As an island nation, Britain has relied heavily on maritime and naval power throughout its history. Maritime vessels were used for trade, exploration, migration and communication whilst the ships of the Royal Navy sought to protect and defend Britain, the Empire and its trade routes.
To support Britain’s growing navy and merchant fleets, shipyards and dockyards were built across the UK. They employed thousands of specialist labourers to work on some of the world’s most famous and impressive ships. From the Royal Dockyards of Portsmouth and Chatham to industrial shipyards of Dundee and Hull, these maritime towns and cities have been at the heart of Britain’s economy and culture for centuries.
Here are some of the UK’s historic maritime towns and cities that you should visit to learn more about Britain’s seafaring history.
1. London, England
Since the founding of London by the Romans, the Port of London has been vital to the city’s economy, leading to the city’s growth and it becoming England’s capital. In the 18th and 19th centuries, London was the world’s busiest port with over 60,000 ships being received up and down the Thames each year. Dockyards, wharves and shipyards were built along the river in order to support the growing maritime industry in the 19th century. These included the West India Docks (now Canary Wharf), St Katherine’s Dock (Tower Hamlets) and Tilbury Docks (located in Essex).
Museums and historic sites dedicated to London’s, and Britain’s, maritime history include Royal Museums Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College, the HMS Belfast and the Museum of London Docklands. Today, London is still one of the UK’s busiest ports with over 47 million tonnes of cargo passing through it in 2020. Due to the size of modern ships, most cargo today is handled closer to the sea at Thurrock, Tilbury and Canvey.
2. Hull, England
In the middle ages, the River Hull was used to transport wool from Meaux Abbey to the king. Seeing its value as a port, more people settled around the River Hull and in 1299, Edward I granted Hull a royal charter thus becoming Kingston upon Hull. Hull grew as a maritime city, seeing the construction of dockyards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whaling was one of Hull’s main trades, along with frozen meat from New Zealand and Australia. One of Hull’s most famous historical figures, William Wilberforce, fought for the abolition of slavery (1833).
As you walk around Hull today you can feel how important the sea is to the city. The Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project was launched to restore and celebrate Hull’s maritime history including the Arctic Corsair, a part of Hull’s fishing heritage, and Hull’s Maritime Museum.
3. Dundee, Scotland
Located on Scotland’s east coast, Dundee established itself as a key trading port from the 12th century. The Industrial Revolution saw Dundee expand as an industrial city producing linen, jute (fibre used to make twine and rope), marmalade, whale oil and journalism (publishing paper and magazines). To support these industries, shipyards and dockyards were built in the 19th century. Over 2,000 ships were built at Dundee between 1871-1881. Though shipbuilding ceased in 1981, the maritime legacy of Dundee can be seen around the city.
As Dundee had significant experience building robust ships for polar conditions, the dockyard was asked to construct the RRS Discovery for the 1901-1904 British National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Discovery is now part of a focal point of Dundee’s Discovery Point, exploring the history of the ship and the dockyard.
4. Glasgow, Scotland
The River Clyde provided prehistoric Britons with the perfect place to establish a settlement due to its ample fishing. In the 12th century, Bishop Jocelin established Glasgow as a burgh (city). Due to its location, Glasgow was perfectly located to become a significant player in international trade and Scotland’s economy and became one of the largest cities in the world.
Shipyards and docks were built along the River Clyde including Bowling Harbour, Denny’s Shipyard and John Brown’s Shipyard. The Denny shipyard built several steamships and the Cutty Sark. The Clyde became one of the world’s leading shipbuilding centres leading to the term ‘Clydebuilt’ (a benchmark of quality).
5. Portsmouth, England
Due to its strategic location on Britain’s south coast, Portsmouth was used as a port, fort and barracks. Medieval kings would gather troops and ships at Portsmouth prior to launching invasions of France. It also needed to be able to withstand European invasion leading to the construction of Southsea Castle by Henry VIII.
Under the reign of Henry VII, a dry dock was built, and Portsmouth became the first Royal Dockyard. As well as building several naval vessels, Portsmouth was also home to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens.
Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is one of Britain’s most famous and popular tourist attractions. There, visitors can explore Britain’s naval and maritime history through the Museum of the Royal Navy, wander the decks of HMS Victory and HMS Warrior and see Henry VIII’s beloved warship Mary Rose.
6. Milford Haven, Wales
The waterway at Milford Haven is one of the deepest, natural forming harbours in the world and was seen as a haven and place of shelter for those on long voyages. Its location on Britain’s west coast meant that it was easily accessible from the Americas and was a popular location for pirates. Construction of a dockyard in the 19th century led to Milford Haven becoming one of Britain’s busiest ports handling over 30 million tonnes of cargo in 2020.
Milford Haven’s coastline forms part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and parts of the waterway have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Scientific Interest. Milford Marina is the perfect place to watch the boats go by and explore the area’s maritime heritage.
7. Liverpool, England
Granted its charter in 1207 by King John, Liverpool is one of Britain’s most famous maritime cities. The Industrial Revolution led to Liverpool’s expansion as a major port city trading various types of cargo including coal, tobacco, sugar and cotton. Liverpool merchants were also involved in the slave trade.
The 19th century saw Liverpool become a hub of international travel and migration with Cunard and White Star Lines setting up bases in the city. Ships including the RMS Titanic, RMS Lusitania and RMS Olympic were registered at Liverpool.
Liverpool’s museums, including the Maritime Museum, explore Liverpool’s historic connections with the sea and house unique collections including the RMS Lusitania collection. The Royal Albert Dock is also well worth a visit.
8. Belfast, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s capital city Belfast has been a hub of trade and shipbuilding since the Industrial Revolution. Harland and Wolff’s shipyard is one of the world’s most famous and successful shipbuilders. They undertook several contracts for White Star Line including the RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic.
The Maritime Belfast Trust looks after Belfast’s rich maritime history. They developed the Maritime Mile which includes the Titanic Belfast museum that brings the history of the Titanic to life, the SoundYard that plays sounds of Belfast’s shipyards and the Great Light lighthouse.
9. Cardiff, Wales
Since the middle ages, Cardiff has operated a busy port and contributed significantly to the country’s economy. The production and exportation of coal became one of the biggest industries in South Wales and the port at Cardiff was used to move coal around the UK and the world. Bute Docks and Queen Alexandra Dock were built to support Cardiff’s burgeoning maritime city.
Exploring historic locations like Cardiff Castle, Cardiff Bay and the Big Pit National Coal Museums gives you a sense of how important Cardiff is to Britain’s economy and industry.
10. Newcastle, England
Newcastle, located on the River Tyne, was a hub of maritime trade and construction. The city’s economy relied heavily on trade and in the 19th century it became one of Britain’s most successful shipyards for construction and repair. Located along the Tyne is the Swan Hunter shipyard that is known for building the RMS Mauretania and RMS Carpathia.
Newcastle’s Quayside is a must-see for history enthusiasts. Historically a busy commercial dockside, it was redeveloped to house entertainment venues, shops and restaurants. Historic buildings including Customs House can also be found along the quayside.