Brest Dockyard, France
Support for the French navy had always been inconsistent after its creation because the threats to France didn’t come from the sea as much as from central Europe, requiring a large, strong army. The later reign of the Sun King (Louis XIV) with Secretary of State Colbert in charge, saw a marked increase of support for the navy only to drop off when King Louis XV inherited the throne. The lack of financial support created mediocre construction and manufacturing procedures, inexperienced crews, and poorly maintained ships. This was occasioned by short bursts of financial investment during wartime. Throughout the mid-1700s when King Louis XV ruled and la Renommée was built, the output at the shipyards was irregular and underfunded. The new School of Construction in Paris helped to create a universal approach to shipbuilding. Without funds to follow through in training crews at sea, however, the fine ships coming from the ports were lost to poor maintenance, skilled enemy cannoneers, and the superior tactics of the British navy.
The port of Brest, located on the far western Atlantic coast in Brittany, France, had long been one of their major naval bases. The Romans first recognized its unique geography and built a fort to protect their ships on the mouth of the river Penfeld emptying into the large bay, Rade de Brest. This, in turn, flows through a narrows into the Atlantic. The first warship, la Infante, was built in Brest in 1661 and hundreds more would follow over the next three centuries. Just two years before the launch of la Renommée, the port was the scene of a major disaster. La Royal Louis, a 100 cannon warship finishing construction was mysteriously burned along with a two-decker and several storage buildings. The assumed sabotage and enormous loss of funds, labor, and materials discouraged the king and ministers in financing navy projects. Confidence rose again later, however, with the exploits of courageous Brest captains like François de Saint-Alouarn and Guy de Coëtnempren de Kersaint, both commanders of la Renommée, and François’s brother, René de Saint-Alouarn.
Although during that time both the French and British performed almost equally well at sea against one another in battle, British superiority in numbers and experience kept the French ships bottled up in their ports. The year 1759, an annus mirabilis, proved to be a costly lesson for Versailles. That year their invasion fleets failed miserably, France lost distant colonies in New France and Guadeloupe, and the defeats at both the battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay devastated the capabilities of their navy, allowing British dominion over the seas for many decades to come.
As mentioned, during the war years the ports thrived with new projects. This lasted until the royal treasury emptied and by the early 1760’s, arriving soon after the disheartening and disastrous 1759, the king turned away from naval affairs. With workers sent away and wages in script that were seldom paid, shipwrights left Brest and went to other ports or even worked the fields. New ships lingered on the stocks and construction came to a near standstill.
A number of years passed with Brest underfunded and the navy unappreciated. Not until Chief Minister Choiseul convinced King Louis XV of the importance of a strong naval defense around 1763 did Brest once again thrive. The port is still quite active and the Brest citadel overlooking the harbor is the oldest continuously manned fort in the world.
Brest was la Renommée’s home station between 1744 and 1747 while under French command.
Citadel of Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island
Louisbourg was the winter port for the French navy on Île-Royale, or Cape Breton Island, since 1713. Its strategic location along the powerful Gulf Stream on the Atlantic coast and near the St. Laurence River in Canada made it easily accessible for ships returning from the West Indies and South America heading for France. More importantly, it protected the route to Quebec City and also the huge and lucrative cod fishing industry on the Grand Banks.
The fortifications to protect this valuable real estate began with Jean-François du Verger de Verville, a military engineer in 1716. He was then replaced by Étienne Verrier. Verrier, relying on Verville’s plans, planned and revised the layout of the defenses. Construction on the fort continued from 1724 until 1745 when the fortress was captured by joint British and American colonial forces. Until its capture, it was called the Gibraltar of the North and considered invincible.
Its weakness as a fort centered in great part on its topography, being located on low-lying shore and surrounded by higher land, situated perfectly for sea attacks but not so for ground assaults. Geography also played against the fort. Louisbourg’s distance from either Quebec or France made reinforcing and supplying the citadel a problem. These disadvantages were key to why the port fell in both 1745 and again in 1758.
La Renommée figured notably in the history of this great fortification, yet there is no documentation that the ship ever actually dropped anchor there. In 1745 under the command of Guy de Coëtnempren de Kersaint, the frigate made two trips to Louisbourg. The earlier trip was to determine the state of Louisbourg to defend against an expected siege and to deliver communications, but sea ice blocked her from getting to the citadel. Later an enemy blockade of colonial and British ships kept her away. The second voyage intended to break the blockade ended when de Kersaint captured a colonial ship who’s passenger, the lieutenant governor of New York, informed him that Louisbourg had fallen. The fleet’s mission, now aborted, changed to one of warning other French ships away from the port and then de Kersaint returned to France.
