In 1843, a new fire
station was constructed. It has a cast iron structure to support a tank
holding 840 tons of water, which could supply a ring main laid around
the yard. It is one of the earliest examples of corrugated iron
The coming of the steamship required a new phase of expansion. A further
area of land on the north side of the yard was recovered from the mud to
allow building of the steam basin (now known as No.2 basin). Queen
Victoria herself entered the basin in her launch to open it on 25th May
1848 and not less than 15000 people assembled to see this great event.
Alongside, they built the “steam shop” – where naval staff were first
taught the new techniques of operating and maintaining the new steam
plant and machinery. In a further development, the slipways were covered
over to form No. 3 shipshop.
This was the era of ships such as HMS WARRIOR. By the 1860’s, the yard
was yet again too small and a further 180 acres were added under the
Dockyard Act of 1864. Construction of No. 3, 4 and 5 basins became the
largest civil engineering project in the country. 50 quarries were
opened in Cornwall to provide granite for the north wall whose footings
were sunk 40 feet into the mud. Recently in boring the Channel Tunnel, 9
million cubic metres of spoil were excavated; in dredging the new
basins, the Victorians removed 27 million cubic metres of mud and
transported them north to form what is now Whale Island.
The three new basins provided separately for repairing, rigging and
fitting-out and this vast
project cost an estimated £1,500,000.
But technology continued to move very fast indeed. In 1871,
the first of a new type of ship was built; the “DEVASTATION” was low in
the water with masts only for signalling purposes. Her guns were mounted
in turrets, and she was armoured with iron plates 12” thick.
Many more ships were built during the next 20 years, each an advance on
its predecessor. The yard though suffered mixed fortunes during a period
of comparative peace, with a serious decline in numbers employed and
some staff being offered assisted passage for emigration to South
America or Canada. Regeneration came in the mid 1890’s with the
completion of the large docks, Nos. 14 & 15, to the south of No. 3
But in 1905 came one of the most famous names in the annals of the Royal
Navy. HMS DREADNOUGHT, a revolutionary big-gun ship, and the first major
ship to be fitted with steam turbines, was completed in just one year
and a day. She was launched by King Edward VII. This was the period of
jingoistic re-armament – “we want eight and we won’t wait” was chanted
at music halls, referring to ambitions for the Dreadnought programme.
For the whole of the remaining period before the First World War,
Portsmouth launched a new battleship every 12 months. More battleships
were built in Portsmouth than anywhere else in the country. The launches
were huge occasions, with thousands of people in their best attire
crowding the yard to wish as the traditional caption on the elaborately
painted, often artistic, launch board always said: “success to HMS
Nonsuch”! In 1913, the super-Dreadnought, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, was
launched as the first oil-fired battleship.
A new factory was needed to support all this activity; it was the
largest workshop in Europe. And surprise!, the new ships were too large
even for docks constructed during the 1870’s development programme! Thus
gave rise to last substantial civil works development yet completed. In
another massive undertaking that attracted a paper to the Institute of
Civil Engineers, Nos. 3, 4 and 5 basins were made into one large basin
(now known as No. 3 basin). A 250-ton hammerhead crane was erected and
became one of Portsmouth’s most famous landmarks, and two new large
entrance locks, C & D, were constructed at the northwest corner of the
basin to allow dry-docking of the capital ships. The second of these
docks was completed in 1914, two replacements for the original caissons,
or gates, for their closure being completed in 1997.