Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Portsmouth dockyard - Part 1




For the small sum of half-a-crown you may in the summer season leave hot and dusty London behind you, traverse the South Downs, skirt the South coast, spend a day in the great naval arsenal of Portsmouth, and be back again in town to a late tea—that is, those who like cheap trips and this kind of racing within an inch of their lives, may do so if they like—which I do not. Wanting a holiday this last summer, and having made inquiries for the least Cockneyfied sea-side place within a couple of hours’ journey of London, I made up my mind to spend a month at Southsea, to the horror of my respectable friends. And where in the name of fate is Southsea? inquires the reader. Southsea, then, is the west-end of Portsmouth, so to speak, although it really lies to the east of that famous port—so close, in fact, that you may throw a biscuit from the common almost into the High Street. There are certain places that every Englishman must see in the course of his lifetime, and the dockyard—the chief cradle of our fleet—is one of them. And it is not only the cradle, but the destined grave of our naval power, as some people will have it; for here we are told the Frenchmen will some day catch us, and smother us in our naval hive like a swarm of hornets, unless we keep a good look-out. For these reasons Portsmouth Dockyard, just at the present moment, is one of the points on which the national eye is fixed.

There is certainly something very charming in the extreme civility with which the total stranger is treated in our great public establishments. He is made to feel that all the treasures that he sees belong to him, in common, it is true, with the Queen and a few millions besides, but still to him, and he feels all the dignity of proprietorship. Indeed I could not help feeling that I possessed more than my ordinary share of those large 120-gun ships, &c., inasmuch as a six-foot policeman was told off especially for my service in surveying all the glories of the premier British arsenal and dockyard.

And first about masts. Those accustomed to seaports and merchantmen only, are struck with the imposing magnitude of all the details belonging to our great ships of war. Milton, when he likens Satan’s spear to the mast of “some tall admiral,” conveys by his similitude only a just idea of their portentous size.

Let us take the main mast of the Duke of Wellington, for instance. Here it lies, stretching its length for many a rood: not a simple spar, for no tree that grows could furnish such a bulk as it presents; but a complex structure, built up of innumerable pieces, with as much care as one of those tall chimney stacks which carry off the fumes of alkali works—rising to a height of upwards of 200 feet, and surmounted on the topmost spar with a truck. We shudder when we see a British tar occasionally stand upon this giddy height, out of bravado; but the feat loses somewhat of its merit, when we find that this same truck, which looks like a mere speck at the mast-head, is in reality as big as a small tea-table.

As one surveys the treasures of the mast-house—sees the spars of the old Victory, of the Duke of Wellington, the Victoria, the Albert, and of the scores of other first-rates, that lie side by side, stacked away with as much ease as though they were mere walking-sticks—one feels a certain melancholy impression that they belong to the past. Never again will these stately masts carry the bulging sail; never again will a fleet of three-deckers put out from our seaports to fight. It is this reflection which gives such an air of sadness to all our naval arsenals. The old fighting ship which towered so majestically over all meaner craft, and which bore some sort of relation, as regards size, to the mighty deep on which it rode, is as much a thing of the past as the Great Harry, or a Roman galley. When Turner, thirty years ago, painted his touching picture of “The Fighting Temeraire towed to her last berth” by the little fizzing tugboat, he but too truly foreshadowed the coming fate of the giant race of ships, which seemed, like Ossian’s heroes, to grow more vast and majestic as they finally disappeared from the scene.

The revolution that is so silently and surely passing over our naval system, seemed to me to have struck with palsy the yard itself. The ropery, where of old those great cables were spun which held our largest ships at anchor, now finds its chief occupation gone, for iron takes the place of hemp. The smaller ropes are yet spun here; and the immense length of the building in which they are made—upwards of a quarter of a mile in length—becomes apparent to the eye as one sees the men at the extreme end advancing, like so many spiders, and scarcely as large, twisting the hempen line from the flax surrounding their waists, just as the insect seems to draw out its delicate web from its own intestines. We looked in vain, however, for the mighty twenty-five inch cables, and we saw the machinery for twisting the various strands that compose them, now standing idle. As a relic of other days, a portion of the great cable of the Royal George, sunk at Spithead, hung up in the Ropery, is doubtlessly looked upon by the hands as a Saurian is viewed by a geologist—marking the gigantic creations of the elder days. But bulk does not necessarily constitute strength, as iron links, only a third the size, are now in common use, and constitute the safeguard of our fleet. As we look upon these links, however, we are reminded of the magnitude of the trust we place in their soundness; on a single loop of iron the fate of a ship with a thousand men is often dependent as she rides at anchor during the fury of a gale blowing on a lee-shore. A slight flaw, which the eye cannot detect, may be pregnant with the fate of this multitude of men; the integrity of each segment of the iron cables issued to the navy, is therefore a necessary preliminary to its being issued; and we must give the government the credit of using every conceivable care in testing their soundness. Every link is subjected to an enormous strain by the application of hydraulic power before it is passed, and thus the instrument of salvation, as well as that of destruction in the shape of the cannon, is thoroughly tried before it is put to practical use. We wish, however, we could say the same of that portion of the men of war’s holding power, which has laid upon it perhaps the greatest strain of all—the anchor. When we gaze upon the accumulation of huge “best-bowers” and “sheet-anchors” in the “rack,” looking like the whitened ribs of countless elephants, we are reminded of the curse that has always attached to the Admiralty—the curse of sacrificing progress to “the system.” The British public have often asked why it is that the British navy is supplied with the old-fashioned and most unscientifically constructed anchors, which have been so often tested and found wanting, in comparison with the patent anchors of Trotman, now used by all our large ships of the mercantile marine; and the answer is characteristic enough of the department which makes it. “We cannot adopt the new anchor, because the contracts for the old one are not yet out, and will not be for a dozen years.” What would the nation say if our artillery engineers had made the same improvident and imbecile contract in the case of guns, and had refused our tried Armstrongs and Whitworths, because they had a contract running with the Carron company for the old smooth-bore sixty-eight pounders?

