Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Portsmouth dockyard - Part 2




The docks,—of which there are nine in the Portsmouth yard,—nearly all speak of the transition state of our marine affairs. With the exception of two, they are all too short for the long frigates, both iron and wood, which have superseded our towering three-deckers. Like growing boys, these new ships have outgrown their docks, and now the latter must have their tucks let out, if we may be allowed to use a tailor’s image. On two of the docks this operation has been performed, and we saw the famous transport Himalaya, high and dry in one of them, exposing in all her length the beauty of her finely curved lines. The necessity for increasing the dry dock accommodation in this yard is becoming day by day more apparent, as, since the introduction of the iron-plated frigates, it is found that the bottom-cleaning process is required much more frequently than with wooden ships. Both the Warrior and the Black Prince have thus fouled in a very short space of time, and no composition has yet been found effectual against the barnacles and the seaweeds which cling to them. A sheathing of copper, unfortunately, cannot be employed in such ships, inasmuch as the salt water, acting upon the two metals when in contact, would produce a galvanic action which would speedily eat away the copper, as in ordinary galvanic troughs. Some bold speculator has startled the “slow coaches” of the dockyards by proposing to supersede the laborious and costly plan of sheathing her Majesty’s ships with sheets of copper—6,500 of which, we are informed by the guide-book, are required for the bottom of a first-rate, and these must be fastened on with a ton and-a-half of counter-sunk nails—by the simple plan of electro-plating them. To accomplish this, the dock would be turned into a large electro-bath, the vessel of wood would simply be blackleaded, a line of wire from stem to stern would be formed to complete the circuit, and in an incredible short space of time the ship would receive, without further trouble, a clothing of copper from her water-line downwards without break or flaw. The deposition of iron has never been yet managed successfully by means of the electro-type process: otherwise we may imagine our teak-built frigates thus armed with plates of metal to any required thickness, in a single night, without the weakening process of bolting in! Our great war-ships would then go to battle fully armed in coats of mail, and the din of “closing rivets up,” would be quietly and noiselessly performed by the blue spark of electricity alone.

We have not time to accompany the reader through the smithery, as there really is nothing in all this establishment which differs much from great private shops of the same kind. The Admiralty have lately taken to manufacture their own armour-plates, but we have not heard that they have succeeded in producing better work than, or indeed so good as, the Thames Iron Company and other establishments.

The old Sultan, 74, hulk, has for months been used as a target-ship for the trial of these plates, sent by different iron-masters; and the significant attentions of 68-pounders, at 200 yards’ range, are visible enough on her sides. Some of her plates are merely dented, others are starred like a sheet of glass; others, again, have been smashed and partly detached from their fastenings. An inspection of the dark hold of the old ship shows most strikingly the effect of the shot upon her timbers. In some places the ball has gone through both sides; in others, huge fractures appear, and the solid oak, in most cases, has been broken into “matchwood.” We do not speak figuratively, but literally; the ship-side, in some places, being so shattered around the shot-holes that it has crumbled to pieces like “touch-wood.”

On a fine breezy day, a sail up the harbour is the proper addendum to an inspection of the dockyard. If we take a boat at the “hard,” that spot beloved by Jews and crimps, and the richest perhaps in public-houses of any like-sized spots in the world, our destination is sure to be suspected to be the old Victory. There she lies together with her companion-training ship, the Britannia,—two models of the old men-of-war of the days of our grandfathers, “when ships were ships,” as the Old Salt remarked who rowed me towards the mighty old hull.

There is something about the build of these old three-deckers that looks more majestic than even larger ships of a later build—the “tumbling-in” of their sides gives a proud, defiant look to them which we miss in the straighter sides of newer models. Compare them, for instance, with the Duke of Wellington, or the Victoria and Albert, the three leviathans riding at anchor higher up the harbour; each of these fine ships is at least a third larger than Nelson’s old ship, but to our eye they do not make such a proud appearance when viewed from a distance. These latter ships are the last efforts of a bygone age; the paint is scarcely dry upon their sides; the masts of the two latter have, if we mistake not, never been shipped, yet they are as completely things of the past as the Royal Harry. Their large bulk, instead of being a source of strength to them, is a cause of weakness. A single shell pitched into their hulls from a mimic gunboat by an Armstrong at a mile’s distance would as effectually demolish them as Goliath was demolished by the smooth stone from David’s sling. What will they do with these bulky toys, just completed at a cost of a quarter of a million each? Is it their fate to be cut down to the water’s edge, like the Royal Sovereign? We fear so, for they will never ride the waters like a thing of life again in their present form. It is positively disheartening to sail up the harbour and see ship after ship past and gone ere it has sailed a league. We cannot say, like Beau Brummel’s valet, as he carried away an armful of crumpled cravats, “these are our failures;” but we really should be glad to know when we have a ship that we can really call a ship, and not a mere helpless target for those horrid guns, which go, bang, bang, from the Stork gun-boat higher up the harbour; for possibly, as we listen, Captain Coles’s Cupola has been smashed into “a cocked hat” by steel-headed bolts.

