Devonport Royal dockyard


Duration:326 years


Country: Plymouth, UK

What did this project achieve?

Construct a dockyard and base for Royal Navy ships to make repairs easier

Devonport Royal dockyard, also known as Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Devonport (HMNB Devonport), is the largest naval base in western Europe. The dockyard is one of 3 operating bases in the UK for the Royal Navy.

The naval base was established as the Royal Navy dockyard in 1691. The coronation of the Dutch William of Orange as king of England in 1689 had removed any naval threat from the Netherlands and attention turned to confronting Spain and France. This meant the Royal Navy needed a base in the west of England.

Surveyor to the Navy Edmund Dummer designed the new base with a stone-lined basin at its centre. This connected to the first ever stone dry dock – a dock that can be drained to allow access to the underside of a vessel for maintenance.

Dummer’s straightforward layout of the yard was considered revolutionary at the time. Aiming to maximise the available space, he put a centralised storage area next to the basin and maintenance workshops on site.

The dock expanded northwards over the next 150 years. Developments in the 19th century saw a new yard for building steamships and the construction of the ‘Prince of Wales’ basin. The new basin enclosed 35 hectares of water.

The 1970s brought 2 new docks and workshops to maintain the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines. The facilities were built to withstand large earthquakes.

Ships based at the port are known as the Devonport Flotilla. They include the Navy's assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.

Difference the dock has made

HMNB Devonport has played a key role in the naval defence of Britain for over 300 years.

The base has been an important part of the maintenance of the Royal Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is often viewed as a factor that allows the UK to ‘punch above its weight’ on the global stage.

Devonport is currently credited with supporting around 400 local businesses and contributing about 10% of Plymouth’s income.

How the work was done

Edward Dummer’s original design for the base was a major step forward in the construction of naval dockyards.

One key innovation for the project was to use stone instead of timber for the dock – this reduced maintenance costs and cut fire risks.

Dummer and his team built a dock with more secure foundations than had been seen before. He also gave the structure stepped sides. This made it easier for men to work beneath the hull of a ship when the vessel was in dry dock.

Another new feature was the 2-hinged sectioned gate for the dock. This was less labour intensive to build and easier to use than the more common 3-hinged gate.

Engineers laid out the dock with all the facilities needed to maintain ships onsite. Innovations here included the rope house workshop where ropes for ships rigging were spun.

Dummer designed a double-rope house for the dockyard. It combined a ground floor to spin ropes with an upper floor to be used for the repair of sails.

Most of the structures have been rebuilt since Dummer constructed them, including his basin and dry dock. They’re now known as Number 1 Basin and Number 1 Dock.


Using elements of mathematical calculation and… empirical observation Dummer tried to introduce a more rational, planned approach to the task of building ships and dockyards.

Celina Fox

'The ingenious Mr. Dummer: rationalising the Royal Navy in late 17th-century England.’ From the Electronic British Library Journal. 2007.

Fascinating facts

HMNB Devonport has 6km of waterfront, 25 tidal berths and 5 basins over an area of 2.6 km². It employs 2,500 people.

The dock has 14 dry docks, numbered 1-15 because there’s no number 13 dock.

Devonport is sometimes known as ‘Guzz’ by people who work there. It’s thought this comes from the Hindi word for ‘yard.’

People who made it happen

  • Original designer: naval engineer and shipbuilder Edmund Dummer

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