Portland Harbour

Portland Harbour is located beside the Isle of Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Construction of the harbour began in 1849; when completed in 1872, its 520-hectare (1,300-acre) surface area made it the largest man-made harbour in the world,[1] and remains one of the largest in the world today. It is naturally protected by Portland to the south, Chesil Beach to the west and mainland Dorset to the north.[2] It consists of four breakwaters — two southern and two northern. These have a total length of 4.57 km (2.84 miles) and enclose approximately 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of water.

Southern and eastern entrances of Portland Harbour looking northeast from the Isle of Portland across Balaclava Bay. The dark colour of the water between the two breakwaters in the foreground indicates the position of the scuttled battleship HMS Hood.
The western side of the Harbour with Chesil Beach, Lyme Bay and the Fleet Lagoon in the background.

Portland Harbour was built by the Admiralty as a facility for the Royal Navy (though access was also available to merchant ships);[3] on 11 December 1923 it was formally designated HM Naval Base (HMNB) Portland,[4] and continued to serve as such until closure in 1995.


Creation of harbour of refuge (1844–1872)Edit

The original harbour was naturally protected by the south coast of England, Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland, providing refuge for ships against weather in all directions except east. The harbour had already been used by ships for centuries when, in the 16th century, King Henry VIII built Portland Castle and Sandsfoot Castle to defend the anchorage.[5] Prompted by the expansion of the French naval port of Cherbourg, just across the Channel, the Royal Navy established a base at Portland in 1845 and a scheme for the harbour to be transformed into a refuge was granted parliamentary approval the year before. Portland was the first naval anchorage specifically designed for the new steam navy.[6] Similar harbours of refuge would be built at Alderney, Dover, Holyhead, and later (in response to the increased naval threat from Germany) at Peterhead.[3]

Dockyard Offices (left), built (as the Engineer's Office) by John Coode in 1848, extended to the west in 1910.[7] The extension to the right of the clock tower was added for FOST in 1988.

Construction of the two breakwaters began in 1849 when HRH Prince Albert laid the foundation stone on 25 July. Designed by engineer James Meadows Rendel, the work carried out under civil engineer John Towlerton Leather, with Rendel as engineer in chief (until his death in 1856), and John Coode as resident engineer.[8] During 1848, HM Prison Portland was established to provide convict labour to quarry the stone needed to construct the breakwaters and the harbour defences.[9] Known as the Admiralty Quarries, they provided 10,000 tons of stone per week.[10] The breakwaters were declared complete by HRH Edward the Prince of Wales on 10 August 1872. A major government project, the construction work had become Dorset's greatest tourist attraction of its time.[11]

Construction of harbour defencesEdit

The initial southern breakwaters were built between 1849 and 1872; meanwhile, various defences were created to defend the harbour. The Verne Citadel, designed by Captain Crosman R.E., was built at Verne Hill between 1860-81: the 56 acre fortress was designed for 1000 troops and had gun emplacements facing seawards on three sides.[12] Below the eastern side of the citadel, East Weare Battery was built during the 1860s, along with the detention barracks East Weare Camp.[13][14] On the end of the inner breakwater was the Inner Pierhead Fort, and on the outer breakwater the circular Breakwater Fort.[15] On Weymouth's side of the harbour, the Nothe Fort was built at the end of the Nothe Peninsula, and completed in 1872.[16] In 1892, the Verne High Angle Battery was built in a disused quarry near the Verne Citadel, but was decommissioned in 1906.[17]

As part of further defence works against the threat of torpedo attack, construction of the harbour's two northern breakwaters was carried out between 1893-1906.[18] In 1902, additional defences were constructed, including Upton Fort at Osmington and Blacknor Fort on the western side of Portland.[19] By 1903, the East Weares Rifle Range served the navy and other military soldiers on the eastern side of the island.[20] In 1905, the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse was erected on the southern end of northeast breakwater, where it continues to operate today.[21]

Establishment of Royal Navy at PortlandEdit

The harbour was envisaged primarily as a coaling station for the Royal Navy, being conveniently equidistant from the Royal Navy's two principal bases at Portsmouth and Devonport;[3] however it was also where the Channel Squadron was based, newly re-formed in 1858.