“They ain’t contented wi’ cannon balls, as they was in my day,” remarked the boatman, dolefully; and dolefully we rowed on beneath the shadow of the 131-gun ship, almost doubting if Britannia did indeed rule the waves, and if the broadside threatening above us was only a delusion and a snare. As we passed on, the long, low raking hull of the Warrior lay alongside the dockyard wall, looking vixenish and cruel: her gun-ports contracted to the smallest possible size, her guns of the deadly Armstrong make; no ornament, no open stern galleries, no projecting angles to be knocked about; but a smooth hard nut, very hard, we doubt not, to crack, but to be cracked, as sure as fate, by that dreadful Whitworth, who grimly sits at home making his punches and steel bolts to smash our gallant navy to smithereens.

It is positively a relief to turn away from this headaching game of attack and defence, to watch those two little brigs of war making out to sea, as though we were in the good old days when George the Third was King. They are the Sealark and the Racehorse—old 10-gun brigs, bowling along with all sails set. These are the training ships, in which the boys and naval cadets learn seamanship. They start down Channel every Monday morning, and return at the end of the week, and train the young English tar in the way he should go. Let guns beat ships, or ships guns, we may be sure that it is the true British stuff that fights them,—that will give us the lead as heretofore; and as we see the young scamps crowd the rigging and run like cats along the yards, we feel that here at least we are doing the right thing, beyond cavil or dispute.

Not to loiter longer among the melancholy ships laid up in ordinary, dressed in their Quakerish suits of drab, let us pass by the steam ferry over to the Gosport side, in order to inspect the gun-boat slip. If anything in England can be like China, we should say that the country in the neighbourhood of the government establishments very much resembles it. There are salt-water swamps in any number, with creeks running through oozy mud banks, and across a small inlet of the sea a bridge, which rises at a pitch that reminds us of the bridge on the “willow-pattern” plate. Gloomy and solemn looks the Great, Naval Hospital of Haslar on our right hand; but the inmates have a charming view over Spithead, and the lovely Isle of Wight beyond, and there is a liberty accorded to the convalescents, which may well be copied in other hospitals. If the visitor looks seaward, over the terrace, some fine day, he may probably see an eight-oared cutter moving about. This is the mad-boat of the establishment: the insane are permitted to row, and fish, and sail on their old element, and no harm comes of it.

But the Gun Boat Slip? says the reader. Well, the Gun Boat Slip is perhaps the oddest place in the whole naval establishment. At first the visitor thinks he is in a railway station, as on either side, long rows of sheds are placed, and between them lines of rails—one line running down into the salt water, with others crossing it at right angles, just in front, and parallel with the long row of sheds, which open end-ways upon the open shore. Peering out from the sheds, on the opposite side, seem to be a goodly company of white owls of Brobdignagian proportions. On inquiry, however, they are found to be only mortar-boats laid up in ordinary. Their hawse-holes, however, look just like eyes, and their cut-waters like beaks, and the whole expression of their bows is wonderfully like that of the night-loving bird.

That longer row of sheds, facing the water and the landing-slip, is divided off into numberless pigeon-holes, out of which peer as ill-tempered a set of gun-boats, as well could be got together, if we may judge from the names conspicuously painted on their bows. Snappers, Growlers, Biters, Vixens, Termagants, Bruisers, Snarlers, &c., all looking at you out of their houses, just like so many bull-dogs in a sporting dog-dealer’s yard.

But how do these 200 feet gun-boats perform the feat of getting so comfortably on dry land? There is a huge locomotive, and before you are the rails. The Griper steams up to the landing slip already fixed in a cradle which runs upon the rails. This cradle is attached to long iron rods, which are hauled inland by means of a powerful screw, and up comes the long black hull, and in a few minutes it is landed like a great whale. Once fairly on shore, she has to be shunted to her appointed shed; this is done by means of the cross-rail, the locomotive, butting at the ship’s side, pushes her broadside along, just as elephants are pictured as shoving before them great guns in India. This is certainly a most novel contrivance. The steam bakery is close at hand: the flour put in at the top of the mill comes out finished biscuit at the bottom, and Jack, who is not supposed to be over-fastidious, has long been the only person in Her Majesty’s dominions who has tasted this article of food made by the aid of machinery alone. He is now, we hear, to have bread whilst ashore: better late than never; if the reader has ever eaten a captain’s biscuit against time for a wager, he will be able to appreciate the boon this will be to poor Jack.

But we fear we are drawing out this article to an inexcusable length, and yet we have not said our say about the fortifications that girdle round this naval treasure. These, like everything else at Portsmouth, are rendered useless by the long ranges of our modern artillery. Of old the only means by which our arsenal could be reached was by way of the deep channel inside the spit and close alongshore; this passage was sufficiently guarded by the outer forts; but now that a hostile fleet can anchor three miles off and plump down shell out of their reach, the whole existing line of fortifications is rendered useless. Hence an outer range of forts is rising out to seaward: we see the piles driven for ocean forts in the various spits of sand, and along the crest of Portsdown Hill the deep chalk cuttings show the progress made in covering the dockyard in the rear. The question may naturally be asked, why go to such an expense to defend stores that could much more securely be moved to an arsenal in the interior? but this, we know, is dangerous ground to tread upon, and we have no wish to risk a collision with our reader, or with “the powers that are.”

A. W.