The next year, la Renommée joined the doomed Admiral d’Anville expedition that unsuccessfully tried to reclaim Louisbourg. It ended when d’Anville died and the season was too late for an attack. For a third time, the ship failed to make harbor at the citadel and sailed homeward to France.
The first fall of Louisbourg, during the War of Austrian Succession in 1745 after only 47 days of siege, shocked both combatants. The British doubted that the rabble troops from its colonies in America, even with the support of a British fleet offshore, could force the impregnable fortress to surrender or conquer it outright. And the French could not accept that their well-trained (although poorly supplied and near-mutinous) infantry could not defend the heavily fortified capital of Cape Breton Island that had cost them 30 million livres to build. However, France’s loss was short lived when all captured possessions by both countries were returned to their antebellum status after agreeing to a peace treaty ending the war.
The surrender in 1758 of the Fortress of Louisbourg after just 48 days during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) was a different matter. The ongoing Versailles decision to not provide sufficient funds for their navy or colonies resulted again in the capture of the strategic port. This time the attack was accomplished almost entirely by British regulars. Louisbourg’s capitulation provided the key to attack Quebec City and eventually take possession of all Canada. By 1760, British troops had dismantled and blown up the fortress, sending much of the stone to help build new Halifax, Nova Scotia. The fort was never again to be handed back to France.
Plymouth Dockyard, England
Plymouth Sound and its port hosted naval fleets as early as 1287 and suffered the invasions and attacks of the French and Spanish during the 1300s. It received a fort for protection under King Edward III and the defenses expanded under Queen Elizabeth I. Its importance to the British navy increased and in 1689 it became a royal navy dockyard. During the 1700s the admiralty greatly improved the dockyard and nearby armory.
The River Tamar that flows down to create the sound, is home to Hamoaze, an inlet of the sea up the river about a mile (1.6 km). The site hosted the anchorage of mothballed ships in ordinance. Lines of demasted and emptied ships rested moored to a cable until their service was required.
The Plymouth shipyard, like most, employed hundreds of workers: shipwrights, oakum boys, riggers, sail-makers, caulkers, rope-makers, and many other assorted craftsmen. Over 80 warships were constructed at Plymouth during the 1700s and hundreds repaired. A number were of the Lyme-class of frigates that copied much of the French frigate designs, such as la Renommée’s. Wagons loaded with ship supplies and victuals flowed into the port daily to refit ships returning from their voyages making the port one of the busiest on the Atlantic.
Improvements continued and in 1758 additional defenses were added landward circling the town. Around 1760 the dockyard in the South Yard area was greatly enhanced with five slipways, four dry docks, and a wet basin. Since that time the area, now known as Devonport, has grown and is the largest naval port in Western Europe.
La Renommée was surveyed, refitted, and renamed the Renown at Plymouth after her capture in 1747 and returned again in 1751 to be surveyed before being put in ordinary at Deptford for almost six years. In 1762 she again returned to Plymouth as her home station for voyages in the Channel on convoy.
Port Royal Station, Jamaica
The Spanish settled the area of Port Royal on the southeastern Jamaican coast in 1494, soon after Columbus’ expedition landed there. As a prime location in the West Indies for a port on currents flowing west from the Atlantic, it quickly grew under Spanish control. By the mid-17th century, it had become a major trading port rivaling those in the British North American colonies. Envy over commercial success in the Caribbean led to the Anglo-Spanish War and In 1655 the English captured Jamaica. To help defend the new possession, the English governor invited the Buccaneers, or privateers, to prey on Spanish ships and use Port Royal as their base. It soon became the notorious home to the Caribbean pirates who preyed on merchant and treasure-laden ships from any country passing along the trade winds.
Pirates like Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Henry Jennings, Calico Jack Rackham, Edward Mansfield, William Kidd, and others used Port Royal as a haven. The port was known as the most corrupt city in the New World and beyond redemption. Those residents of the port who were not pirates or privateers demanded a change and Henry Morgan, himself a former privateer, was appointed the lieutenant governor. He outlawed pirates and promoted slavery as the new commerce and it thrived.
In the 1660s, Charles Leslie wrote about the pirates and privateers of Port Royal: “Wine and women drain all their wealth in such a way that some of them become beggars, they used to spend 2,000 or 3,000 pieces of eight (Spanish dollars) in one night, and they easily give the prostitutes 500 to see him naked, and they usually buy one drum wine, put it on the street, and oblige everyone who passes by to drink it.”
