Royal Graffiti Historical Summary

Why a Yard?

Dockyard, Our Heritage
Wharf Renovation  Archaeological  Artifacts
  First Yacht Nelson 


1776 View  


English Harbour:

The First 2,000 Years

Taken from a Museum publication of the above name

to which references are noted.


A Historical Summary




Up to 1725  The Pre-Development Era                                                                         


The story of English Harbour begins with prehistoric Archaic occupation about 500 BC, Arawakan speaking Indians arrived shortly after the birth of Christ and those prehistoric times lasted until around 1400 AD. About 1640 the first Europeans settled near English Harbour, mainly at Falmouth which was probably Antigua’s first European establishment, (see 1676).

English Harbour was first used for the careening and repairing of warships in the 1650’s. The first recorded ship in the harbour was a yacht being used by the Governor of the Leeward Islands (see 1671). For over half a century the harbour was used by warships for self refits. A Royal Naval Yard was subsequently developed and the first buildings were erected (1725 et seq.).


1725-1744  Period of His Majesty’s First Naval Yard     


A Naval Yard on the east side was conceived on the initiative of the Antiguan planters at the suggestion of two naval Captains, who had been careening their ships in English Harbour (1725). The Antiguans motive was to obtain protection for their commerce, the need for which became urgent in the 1720’s because of hostilities between England and Spain. The building of a water catchment, with cisterns (still being used today) was voted by the Legislature to further encourage Royal Naval warships to use English Harbour.


1745 - 1783  Growth of the Yard in War and Peace      


There were several buildings surrounding a 50 ft. hill on the west side of the Harbour by 1745. One hundred and twenty enslaved Africans, ‘cheerfully’ lent by the planters (see 1749), finished cutting away the hill, thus making room for further expansion. This was none too soon, as the Seven Years War started (see 1756) because of colonial rivalry between Britain and France. The war was a continuation of long term hostilities.

During the war, ships based at English Harbour raided the Spanish Main. Enemy ships and privateers were very abundant during this period and H.M.S. Temple, for example, arrived at English Harbour for a refit having captured 20 enemy sail.

There were 167 workmen at the Yard, 70% of whom were black (1780). There were many shipwrights, some sawyers, blacksmiths, sail makers and caulkers, to name just a few of the skilled black artificers.

The War of American Independence caused great expansion in development. The Capstan House and the Seaman’s Galley  were built (1779) and the Joiner’s Loft, Working Mast House, Clothing, Cordage & Canvas Store and the Copper & Lumber Store were all built in the 1780’s.


1784-1793 The Era of Capt. Horatio Nelson             


It was now peace time after the War of American Independence. Independent America was therefore no longer British, and the Navigation Act provided that American ships (now classed as foreign) could no longer trade with the British colonies (1783). Captain Nelson of the frigate 'Boreas' made it his duty to enforce the Navigation Act. This made Nelson very unpopular with St. John's merchants and they threatened to sue him for loss of business (1784). As Senior Captain, Nelson became acting Commander-in-Chief for three months, as the latter had become ill (1787). When Nelson sailed for England at the end of 1787, he had a barrel of rum shipped to preserve his body should he die of an illness he had recently contracted.

After Nelson left, a period of preparation for war followed. Antigua was strengthened militarily as rivalries over the West Indian sugar islands were not yet over. A military complex overlooking English Harbour was being developed by General Shirley. At the Dockyard, a Pitch &Tar Store (Admirals Inn) was built and the harbour was cleaned out and deepened by the Bosun's enslaved Africans, the "King's Negroes".


1793 - 1815 Heyday of the Dockyard - French Wars     


Now followed the busiest period of the Dockyard's history, for war came close to Antigua. Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and Martinique (see 1794) all became British possessions and the French were endeavoring to regain them for their valuable sugar commerce. The Yard was often over-stretched with repair work and the issuing of supplies. Reserves became very short and sometimes used rope had to be given to ships in an attempt to keep them at sea (May 1804). Frigates of 28 guns were the most common vessels at English Harbour, followed by sloops, schooners and the larger ships with 74 guns. Disease and death was extremely prevalent and there was a great shortage of skilled labour. The Commissioner of the Yard was often in trouble from the Commander-in-Chief for not getting ships out of the Yard fast enough. On top of all this, privateers from Guadeloupe were aggressive (see 1804). It was indeed an exceedingly busy and harrowing time.


