Saturday, 2 April 2016

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson
The final leg of our Easter Weekend trip took in a visit to the historic dockyard at Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy.

I have visited the dockyard several times in my lifetime and each time it seems there is yet more to see. So much so that we bought a family ticket that lasts a year which we intend to use for a further visit to see displays we didn't have time for and those displays such as the Mary Rose which were having further work done on them prior to the start of the main tourist season and so were not open this time around.

I am sure many of the sights will be very familiar to you and so I have just grouped together pictures of the day that particularly grabbed my attention, with occasional comments that I hope will inform and entertain.

The header to the post is a reconstruction of the face of Lord Nelson based on life mask and really does capture the look of the famous British admiral. I am of an age to remember when British history was taught in a linear way in school and as kids we were all brought up with the military landmarks in British history starting with Julius Caesar coming to Britain, Alfred the Great burning the cakes, 1066 and the Battle of Hastings etc. The story of Britain's greatest admiral and naval hero was one such historical landmark which entailed several weeks of project work culminating in a school trip to Portsmouth. 

Over the years I have read more about the man behind the story and unlike say Wellington, another British military giant of the era, Nelson comes across as a much more likeable, personable fellow who unlike Wellington, was loved by the men who served under him as demonstrated by the outpouring of grief at his loss.

His legacy was to grant Britain not only a victory to offset Napoleon's victory a month later at Austerlitz and sow the seeds for the eventual downfall of the French Emperor with all the success Wellington would enjoy in the Peninsular War and Waterloo, but also almost uncontested mastery of the seas for almost one hundred and fifty years following the Battle of Trafalgar which led to the creation, for better or for worse, of an empire that covered three quarters of the globe and supported the growth of British trade following the industrial revolution. 

The naval tradition he and his victory engendered effected the defence of the country through two world wars and fostered a fighting spirit in the Royal Navy that lives today in the modern service.

I think therefore it was fitting to give Lord Nelson pride of place at the top of the post as it is perhaps more to do with his amazing career and genius in battle at sea, together with it being the home of his famous flag-ship, that Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is the landmark tourist attraction it is today.

That said there is an awful lot of stuff to see other that the Nelsonian related items and so I hope you enjoy this montage of pictures from the day.

The historic old gateway that greets visitors entering the dockyard seems often to be ignored by them in their haste to see the main attractions. I would love to be able to see the sights this old gate has witnessed over the centuries.
The history of Portsmouth as a British naval harbour dates back 1,200 years to the 860's and the base established under King Alfred for his fleet to police particularly the channel shore from Viking raiders. Even before Alfred's time, the Romans had recognised the importance of the anchorage and had established strongholds close by to protect the entrance, these being reinforced still further during Saxon times. The first permanent fortress, Porchester Castle, was built after the Norman conquest in 1066.

As you pass through the ticket office you are immediately in front of the wharf in front of Boat House number four, that leads down to HMS Warrior. However my eye was immediately drawn to these two WWII veterans, beautifully restored to their former glory.

Motor Gun Boat 81, built in 1942 by the British Powerboat Company, Hythe
MGB 81 spent a lot of her time in the Channel and was based at Dartmouth at one time as part of the 8th MGB Flotilla.

  • 1942 Built by the British Power Boat Co. as a Motor Gunboat
  • 1942 After extensive trials, joined the 8th MGB Flotilla at Dartmouth
  • 1942 Close range gun attack on two German armed trawlers off Guernsey
  • 1943 After escorting minelayers, contacted a German convoy north of the Hook and engaged the escorts
  • 1943 The 8th Flotilla again moved to Dartmouth and the vessel was refitted at Brightlingsea
  • 1943 Damaged in a collision with MGB 115 and repairs carried out at BPB Poole. Later damaged in an engagement off Cap de La Hague and again repaired at BPB Poole
  • 1943 Re-designated MTB 416 with two 18 inch torpedo tubes
  • 1944 Refit at BPB Poole after which she vectored onto and engaged five E-Boats in Lyme Bay, suffering damage
  • 1944 Took part in the D-Day landings and later attacked a German convoy leaving Cherbourg, during which an AB was killed
  • 1944 Attacked enemy R-Boats off Cap d’Antifer in which the CO was wounded and the vessel damaged. Further repairs at BPB Poole followed by further action
  • 1945 Approved to lay up in Category “C” Reserve at Poole, followed by final paying off.

