My terrifying climb up the colossus of the Dockyard – Nostalgia

View from Fountain Lake jetty across to HMS Tiger undergoing a refit and the dockyard's 240-ton crane, October 1975
View from Fountain Lake jetty across to HMS Tiger undergoing a refit and the dockyard's 240-ton crane, October 1975
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It has been reported that Portsmouth naval base will be having a new 250-ton crane in the next year or so. Tim King, a former naval correspondent with The News, once climbed the original which was demolished in 1984. This is his report from 1960.

Its mighty steel girders towered above the city for 72 years and were a landmark for miles beyond.

The staggering panorama from the top of the giant hammer-head crane rivalled that from the Spinnaker Tower built 20 years after it was dismantled in 1984.

Yet the vista was restricted to a handful of Dockyard mateys who operated and maintained it – and risked their lives every day doing so, as I discovered one day in September 1960.

As the naval correspondent, one of my most terrifying assignments was climbing a giddy 300ft to feature those fearless men as part of my weekly Dockyard Story that ran every Saturday for two years.

‘Take your mind off the height... try counting the steps,’ shouted my guide, chargeman Victor Kadwell, but I had other things on my mind as I gripped the handrails with my Dockyard-issue asbestos gloves to clamber up a series of vertical ladders and narrow catwalks around the outside of the structure that weighed as much as a navy destroyer.

The 10-minute ascent was merely a foretaste of vertigo as I clawed to the summit of the colossus of the ’Yard that bestrode the whole dockside, its four massive feet sunk 20 yards into concrete.

Then came the heart-stopper as I was led to what the dockies called ‘the plank’ – a 100-yard stroll along what felt like a tightrope right to the end of the mighty swinging boom. No Spinnaker glass-floor up there, just a drop to oblivion.

Suddenly, there was a frightening jolt and the boom started swinging us towards distant Portsdown Hill, but my fears were relieved when Victor said it was only the slewing motor manoeuvring the boom into position for a big lift.

The crane was being set to pluck a 175-ton tug from the water like a bath toy and deposit it on the deck of the Empire Puffin to be shipped to Canada. To take the weight, the crane’s two 125-ton blocks were married together to give maximum lift of 250 tons.

It was nothing new. These enormous lifts had been happening since 1912 when the giant, costing £38,900, was erected to remove or replace the 15in gun turrets on the fleet’s battleships. For such strains, 3,000ft of heavy cables unwound from huge drums to rack the heavy-lift traveller to and fro on rails atop the boom. Single wires were split around the sheaves of the blocks to give a 10-fold purchase above the twin hooks.

We were joined by Roy Lee from the Machinery Section which looked after maintenance and I was introduced to the mucky art of ‘larding’ – greasing the cables, wires and drums – an all-weather task akin to painting the Forth Bridge.

Eighty 3/4-ton rollers, equivalent to ball bearings and the size of oil drums, had to be lubricated so the boom could turn on them. They took 30lb (13.6 kg) of grease and the wires needed three hundredweight (152 kg) every three months.

Roy had to face gales, lashing rain and ice to climb up to the shed-like structure housing the winding gear to supervise the greaser who did the dirty work.

‘I still have to do the job, even if it means heating the wires to thaw them. Up here, it’s one hand for the job, one for yourself,’ he told me.

I descended cautiously and I was taken into a ‘signal-box’ cabin which was the drivers’ cab, perched between the crane’s legs and reached by yet another ladder and catwalk.

One of the three-man crew, Gordon Beare, pointed out the control panels for the heavy and lighter lifts and the slewing and racking machinery.

‘If you over-rack – that’s bringing the carriage too far out across the boom – an automatic device cuts the motor. For example, a 250-ton load can’t be hauled out more than 100ft radius from the crane’s centre and so on up or down the scale.

‘We had a couple of scares during the war. With battleships alongside it was a prime target,’ he said, pointing down to the capstan pit far below where a landmine had lodged – fortunately the right way up.

After the perilous descent back to the dockside, Victor set my ticker racing again.

‘There was a driver who couldn’t be bothered clambering up and down cranes he operated on the building slip, so he would swing the jib against the one he was to work on next... and JUMP across!

‘By the way, in case you didn’t count the steps, there were 241.’

I hadn’t.