1815 – 1889 Peace & Decline              


After Nelson's victory off Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the tide began to turn in favour of Britain and finally, after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, hostilities ceased. A running down period followed at the Antigua Navy Yard (see 1816) and fewer ships called in. Attention then turned to capturing outlawed slaving ships (1842). A little later, English Harbour became a picking up point for Royal Mail ships (see 1862). As steam became more prevalent, the Yard developed into a coaling station (1850’s), at first on the east side and later at the Capstan House on the west side.

Ships of Queen Victoria's Navy called into English Harbour for self-refits and for collecting stores (1878). Then steam ships became too large for the harbour and the Dockyard was finally closed down (see1889). Throughout this period the Commissioner's House (also known as Clarence House) was used as a country residence for the Governors of the Leeward Islands (c. 1887).





1889 – 1930 Desertion and Decay                            


Royal Naval warships continued to visit English Harbour into the 20th century where self refits were carried out by their own crews (1890), as at this time the only employee at the Yard was a Caretaker. No maintenance of the buildings took place, so decay began to set in. The Admiralty transferred the ownership of the Dockyard to the Government of Antigua (1906). The Dockyard nearly became a sugar factory for the Willoughby Bay sugar growing division (1914). Thankfully this plan was turned down by the Government. During the First World War, sporadic training was carried out here by the Defence Force and other military units. Damage was wreaked by a strong hurricane in 1928, but may have been of some benefit, as in 1930 the Governor of the Leeward Islands took pity and started some restoration work.


1930 – 1950 First Attempts at Restoration                


Governor Sir Reginald St.-Johnston took an interest in the restoration of this historic site and published the first guide to the Dockyard (see 1930). The first major donor  (1933) was the Sun Assurance Company of Canada, their gift of £700 was used to restore the Officer's Quarters that had been damaged in the 1928 hurricane. Gradually, the Dockyard became a memorial to the British Empire (1935). Ships of the Royal Navy still visited but they were mainly training ships, so that their cadets became some of the first 'tourists' to enjoy this historic naval site (March 1948). Britain sent out an architect from the Ministry of Works to write a report on the state of the Yard It was found that £40,000 was required for repair (see 1948). The report also stated that a use of the Dockyard was needed for its support and it was suggested the buildings could be used for the extraction of fish oil (see 1948). However, the following year in March 1949, a schooner arrived from England and became the first charter yacht of the Eastern Caribbean. This yacht charter industry thus became the much needed use of English Harbour that would bring it life.


1950 - 1981 Restoration and Rehabilitation    


Two hurricanes occurred within ten days  and again a Governor of the Leeward Islands, Sir Kenneth Blackburne, took pity on the buildings. When visiting refugees in the Officer's Quarters, he saw a beautiful schooner alongside the wharf. He knew she had already been taking charters, so an idea struck him (October 1950) - why should the old buildings not be used to service sailing ships, this time for yachts rather than men-o'-war?  Sir Kenneth established the Society of Friends of English Harbour and restoration began in earnest (1951). Much of the financing came from a London Repair Fund which Lady Churchill and many other famous personalities supported (Feb 1955).  Visits from naval ships became more frequent and were instrumental in restoring the old Dockyard by sending ashore many work parties (March 1952, March 1953, 1958 etc)). Visiting yachts arrived to carry out self-refits, and then yacht facilities were gradually developed, so that the Dockyard was once more able to carry out repairs (1968). History had turned full circle from the self-refits of the early 18th and late 19th centuries. Ten years after the formation of the Friends of English Harbour, the Dockyard had arisen from ruin to being a living monument, and it was reopened with much ceremony on Prince Charles' birthday. English Harbour became an important part of Antigua's tourism product, especially when cruise ship passengers first started visiting in the 1960's. The Governor's dream in 1950 had come true...



1981 - 2000 Independence and Industry   


Antigua became fully independent from Great Britain in 1981. The Government had been slow to take an interest in running the Dockyard and Antiguan residents were slow in taking up opportunities created by the booming yacht industry, in fact the hotels of English Harbour were considered more important to the economy than the visiting and charter yachts. The non-Antiguans were also slow to realise that it was essential for Antiguans to take a major part in the development of their prime historic site (1981). Changes needed to be made, and the Society of the Friends of English Harbour was disbanded and a temporary body called the Dockyard National Park Foundation was established (see 1982). This body was not legally well founded, but with Canadian aid and advice an organisation known as the National Parks Authority was set up. It has done a magnificent job in preserving history and generating employment for Antiguans. A fine balance between commercialism and historic preservation has been achieved, thus setting an example for as yet other undeveloped heritage resources in the Caribbean.