High Speed Launch 102 was the kind of craft kept busy rescuing downed aircrew in the Channel during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain in 1940

HMS Warrior
Built to counter French naval developments and the launch of the French ocean going iron clad warship La Gloire in 1859, the launch of HMS Warrior in 1860 embodied the revolution in ship design that spanned the eras of wood, iron, sail and steam.

At the time of her launch she was the largest, fastest, most powerful warship in the world and following an £8 million restoration in 1979 was saved for the nation after avoiding being scrapped and ending her days as an oil jetty in Milford Haven.

HMS Warrior (1860)

HMS Warrior under sail

HMS Victory
The following set of pictures should need no introduction from me. Sadly at the time of our visit HMS Victory was going through a mast and rigging refit and so I have confined my pictures to the hull and interior of the great old lady.

This is about the fourth time I have toured the Victory and I always come away with a deep admiration for the men who lived in and crewed these great ships that became known as the "Wooden Walls of England".

HMS Victory was a 104 gun First Rate Ship of the Line, launched on the 7th May 1765 at Chatham in Kent and commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1778.

Her Battle Honours include Ushant 1778, Ushant 1781, Cape Spartel 1782, Cape St Vincent 1797 and Trafalgar 1805.

She displaced 3,500 tons and could move under full sail at about 8-9 knots and she would have had a full compliment of crew numbering 850 men including just short of 100 Royal Marines.

The twelve pounder gun deck, with thirty of these guns on the upper deck, plus another fourteen on the quarterdeck and forecastle, plus two sixty-eight pounder carronades for good measure

Fine Wine, Madeira and Port, part of the comforts for the officers. I love the way that these decanters were designed to occupy their space perfectly within the chest.
The twenty-four pounder gun-deck - twenty eight of these guns on the middle deck

The ultimate in AGA cookers

And finally, the thirty-two pounder gun deck with thirty of these massive guns on the lower deck
The plaque marking where Lord Nelson died  

A great quote on the last words between Captain Hardy and Admiral Nelson, taken from The Battle of Trafalgar by Geoffrey Bennett;
After almost an hour after his previous visit Captain Hardy was able to come down to the now crowded cockpit for a second time. Clasping Nelson's hand, he congratulated him 'even in the arms of death on his brilliant victory which was complete, though he did not know how many of the enemy were captured, as it was impossible to see every ship distinctly.''However', he added,'I am certain of fourteen or fifteen surrendered.' 
'That is well,' answered Nelson, 'but I had bargained for twenty.'

The facts of the battle were to prove Nelson's calculation unerringly close to the final numbers taken.

The final tally for the Battle of Trafalgar shows what a crushing defeat Nelson's fleet managed to inflict:

British Ships Involved: 33 (27 Ships of the Line, 6 Others)
French Ships Involved: 26 (18 Ships of the Line, 8 Others)
Spanish Ships Involved: 15 Ships of the Line

Casualties and Losses:
British: 458 Dead, 1,208 Wounded.
British Total Losses: 1,666 men

French: 2,218 Dead, 1,155 Wounded, 4,000 Captured, 10 Ships Captured, 1 Ship Destroyed.
Spanish; 1,025 Dead, 1,383 Wounded, 4,000 Captured, 11 Ships Captured.
Total Franco-Spanish Losses: 13,781 men and 22 Ships (3,000 men drowned in the post battle storm)

Source: Adkins - Trafalgar, The Biography of a Battle

The view from the deck of Victory provides a good panorama of the rest of the dock yard and some of the other display vessels together with ships from the modern Royal Navy.

