Victorian Cast Iron Buildings and the Royal Navy

S7 cropped smallThe Pembroke Historic Naval Dockyard Digital Model for our AHRC Connected Community partners Pembroke Dock 2014 is progressing well here at the DBHG. We’ve had a lot of enquiries about the model from naval historians across Europe and people from the Pembroke area so we thought we’d better update everyone on progress. As you can see from these images the extent of the site being digitally reconstructed is large and relatively flat within the confines of the yard itself. We are modelling each of the buildings individually before dropping them into this site model. As you can see the dry docks and the covered slips have already been inserted – there are many more buildings that have to go in and Steffan, Asem, Alexandra and Ben are working on these. The covered slips and docks allowed wooden warships to be built in the dry and in some secrecy. They were innovative structures first built in wood but later in cast and wrought iron and it’s clear that they significantly influenced the development of later Victorian large span civil buildings but exactly how is less well understood. The reasons for this are interesting. The use of cast iron for building structures had first been demonstrated in fireproof mill buildings like the very early Ditherington Flax Mill, at Castle Foregate in Shrewsbury, 1796-7 AD by Charles Bage (1751-1822) and slightly later by two Scottish engineers Charles Baird (1766-1843) and Matthew Clark (1776-1846) working with the French architect Ricard August de Montferrand (1786-1858) in the design of the Cathedral of St. Isaac in St. Petersburg in 1818-5. Sir Joseph Paxton assisted by Decimus Burton used cast iron extensively in the Conservatory at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (1836-40 AD demolished 1920 AD) and it was lessons learned here and with his iron founder partner Sir Charles Fox (1810-74) who’s company Fox, Henderson and Co. fabricated many of the components for the Crystal Palace in London in 1850 (and later for the Royal Navy Dockyard Covered Slips) that convinced the British Navy that cast iron would be an ideal material for large span covered slips and sheds. The British Navy had a long tradition of building large span covered dockyards in wood (some of them are shown here in the Pembroke Dockyard Model) but between 1844 and 1857 at least 16 new Royal Naval dockyard buildings were built in the UK with cast iron or wrought iron roof structures or a composite construction involving both.  These culminated in The Boatstore at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Sheerness (1858- 60) by Col. Godfrey Thomas Greene, who from 1850 to 1864 was Director of Engineering and Architectural Works to the Admiralty. This building which was the culmination of half a century of experimentation and calculation is widely regarded as the precursor of the modern steel frame. The use of cast and wrought iron by the Royal Navy provides a remarkably clear record of the evolution of skeletal structures in the 19th century and Pembroke Dockyard once had an extensive collection of these innovative structures covering its slipways, largely built between 1845 and 1855. Two composite cast and wrought iron covered slips are shown here in the Pembroke Dockyard model, these are the buildings with the triangular pitched roofs at the far end of the yard. Four of the older wooden types are also shown to the left of them. The best preserved example of this older wooden type is the No 3 Covered Slip at Chatham Royal Naval Historic Dockyard. From a historical point of view it’s difficult to assess the influence of these early Royal Navy large span cast iron structures on civil applications because being admiralty buildings they were a state secret – the high technology of their day – but it is clear that the leading designers in cast iron like the Rennie family (Sir John Rennie the Younger, his his brother George Rennie and their father John Rennie the Elder ) were working on both civilian and Naval projects. It would be useful to see the very good existing research that has been carried out on Royal Navy dockyard buildings like these extended to more fully map the links through their designers to innovative 19th century civilian architecture.

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About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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