Southampton’s historic steamship SS Shieldhall has been sailing out of a new home in 2021, following a 10 year tenancy agreement reached with Associated British Ports. Now to be found at Berth 110, visitors to the ship are afforded an up-close view of one of the most historic parts of Southampton’s Docks.
Located in the Western Docks and adjacent to the Container Port, Berth 110 offers an uninterrupted view of the 1 ½ mile long Western Docks, created in the 1920s and 1930s from land reclaimed from the sea, in order for Southampton to continue to welcome the largest liners of the day.
Visitors can admire the exterior of the historic and listed Pumping Station, built to serve the King George V Graving Dock. English Heritage state: ‘The No. 7 Pumping Station was built in the 1930s, contemporary with the King George V Graving Dock it served. The dock was designed for the repair and maintenance of the largest ocean liners operating at this time, and is of special historic interest for representing the peak of the transatlantic passenger liner trade in Britain. The inter-war classical style is impressive and temple-like.’
Opened on 26 July 1933, the Graving Dock was for nearly 30 years the largest dry dock facility in the world. Wonderful footage of the opening ceremony with King George V and Queen Mary, present on the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert, can be searched for online. It is recorded that Queen Mary tipped a cup of ’Empire wine’ into the dock to officially christen her! The King’s speech that day was given wide coverage:
‘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.’
The following year the dock welcomed its first vessel – White Star Line’s Majestic – at the time the largest ship in the world. Then in 1936 RMS Queen Mary entered the dry dock, to make good final preparations ahead of her maiden voyage to New York.
As well as welcoming the world’s largest liners, the King George V Graving Dock played an important role during the second world war. The Dock provided a training facility for commandos prior to the famous St. Nazaire Raid in 1942, described in military circles as ‘The Greatest Raid of All’. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded. The Dock was very similar in design and construction to that at St. Nazaire, with commandos practising the actions needed ahead of the attack.
The King George V Dry Dock was flooded in 2005, and today provides – together with an original docks crane – an atmospheric backdrop to Steamship Shieldhall, herself a member of the National Historic Fleet.
Shieldhall’s new home opens up many new opportunities to increase revenue, and equally importantly, provide a facility that groups can use for meetings, to celebrate events and to offer learning and development opportunities for young and old alike. Visits to the ship will no longer be restricted to just the summer months. A visit to Shieldhall is a unique experience, with visitors enjoying not just its facilities and access to the working areas of the ship, but also the opportunity to travel through the busy port of Southampton and catch a glimpse of the modern maritime industry.