Devonport Dockyard. Photographs and History of the Royal Dockyard at Devonport.
The unrivalled advantages of Plymouth Sound, and of the Hamoasze, upon which Devonport Dockyard lies, marked out the place long ago as necessarily the situation for a great Naval arsenal, and there is, in fact, scarcely a period of history in which it has not figured with some prominence in our Naval annals. Thee are those who think that Devonport will yet exceed in Naval importance the dockyard at Portsmouth, and when the Keyham extension works have been brought to completion, Portsmouth may, indeed, remain only primus inter pares. With pictures of the modern Devonport Dockyard before us, let us first note a few landmarks in its history. The Naval value of Plymouth- for the dockyard establishment was not known as Devonport until 1824-is indicated as much by the attacks made upon it by enemies as by the preparation that went on there. The French made descents on the place, and in 1339 some freebooters of that nation, making a raid on the coast, succeeded in giving to the flames a number of vessels at the port. Again, in 1377, Jean de Vienne laid Plymouth in ashes, as well as Folkestone, Portsmouth, and Dartmouth. A Spanish force in 1405 seems to have made an attempt upon the port, where a bridge of boats had been built across the river, but the assailants, with their French comrades, were driven back by a heavy fire from the fortifications.
Edmund Stafford, Bishop of Exeter, had built a fort for the defence of Plymouth in the reign of Edward III. which was afterwards described by Leland as ?a strong castle quadrant, having at each corner a great round tower.? The fort in question was on the south of the town, not far from the Barbican. From time to other defences were added, and in the reign of Elizabeth numerous small forts and batteries were placed to command the harbour, the fort on the Hoe cliffs, demolished upon the buildings of the citadel in 1670-71, being erected shortly after 1590. These extensive fortifications became necessary owing to the assembly of large fleets at the port, and, doubtless, also the increasing number of vessels built and fitted there. Even as early as 1287 a fleet of 325 vessels assembled at Plymouth for operations against France. Fleets were constantly in the harbour in the time of Edward III. and, in 1355, the Black Prince embarked there. It was in the reign of Elizabeth that Plymouth began to assume its greater importance, and the part it played during the Spanish Was is written large in our history. It was considered with Drake, Howard, Raleigh, and all the great seamen of that and of later times, and its history as a port far exceeds the scope of this article.
The permanent works, however, with the exception of the defences, were few, and the state of Plymouth in those times affords a striking contrast to the Naval establishment of the present day. The late Sir Thomas Byam Martin, thinking of docks, basins, and supplies, remarked that it was extraordinary the place had been so long neglected as a Naval port. Even in the year 1668 the establishment of officers and men was so small that they all lived on board the sheer-hulk at the port, and he had even found letters from James Duke of York directing the colonel commanding the troops at Plymouth to make certain communications to the captains of any of His Majesty?s ships arriving at the port. There was at the time only one house in the now extensive town, called the Mill House, standing on Windmill Hill. The admiral recorded the great increase in the value of land at Devonport, and said that the entire dockyard, except two acres, belonged to Sir John St. Aubyn, being held on a perpetual lease, subject to a fine every seven years of ?500, and a yearly rent of ?175. The fine appears to be ?534 4s. 6d. and the rent at the rate of fifty shillings an acre.
It is believed that Charles II. Proposed to establish a dockyard at Plymouth, but little was done until after the Revolution of 1688. In the next year, indeed, Plymouth was first established as a royal dockyard, plans being prepared for works upon the Hamoaze. Land was purchased at Mount wise, where the house of the Commander-in-Chief now is, and in the adjacent parish of Stoke, and a dock and basin were constructed. The establishment of that day, which was completed in 1693, extended from where the jetty now is at Northcorner to the present camber, and was partly enclosed by a wall on the side, but the enclosure was not finished until 1777, when some additional land was taken in which had been purchased from Sir William Morris. A good deal of shipbuilding was carried on, but it appears to have been partly in the hands of private builders, and it was not until 1787 that a first-rate, the ?Royal Sovereign,? was built at the port. The dock of 1693, with the basins, faced the Terrace, of official houses, where the dockyard basin now is, and a new dock was built about 1727, at which date the number of men borne on the books of the establishment was 604.
