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History of Chatham Dockyard

Updated on July 22, 2016

Home to the Royal Navy for over 400 years

The departure of the Royal Navy from Chatham Dockyard on 31 March 1984 brought to an end a naval connection that lasted over four centuries. During that time the dockyard grew from virtually nothing to a site covering more than 400 acres and survived attacks from land, sea and air.

Chatham’s claim to be the birthplace of the Royal Navy has some justification as its naval connections go back to the 16th Century. Henry VIII, the first British monarch to have ships built that were specifically designed as warships, decided to base a number of these ships on the River Medway during the winter months.

The protected anchorage was close to the capital and extensive mud banks allowed the ships to be beached for overhaul and maintenance. In 1547, the last year of Henry’s reign, a storehouse on the riverbank was rented for storage of ropes, spars and equipment, and further storehouses were added over the next few years. An area of land adjacent to the river was rented on 8 June 1550 when an Order in Council declared all royal ships should be harboured in the Medway.

A victualling storehouse in Rochester was purchased soon afterwards and hulks were moored in the river to provide workshops and accommodation for vessels refitting afloat. Work began on fortifications at Upnor and further downstream, while the purchase of more land at Chatham created room for a mast pond to be dug and the building of a large forge and more storehouses. A 378ft long wharf with cranes was built in 1580 allowing ships to come alongside and offload their guns before being refitted. Two years later the first dry dock was built to service a small number of rowing galleys.

By the beginning of the 17th Century Chatham was Britain’s premier naval dockyard, but James 1st allowed the navy to stagnate and by 1618 the dockyard was described as being ‘in truly piteous condition’. Corruption was rife and large amounts of equipment, including guns had been sold for private profit. Master shipwright Phineas Pett was held to be largely responsible for the state of the yard and was severely reprimanded. He enjoyed the favour of the king, however, and was given the task of overseeing the building of a completely new and expanded dockyard. 80 acres of land were acquired to the north of the old yard and over the next seven years two new dry docks, a second graving dock, a sail loft, a rope house and officers residences were built.

Shipbuilding at the dockyard

King James died before the work was completed but his successor, Charles 1st reviewed the dockyard and the fleet at Chatham on 15 June 1631. The dockyard had, until then, concentrated on ship repair and victualling but it soon started to begin shipbuilding in earnest and from 1647 onwards a steady stream of Chatham built warships joined the fleet.

Perhaps the King made a bad impression on the Medway because early in the civil war, ten years later, the dockyard declared its support for Parliament. The yard successfully defended itself against a Royalist siege, but the Medway found itself less well prepared when war broke out with the Dutch in 1652. The parlous state of the river’s defences was revealed in June 1667 when a Dutch fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Willem van Ghent, took the partially completed Sheerness Fort before sailing up the River Medway and capturing or burning many British warships including the flagship Royal Charles.

This wake up call resulted in a massive strengthening of the Medway’s defences behind which the dockyard grew as 21 new storehouses and two dry docks were built between 1685 and 1688. The early years of the 18th Century were a time of great expansion and several of the buildings and structures from this period still survive in the Historic Dockyard. These include a new mast pond completed in 1702, Medway House (1703), the main gate (1722), the clock tower store (1723) and a new and higher dockyard wall.

Neglect and Renewal

Despite these additions Chatham once again entered a period of neglect during the middle of the century, largely because of constant shoaling problems on the River Medway. An Admiralty report of 1771 declared that “the depth of water in this port is scarcely adequate for the draught of capital ships built according to present estimates”. This problem meant few ships were based at Chatham although building and major refit work continued apace and in 1765 Victory, arguably the most famous ship ever to be built at the dockyard, was launched. A major improvement programme began in 1785 with the replacement of many condemned buildings. The new ropery and the Anchor Wharf storehouses, both of which survive today, are among the buildings that date from this period of renewal.

The French Revolution of 1789 presaged a period of extraordinary activity for the dockyard, which was called on to produce a maximum effort to build new ships and reactivate those laid up in ordinary. No fewer than 20 ships were commissioned at Chatham during the two months prior to the declaration of war in February 1793. In addition to its shipbuilding output, major repairs were carried out by the dockyard to many vessels damaged in battle during the ensuing 22 years of warfare, particularly in the aftermath of the fleet actions at St Vincent, Camperdown and Copenhagen.

