CHAPTER III

THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT OF THE NAVAL BASE

The Dockyard

It was Sir Walter Raleigh who first mooted the idea of constructing a Royal Dockyard at Plymouth.

However, in the late 16th Century, ships were largely capable of repairing themselves.

Spare canvas and cordage were carried and any Captain could re-rig his vessel even to the extent of cutting and constructing new masts from a convenient tree.

It was not therefore until 1691, during the reign of William III, that the building of two docks began.

The fields beside Hamoaze, where the nature of the land was suitable for the construction of both wet and dry docks, were chosen for the site rather than Plymouth itself.

This area is now part of the South Yard.

The new yard was first known as Plymouth Dock and it was not till as late as 1843 that Queen Victoria, in the course of a visit, approved that the Dockyard might be known by the name of the town - Devonport - that had grown up with it.

The Hospital

On September 15th, 1744, the Navy Board presented a memorial to His Majesty in Council, proposing to build hospitals at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, for the reception and cure of sick and wounded seamen sent on shore from His Majesty’s ships.

Stonehouse Hospital was built along the same lines as other naval hospitals then being built, with a high surrounding wall to prevent desertion.

Mortality was high, as in cases where amputation proved necessary as many as 50% of casualties died of hospital gangrene.

Nevertheless a naval hospital was considered economic in that feeding was cheaper and there was less loss of trained men through desertion than there had been under the old system in which sick and injured men were nursed privately ashore.

Ammunition Storage

In 1784 a powder magazine was constructed at Keyham Point, now part of the North Yard site.

Communications

Communication by road to London had always been very difficult and fast communication with the Admiralty became more and more difficult. However, by the end of the 18th Century a system of communicating from hill to hill was developed and a message could be sent from Plymouth Dock to London and an answer received from the Admiralty in forty-five minutes. Some of these relay station sites are still known as Telegraph Hill.

The Breakwater

Perhaps the greatest improvement to the port was the building of the breakwater which turned the Sound into a safe anchorage.

It was started in 1812 by Sir John Rennie under the instructions of Admiral Lord Keith. Plymouth had always been the usual port of call for ships,making the Channel after a long voyage, in order to embark fresh provisions. Hence the nickname ‘Guzz’ or ‘Guzzle’ which sailors still give to Plymouth.

Victualling

After nearly nine years of building, the Royal William Victualling yard was completed in 1835.

It was a more solidly built successor to the earlier stonehouses after which the area is named.

The Forts

The Fortifications Bill of 1862 resulted in a chain of very expensive forts being built around the major naval ports. But by 1900 these were acknowledged to have been rendered useless by the power of naval guns which had greatly increased in a very short space of time. Plymouth Breakwater Fort was one of these ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ and is the first example of a shore battery with walls constructed wholly of iron.        The ironwork was commenced in 1867 and finished in 1870. The fort was constructed to mount fourteen 38-ton guns and four 18-ton guns firing through small ports.

The Modern Dockyard

The first major change to the original Dockyard, built in the 1690s, was the construction of the Keyham Steam Yard, begun in 1844 and officially opened on October 7th, 1853.  The immense quantities of material excavated during the yard’s construction were used to fill in the Keyham creeks.  In January 1896 a start was made on the Keyham Dockyard Extensions by which a further 114 acres of tidal flats to the north of Keyham Steam Yard were turned into a large fitting-out basin.

The contractor was Sir John Jackson who, on completion of the Manchester Ship Canal, moved his plant to Devonport and gradually recruited about 3,000 men for a task which was to take eleven years to complete and cost over £4,000,000

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