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History of the building

Boathouse 6

Portsmouth Dockyard is the oldest of all the Royal Dockyards. Its lineage can be traced back to the reign of King John and the year 1212. However, King Richard the Lion Heart is reputed to have founded a dockyard when he granted the town of Portsmouth its first Royal Charter in 1194.

The dockyard is probably the world’s longest serving industrial complex still on its original site and performing its original purpose. For well over 200 years of its existence it was the largest industrial complex in the world. During the First World War it employed over 25 000 men and women. At its peak, during the Second World War, its working population has never been fully calculated as out-stations were set up from Bournemouth to Brighton which all came under the Portsmouth Dockyard Authority.

During its lifetime the dockyard has set the standard in many industrial processes and buildings, of which Boathouse No.6 is one. Boathouse No.6 was designed by Lieutenant Roger Stewart Beatson of the Royal Engineers between 1839 and 1845. Building began in the winter of 1845 and was completed in November of 1848. The purpose of the building was the construction and repair of small ship’s boats.

The building is special due to the sheer size of its cast iron structure and the way that the tall, graceful columns support truss girders.  It is the trussing of these girders, however, that make it truly unique.  This technique became fashionable in the 1830s, being mainly used for railway bridges where it was found that long cast iron beams would quite often fracture under their own weight.

Trussed girders went out of fashion after 1847 when Robert Stevenson’s Dee Bridge collapsed while a train was crossing, leading to considerable loss of life.  However, the design of the girders in Boathouse No.6 is subtly different in the positioning of the anchor points for the trusses and this has made all the difference to its strength and longevity.

During the Second World War about a third of the roof and second floor of the building together with the upper part of the eastern wall were destroyed by 500 pound bombs and incendiaries.  This damage was temporarily roofed over and has provided the space in which the ACTION STATIONS auditorium now stands.

When Boathouse No.6’s boat building days were over, the building became a temporary exhibition space and has been a temporary home to exhibitions such as ‘Dockyard 500’, ‘Anne Frank: A History’, ‘World of 007’ and ‘The Star Trek Exhibition’.  In 2002 Boathouse No.6 was presented the Portsmouth Society’s prestigious ‘Best Restoration’ award.

The Mast Pond

The Mast Pond is an imposing feature at the front of ACTION STATIONS.  It covers some 1.25 acres and is partially hidden by Boathouses 5 and 7, the homes of the Mary Rose Story and the site’s main restaurant, Dockyard Apprentice Exhibition and the Nauticalia store respectively.  The Mast pond was excavated in 1665.  The work was started by Dutch prisoners of war who were paid one and a half pennies a day.  After complaints by local towns people the Dutch were sent to Portchester Castle and the locals were hired to do the work. 

The original purpose of the Mast Pond was the storage of the logs needed to make masts, spars, yards and booms etc.  It was NOT for seasoning wood.  The timber was sunk to the bottom of the Mast Pond by chains.  This complete immersion prevented the logs from splitting along the grain.  The term used for this cracking or splitting was ‘shivering’, hence the phrase ‘shiver me timbers’.

The Mast Pond is estimated to have originally been about 19 feet deep.  This means that today the silt at the bottom of Mast Pond must be some 12 feet deep.  There are known to be at least two boats buried in this mud and it is rumoured that the Mast Pond may even lay on the site of the original King John’s Dockyard of 1212 which suggests that it could be the repository of a lot of other interesting artefacts.