- Payne, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Sydney III, HMAS Australia II
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A naval constructor may at first glance appear an odd subject for biography but there was nothing odd about Britain’s greatest builder of modern ships, Stephen Payne. This is the story of a man who served his apprenticeship on the famous HMS Dreadnought, specialised in the building of airships for the Royal Navy and later built the family of British aircraft carriers. Stephen Payne was a foundation member of this Society and it is fitting that his biography should be written by his son, Vice President, Alan Payne.
STEPHEN PAYNE WAS BORN AT PORTSMOUTH on the 8th July 1886 of a long established Dockyard family. It was apparent from an early age that he had the ability to follow in the footsteps of his two naval constructor brothers.
The Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, a civilian body, was founded in 1883 and is responsible for the design, construction and repair of warships of the Royal Navy. Over the years the field has been widened to cover airships and various designs and inventions covering all the fighting services. When necessary, in peace or war, naval constructors wear uniform, the rank of Constructor being equivalent to a Commander.
At the age of eleven, Payne attended a school which specialized in obtaining top marks at the annual Dockyard entrance examination. In 1901, 800 boys sat for the examination for 200 vacancies for apprentices in the Dockyard. Only those with top marks would be accepted as shipwright apprentices, who later would have the opportunity to become Naval Constructors. He came second in the examination and so passed the first hurdle in his career.
Queen Victoria died only a few months before he entered the Dockyard. The Fleet was a very mixed one and still included a number of ships with auxiliary sail. In spite of this, the first submarines were about to enter service in the Navy.
As an apprentice he worked on the battleships of the Majestic class – these were armed with four 12 inch and twelve 6 inch guns and had a speed of only 17½ knots. Under construction when he joined the Dockyard was the 2nd class cruiser Encounter, which was later transferred to the RAN.
The young apprentice could have had no idea that revolutionary changes in warship design were imminent. In fact the most stimulating period in the history of warship construction was the ten year period following the appointment of Admiral Sir John Fisher in 1904. The ten years saw the design and construction of the mightiest fleet of battleships and battle cruisers ever seen. Many of these great ships were built in the Royal Dockyards. During the period 1902- 1912 the Director of Naval Construction, Sir Philip Watts, was responsible for all but four of the battle fleet which fought at Jutland.
At Christmas 1904 Mark Payne told his younger brother the great naval secret of the day – the design of the revolutionary new battleship Dreadnought. The most powerful battleship then under construction was the 16,500 ton Lord Nelson with four 12 inch guns and ten 9.2 inch guns, with a speed of 18 knots. Fisher’s Dreadnought had ten 12 inch guns although only 17,900 tons and a speed of 21 knots. She was also the first turbine driven battleship.
Dreadnought was laid down at Portsmouth in October 1905 and completed in great secrecy only twelve months later. Payne was proud to have worked on the great ship, but before she was finished, he heard that he had passed the first major hurdle. He was the first of three shipwright apprentices to be appointed Naval Construction Cadet at the Royal Naval College, Keyham at Plymouth. After four years hard work at the Dockyard School he now had another four years to go before he qualified as an Assistant Constructor.
Payne enjoyed his year at Keyham mixing with engineer cadets. On his last night he took part in a wild scrum and broke his collarbone. Fortunately there was a three months vacation before joining the Royal Naval College, Greenwich as a Constructor Sub Lieutenant.
After completing his second year at Greenwich he had another accident, this proved serious and nearly wrecked his career. In July 1908 he lost the sight of one eye and later his good eye became infected. He was forced to rest his good eye for the whole of the third and final year.
Fortunately both his brothers were serving at the Admiralty and he could stay with them for weekends. The brothers read the course note books and when necessary drew diagrams on the palm of his hand. ‘Not an ideal way of learning the difficult subjects of Rigid Dynamics and Hydrodynamics, but it had to do’. Under these circumstances it was incredible that he passed the final examinations at all. As it turned out he only just missed a First Class Certificate and was first of the four constructors of his year. Success was clearly due to great determination, a very retentive memory and two helpful brothers.
Before the final examination Sir Philip Watts was consulted to see if Payne would be accepted into the Corps. Sir Philip’s reply was ‘You can tell young Payne if he passes the exam, we will take him in provided he does not need a dog to guide him to the Admiralty.’ It was perhaps fortunate that Sir Philip was very short sighted.