Chatham Dockyard

Coordinates: 51°23′50″N 00°31′40″E / 51.39722°N 0.52778°E / 51.39722; 0.52778

Chatham Dockyard shown within Kent (grid reference TQ759692)
The Commissioner's House (1704), was built for Captain George St Lo, who found the previous house unsuitable. It remains the oldest surviving naval building in England.

Chatham Dockyard, located on the River Medway and of which two-thirds is in Gillingham and one third in Chatham, Kent, England, came into existence at the time when, following the Reformation, relations with the Catholic countries of Europe had worsened, leading to a requirement for additional defences. For 414 years Chatham Royal Dockyard provided over 500 ships for the Royal Navy, and was at the forefront of shipbuilding, industrial and architectural technology. At its height, it employed over 10,000 skilled artisans and covered 400 acres (1.6 km²). Chatham dockyard closed in 1984, and 84 acres (340,000 m2) of the Georgian dockyard is now managed as a visitor attraction by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.

Outline history

Engraving of "Chatham Dockyard from Fort Pitt" from Ireland's History of Kent, Vol. 4, 1831. Facing p. 349. Drawn by G. Sheppard, engraved by R. Roffe.

The Treasurer of the Navy's accounts of the King's Exchequer for the year 1544 identifies Deptford as the Dockyard that carried out all the major repairs to the King's Ships that year. That was soon to change, although Deptford remained a dockyard for over three centuries. In 1547 Jillingham (Gillingham) water, as Chatham Dockyard was then known, is mentioned as second only in importance to Deptford;[1] followed by Woolwich, Portsmouth and Harwich. In 1550 ships that were then lying off Portsmouth were ordered to be harboured in Jillingham Water, "by reason of its superior strategic location". The first ship to be built at the dockyard, HMS Sunne was launched in 1586.[1]

Chatham was established as a royal dockyard by Elizabeth I in 1567. She herself visited the yard in 1573. James I used Chatham dockyard for a meeting in 1606 with Christian IV of Denmark.[2] In 1613, the dockyard moved from its original location (now the gun wharf to the south) to its present site.[1] The growing importance of the dockyard was illustrated with the addition of two new mast ponds, and the granting of additional land on which a dock, storehouse, and various brick and lime kilns were planned. Peter Pett, of the family of shipwrights whose history is closely connected to the Chatham dockyard, became commissioner in 1649.[3]

Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667. The captured ship Royal Charles is right of centre.

By the late 17th century it was the largest refitting dockyard, important during the Dutch wars. It was, however, superseded in the following century, first by Portsmouth, then Plymouth, when the main naval enemy became France, and the Western approaches the chief theatre of operations. In addition, the Medway had begun to silt up, making navigation more difficult. Nevertheless, the decision was taken to invest further in Chatham, which developed into a building yard rather than a refitting base.[3] Among many vessels built in this Dockyard, and which still exist, are HMS Victory, launched in 1765 – now preserved at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (formerly Portsmouth Royal Dockyard).[4]

By the year 1770 the establishment had so expanded that, including the gun wharf, it stretched a mile (1.6 km) in length, and included an area of in excess of 95 acres (384,000 m²), possessing four slip ways and four large docks. The officers and men employed in the yard also increased, and by 1798 they numbered 1,664, including 49 officers and clerks and 624 shipwrights. Additionally required were the blockmakers, caulkers, pitch-heaters, blacksmiths, joiners and carpenters, sail makers, riggers, and ropemakers (274), as well as bricklayers, labourers and others.[5]

1884 map, showing the 'Royal Dock Yard' (centre) with the river to the west, new extension to the north, barracks and fortifications to the east.

