Cornwall & The South: Pt 43 – Chatham, Kent

Our final stop on a tour of Kent which had taken us from the ancient city of Canterbury, to historic Rochester, was Chatham, famous for its old Dockyard…


Status: Medway Unitary Authority, Kent, Town, England

Date: 13/08/2015

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Chatham Former Town Hall, Chatham Dockyard, River Medway, Kitchener Statue, Fort Amherst, 44-001 Lifeboat, HMS Gannet, HMS Cavalier, HMS Ocelot, HMS Undaunted Mast etc

Our main destination in Chatham was the Dockyards, which we hoped to visit before they closed for the day. To get there however, we had to pass through the centre of town, so I managed to snap a few shots of various things of interest on the way through.

The first was of the “Brook Theatre”, set in the truly magnificent former Town Hall of 1899. Designed by G E Bond, it was converted into a Theatre in 1998 when the new Medway Authority was created, and the Chatham borough was abolished.

Medway Council is based towards the Docks, on the banks of the River.

Just round the corner, as we followed the A231 towards the Dockyard,  we passed a statue of Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916, British Army Officer in WWI killed on the HMS Hampshire which hit a German Mine near the Orkney Islands).

The Memorial was created in 1916, although it originally stood in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as Kitchener was credited with winning the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 which helped secure Sudan. It was moved to Chatham in 1960.

The Statue stands in front of Fort Amherst, a large military installation, laid out in 1755. In 1757 a barrack block for the garrison was also built, and would later be renamed after Kitchener. The Fort continued to be expanded, with extra gun batteries and ditches being completed, alongside a network of tunnels for storage. By 1820 it was thought to be obsolete against new technology, and was mainly used for training. After use as an Air Raid Warning post in WWII, it was opened to the public, and now functions as a Museum. You can find out more on their official website here.

Moving on, we soon passed what was once the main gate into the Chatham Dockyards, from 1722.

The Dockyards site is enormous, covering over 1.5 square kilometres. They were first used in 1547, when it was known as “Jillingham Water”, which would eventually become the name of a new town nearby. In 1579 a new warship called the Merlin was constructed here, and a decade later the English Fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada set sail from the Docks for Plymouth.

The Tudor Dockyard has long gone, and was replaced by a new, larger Dock in 1618. It included a large dry dock, various storehouses and slip-roads. The present buildings were built around 1700, as Chatham became the premier shipbuilding yard for the British Navy. The Docks also include the oldest Naval Building in Britain, the Commissioner’s House from 1704. It soon became a base for the fleet, as attention turned to Spain and military operations were moved to the Devon/Dorset coasts. By the outbreak of WWI however attention had turned back to Chatham thanks to it’s proximity to France.

One of our most famous ships was laid down in 1759, finally launching in 1765. It was none other than the HMS Victory, which would become the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Shipbuilding eventually gave way to Submarine construction, with the first order of 38 given in 1906. This continued until 1960, after services rendered during World War I and II. The Docks closed for good in 1984, and large portions of it have been restored and are now open to the public.

We pulled up in the main car park for the Dockyard, with the many historic buildings laid out in front of us.

It was only as we entered the ticket office that alas we found out that we had just missed the final entry time for visitors that day! Absolutely gutted, it looked like an incredible place to explore.

Nevertheless, we had a good wander around the area we could freely get to, and saw some of the Docks many famous buildings. In the distance you can just see the top of a Clock Tower, in the centre of the picture. This belongs to the aptly named “Clocktower Building” from 1723, which was used as a Naval Storehouse. It has the distinction of being the oldest such storehouse out of all the British Royal Naval bases.

Behind the car park (to the left) lies the “Police Section House”, completed in 1857 after the previous Dockyard Police Station was knocked down to allow the Docks to expand.

The South Western end of the car park is bounded by a long row of buildings which include:

  1. The “Former Mast House” (centre) from 1755, to build the towering masts for the Naval ships.
  2. The “Former Wheelwrights Shop” (left) completed in the 1780’s. The job of the Wheelwright was to construct and repair wooden wheels, which would have included the steering wheels for large ships.
  3. The “Former Galvanising Shed” (far left) from 1890. Large baths of acid/zinc were used to coat the Steel used in the fleet to stop it corroding.

At the other end of the car park, to the North East lies the “Lower Boat Store” from 1844, built in Victorian times as a storehouse for timber, and later the small boats carried by larger ships.

