The Birth, Death and Rebirth of a Royal Dockyard

(Cross-posted on my other blog,

I spent the weekend in Pembroke Dock, attending the launch events for the bicentenary of the foundation of the Royal Dockyard in 1814. The yard was established to take advantage of the tremendous deep water harbour of Milford Haven, and was intended to be exclusively a building yard. During its history, it built over 200 ships for the Royal Navy, many of which had long or remarkable careers: they included the Erebus, which took part in the ill-fated Franklin expedition; huge ‘wooden walls’ like the Duke of Wellington; ironclads like Dreadnought (1875) and Thunderer; the armoured cruisers Warrior and Defence, which were sunk at Jutland; and no fewer than five royal yachts, including the great Victoria and Albert of 1899. (A full list of the ships built at Pembroke Dock can be found here.) The yard closed in 1926 – I’m currently working on an article about the closure – and later became a flying boat base, playing a prominent part in the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS Duke of Wellington, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1852 as the Windsor Castle; the Duke died on the day of the launch, so she was renamed after him
HMS Duke of Wellington, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1852 as the Windsor Castle; the Duke died on the day of the launch, so she was renamed after him

The dockyard site was neglected for many years, and many of the buildings were cleared and built over, primarily when much of the site was converted to an Irish ferry terminal in 1979. But two of the original thirteen slipways remain, albeit without the iron covers that were the first ever to be installed in a dockyard, as do the dry dock and caisson, the mast pond, and a number of the dockyard buildings, including the fine row of officers’ houses and the dockyard chapel. The latter, which was restored a few years ago, was the venue for the weekend’s events, which centred on the premiere of a remarkable digital reconstruction of the dockyard as it was in about 1860. This was produced by the Digital Building Heritage group at De Mentfort University, Leicester, and it certainly generated a great deal of interest from both the invited audience on Friday and the general public on Saturday.

The other really positive thing about the weekend’s events, and about the bicentenary commemorations as a whole, is the extent to which the local community has become involved with them. A dynamic team has encouraged people to come forward with their own memories and materials – producing, for example, the diary of the last established workman to be employed in the royal dockyard – and to undertake their own research, for example into the history of their own houses. (The entire town was built from scratch from 1814 onwards to accommodate the dockyard workforce.) It struck me that this is a terrific example of how to involve local people in their heritage, and the numbers present on Saturday certainly suggest that it’s proving to be a tremendous success. I hope to be able to go down to Pembroke Dock for some more of the bicentenary events, and will report back both here and on Twitter!

Interior of the restored dockyard chapel
Interior of the restored dockyard chapel

Welsh ‘Warship Weeks’ Updates

Further work by Peter Schofield has revealed the following changes to the South Wales listing previously posted on this site:

  • Abergavenny – should be MTB332, not MGB; the town’s Warship Week took place between 14 and 21 March 1942.
  • Ogmore and Garw Valley – it seems that these were two separate adoptions, HMS Quannet by Ogmore and MGB57 by Garw Valley.
  • Port Talbot Warship Week was 7-14 February 1942.

The ‘Welshness’ of HMS Carnarvon

The armoured cruiser HMS Carnarvon, launched at the Beardmore yard on the Clyde in 1903, was one of the first warships to be given a name from the ‘Celtic fringe’ as a way of deliberating enhancing the ‘Britishness’ and inclusiveness of the Royal Navy. In Britannia’s Dragon, I recount how, just before war broke out in 1914, she had a ship’s goat which was ceremonially paraded every Sunday, and how significant numbers of her crew spoke Welsh to each other as a matter of course. The National Maritime Museum also holds an interesting source from earlier in her career, a published account of her first commission from 1905 to 1907, which was spent principally in the Mediterranean. This includes an account of the events of 20 May 1906, when Admiral Lord Charles Beresford came aboard and presented the ship with a sliver shield, gong and bell. These were gifts from the county of Caernarfon, which had raised the necessary funds. Beresford then gave a talk on the history of the county (although he was singularly unqualified to do so, being the son of an Irish marquess and MP for Woolwich), before concluding:

he would say to the people of the county of Carnarvon, on behalf of the officers and ship’s company, that HM ship Carnarvon would uphold the glorious traditions of the British Navy, whether in peace or war, or any other duty she might be employed on, and he exhorted the ship’s company to remember their motto, ‘Y ddraigg goch a dary gychwym’ [sic] (The Red Dragon leads the way.)…The following is a description of the shield: at the head is the Prince of Wales’s feathers, with the motto Ich Dien, underneath is the (one time) Prince of Carnarvon’s flag, with the inscription, ‘Eryri, Eryr, Eryrod’ (The Eagle of the Eagles of the Eagles’ land). In the centre is a replica of the ship; at the bottom is shown Carnarvon Castle, the whole being surrounded with leeks, and on either side the Dragon.

HMS Carnarvon took part in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 (a fact which is surely worthy of commemoration in her home county at the time of the centenary). She then served on the relatively quiet North American and West Indies station for the remainder of the war, being broken up in 1921. The name has never been used again, however, the Bay-class frigate Carnarvon Bay served from 1945 to 1961, although only six months of that time was spent in actual commission at sea.

The Last Voyages to Wales of HMS Colossus [1908] and Cornwall [2013]

HMS Cornwall laid up at Portsmouth, 5 September 2013

HMS Cornwall laid up at Portsmouth, 5 September 2013

With the imminent arrival of the Type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall in Swansea, where she will be broken up, naval shipbreaking resumes in Wales after a gap of some thirty years. This newspaper account, from the Cardiff Times of 28 November 1908, recounts the fate of one of the earliest warships to be scrapped in the Principality, namely HMS Colossus, which had served as the port guardship at Holyhead from 1893 to 1901. A second-class battleship, rather than a cruiser as stated in the report, her design was innovative in some ways but seriously flawed in others. She was the sister ship of HMS Edinburgh, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1882 by the Duchess of Edinburgh, daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria and sister of Tsar Alexander III of Russia.

HMS Edinburgh completing at Hobbs Point, Pembroke Dock [photo credit – Tenby Museum]


The cruiser Colossus, built over 20 years ago, and sold by the Admiralty recently to Mr Ward, of Briton Ferry, to be broken up, has been towed to Barry, where she arrived yesterday. The vessel was stationed off Holyhead for many years, guarding the Welsh port and cruising about the Irish Sea. Twice previously the Colossus formed one of the Metiterranean squadron, and was considered of good fighting strength before the days of the Dreadnoughts. A turret cruiser with a single funnel and guns fore and aft, the vessel looked well in Barry Roads on Sunday, where she rode for some time waiting a favourable wind to dock, a strong westerly gale blowing throughout the morning. The two tugs towing the vessel experienced great difficulty in manoeuvring her. It was impossible for the cruiser to have entered any other port in the Bristol Channel, owing to the fact that she has a draught of 25ft. 6in, In charge of Mr S. Davies, one of the leading Barry pilots, the warship was brought in at the height of the tide in a manner that was highly creditable, considering that almost a gale was blowing and that the cruiser had awkward projections above the deck level. With a beam of 70ft. she could not enter the Lady Windsor lock, and was taken in through the gates leading to the basin. The Colossus has a displacement of 10,000 tons, and after being lightened to the draught of 20ft, by the removal of guns and other materials, she will be towed to Briton Ferry. About 60 men will be employed in the task of breaking up the vessel.

HMS Colossus [1882]

HMS Colossus [1882]

HMS Monmouth Exercises her Freedom of the Town

Members of the crew of the Type 23 frigate HMS Monmouth have renewed the ship’s links with its namesake town by marching through the streets – full story here. Monmouth is one of the oldest ‘Welsh’ warship names, dating back to 1666-7, and originally bestowed in honour of Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. As recounted in Britannia’s Dragon, the loss of the previous Monmouth, a cruiser, during the Battle of Coronel in 1914, made a powerful impact on the town: the west doors of the priory church, installed just after World War I, serve as a permanent memorial to her sinking, and a book of remembrance for the crew is on display just inside the church.