HMS M.33, the sole remaining British veteran from the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16 and the Russian Civil War and one of just three British warships from World War I. On the list for a future visit
Portsmouth is still a major operating base for the Royal Navy as evidenced by the futuristic shape of HMS Diamond
a Type 45 Daring Class air-defence destroyer
I was working in Southampton in the early 80's when Margaret Rule and her team supervised the raising of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose and I well remember joining colleagues around the hotel television to watch proceedings on the day as the first parts of the wreck broke the surface of the water on the cradle that brought the remains of the ship to the surface and very gently moved it towards the support ship.

Sadly Doctor Rule passed away last year but her legacy lives on and I was really looking forward to seeing how things had progressed on the amazing restoration work carried out on the wreck and the many artefacts that surfaced with the ship.

The £27 million Mary Rose Museum as seen from HMS Victory, Purpose built to allow the remains of the Mary Rose to dry out gently over the next few years.
The visit to the Mary Rose exhibition was not to be, due to work being carried out at the time of our visit and so it is on the list of must do's on our return.

Mary Rose by Geoff Hunt
We did however take time to check out the limited items from the collection that were on display at the entrance to the Mary Rose hall and Will kindly posed with his Majesty King Henry VIII, holding an actual long bow, one of several, recovered from the wreck.

King Henry seems unimpressed by the familiarity shown to him by one of his archers
After a much needed tea and cake break in the Mary Rose restaurant, we next headed for the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

I am a sucker for great looking ship models and they have always provided me with inspiration when producing my own wargaming models and the museum is one of those places to get inspired.

In addition there are some wonderful artefacts on display that really bring to life the period of the age of sail together with a very specific display looking at Lord Nelson, his life and a scholarly attempt to show how the great man would have appeared.

HMS Victory - 1805
Probably one of the best models on display, with an awe inspiring attention to detail
Check out this fantastic model by Clive Knight showing the launch of HMS Warrior in 1781
The Launch of HMS Warrior - 18th November 1781 Portsmouth Dockyard
(The traditional flags are flying from sheet poles where her masts will be placed, including the red flag with fouled anchor of the Admiralty Board and the Royal Standard.)

The model is described:

"A crowd of dockyard workers and their families is gathering on the quayside, as the invited guests arrive in their carriages. Drinks are being served on the quarterdeck, while a small band plays patriotic music."

I have played quite a few of Age of Sail games and have have a sizeable collection of Langton models based on the Hughes vs Suffren campaign in the Indian Ocean.

My fleets in action during the Battle of Providien 1782 at the Devon Wargames Group
Devon Wargames-Battle of Providien
Devon Wargames-Battle of Sadras

When the two fleets are on the table with opposing commanders issuing orders to their ships to open fire, it is worth considering what in reality the two sides would have been hurling at each other.

Elongating and Bar Shot for taking out enemy rigging
Star shot and Chain Shot, more anti rigging projectiles - The star shot (left) on leaving the gun would fan out like a star and whirled through the air - terrifying stuff! 
Flintlock firing mechanism, faggot shot and grape shot - anti-personnel rounds; the faggot shot consisted of small metal blocks bundled together  like faggots of wood that would fan out in a lethal swathe on leaving the gun. Likewise the grape shot would perform similarly, this being a grapeshot for a 24 pounder gun.
Round Shot - Right to Left, 32 pound, 24 pound and 12 pound. Principally used against the hull to take out men, guns and cause as much damage as possible to the structure of the enemy ship.
HMS Pickle under the command of Lieutenant Leponotiere brought the first news of the Battle of Trafalgar into Falmouth harbour on the 4th November 1805.

The little ship was also involved with the other small British ships in rescuing French sailors from the Achille a particularly risky mission as the French ship was on fire and its main guns kept "cooking off" as they became heated before the ship finally exploded and sank.