Between 1862 and 1885, the yard underwent another large building programme as the Admiralty adjusted to the new technology of steam-powered ships with metal hulls. Three basins were constructed along St Mary's creek: of 28 acres (110,000 m2), 20 acres (81,000 m2) and 21 acres (85,000 m2). There were four new dry docks. Much of the work was done by convict labour. The construction materials required regenerated the North Kent brick and cement industries. It is estimated that 110 million bricks were used. These basins formed the Victorian Dockyard. Chatham built on average, two new ships each year.[6] HMS Unicorn, (a Leda class frigate), now preserved afloat at Dundee, was launched at Chatham in 1824.[7]

With the 20th century came the submarine. HMS C17 was launched at Chatham in 1908, and during World War I, twelve submarines were built here, but when hostilities ceased, uncompleted boats were scrapped and five years passed before a further ship was launched. In the interwar years, 8 "S" class submarines were built at Chatham but this was a period of decline. During World War II there were 1,360 refits and sixteen launchings.[6] The final boats constructed in Chatham were Oberon class submarinesOcelot was the last vessel built for the Royal Navy, and the final vessel was Okanagan built for the Royal Canadian Navy and launched on 17 September 1966. In 1968, a nuclear submarine refitting complex was built complete with refuelling cranes and health physics building. In spite of this in June 1981, it was announced to Parliament that the dockyard would be run down and closed in 1984.[6]

In the mid-1980s Defence Estates disposed of the former Royal Navy ratings Married Quarters on the nearby Walderslade Estate, which were sold by public auction. These were previously occupied by personnel from the Royal Navy dockyard Chatham, with 110 married quarters being sold. The Georgian site is now a visitor attraction, under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. The Trust is preparing an application for the Dockyard and its Defences to become a World Heritage Site.[8]


The Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard held a seat and a vote on the Navy Board in London. The Commissioners were:[9]

In 1832 the post of commissioner was replaced by the post of superintendent, who was invested with the same power and authority as the former commissioners, "except in matters requiring an Act of Parliament to be submitted by the Commissioner of the Navy".[19]


Significant buildings within the Georgian Dockyard

Police Section House, one of the Dockyard's many listed buildings

Wood and canvas

Dry docks and covered slips

Offices and residential

Anchor Wharf and the Ropery

Later buildings

Surviving structures within the Victorian Dockyard

The Gun Wharf

The Ordnance Storekeeper's house at the heart of the former Gun Wharf

An Ordnance Yard was established in the 17th century immediately upriver of the Dockyard (on the site of the original Tudor yard, vacated in 1622). The yard would have received, stored and issued cannons and gun-carriages (along with projectiles, accoutrements and also all manner of small arms) for ships based in the Medway, as well as for local artillery emplacements and for army use. (Gunpowder, on the other hand, was received, stored and issued across the river at Upnor Castle.)

A plan of 1704 shows (from north to south) a long Storehouse parallel to the river, the Storekeeper's house (the Storekeeper was the senior officer of the Yard) and a pair of Carriage Stores. The original Storehouse was replaced with a much larger, three-storey building in 1717, contemporary with and of a similar style to, the Main Gatehouse in the Dockyard. A similarly sized Carriage Store, with a long frontage parallel to the river, was constructed south of the Storekeeper's House not long afterwards.

The Library (former machine shop)

After the demise of the Board of Ordnance (1855), Ordnance Yards passed under the control of the War Office, and were eventually (in 1891) apportioned to either the Army or the Navy. Chatham's yard was split in two, the area south of the Storekeeper's House becoming an Army Ordnance Store, and the rest a Navy Ordnance Store. It remained thus until 1958 when the yards were closed (the Army depot having served latterly as an atomic weapons research laboratory).[56] Most of the 18th-century buildings were demolished, with the exception of the Storekeeper's House of 1719, which survives as the Command House public house.[57] A few later buildings have survived: a long brick shed of 1805, south-west of the Command House, which once housed carpenters, wheelwrights and other workers as well as stores of various kinds,[58] the adjacent building (machine shop, late-19th century) which now serves as a public library, and the building known as the White House (built as the Clerk of the Cheque's residence in 1816).[49]

