|Pre-order the new Gwulo book today to get
special price, free shipping, signed copies, and a free sample
Details and how to order
1931 Draining the dry dock
The Royal Naval Dockyard closed in the late 1950s, then the dry dock was filled in with rubble during 1960. Since then it hasn't been disturbed though, instead it lies underneath the strip of sports pitches that runs north-south down the centre of the PLA's Central Barracks. I wonder if the exercising soldiers know what's beneath their feet?
Who: There are plenty of people in this photo, but not sailors as far as I can see, more likely the local men who worked in the dockyard.
We've caught them at a tense moment in the life of a dry dock. Look at the stepped side of the dock on the right, and note how the steps get wetter the lower they are. It's a sign that the dock is currently being pumped dry.
A dry dock is used when the parts of a vessel that are usually under water need to be repaired. The vessel sails into the dry dock, the dry dock's watertight gate is closed, and the seawater is pumped out to reveal the problem part. The riskiest time is while the water level is dropping - the men who are running the dry dock must take great care to support each vessel correctly, so that it doesn't fall over on its side.
Before the three vessels in this photo entered the dry dock, the workers would have laid three lines of blocks on the base of the dock, one for each of the vessels to rest on. Then as the water is pumped out and the vessels drop lower, they'd have made sure each vessel was correctly centred over its line of blocks.
Once the ship starts to settle on the blocks, attention turns to the large wooden beams that will keep the vessel from tipping over. In this photo, the ship is supported by two lines of beams along either side. For the two submarines, there are beams along each wall, and a third line of beams in the centre. It looks as though most of the beams are already in position, with just one last central beam being manhandled into place.
Finally, gangplanks are lowered into place to make it easier for the sailors and workers to get on and off the vessels. I count four gangplanks in all, three for the submarines, and a fourth being lowered into place by the big crane for access to the ship.
What: There are a couple of cranes visible, a smaller one on the left and that big one on the right. The smaller crane wouldn't be able to reach out very far, so I think its job was to lower material down to workers at the bottom of the dock.
The large crane can extend out to the centre of the dock, and can also handle much heavier loads. Examples of what it might be moving can be seen on the ground in the background. There look to be gun barrels on the left, and propellers on the right, both items that would need replacing from time to time.
We can see that the big crane moved on rails, and I've seen photos that show it could operate from either side of the dock. Other things I'm so so sure about though, and would welcome any knowledgeable reader's feedback:
- Could it move by itself, or was it pushed / pulled into place by a separate vehicle?
- How was the crane's lifting mechanism powered? I don't see any clouds of smoke coming from it.
- When did it arrive? It doesn't appear on early photos of the dry dock.
When: We've seen boat "H31" before.
In the conversation about that photo, it was identified as HMS Sterling, part of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla that was here from 1927 til 1931. The current photo has the word "Sterling" just faintly visible on the ship's stern:
Unfortunately the submarines don't have any identification I can see, but we've seen submarines in Hong Kong, e.g. this 1926 photo of HMS Titania and the local submarine flotilla:
A closeup shows the letter "L" on their conning towers, so they were all L-class submarines.
However, it also shows that the L-class submarine's conning tower was wider at the top than the bottom - it steps out about halfway up the tower. The submarines in the dry dock are a different design as their conning towers are straight-sided.
In late 1929, the Titania and her L-class submarines sailed back to Britain. In their place came HMS Medway and the newer O-class submarines. I can't find a photo showing an O-class submarine from exactly this angle, but the views I saw are a close enough match to say that's what was in the dry dock on this day.
So, the current photo was taken sometime between the arrival of the O-class submarines and the departure of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, i.e. 1929-1931. At which point I thought it was a bit strange that I didn't have a scan of the back of this photo on my computer. Digging out the original photo, I found this note on the back:
Hong Kong, Jan 1931
R/h boat: Osiris
Note to self - always scan both sides of the photo!
This is a photo I've been cleaning up, getting it ready to use in the new Volume 3 of the Gwulo books that I'm working on. If you spot any mistakes above, or you can add any information about the scene, please let us know in the comments below. I'd also be very interested to see any other photos of the dry dock you can share with us.
Trivia: On this occasion, after the dry dock's watertight gate was closed another of the Navy's ships moved in and moored next to it, overlooking the dry dock. A sailor on that ship had a camera and took a photo of the view, and that's how we get to see this scene.
Gwulo photo ID: ED012