History of Chatham Dockyard. Chatham dockyard, situated on the Medway, was a major naval base for the Royal Navy for many centuries during the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.
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The following text is from the Navy & Army Illustrated March - April 1902.
The Medway is shallow, with a strong tide, and pursues a winding course through mud-flats, while in old times its channel was dangerous owing to shoals. The river bed had to be deepened in order that the establishment might accommodate modern leviathans, and the docks and basins depicted in the photographs will suggest that a great work was accomplished in that direction. The true reason for the rise of Chatham as a Naval centre was the relative proximity of the place to London, and the facility of access by water. The same cause gave its importance to Deptford, which in the reign of Henry VIII, was the principal naval yard, and long continued to do so, although judged by the expenses of maintenance, Chatham may have been more important even in Elizabeth's time. In 1589, including the charges for building a new storehouse, the costs were ?1,774, while the outlay at Deptford was ?266, at Woolwich ?12 and at Portsmouth ?64. Greater charges for Chatham were also found in 1591, and Peter Buck, clerk of the Cheque there, had ?40 a year, while the chief clerks of Deptford and Portsmouth had only ?20 each
There had been facilities for careening ships on the protected mud-banks of the Medway in earlier times, and when Henry VIII was threatened with a combination between France and the Empire, he set about fortifying important places, including Queenborough, near the mouth of the river. Upnor Castle, on the Medway, dates from Elizabeth's reign. (The Main Gate of the Dockyard pictured right).
Whatever convenience there might have been for repairing ships at Chatham in early days, the dockyard was founded by that Queen on the site of the present gun-wharf, the establishment being transferred to the present site about the year 1622. Elizabeth herself paid a visit to the place in 1573, and Camden describes the dockyard as "stored for the finest fleet the sun ever beheld, and ready at a minutes warning, built lately by our most gracious sovereign Elizabeth at great expense for the security of her subjects and the terror of her enemies, with a fort on the shore for its defence."
In the Spanish wars of the time it was customary for ships to lie in reserve at Chatham, and Hawkins threw a chain across the river for protection. Burough, writing in 1588, concerning four great ships then at Queenborough, refers to the repairing and fitting facilities at the port "which ships are to bring up to Chatham, as soon as we can, and then to ground them, and make them ready as we shall be appointed." Howard, writing to Walsingham on this business, lost hope of seeing those ships on active service, and what he says is worth quoting as illustrating the sound views common with the seamen of that age: " If things fall out as it is most likeliest, they shall be to keep Chatham Church, when they should serve the turn abroad. I protest before God, I speak not for myself any ways, but for her Majesty's service and surety; for whensoever they should come, I mean not to change out of her I am in (the Arc Ralegh) for any ship that ever was made. In 1586, 25 ships were laid up at Chatham under the care of 202 men, and the port was a chief base for the Navy at the time. In 1596, when the Spaniards were at Calais, ships were at Chatham for the protection of home waters, and the fleet was brought round there after the Cadiz expedition, and the port was constantly used up to the conclusion of the war. (Photograph above left shows The Royal Adelaide, hulk, Pembroke depot ship and others).
The Naval importance of Chatham is shown by the institution of the Chatham Chest by Hawkins, Drake and others in 1590, for the relief and support for injured or disabled sailors. The semen were generously minded after 1588, and a contribution of sixpence a month from able seamen, and fourpence from ordinary seamen, with threepence for boys, was mulcted from their wages. It was stated that by their service at sea "masters, mariners, shipwrights, and seafaring men, by reason of hurts and maims received in the service, were driven into great poverty, extremities, and want, to their great discouragement." Every visible precaution was taken for the safe custody of the money, and in 1625 an iron chest with five locks was ordered for the purpose, the keys to be kept by five representative officers of different grades, who could only open it when together, and who were to be changed every 12 months. The chest still exists in Greenwich Hospital, where it was placed by the Admiralty in 1846. Notwithstanding all safeguards, there were great leakages. The very year after the chest was bought, Russell, Treasurer of the Navy, took ?2,600 out of it to pay wages, and the sum abstracted was slowly restored, but there is the best reason to believe that the chest suffered very heavily from malversation of money. