Taking a look into the past at Gosport’s Museum of Naval Firepower

Inside the missile gallery at the museum

Inside the missile gallery at the museum - Credit: Archant

Explosion! Gosport’s Museum of Naval Firepower is creating quite a noise as its historic buildings fill-up with visitors. Viv Micklefield takes a peep into the past to discover the real lives touched by this former Royal Navy armaments depot

Some pose resolutely suited and booted in front of the camera lens. While others focus their gaze on the production line. And then, unexpectedly, there’s the laughter shared during a rare tea break.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What, then, do these grainy photos taken of the men and women once employed as munitions workers at Priddy’s Hard on the western shores of Portsmouth Harbour, tell us about their daily lives?

Such personal experiences, during times of both war and peace, had become somewhat of a mystery at Gosport’s award winning museum of naval firepower which now occupies buildings once in the heart of the Royal Navy’s principal armaments depot. Although the depot’s doors closed in the 1980s at the end of the Falklands conflict, over 200 years of restricted-access means much remains to be learnt about the workforce who although far from the front line, nonetheless was exposed to danger.

“People respond to people,” says Jo Valentine, the museum’s community outreach officer, who led a recent appeal designed to bring ‘Priddy’s People’ and their untold stories to life. She continues: “We already had material on apprenticeships and some photos but there’s such a huge story behind Priddy’s as a local employer, particularly one that empowered women. And it’s about the history of the whole Portsmouth Harbour area: the ships would be built down at the dockyard; then they were armed at Priddy’s Hard and finally everyone was fed from Gosport’s Royal Clarence Yard.

“We’ve had all sorts of weird and wonderful things come into the museum. A gentleman who owns a nearby pub had a collection of decorated shell cases; lots of local people who’d worked at Priddy’s had given him similar things too such as cases converted into a set of scales, and a large brass aspirin holder. They’ve all been donated as handling items which means that I can take them out into the community.

“Other items are so unusual, like a copy of the worker’s manual. These have gone straight into the museum’s permanent archives. There’s also a photo dating from World War One that features a huge bank of women, probably two or three hundred, in armaments uniform. We’d never seen anything like this before.”

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Special clothing was supplied from the 1850s when the then all-male workforce sported overalls made of thick woollen cloth called fearnought complete with bone buttons and a tight head cap. The ongoing need to provide protection in any areas where hazardous materials was prepared, stored or handled saw 20th century munitions workers exchange their ‘dirty’ civvies for ‘clean’ clothes in special shifting rooms. Naturally, metal jewellery was strictly forbidden because of the risk of sparks.

For the 600 plus women recruited when the male workforce took up arms during WW1 it would, Jo says, have been a far cry from their previous lives. These so-called munitionettes could find themselves doing anything from cleaning, filling, painting and stacking shells to operating machinery, assembling detonators and lacquering fuses.

“Aside from doing domestic work there wasn’t a lot of other work around for women. Priddy’s provided an opportunity to earn a decent wage but it was a hard job and you’d get an extra penny an hour which was known as dirty money, for handling cordite.”

And spare a thought for those nick-named ‘canaries’ whose regular exposure to TNT saw their skin turn yellow and their hair orange.

During WW2 the site bustled with over 3,000 women and Jo has particularly enjoyed listening to their personal memories. Amongst them was Ethel Reeves who, cycling over the original Forton Bridge for the start of her 12-hour shift, recalls Canadian troops throwing tinned fruit into her basket. And, sometimes, to relieve the day’s repetitive tasks and inevitable boredom Ethel would secretly add a note with her address inside the shell box. This, Jo recounts read: “If these shells should care to roam, box them up and send them home.” Imagine the surprise when one day, a sailor travelled down from Scotland arriving on her doorstep, note in hand, only to be met by Ethel’s boyfriend on shore leave from the marines!

“Other stories I’ve heard from fathers and sons suggest that Priddy’s was a place where you had a job for life. You started as an apprentice and then worked your way up. Through word of mouth brothers and sisters, husbands and wives often got each other jobs.

“There was a feeling that you were doing your bit and were part of something bigger by providing, for example, the armaments for the Normandy landings. The main records are kept at the Hampshire Archives in Winchester, but we do know that the majority were local people.

“And there was this great camaraderie, with quite a big social scene too. Priddy’s had a women’s football team, and there was a men’s and women’s angling club and a rifle club. Sports days were held up until the 1970s.”

A tour of the museum’s galleries gives visitors a flavour of the range of guns and missiles developed whilst Priddy’s Hard was operating. Jo, however, is keen to point out that over the decades firepower came in many shapes and forms.

“They were also making the shells used in ejector seats. And that’s also what’s nice about the recent donations as some items have been repurposed into something quite beautiful.”

The Royal Navy’s Historic Dockyard with its famous sea-faring ships is, understandably, a huge draw. However, to overlook the Museum of Naval Firepower and the men and women who played such a major role supporting Britain’s armed forces, is to miss the bigger story.

Book your tickets

A visit to Gosport’s Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower and its Royal Naval Submarine Museum via a daily waterbus from Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is included in a £28 All Attraction ticket (historicdockyard.co.uk). By road take the M27 (Jct 11) following the A32 to Gosport (PO12 4LE). Open 10am-5pm. Single admission £12, concessions and family tickets available (explosion.org.uk).

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