A town's bicentenary

The year 2014 will be memorable for many reasons, not least the anniversaries that are undoubtedly going to be celebrated as the year unfolds.

The big one, of course, marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. Then there is the 100th birthday - if he was still alive - of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet born just a few months after the Great War broke out. Add in the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and you have quite a wide range of commemorations coming up.

One anniversary of interest that might have escaped your notice, however - unless you happen to come from the town - is that 2014 is also the bicentenary of the west Wales community of Pembroke Dock.

Gun Tower Museum at Pembroke Dock

Pembroke Dock simply did not exist until 1814 when the Admiralty decided to found a dockyard in the area that was always previously known as Pater or Paterchurch. They had built ships, in a piecemeal sort of way, at nearby Milford but that was in a private yard. This dockyard at Pater was to be an Admiralty concern and the yard at Pembroke Dock duly became the only Royal Naval dockyard ever to exist in Wales.

The final ship was launched from the slipway at Milford in April 1814 and within weeks the whole establishment had transferred some six miles upstream to the new site at Paterchurch. The keels of the Ariadne and Valorous, two 28 gun sixth rates - frigates as they were better known - were laid down and Pembroke Dock's 112 year history of shipbuilding had begun.

To begin with there were no houses around the new dockyard and workers had to travel up and down the Cleddau River or the Milford Haven estuary at the beginning and end of every day.

It was a backbreaking journey and it could not last, particularly when it was combined with a grueling day spent working in mud, rain and wind at the new dockyard. Gradually, houses were built around the yards, initially for the dockyard officers but eventually for the workers as well.

The first street in what was really a 19th century new town, just like Basildon, Cwmbran or Milton Keynes, was Thomas Street. Named after Thomas Meyrick, the original owner of the land where the yards were situated, the road ran along the water's edge and was quickly renamed Front Street.

Over the next 20 or 30 years the new town, now called Pembroke Dock, began to grow. Streets were created on a grid pattern, invariably being wide, spacious and elegant. Perhaps not always so, as Bush Street, one of the main thoroughfares, earned itself the nickname of Pig's Parade after an influx of workers in the 1840s arrived in the town with nowhere to live. As they had no houses to occupy they built themselves tin shacks or shelters along the road side - hence the derisory nickname.

The list of ships launched from Pembroke Dock is long and distinguished. It ranges from simple cutters like the Racer to the giant Duke of Wellington, at the time the largest wooden warship ever built. Four Royal Yachts and a passage boat for Queen Victoria were also built at the yards along with famous vessels like the Erebus which was lost on Sir John Franklin's expedition to the Arctic in the 1840s.

Dockyards need protection and soon after 1814 Pembroke Dock became an army town. Several sets of barracks were built around the place, the most notable being the huge Defensible Barracks which still sits on the top of the hill overlooking the town and was, so local legend declares, built in the 12 months between November 1844 and 1845.

To begin with the moat around the Defensible Barracks had no fence. That changed after a local man of substance, Dr Sumpter, pitched into the ditch one night and was killed. Private John Harding of the Royal Marines also fell into the moat, in 1850, but he warranted only a rather acidic epitaph on his gravestone in the town cemetery:

“Except the Lord direct our feet
And guide with gracious care,
At every step we danger meet,
In every path a snare.

Then reader pause, who e'er thou art,
As thus my grave you view;
Remember, thou from life must part -
Perhaps as quickly, too.”

Over the years Pembroke Dock played host to many famous regiments such as the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welch Fusiliers. A whole bevy of visitors, people as notable and varied as Gordon of Khartoum, Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army) and Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, have all spent time in the town.

And, of course, there were the ships. Huge wooden walls and giant pre-dreadnoughts, tiny frigates and sleek, fast cruisers, the dockyard built them all.

Pembroke Dock celebrated its centenary in the summer of 1814 but the writing was already on the wall. The yards were not big enough to cope with the super dreadnoughts that the Navy now required and after the end of the First World War - seven Pembroke Dock ships being lost in the conflict - it was clear that the dockyard could never survive.

It closed in 1926 and Pembroke Dock, the town that had been created to build ships, was left without purpose or design.

Mk I Sunderland of 210 Squadron c.1941. Image: Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust

Some measure of relief came in 1930 with the establishment of an RAF flying boat base in the eastern part of the old dockyard. During the Second World War the Sunderlands of PD - as the base was known - played a major role in defeating the German U Boats but the downside came with the heavy bombing that the town endured.

Dozens of houses were destroyed in the air raids, 2,000 were damaged and people killed and injured across the community.

When the RAF closed the air base in 1959 it marked the end of an era. The army stayed on a little longer but soon they too, left their bases around the town. Pembroke Dock subsided into a prolonged period of quiet solemnity.

These days Pembroke Dock is but a shadow of its former self, but it has its history - and what a glorious history it is. This year the bicentenary of the town will be celebrated with gusto and enthusiasm - and who knows what further glories might be waiting just around the corner.


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