In all they rescued about 100-200 men and two women one of whom was found naked clinging to an oar and given a pair of trousers by one of the British matelot's.

The prisoners on Pickle outnumbered the crew three to one and were heard plotting to take over the ship and make for Cadiz, but the British crew kept careful watch and made it home safely.

HMS Pickle Royal Navy 6 gun cutter that delivered the news of Trafalgar to the Admiralty
Portrait of John Richard Lapenotiere as a Post Captain in 1815
The Captain lived at Liskeard in Cornwall and the miniature was
painted by James Leakey of Exeter

One aspect that has often bedevilled command and control at sea has been the difficulty for a commander to issue orders and messages ship to ship where the sheer difficulty imposed by the separation of vessels on water together with limited visibility have combined to severely restrict what a naval commander could hope to do with the ships under his command once the enemy was located.

I have been slightly surprised and bemused at some wargame rule sets, supposedly modelling the age of sail period, simply ignore this problem, with multiple ships operating in groups as if using ship to ship radio or other modern communications; perhaps a case of "fast play" taken to extreme.

Nelson was famous for his simple pre-battle order of sailing plans and allowing his captains to use their initiative whilst working within the overall plan, whilst other commanders simply required their captains to maintain their station in the line of battle.

I like to include this aspect into my fleet action games with stand off frigates passing a limited signal selection along the line of battle before a fleet can attempt to make a sailing change, with all the inherent chances for that action to go wrong .

Captain Sir Home Popham 1762-1820
Captain Sir Home Popham deserves special mention for his pride of place in the annals of naval signalling and communication and the adoption by the Royal Navy of his "Telegraphic Signals and Marine Vocabulary" code in 1803 allowing as it stated "freedom of speech" using signals.

The new code allowed for common words in the vocabulary to be allotted a number allowing it to be signalled with a simple combination of two or three flags whilst also allotting numbered groups of flags to the alphabet thus allowing other words to be spelt out when required

Nelson instantly recognised the importance of Popham's code visiting the newly appointed Second Secretary at the Admiralty, John Barrow, twice before leaving England in September 1805 to ensure that Popham's code was supplied to his fleet.

Captain Blackwood would later write to his wife from the frigate Euryalus off Cape Trafalgar on 1st October 1805;
"At this moment we are within four miles of the enemy and talking to Lord Nelson by means of Sir H. Popham's signals."

HMS Euryalus by Geoff Hunt
The new code would also allow Nelson, three weeks later to, "amuse the fleet with a signal" whose words are are as immortal as his name "England expects ......"

The Battle of Trafalgar rather like the Battle of Britain over one hundred years later was an existential battle for the British nation in that failure in either presupposed an invasion by either Napoleon or Hitler and the stamping out of further resistance by occupation and assimilation into a greater empire.

It is therefore not surprising to see the lavishness heaped upon the captains involved in the battle with the award by Lloyds of London of these £100 presentation swords to all of them involved in the battle.

Awarded to Captain Richard Lee of HMS Courageaux. Four French ships
escaped from Trafalgar. On the 4th November they were captured by a British
Squadron under Sir Richard Strachan. Captain Lee in the 74 gun Corageaux
captured the French 74 gun Scipion.
Awarded to Captain William Prowse of HMS Sirius

HMS Sirius 36 guns in action in 1798 against the Dutch Furie
I visited the tomb of Nelson many years ago at his final resting place in St Paul's Cathedral and his funeral procession was a state funeral with Nelson's coffin conveyed to the cathedral on the barge you can see below.

"Nelson's coffin lay in state in the Painted Hall of Greenwhich Hospital. From there it was taken by barge to Whitehall on 8th January 1806, to rest the night in the Captain's Room in the Admiralty. Next day Nelson received a state funeral in St Paul's. Thirty-one admirals and one-hundred captains followed his body to the cathedral....... He was buried in the cathedral's crypt beneath a marble sarcophagus inscribed only with his name and the dates of his birth and death..."