In the 20th century, Portland became increasingly renowned for its training and research facilities.[4]

Fuelling facilitiesEdit

Coaling shed (1856-60) on the inner breakwater. Coal was stored on the first floor and then deployed in railway wagons to waiting vessels moored along the length of the breakwater.[22]

Coaling facilities were initially integrated into the design of the inner breakwater. A new coaling pier was built between 1890 and 1896, and expanded coaling facilities were still being added in 1906.[4] During the 20th century the harbour increasingly became an naval oiling depot and, beginning in the early 1900s, the tidal creek the Mere began to be filled in for a vast tank farm.[6]

Naval baseEdit

Over time, Portland was successively the base for the Channel and Home Fleets, as well as part of the Reserve Fleet, and it also served as a depot for submarines.[23] In the early years of the 20th century it served as base for the Navy's first Torpedo Boat Destroyers.[4]

Naval Dockyard facilitiesEdit

In the 1850s it had been proposed that a full Royal Navy Dockyard be established, with three dry docks, three shipbuilding slips, a fitting-out basin and associated factory facilities. These plans were not carried through, however a floating dry dock was introduced in 1914, enabling Portland to function as a repair and refit facility,[4] and by 1914 Portland was officially listed as a Naval Dockyard (remaining so until 1959).[24] Onshore amenities included a range of storehouses, workshops and office buildings.[25]

Support facilitiesEdit

Support facilities for the fleet were also added over time, including a canteen and recreation ground.[25] The nearby Royal Naval Hospital in Castletown served the naval base from 1904 (replacing an earlier small hospital) until 1957, when it was handed over to the NHS.[26]

Research facilitiesEdit

The development of both the torpedo and the submarine led to Portland Harbour becoming a centre for research into underwater warfare, beginning with the establishment of Robert Whitehead's Torpedo Works at Wyke Regis in 1891. A purpose-built pier projecting into the harbour from the factory was used for torpedo testing and practice firing. The factory closed in 1997 and was cleared to make way for a housing development named Whitehead Drive, which includes a memorial stone and plaque to commemorate the factory.[27]

Training facilitiesEdit

In 1862 HMS Britannia was moored at Portland to serve as a training ship for naval cadets. She was replaced by HMS Boscawen in 1866 (following Britannia's relocation to Dartmouth). Boscawen was herself replaced in 1873 by HMS Trafalgar, which took on the same name. As the Royal Navy grew in size towards the end of the 19th century, additional accommodation was required for boys' training, which saw the arrival of HMS Minotaur in 1898 and Agincourt in 1904; they were named Boscawen II and Boscawen III respectively. All three Boscawen ships were sold in 1906.[28]

World War I to World War II (1914-1945)Edit

The increasing threat of conflict with Germany before the Great War erupted saw the arrival of the Dreadnoughts in Portland, while seaplanes began to operate in Portland's skies. King George V watched aerial displays from the royal yacht in the harbour in May 1912. This occasion saw a biplane demonstrate the first British flight from a moving ship, and afterwards the king took the first ever royal trip in a submarine. In 1914, the Grand Fleet assembled in Portland Harbour before sailing to Scapa Flow.[11] As a measure against submarine attack, the battleship HMS Hood was scuttled across the harbour's southern entrance in 1914.[29]

In 1917 the RNAS seaplane base at Portland was commissioned as HMS Sarepta. It was decommissioned two years later, but not before the establishment under its command of a 'listening school' to help develop hydrophone underwater listening devices and other anti-submarine measures, and to train personnel in their use. Its shore-based activities continued, moving from temporary accommodation in Weymouth to accommodation in East Weare, just south of the Dockyard. In 1924, Portland's Anti-Submarine School (having been consolidated with similar units from HMS Vernon and HM Signal School, Portsmouth) was commissioned as HMS Osprey, becoming an independent shore command.[30] Its facilities included laboratories and workshops, a large water tank for conducting experiments and an inshore testing site for trials of ASDIC on the inner breakwater (by the late 1930s over 200 civilians were employed in Osprey's ASDIC Research and Development Unit (ARDU)).[30]

From 1940, the harbour came under fierce German air attack, with Portland suffering 48 air attacks, in which 532 bombs were dropped, over the course of the war.[31] In July 1940, the anti-aircraft ship HMS Foylebank was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers and sank in the harbour. The second of only two Victoria Crosses awarded for action in the United Kingdom was posthumously bestowed on Jack Foreman Mantle, who died at his post on the ship. Although mortally wounded he continued to fire his gun against the attackers until he died. Mantle is buried in Portland's Royal Naval Cemetery, which overlooks the harbour.[32] In 1940-41, the Portland Naval Communication Headquarters was constructed, built into the hillside at the rear of the dockyard.[33]

