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Deptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards

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Decline of the Deptford and Woolwich yards

Beginning of the end

HMS Semiramis.
View full size image HMS Semiramis, built at Deptford in 1808.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, the Deptford yard was in decline. The demand for new warships and for repair work dropped almost overnight when peace broke out.

The yard closed in 1869, throwing many out of work and causing great hardship to the local population. The yard was converted into the Foreign Cattle Market in 1871, which operated on the site until 1913. It is now Convoy's Wharf.

The shift from shipbuilding at Deptford

To the Kings most Excellent Majesty, This View of the Royal Dock Yard at Deptford.
View full size image The Royal Dockyard at Deptford.

Long before the yard's closure, Deptford's importance to the Navy had already begun to shift away from shipbuilding.

As early as 1742, a victualling (food and provisions) yard was set up to the northwest of the dockyard. At first, it chiefly supplied ships' biscuits, made only from flour and water to help preserve them.

Victoria's Yard

The entrance to the Royal Victoria Yard.
View full size imageThe entrance to the Royal Victoria Yard.

The complex was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard in 1858, following a visit by Queen Victoria. By this time it occupied 14 hectares (35 acres) and contained stores for clothing, food, tobacco and rum.

There were also slaughterhouses, pickling houses, brew-houses, and facilities for making chocolate, milling mustard and pepper as well as baking biscuits. The victualling yard closed in 1961 and the site became part of the Greater London Council's Pepys housing estate.

Woolwich: steam-power and closure 

Launch of HMS Agamemnon, 90 Guns at Woolwich Dockyard, May 22nd, 1852.
View full size image Launch of HMS Agamemnon, 90 guns, at Woolwich Dockyard, 22 May 1852.
Technological changes affected the Woolwich yard. The Navy chose it to build small steam-powered ships in the 1830s.

A new purpose-built steam basin and additional slips were added in 1831 and facilities for building larger steam vessels were completed in 1843.

By this time, covered slipways had been introduced to protect the workers and the ships as they were built. The launch of new propeller-driven steamers - like HMS Royal Albert in 1854 - marked a high point in the history of Woolwich dockyard. Just as with Deptford, the Woolwich yard closed in 1869.

Chatham and closure

A view of His Majesty's Dock Yard at Chatham in the County of Kent, on the River Medway
View full size imageChatham Dockyard on the River Medway.
The building of naval steamships moved to Chatham, which had better facilities. In fact, some of the Woolwich sheds and their machinery were transferred to Chatham.

The closure hit the population of Woolwich particularly hard, coinciding with a period of lay-offs at the Royal Arsenal. The hardship was such that a relief fund was set up to help families start a new life in Canada.

HMS Sans Pareil ready for launching, Thames Ironworks, Blackwall.
View full size imageHMS Sans Pareil, launched at Thames Ironworks, Blackwall in 1887.
Although both the Royal Dockyards closed in 1869, this did not mean the end of naval shipbuilding on the Thames. Private yards - such as the Thames Ironworks - were already being built to construct the new breed of ironclad warships for the Victorian Navy. These would preserve the historic links between London and the fleet.

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