Chatham came under the same administrative command as the Nore, the anchorage in the Thames Estuary at its confluence with the River Medway, named after the Great Nore sandbank. The fleet at Nore mutinied in May 1797, a month after a mutiny at Spithead over poor conditions of service. The mutiny at the Nore, however, had a more political and menacing character, perhaps explaining the further outbreak when the mutineers at Spithead had already secured remedies for sailors throughout the Royal Navy. Marines were largely responsible for the successful outcome of attempts to suppress the spread of the mutiny to the Chatham Division and the army garrisoned locally on the Lines.

Further improvements carried out to the dockyard before the end of the Napoleonic wars included the introduction of steam power, first in the ropery in 1811, and the roofing of No 2 slip in 1813. Work continued after the end of the war with the addition of three more dry docks, while the remaining slips were covered in the period from 1838 to 1855. Chatham was fully involved in the Navy’s gradual change from sail to steam and built the steam paddle sloop Phoenix in 1832, and completed the lengthening and conversion to steam power of the 46 gun frigate Penelope in 1843.

The move from wood towards iron built ships caused massive upheaval in the dockyard. No 1 dock was lengthened and converted into a giant covered workshop where metal plates could be assembled, new metal cutting, bending and drilling machinery had to be acquired and installed and dockyard workers had to be trained in its use. The first two ships to utilise the new equipment were Royal Oak, a wooden hulled vessel originally planned as a 90 gun first rate but cut down whilst still in the frame stage and redesigned as an ironclad, and the purpose built broadside ironclad Achilles based on the design of HMS Warrior. Work on these two ships was carried out to the exclusion of almost all work on other ships and they were completed in 1863.

Expansion for larger warships

It was clear that the Navy’s future lay with ever larger iron warships and the Admiralty recognised that the dockyard, then covering an area of 97 acres, was too small to accommodate such vessels in any numbers. A great deal of extra space was needed to accommodate future building and repair requirements and so, in 1862, a 380 acre extension was acquired in the form of St Mary’s Island. The island consisted largely of tidal marshes, so a seawall was constructed around it to allow it to be drained before reclamation work was carried out. Meanwhile work began on the construction of three basins in St Mary’s Creek, the channel between the island and the Chatham shoreline, which had been enclosed. Although work on this scheme began in 1862, the first suggestion for building a wet dock had been made 180 years earlier.

Much of the reclamation work and building work was carried out by convict labour to save costs. Basin No 1, which included four 469ft long dry docks leading off its southern side, covered an area of 21 acres and was designated as the repairing basin for use by ships fitting out after launch or in deep refit. An entrance fitted with a caisson was built to allow ships to pass directly into the basin from the River Medway opposite Upnor and the basin was officially opened in June 1871 with the arrival of the ironclad Invincible for refit.

Basins 2 and 3, known respectively as the factory basin and the refitting basin, were completed in 1885 and the new main entrance became the two parallel locks sealed by caisson gates at Bull’s Nose at the Gillingham end of the complex. This allowed ships access from the river into the largest of the three basins, the 28 acre No 3, and thence into Basins 2 and 1. The original Upnor entrance into Basin No 1 fell into disuse and was subsequently blocked up.

The enlarge dockyard enabled work on many more ships to be carried out and the Admiralty placed orders for a number of battleships to be built, the last of which to be completed was HMS Africa in 1905. Three years later C17, the first submarine to be built at Chatham Dockyard, was delivered to the fleet. This marked the start of the dockyard’s links with the submarine service, an association that was to last until the closure of the dockyard 70 years later.

In the lead up to World War One the dockyard was refitting and reactivating ships that had been laid up. Three of these, the cruisers Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue sailed from Chatham as part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron on 4 August 1914, the day war broke out. Just seven weeks later, on 22 September, the cost of war was brought home to the people of Kent when all three Chatham manned ships were torpedoed and sunk with the loss of over 1,500 men. Towns along the River Medway were further shaken when the battleship Bulwark, in Kethole Reach upstream from Sheerness, blew up and sank with the loss of 730 of her crew after a magazine explosion. Six months later, the minelayer Princess Irene, loaded with 500 mines, blew up while anchored in the Medway killing all but one of her crew.

World War One activity

Throughout the war the dockyard was a hive of activity with warships being refitted and repaired, although capacity was still found to build three cruisers and 12 submarines. An air raid by German Gotha bombers was mounted on 17 September 1917 but the bombs targeted on the yard fell on the nearby naval barracks instead, killing 136 naval ratings.

