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“Wooden Walls” of Buckler’s Hard

Many famous warships of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were built at Buckler’s Hard, on the Beaulieu River, Hampshire, a place conveniently situated near the stout oaks of the New Forest

Buckler’s Hard, on the peaceful Beaulieu River in Hampshire

ONCE A SCENE OF IMPORTANT SHIPBUILDING, Buckler’s Hard, on the peaceful Beaulieu River in Hampshire, is now a secluded hamlet. The river enters the Solent after a course of about 10 miles between rich meadows and forests of oak. Occasional patches of sand and gravel, known as “hards”, were convenient for shipbuilding purposes and in 1743 the first shipbuilding yard was established at Buckler’s Hard.

A VISITOR to the sylvan waters of the Beaulieu River, Hampshire, would find it difficult to associate the peaceful atmosphere which reigns there to-day with the noise and bustle of its shipbuilding a century or so ago. Buckler’s Hard, the centre of that activity, is now a village of one street bordered on either side by a wide stretch of grass and a row of Georgian cottages, with an old-world charm and quietness that is seldom met with in these days of speed and machinery.

Buckler’s Hard came into prominence during the first half of the eighteenth century. Many famous ships of the “wooden walls” era slid down its ways to do battle in defence of England and her Empire, including three vessels which were in Lord Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar. The Beaulieu River has its source in the eastern edge of the New Forest and winds its way a short ten miles or so to the Solent, which it enters just opposite Gurnard Head in the Isle of Wight.

Half-way along its course are the ruins of Beaulieu Abbey, founded by King John in 1204. Close by is Palace House, the seat of the Dukes of Buccleuch and their descendants the Dukes of Montagu. At this point the river widens and continues its winding course between masses of great oaks and rich meadows, with occasional patches of sand and gravel soil which for years had been used for landing-places or “hards”.

The largest and best of these is three miles below Beaulieu on the right bank and is close to a spring of fresh water. Used for centuries by fishermen, it became known as Buckle’s Hard, probably a contraction of Buccleuch, and now known as Buckler’s Hard. It was here that John, second Duke of Montagu and grandson of the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, established Montagu Town. Owning extensive sugar plantations in the West Indies, he prepared plans for building a great port to handle his imports and to build his own ships.

The Beaulieu River having at its source a plentiful supply of good timber, the Duke soon realized the prosperity which would accompany shipbuilding, particularly as only four miles away were the Sowley Pond ironworks, where the great forge hammer was worked by a water wheel.

In the days of wooden shipbuilding oak was the principal wood used, on account of its toughness and durability. Its timbers, however, were short and great quantities were required, as many as 4,000 trees being felled for building a first-rate ship. Each tree yielded about a load and a half of timber at the end of a hundred years’ growth, a load being calculated at 50 cubic feet and weighing two-thirds of a ton. After the trees were felled they were taken to the slipway and cut to the required shape with as little delay as possible.

The keel was laid first, followed by the stem and stern posts, ribs and beams. When these were all in their correct positions, work would cease for sometimes as long as twelve months to allow the timber to season in its shape, the whole being covered with a rough roofing to protect it from the weather. When work began again the seasoned planks for the sides were built on to the ribs, the deck planking was fitted to the beams, and then all was ready for “caulking and paying”, filling the seams between the planking with oakum and paying with hot pitch.

Great quantities of timber were being-used more quickly than the trees could be grown, and English forests were beginning to show signs of shortage. Colonial oaks were tried as well as foreign oaks from North and South America and from Germany. Italian oak proved the best of the imported timber, for it had an added advantage in the excellence of its curvature. This, however, did not solve the problem satisfactorily so far as naval shipbuilding was concerned, and many prominent people viewed with apprehension a possible shortage. According to a government survey made in 1783 the New Forest contained 33,666 loads of oak timber suitable for naval use.

The Beaulieu River also had other advantages for shipping, among the most important of which were the privileges of a Cinque Port, exemption from taxes and the right to make local by-laws, privileges originally granted by King John to the Abbots of Beaulieu.