The point, perhaps, of the greatest attraction, and one which the officials never fail to laud with the utmost extravagance, is the block manufactory, where the blocks, great and small, for the rigging of the British fleet, are manufactured. When the machinery for this purpose was first designed by the elder Brunel, in 1801, it was, doubtless, a very great advance upon the hand labour of the yard; and, probably, was viewed with astonishment by the somewhat fossil heads of the dockyard authorities—an astonishment and admiration which seems to have come down to the present time; but it is no offence to the memory of the great engineer who invented it to say that it is now grown very antiquated, and altogether behind the time, and is not by any means to be compared with many of the remaining new processes for saving labour now to be seen in operation either at the small arm factory at Enfield, or at the great arsenal at Woolwich. I would no more have desired to have hinted as much to the six-foot policeman who acted as my cicerone, than I would have given a free opinion on a point of theology to the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are told that the number of blocks in a full rigged ship is not less than 1432: this number of course refers to the old three-deckers; but as our modern heavy frigates are rigged in a far simpler manner than those sailed by our fathers, this estimate can no longer be accepted; and what perhaps with our new reefing apparatus, and our shield ships, the old-fashioned block will ere long be superseded by some new invention.

As we talk of shield ships, we find ourselves beside the dry dock which holds the Royal Sovereign—that is to be one day, a specimen of the new craft. We can imagine the inventor tearing his hair—if the obstructions thrown in his way by the department have left him any hair to tear!—and exclaiming, “How long—yet how long!” The Royal Sovereign, a specimen of a three-decker of 110 guns, built we believe by the late surveyor of the Admiralty, not only never went to sea, but never even left the dock in which she was built. Two years ago she stood a noble-looking craft, when that wicked man, Captain Coles, forced his ideas upon the “lotos-eaters” at Whitehall, and the word was sent to cut her down. It has been remarked that the dock-yard men never seem to work with such a will as when they are pulling to pieces, and in this case in a very short time the mighty frame of this “first rate” was razed to her water-line. Here however, all the efforts of the shipwrights seemed paralysed, and the work of reconstruction, when we saw her about three months ago, appeared to be in the hands of the government “man and the boy,” and these redoubtable individuals seemed to be working as leisurely as though they were caulking and repairing a Thames lighter—a craft which the cut-down leviathan now most mightily resembles—rather than working out one of the latest ideas of science as regards naval architecture. But can we expect the moving spirits at the Admiralty to be over-anxious that the new kind of war craft should succeed? “My Lords,” who have passed their days of service in roomy ships, with fine poop cabins, and stern galleries, and in full command of flush decks, on which Jack, when work was done, danced for their own and his delectation, to the music of the merry fiddle, cannot be expected to bear any good will to these iron turtles, the chief merit of which consists in casing up their inmates in walls of iron, that let in light only from overhead (and not too much of that), and absolutely deny a peep at anything but the eternal blue of the sky above. “My Lords,” could not be brought willingly to agree to such a living death as this. Moreover, our gallant heroes like to fall in the arms of victory upon their own quarter-deck; but, according to Captain Coles’ scheme this will be impracticable: at all events, even Nelson could not have died in a dignified manner upon the top of the inverted kitchen candlestick—for such is a Coles’ patent cupola, to say the best of it. But this is the British Admiral’s point of view of the new design. Possibly the British public may have a different idea of the matter, and may wonder, as we know it does, after the experience of these cupola ships gained in actual conflict on the other side of the Atlantic, that such disgraceful apathy is shown in putting the new idea to the test in our own waters.

A. W.