Military History Monthly’s roving museum explorer Keith Robinson visits a storehouse of naval ‘big bangs’.
A lesser known museum on the Gosport side of Portsmouth Harbour is well worth a visit. As with the Royal Navy Submarine Museum nearby, the most fun way to get there is by using the Portsmouth Harbour waterbus service, which runs from April through September. This connects both museums with Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and offers the chance for a waterborne view of the Navy’s current fleet docked in Portsmouth. Displaying a great collection of naval ordnance and weaponry, the museum also conserves many of the 18th-century buildings of the Royal Navy’s former armaments depot at Priddy’s Hard.
This was not only a place to store ‘big bangs’: explosive matériel was also made here, by a largely civilian staff. Originally this had been a man’s job, but during WWI women replaced the menfolk who went off to war. Women continued to work here during the inter-war years, and during the Second World War the depot employed over 2,500 female workers. The museum adds this social history aspect of Priddy’s Hard to the mix of its fine collections displayed in historically important buildings.
The story of the munitions workers forms the theme of the first main gallery, after the entrance display and the inevitable shop. This is the Locker Room and, as its name suggests, is a utilitarian arrangement of lockers. Unprepossessing at first, it is definitely worth engaging with, for each locker has a story to tell.
Open a locker door and you find it a window on the life of someone who worked at Priddy’s Hard. Inside will be a display of objects, whether the clothes they wore or the objects they owned or worked with. I particularly liked the story of one lab worker who related how the staff would smuggle food into the workplace despite regulations: ‘You always had a piece of the floor you could lift up. Underneath would be your tea can, and that’s where you could put your sandwiches, your “scran”… There’s nobody about, make a cup of tea!’
The Grand Magazine and Fighting Sail
The stories continue in the centrepiece building of the complex, the Grand Magazine, a wonderfully barrel-vaulted space given over to a series of audio-visual displays on the workings of Priddy’s Hard. The Grand Magazine was the first building constructed on site, and by 1780 around 6,500 barrels of gunpowder were being stored here.
A special pathway, or rolling way, was constructed to take the barrels of gunpowder to the Camber Basin, where the ‘powder hoys’, specially designed small sailing craft, waited to carry the powder to the fighting ships in Portsmouth Harbour. Today this activity is represented by a series of life-sized figures pushing barrel-laden trolleys or returning empty ones for refills.
A couple of the most modern galleries then tell the general story of naval ordnance. The ‘Age of Fighting Sail’ gallery details equipment pre-Ironclad Age. A reconstruction of a cooper’s workshop shows off the skills and equipment that lay behind the making of those gunpowder barrels. But the main feature is a bas-relief tableau of sailors and ship, moulded around genuine objects and video screens that that tell the story of the period.
‘Fighting Sail’ leads to a further gallery called ‘Designer’s Workshop’ which revels in the astonishingly rapid developments in naval technology as the Industrial Revolution reached full stride. A case full of swords and sea-service pistols taking 1845 pattern 0.567in (14.40mm) balls gives way to the French five-barrelled 37mm Hotchkiss machine-gun of 1889.
Returning to ‘Modern Explosives’, a similar bas-relief frieze with objects and screens continues the story of naval ordnance through the 20th century. The industrialisation of warfare is self-evident with the serried ranks of shells creating eye-catching patterns.
After this, the galleries are devoted to exploring more fully different genres of explosive device. Mines, big guns, anti-submarine devices, torpedoes, and missiles are all covered in some depth.
In the mine gallery, a range of mines is displayed, several with video displays where you can find out about their designers, makers, suppliers, users, and targets – some of them are even suspended from the ceiling! A Mark I Majestic mine, used by the RN from 1942 and carrying 500lbs of explosives, has been sliced open to display its innards.
A large space is rightly devoted to the big guns of the Navy. An example of a 6in gun, as carried three to a turret on HMS Belfast, has pride of place. This was able to fire its 125lb shells at a rate of up to eight rounds per minute. Each of the triple-gunned turrets would have had its own Shell Room, and the whole ensemble would have taken between 20 to 30 men to work efficiently.
The anti-submarine section has an example of the British Squid Anti-Submarine 305mm Mortar, which saw service between 1943 and 1959. It is accompanied by a WWII Mark IV Depth Charge Thrower. In the Torpedo gallery, there is even a rare example of the first proper torpedo, known as the ‘Whitehead Torpedo’ after its designer. First made in the 1860s, this example survives from 1872.
All in all, the museum caters for a great range of interests and deserves to be better known than it is.