If the small Hampshire village of Buckler’s Hard is a little busy today, it is only so with tourists. But there was a time when it would have been a hive of activity. It was once home to a bustling and successful shipbuilding industry. Here three of the warships for Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar were built, as well as many other naval ships.
The village has dark origins. It was built initially by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who needed a port and refinery for sugar brought in from his plantations in St Vincent and St Lucia. The Duke’s plantations would naturally have relied on the labour of his slaves. But he lost his estates there following an invasion by the French, and seems subsequently to have had a change of heart regarding slavery. He chose instead to provide educational support for his black servants. These included Ignatius Sancho, a musician, actor and writer; and Francis Williams, a Jamaican scholar. He was also involved in the liberation of a prominent enslaved African, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo.
Shipbuilding at Buckler’s Hard
Meanwhile the need to import and refine sugar had of course vanished. The village could have faded into obscurity. But a local entrepreneur, James Wyatt, established a shipyard here and won a contract to build the Navy ship HMS Surprise in 1744. More such contracts followed. The Admiralty sent Henry Adams to oversee these contracts and under him Buckler’s Hard flourished and became one of the busiest shipyards in the country, eventually building 43 naval vessels including the three that fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805: HMS Euryalus, HMS Swiftsure, and HMS Agamemnon.
But when the navy turned to iron and later steel for its ships, Buckler’s Yard with its ready supply of wood from the New Forest was no longer an attractive location for their construction. Shipbuilding shifted to the industrial towns and cities of the north and the village declined into rural sleepiness. The village rediscovered its importance during World War II as a major construction and launch site for the vessels involved in the D-Day landings. Later it was where Sir Francis Chichester began and finished his solo voyage around the world in the Gipsy Moth IV.
Today the village relies on tourism and on its busy yachting marina. Join me on our recent visit for a Monday Walk with Jo.
Painting Buckler’s Hard
We arrived to a surprise; the village was hosting the filming of an episode of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year competition. We watched some of the artists in action and later returned to check out their progress. This isn’t a programme I normally watch but I will look out for it when the next series is aired, probably some time in the winter.
While there isn’t a charge to visit Buckler’s Hard (apart from parking), we did pay to go into the museum. This is both larger and more comprehensive than I’d expected from outside. There are detailed models of some of the ships built here and of the village; accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar and the role played by the Buckler’s Hard ships; and some well-executed mock-ups of village buildings as they would have been at that time. We saw Henry Adam’s office where he is shown discussing plans for the Swiftsure with the Navy’s overseer.
We saw locals chatting over drinks and a game of cards in the village pub, the New Inn.
Most impressive was the reconstruction of a cramped labourer’s cottage.
In the village
From the museum we strolled down the wide village street. It was built this wide to accommodate markets and other village events. Today it seems incongruously so for such a quiet place.
Some of the houses are still lived in, others are holiday rentals, but there are two you can visit.
The Shipwright’s Cottage
This cottage has been reconstructed within to show how shipwright Thomas Burlace and his family would have lived in the 18th century. Shipwrights were skilled craftsmen and earned an above-average salary, so this is a relatively luxurious home in comparison to the labourer’s cottage depicted in the museum. However it still appears cramped by modern standards.
This was once a simple home and later became the village school, before being converted into a 40-seat chapel. It is still used for services today. Inside we saw a plaque commemorating the achievement of Sir Francis Chichester. Behind the altar is a hidden cellar, believed to have been used by 18th century smugglers. The village would have been an important landing spot for the ‘Free Traders’ (as the smugglers preferred to be known) who were active throughout the New Forest as well as all along England’s south coast.
At the foot of the main street we came to the yachting marina and footpaths along the Beaulieu River. We stopped off for lunch at the popular Master Builder’s House Hotel, where we were lucky to get a table as it was busy with members of the TV film crew.
It was low tide so we could see the still-visible remains of the 18th century wooden launch-ways where the naval ships, including Nelson’s were launched after completion. We could have taken a short cruise on the river but opted instead to walk a little way along the path to Beaulieu. But when this deviated from the water we retraced our steps and checked out the nearby replica 18th century shipwright workshop with its scene of wood-chopping and exhibition about the HMS Agamemnon.
Our final stop in the village, after revisiting the filming area to check the artists’ progress, was at the café near the entrance where we enjoyed local New Forest ice creams on a rather windy lawn. Sorry Jo, no cake, and no photos of what we did eat, but I hope you enjoyed the walk nevertheless.
I visited Buckler’s Hard in July 2023