The Rundown

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The Beginning of the End?

By the late 1970s change in the Dockyard was inevitable as traditional trades declined and new technology demanded new specialist trades. The government's report The Royal Dockyards a framework for the future (1979) stated that the role of the Royal Dockyards was to repair ships of the Fleet in peace and war and conduct other maintenance work. The government's intention with the proposed cuts to the defence budget was to reduce the size and scope of the civil service and seek the most cost effective way to meet the Navy's requirements for repair, maintenance and modernisation of the fleet.

Click here for an interactive timeline of the rundown

Two years later in 1981 John Nott the Secretary of State for Defence issued a white paper entitled The Way Forward which announced a defence review to reduce the amount of dockyard labour. He explained in Parliament that there was a strain on the defence budget. Nott also announced plans for the new nuclear defence system, Trident which would replace the existing system of Polaris by the 1990s. This provoked a reaction in the Dockyard workers who made a direct connection between the spending on Trident and the proposed jobs cuts.

Hanged mannequin
Hanged mannequin (PRDHT)

Between 1981 and 1984 the details of the defence review were discussed, negotiated and actioned. Two dockyards, Plymouth and Rosyth, were to remain fully open. Portsmouth would remain open but only in a maintenance and repair capacity. This extract from Keith Thomas who was the Chief Executive of the Dockyards explains the reasons behind the decision. more.

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"Even when I was a constructor in the 1960s there were terrible labour problems because I think, with 2 groups, the ordinary labourers, we used to have very critical shortages because of the seasonal holiday trade that during the summer months the causal labourer, and you depended on them for a lot of things, would just take themselves out of the dockyard and get jobs in the sort of leisure, holiday industry where they would get much more pay and then would clamour to come back in the winter months. So there was always a big problem with getting enough labourers and paint hand, brush hands in Portsmouth."


In the earlier stages of the negotiations the government hoped to reduce the civilian Dockyard workforce to 1200 workers, a reduction of almost 5800 workers. The government reviewed the defence policy as a result of the Falklands War and decided to increase the numbers working in the Dockyard to 3300, 500 of which were service personnel.

To reduce the numbers of compulsory redundanies the government introduced a number of measures.

  • Natural wastage was one way of doing this, which meant when someone left or retired their post, was not filled.

  • Recruitment was also kept to a minimum, existing staff in areas of surplus were used to fill vacancies

  • Managers offered voluntary premature retirement to grades and specialisations where it was necessary to reduce numbers further.

  • Devonport and Rosyth Dockyards were built up at this time and the admiralty offered transfers to these dockyards

The reaction to the redundancies and run down by Dockyard workers was passionate. On 7 July 1981 thousands of Dockyard workers made their way to London to meet up with their colleagues from Chatham Dockyard in a mass lobby of Parliament while the House debated the planned defence cuts.

Protest march
Protest march (PRDHT)

Protest march
Protest March (PRDHT)

Secretary of State for Defence John Nott visited Portsmouth on 9 September to tried to address a crowd of 2000 Dockyard workers outside Central Office Block I. It was to be a low-key visit but a crowd gathered when they realised that he was in the Dockyard. Nott emerged to address the crowd and faced a barrage of hammers, iron bolts, tomatoes and eggs - not the reception he had expected. Nott returned to the building through a damaged glass revolving door and left the building and Dockyard disguised as a policeman.

Hard negotiations between the Trade Unions and the government finally came to a close with an agreement. From the 6925 member of staff employed in the Dockyard in June 1981, there was to be a reduction down to 2800. The reason for the increase from 1200 to 2800 plus 500 Royal Navy staff was both a reaction to the Falklands War, and the agreement of the Trade Unions to accept new working practices. Some of these practices involved an element of inter-changeability between uniformed and civilian staff. Another new introduction were multi-trade gangs. These applied to craft and non-craft industrials and meant that they would be more efficient employees because they had a greater range of skills.

Graph showing number of workers
Graph showing number of workers