Following the outbreak of the First World War, an auxiliary Naval Base had been established in Penzance in 1915. Its purpose was to provide a base for ships escorting convoys to France and to survey shipping generally, much as had been the case during the Napoleonic wars.
The offices of the mining, shipping and general engineers – N Holman and Sons, at the Dry Dock were commandeered as the regional headquarters for naval personnel. The company itself was declared a “Controlled Establishment” with its entire output claimed for war purposes. Sometimes permission was granted to do work for private customers, but the priority was the systematic overhaul and servicing of patrol vessels. Work often went on around the clock depending on on the state of the tides.
There were several potentially dangerous incidents such as when a depth charge fell overboard while a refit was taking place. On another occasion a bomb with 400lbs of T.N.T. slipped from a sling onto the deck of a patrol boat in dock. Fortunately no-one was injured on either occasion.
The Naval Base appears in the press on a number of occasions, often to do with disciplinary matters such as overstayed leave but on one occasion in 1918 there is what can only be called Alabaster and the case of the Navy's red paint. The Cornishman of 20 November 1918 relates a case heard in Penzance County Court which was a claim for damages brought by Emma Mary Ann Werner against Lieutenant J. Alabaster of the Royal Naval Reserve. Alabaster worked at the Penzance Naval Base and rented a furnished house at 9 Marine Terrace from the plaintiff. He lived in the house for approximately six months and when he handed back the keys at the end of the tenancy the house was found to be in a filthy state with many items missing from the inventory. The most striking detail of the account however was that much of the house had been painted red, including the internal walls, the floor of the drawing-room and the bedroom chairs. The paint was identified as being from the naval base.
The account in the Cornishman ends, tantalisingly, with “The defendant's side of the story will be given in our later edition.” Unfortunately this edition is not to hand so the defendant's tale will have to wait until the appropriate edition is turned up.
Despite the drunkenness, fighting, painting and other petty law breaking frequently reported by Cornishman and featuring men from the Naval Base, it was recognised that their work during World War One was significant. Sir Clifford Cory, at a public meeting in St John's Hall just after the armistice said that the Base had been the means of “destroying and damaging many submarines around the coast from Mount's Bay to Hartland Point”. The vessels of the Base had convoyed no fewer than 11,000 vessels to and from France and of those vessels convoyed only 35 had been lost, less than 0.5 percent. Patrol boats were said to have saved 582 lives from vessels sunk in convoy. The Penzance Naval Base closed on March 15 1919 after four years of service.
Penzance Dry Dock 2007, onetime home of the Penzance Naval Base (photo Ted Mole)
Cornishman 20 November 1918
Cornishman 18 December 1918
An account of The Penzance Naval Base can be found at Picturepenzance.com