Royal Naval Museum



Museum history

Storehouse No 11 was the first of the Great Storehouses built from 1763 onwards as part of a major expansion of Portsmouth Dockyard. It and its two neighbours, were therefore able to play a part in supporting the British naval effort culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, would have known these buildings, just as his flagship, HMS Victory stands guard over them today.

The storehouses were designed and built by shipwrights and local "brickies" (the structure of the attic is very reminiscent of a ship). Originally, they stood on the waters edge (Watering Island), with Semaphore Tower, which was reclaimed later and were "ready use" stores, housing spare gear - rigging blocks, gunnery equipment, and so on. Material was loaded into the storehouses from the landward side and ship's boats would come to the jetty on the waterside to collect their supplies. (Because of the difficulty of getting in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, sailing ships only entered the harbour if they were going into dock or needed extensive repairs).

The Great Storehouses were designed to be grand and imposing - an expression in bricks and mortar of the power of the Royal Navy. Today, they still retain their naval link and their role as stores, but now it is the heritage of the Royal Navy, through the collections they house.

The Royal Naval Museum was founded in 1911 as the Dockyard Museum by Mr Prescott-Frost, the Secretary to the C in C Portsmouth. The Foundation Collection consisted largely of ships relics (in particular, ship figureheads and models) and general naval memorabilia.

During the 19th century HMS Victory had been moored in Portsmouth Harbour as an accommodation and occasional flagship. Visitors were allowed on board and a small Nelson collection was established. In 1922, under the aegis of the Society of Nautical Research, HMS Victory was brought into dry dock and after the major restoration was open to the public in 1928.

The Society of Nautical Research's plan also involved the removal of the small museum to a new specially built museum ashore in the dockyard to house the exhibits. This was finally achieved in 1938, with the opening of the Victory building on the site of an old rigging house close to the ship. The Dockyard Museum closed and was combined with the Nelson collection in the new museum.

In 1972, Mrs Lily McCarthy, an American lady offered the McCarthy collection of Nelson commemorative items to the nation, at the same the Great Storehouses became surplus to requirements and her collection was opened to the public in May 1972.

It was then decided to amalgamate both the Victory and the McCarthy collections and so the Royal Naval Museum was founded as a Ministry of Defence (MOD) funded museum, with the addition of further galleries covering the modern Navy and fitted out by the DPRN (the part of the Navy that deals with recruitment).

In 1975 the Museum acquired another private collection from Captain Kenneth Douglas-Morris, a collector of naval memorabilia, books and medals, from which a series of new galleries were opened to tell the story of the Royal Navy and its earliest times to the present day.

During the same period, the curatorial staff has gradually improved the standard of the cataloguing and storage of the collections. In particular, a computerised system was launched in 1984, as a result of which a large percentage of the collections are now on computer.

In 1985 the Museum was devolved under the National Heritage Act and became a Trustee-run Museum, assisted by grant-in-aid from MOD(N).

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