The Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth opened in 1903 as only the second accommodation establishment the Royal Navy built ashore. The Admiralty originally named the establishment HMS Victory amid fears that Admiral Nelson's famed flagship would soon deteriorate. The Navy renamed it HMS Nelson in 1974 to avoid confusion.
The barracks bore witness to many significant events during the 20th century - from mutiny and mobilisation to the decline of organised naval accommodation ashore. The changes and events which took place at RNB Portsmouth during the period also illustrate wider issues of the functioning and operation of the Royal Navy at home and abroad.
Introduction - The story of RNB Portsmouth
Ship to Shore, 1903 - 1914
‘It is remarkable that so many hundreds should have been compelled to live in such undesirable quarters for so long.’
The Portsmouth Evening News, 30 September 1903.
The Royal Navy constructed the first naval barracks in Devonport, near Plymouth, in 1890. It was 13 years until Portsmouth opened its own barracks. The new buildings were constructed on the site of old Army barracks and other former military buildings.
Previously, five hulks - old ships no longer in service - provided accommodation for sailors in the dockyard. These were -
HMS Victory – Signal School and Receiving ship for Boys First Class.
HMS Duke of Wellington – Receiving ship for Stokers, Seamen, Artisan Ratings (ship’s company) and domestics.
HMS Marlborough – Wardroom and gun room officers and Stokers Second Class.
HMS Hannibal – Marines, New Entries and all other Artisan Entries.
HMS Asia – Warrant Officers, Engine Room Artificers, Chief Stokers and Chief Carpenters’ Mates.
Builders began construction work for the new barracks in October 1899 keeping only elements of the old buildings. The Admiralty opened the establishment on 30 September 1903, naming it HMS Victory.
The barracks housed 4000 officers and ratings from the old hulks. On the day of moving the Hampshire Telegraph reported that ‘The Hulks were vacated with no ceremony or regret as they were unpleasant and miserable quarters.’
Each block was divided into two sections under a Warrant Officer with the entire block under the command of a Lieutenant. Chief Petty Officers and Warrant Officers had accommodation block of their own. Compared to the old hulks, the new barracks were described as a ‘palace’ (Hampshire Telegraph), with electric lights and toilets on each floor and taps in every room.
In February 1904 the King visited the new barracks, the Prince of Wales also visited in March. Following this Royal seal of approval sailors made the final transfer from Hulks by April 1905.
Despite improved conditions the barracks was the scene for serious rioting on 11 November 1906. During the "On the Knee" Mutiny Stokers from the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth rioted in protest of an insulting order delivered to them during drill.
HMS Victory during World War One
One of the main roles of the barracks administration was to supply men for warships. Before the war First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher made changes to the manning of the Reserve Fleet and in July 1914 the Navy tested their ability to mobilise.
Due to this test at the outbreak of war in August 1914, Portsmouth Barracks was able to mobilise effectively. In the space of a few days all warships were manned to full complement. In the first few weeks of the war the barracks was a hive of activity. Depot staff set to work drafting men for ships and sending and receiving signals.
There was an oversubscription of reserves and the barracks was over full. Officers and Petty officers had resort to turning men away at the gate and request that they return home until needed.
Men awaiting draft filled their time keeping physically fit with activities such as boxing and football. Other entertainments such as concerts and cinema shows were put on. The Navy tightened security due to threats of espionage and armed sentries patrolled the barracks. Metropolitan Police guarded the naval base and lived at HMS Victory.
On September 25th 1916 Portsmouth Dockyard endured its first air raid. The Germans dropped two bombs - narrowly missing Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory and the capital ship HMS Renown. Luckily, bombs never struck the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth during World War One.
The number of men the barracks needed to house began to overwhelm the establishment. They set up an accommodation camp into the grounds of Royal Naval Hospital Haslar across the harbour in Gosport. The Navy had intended the camp to hold 800 men, but soon this figure rose to nearly 2,500. The men lived in tents and used wooden huts as mess facilities. By 1918 the Rear Admiral commanding Portsmouth’s General Depot had 22,000 officers and men under his command.
