The Southern Railway company began construction on Southampton’s new Western Docks in 1927. Around four hundred acres of land was reclaimed and an entirely new quay was created. This quay was nearly two miles long and it meant that the new docks could accommodate the world’s largest liners. It secured Southampton’s position as one of the country’s premier passenger ports, and at its western end was to be a new massive dry dock. When complete, this would be the largest dry dock in the world.
The dock was actually completed in 1934 but it was formally opened by King George V and Queen Mary on 26 July 1933.
The event was the talk of the town. The dock had been filled with water, an operation that took around seventy hours. Flags were raised on the poles above the town’s prominent buildings, special trains came in from London, children were given the day off school, and the ships in the docks were decorated with bunting. People descended upon Millbrook in cars and coaches, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their king and queen. Temporary stands had been erected along the sides of the new graving dock and people began to take their seats, singing songs and sea shanties to the music of the Docks and Marine Sports Band and the Royal Air Force band. Floral arrangements gently bobbed in the calm water of the dock. Across the entrance there was a ribbon of red, white, and blue.
Eventually, through the haze and heat, the royal yacht Victoria and Albert came into view. Thousands of eyes were upon her as she slowly sailed towards the new graving dock, past the existing docks with their colossal transatlantic liners, past the huge floating dry dock which had been opened by the Prince of Wales in 1924, and past dormant merchant ships which fallen victim to the economic depression. The public sought vantage points everywhere and cheers went up along Victoria and Albert‘s voyage by Southampton’s shores, but as she grew ever closer to the entrance of the new dock and its symbolic ribbon, a silence descended. The crowd, full of excitement and anticipation, watched on as the royal yacht crept into the dock. As her bow cut the ribbon, they exploded in a great chorus of cheering and applause.
King George V and Queen Mary were on the deck, alongside the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), as Victoria and Albert was berthed alongside in the great dock. A deputation of Southampton and Hampshire’s most prominent figures greeted the royals as they stepped onto the new concrete. The king inspected a guard of honour from the Hampshire Regiment as the royal party made their way to their seats at the head of the dock, and when they got there the entire crowd sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Gerald Loder, a director of the Southern Railway, offered a humble welcome to the king and queen and on behalf of the company he thanked them for coming to Southampton to declare the graving dock open. He told those present that it had been exactly forty-three years since Queen Victoria had opened Southampton’s Empress Dock. He commented on the fact that five years later the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII – had opened the Prince of Wales Dock, which at the time was the largest dry dock in the world. Then, Loder said, in 1924, the current Prince of Wales (who would become King Edward VIII in 1936) opened the enormous floating dry dock that was situated near Town Quay. Loder reminded the crowd and the royal family that Southampton had been the country’s number one embarkation port during the Great War, and during the conflict some eight million men of His Majesty’s forces had passed through the port on their way to foreign lands. He spoke of Southampton’s importance, and of the importance of the work that had been carried out by the Southern Railway company.
After Loder’s words, King George V addressed the crowd. His speech was widely reported in newspapers up and down the country:
‘The Queen and I have accepted with much pleasure the invitation to be present at to-day’s ceremony.
The association of my family with the great docks in Southampton Water is a long one, and I personally have a vivid recollection of that day in August, 1895, when I accompanied my father at the opening of the Prince of Wales Dock, the largest in existence at that time.
It affords me, therefore, special satisfaction to inaugurate to-day this splendid addition to the dock system of the port.
From the early days of our overseas trade Southampton has held a foremost place in the commercial life of this country. This position it has retained as the result of wise and continuous development, and its record as a port of embarkation during the years of the Great War will never be forgotten.
It is as true to-day as ever that the welfare of this country is largely bound up with the prosperity of its seaborne traffic. Realising the vital need for efficiency in our ports, as in all other requirements of our Merchant Navy, I look upon the opening of this, the largest graving dock in the world, as a good augury for the future of Southampton.
I must express my admiration for the enterprise displayed by the Board of the Southern Railway in undertaking this great work in such difficult times. I congratulate the contracting firms and the engineers on their success in carrying it out, and I rejoice to think that the building of this dock has given the blessing of employment to many who would otherwise have been without it.
I have much pleasure in declaring the dock open for use and in naming it “The King George V Graving Dock.” And I pray by God’s blessing it may serve to foster and increase the commerce of Southampton.’
After the king had named the dock, Queen Mary christened it by pouring a cup of Empire wine into the water. A short religious service was held by the Bishop of Winchester and presentations were made to the king and queen. The national anthem was sung once more, and cheers were raised as the royal party made their way back to Victoria and Albert, which then carried them back to the Isle of Wight.
Despite having been opened by the king on 26 July 1933, the dock was not actually completed until the following year. On 19 January 1934, RMS Majestic, at the time the world’s largest ocean liner, became the first liner to use the dock when she arrived for her annual overhaul.
In 1936, the year King George V died, RMS Queen Mary was put into the King George V Graving Dock for some finishing touches before her maiden voyage to New York. The dock had been built so that Southampton could continue to accommodate the world’s largest liners, but in the years between its conception and the arrival of Queen Mary, the ships had grown even bigger. Queen Mary, named after the woman who had christened the dock with the goblet of wine, carefully passed through its gates, and according to contemporary reports there was just eight feet of space between the side of the ship and the entrance to the dock.
Southampton played a vital role in the Second World War. Not only was it one of the most important embarkation points for the Normandy landings, but the floating bombardon breakwaters, which were part of the famous Mulberry harbour, were built inside the dry dock. Before that, British Army Commandos had used the dock to practise for their raid on Saint-Nazaire. There were too many similarities between the King George V Graving Dock in Southampton and the Normandie Dock in Saint-Nazaire for it to be ignored, and the men used it extensively in their preparations. The remarkable raid on Saint-Nazaire took place in March 1942, and commandos succeeded in destroying the gates and machinery of the dock. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to men for their heroism during the extraordinary raid.
For three decades the King George V Graving Dock was the largest dry dock in the world. Its construction was innovative and its scale was awe-inspiring. It was a major part of one of the nation’s most prominent ports and through its gates sailed some of the world’s finest ocean liners. It is still there today, nearly ninety years after it was opened by King George V and Queen Mary. In 2005, Associated British Ports agreed to terminate the lease on the dry dock, after which the gates were removed, leaving the dock permanently filled with water. The pump house survives, and in 2006 both the dock and the pump house were Grade II listed by English Heritage.
Sources and further reading:
Newspapers, various, 1933-1936, Findmypast.co.uk