On 1 May 1944, the harbour was commissioned as USNAAB Portland-Weymouth.[11] Both Portland and Weymouth were major embarkation points for American troops during D-Day, particularly the US 1st Division who embarked for "Omaha Beach" in June 1944. The King, Prime Minister Churchill and Free French leader Gen. de Gaulle came to see the great D-Day preparations at Portland when the harbour's activity was continuous. Following the end of the war, Portland's role in the liberation of Europe was marked by a ceremony in August 1945, when the American Ambassador John D. Winant unveiled a stone in Victoria Gardens commemorating the passing by the spot of 418,585 troops and 144,093 vehicles the previous June.[34]

During both World War I and II, the bay was filled with neutral ships at anchor waiting to be searched for materials that might be useful to the enemy.[6]

Post-war role and closure of naval base (1946-1995)Edit

After the war, in 1946, ten Phoenix caissons of the Mulberry Harbour were towed back to Portland, eight of which were later given to the Netherlands to repair storm breaches in the dykes in 1953.[35] The remaining two units now act as a wind-break, helping ships berth at Queen's Pier in the harbour.[36]

Admiralty Underwater Weapons EstablishmentEdit

Having suffered bomb damage, the ARDU had transferred out to Fairlie for the duration of the war. In 1946, however, it returned (having been renamed HM Anti-Submarine Experimental Establishment); over the next few years its headquarters on Balaclava Bay were rebuilt and extended, and it was again renamed as HM Underwater Detection Establishment (HMUDE).[30] At the same time, a new headquarters for the Admiralty Gunnery Establishment (AGE), which had transferred to Portland from Teddington, was built at Southwell between 1949–52; it, however, transferred again in 1959 (to Portsdown Hill), allowing the building to be taken over by the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment (AUWE), formed from an amalgamation of different establishments from different parts of the UK involved in researching and developing underwater weapons and detection systems (including HMUDE, which nevertheless remained in its Balaclava Bay premises).[37] The AUWE later became infamous for espionage infiltration, known as the Portland Spy Ring.[38]

Portland DockyardEdit

In February 1958 it was announced in Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty that Portland Dockyard was to close the following year (though the naval base would be retained).[39] At the time, the Dockyard employed 'some 1,600 industrial and non-industrial staff'.[37] Within the same statement Sheerness Dockyard and a number of other naval establishments were also slated for closure.

Flag Officer Sea TrainingEdit

As planned, Portland's Royal Dockyard closed in 1959, but the Naval Base remained open 'in support of the local establishments and H.M. ships using the harbour'.[37] From 1958, the base's main occupation was Flag Officer Sea Training, which was a major success, and the harbour soon became the world's premier work-up and training base. Aside from the training of Royal Navy ships, many ships of NATO countries also trained and frequented at the harbour.[11] Part of the Falklands War task force sailed from Portland in 1982.[40] In 1984, two large accommodation blocks, totalling £25-30 million, were built in Castletown as barracks for Royal Navy personnel, along with a sports centre.

RNAS PortlandEdit

With the advent of the helicopter and its importance as an anti-submarine weapon, an airfield was formed following World War II. In 1946, Hoverfly R-4Bs began operating from the base's playing fields, which were transformed into a landing ground.[41] In 1959, RNAS Portland was officially established as part of HMS Osprey,[41] further land having been reclaimed from the Mere the previous year to serve as a runway and landing area, and the old canteen building having been adapted to serve as a combined headquarters and control tower.[42] It went on to become the largest naval helicopter airfield in Europe.[25]


The Ministry of Defence continued to invest in HMNB Portland until the late 1980s; however in 1991 the closure was announced of both the naval base and the research establishments on Portland as part of defence spending cuts following the end of the Cold War.[6] There was opposition against the closure from the local economy, as well as all ranks of naval personnel, who felt Portland's surrounding coast was perfect for exercising ships.[43]

Royal Navy operations ceased on 21 July 1995 and the harbour was sold on 29 March 1996. FOST was relocated to Devonport.[40] Following this, RNAS Portland also closed in October 1999. The combined closure of all Portland-based establishments was believed to have cost the area 4,500 jobs, along with a loss of £40 million in the area's economy, according to a study carried out for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in 1995.[40]

