Tag Archives: Dockyard

Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990′s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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The Dockyard: like the writing on a stick of rock

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard have just published my first guest article on their blog. You can read it here, but I have reproduced it here as well.

There’s something about Portsmouth – the clue is in the name, I guess – that has made it a place where people come to and go from, for hundreds of years of its history. Think about it, how many Portsmouth families can trace back their history in the city to past 1800? Not many, I suspect. Because people come and go so much.

Take my own family for instance. In 1900, my various ancestors were living in Lancashire, Sussex, Ireland and London! Yet by 1914 all of my great-grandparents had somehow found their way to Portsmouth – and for most of them, it was the sea that brought them here.

Two of my great-grandparents came to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy – both of them became Stokers, in fact. My great-granddad on my Dads side served in Battleships and Submarines for over 20 years, and my great-granddad on my Mum’s side fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

And in the Second World War my great-uncle joined up as a Stoker, serving on the Cruiser HMS Enterprise. Sadly, he died of illness after being torpedoed in the South Atlantic on his way home on the SS Laconia. One Granddad worked for Vospers Shipbuilders in Old Portsmouth before joining the Army in 1942, and my other Granddad worked in the Dockyard as a painter and labourer.

Even after the war the trend carries on. Two of my uncles were shipwrights, and one uncle and my Dad were both electrical fitters. One uncle even moved down to Plymouth to work in the Dockyard there.

I’ve heard some fascinating Dockyard stories. Just before the Falklands War in 1982, the Government announced cuts to the Dockyard, including redundancies. The Defence Secretary, John Nott, visited the Dockyard for talks with Union leaders. Most of the workers gathered around the building to hear the outcome. When the Union men and John Nott emerged, the Union leader barely got past “I would just like to say…” before a missile was launched from the crowd and hit John Nott on the head. A full-scale riot ensued and John Nott had to be smuggled out by the back door.

Another thing my Dad remembers is the sometimes lax attitudes in the ‘yard. At the end of one summer two ‘new’ faces emerged on his section. Asking the charge hand who they were and where they had been, he was told “oh, that’s so and so, they’ve been down the beach all summer”. You wonder how anything got done! But in 1982, the Dockyard managed to get the fleet ready to sail to the Falklands in a matter of days. You get the impression that when things had to be done, they were done and done well. But all the same, it sounds like it was a parallel universe all of its own.

My Dad still has many of his old Dockyard tools – one of the things about serving a Dockyard apprenticeship, is that you get to keep your tools, complete with Government broad-arrow mark on them. Many of them have long outlasted their counterparts from B&Q. He even has his coffin-like toolbox in the shed, with P DALY stencilled on the side. My Dad even can remember cutting the grass with one of my uncles old shipwrights adzes that he found in the shed at my grandparents.

When he’s doing DIY around the house, you can see the apprenticeship training. Everything has to be just so, there’s no rushing. But then you wouldn’t expect anything different from someone who had to spend a month shaving a block of brass to within a tenth of a millimetre during his apprenticeship! You can understand why it had to be done properly, because often men’s lives depended on it.

I’ve often heard it said that many of the tools and materials in the Dockyard mysteriously grew legs and managed to walk out of the gate. At one point, Shipwrights even had it written into their contracts that they could keep off-cuts of wood! I wonder how much of Portsmouth would fall down if you took away all of the wood stolen from the Dockyard over the years…

So the Dockyard really does run through Portsmouth, like the writing on a stick or rock. It’s made the city – and its people – what it is. I cannot help but feel that even though few people work in the Dockyard now, its influence will take many years to disappear.

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Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980′s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!

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Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two