Launching day was a high point in the rhythm of community life. The shipbuilders had concentrated their skills and energies on the creation of a new vessel, for more than a year. Now came the opportunity to celebrate the results of their work and for the Dockyard to present its products to the world.Some ships - particularly small ones - might be launched by ladies from eminent local families, who in the 1850s were expected to take a bottle and "sling it violently against the the vessel's bows." Sometimes, only modestly sized crowds attended. The launch of battleship or a Royal Yacht, on the other hand, could be a spectacle to attract huge crowds. For HMS Repulse (1892) "thousands of excursionists had come into the town, excursions being run from places so far distant as Cardiff and Newport". A reporter estimated "a thundering cheer from 20,000 throats" greeted HMS Empress of India (1891) as she left the slipway.Dignitaries and invited guests would have places in booths and stands around the ship's bow and elsewhere within the shed. Multitudes of the general public found other vantage points. Late arrivals might be taunted by "a running fire of jokes and wit ... in no very subdued tones" by midshipmen perched on the vessel. As the moment of the launch approached, excitement mounted - "several ladies have been so overcome by their feelings as to faint at this critical moment"
Pembroke Dockyard, 1882. The Duchess of Edinburgh launches HMS Edinburgh.
A particularly important ship might merit a Royal visit. Newspaper accounts of HMS Empress of India's launch suggest the pace and sequence of events at a major ceremony. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught and the Duke of Edinburgh stepped ashore from their yacht around 1 pm, to a twenty one gun salute from the Defensible Barracks and a guard of honour. The Castlemartin Yeoman Cavalry provided their escort to the market, where the Mayor and Corporation greeted them respectfully.The Dockyard gates opened at 2.45 pm and the regimental band of Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry entertained visitors with a programme including Wagner, Weber and Strauss. Prayers were read. By 4.15 the spectators were "on the tiptoe of excitement" as Mr Froyne, the Chief Constructor, explained the launching procedure to the Royal party. The Duchess pressed "a button embedded in flowers", to break a bottle against the ships' bows, then severed a thin rope with a ceremonial mallet and chisel. After a pause, "amid terrific cheering, the mighty battleship began to move gradually, got on more way, and was soon sailing beautifully down to the water" to the strains of "Rule Britannia" and "A life on the ocean wave". Five hundred invited guests later attended an evening reception in the Dockyard, with another musical programme from the regimental band.
The ceremonial chisel and mallet would be presented, in a case, to the lady who had performed the ceremony. Miss Frances Adams launched HMS Pelican (17 guns) in 1860.
The town, as well as the Dockyard, became a place of ceremonies and decorations. For the launch of HMS Edinburgh (1882), the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh drove through streets festooned with "strings of evergreens [and] artificial flowers from end to end" and lined with masts "adorned with shields and small flags". Wooden arches, with flags and bunting, spanned the streets in four places. One "bore an inscription which welcomed the Duchess of Edinburgh in her own language" (Princess Marie was Russian). Street arches also celebrated the launch of the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert III (1899) and the privately built Japanese warship, Hi Yei (1877)
1899 - ceremonial arches greet the Duchess of York and the Duke of Connaught
in Bush Street..
... and in Prospect Place
Such a welcome gave townspeople the opportunity to demonstrate their pride in the Dockyard and their patriotism, whilst enjoying the carnival atmosphere. In a town whose income depended on the Dockyard and its defences, it could also be an opportunity to remind influential visitors, and newspaper readers, of the yard's efficiency and reliability. In 1891 the Mayor respectfully points out "what a very important military station Pembroke is". The Duke's of Connaught's reply is reassuring. He appreciates "the launching of so large and powerful a ship ... proves the great value of Pembroke Dockyard to the country and to the Navy". Oriental fireworksSome launch days ended with fireworks and street illuminations. For the Hi Yei, the evening ended with pyrotechnics and "a grand general illumination, when a procession of one thousand variegated Japanese lamps, balloons, giraffes and peacocks will be arranged by Professor Davis, chief pyrotechnist of the Royal Gardens". The journey homeBefore the railway came, crowds of spectators would travel home by horse drawn vehicles - as described in an 1852 Tenby visitors' guide. "The scenes on the road, during the return to Tenby, are humorous in the extreme. The numerous odd-looking things mounted on wheels ... dusted and freshened up expressly for this day's journey, filled with merry, laughing faces of happy people ... are altogether a happy finish to the day's amusements; and a journey to the dockyard launch cannot fail to interest and amuse any person who is in the enjoyment of health and spirits. "(Sources: Cuttings, Pembrokeshire County Libraries; Gwynne 48-9; Mason 236-239; PTG 9 June 1877)Pictures by courtesy of: Mrs C. Hogg - Mr Phil Carradice.