This view is from "the hill near the Park", which is the present Lookout at Shirley Heights. The portly figure seated to the right probably represents the Governor, Sir Ralph Payne, later Lord Lavington. He entertains his naval and army officers at a picnic. To the left and to the right can be seen servants, their presentation may be satirical. Both imitate the actions of the whites in ways which were widely held to be ridiculous by the ruling elite: the black servant drinks straight from the bottle, and the mulatto servant to the right is well dressed with an elaborate head-dress and copies the relaxed poise of the seated man next to him. A peeping slave may be seen under the Governor's raised arm.

In the distance is Monk's Hill, the Navy Yard, Fort Berkeley, Freeman's Bay and Fort Charlotte, just below. This is the only known illustration of how the latter fortification appeared.

The original watercolour over pen and ink, 52.7x152.4 cm, was executed by Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) in 1776. Reference from a Christie's Catalogue: Museum of A&B, Box H-33.





THE DOCKYARD:             



In Antigua’s southeastern corner lies a jewel of a harbour, completely enclosed by land and rugged hills. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the sugar trade, so economically important to Europe’s warring nations, was threatened, the admirals of England’s navy chose this harbour to establish a repair yard in the Eastern Caribbean. This historic treasure, the Dockyard, was built using the skill, ingenuity and combined effort of the colonial residents of both African and European descent. Our ancestors laboured to build it under difficult conditions, and we must treasure this heritage.


I would like to tell you some stories about the Dockyard as we walk around the buildings. Entering the main gate, with the Porter’s Lodge to the right, we can see a ship’s bell high up. This was the bell of HMS Tartar given to the Dockyard in the 1930’s to replace the original taken by her name-sake in 1889, when the Yard closed down.


A little further to the right is the sawpit shed. An inclined plane was built so large timbers could be rolled up to be placed over a pit for sawing into planks and other sizes. Here one sawyer would be in the pit pulling a large handled saw down, while another on top pulled up. This is the oldest part of the Dockyard surviving; it dates 1769. To the left are the Joiner’s Loft and a Boathouse. Next right, is the Naval Officer’s House. Now an interpretive museum, it tells the story of English Harbour from prehistoric times to the present day, including Antigua Sailing Week., the Classic Yacht Regatta and the Nicholson Yacht Show.


Under the Officer’s Quarters beyond, behind the stone bottom half of the building, are twelve water cisterns measuring 16 ft. by 20 ft., holding as much as a thousand tons of water. This water was once led out to the ships alongside the wharf in leaden pipes. Rainwater was caught from nearly every roof in the Dockyard and directed by wooden troughs from building to building to the cisterns. In a room of the Officer’s Quarters is an 1888 carving made by a Midshipman, Robert Arbuthnot, who became the Admiral victor of the famous Battle of Jutland in World War I. In the Cordage & Canvas Store opposite, was another example of graffiti said to be drawn by King George V when he was Midshipman on HMS Canada in 1884. The inscription said “A Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year 2 You All”. The Dockyard caretaker in the 1930’s charged visitors six pence a peep!


A little to the north is a massive anchor weighing about 7,000 lbs, the size used on the largest battleships of the day. Now it marks the spot where Lord Camelford shot another officer. After a quarrel over who was the senior. It is placed alongside a large stone slab built to hold down two anchors. When ships were careened (to be pulled over on their sides) the masts were attached to the ringbolts of these anchors. The stonework and anchors acted to bear an enormous lifting strain.


In the middle of the Dockyard stands a timepiece made in 1777, which still tells the time. It is a sundial! It is built on rocky ground that once supported a fifty-foot hill. Enslaved Africans broke up  this hill when the Dockyard was enlarged about 1745.


In the old days, a tub of water was kept in the middle of the Dockyard. This was for ducks and geese to wet themselves. Of course, there was no refrigeration then, so poultry just wandered around the Yard, ready to be caught for some senior officer’s dinner. The diary of a sailor in 1799 tells us that he once saw a goose holding the head of a duck underwater, to drown him for the space. Sounds like animal politics to me! The same sailor said he had spoken with an old black woman who had come from Makoko near the Lake of Zambra on the east coast of Africa. He said she still spoke her language. She asked if he would take her back to Africa … but obviously, this was just wishful thinking.