By way of further inducements to attract an enterprising shipbuilder, a piece of land was offered, 170 feet deep by 40 feet frontage, at a yearly ground rent of only 6s. 8d., to include three loads of oak timber free for every house he should build.

These allurements appealed to the firm of Wyatt and Company, who had been shipbuilders at Bursledon, on the Hamble River, for some years. In 1743 they established a shipbuilding yard at Buckler’s (or Buckle’s) Hard. Although the Duke desired to perpetuate his name in this new industrial centre by calling it Montagu Town, the local inhabitants would have none of it. It was Buckle’s Hard to them and Buckle’s Hard it must remain. So it continued and prospered. Although in 1748 the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle gave St. Vincent and other islands to the French and ruined the Duke’s West Indian trade, shipbuilding had gained a firm footing, even in so short a time, and continued in importance until the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The most prominent person associated with Buckler’s Hard shipbuilding was Henry Adams, who appears to have been overseer for Wyatt and Company when they built their first ship there, the Surprise, a 24-gun frigate launched in 1745.

Three Years on the Stocks

Henry Adams soon became Master Shipwright, and for the next half-century built ships there and at other government yards. Born in 1713, he lived to the great age of 92, and during his association with Buckler’s Hard resided in the house which still stands at the bottom of the street overlooking the river and is known as the Master Builder’s House.

The frigate Surprise was already in commission with the Scorpion, an 18-gun sloop launched in 1746, the second Hard-built ship, when war was declared against France in May 1750. These vessels did good service, but the Scorpion foundered during a gale in the Irish Channel in 1761. Two years previously the Mermaid, a 24-gun frigate launched from Buckler’s Hard in 1749, had been lost with all hands off the Bahamas. In 1753 the Lion, a transport vessel, was launched, followed by the Kennington and the Gibraltar, both sixth-rate, 20-gun ships, in 1756. A sailing lighter of 56 tons and the Coventry, of 28 guns, took the water in the next year. The Levant, a 28-gun ship, and the Thames, a fifth-rate, 32-gun vessel, followed in 1758.

In 1764 the 64-gun ship Europa was launched. She was the biggest vessel built at Buckler’s Hard up to that time. Following this, there was an absence of launches for some years. This did not imply empty slips, for in the wooden shipbuilding era vessels were on the stocks for thirty months, three years, or even longer. In 1773 the Greyhound and the Triton, sixth-rate ships of 28 guns, and the Thetis, a fifth-rate of 32 guns, were launched, and another 64-gun ship, the Vigilant, in the following year. During the next four years Buckler’s Hard presented an active scene, for ten ships took the water, including the Sybil, 28 guns, and the Pandora, 24 guns. The Sybil, launched in 1779, had her name changed to Garland. During her commission in the West Indies she came into prominence apparently through the hospitality of her crew.

The Pandora, also launched in 1779, was sent out in search of the Bounty and those of her mutinous crew who cast Captain Bligh adrift in the ship’s launch with eighteen loyal men. Captain Valentine Edwards was in command of the Pandora and at Tahiti fourteen of the mutineers were discovered and summarily arrested. They were placed in a round house which had been built on the quarter deck and was called “Pandora’s Box”. On the homeward voyage the Pandora was wrecked in the Torres Strait, between Australia and New Guinea, in 1791, and but for the prompt action of a seaman in assisting the prisoners to get free of their irons they would all have been drowned. As it was four succumbed, together with thirty of the ship’s company.


THE MASTER BUILDER’S HOUSE is a fine Georgian building situated at the end of the wide village street nearer the river at Buckler’s Hard. The house belonged to Henry Adams, who was overseer for Wyatt and Company In 1745 when the 24-gun frigate Surprise was launched, the first ship to be built at Buckler’s Hard. Adams became Master Shipwright and died in 1805 at the age of ninety-two.

The next ship of particular interest to be launched at Buckler’s Hard was the Agamemnon, in 1781. Nelson was appointed to her as captain in 1793, and in his opinion she was “without exception the finest ‘64’ in the Service”. She had many honours to her credit, including her great fight with the French 100-gun ship Ca Ira in 1795. In his report, Nelson referred to the Frenchman as being “absolutely large enough to take the Agamemnon in her hold”.

