled and refitted. Historically, the Royal Navy maintained a string of dockyards around the world; today, the few that remain operational have been privatized (though they are still often called 'Royal' dockyards in common, if not in official, parlance).


It should be noted that throughout its history, the Royal Navy has (when necessary) made use of private shipyards and dockyards, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, since the reign of Henry VIII it has also made a point of establishing and maintaining its own dockyards. These Royal Navy Dockyards have always had a dual function: shipbuilding and ship repair/maintenance; historically, most yards provided for both, but some specialized in one or the other. At the heart of any Dockyard is its docks and slips. Traditionally, slipways were used for shipbuilding, and dry docks (called graving docks) for maintenance; (dry docks were also sometimes used for building, particularly pre-1760 and post-1880). Regular hull maintenance was important; in the age of sail, a ship's wooden hull would be comprehensively inspected every 2–3 years, and its copper sheeting replaced every 5.[1] Where there was no nearby dock available, ships would sometimes be careened (beached at high tide) to enable necessary work to be done.

The Dockyards were generally established close to a harbour or anchorage where Royal Navy ships were based. They had various specialist buildings on site: storehouses, woodworking sheds, metal shops and forges, roperies, pumping stations (for emptying the dry docks), administration blocks and accommodation for the resident officers. The establishment of associated Naval Bases or Barracks, however, was a comparatively recent development: prior to the 20th century, sailors were not usually quartered ashore, but remained with their ships as long as they were in commission, or (if these were undergoing a refit or repair) were accommodated on hulks moored nearby.

Historical overview[edit]

The origins of the Royal Dockyards are closely linked with the permanent establishment of a standing Navy in the early sixteenth century. The beginnings of a Yard had already been established at Portsmouth with the building of a dry dock in 1496; but it was on the Thames in the reign of Henry VIII that the Royal Dockyards really began to flourish. Woolwich and Deptford dockyards were both established in the early 1510s (a third Yard followed at Erith but this was short-lived as it proved to be vulnerable to flooding). The Thames yards were pre-eminent in the sixteenth century, being conveniently close to the merchants and artisans of London (for shipbuilding and supply purposes) as well as to the Armouries of the Tower of London. They were also just along the river from Henry's palace at Greenwich. As time went on, though, they suffered from the silting of the river and the constraints of their sites.

Covered slip no. 1, Devonport: the only complete surviving eighteenth-century slip on a Royal Dockyard

By the mid-seventeenth century, Chatham (established 1567) had overtaken them to become the largest of the yards. Together with new Yards at Harwich and Sheerness, Chatham was well-placed to serve the Navy in the Dutch Wars that followed. Apart from Harwich (which closed in 1713), all the yards remained busy into the eighteenth century - including Portsmouth (which, after a period of dormancy, had now begun to grow again). In 1690, Portsmouth had been joined on the south coast by a new Royal Dockyard at Plymouth; a hundred years later, as Britain renewed its enmity with France, these two yards gained new prominence and pre-eminence.

Furthermore, Royal Dockyards began to be opened in some of Britain's colonial ports, to service the fleet overseas. Yards were opened in Jamaica (as early as 1675), Antigua (1725), Gibraltar (1704), Canada (Halifax, 1759) and several other locations.[2]

Through the Napoleonic Wars all the home Yards were kept very busy, and a new shipbuilding Yard was established at Pembroke in 1815. Before very long, new developments in shipbuilding, materials and propulsion prompted changes at the Dockyards. Construction of marine steam engines was initially focused at Woolwich, but massive expansion soon followed at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham. Coaling yards were established, including a new Yard at Portland. A new maintenance Yard was also opened on Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour. Meanwhile, the Thames-side Yards, Woolwich and Deptford, could no longer compete, and they finally closed in 1869.