Defence of the dockyard

Upnor Castle

Main article: Upnor Castle

Dockyards have always required shore defences. Among the earliest for Chatham was Upnor Castle, built in 1567, on the opposite side of the River Medway. It was somewhat unfortunate that on the one occasion it was required for action in the Raid on the Medway, 1667, the Dutch fleet were able to sail right past it to attack the British fleet, to carry off the pride of the fleet, Royal Charles, back to the Netherlands.[59]

Chain defence

During the wars with Spain it was usual for ships to anchor at Chatham in reserve; consequently John Hawkins threw a massive chain across the River Medway for extra defence in 1585. Hawkins' chain was later replaced with a boom of masts, iron, cordage, and the hulls of two old ships, besides a couple of ruined pinnacles.[60]

The Lines

With the failure of Upnor Castle it was seen necessary to increase the defences. In the event, those defences were built in distinct phases, as the government saw the increasing threat of invasion. The building was as follows:[61]

The defences in 1770. 
The defences in 1812. 
How the military presence developed after 1820, showing how the need for housing gave birth to New Brompton, showing roads and railways. 

Associated barracks

The Dockyard led to large numbers of military personnel being garrisoned in Chatham and the surrounding area. A good many were engaged in manning the defences, but some had other duties; others were accommodated there for convenience prior to embarking on ships for duties overseas, or following their disembarkation. Initially, soldiers were housed under canvas or else billetted in houses and inns, but from the 18th century barracks began to be constructed. The oldest surviving barracks in the Chatham area is in Upnor; dating from 1718, it housed the detachment of 64 men responsible for guarding the gunpowder store in Upnor Castle.

Infantry Barracks (Kitchener Barracks)

Kitchener Barracks (1950s extension)

Chatham Infantry Barracks was opened in 1757 to house troops manning the fortifications which had recently been built to defend the Dockyard. Within the space of 20 years it had taken on the additional role of national recruitment centre for the British Army, providing basic training for all new recruits. This role ceased in 1803, but the barracks went on to serve as a home depot for numerous regiments stationed around the globe. Accommodating some 1,800 men, Chatham was one of the first large-scale Army barracks in England, and remained in military use until 2014.[62] One barrack block remains from 1757; the rest was largely demolished and rebuilt to a more modern design in the 1930s-50s. In 1928 the barracks was taken over by the Royal Engineers and renamed Kitchener Barracks. In 2014 the site was sold to a property developer, with permission given the following year for the building of 295 homes. The main 1930s barracks building will be retained, along with the remaining earlier structures.[63]

Marine Barracks

The Royal Marine Barracks in the Second World War.

The Royal Marine Barracks, Chatham were established in 1779, on a site nestled between the Gun Wharf to the west, the Dockyard to the north, and Infantry Barracks to the east. The site was expanded and rebuilt in the 1860s; in 1905 the Royal Marines took over Melville Barracks, which stood between Dock Road and Brompton Hill (it had formerly served as Chatham's Royal Naval Hospital). The Marines were withdrawn from Chatham in 1950, and the buildings were later demolished. Medway Council offices and car park now stand on the site.[64]

Artillery/Engineer Barracks (Brompton Barracks)

The Garrison Church of St Barbara in Maxwell Road continues to serve Brompton Barracks.

A barracks was built in Brompton in 1804-6 for the Royal Artillery gunners serving on the defensive Lines (previously they had been accommodated in the Infantry Barracks). There was space for some 500 horses and 1,000 men. In 1812 the Royal Engineers Establishment was founded within the barracks to provide instruction in military engineering. The Establishment grew, and by 1856 the Artillery had moved out; Brompton Barracks remains in service as headquarters of the Royal Engineers.[65]