Modern portEdit

The Harbour is the fourth largest as of 2016 man-made port in the world, after the Port of Jebel Ali in Dubai, the Ras Laffan Harbour in Qatar and the Cherbourg Harbour in France.[44] The breakwaters lead to a restricted water exchange which in turn leads to elevated water temperatures; several marine species inhabit the harbour beyond the typical northern limits of their range.[45] The harbour is designated as EU shellfish water and supports an important shellfish fishery and a marine ecosystem of high importance for biodiversity.[45]

The Harbour was sold off by the Royal Navy in 1996 allowing it to be used as both a centre for water sports and as a service facility for Channel shipping. Portland Port Ltd, formed in December 1994, took possession of the site immediately and their purchase was completed on 12 December 1996. The port's aim was of developing the ship repair, leisure and tourism potential of the harbour. One of the first arrivals at the new set up was a prison ship HM Prison Weare, which remained in use until 2006. Renamed Jascon 27, the ship left Portland under tow in 2010, bound for Nigeria, to be refurbished for use as an oil industry accommodation vessel.[6]

Portland Port Group became Statutory Harbour Authority for Portland Harbour on 1 January 1998, replacing the Queen's Harbour Master. In 2004 changes led to Portland Harbour Authority Ltd becoming the Statutory and Competent Harbour Authority and Portland Port Ltd the Port Operator. The commercial port has expanded since its initial establishment; the Britannia Passenger Terminal was opened by HRH Prince Philip on 14 July 1999. In April 2000 the contract was signed for a new bunkering jetty and berth, which came into service in 2005. However, despite published reports in 1996 revealing that Portland Port Ltd were interested in the renovation of historic coastal fortifications in the area, no restoration of any kind has taken place.[40]

Commercial activities on the water include specialist diving services for vessels and repairs & maintenance as well as a bunkering (fuelling) station. The port is used by all nature of vessels from commercial ships such as bulkers, tankers, container carriers car carriers, survey and Reefers etc. to British and foreign naval vessels. Commercial activities on the land of the dock estate include fuel storage, natural gas storage, several engineering facilities and a shell fish specialist.

The Portland Harbour Revision Order 2010 provides for the creation of new berths and hardstand areas at the port in order to allow increased commercial activities over the next 50 years. These new facilities have been identified as part of a master plan and business strategy developed by Portland Port. The development is designed to increase berthing opportunities and provide more operational land.

The four identified areas for development are:[citation needed]

  • Britannia Terminal Area
  • North of Coaling Pier Island
  • Camber Quay Development
  • Floating Dry Dock Development at Queen's Pier

The port also sees various cruise ship calls bringing visitors to the Dorset area. The Britannia Cruise Terminal, which was opened in July 1999 and again refurbished in 2005 has seen the likes of Royal Caribbean, Azamara, Club Cruises, Saga and Crystal Cruises use it as a start point for excursions in the wider Dorset region and beyond. In recent years the number of cruise ship calls have increased at the port.

In September 2022, a project costing £26m for a deep-water berth upgrade will begin.[46]


The harbour is a popular location for wind surfing, wreck diving and sailing. Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy which hosted sailing events in the 2012 Olympic Games, is located on the south-western shore of the harbour. The Royal Yachting Association had expressed interest in securing a suitable site locally for a number of decades, in order to make use of the harbour's natural advantages. However the opportunity did not develop until the end of the 20th century, with the withdrawal of the Royal Navy. The academy was established as a not-for-profit company in 1999, and originally operated from various disused military buildings and facilities. In 2003 the academy was able to start redevelopment of the site. In 2005 WPNSA was selected to host the sailing events at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Additionally Osprey Quay became an 80 acres regeneration project commissioned by South West Regional Development Agency in 2001. By 2012 Osprey Quay had been transformed with huge investment, offering over 11 hectares, a total of 60,000 square metres of business space.[47]

In October 2007 work commenced on a new marina and recreational boating facility. Some 250,000 tonnes of Portland Stone was used in creating the 875m breakwater and associated reclaimed land. This facility was open by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2009 and is situated directly adjacent to the National Sailing Academy. Apart from the usual freshwater, fuel, shore power and pump-out facilities the marina also has a bar/restaurant, 15 retail/business units and 5 larger commercial units.

In addition to Hood, there are other dive wrecks around the harbour:

  • on the inside of the harbour, against a breakwater:
    • Countess of Erme - barge 30 metres north of the Eastern Ship Channel
    • the Spaniard - barge 50 metres south-west of the Chequered Fort
    • a World War II landing craft and a Bombardon Unit, a harbour device intended for the D-Day beaches in Normandy, 50 metres north east of the curve of the south break water
  • in "open" water inside the harbour:

Grade listed featuresEdit

The harbour and dockyard has various buildings and structures that are Grade Listed.

The inner breakwater, with its jetty, former victualling store and Inner Pierhead Fort, are Grade II Listed.[48] The victualling store was built around 1850.[48] At the south-west end of Prince Consort Walk is a carved commemorative stone for the completion of the breakwaters in 1872.[48] The outer breakwater is also Grade II Listed.[49]

East Weare Battery was built in the 1860s to protect the harbour.[50] In addition to this, The 'E' section of the battery is Grade II Listed and has become a scheduled monument too.[51] East Weare Camp is Grade II Listed.[52] One of the most dominant of the defence structures is the Portland Breakwater Fort, located on one of the outer breakwaters.[53] It is Grade II Listed.[54]

In 1993, the Dockyard Offices became Grade II Listed.[55] At the end of Castletown village is the former Dockyard Police Station - also Grade II Listed.[56][57] At the top of the Incline Road is the abandoned Old Engine Shed that once served the cable-operated inclined railway that ran to Castletown through the Navy Dockyard that is now Portland Port.[58][59] The shed has been Grade II Listed since 2001.[60]

Breakwater defencesEdit

Situated across Portland Harbour's four breakwater arms are various defensive structures and related monuments. Many of these are still in existence today, however are derelict and remain unopened to the public. At the Breakwater Fort is a World War II 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement,[61] a pillbox,[62] and a battery observation post.[63] Further along the same arm, towards Portland, are two World War II coast artillery searchlights.[64][65]

On the northeast breakwater, at the southern end, directly opposite the fort, is the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse. The site was also the location of a coastal battery, known as A Pier Head Battery, which opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. In 1944 emplacements were constructed to replace the 12-pounder guns with 6-pounders.[66] A World War I torpedo station was also located on 'A' Head, using two 18 inch torpedo tubes which were operational from 1915 until 1918. It was put into operation again during World War II.[67] During World War II a petroleum warfare site consisting of four flame throwers were located on 'A' Head.[68] A World War II battery observation post survives.[69]

On the North Eastern Breakwater, within the centre area, is a World War II coastal battery with coast artillery searchlights.[70][71] Further along the arm is a 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement.[72] On the far end of the North Eastern Breakwater, on the Weymouth side, is the site of B Pier Head Battery. The coastal battery opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. By 1913 the battery's armament included four 12-pounder guns and a 6-inch breech-loading (BL) Mk. VII gun. The battery was decommissioned in 1934.[73] The same site featured a World War I torpedo station.[74] Additionally there is a World War I battery observation post.[75]

The Weymouth end breakwater features the C Pier Head Battery on the southern tip. The arm is known as the Bincleaves Groyne. The battery was opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. By the First World War the 12-pounder guns had been removed and replaced with a 6-inch breech-loading (BL) Mk. VII gun. The 6-inch gun was removed in 1924 and in 1934 two 12-pounder guns were transferred across from the recently decommissioned B Pier Head. In 1944 emplacements were constructed for two 6-pounder guns, but the guns were not mounted for a number of years.[76] At the C Pier Head Battery a World War II petroleum warfare site was constructed.[77] On site is a World War II 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement.[78][79]

On-shore defencesEdit

Aside from the East Weare Battery, and other related constructions, there are a number of defences built within the harbour's dockyard and surrounding area.

During World War II a number of anti-invasion structures were placed at Balaclava Bay, including an anti boat landing obstacle,[80] and a minefield.[81] A little further south is a coast artillery searchlight.[82] Another coast artillery searchlight was situated further south of this.[83] A number of pillboxes were built around East Weare Battery.[84]

As part of the defence for HMS Osprey, now demolished, a "Yarnold Sanger" pillbox is located on Incline Road, constructed during the Cold War.[85] In addition to this a World War II pillbox, with a possible machine gun post, is located at Upper Osprey.[86]

See alsoEdit


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  72. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420414". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
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  74. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1425452". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  75. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1425453". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  76. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1425450". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
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  78. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420415". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  79. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420416". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
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  81. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420417". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  82. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1425455". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 13 July 2014.
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  84. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420391". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  85. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1427854". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  86. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 1420393". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 30 July 2015.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 50°35′15″N 2°26′47″W / 50.58738°N 2.44632°W / 50.58738; -2.44632