Around Nelson's funeral barge are displayed examples of ships figureheads, the embodiment of the spirit of the ship and reflecting a practise dating back to ancient times.

The carved figurehead fell out of favour after 1800 due to the impact the large sculpts could have on a ship's sailing qualities not to mention the associated costs, making a small comeback after the Napoleonic wars, until being finally discarded in favour of ship crests or badges displayed on the superstructure.

HMS Bellerophon has featured several times on the blog last year
due to her association with the surrender of Napoleon in 1815 and the 'Billy Ruffian'
dropping anchor off Devon on her progress to St Helena. It was great to see her
figurehead has survived.
HMS Calliope, Brig/Sloop launched in 1808
HMS Apollo 46 gun frigate launched in 1805
The Battle of Trafalgar model used to be in a glass cabinet that you could walk around and see in broad daylight through the large Georgian sash windows of the museum.

It has now been incorporated into a visual display presentation that takes the visitor through the key features of the battle, giving a very good visual summary but making it much harder for folks like me who wanted to get some good pictures of the model.

In the lighting conditions and with a ban on flash photography this was the best I could do. However it still provides fresh inspiration to the inner wargamer.

The final gallery we spent time wondering around before heading for home was dedicated to the life and times of Lord Nelson the man, with a focus on the personal affects and the look of the man, together with items that reflected the relationships in his life.

I really enjoyed this gallery in particular as I think it is through these more personal reflections that we as modern viewers over two hundred years later can get a little closer to knowing the man behind the public image.

Sample letters showing Nelson's handwriting which to the modern eye seems very legible and easy to read.

Nelson's extending armchair c 1770 - A notoriously bad sleeper, Nelson used the armchair for catnaps in his day cabin
What did Nelson look like?

For many years the this mask of Nelson's face was believed to be a death mask but more recent research has revealed it to have been taken from Nelson's live face in Vienna in 1800.

The live mask makes interesting comparison with that seen below of Nelson after his death aboard Victory five years later.

And finally the reconstruction, based on the live mask seen above, of a petite man with a very sympathetic face and piercing eyes .

The figure is based on the latest research into Nelson's appearance and shows him in the last few weeks of his life before the Battle of Trafalgar at the age of 47.

He is depicted in the undress uniform of a vice admiral, which he wore every day carrying the four orders of knighthood on his left breast.

Any consideration of the personal aspects of Nelson's life would be incomplete without reference to his somewhat turbulent love life that scandalised Georgian society; but I think seems to make him much more modern in appearance, being determined to acknowledge his emotional life as well as his professional responsibilities .

I have to express an interest at this point as my home town of Exmouth was the home of Lady Nelson during her estrangement from her husband and Carolyn and I were married in the church where Lady Nelson was buried. There are several blue plaques around the town that commemorate Lady Nelson's presence at that time.

But it was Emma Hamilton that captured the heart of Nelson and it was thoughts of her and their daughter that filled his concerns confided to Captain Hardy in his final moments aboard the Victory.

Emma Hamilton's hand writing takes more effort to decipher
Horatia Ward nee Nelson 1801 - 1881 daughter of Lord Horatio Nelson and Emma Lady Hamilton
Emma Lady Hamilton - Miniature that contained a lock of Emma's auburn hair.
Nelson wore this around his neck under his uniform. After death it was returned to
Emma by Captain Hardy.
Thus ended our visit to Portsmouth with still so much more to see and hopefully a future post following a subsequent visit that will complete my overview of a must see venue for anyone with the slightest interest in naval history.