The Agamemnon played a leading part at the siege of Bastia and Calvi, Corsica, where Nelson lost the sight of his right eye, and was at all the principal Napoleonic engagements. At Trafalgar she was commanded by Captain, later Rear-Admiral, Sir Edward Berry, Bart., and joined Nelson’s fleet a few days before the action.

Sir Edward Berry was First Lieutenant of the Agamemnon under Lord Nelson, and went with him when appointed to the Captain in 1796, being present at the attack on Santa Cruz at which Nelson lost his right arm. Some time afterwards, when King George III condoled with him on his misfortune, Nelson introduced Captain Berry and remarked that “I had not experienced great loss, as this officer was my right hand.” The Agamemnon ended her career by grounding in June 1809.

At Trafalgar there were two other ships built at Buckler’s Hard - the Euryalus, a 36-gun frigate, and the Swiftsure, a “74” launched in 1803 and 1804 respectively. The Euryalus, commanded by Captain Blackwood, was the leading frigate to observe the first signs of activity in the enemy’s ships at Cadiz on October 18, 1805. She kept so close a watch on their movements that she earned the sobriquet “Nelson’s Watch Dog”. There is a fine model of her in the Royal Naval Museum at Greenwich.

Last Ship Launched in 1818

The largest vessel to be built at Buckler’s Hard was HMS Illustrious, a 74-gun ship launched in 1789. She was described as being “as handsome a ship of her class as any in His Majesty’s Navy”. The launch was the occasion of great festivity. The King and Queen went in state to Beaulieu and stayed with Lord Montagu, and on the appointed day they proceeded down the river to Buckler’s Hard in the State barge. This barge is still preserved at Beaulieu Abbey. On the arrival of the royal party at the Hard, the Illustrious, still on the stocks, fired a 21-gun salute, an occurrence which is probably unique in ship launches.

And so the list of ships built at Buckler’s Hard goes on until 1818, when the last ship was launched from its slips. She was the Repulse, a small Revenue cutter. In just over seventy years some fifty-two vessels had been built for the Admiralty, in addition to a dozen or more merchantmen. But war had ended and the Navy had repaired its ships. Losses had been replaced in many instances by prizes, so that normally conditions in shipbuilding yards were quiet.

Buckler’s Hard, however, had another reason for its loss of industry. When old Henry Adams retired from his labours, he was succeeded by his sons, Robert, Edward and Balthazar. Robert, after some years at shipwrightry, had entered the Navy as a purser and left his brothers to carry on the business. It appears that, left to their own devices, they became over-ambitious, and on one occasion contracted to build four warships at the same time. They failed to deliver them on the agreed date, and unwisely entered into litigation with the Admiralty when this body refused to agree to the delay. The brothers lost their case and with it their money, thus bringing to a tragic close the activities of one of England’s most famous shipbuilding yards.

Now all is quiet again at Buckler’s Hard. It is a “yachtsman’s paradise”, and a retreat for those who seek peacefulness. The few holiday-makers who find their way there from Southsea and Cowes by the ferry steamer land at the primitive pier and make their way to the old Abbey ruins, or else picnic in the woods. They care little for the Master Builder’s House where Henry Adams practised his great art, nor for the remains of the old slipways which were once the cradles of some of England’s finest ships.

THE OLD SLIPWAYS AT BUCKLER’S HARD were situated where the village street runs down to the Beaulieu River

THE OLD SLIPWAYS AT BUCKLER’S HARD were situated where the village street runs down to the Beaulieu River, near the Master Builder’s House. Three of the ships that took part in the battle of Trafalgar, the Agamemnon, 64 guns, the Euryalus, 36 guns, and the Swiftsure, 74 guns, were built at Buckler’s Hard. Nowadays the only vessels to be seen on the Beaulieu River are yachts and other small craft.

You can read more on “Battle of the Nile”, “Battle of Trafalgar” and “Smugglers and Revenue Cutters” on this website.