Home Towns & Villages Time-Line Articles Kent Past Times Contact

Kent Past


The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Chatham Dockyard

Royal Dockyards provided the Royal Navy with the shore support facilities it required to build, repair and maintain the fleet. Central to any Royal Dockyard were, as the name suggests, their dry docks and it was the provision of these expensive structures that set the Royal Yards apart from their civilian counterparts until well into the 19th century.

The first documentary evidence of the Royal Navy's use of the River Medway can be found in 1547 with the rental of two storehouses on 'Gillingham Water'. By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 -1603), the River Medway at Chatham had become England's principal fleet base with the majority of the Queen's ships overwintering in the river. From 1570, under the terms of John Hawkyns' 'bargain' the majority of repair and maintenance was undertaken at Chatham in new facilities built around Sunne Hard, a site later occupied by the Ordnance Board. The first warship known to have been built at the new yard was the Sunne, a pinnace of five guns, launched in 1586.

In 1588, the shipwrights of Chatham prepared the Queen's ships for their ultimate test - to face the might of the Spanish Armada and in March of that year the majority of the fleet set sail under the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham to make the journey west to Plymouth to fight the Spanish fleet.

No buildings of the Tudor dockyard survive today for in 1613, the dockyard moved to its present site and the Tudor yard was redeveloped for the Ordnance Board's facilities at Chatham.

Royal Dockyards provided the Royal Navy with the shore support facilities it required to build, repair and maintain the fleet. Central to any Royal Dockyard were, as the name suggests, their dry docks and it was the provision of these expensive structures that set the Royal Yards apart from their civilian counterparts until well into the 19th century.

By the mid-18th Century, the Royal Yards had developed into the largest industrial organisations in the world with complex facilities supporting thousands of skilled workers in a wide number of trades. Indeed it was the level of the facilities and skills provided in the Royal Dockyard's, particularly at Chatham that underpinned the Royal Navy's success at sea, from victory in battle; through the epic voyages of discovery made by Cook, Darwin and others; to the ceaseless anti-slavery patrols of the 19th century and the imposition of Pax Britannica.

In 1613, the dockyard moved downstream to the present location. By 1618, storehouses and a ropewalk had been built, and by 1625, a dry dock and houses for senior officials were erected.

From the mid-17th Century, English foreign policy was dominated by a series of trade wars with the Dutch. Fought largely at sea, most of the naval actions took place in the English Channel and North Sea, an area that Chatham was geographically well placed to support providing a safe haven for the fleet to be kept over winter, but also being the closest Royal Dockyard to the main operational fleet anchorages at the Nore and off the Downs. The dockyard quickly therefore became the Royal Navy's pre-eminent ship building and repair yard, and fleet base, overtaking the Thames yards of Woolwich and Deptford in this respect.

Only largely archaeological evidence now remains of the Stuart dockyard. Three sites are known to exist - the area to the front of Commissioner's House, the garden to Commissioner's House itself and the site of the South Mast Pond. However, it is likely that other evidence remains across a wider site than this as the 17th Century yard extended across much of the core of the present Historic Dockyard site.

The reign of Queen Anne (1702-13) saw the construction of the Dockyard's earliest surviving building, the Commissioner's House built 1703 -04 for Captain George St Lo, newly promoted from Plymouth Dock. The house, erected on the site of its predecessor inherited the garden, first laid out by Phineas Pett in the 1640's and provides a tangible link between the dockyard known to Pepys and Evelyn and the present day.

Queen Anne's reign, dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession, also saw a major shift in English naval activity westwards, away from the North Sea and Channel to the Atlantic and Mediterranean and beyond capturing Gibraltar (1704) and Port Royal (1710). By the time of her death in 1713, the Royal Navy's supremacy at sea had been established and the foundation for the use of sea power to develop Britain's global influence laid.

Proximity to the North Sea, which had placed Chatham in a prime position during the 17th century, was not such an advantage during the 18th, once attention had shifted westwards towards the Mediterranean and the New World. Inevitably, the home dockyards at Portsmouth and Plymouth were geographically better located to support the fleet, whilst Chatham's position was further compromised by changes to the River Medway which began to silt heavily during the century. The combination of both factors led to a significant change of role for the dockyard at Chatham - from fleet base to the country's principal naval shipbuilding and repair yard. A role that would see the dockyard build and repair many of the Navy's most important ships.

