Chatham: World’s Most Complete Age of Sail Dockyard

Over the years I’ve toured over the Chatham Historic Dockyard quite a number of times. Shortly to reopen after its winter closure the dockyard is well worth a visit. There are seven main attractions – Command of the Ocean exhibition; Three Historic Warships (HMS Cavalier, HMS Garnet and HM Submarine Ocelot); the Victorian Ropery; RNLI historic lifeboat Collection; Steam; Steel and Submarines; No. 1 Smithery; No. 3 Slip — something for everyone!

Given my particular maritime interests one attraction stands out – the Command of the Ocean Exhibit. It features the dockyard story with fascinating examples of innovation and craftsmanship. Of note are two internationally significant maritime archaeological discoveries – the timbers of the Namur (1756), intriguingly laid to rest beneath the floor of the old Wheelwrights’ workshop, and a treasure trove of objects recovered from the sea bed from HMS Invincible (1747) which sank off Selsey Bill en route to Canada in 1758.

Recently I was pleased to learn that the long-term future of Chatham’s Historic Dockyard was secured thanks to a lottery grant of £4.8 million for the refurbishment and conversion of the Fitted Rigging House, a Grade 1 listed building.

This provided accommodation for yard workers to make warships’ standing rigging and a storehouse for new equipment. The Fitted Rigging House is one of 100 historic buildings and structures at the dockyard, making it the world’s most complete such complex of the age of sail.


A number of books celebrate the Chatham story, here are two I particularly enjoyed:
Chatham in the Great War by Stephen Wynn
chathamaChatham played a very important part in the United Kingdom’s Great War effort. It was one of the Royal Navy’s three ‘Manning Ports’, with more than a third of the town’s ships manned by men allocated to the Chatham Division. The war was only 6 weeks old when Chatham felt the affects of war for the first time. On 22 September 1914, three Royal Naval vessels from the Chatham Division, HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue, were sunk in quick succession by a German submarine, U-9. A total of 1,459 men lost their lives that day, 1,260 of whom were from the Chatham Division. Two months later, on 26 November, the battleship HMS Bulwark exploded and sunk whilst at anchor off of Sheerness on the Kent coast. There was a loss of 736 men, many of whom were from the Chatham area. By the end of the war, Chatham and the men who were stationed there had truly played their part in ensuring a historic Allied victory.

HMS Cavalier by Richard Johnstone-Bryden
chathamb

HMS Cavalier is a C Class destroyer, one of 96 War Emergency Programme destroyers that were ordered between 1940 and 1942. She saw action on convoy duty off Russia, and later, in 1945, was sent to the Far East where she provided naval gunfire support during the battle of Surabaya. She continued with the British Pacific Fleet until May 1946 and is now designated as a war memorial to the 142 RN destroyers and 11,000 men lost during WWII. Containing more than 200 specially commissioned photographs, this book takes the reader on a superlatively detailed illustrated tour of the ship, from bow to stern and deck by deck. Richard Johnstone-Bryden is a professional marine author, historian and photographer. He is to be commended on this publication which brings the ship so vividly to life, and in a way that I’ve seen seldom matched.

chatham-dickens

And who knew that Charles Dickens wrote about the Dockyard? In his book The Uncommercial Traveller you will find Chapter XXVI devoted to his visit to what was seen as one of the wonders of the Victorian Age…

6 Comments on “Chatham: World’s Most Complete Age of Sail Dockyard

    • Oh, yes! In fact TWO are coming out this year – PERSEPHONE in May and THE BALTIC PRIZE in November; followed by another two next year and more in the pipeline after that…

  1. Thanks! A nice update on the Chatham Historic Dockyard. I was able to photograph the (then) recently discovered ship timbers for my book Heart of Oak. They didn’t know the identity – now we know she’s the Namur. What happens at the Admiralty STAYS with the Admiralty. Best regards, Jim McGuane / NYC

  2. My parents live about half an hour’s walk away from Chatham Historic Dockyard, and it is one of my favourite places in the world – especially on days when there are very few other people around because the sense of history is wonderful.

    My great-grandmother was one of the very first female civil servants; her brother told her that they were allowing women to take the civil service exam for the first time, and she ought to put her name down. I believe she worked in the pay office for several years. Whether or not that was the same building Charles Dickens’ father worked in, I don’t know, but my mum certainly worked in that building when it housed the offices of the charity she worked for about ten years ago.

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