PORTSMOUTH ROYAL DOCKYARD HISTORICAL TRUST
It is often said, in truth, that Portsmouth Dockyard was more than home to the Royal Navy and a place of work for the "mateys"; rather it was like a town with significant social aspects that joined individuals to a common society.
On this page we let members of the PRDHT Support Group, all former Dockyard employees, speak for themselves through downloadable written and oral files about life as they knew it in the 'Yard.
The Dockyard School
From 1843, the Dockyard School provided fundamental and a high standard of technical education to thousands of apprentices, mostly fr0m a working class background, who would not otherwise have had the opportunity of receiving such an education. This account of the founding and history of the Dockyard School has been written by Keith Thomas CB, OBE, FREng, FRINA, RCNC, who entered the Dockyard School in 1939, and subsequently became Chief Executive Royal Dockyards and Head of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors in 1979.
Admission to the Royal Dockyard Schools was obtained by examination. How would you have fared? Download the papers for March 1939 and let us know how you got on! The school at Portsmouth was closed in 1970 but Mr E.H.George, the last principal, describes the intensely competitive spirit that pervaded and the very high academic standards that were achieved in this extract from our oral history collection.
Recruitment & Careers
The Royal Dockyards, both in the UK and overseas, trained apprentices to become Craft Tradesmen. John Regnard (1951 Entry Ship Fitter Apprentice) describes the structure in his article: " Royal Dockyard & Naval Establishments Trades".
John Regnard then summarises the role of each trade in: "Craft Trades".
Alan Keel describes the arrangements for the recruitment of apprentices during World War II in: "Eighty Six to One".
Dockyard apprentices were required to maintain high standards of academic and practical achievement and to conform to a "Code of Personal Conduct" as described by John Regnard in: "The Rules, Regulations & Routines for an Apprentice".
What life was like for a newly-recruited apprentice is described in this transcript of a tape recording by an unnamed Dockyardman: "1942 - 1944 My Career Begins".
The January 1951 Shipwright Apprentices and the 1954-5 Upper School students have remained in contact with each other and have enjoyed a recent re-union. You will find more information and pictures at their own website: http://www.djbryant.co.uk/dockyard/.
Doug Seymour (now residing ‘Down Under’) Apprentice: 1964 – 1969 amusingly but informatively details his experiences and what life was like during the years 1964-1966 in a piece entitled "Flathouse Follies".
To get promoted, you had to pass examinations - as described by Alan Keel in: "Promotion".
If like the writer you worked in the Dockyard during the sixties, then ‘Behind the Wall’, "Dockyard Life in the Late Sixties" or "Dockyard Outstations - Blackbrook Farm" - all by Doug Seymour, may revive some memories of events or work locations.
To leave the Dockyard during working hours, you needed a Form D4; what could happen if you did not have one is described by Bob Russell in: "In and Out".
One of the attractions of a Dockyard career was the opportunity to work abroad - as Bob Russell describes in: "Service Abroad".
David Barber joined the Dockyard in 1960 and served first as a Yardboy in the M.E.D. Pattern Shop. He tells the story of this period in:"Down Amongst the Sawdust and Varnish!". He then became a driver with the "Fitters Afloat West 1 (FAW 1) from 1967 - 1970. His experiences with FAW 1 are vividly described in "Driving From A to B". Subsequently he re-joined the Foundry where he served for a total of nearly 20 years before its closure in 1983. His story, Fire! Heat! Sweat! Sand! and With Pride!, provides a graphic account of the atmosphere and people in one of the Dockyard's major workshops. (There are 69 pages, including photographs, sketches and an Annex that lists the Foundry staff in 1970, so you may want to download the file to your computer to read at leisure!)
Portsmouth Dockyard had many teams and sporting competitions. Alan Keel recalls some of the activities during the period 1945 - 1960 in: "Sport".
John Regnard follows this up with memories of three shipfitter apprentices of the 1951/2 entry in: "Sportsmen of Portsmouth Dockyard".
Oral History Recordings
With the generous help of Portsmouth University, and funding by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the Trust has been able to amass some 455 recordings of interviews with former Dockyard employees in which they discuss many aspects of their working lives in the Dockyard. These recordings have been digitised, and many transcribed to text, by the Portsmouth Museums and Record Service. Some extracts have been quoted in a series of booklets produced by the Museum. A catalogue of the recordings is available on the Portsmouth Museums and Records site at: www.portsmouthmuseums.co.uk/collections/index.html. The recordings may be consulted without charge in the Museum's public searchroom.
Dockyard Employment Records
The Trust holds the original Dockyard Registers of Employment (Rate Books) which contain details of all employees who worked in the Dockyard itself, or in one of the other Admiralty Establishments in the Portsmouth area, during the period from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century. Members of the Support Group are steadily working through around 200 of these volumes to prepare an index so that details of individual employment may be accessed. This is a very time-consuming and resource-intensive task but it is being progressed and already information regarding employees who worked in the Dockyard itself during the period may be accessed. For a modest donation to the Trust, we can now check our computer data base to see whether a particular individual has been added to the index. We can then supply a copy of the entries and a tabulated extract of the data similar to this example. (The oldest employee for whom we hold details will have been born later than about 1825.) If you would like to access this service, please submit a Dockyard Personnel Enquiry.
From Dockyard to Fame
Percy F. Westerman (By Nigel Gossop)
Percy F. Westerman was born in Portsmouth in 1876 and for a time attended Portsmouth Grammar School. In 1900 Percy is recorded as an Admiralty Clerk, in the Naval Base, Portsmouth. It was whilst working here that he started to contribute articles to yachting magazines.
At the age of 31 he began writing adventure books for children and during a fifty year writing career he wrote more than 170 books. In the 1930s he was voted the most popular boys’ author in a Daily Sketch poll conducted through libraries.
Many of his action –packed adventures were sea stories, based on life in the Navy and the Merchant Marine. In his book Fighting for Freedom (1941), he describes, through the eyes of the books hero John Cloche, the power of the battleship, HMS Tremendous, (a well known battleship that had undergone some modernisation a few years earlier).
‘Suddenly the battleship shook and shuddered, John’s first impression was that she had been hit, either by a large shell or by a torpedo. He had never heard a salvo fire from four fifteen-inch guns. He had heard it now all right, and he was thankful that, like those gun’s crew, his ears had been plugged with wax cones’.
John F. C. Westerman, his son and also Portsmouth born, went on to write another 30 books in a similar style. ‘Westerman’ books are now sought after by collectors around the world - see also: www.westermanyarns.blogspot.com