Port Royal’s success as a principal port was due to the strong westward trade winds and ocean currents that formed its natural harbor. The spit of land, bordered by deep drops, enclosed a huge bay and offered the perfect location for both a port and harbor.
However, in 1692 a massive earthquake hit the city. Buildings sank into the liquified sandy ground and toppled as the sea swallowed up whole sections on the north and west end of the town. The devastation killed two thousand people outright and another two thousand from injuries and disease.
Then a great fire in 1703 and another earthquake in 1722 ended Port Royal’s prominence. All that remained in 1749 for the Renown’s arrival was the naval station and a small town with just a fraction of its earlier population selling sea turtle shell products.
The English royal naval station at Port Royal maintained a careening wharf, buildings for supplies and minor repairs, and shelter for crews and slaves. It served as a base of operations for the Renown during its years of stationing in the West Indies. Her history is closely associated with the Port Royal station, spending most of her time under British command there. The admiralty likely found her ideal for the weather and sea conditions and fast for intercepting smugglers of rum, sugar, and lucrative goods flowing out of the Caribbean to the northern colonies. The fact she survived the horrific hurricanes of the leeward islands year after year is a testament to the durability of Renown’s build. The frigate sailed during her Port Royal Station period to West Indies islands, the southern North American coast, Gulf of Mexico, or the northern South American coast. Other than the years she was moored in ordinary between 1752–1757 and two partial years spent mostly in the Channel Fleet in 1758 and 1762, Port Royal was her British home.
Woolwich Dockyard, England
The dockyard at Woolwich on the Thames River east of London was established in the early 1500s by King Henry VIII. The two dry docks of the time grew to include covered slipways, timber seasoning sheds, masting sheers, storehouses, a metal fabrication factory, a nearby rope-yard, sawmills, mould lofts, and improved dry docks. During the early 1700s, the yard launched more ships than the other bigger royal shipyards becoming one of Europe’s main shipbuilding ports. Between 1712 and 1774 the number of employees ranged from 511 to over 1,000. Gradually the larger shipyards outproduced Woolwich, yet the shipyard continued through the Napoleonic Wars until the Thames silt made the shipyard impractical even with dredging.
Fewer and fewer ship constructions were allocated for Woolwich until the advent of steam-powered vessels. Then the shipyard became a center of an industrial rebirth. All the necessary factories and foundries for creating steamships could be found there. As the ships became larger, however, the restricted size accommodations were unable to suit their needs, causing the shipyard’s closure. It was shut down in 1869 after three centuries of ship production.
The Renown visited Woolwich in 1762 and again in 1764 when she went through a Small Repair at the end of the year until mid-1765. In 1766 the frigate was out of commission at Woolwich until the end of that year. Her last visit was in 1771 when the Renown was determined unrepairable and demolished.
Portsmouth Dockyard, England
King Richard I first established a royal dockyard at Portsmouth for his fleet of galleys. It grew and King Henry VII in 1495 built the world’s first dry dock a bit further away from the earlier yard. By 1497 they launched the yard’s first warship, the Sweepstake. After Chatham Dockyard was constructed in the mid-1500s, ship construction in Portsmouth came to an end. However. during the English Commonwealth, shipbuilding restarted with its first launch in 1650 and the addition of a double dry dock that allowed two ships in it at the same time.
The large size of the harbor and the protective narrow entrance made Portsmouth Dockyard and Spithead harbor an ideal naval station. The size of the harbor enabled the navy to use it for ships in ordinary and for prison hulks.
With the increase of a French threat in the late 1600s more dry docks were built and in the 1700s buildings, walls, a rope house, dry docks, victualing and armament yards, storehouses, and a nearby naval academy were added. Plus additional acreage was appropriated for the yard to construct a new sail loft and rigging house. Once steam became a power source for mass producing, a metal mill, block mill, pumping stations, and a millwright shop sprung up. The once proud sailing vessels lined the moorage as dirty coal hulks. The shipyard had launched more than 200 sailing warships during its time.
The Renown made port at the dockyard first in March of 1751 when the navy surveyed her a second time and nearly broke her up, but reconsidered and sent her to Plymouth Dockyard and assigned her into ordinary on the Hamoaze. Then in 1757 the frigate underwent a Great Repair at Portsmouth Dockyard and was recommissioned as a fifth-rate with heavier guns. In July of 1758, after almost a year on patrol in the Channel Fleet, she was again repaired at Portsmouth. Her last voyage from the West Indies brought her again to Portsmouth where her crew was paid off. She was surveyed one last time and determined unfit and sent to the Woolwich Dockyard to be broken up.
Shipbuilding occurred on and off at the site for over 500 years and the shipyard is still in operation today for smaller ship repairs.