The massive naval rebuilding programme prior to the First World War saw activity across all the Yards, and a new building Yard opened at Rosyth. In contrast, the post-war period saw the closure of Pembroke and Rosyth, and the handover of Haulbowline to the new Irish government - though the closures were reversed with the return of war in 1939. A series of closures followed the war: Pembroke in 1947, Portland and Sheerness in 1959/60,[3] then Chatham and Gibraltar (the last remaining overseas Yard) in 1984.[4] In the 1990s the remaining Royal Dockyards (Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth) were privatised; they continue to be the main locations for building (Rosyth) and maintaining the ships and submarines of the Royal Navy.


Management of the Yards was in the hands of the Navy Board until 1832. The Navy Board was represented in each Yard by a resident Commissioner (though Woolwich and Deptford, being close to the City of London, were for some time overseen directly by the Navy Board). The resident Commissioners had wide-ranging powers enabling them to act in the name of the Board (particularly in an emergency); however, until 1806 they did not have direct authority over the principal officers of the Yard (who were answerable directly to the Board). This could often be a source of tension, as everyone sought to guard their own autonomy.[5]

The principal officers varied over time, but generally included:

  • the Master-Shipwright (in charge of shipbuilding, ship repair/maintenance and management of the associated workforce)
  • the Master-Attendant (in charge of launching and docking ships, of ships 'in ordinary' at the Yard, and of ship movements around the harbour)
  • the Storekeeper (in charge of receiving, maintaining and issuing items in storage)
  • the Clerk of the Cheque (in charge of pay, personnel and certain transactions)
  • the Clerk of the Survey (in charge of maintaining a regular account of equipment and the transfer of goods)

(In practice there was a deliberate overlap of responsibilities among the last three officials listed above, as a precaution against embezzlement).[6]

The next tier of officers included those in charge of particular areas of activity (the Master-Caulker, Master-Ropeworker, Master-Boatbuilder, Master-Mastmaker, etc.).[5]

In Dockyards where there was a ropewalk (viz Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth) there was an additional officer, the Clerk of the Ropeway, who had a degree of autonomy, mustering his own personnel and managing his own raw materials.[2]

It should be noted that ships in commission (and along with them the majority of Naval personnel) were not under the authority of the Navy Board but rather of the Admiralty, which meant that they did not answer to any of the above officers, but rather to the Port Admiral.[6]

With the abolition of the Navy Board in 1832, the Admiralty took over the Dockyards and the Commissioners were replaced by Admiral-Superintendents.[2]

Associated establishments[edit]

Ships' ordnance (guns, weapons and ammunition) was provided independently by the Board of Ordnance, which set up its own Ordnance Yards alongside several of the Royal Dockyards. Similarly, the Victualling Board established Victualling Yards in several Dockyard locations, which furnished warships with their provisions of food, beer and rum. In the mid-eighteenth century the Sick and Hurt Board established Naval Hospitals in the vicinity of Plymouth Dock and Portsmouth; by the mid-nineteenth century there were Royal Naval Hospitals close to most of the major and minor Naval Dockyards in Britain, in addition to several of them overseas (the earliest having been established in 1711 in Minorca).

United Kingdom dockyards[edit]

Shipbuilding slips at Chatham

Royal Dockyards were established in Britain and Ireland as follows (in chronological order, with date of establishment):

15th century[edit]

A lively depiction of Deptford Dockyard in the mid-eighteenth century (John Cleveley the Elder, 1755).
  • Portsmouth (1496) Rose to prominence during the wars with France, late 18th century. Expanded significantly in the nineteenth century with new facilities for steam engineering and ironclad shipbuilding.[2] Privatised 1993. In November 2013 the operator BAe Systems announced that it was closing its shipbuilding facility at Portsmouth; part of the shipyard will remain open for repair/maintenance.[7]

16th century[edit]