One of the duties of the Navy in peacetime was to patrol the seas searching for slave ships coming in from Africa. The trade had been illegal since 1807. In 1814, four hundred and two Africans were liberated and brought into Antigua. I suppose liberated means they could work for wages and did not have to be owned by anyone. Several Africans were sent to the Dockyard to be trained as skilled workers. They were known as the King’s Negroes and they were given nautical names such as, Jibstay, Tom Tackle, M. Shroud, Ben Block, B. West and Jack Ratline.


A certain shipwright, from Chatham, England, was posted to the Dockyard in 1771. He was a devout Methodist and during his spare hours, he preached to slaves living in a row of thatched huts outside the Dockyard Gate called ‘Porter’s Row’. At night he apparently slept on a large table in the middle of a hut, surrounded by coops of chickens whose vermin beset him. Eventually he preached further afield to the slaves in the country and in later years in 1784 (the year Nelson arrived) he became the first Methodist Minister in the West Indies. This man’s name was John Baxter and the Methodist Church at English Harbour is named in his honour.


Presently, the stone wharfs of the Dockyard are being strengthened, as there has been underwater erosion over the years. The European Union in cooperation with the National Parks Authority is funding the project. The old stones are being lifted and large modern cast concrete blocks are being placed underneath as a firm foundation. Forty Antiguan Africans built the original wharf about 1821. The stones were quarried from the hill to the south of the Dockyard gate and there fashioned into huge blocks. Those had to be transported by sheer strength to the waterside and then placed on a firm foundation underwater. At times the wharf collapsed when under construction and had to be brought up by free diving. The whole project was a truly amazing feat done without any modern equipment, and it was accomplished by Antiguans; black and white men working together.

Let us all be proud of our Dockyard!

   Desmond V. Nicholson





Today the historic Dockyard at English Harbour is named in honour of :





Nelson was an English naval officer, lord and national hero.


Captain Nelson, age 27, arrived in English Harbour on HMS Boreas in July 1784.

He was unpopular in Antigua as he enforced the Navigation Act which forbade American ships (since 1776, a foreign nation) from trading with a British colony,

However, he was very popular with his men.


At English Harbour Nelson:-


·          Established a mess for the officers. On August 3rd 1784, to start it off, he ordered to be sent from St. John's by the sloop FURY, a hogshead of port and one of the best white wine, 12 dozen porter in bottles, 50 lbs. loaf sugar, a firkin of butter, 2 baskets of salt and 2 lbs. black pepper.

·          Encouraged amongst his men during the hurricane season, music, dancing and cudgelling (a fighting games with sticks).

·          Organised amateur theatricals.  Some of the plays were:- The Orphan, King Henry IV, Lethe, The Lying Valet, King Lear, The Fair Penitent and Jane Shore.

·          Had six pails of salt water poured over his head at dawn

·          Walked a mile at night without fatigue, but was "housed' all day

·          Took a quart of goat's milk each day

·          Was "most woefully pinched" by mosquitoes in spite of his net


Nelson was married to the widow Nisbet in Nevis on March 11, 1787.

He was the Senior Captain at English Harbour for a few months and became temporary Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands Station in 1787.

Subsequently ...







This inscription reads 'A Merry Xmas 2 you all' and was painted by the then Prince George of Wales when he visited Antigua while serving as a Lieutenant on H.M.S. Canada. It was once located in an arch of the Cordage & Canvas Store. The Dockyard caretaker once charged 6d for visitors to take a peek.  It is believed to have been destroyed in the 1950 hurricanes.  Note the reference to Gilbert & Sullivan's "Our Saucy Ship's a Beauty!" showing at the same time.

A newspaper cutting in Sir Hesketh Bell's photo collection (Janus Y3011E) reproduces a photograph, crediting it to Dr Louis W. Sambon. That paper dates the painting 1884, although a letter from Sandringham confirms Bell's date: 'I have laid before the King your letter of the 19th December to Lord Stamfordham, together with the photograph ... His Majesty remembers forming one of the party which went ashore to paint this inscription, although he does not believe that he, himself, painted the whole of it.' [From Clive Wigram, later 1st Baron Wigram, Assistant Private Secretary to the King, dated 8 January 1914].









Naval Officer’s Antigua Navy Yard Correspondence in the Dockyard Library:

          Vol. I - From Naval Officer Antigua Yard                1755 - 1794

          Vol. II -                   ditto                                      Jun 1795 - May 1800

          Vol. III -                  ditto                                      May 1800 - Jun 1810

          Vol. IV -                  ditto                                      Jun 1810 - Jan 1824

          Vol. V - Navy Board                                               1758 - Dec 1781

                                                                                     Jan 1824 - 1825

          Vol. VI -   ditto                                                      Dec 1781 - 1784 (Some ref. Capt. Nelson)

          Vol. VII - Expense Book  (on ships under repair)       1781.


