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The rise and fall of Malta’s once mighty naval shipyards

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Malta has been a centre for shipbuilding and ship repairs for hundreds of years, with boats being built in the Grand Harbour as early as the 15th century.

However, it was during the 19th century in Paola, Marsa, Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa that the shipyards became a real source of commerce for Malta.

The advent of the steam engine marked massive opportunities for Malta to expand its heavy industry and the Malta Royal Naval Dockyard soon became the most important and busiest navy base in the Mediterranean, employing thousands of Maltese workers.

It was initially located around Dockyard Creek, and occupied several of the dockyard buildings formerly used by the Knights of Malta.

By 1850 the facilities included storehouses, a ropery, a small steam factory, victualling facilities, houses for the officers of the Yard, and most notably a dry dock – the first to be provided for a Royal Dockyard outside Britain.

Started in 1844, the dry dock was opened in 1847. Around 10 years later it was extended to form a double dock.

In the second half of the century the steam factory with its machine shops and foundries was expanded.

Very soon, though, it was clear that more space was required than the crowded wharves of Dockyard Creek afforded, to accommodate the increasing size of ships and the increasing size of the Royal Navy fleet based in Malta.

The decision was taken to expand into the adjacent French Creek, and between 1861 and 1909 a further five dry docks were constructed along with an assortment of buildings to serve the Navy.

Malta remained an important base during the First World War and the Second World War.

In January 1941 more than 60 Nazi dive bombers attacked the dockyard in an attempt to destroy the damaged aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Only one bomb hit the ship.

In April 1942 the Admiral Superintendent of Malta Dockyard reported that due to German air attacks on Malta’s naval base ‘practically no workshops were in action other than those underground’.

After the war Britain’s shipbuilding industry went into decline with yards on the Clyde, the Tyne and on Merseyside left with empty order books.

Despite a major modernisation programme, the Malta shipyards also began to feel the impact of the budget cuts imposed on the Ministry of Defence.

In 1957 when hundreds of redundancies were announced.

Two years later, the Malta dockyard was handed over to Baileys of Wales, a civilian firm of ship repairers and marine engineers, before eventually being nationalised and passed into the hands of the Maltese government.

The ship repair facilities in Cospicua which were previously operated by Malta Shipyards Ltd in the 1980s and 1990s were taken over by the Italian firm Palumbo in 2010.

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