Portsmouth Dockyard employed 23,000 when Britannia ruled the waves – Nostalgia

A view across Portsmouth Dockyard  during the First World War. Picture with permission of the PRDHS.
A view across Portsmouth Dockyard during the First World War. Picture with permission of the PRDHS.
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With memories of the Armistice memorial service still warm I must tell you just how much work was accomplished by Portsmouth Dockyard during the First World War.

It seems unbelievable in this day and age, when we have only 75 commissioned ships, just how large the Royal Navy was and how many men and women it took to service it.

Of course, we had an empire to protect then, days when one seventh of the world came under British rule.

To cover all that had to be done the workforce was increased to 23,000 employees with day and night shifts, meaning that work was carried out around the clock.

From the start of the war to the signing of the Armistice close to 1,200 vessels were refitted in Portsmouth.

These included 40 battleships and battlecruisers, 25 cruisers and more than 400, yes 400, destroyers.

Smaller craft fitted out or repaired were 150 torpedo boats, 140 trawlers and drifters, 20 submarines and many other vessels. 

Within the same 1914-18 period, 1,658 war vessels were docked or hauled up on the slips for repair.

At all hours of the day and night ships slid in and out of the harbour although the principal movement of battleships took place in the hours of darkness.

While the people of Portsmouth slept, battleships and cruisers departed the city to sail to destinations unknown to many of the ships companies.

Some would never return.

• On November 29 I published a photograph looking north at the former crossroads outside the George Inn on Portsdown Hill.

If you recall, there were hundreds of people lined up at the crossroads and I asked if anyone knew why.

Bernard George (how fitting!) sent me a suggestion.

He tells me: 'It is possible that the photo of crowds at the George Inn coincided with a visit to Portsmouth by Winston Churchill. 

‘Crowds gathered to see him as he was driven back to London. The car slowed on the steep hill almost to a halt as the crowd surged forward. 

‘I was pushed right up next to the car and there was Mr Churchill sitting in the back, smiling, with a cigar and making his famous V for victory sign.’

Bernard tells me this occasion happened in the very early 1950s.

• I had to smile when I read that Demis Roussos had only played to a half-full Guildhall 40 years ago whereas the year before the venue was full and standing.

Perhaps his first appearance was not all it was cracked up to be. People are not fooled twice.

My parents told me that in years past plays and shows went on tour before appearing on the London stage.

Apparently, if a show did well in Portsmouth the management knew it would do well in London theatres.

It seems that Portsmouth audiences were so critical a good all round look at a show could be made and any changes needed carried out.

• Last Friday week I wrote about the famous old Corner Restaurant in Commercial Road (now the Guildhall Walk section of it).

I mentioned that on the opposite corner stood the Wiltshire Lamb pub.

The leeetle grey cells must have packed up on me when I wrote that because, of course, I should have said it was Yorkshire Grey. The Wiltshire Lamb is now the Hampshire Boulevard.

Thanks to sharp-eyed Peter d’Agostino and for his complimentary comments. Apologies.

• I’ve also received an e-mail from a former police inspector at Havant about the 1977 Fleet review. Unfortunately, among the many dozens of e-mails i receive I deleted it. If you read this can you please contact me again. Thank you.