It is interesting to note that a dockyard chapel, predecessor of the existing edifice built in 1821, had been built near the entrance with an inscription over the doorway, which ran as follows: ?In the 11th year of King William III. Anno Domini 1700, this chapel was founded and built by the generous and pious contributions of officers and seamen belonging to a squadron of men-of-war paid off in this yard (after ten year?s expensive war with France), being propagated and carried on by the industry and religious endeavour of George St. Lo, Esq., Commissioner of the yard and Comptroller of the Navy.? Other expenditure had become necessary at Plymouth owing to that war, and after the famous action of Torrington, the defences were hastily strengthened, the French fleet then temporarily holding the Channel.
The growing importance of the Navy in the eighteenth century caused improvements to be made at Plymouth Dockyard. One writer said: ?The great advantages of a dockyard at this place having been experienced during the several wars since the year 1689, many additions and improvements have therefore been continually made to it, but the most considerable were those in the execution of a plan by the Commissioners of the Navy, pursuant to an order from the Admiralty when the Earl of Egmont presided thereat in the year 1764. The original estimate of this plan was ?379,170.? Dastardly attempts were made upon the yard. Fire broke out simultaneously in five different places in 1770, and there was a considerable fire in 1773, when ?Jack the painter,? whose malevolent purposes at Portsmouth I have noticed, set fire to the rope house. A few years later (1780) great discontent arose among the dockyard hands, much objection being taken to the system of task work, and confusion existed for about three months, with much riotous behaviour, and in the same year the dockyard men expressed their feelings by great rejoicings on the occasion of the acquittal of Admiral Keppel.
One writer described the place in 1789-a year memorable in the history of the dockyard for the visit with George III. With the Queen and Royal Family paid to it, when the new north dock was opened, and received the name of the ?Royal Dock.? He thus speaks of the place: ?About two miles up the River Tamar, which inlet of the sea is distinguished from Catterwater by the name Hamoaze, and commanded by the castle of St. Nicholas Island, is a wet dock, big enough to contain five first-rate men-of-war, and a dry dock hewn out of a mine of slate and lined with Portland stone, after the mould of a first-rate man-of-war, the whole forming as complete an arsenal as any belonging to the Government; under the direction and care of a Clerk of the Cheque, a Storekeeper, a master shipwright, a master attendant, a Clerk of Survey, and a Commissioner of Sea Affairs. These docks were built by the late King William III.? The dock, which the King opened, was additional to those referred to, and a further extension commenced in 1798, when Sir William Morris granted a second lease to the Government. Some difficulties attended the extension of the yard, and in 1801 the workmen were insubordinate to the instructions received from the Admiralty. By this time the largest war-ships were being constructed at Plymouth. The ?Foudroyant,? 80, memorable for her association with Nelson, was built there in 1798, from the plans of Henslow, and the ?Caledonia,? 120, was launched in 1808. Other vessels of the latter number of guns were built at Plymouth in subsequent years- the ?St. Vincent,? 1815, the ?Britannia,? 1820, and another ?Caledonia,? 1830. These facts illustrate the facilities, which had been developed at the Western Port in the early years of the last century. The launch of the ?Royal Adelaide? was a day of note in the history of the dockyard in 1828, when the Duke and Duchess of Clarence visited the establishment. We are told that ?an immense concourse of spectators possessed the surrounding hill, and in vessels and boats, to witness the launch, which, together with the serene atmosphere resounding with the martial arts of the different bands in attendance, the magnificence of the launch, and the loud huzzas, afforded an animated scene whilst another of Britain?s bulwarks was added to proclaim her prowess of the sea.?
Shortly after this time important changes took place in the administration of the yard. Fromits institution up to the year 1832 the command was vested in captains as Commissioners of the Dockyard, but the growth of the business made the system of supervision by the Commissioner, master shipwright, certain assistants, a Clerk of the Cheque, and others, inadequate. The office of Commissioner was therefore abolished, and the establishment, already known as Devonport Dockyard, became a flag officer?s command. Great abuses had no doubt existed under the old system. Lord St. Vincent at an earlier date had denounced the prevailing abuses, and had suppressed the perfunctory inspection of the dockyards set on foot by the Navy Board. His campaign against gross corruption, profligate expenditure, and supine negligence had caused him to declare that nothing but a radical sweep in the dockyards could cure the enormous evils and corruptions in them, which led to vast peculation and fraud. The enquiries of the beginning of the century did not, however, bear fruit until after 1830, and many changes were introduced when the Commissioner gave place to the Admiral Superintendent. Devonport Dockyard benefited greatly, and the dockyard officials, then some twelve in number, now exceed thirty, not including those connected with the Keyham factory. This, again, is an illustration of the gradual evolution of the Naval establishment.
