A voyage to Portsmouth’s past

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2nd September 2019
Arial view of Portsmouth

Over their 800-year history, Portsmouth’s historic dockyards have seen countless ships set off on voyages around the globe. Now this incredible site offers you the chance to relive some of those momentous moments in Britain’s seafaring history.

The dockyards, part of the current naval base, feature several inspiring museums, innovative exhibitions, and beautifully preserved ships that together give an unrivalled window into our illustrious maritime past.

While some parts of the ships feature stairs, narrow doorways and low ceilings, great efforts have been taken to ensure accessibility wherever possible. 

A dock was first established at this site under King John in 1212. While that has been lost to the elements, the country’s first dry dock ­– which was ordered to be built by King Henry VII – is still part of the site.

One of the star attractions today is the renowned Mary Rose warship, built in 1510 under the rule of Henry VIII. She was the flagship of his navy for 34 years, defending England from invasion on several occasions before sinking in 1545 in the Battle of the Solent with the loss of hundreds of crew.

The Mary Rose was re-discovered in 1971, raised in 1982, and now offers visitors an unrivalled window into Tudor naval life. On the ship and in the accompanying award-winning museum, you can view the many items that were perfectly preserved in the Solent silt: carpenters’ tools, surgeons’ flasks, and even nit combs (complete with nits!).

The most famous ship here, however, has to be HMS Victory, whose construction began in 1759. This was Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship and is today presented as she would have been when she went into battle at Trafalgar in 1805.

Visitors can view some of the original 104 guns used at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Great Cabin where Nelson prepared for the conflict, and the orlop deck where he died.

For a glimpse into Britain’s more recent naval history, head to the Royal Naval Museum to learn about HMS Dreadnought, built here and launched in 1906. This ship marked a revolution in naval technology: she was the first all-big-gun warship as well as the first to be powered by steam turbines, making her the most powerful and speediest ship of her time. She launched a whole class of battleships that played a crucial role in World War One.

While HMS Dreadnought is no longer in existence, you can see HMS M.33, one of only three British World War One ships still surviving.

In World War Two, the dockyards again played a crucial role in the war effort. It was here that iconic ships such as HMS Belfast, now a floating museum in London, were commissioned, and to which they returned to replenish ammunition throughout the war years.

For visitors more interested in social history, the dockyards give insights into a changing Britain. For more than a hundred years they were the world’s largest industrial site, employing 25,000 people at their peak during the World War One.  

At the beginning of the War, just 50 of those were women. More joined as men went off to fight, facing hostility at first but gradually taking on semi-skilled work. By 1917, there were 1,750 women working here, operating machine tools, welding, and driving lorries.

The Dockyard Apprentice inside Boatyard 7 retells 200 years of history through the eyes of boatyard workers. Meanwhile, over at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the ‘Hear My Story’ gallery showcases the undiscovered tales of the men and women of the ships over the past 100 years.

Whatever your interests, you’re bound to find something to inspire and intrigue you at Portsmouth’s historic dockyards. All aboard for a voyage of discovery!

Fancy exploring for yourself?

Trips to Portsmouth depart every week from our Southampton based centre, Netley Waterside House.

Contact the team on 0303 303 0145 or email bookings@revitalise.org.uk for more info.

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