Dockyard as it looked when shipwrights serviced the Royal Navy ships. *Photo courtesy of Bermuda National Museum
Dockyard as it looked when shipwrights serviced the Royal Navy ships. *Photo courtesy of Bermuda National Museum

A small collection of handmade shipwright tools that were first used in the Royal Naval Dockyard more than a century ago have been returned to Bermuda.

The wooden ‘rabbet’ plane, clamp, and compass plane had been passed down from generation to generation since Robert John Ridley Prior worked in the West End in the 1880s.

And now thanks to the generosity of his great, great, great granddaughter Christine Clark and her father, Douglas Bertram Prior, these symbols of a bygone era are now back where they plied their trade.

Mrs Clark, who lives in the naval city of Portsmouth in England, discovered her ancestors’ links with Bermuda when she embarked on a project to trace her family tree.

She recently visited Bermuda to donate the shipwright tools to the National Museum on behalf of her father.

Mrs Clark told the Bermuda Sun: “I started looking into my family tree around 10 years ago.

“And I made contact with Albert and Judy Corday in Bermuda in a bid to find out more about the Bermuda link.

“We were able to help trace Robert Prior, who was born on Ireland Island in Bermuda in 1863, and his father, Ridley Prior, who came out to Bermuda to work as a shipwright in Dockyard in the late 1850s or early 1860s.

“It was a part of my family’s history that I had absolutely no idea about and it has been incredibly exciting to follow it through.

“My father, Douglas Prior, has had the tools for some time after they were passed down to him by his family.

“And we decided it was only right that we return them to where they first started their life.

“My husband, Ron, and I have become very close friends with the Cordays and were over in Bermuda staying with them just last month to donate the tools to the National Museum.

“We also have a lovely long service medal that was obviously presented to Robert Prior for his work at the Dockyard.” 

The donated tools, which are stamped with the name ‘Prior’, will go on display in an upcoming exhibit on the Royal Navy in Bermuda that is due to open in 2015.

National Museum Curator, Elena Strong, told the Sun that such acts of generosity helped preserve Bermuda’s heritage for future generations.

She added: “The shipwright tools recently donated to the National Museum are very fine examples of mid-19th century handmade tools that were used in the Dockyard by shipwrights and shipwright apprentices.

Piece of history

“Smooth, rounded and full of dings from heavy use, they were used to repair and construct Royal Navy ships at Bermuda.

“The tools are representative of the era when the Bermuda Dockyard was supporting the entire Royal Navy’s Northern squadron and Bermuda’s economy had transitioned from a seafaring to a British military one.

“The Dockyard employed hundreds of Bermudians as craftsmen, labourers, clerks and boatmen and many more benefited indirectly.

“The tools join a collection of artifacts relating to Dockyard apprentices and represent the earliest examples of shipwright tools in the Museum collection that can be directly linked to individual shipwrights.”