It is not surprising that a large area of woodland situated by the sea should attract shipbuilding. The use of the New Forest as a hunting ground by English monarchs had declined significantly by the 1600s. In the Stuart period from 1660 onwards the demand for timber for shipbuilding increased significantly and parts of the New Forest were inclosed for this purpose – an inclosure is the term given to an area that has been fenced to exclude animals from browsing on growing timber crops.
In view of this increasing demand for straight trees for ship construction, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 making it illegal to pollard trees in the Forest together with provision for more inclosures for oak cultivation. Up until that time pollarding had been a common practice which involved cutting back a tree above the browse line of large animals causing it to branch – the leaves and twigs were used for animal fodder and the branches for firewood.
Southern England was hit by the Great Storm of 1703 which is reported to have uprooted 4000 oaks in the New Forest alone and this together with increased felling for shipbuilding caused a rapid depletion of hardwoods available to the Navy. A survey of the Forest by the Navy was undertaken in 1707 when it was found that there were only 12,476 trees fit for shipbuilding compared to a century earlier in 1608 when there were 123,927. The New Forest received regular visits from naval surveyors who left the King’s Mark on trees that were considered fit for ship construction. This mark signified that they were the property of the Crown and that it was unlawful for anyone to fell or damage them. Oak trees are still occasionally found in the Forest with this mark on them.
Up until the mid 1800s, shipbuilding was a great consumer of timber. It took 1,000 oaks to build a ship the size of Nelson’s Victory and more than 2,000 oaks to build a larger 74 gun warship. Britain’s supplies of these hardwoods for naval purposes from its Royal Forests centred on the New Forest, Alice Holt and the Forest of Dean although these only contributed around 10% of the overall requirement with the remainder coming from private estates and imports, mainly from the North American colonies.
Initially most of the Forest’s oaks were destined for the Royal Navy yards at nearby Portsmouth but in the 1740s shipbuilding was established in the New Forest on the banks of the Beaulieu River at Bucklers Hard by master shipbuilder, Henry Adams (1713-1805). The settlement of Bucklers Hard had been founded two decades previously by John, 2nd Duke of Montagu as a freeport for the import of sugar from the West Indies and it was originally intended to be known as Montagu Town but the venture failed. Subsequently the Navy Board were looking for suitable sites for the construction of fighting ships and, as a consequence, the settlement became a shipyard.
In between the twin rows of picturesque red brick cottages which face each other across a wide grassy corridor there were large stacks of timber for ship construction. It was here that you would also find sawyers in saw pits and shipwrights at work cutting and shaping timber for ships’ hulls and decks. The whole area was a hive of activity and the cottages were occupied by senior shipyard workers plus two pubs. In its heyday the shipyard provided well paid work for men from neighbouring villages.
In 1744 the young Henry Adams was appointed by the Navy Board as the resident overseer at Bucklers Hard to supervise the building of a 24 gun ship. He subsequently married a local girl, took on the tenancy of the shipyard and lived in the end-terraced house overlooking the waterfront – now the Master Builder’s Hotel and Yachtsman’s Bar. Over the ensuing years he built several warships for the Royal Navy and in 1771 he expanded the yard by constructing longer launch ways in order that larger 64 and 74 gun war ships could be built. In 1781 he built the 64 gun Agamemnon and in 1793 the young Horatio Nelson was appointed as its captain. Until his untimely death at the Battle of Trafalgar it remained his favourite ship. Henry Adams sons were taken in to the business and between them they built over 50 ships for the Royal Navy including three which fought at the Battle of Trafalgar – Agamemnon, Euryalus and Swiftsure.
The painting above shows the launch of Agamemnon at Bucklers Hard in 1781 by Harold Wyllie and is held in the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the advent of iron ships by 1860 saw the demise of shipbuilding at Buckler’s Hard. However by the late 1800s, pleasure steamers started to arrive at the village with Victorian day trippers and its popularity increased with the rise in the number of people taking up sailing as a leisure activity. As the Solent became the UK’s favourite sailing ground, the Beaulieu River became a popular place to moor yachts and the Beaulieu River Sailing Club was founded in 1931.
During the Second World War boat building returned again to the village when Buckler’s Hard became a motor torpedo base and the adjoining Bailey’s Hard was used for fitting out minesweepers. Just a little further downstream, sections of the Mulberry harbours were constructed in preparation for the D-Day landings.
After the war, private yachts quickly returned. Sir Francis Chichester kept yachts on the river, including Gipsy Moth IV, in which he became the first person to circumnavigated the globe. Until 1971 cars were still allowed to drive down the street between the rows of cottages and nowadays the village remains unspoilt despite the passage of time. This beauty spot on the Beaulieu River is now an exclusive yacht marina, tourist attraction and a place for relaxation as well as exploration along the banks of the Beaulieu River.