The Society’s connection with Bermuda began in 2007 when the then Secretary Dr Ann Coats visited the archipelago to carry out research. The Bermuda Dockyard Apprentices Project, commissioned by the West End Development Corporation resulted in a pilot report called ‘Origins of Bermuda Dockyard’. This identified apprentices 1795–1797 and revealed that enslaved Bermudian naval base workers were acquiring their freedom by working at the first naval base in St George’s.
A meeting was arranged with the current ex-Apprentices in the Dockyard, closed in 1951 and managed since 1982 by the West End Development Corporation (WEDCo). WEDCo Acting General Manager Andrew Dias and Chairman Stanley Lee and the ex-apprentices made me very welcome and showed me many parts of the islands and their communities. The Executive Director of Bermuda Maritime Museum and author of Bermuda Forts, Dr Edward Harris, gave me a tour of the Casemates Barracks, freed from most of its 20th century prison alterations, and joined the Naval Dockyards Society. He has been a critical personality in restoring the dockyard buildings to interpret Bermuda’s history in the National Museum of Bermuda which incorporates Bermuda Maritime Museum.
Bermuda was strategically vital to the Royal Navy after Britain lost the North American colonies, its reefs protecting access apart from the defensible Narrows (Hurd’s) Channel. Later, deep water channels near Ireland Island and St George’s allowed inshore berthing for large ships. Continuous Bermuda naval support facilities began in 1795 when the Royal Navy needed a new base in North America during the French and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). In that year ‘His Majesty’s Naval Department’ was at St George’s, the oldest and largest settlement at the eastern end of Bermuda.
Bermuda, with Halifax Yard, became crucial in maintaining and refitting British ships, replacing facilities lost during the War for Independence. Midway between Halifax and the West Indian ports, its islands provided sheltered anchorages, hard limestone for wharves and buildings and a unique and durable native ‘cedar’, a juniper Juniperus Bermudiana which resisted shipworm and was ideal for boat building (in particular Bermuda sloops). After 1809 Bermuda built a careening yard and repair base on Ireland Island. From this date it evolved until in 1814 it resembled a home yard in its officer and physical structures, but lacked a dock until 1870. From 1820–1863 convicts were used to build the dockyard, living on hulks moored in the Camber. To complete its facilities, in 1869 HMS Warrior and other ships towed a floating dock from the River Thames across the Atlantic. In 1870 it was moored against the Great Wharf. Bermuda could then be called a ‘dockyard’.
Since that visit several articles have been written about Bermuda’s dockyard heritage, particularly after the NDS Conference and Tour held there in 2010, whose papers will be published in Bermuda Dockyard and the War of 1812, Transactions of the Naval Dockyards Society, 10 (2015).
Despite damage inflicted on the islands by Hurricane Gonzalo in October 2014, and a shortage of traditional building materials, it is not all gloomy news. A number of buildings within the dockyard will be refurbished for the 35th America’s Cup, to be held in Bermuda in 2017. On the community side, Norman Scotland, one of the 49 Bermudian dockyard apprentices sent to Portsmouth Dockyard in 1950 aboard MV Georgic, celebrated his 80th birthday in January 2015, and past dockyard workers are being traced through the Royal Gazette publishing old photographs.
All photographs taken by Ann Coats except the stairs group, which was taken by Charlotte Andrews.
Bell, J. (30 October 2014). Quarry sources sought as slate demands run high. The Royal Gazette.
Clark, C. (Nov 2012). Bermuda – A post-colonial challenge. Dockyards, 17(2), 21-7.
Coad, J. (1989). The Royal Dockyards 1690–1850: Architecture and engineering works of the sailing navy. Aldershot, Scholar.
Coad, J. (2013). Support for the Fleet. Architecture and engineering of the Royal Navy’s Bases 1700–1914. Swindon: English Heritage.
Coats, A. (July 2007). The Royal Dockyard at Bermuda. Dockyards, 12(2), 16-19.
Coats, A. (May 2009). Bermuda Naval Base: Management, Artisans and their Enslaved Workers, 1795–1797 – the Heritage of the 1950 Bermudian Apprentices. Mariner’s Mirror, 95(2), 149-78.
Coats, A with Harris, E. and Andrews, C. (Nov 2012). Bermuda: Britain’s second permanent settlement in the New World and a major Royal Naval Dockyard. Dockyards, 17(2), 5-12
Coats, A. with Coad, J., Burrows, S., Gray, J. and Hyde, B. (Nov 2012). Going. Going. Gone! Obliteration of Bermuda Dockyard Heritage: Victoria and Albert Rows and Ship Crest Paintings. Dockyards, 17(2), 12-18.
Coats, A. and Hyde, B. (May 2014). New solutions for Victoria and Albert Rows, Bermuda Dockyard. Dockyards, 19(1), 11-15.
Harris, E. C. (2001). Bermuda Forts 1612–1957. Bermuda: Bermuda Maritime Museum Press.
Hyde, B and Coats, A. (Nov 2012). The vanishing dockyard houses of Bermuda. Dockyards, 17(2), 18-20.
Ira, P. (3 Jan 2015). Celebrating one of the fabulous 49. The Royal Gazette.
Johnston-Barnes, O. (28 Jan 2015). Team Oracle submits plans for base. The Royal Gazette.
Jones, S. (14 Jan 2015). Relatives help name Dockyard workers. The Royal Gazette.
Jones, S. (19 March 2015). Premier happy with AC35 progress at Dockyard. The Royal Gazette.
MacGrath, L. (20 October 2014). Dockyard suffers significant damage. The Royal Gazette.
Simpson, L. (27 Jan 2015). Bringing Dockyard back to life. The Royal Gazette.
Bermuda – Further historic research to record the times of closure of the Dockyard
Last year I formed a Facebook group to collect and record the stories of the Dockyard workers and their families during and immediately after the Second World War (Bermuda Dockyard. Family life on the island 1936 to 1952)
In early 1950 the United Kingdom announced that Bermuda Dockyard would close within one year. This decision had a dramatic effect on the lives of both the families and personnel who were to be repatriated to the UK and on the well being of the people of Bermuda.
I am in the process of creating a record of this historic event and invite anyone with a story or with information from this period and specifically of the Dockyard closure to add to the record at https://www.facebook.com/groups/408892213001927/.
The dockyard, its township, residences, and facilities were abandoned within 9 months of that announcement. Repatriation to the United Kingdom involved 178 Service Personnel; 1124 civilians; 570 family members.
Some 500 Bermudians were no longer employed in H.M. Dockyard and the many businesses that supplied the Dockyard were left without an income or a market.
The Population of Bermuda in 1950 was about 37, 000 and the closure of the dockyard had a massive impact on the economy on many families and individuals.
Roger Bendall – Member of the Naval Dockyards Society