Though it had been suggested on a number of occasions that a dry dock be built at Passage, little was done until the early 1820s when a committee was set up to decide on the most suitable course of action. Having done the essential research, they decided in favour of a dry dock. In 1832, William Brown set about constructing a dock. By the end of 1833, the dry dock was ready to receive its first ship, the 386-ton Dominica. Work continued on the dock and, by the end of 1835, the Browns were advertising their dry dock and shipbuilding yard. Constructing the dock was a major work of engineering: the entrance was one metre below the lowest tide, so keeping water from the work area was both difficult and costly.
By the end of 1836, about 20 schooners had been launched at the yard. Ship repair work also increased and between 1840 and 1850, a total of 183 vessels being repaired at the dockyard over this time. In 1849, the Browns were given official permission to name their concern the Royal Victoria Dockyard. The dry dock itself was called the Victoria Dry Dock. At that time, the dry dock could accommodate six vessels of about 150 tons each and ships repaired had included the largest steamers belonging to both Cork and Dublin companies.
In the early 1850s, William Brown decided to extend his business by enlarging the Victoria Dry Dock and building a second. By the mid-1850s, the Victoria dock had been extended to 350 feet, its entrance was 245 metres wide and there was 6 – 7 metres of water over its sill. The gate could be floated in or out of its berth on 2.6 metres of water. Constructing the entrance was a major feat. The work area had to be sealed off by building a coffer dam which gave just 31/2 hours of working time between tides.
The new dry dock which was called the Albert was 82 metres long and had an entrance of nearly 17 metres wide with 4.5 – 5.5 metres of water over its sill. This dock was worked by a slide gate running on a rail – a new and original design.
The dockyard had a river frontage of just over 300 metres. In the mid-1850s, there were over 300 workers in employment at the dockyard. Departments at the yard included sail and rigging lofts, bock and pump makers workshops and all types of up-to-date equipment.
In June 1861, the Browns extended their dockyard by another 150 metres to the south. The works included stores, a steam saw mill and an extensive quay. The possibility of building a third dry dock was also being considered. Further extensions brought the total river frontage to over 600 metres by 1864. There was a certain amount of ill-feeling locally about the loss of a strand at Lucia Place and the Browns were accused of encroaching onto the ferry slip at Ferry Point.
Workers at the dockyard were capable of producing the highest quality work and they were often praised for their ability. The Ancient and Modern History of the Maritime Ports of Ireland (1855) by Anthony Marmion described the Dockyard as being “the most spirited and extensive undertaking probably ever attempted in Ireland by individual enterprise”.
In 1872, the Royal Victoria Dockyard was purchased by a syndicate who formed the Cork Harbour Docks and Warehouse Company. The initial years of this company were highly successful and the dockyard staff exceeded 700 workers. The company set about modernising the concern. They constructed a huge granary intended for the storage and sale of grain, then Cork’s principal import. The granaries were four storeys high and were constructed principally of brown stone with red brick window dressings. They could hold 8,000 tons of grain. By April 1874, 32 cottages were constructed to serve the dockyard.
Although the company concentrated on repair work, a number of small vessels were built in the early 1870s. Towards the end 1870s, a shipping depression affected Passage and work became scarce. To keep the yard going, the company purchased a number of old or damaged timber ships with a view to their conditioning and resale. This did not work out as, just at this time, timber ships had become virtually valueless on the open market. The Docks Company lost money in successive years and in 1881, the property was purchased by Sir John Arnott for £31,500.
The Royal Victoria Dockyard, which covered almost 8 acres, had among its departments a 60 metre high mast-house, above which was a moulding and joiners loft. The concern also had three engine houses, a ship chandlery house and a new pitch-house complete with furnaces and pots. The new smithy shop contained 17 smithy fires and three large furnaces. The fitting shop had many metal-cutting machines.
March 1882 saw the launch of the dockyard’s first iron vessel. This boat, the Dingadee, was built for the Australian Steam Navigation Company. A sister vessel, the Hesketh, was launched three months later. In the mid-1880s, a fishing boat-building scheme was begun at Glenbrook by local ship carpenters. This project was not a financial success and the boats were sold off at a loss.
Joy came to the dockyard temporarily on 15th April 1885, when the Prince and Princess of Wales and their eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, arrived in Cork. They departed Cork City on a steamer down the river to Passage. They landed at the Royal Victoria Dockyard amidst great excitement and celebrations.
The late 1880s and 1890s were a stormy period at the dockyard. Long spells of idleness were broken by periods of intense activity or, alternatively, by outbreaks of industrial unrest. In 1890, the paddle steamer America was reconstructed almost in entirety. In 1895, the royal yacht Brittania was docked at Passage for minor repairs and cleaning.
On 1st March 1898, the dockyard was taken over by John J. Jacobs & Company and was renamed the Channel Dry Dock Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. It changed hands in 1906 and again in 1911. This last time, its new owners set up a saw-mill, which gave employment to about 60 workers. Sadly, this part of the business was destroyed in a fire in 1913.
In the years of World War I, the Passage Dockyard was particularly busy and the Granaries were converted into a barracks. A large workforce was consistently employed in building whalers ad other small boats for the Admiralty. Early in 1917, the Dockyard was purchased by the Furness Withy company. Equipment was modernised and new cranes were ordered. New dock offices were constructed and were said to have been the first concrete block structure in Passage. At the beginning of 1918, the company received permission to extend the Albert dry dock. The following year, the new 98 metre long Albert dock was opened. It was capable of accommodating vessels of up to 98 metres in length and 5.5 metres draught. The installation of a new pumping system improved both the Victoria and the Albert Dry Docks. However, none of this investment proved profitable and before the end of the 1930s, the concern was again sold. In 1931, the plant and equipment was auctioned.
From then until recently, the Royal Victoria Dockyard premises has been owned by Haulbowline Industries Ltd. The quays have been used for discharging and loading cargoes, while the company also built up a large scrap metal handling business. In 1983, the company filled in the former Albert dry dock and two large warehouses were built on the adjacent site. The larger Victoria dry dock is still intact. The large granary at Ferry Point fell into disrepair and was demolished. At the end of 2006, the Royal Victoria Dockyard was purchased by a private developer. It is expected to be developed in such a way as to facilitate expansion of Passage West's town centre incorporating a mix of retail, commercial, service, civic and residential uses.