The Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, in a safe anchorage off the Solent, was established by King John in the early 13th century. Its strategic importance increased and probably reached its zenith in the 19th century when, in case of invasion, Portsmouth was fortified on the landward side with a series of forts (see Fareham). Three ships of major importance are conserved in the historic dockyard which also contains several buildings of significance in industrial history. The dockyard visitor centre co-ordinates facilities.
HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson, on which he died during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was built at Chatham in 1759-60, served in many theatres of war, and was retired in 1812. She lay moored at Portsmouth until 1922 when she was placed in dry dock. She is a superb example of an 18th century first rate ship of the line, carrying 100 guns and a crew of 800 men. She was much larger than most merchant ships of the period, and visitors can learn much from a visit about the construction of ships generally, as well as conditions on warships. Mary Rose a warship of the reign of Henry VIII was built in 1509-11 and sank unexpectedly in 1545. She was raised after much archaeological investigation in 1982 and is now conserved in the dockyard, together with displays of the artefacts recovered with her which give a comprehensive picture of life in a warship in the 16th century. The third ship, HMS Warrior, an armoured iron vessel, powered both by sail and steam was one of the largest ships of her time when she was completed in 1860s, but quickly became obsolete. She has been meticulously restored. Visitors can appreciate the working lives of sailors in the first steam propelled warships, on the gun deck, on the open decks and in the engine room. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is also in the Dockyard, and tells the story of Britain’s fighting ships and those who manned them over the centuries.
Many of the buildings in the Dockyard are still used by the Royal Navy, and are thus closed to the public, although visitors can view their exteriors. They include the Commissioners’ House, designed in the 1780s by the young Thomas Telford (1757-1834) before he embarked on his career as a civil engineer. The Block Mills built in 1803 contain the 45 machines, designed by Sir Marc Brunel (1769-1849) and made by Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) which produced 130,000 wooden pulley blocks annually for ships like Victory. The block-making machines are regarded as a milestone in the history of mechanical engineering, and some examples are displayed to visitors. The Steam or West Factory is a 190 m long, two-storey building at the side of the 2.8 ha Steam Basin, completed in 1848, which was built as the Royal Navy turned to screw-propelled ships. The upper storey, carried in a single span on brick vaulting supported by iron girders, accommodated shops for millwrights, turners and pattern makers. On the ground floor were a heavy turning shop, an erecting shop, a punching and shearing shop, and a boiler shop. A manually operated gantry crane that could lift engines or boilers remains in situ. The rope house at Portsmouth is one of the longest in Europe. The mast pond dates from 1665 and there are many storehouses and boathouse of the 19th century. Visitors can take 45 minutes tours by boat of other parts of the harbour.