  • Woolwich (1512) Important shipbuilding centre, 16th-17th centuries. Became a specialist steam yard 1831. Closed 1869.[2]
  • Deptford (1513) Important shipbuilding centre, 16th-17th centuries. Experimental yard for new technology, early nineteenth century. Closed 1869. (The adjacent victualling yard, which supplied the Thames and Medway yards, remained open for a further 98 years.)
  • Erith (1514) A failed Yard: closed 1521 due to persistent flooding.
  • Chatham (1567) The leading Royal Dockyard during the 16th-17th centuries, when the Fleet was principally based in and around the River Medway.[8] Began to suffer from silting in the eighteenth century, but remained active. During the nineteenth century, other more accessible Yards led on fleet repairs and maintenance, while Chatham focused more on shipbuilding. The following century, it specialized in building submarines. In 1960 the adjacent Royal Navy barracks and facilities were closed; the Dockyard itself closed in 1984. (Today the site is preserved as Chatham Historic Dockyard.)[2]

17th century[edit]

  • Harwich (1652) Active during the Anglo-Dutch Wars; closed 1713 (a small Naval yard remained on site, with refit/stores facilities, until 1829.)[2]
  • Sheerness (1665) Originally built for storing and refitting; for much of its history served as a support yard for Chatham. Shipbuilding began in 1720 (mostly smaller ships). Entire dockyard rebuilt to a single design by John Rennie jnr in 1815-26. Closed 1960 (site taken over as a commercial port).
  • Plymouth (1690) Pre-eminent, alongside Portsmouth, during the wars with France (1793 onwards). Known as Devonport since 1843.[9] Significant expansion for steam engineering, 1844–53 and 1896-1907. Shipbuilding ceased in 1971, but the Yard remains active as a maintenance and repair facility.[10]
HMS Westminster undergoing refit in a covered dry-dock at Devonport, 2009.

19th century[edit]

  • Pembroke (1815) Unlike all the previous Yards, Pembroke was built purely for shipbuilding rather than for repair and maintenance. It was successor to a Yard at Milford Haven leased by the Navy Board for shipbuilding since the late eighteenth century.[11] Active through to the end of World War One, the Yard was closed temporarily in 1923, reopened in the 1930s and closed permanently in 1947. (A small Naval Base remained on the site until 2008.)[2]
  • Portland (1845) Previously in use as an anchorage, a Yard was established here to provide coal for the new steam-powered ships of the Navy. Very active through two World Wars, the Dockyard closed in 1959; site taken over as a commercial port. (Adjacent Naval Base and RN Air Station closed in 1995-99).[3]
  • Haulbowline (1869) Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was established as a minor Naval Yard in 1811 (in succession to an earlier base at Kinsale further along the coast).[6] It was rebuilt in 1869 as a sizeable Royal Navy Dockyard, specialising in ship repair and maintenance. In 1923 it was handed over to the Irish government; it remains the principal Naval base of the Republic of Ireland. A steelworks was established on part of the site in 1938.[12]

20th century[edit]

  • Rosyth (1909) Built with a strategic view to countering the threat from Germany. Closed after World War One, reopened 1939, and has remained open since. Privatized in 1993, but continues to build and maintain Britain's warships.


Minor Yards (with some permanent staff and minor repair/storage facilities, but without dry docks etc.) were established in a number of locations over time, usually to serve a nearby anchorage used by Naval vessels. Deal was one such Yard, active from 1672; it served ships anchoring nearby in the Downs. There were similar establishments in Leith and Great Yarmouth for a time.[6]

Overseas dockyards[edit]