It is unnecessary here to attempt to describe in detail every successive extension or improvement which has taken place. The dockyard now covers an area of seventy acres, exclusive of Keyham, with which it is connected by a tunnel and railway through the hill. The later additions to Devonport Dockyard, as well as the Keyham establishment, will be described in subsequent articles, but in closing this cursory historical survey, it may be interesting to note that, when the Keyham extension has been completed, the dockyard will form a practically continuous line of works for distance of about four miles, having the buildings slips at one end and the ordnance depot at Bull Point, near the Saltash Bridge, at the other.
There will be four docks and one basin at Devonpport, three docks and two basins at Keyham, and three docks and three basins in the Keyham extension, giving not less than ten docks and six basin, with stores, ships, and factories for every necessary purpose.
Devonport Dockyard proper, though now fitted in every respect for the modern fleet, carries back the mind to the days of the sailing Navy, while Keyham is altogether identified with the steam Navy, and the later additions may be, in a manner, linked with the Navy of the future. Here then we have a great naval base already fully equipped, and being completed as one of the most important Naval establishments in the Empire. The strategically situation of Plymouth Sound, with the great enclosed tidal water space of the Hamoaze, has caused the efforts of the Admiralty to be largely directed to the improvement of the place.
The magnitude of the building slips, of the various docks, the great basins, and the manufacturing departments, speak plainly of the greatest fleet in the world, while the fine collection of old ships? figure-heads, which add distinction to Devonport Dockyard, may serve to remind the visitor of the old Fleet, its predecessor.
One great difficulty had to be surmounted at the Western Dockyard, owing to its situation on the peninsula between the Hamoaze and Stonehouse Pool, and to the fact that it is enclosed by Devonport town and the high ground of the park in its rear, having a hill also at one end of the establishment and Mount Wise-with the signal station, batteries, and Port Admiral?s house-at the other, the dockyard was forbidden by Nature to expand. But Art conquers Nature, and the railway and foot-passenger tunnel through the hill on the north side open a connection with the great basins and docks at Keyham, and with the vast extension works which are still in progress there. The two dockyards are, in fact, practically one, and the young sister of the old establishment shall be described in the next article.
But Devonport, though it cannot be territorially enlarged, does not stand still. It has shared in the advances made under the programme for adapting the ports to the needs of the modern fleet. These Naval bases had not kept in line with the marvellous development of the floating material of the Navy, and the necessity of making every preparation for the rapid mobilisation of the fleet, as well as for its increase; he caused some very important work to be undertaken at Devonport. The Sound has been dredged, and the Vanguard and Cremill Shoals and the Rubble Bank have been removed, something likes one million tons of material having been taken away. This great undertaking was as much for the advantage of Keyham as of Devonport itself, and dredging is still going on in the neighbourhood of Brunel?s famous bridge at Saltash over the River Tamar. All this was work obviously essential if the facilities of the port were to be increased, and docks and berthing arrangements have kept pace with the improvements.
The Devonport jetties have been extended, and No.2 dock has been enlarged so that it may accommodate battle-ships. The improvement on No.1 jetty is a recent work. Huge sheer-legs working up to 100-tons and tested to 15-tons have been erected, so that the heaviest weights can be lifted and transferred to their places in ships brought alongside. The filling up of the old mast pond on the south side of the yard has given additional space, a new smithery and workshops are to be begun, and a splendid building slip of fine masonry for large cruisers is being completed near the south end of the establishment. One of the old building slips, formerly housed in, has been converted into an open slip, and thereon was constructed Devonport?s first battle-ship the ?Ocean.? Two other adjacent building slips still retain their roofs, which were designed by Mr. Perring when he was Clerk of the Cheque at the yard. It is interesting to recall the fact that the last wooden 120-gun ship built at Devonport was the ?St. George,? in 1840 and that three ships of 101 guns, the ?Conqueror,? ?Donegal,? and ?Gibraltar,? were built there shortly after the Russian War. The port now undertakes the largest building work in steel. The ?Implacable? was constructed there, and the ?Bulwark? and ?Montagu? are now completing there afloat. The ?Queen? (15,000 tons) is also well advanced on the southernmost of the completed slips, next to that still in hand, and Devonport is to construct one of the new ships of the ?King Edward VII.? Class (16,500), which will be the largest war-ship afloat.
