Sunday, 12 May 2013

I have been to … Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua

Nelson’s Dockyard is situated in English Harbour, which is on the south coast of Antigua, and only twelve miles from St John’s, the capital of the island.

Royal Navy recognised the harbour’s potential to act as a base for naval operations in this part of the Caribbean as early as 1670, and the construction of permanent harbour facilities began in 1725. By 1784 – when Nelson arrived to take up command – the naval base was well enough equipped to meet all the needs of the Royal Navy’s ships in the area, and had strong enough fortifications on the nearby Shirley Heights and the Ridge to be able to protect it from any potential attack.

By the end of the nineteenth century the dockyard was no longer suitable for the larger ships that formed the bulk of the Royal Navy’s battle fleet, and 1899 it closed. It then went into a slow decline and by 1950 it was to all intents derelict. In that year the Society of Friends of English Harbour was founded and since then the Society has not only preserved the main buildings and facilities but also turned the harbour into a tourist destination and a world-class marina.

Amongst the facilities built were a house for the Port Admiral, quarters for officers and men, a capstan house, a mast house, a smithy, an engineer’s office, and stores for copper (needed to sheath the hulls of ships to restrict the growth of maritime weeds and to prevent worm infestation), canvas, and wood. Thanks to Society of Friends of English Harbour most of these building have been renovated and put to use as a museum, restaurants, bars, and shops.

Harbour Gates
The Harbour Gates were originally kept shut and guarded at all times, and only opened when it was necessary.

Port Admiral’s House
This building now houses the Dockyard Museum.

It houses a number of ship models …

… as well as a model of the Dockyard, …

… and displays about the British Army Regiments that served as part of Antigua’s garrison.

Careening capstans
A number of reproduction capstans mark the location of the Capstan House.

The capstans were used to pull vessels over on their beam ends so that half of their underwater hull was exposed. This was then cleaned, damaged copper plates were repaired or replaced, and any defective planking likewise dealt with. Once this was done the ship was righted, turned around, and the other half was then given the same treatment.

Mast House
The Mast House has now been converted into shops.

Signal Locker and Paymaster’s Office
This two storey building originally houses the Signal Locker and the Paymaster’s Office, but is now used as a supermarket.

Copper and Wood Store
The former Copper and Wood Store has been converted into a restaurant, bar, and hotel.

Boat Builder and Joiners Shed
Part of the Boat Builder and Joiners Shed is still used for its original purpose.

Saw Pit
The Saw Pit has now been converted into a sail repair shed.

Officers’ Quarters
This building, with its long open first-floor veranda, is now used to house art studios and various businesses that support the local marina.

Other items of interest
The entrance to the harbour is protected by a small fort.

Within the Dockyard there are several artillery pieces on display. This one guards the entrance to the Port Admiral’s House …

… and this Carronade is located outside the former Mast House.


  1. Great pictures Bob- looks like it wa a great holiday too.

    Is it wrong of me (or just the wargamer in me) to look at the small scale model of the harbour and think of the gaming possibilities?



  2. Pete,

    It was a great holiday ... and I had very similar thoughts about the model dockyard myself!

    All the best,


  3. By chance, there was a documentary about the dockyard last week; archaeologists were excavating the bones of Georgian British sailors and discussing the reasons for the terrible mortality, there. I'm blowed if I can recall it's name, though...

    Cheers, Simon

  4. BigRedBat,

    The programme was entitled 'Nelson's Caribbean Hell Hole'. It featured Sam Willis and the work done by local archaeologists to excavate previously unknown burial sites on the beach at English Harbour.

    Interestingly there was no reference at Nelson's Dockyard to the work that had been done by the archaeologists. Perhaps it might be there in the future.

    All the best,


  5. That's it! It's strange how, with sufficient passage of time, a Hell Hole can become a pleasant marina catering to the rich, famous and wargamer. ;-)


  6. BigRedBat,

    The opposite is also true ... and I can think of a few places that were once idyllic and are now (almost) 'hell holes'.

    All the best,


  7. Interesting post. I have stayed on many of the islands you toured for a week at least, including St. Lucia, Barbados, and especially Tortolla. Haven't made it to Antugua or St Maarten as yet.

    Neslon's DOckyard sounds well worth the visit. When we have stayed on Bermuda (twice), the Royal naval Dockyard there is quite spectacular, with an excellent museum, which I barely got to skim. The rest of the family, none particularly history minded would spend about 60 seconds in a room where I could spend 15 minutes examining the exhibits, reading the legends, etc.

  8. Gonsalvo,

    Antigua is so laid back that it is almost horizontal! The people that we met were very friendly and helpful ... and a trip to Nelson's Dockyard is well worth it. (There are lots of shops for the retail-minded as well as a very nice bar that serves ice-cold Rum Punch.)

    St Maarten is a place that has developed to service the needs of the cruise industry, and from what I can gather quite a few visitors never leave the duty-free area at the cruise ship terminal. It is THE place to buy cameras and cigarettes.

    I don't think that P&O cruises go to Bermuda ... but if they do I would have thought that a trip to the Royal Dockyard would be on the cards.

    All the best,