Other references used in this post:
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Souvenir Book
The Battle of Trafalgar - Geoffrey Bennett


  1. Jon's point about signals is quite important, it was a subject I had little interest in until I started reading a book that had been gathering dust for a few years .
    "Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail 1650-1815" by Brian Tunstall
    I had bought the book on a whim expecting it to be full of dashing battles and so forth. It is actually much better, it delves far deeper than just ship actions and along the way also covers the evolution of signals extensively in a readable manner , he covers the development of different signal books and then shows how they effected the relevant battles of the time. I always wondered why the early huge fleet actions out in the West Indies had never resulted in much damage until I realised the difficulty the admirals had in getting their ships into the right place . At one time each ship was designated a specific place in the battle line and before engaging the enemy everyone had to be in the correct place. etc etc.

    Regarding Portsmouth Dockyard , it is a marvellous place but comes at a marvellous price. Not being in the lucrative drug business like Jon I had a bit of a shock when I saw the prices.
    An all attraction ticket is currently £33 however when I went I managed to get in at a very reduced price as it was 15.30 which gave me 2 hours to race around . Looking at the website it may no longer be available however you can get 20% for booking on line

    1. Great reference Steve, I will definitely look to get a copy. I think the wargaming aspect of communications and control at sea are a really fun element of adding unpredictability to games and I find games lacking that important aspect unsatisfying. To each their own in the end but I am sure most historical gamers would feel the same.

      Yes the cost of entry made me gulp a bit when I saw it and I am still getting over the surprise, a week later, despite being a purveyor of fine medicines. I suppose a £28 million Mary Rose exhibition and other such displays had to be paid for somehow and I guess the public purse is committed to much more worthier causes such as the NHS to be able to afford subsidising tourism, which is why I bit the bullet and got tickets that give me a year to get my monies worth.

      I do think the museum is worth the cost of entry when I consider the quality and quantity of display items that are there and thus I think my comment about it being a must see attraction for those with an interest in things naval stands. I feel sure you won't be disappointed.

    2. Post Script to my previous reply - It turns out I have books in my library that because I haven't got around to reading them yet don't immediately register when referenced by others.

      I do indeed have a copy of "Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail 1650-1815 - The Evolution of Fighting Tactics" by Brian Tunstall, published by Conway press and will now be on my next book read as it will make a useful follow up post to this one.

      Thanks Steve and Paul for the recommendation.

  2. Greta post - I used to live half a mile down the road (and worked in the dockyard itself) and never tired of visiting the collection.

    and +1 to Steve's Comments of the Tunstall book. A required topic for understanding the period and how squadrons and fleets were fought

    1. Thank you Paul, I must say I was impressed at how much there is to see and the quality of display is first class.

      Thanks for your endorsement of Steve's book reference, I will search out a copy and provide a review.

  3. What a wonderful post JJ. I gave been to the UK a few times however have never had the opportunity to visit the Plymouth Shipyards and see HMS Victory. This makes me even more determined to have a look.

    As an aside is it my imagination JJ or does the wax of Lord Nelson at the top of the blog look eerily like the Australian actress Toni Collette!!

  4. Sorry JJ - Obviously meant Portsmouth not Plymouth. As a Southampton FC supporter that was tough to type let me assure you!

    1. Hey Carlo good spot, not being a follower of Ms Collette I had to check her pictures out, but now you mention it I think you might have something. Perhaps the former admiral has reincarnated!

      I am so pleased you corrected your kind comment, the rivalry between the two naval establishments is legendary and the thought of having to deal with the comments from the flame war that might have kicked off on this humble blog is somewhere we don't need to go.

      Do go along if you get the chance. I aim to do a second visit within the year as there is Mary Rose, M33, The sumbmarine museum and Boat Hall 4 still to do amongst other stuff not covered.


  5. For me that's your best outside broadcast yet Jonathan many thanks for posting .
    Regards Gavin .

    1. Cheers Gavin, glad you enjoyed it. I really enjoy putting a post like this together as it only reinforces my own experience in discovering aspects I hadn't fully absorbed on the day and points me in directions that I want to find out more about.