It is to fit the yard more fully for undertaking with success business of such importance that the new workshops are to be erected, and the yard will presently lack nothing to its completeness. Moreover, the compactness of the arrangements, the workshops being closely adjacent to the building slips and to the places where ships are berthed for completion, enables the operations to be conducted with facility, rapidity, and economy. The long ranges of shops and stores, the extent and modern character of the appliances for every class of work, the magnitude of the steam and hydraulic machinery, the huge cranes lifting colossal weights as easily as an elephant would lift an apple, the busy crowds of men, and the order and regularity with which their labours are conducted, all be speak the effiency of a great Naval arsenal. Indeed, the visitor to Devonport is speedily stimulated to likely curiosity and roused to admiration by the exceeding interest and importance of the things he sees there.
With these preliminaries, a description of the general arrangements of the yard, of which the history was sketched in the last article, may be made. The main gateway is reached from Fore Street the most important artery of Devonport-and is a plain structure, in its character very much like some gateways at other Naval yards. On the right is the dockyard chapel, with the headquarters of the dockyard police. A way, pleasantly shadowed by trees, which lend a welcome touch of green in the spring-time, leads from the gate down to the terrace of official houses, and is adorned by the presence of certain of the fine figureheads in which Devonport yard is rich. The elevated terrace of houses, wherein the chief officers of the dockyard dwell, has the office of the Admiral Superintendent at its further ends, and overlooks the busy establishment, though it is secluded by a line of trees, and withal is a very pleasant place to live in. Formerly the chief officials lived in Plymouth and Devonport. It may here be remarked that the various buildings in the yard are all of excellent character, and that in this matter Devonport outshines some of its sister establishments.
The terrace and the residence of the Admiral Superintendent (now Rear-Admiral Thomas S. Jackson) are the fount of authority and direction in the establishment, and a walk along the shadowy way, from which fine flights of steps lead downward to the basin and docks, is an excellent introduction to the busier scenes of Devonport Yard. Continuing his course to the southward, the stranger is soon in the midst of the great buildings in which much various work goes on. Here are the rope-house, the boathouse, the mould lift-where ships are ?laid-off? upon the floor before they can be ?laid down? on the slips-the long rows of forges in the smithery, the machine and boiler shops, and many other factories of important character. On the left rises the height of MountWise, commanding the Hamoaze, Millbrook Creek, and the passage to the wider waters of Plymouth Sound, while the building slips and docks extend to the right along a splendid frontage lined with granite, considerably over 1,000-yds. In length. From this place many marvels of shipbuilding may be surveyed.
Near the southern end of the yard is the fine new building slip, which has been, alluded to, with three others, two of them still crested by the huge roofs of the late Mr. Perring, whereof one has an area of some 6,000 square yards. Here also is the eminence known as Bunker?s Hill, or the King?s Hill, which has remained, notwithstanding the great changes in the establishment, in honour of George III. who from this elevated point looked over his Western arsenal.
We may now in our northward progress cross the camber to where the huge new sheer-legs stand, and the occasions are few on which some great battleship or cruiser is not lying alongside advancing to completion. Heavy slabs of armour plate, ready for the ship?s sides or turrets, and great guns for her armament, may often be seen here, and to go on board and examine such a ship in successive stages of advancements is certainly a revelation of wonderful interests. Now we reach the basin, which lies below the terrace of official houses, and which was constructed in the time of William III. A century ago it opened to the Hamoaze with a fairway of 70-ft., but it has now been greatly enlarged, and bears little resemblance to the basins of William. Opening into it is a dock, which is rarely unoccupied, and the quays surrounding the basin are scenes of incessant activity. In a northerly direction from it lie three other docks of which the middle one was that constructed in 1789. And opened by George III. And Queen Charlotte. It has since been much enlarged. Extensive workshops and offices are close by the docks, and parallel with the most southern one are other large buildings, including the rigging-house, where some very interesting figureheads are preserved.