In front of it, just out of shot to the far right is the “North Mast Pond”, built in 1702. Logs that were to be used for ships masts were placed in the water and seasoned. The Pond is notable as being the oldest structure to still exist in the Dockyards.

The ticket office for the Dockyards lies within what was once “Numbers 4 – 6 Slip Covers” as well as “Machine Shop 6”.

Slip Covers were designed as large buildings built around the Slipways where the ships themselves were being constructed, to try and minimise dry rot from exposure to the elements.

Numbers 4 – 6 were completed in 1848, and were some of the earliest large cast iron spans built in Britain, predating even some of the famous train shed roofs on stations such as London King’s Cross.

To the far left you can just see “Number 3 Slip Cover”, from 1838, whilst to the right just out of shot is “Number 7 Slip Cover”. Whether or not there once existed Number 1 – 2 Slip Covers I am unsure, although a number of drydocks exist further into the main yard, and may once have been covered.

Inside Numbers 4 – 6 Slip Covers lies one of the various vessels in the RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection here at the docks.

The serial number for this vessel is 44-001, making it a Waveney-Class boat, developed by the US Coast Guard. 44-001 was also the first boat to be built, as a prototype for the other twenty one which followed it, in Curtis Bay, Baltimore.

The Waveney-Class saw service between 1964 and 1999, when they were retired from use in Britain, although many were sold abroad to places like Australia.

This was as far as we could go now that the dockyard was closed for the day, although looking ahead we spotted a few things of interest.

The building on the far right is Number 3 Slip Cover, whilst just behind that is the bow of HMS Gannet, launched in 1879 from the Dockyard at Sheerness. The Gannet sailed all over the world, particularly around the Pacific and Mediterranean. She was only used in combat once, in 1888 in the Sudan.

She was eventually decommissioned in Chatham in 1895, before she was berthed in London for use a training ship, after conversion into a drill ship. Her final stop was back in Chatham in the 1980’s, where she was restored to her 1888 appearance, complete with guns etc.

HMS Gannet resides in Dry Dock 4, dug out in 1840, and enlarged in 1908.

Past the Gannet lies Dry Dock 3 (1821), which houses the HMS Ocelot (S17), a Naval Submarine from the 1960’s.

Diesel powered, it was an Oberon Class Submarine, at 241 ft long, and could hold 24 torpedoes. Ocelot was the final Oberon Submarine built for the Royal Navy, and was based at the Faslane Naval base near Glasgow. She was decommissioned in 1991, along with the rest of the Navy’s submarines, and replaced with the newer Nuclear Upholder/Victoria Class Submarines which are still in service.

You can just spot the Submarine in the above picture, with the large black mound being part of the ship’s bow.

The final ship in the row of three is the HMS Cavalier (back, in blue), stationed in Dry Dock 2 (1860). The original Dry Dock was completed in 1623, and was once home to the HMS Victory whilst it was being constructed. The Cavalier was built on the Isle of Wight at East Cowes by Samuel White & Company, which were prominent shipbuilders for the Navy. Launching in 1943, she was sent straight into WWII, travelling to Russia, Norway, India and the Far East where she joined the Pacific Fleet.

She helped the Navy out in various skirmishes after WWII such as the war between Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1960’s, before being decommissioned in 1972. The Government agreed to sell her to the Cavalier Trust in 1977, and after trial homes in Southampton, Brighton and South Tyneside, she was eventually bought by the Dockyards as one of their star attractions in 1998 and has remained here ever since.

Moving back towards the carpark, we got up close to the “Bell Mast”, which sits near the Lower Boat Store on the far side of the road.

The 100 ft iron Mast was originally built for the HMS Undaunted, which launched in 1861. The Mast was added later in 1872 to what was a partly wooden vessel. When the ship was decommissioned in 1879 the ship was scrapped. although the Mast survived. In 1903 it was erected in the centre of the Dockyards and a bell was fitted to the top to signal the end of the day.

The Docks closed in 1984, with the loss of thousands of jobs. The Mast again survived, and was restored and then re-erected at the new public entrance to the Docks.

Chatham Dockyard is an incredible place, and although we couldn’t get in to see the rest of the buildings in the complex, we got a good sense of the history of the area. We will certainly come back again someday to tour the Docks properly. If you fancy visiting yourselves, you can get all the info you need on their official website here.

We set off back for Hampshire, and spent the last few days of our holiday in the surrounding area…


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