Part of Nelson's Dockyard in Antigua
  • Antigua (1725) A Royal Dockyard was established at English Harbour, which had been used by the Navy since 1671 as a place for shelter and maintenance.[2] A number of buildings were constructed, and several remain (mostly from the 1780s). It served as Admiral Nelson's base in the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars. The Yard closed in 1889, but has since been restored and is open to the public as Nelson's Dockyard.
  • Bermuda (1809) Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda on Ireland Island was opened on land purchased following US Independence. The Royal Navy had previously operated from the Town of St. George for a dozen years while an adequate channel was sought by which large naval vessels could reach the West End of Bermuda. The blockade of US Atlantic ports during the American War of 1812 was orchestrated from Bermuda. Bermuda became, first the winter location, and then the permanent location of the Admiralty for North America and the West Indies, as well as the base for a naval squadron. After the Second World War the dockyard was no longer deemed relevant to Royal Navy operations and was closed in 1958. Most of the Dockyard, along with other Admiralty and War Office land in Bermuda was sold to the Colonial Government. However, a small base, HMS Malabar, continued to operate from the South Yard throughout the Cold War. This base was finally closed in 1995, 200 years after the establishment of permanent Royal Navy forces in Bermuda.
  • Canada
  • Ceylon The naval dockyard in Trincomalee was handed over to the Royal Ceylon Navy in 1957.[3] Today it is the SLN Dockyard of the Sri Lanka Navy.
  • Gibraltar (1704)[2] HM Dockyard was closed in 1984. It is now operated as a commercial facility by Gibdock, although there is still a Royal Navy presence, which provides a maintenance capability. Gibraltar's naval docks are an important base for NATO. British and US nuclear submarines frequently visit the Z berths at Gibraltar.[13] (A Z berth provides the facility for nuclear submarines to visit for operational or recreational purposes, and for non-nuclear repairs.)
  • Hong Kong (1859) Hong Kong had an RN dockyard from 1859 to 1959, now in the custody of the Chinese PLAN, the yard is located on Stonecutters Island. Originally the yard was on Hong Kong Island at HMS Tamar. The RN also operated at the Kowloon Naval Dockyard from 1901 to 1959 (which is different from the Hong Kong & Whampoa dockyard at Hung Hom, also known as the Kowloon Dockyard.)
  • India Bombay Dockyard, Mumbai, was originally a dockyard of the East India Company. Several warships were built there in the early eighteenth century, including HMS Trincomalee. It is now in the custody of the Indian Navy
  • Jamaica (1675) A Naval official was stationed in Port Royal from the seventeenth century, and Naval vessels were careened there for maintenance from that time. From 1735 wharves, storehouses and other structures were built, and these were updated through the nineteenth century. The yard closed in 1905.[2]
  • Malta (early 1800s) Naval Dockyard and base established in Valletta became the main base for the Mediterranean Fleet. Royal Dockyard closed in 1959; private yard operated on site thereafter.
  • Minorca (early 1700s) The base was established at Port Mahon, one of the world's deepest natural harbours. The territory changed hands several times over the ensuing century, before being finally ceded to Spain in 1802. One of the first Royal Naval Hospitals was established here in 1711.
  • Singapore (1938) The Dockyard and Naval Base were transferred to the Singapore government in 1971. the original RN base at Sembawang, known formerly as the HMNB Singapore, is no longer in use now by the Singapore Navy, who have since built 2 more modern bases in the island nation. There is, however, a continuing RN presence, along with the RAN and RNZN, under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. The US Navy is also present at the former HMNB Singapore. One of the many adjacent bases, formerly known as HMS Terror, is now the main recreation and welfare centre for US Navy personnel, known as the 'Terror Club'.
  • South Africa The dockyard at Simon's Town is now in the custody of the SANDF.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ English Heritage: Thematic Survey of Naval Dockyards in England
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k [1]
  3. ^ a b c Copy of government briefing paper
  4. ^ Naval Dockyard Society history page, by P. MacDougall
  5. ^ a b J. D. Davies, Pepys's Navy: ships, men and warfare 1649-89, Seaforth Publishing 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy. London: Conway. 
  7. ^ BBC news report
  8. ^ Naval Dockyards Society
  9. ^ History of the South Yard. (The town of Plymouth Dock had already been renamed Devonport on 1st January 1824).
  10. ^ local news report
  11. ^ Pembroke Dock: History
  12. ^ local history site
  13. ^ Hansard

External links[edit]