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Rosyth Dockyard
Firth of Forth, Rosyth, Fife, Scotland, UK
associated engineer
The Admiralty
Sir Alexander Gibb
Babtie Group
date  March 1909 - March 1916, 1995 - 1999, 2008 onwards
era  Modern  |  category  Docks/Slipway  |  reference  NT096824
ICE reference number  HEW 2591
The dockyard at Rosyth, on the north side of the Firth of Forth, was constructed as a naval base for World War I battleships, and was also used during World War II. Later it became home to the UK's nuclear submarines. In 1997, it became the first British naval dockyard to be privatised. It is now used for the assembly of aircraft carriers.
In the early years of the 20th century, it was clear that war with Germany was imminent, and that the North Sea would be one of the combat arenas. Britain began building a new kind of warship to counter the threat. The battleships were named 'dreadnoughts' after the launch of HMS Dreadnought at Portsmouth in 1906 — the sixth ship in the Royal Navy so named. A suitable base was needed on the east coast. However, the naval dockyard at Chatham in Kent was too shallow, and Portsmouth and Plymouth too distant.
In 1903, the Admiralty (now part of the Ministry of Defence) bought some 479ha of land and 115ha of foreshore from the first Marquis of Linlithgow, John Hope (1860-1908). Its location on the north bank of the Firth of Forth provides easy access to the deeper waters of the estuary, leading to the North Sea.
A supply branch line to the railway between Dunfermline and Queensferry was built in 1905-7, starting near Jamestown and ending west of Rosyth Castle. Construction began at the dockyard site in March 1909 and the pace of work accelerated in 1912 as World War I (1914-18) approached. The contract was scheduled to be completed within seven years.
The original scheme consisted of a large deep-water basin entered via a lock, with two dry docks and provision for a third, plus an emergency entrance for use in case of damage to the lock. Outside was a tidal basin for submarines and smaller craft. Cranes, a power station, a pumping station, workshops, offices and storehouses were required. The dockyard site covers some 485ha, including 19ha of land reclaimed from salt marsh, and has 4km of waterfront.
The deep-water inner basin is 512m long and 457.2m wide and encloses water 11.8m deep. It has 2.2km of wharfage and an emergency exit 33.5m wide to the north of the entrance lock. There is a boat slip 61m long and 39.6m wide at its north west corner. The tidal outer basin to the east has three jetties where vessels can moor. It is 183m long and 143.3m wide and has a depth of 4.6m at low water spring tides.
The entrance lock crosses the site of Dhu Craig rocks at the south east of the inner basin — a channel had to be blasted through the dolerite rock. The arisings were used as aggregate in the mass concrete dock walls. The lock, which can also be used as a dock by sealing its ends with floating caissons, is 259m long and 33.5m wide at the entrances, with 11m of water over its sills at low water spring tides. An approach channel 320m wide for access to the lock was dredged to 11.6m below low water spring tides.
The first dry dock was built midway along the inner basin’s north wall. It was 228.7m long and 30.5m wide at its entrance, with 11m of water over its sill, and could be partitioned into two separate docks. In July 1910 it was decided that No.1 Dock would be enlarged to 259.1m long and 33.5m wide, and deepened by a further 600mm at the sill. A second dry dock of the same size was completed east of the first in 1914, and a third followed in 1916. The docks are founded on bedrock and have 7m thick concrete floors.
The contractor, Easton Gibb & Son Ltd, had two famous engineers among its staff — Alexander Gibb (managing director, knighted in 1918) and Guy Maunsell, who was with the company until 1914. They disagreed with the Admiralty over its specified construction methods and proposed more practical alternatives. These were eventually accepted, though valuable time was lost.
In particular, the seawalls bounding the inner non-tidal basin were constructed by sinking 120 hollow concrete monoliths, generally 13.1m square and 27.4m high, through the soft sea bed sediments and onto the firm boulder clay beneath. The Admiralty wanted these foundations constructed at sea, while Gibb urged that a cofferdam would enable work to proceed in dry conditions. After three years, the seawalls were still not complete and the Admiralty allowed the contractor to build a cofferdam.
When war broke out on 28th July 1914, the dockyard was still under construction. Warship repairs were carried out at berths in the outer basin. Construction of the workshops began in 1915 and the fuel oil depot was built 1914-19.
On 10th October 1915, the entrance lock was tested as an emergency graving (dry) dock. During pumping out, a part of the concrete floor was dislodged by water coming through fissures in the bedrock. Gibb had warned the Admiralty that their floor design was too thin, and now a more substantial replacement had to be constructed. This was completed on 16th February 1916.