The order for the Victory to be built at Chatham was signed by the Navy Board on the 7th July 1759. Work started almost immediately, and the first timbers, those for the keel were brought together at the Old Single Dock on the 23rd July 1759 in a ceremony that was attended by William Pitt the Elder, the then Prime Minister, and the future Earl of Chatham.

Once her frame was complete she was left to 'season in frame', a process that would normally take six to twelve months, but in the case of Victory lasted for many years, until the Seven Years War had ended, before work restarted on her. Launched on 7th May 1765 she was completed and fitted out, not for war but for the reserve fleet.

It was not until 1778 that she left Chatham for sea service, as Augustus Keppel's flagship. Following the Battle of Cape St Vincent (1797) she returned to Chatham where she underwent a Great Repair, before returning to sea as Nelson's flagship, and the battle of Trafalgar

The need for greater speed and efficiency in the Royal Dockyards to meet the ever increasing demands of keeping the fleet at sea led to many of the great engineers of the day becoming involved in the mechanisation of many of the yard's industrial processes, from sawing timber to the manufacture of rope and paint.

Such engineers included Marc Brunel, Henry Maudslay, John Rennie, Samuel Bentham, Simon Goodrich and Edward Holl and again serves to demonstrate the national importance of the dockyard at that time.

The southern end of the site was completely modernised with the construction of a new Double Ropehouse, the great Anchor Wharf Storehouses and Edward Holl's Lead and Paint Mill of 1817. Towards the centre of the yard Holl, the Navy Board's architect, built the Royal Dockyard Church, the Officers' Offices (now Admiral's Offices) and No 1 Smithery; whilst on land acquired to the rear of the Dockyard wall, Brunel, Bentham and Holl erected a steam powered Saw Mill, one of Britain's earliest mechanical saw mills and the first use of steam at Chatham. In 1820, Rennie constructed Chatham's first stone dry dock (No 3 Dry Dock) and engine house for a steam powered dock pump, the South Dock Pumping Station.

From 1832 the Navy entered into a period of great technological change with the introduction of both steam and iron to shipbuilding. The first steam vessel built at Chatham was the paddle sloop Phoenix, launched in September 1832. From 1840, numerous trials were carried out with screw propellers, including the construction at Chatham in 1842 of the Bee, a curious small craft built with both paddle wheels and screw propeller. In 1849, the Admiralty suspended construction of all remaining sailing ships and Chatham's first screw frigate, Horatio, was launched a year later.

The last major period of construction of dockyard buildings and structures on the site took place at this time. A new range of covered building slips were constructed between 1838 and 1855, most on land largely reclaimed from the River Medway and at around the same time the yard's two remaining timber dry docks were rebuilt in granite.

The end of battleship construction marked the dawn of a new era for Chatham as the Royal Navy began to embrace the submarine as a new weapon of war. In 1906, the Admiralty, having had two small classes of submarines built by Vickers of Barrow-in-Furness, were sufficiently confident to order the construction of 38 coastal submarines. To ensure that the Royal Dockyards kept abreast of this new technology six were built at Chatham, the first of which, C17, was launched from No 7 Slip on the 13 August 1908.

The construction of C17 heralded the start of a new shipbuilding era for the dockyard with specialist submarine construction, which would span two World Wars, enter the nuclear age, and provide continued work for at least two of the Historic Dockyard's Covered Slips (No�s 6 & 7) until the mid-1960's.

In all, 57 submarines were built at Chatham between 1908 and 1960. Significant vessels included the giant 'X' and 'M' class boats of the inter-war period; 'T' class submarines such as Torbay and the highly successful post war 'O' or Oberon class boats, six of which were built at the yard, including Oberon, the class leader, Ocelot, the last warship built for the Royal Navy at Chatham (and now preserved by the Trust), and three for the Royal Canadian Navy, Ojibwa, Onondaga and Okanagan.

HMS Pembroke, the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham, was built between the Steam Yard and Brompton barracks in the early years of the century. By the outbreak of the First World War Chatham had become one of the Royal Navy's three 'manning ports', with over a third of the navy, 205 ships, manned by men allocated to the Chatham Division - a role that was to continue until the advent of central manning in 1956.

Thereafter Chatham became home to the reserve, or standby fleet, although a number of operational ships were also based at the Dockyard including the Antarctic patrol vessel HMS Endurance.


Leave your email address to receive Kent Past Times free every month