Extracts from Letter Books of Hood & Cochrane, 1803 - 1805.

C-in-C. Leeward Islands correspondence to the Commissioner, Antigua Yard.

Vol. I -  1803 Hood

Vol. II - 1805 Cochrane.


Extracts from the Journal of Boatswain Francis Fox of the Antigua Naval Yard, 1820 – 1823.




A millennium is a long time! At the change of the last millennium, 999 A.D., (999 years after the birth of Christ) the Amerindians were beginning to leave Antigua and Barbuda and a millennium before that they had just arrived and replaced the Archaic people of our islands, who had arrived TWO millenniums before that! I open an article about the Dockyard with this millennium data just to demonstrate the short time the Dockyard has existed in our history for it was first built in 1725 which is only about a quarter of a millennium ago.

WHY THE DOCKYARD WAS BUILT - The sugar industry had begun to enrich the European nations at the time English Harbour was first used and planned as a Royal Dockyard. The navy was sent to patrol the Eastern Caribbean thus protecting England's valuable sugar islands. That is why the Dockyard was built - to repair and maintain His Majesty's ships so they could be kept at sea far from home. Wars between the European nations had raged for nearly 100 years and climaxed at the turn of the18th century. So let us examine the Dockyard 200 years ago, the time of its heyday.

WHAT EXACTLY WAS THE DOCKYARD USED FOR? - Mainly the Yard was used to enable ships to keep at sea, by carrying out essential repairs and careening. This might include the replacement of damaged masts, rigging, and repairs to hulls, but the Dockyard was never used for the rebuilding of ships or for major repairs. Here ships were supplied with stores, including food for the men and shot for their ordnance. Dockyard functions were of other kinds too, for example, the housing of the sick and wounded. At one time the Naval Officer was asked to supply coffins for the naval hospital, but he replied that this was beyond the call of duty.

Technical details of stores issued.    Ref: Antigua Navy Yard "Expense Book", 1781.

As careening was commonly carried out in the Yard, supplies for this purpose were often issued from the stores and included copper sheathing, lead sheet, rosin, tar and tar brushes, and loose hair, cartridge paper and brown paper (the latter three were alternatives for packing between the copper and the ship's planks).

Here is an interesting statistic: An 18 gun sloop's weather works and sides consumed 14 gallons of yellow paint, 10 of white, 6 of red and 4 gallons of black paint.

Another issue of stores, for caulking and paying a small ship of 8 guns, was of oakum, 2 barrels of pitch, 56 lbs. of brimstone (sulphur) and 112 lbs junk (old rope).

It is interesting to note the many varieties of  hinges and locks that were available in the working Dockyard, for instance these kinds of hinges were stocked: butt, dovetail, dozen garner, scuttle and side hinges. The types of locks were: chest, hanging (padlock), cupboard, stock and hasps & staples.






Slide Show

Throughout most of the year 2003, the old stone wharf of the naval dockyard was renovated, as much undermining had taken place below sea-level.. The original stones, quarried, cut and placed about 1821, were removed and later mounted on a modern foundation of pre-cast interlocking blocks.


After a concrete slab was poured over the pre-cast blocks the original stones were replaced so that the old wharf appeared as of old. Bollards and electric outlets were placed along the new wharf to encourage yachting visitors.


The year was important in the history of the yard, as it was converted into a modern marina. The Dockyard was now developed for modern use!


During the work, the remnants of the original wooden wharf were found under the old stone wharf. Four very large 12 ft. long anchors weighing 2.7 tons were lifted from under the stones. Their rings had extruded from the wall to moor warships under repair.



Before and during the renovation, archaeological work was carried out and many interesting artifacts were located.  Rest cursor over picture for caption - To EXIT, go to "Back"












The 70 ft. schooner "Mollihawk", was the first charter yacht to be based at English Harbour. The first voyage was made by Mr. John Archbold, who owned Springfield Estate in Dominica. He was staying at the Mill Reef Club in Antigua and the best way of getting to his plantation was by sea. Subsequently other charters emanated from Mill Reef and so the Antigua charter industry was born.


The yacht, bought during the war, was sailed to Antigua by the Nicholson family who were emigrating from England in 1948. The ship was built in 1903 in southern England, was built of teak, and her displacement was 52 tons with a waterline length of 51 ft.


Updated by DVN, 14 March 2005