With the northernmost docks we reach the northern end of Devonport Yard, and in leaving it may ascend to the main gate by which we entered. In this survey, however, we shall remain within the precincts. From south to north runs the railway, by which materials are distributed to the docks and storehouses, and by which the workmen are conveyed. In its northern progress it passes through the long tunnel to Keyham, over which is the old gun wharf, and it is through this tunnel we must pass in imagination for our inspection of the neighbouring establishments. It is an artery of the utmost importance, and one of the many facilities with which the dockyard has been provided.
A survey of Devonport Dockyard suggests a contrast between the new and the old. The energetic builders of wooden ships of various rates at Plymouth, as the place was then called, 150 years ago-who constructed those wooden walls which braved the battle and the breeze-had no conception of the huge leviathans which are constructed there in these days. The ?Royal Oak,? a third-rate of 1769, the ?Duke,? a second-rate of 1776, and the ?Royal Sovereign,? a first-rate of 1787, were pygmies compared with the ?Implacable,? the ?Bulwark,? the ?Montagu,? and the ?Queen,? or their still greater successors. It has followed, of course, that a great and momentous change had taken place in the dockyard, and that the stupendous character springing from modern necessities has usurped the place and banished the spirit of the old. Some dangers that existed in former times scarcely exist now. The efficient arrangement for the extinction of fire has removed what once was an ever present peril. Certain conflagrations which occurred long ago at Devonport were alluded to in the last article, but the subject is one of many-sided interest, and some incidents shall be recorded here. A particularly destructive fire occurred in July, 1761, in which 500 tons of cordage and vast quantities of hemp were consumed. In 1770 the famous fire broke out in many places simultaneously, which bore clear evidence of a nefarious attempt at destruction, and three years later occurred that burning of the rope-house which was the work of ?Jack the painter,? the same scoundrel who did such evil things at Portsmouth. In 1794, there was a fire that might have been serious through the burning of a 36-gun ship which had been captured from the French. She took fire off the dockyard, but was cut adrift and floated on a mudbank. The ?Amphion? frigate blew up at Devonport in September, 1779, and 200 lives were lost. Fires also occurred in March, 1813, and September, 1840, in which latter mouth the ?Minden? and ?Talavera? were destroyed, together with the Adelaide Gallery containing a valuable collection of interesting remains. Even in 1894 a fire broke out in one of the large stores south of the docks, the origin of which was never satisfactorily explained. The tale of fire at nearly all our dockyards is a notable one; but happily at Devonport, as at Portsmouth a very efficient service exists for dealing with outbreaks, which is but a part of the general efficiency that is plainly written upon the face of every part of the establishment.
Another way in which we may measure the change that has passed over the face of Devonport Dockyard is by the number of men employed there. There have, of course been fluctuations at all yards, but it is interesting to note that at the beginning of the eighteenth century the number of shipwrights in all the Royal establishments was less than 2,000. In 1727 Devonport had 210 workmen of the class, and 100 labourers, with caulkers, oakum boys, a pitch-heater, sail-makers, riggers, and others, making a total staff of 600. In 1896 those employed in the establishment numbered nearly 4,000 and the staff has since risen to about 7,000. Here, then, is an indication of a very great increase. There is evidence of great progress in the advancement of work at the yard. The ?Ocean,? laid down on February 15, 1897, was sixteen and a half months on the slip, and was not completed until February 20, 1900. Here Devonport did not, indeed, rival the achievement made in the case of the ?Majestic? and ?Magnificient? elsewhere, where but it must be remembered that this was the first modern battle ship to be built in the yard, and that the non-delivery of material caused much delay. Now the greatest difficulties have been overcome, and rapid progress is being done with the later ships.It remains only to add that Captain Robert N. Ommanney is Staff Captainat the yard and King?s Harbourmaster of the Hamoaze, that H. R. Champness, Esq., is the Chief Constructor, Robert Mayston, Esq., R. N., the Chief Engineer, and Lieutenant-Colonel E. R. Kenyon, R. E., the Superintending Engineer, these bring the principal officers of Devonport Dockyard. Let it not be forgotten, how ever, that the efficiency of the work there depends also upon a large staff of officers acting with them.