During the war many dignitaries visited the barracks including King George V on 28 May 1916 and the Duke of Connaught in September 1918.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), or Wrens also made a new addition to the barracks from January 1918. By the Armistice in November 1918 there were 1,148 Wrens serving in Portsmouth working in naval departments as cooks, clerks and store women.
There were 156 Wrens based at the naval barracks - 70 in the Pay office, 60 working in the Signal School and 20 employed as cooks and stewards.
Between the Wars
After the war HMS Victory’s administration had the task of 'demobilisation' - releasing men in the barracks from military service.
The barracks still had problems with space. Warrant Officers in particular had limited room. Between 1923 and 1926 constructors undertook building work on a new accommodation block to the north of the Parade Ground. The new 70-cabin block opened to Warrant Officers in December 1926
King George V bestowed a great honour when he approved the introduction of the King’s Colours to the Royal Navy, previously only given to the Army. Portsmouth was the first Command to receive their Colours on 29 June 1926. Chatham and Devonport accepted theirs later that year.
During the 1930s all three of the decade’s reigning monarchs paid visits to the barracks. King George V and the Prince of Wales visited before reviewing the Home Fleet in Weymouth, 1932, followed by King Edward VIII in June 1936. King George VI also visited in May 1937 for his Coronation Naval Review.
During the interwar years the barracks pioneered much social change in the Royal Navy. Much of this was the result of the mutiny at Invergordon in 1931. In 1935 the Admiralty set up a Welfare Organisation in the Commodore’s Block in the barracks. The Welfare Organisation aimed to help Portsmouth based sailors with any personal problems they had. The home ports of Devonport and Chatham soon followed suit.
Other innovations included the establishment of Victory Housing Society, providing cheap houses for sailors living in Portsmouth and a scheme to retrain sailors who were about to retire from service.
In September 1938 Hitler’s Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia – breaking the Munich Agreement. Again the barracks’ administration was occupied with mobilisation for war. The barracks called up Royal Naval Reserves to man the Reserve Fleet and again HMS Victory was packed to bursting point.
The Barracks during World War Two
World War Two broke out 3 September 1939 after the Germans invaded Poland. Fortunately, the invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year had tested the efficiency of the barracks’ mobilisation. As a result, once war started the barracks was ready.
Mobilisation was a rigorous process for both the Reserves and HMS Victory’s staff. Naval doctors, dentists and optometrists checked over all reservists before they were issued with kit and some advance pay. The men then set off in trucks to their designated ships.
On 19 December 1939 King George VI paid his first Royal visit of the war. The 6 000 men inspected provided an air raid shelter demonstration drill on the Parade Ground. In January 1940 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, also made the first of several visits to the barracks.
The German bombing campaign severely effected Portsmouth and between July 1940 and May 1944 the Germans performed 67 air raids on the city. The men of HMS Victory played a part in aiding the local population. Commander in Chief Portsmouth, Admiral Sir W M James, ordered 1 000 sailors from his command to help in clearing the streets. His ‘Friendly Aid Parties’ would travel to blitzed areas and assist citizens in the retrieval of valuables from their destroyed properties.
Admiral James also sent volunteers out to cultivate vegetable patches. The overflowing HMS Victory had established camps around the Portsmouth region such as the Belmont and Stockheath Camps in Havant. These camps also grew crops - and Stockheath Camp even kept pigs. Soon the Admiral sent men to aid the old and infirm by digging their gardens also.
Bombs hit the barracks for the first time during a daylight raid on August 12 1940. The bombs hit the south east corner of the parade ground damaging the bandstand, and the Wardroom the other side of the road separating the officer’s and rating’s barracks. If the bombs had landed on the air raid shelters, there would have been a great number of casualties.