The first warship to enter the main basin was HMS Zealandia (launched 1904), sailing through the emergency exit and berthing at No.1 Dock in March 1916 to mark the beginning of the dockyard fully-operational life. The entrance lock was used first in June 1916 by the battleship HMS Warspite (launched 1913), when she came in for repairs after critical damage sustained during the Battle of Jutland and on her way to Rosyth.
Though the dockyard complex was completed in seven years, it was not until 1922 that the contractor and the Admiralty reached a final settlement of the contract price.
At its peak, the dockyard had a workforce of 6,000 men. The town of Rosyth was built as a Garden City in 1915-8 to house those employed there. Workers were formerly housed in a settlement on Admiralty land known as 'tin town'. After World War I, trade at the dockyard dwindled and short-time working began in 1921. It closed in 1925 and was placed under a care and maintenance order the following year.
Rosyth Dockyard re-opened in 1938, as war was again imminent. After World War II (1939-45) it was redeveloped to refit conventional and nuclear submarines, frigates, minesweepers and offshore protection vessels. Britain’s first nuclear-powered submarine, another HMS Dreadnought, began her service here in 1963 and the third Polaris-armed submarine HMS Renown was refitted here in 1971-3. The Syncrolift, which lifts vessels out of the water for refitting or maintenance under cover, opened in 1980.
Babcock International has managed the dockyard since April 1987, and became its owner in 1997 after the government closed the naval base in 1995.
The last nuclear submarine refitting programme ended in 2003. Rosyth is now home to seven decommissioned nuclear submarines — the 4,600 tonne ‘hunter-killers’ Dreadnought, Churchill and Swiftsure, and the 7,800 tonne Polaris submarines Revenge, Resolution, Renown and Repulse. When these were decommissioned, the nuclear fuel was transferred to Sellafield in Cumbria and none remains at the dockyard.
A £40m upgrade of the nuclear submarine facilities in No.2 and No.3 docks, against potential earthquake damage, began in 1995, with Babtie Group as engineers. The idea was to protect submarines using the complex from seismic loading caused by light to moderate earthquakes (Richter magnitude 5 or less). By November 1997, work on the entrance lock was complete. The existing mass concrete walls were pinned to the dolerite bedrock with 1,200 rock anchors 16.5-30.5m long.
In 1999, a £2.5m earthquake-proof submarine docking cradle was completed in No.3 Dock. The vessel rests on timber and steel blocks profiled to the hull. These sit on four concrete rafts 29m high, 9m long and 500mm deep, ‘floating’ on 120 rubber bearings. This arrangement keeps the submarine vertical at all times — vital when unloading fuel rods from a reactor core — preventing core meltdown and minimising the risk of a nuclear accident. The dock is sealed by a new 6,000 tonne floating concrete caisson, which replaces the old steel gate.
In February 2008, a four year £50m contract was awarded to Rosyth Dockyard for the assembly of two 65,000 tonne aircraft (helicopter) carriers, each 280m long, 70m wide and 56m high. HMS Queen Elizabeth will begin service in 2016 and HMS Prince of Wales in 2019.
The work (engineered by Halcrow) includes modification of No.1 Dock, with 295 bored concrete piles 600mm in diameter and 150 rock anchors, and removal of granite blocks from the dock floor. A Goliath gantry crane with a 1,000 tonne lifting capacity will straddle the dock. The former emergency exit from the inner basin is being widened to 42m and fitted with a retractable sliding gate. Most of the north quay wall is being rebuilt.
Contractor: Easton Gibb & Son Ltd
Contractor (1995-9): Edmund Nuttall
Contractor (2008 onwards): BAM Nuttall
Cranes (1918): Sir William Arrol & Co
Bearings (1995-9): Andre Rubber, Burton on Trent
Electrical contractor (1995-9): E.J. Steill
Cradle positiong (1995-9): Heavilifts
Rock anchors (1995-9): Kvaerner Group Partnership
Welding (1995-9): Paisley Welding
Piling / boring (1995-9): Ritchies
Drilling / piling (2008 onwards): BAM Ritchies
Research: ECPK
"Discussion: H.M. Dockyard, Rosyth" by A.L. Anderson, A. Gibb, M.F.G. Wilson, E. Moir, G.E.W. Cruttwell, A. Binns, J.F. Ramsbotham and O. Faber, in ICE Proceedings, Vol.223, pp.65-76, London, 1927
"Alexander Gibb: The Story of an Engineer" by Godfrey Harrison, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1950, second edition 1966
"Rosyth Royal Dockyard Ltd’s strategy for decommissioning the Rosyth nuclear licensed site" by HM Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, Health and Safety Executive, Bootle, August 2004
"Maunsell: The Firm and its Founder" by Nigel Watson and Frank Turner, AECOM Technology Corporation, 2005
reference sources   CEH SLB

Rosyth Dockyard