Despite the inevitable downturn in work at the end of the war and the depression of the 1930’s, the cruisers Kent and Arethusa were built and submarine production at the Dockyard increased. But it was not long before the clouds of war began to gather once more and in 1939 Chatham went to war again. Attack from the air was inevitable and the dockyard was subjected to a number of damaging raids, one of which destroyed the factory building and killed 23 workers. The yard maintained its impressive output, however, and by the time hostilities ended in 1945 the workforce of 13,000 had built 12 submarines, four sloops and two floating docks as well as carrying out 1,360 refits.

In the post war period shipbuilding work at Chatham was confined almost entirely to submarines. The 57th and last submarine to built at the yard was an Oberon class diesel electric submarine for the Canadian Navy, HMCS Okanagan. Work on submarines was to continue, however, with the completion in 1968 of a nuclear refit complex using the old No 6 and No 7 docks in No 1 Basin. Surface ship refit and modernisation work continued to play an important role at the yard, but Chatham also became home to the Standby Squadron (vessels laid up but able to be quickly reactivated), the Ice Patrol ship Endurance, and the inshore survey squadron. Another long term resident was HMS Triumph, an aircraft carrier converted to a heavy repair ship, that arrived in 1972 and finally left under tow for the breakers in December 1981.

Closure of the dockyard

The diminishing size of the fleet and the need to cut costs were among the reasons given by Defence Secretary John Nott when on 25 June 1981 he announced that Chatham Dockyard was to be closed. Just a few months later it seemed as if events at the other end of the world might change this decision. HMS Endurance reported the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine troops and the navy was put on a war footing as ships of the Standby Squadron were hurriedly rushed into service as cover for ships despatched to the South Atlantic.

HMS Endurance was almost the last ship to return home from the Falklands and she received a tumultuous welcome when she arrived at Chatham on 20 August 1982. It was a welcomed tinged with sadness, however, as the decision to close the dockyard had not been rescinded. Active warships sailed for other bases while those laid up for disposal were towed away to breakers yards or for use as targets, while HMS Churchill, the last submarine to emerge from the nuclear refit complex, sailed on 23 May 1983. There were emotional scenes when on 21 June 1983 the last ship HMS Hermione sailed from Chatham Dockyard.

The dockyard was closed on 31 March 1984 ending 400 years of Royal Navy presence on the River Medway.

THE PORT OF CHATHAM

With the closure of the dockyard came a plan to redevelop over 400 acres of prime land in the Medway Towns. The decision was taken to split the site into three large parts. The first was the Historic Dockyard, an area with one of the largest concentrations of historic buildings in the United Kingdom. The second area was to be redeveloped into a large mixed housing estate and retail centre, whilst the third around No 3 Basin was to become a major port.

The first vessel to enter the Port of Chatham was the motor vessel Vibrence of Crescent Shipping, which arrived on 6 January 1984 with timber from Kalmar in Sweden. She was followed into the port by the 7,000 tonne ferry Merchandian Diplomat. At around the same time, Chatham Docks hit the local newspaper headlines amid controversy over the future of ship repair work centred on Basin No 1. Thames Ship Repairers had moved into No 5 dry dock opposite the site of the former nuclear refuelling complex that was in the process of being torn down. The repair company had a healthy reputation of work with major repairs being completed on ships as diverse as the Sealink ferry Vortigen and the Cable and Wireless Cable Venture. The problem for the firm was that its base of operations was in the centre of the dockyard where the redevelopment plans called for a major housing estate. Thames Ship Repairs put up a spirited fight to stay at the yard and even offered an alternative to the redevelopment, but all to no avail.

Within two years Thames Ship Repairs had been wound up and a shipping success story had been destroyed.

Progress to redevelop the port around Basin No 3, however, was steady if unspectacular, in the early stages, but the port has subsequently grown to become an important part of the River Medway. Medway Docks was replaced by Medway Ports and in 1998 Chatham Docks handled over a million tonnes of cargo as nearly all its terminal operations expanded operations in the port. At the same time Medway Ports invested in the port infrastructure to improve road and rail links.

Today Chatham Docks has 1,200 metres of berthing space with a minimum year round depth of eight metres. Vessels up to 143 metres in length and 25 metres in beam have unrestricted access to the basin, subject to the tide, and ships up to 170 metres can be accommodated by channelling through the locks around high tide. Chatham’s eight berths are home to a variety of companies and industries.

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