The worst raids were to follow. On August 24 1940 the barracks escaped with minor damage. But HMS Victory was not so lucky on the next major raid in January 1941. On 10 – 11 March 1941 14 direct hits badly damaged the barracks killing 10 men and wounding 47. The largest raid to hit the barracks occurred on 17 April 1941 when a land mine destroyed the Sick Bay and part of the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess leaving 33 dead and 71 injured.
Post War Reductions
After the War the main job of HMS Victory’s administration staff was to deal with demobilisation. In 1945 there were 16 500 officers and men registered to HMS Victory. The RNB staff set up a camp in Stamshaw, to the north of the barracks, and discharged on average 3 000 men a week.
In 1945 the Navy began work on restoring the barracks. Sailors stationed at HMS Victory helped in clearing the site of rubble, painting and replacing broken panes of glass. Gradually, the Navy modernised the site. In 1952 constructors began work on the modernisation of the accommodation blocks. Between 1955 and 1959 constructors built a new Chief Petty Officers' accommodation block to alleviate pressures on the existing barracks after the War.
Social changes after the war began to affect recruitment in the Royal Navy. One deterring factor was how long men were away from home. The Navy found that there had been an increase in the number of young married couples after the war.
In 1954 the Navy began to lengthen the amount of time their personnel served ashore, shortening sea service. Changes were also made to the lengths of commissions abroad and the Navy also offered different types of commissions such as postings to home sea services or in the Reserve Fleet.
In 1956 the Navy introduced Centralised Drafting, ending the Home Port System. This had serious effects on the way that the Royal Naval Barracks worked. Admiral Frank Twiss explains why the Home Port System was abolished and what changed with the new centralised system:
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Admiral Sir Frank Twiss on the reasons for the abolition of the home port system. (RNM)
In August 1956 the New Entry Section moved from Victoria Barracks in Southsea into HMS Victory Barracks. The courses included Long Service Entries and those entering under National Service. Portsmouth received Seamen, Supply and Secretariat ratings, Telegraphists and Signal ratings, Tradesmen and Coders.
Each rating would enter the barracks for training for between two and six weeks, depending on their specialisation. The barracks would accommodate around 70 of these New Entries a week. By the end of 1957, however, the Royal Navy rationalised New Entry Section and split its responsibilities with other establishments.
The British Government ended National Conscription in 1960. Now the only recruits the armed services would receive would be volunteers. Social change in the Royal Navy after the war affected the barracks.
In 1966 the Armed Forces underwent a pay review. The Royal Navy began to change the way that sailors were paid in order to attract more recruits. The Navy began to scale their pay as equivalent to civilian salaries. This meant that sailors would no longer receive free accommodation in barracks and allowances for food and living costs. These expenses would be calculated and reflected within the new salaries. Frank Twiss explains the effect that such changes had on naval barracks and the Royal Navy in general:
“The result of these changes has been that few people now live in barracks at all. If they are ashore, they find their own accommodation, and they pay for it. In many cases, young officers clubbed together and shared a flat, and that’s what still goes on. They find their own accommodation and to that they are not under the same degree of naval leadership and discipline as when they were in barracks, where they could be called upon to take part in Mess Dinners and so on, and indeed where they lived a more club-like life than living ashore individually. It has had a strong effect of the espirit de corps of the whole Navy.”
The Admiralty had originally commissioned the establishment HMS Victory in 1903 as it was predicted that Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship would soon rot. Having one ship and one shore establishment named HMS Victoriy caused problems and in August 1974 the Navy changed the name of the Royal Naval Barracks to HMS Nelson.
In the early 1980s the Royal Navy made cuts to their shore establishments. By 1986 HMS Nelson was responsible for the administrative duties of the Torpedo School HMS Vernon (paid off in 1986 and amalgamated with Nelson) and HMS Excellent, which was at that point called the Excellent Accommodation Centre, until 1994.
In April 1996 HMS Nelson lost its status as a shore establishment and merged with the Portsmouth Naval Base.