St Mary's Barracks

St Mary's Casemated Barracks were built during the Peninsular War and initially held French prisoners of war. After the war's end, they went on to serve as a gunpowder store for a time, and were used by the Royal Engineers (based nearby in Brompton Barracks). From 1844 St Mary's was used as an 'Invalid Barracks', accommodating soldiers having to return from service in different parts of the British Empire because of illness, injury or age.[66] Built within the defensive earthworks to the north of Chatham, St Mary's Barracks was demolished in the 1960s and the land used for housing.[67]

The Naval Barracks (later HMS Pembroke) opened in 1902; prior to this, most Naval (as opposed to Dockyard) personnel were accommodated on board their ships or on hulks moored nearby. Built on the site of what had been a convict prison, the barracks complex could accommodate 4,742 officers and seamen in a series of large blocks built along the length of a terrace. Below the terrace lay the parade ground and its adjacent drill hall and other amenities. A further 3,000 troops could be accommodated in times of "total emergency" (900 were sleeping in the Drill Hall when it suffered a direct hit from two bombs in September 1917, which killed over 130 men). The barracks were set to close in 1961 when the majority of naval personnel were withdrawn from Chatham;[68] however, it went on to serve instead as the RN Supply and Secretariat School in succession to HMS Ceres, before finally being closed along with the Dockyard in 1984. The majority of its buildings are still standing, several of them occupied by the Universities at Medway.[69]

Closure and regeneration

The dockyard closed in 1984. It covered 400 acres (1.6 km²). After closure this was divided into three sections. The easternmost basin (Basin No.3) was handed over to the Medway Ports authority and is now a commercial port. It includes Papersafe UK[70] and Nordic Recycling Ltd.[71]

80 acres (324,000 m²), comprising the 18th century core of the site, was transferred to a charity called the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust and is now open as a visitor attraction.[72]

The Topsail Schooner Julia visiting the middle basin in 2006, behind her is the St Mary's Island housing estate

St Mary's Island, a 150-acre (0.61 km2) site, once a part of the Dockyard, has been transformed to a residential community for some 1,500 homes. It has several themed areas with traditional maritime buildings, a fishing (in looks only) village with its multi-coloured houses and a modern energy-efficient concept. Many homes have views of the River Medway. A primary school (St. Mary's CofE) and a medical centre provide facilities for the residents and there are attractive walks around the Island.[73]

Peel Ports, who run a 26-acre (0.11 km2) portion of the commercial port on Basin No.3, are about to transform a former brownfield site into mixed use development incorporating; offices, an education facility, an "EventCity", hotel, apartments, town houses, food store (Asda) as well as landscaped public areas. The development will be called "Chatham Waters", even though it is on East Wharf of the Chatham Docks.[74] A 2nd Planning application for the development has been approved by Medway Council. The originally planning application included plans for a pub/restaurant and a café, these have been removed.[75]


Over the years, Chatham Dockyard has become a popular location for filming due to its varied and interesting areas such as the cobbled streets, church and over 100 buildings dating from the Georgian and Victorian periods. Productions that have chosen to film at Chatham Dockyard include: Les Misérables,[76] Call the Midwife,[77] Mr Selfridge,[78] Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,[79] Oliver Twist[80] and The World Is Not Enough.[81]

See also


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  2. "Visits to Rochester and Chatham" (PDF). Kent Archaeology. p. 55.
  3. 1 2 Guidebook, p. 29
  4. Eastland & Ballantyne, p. 13
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  10. Perrin, p. 146
  11. "Peter Pett (1610-1672)". History of Parliament. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
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  17. Marshall, p. 48
  18. Annual Biography and Obituary. p. 121.
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  26. 1 2 3 4 Guidebook, p. 26
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  29. Guidebook, p. 8
  30. 1 2 3 4 Guidebook, p. 25
  31. 1 2 Guidebook, p. 10
  32. Guidebook, p. 12
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  50. Guidebook, p. 30
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  77. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Call The Midwife Film Focus".
  78. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Mr Selfridge Film Focus".
  79. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Film Focus".
  80. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Oliver Twist Film Focus".
  81. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office The World is Not EnoughFilm Focus".


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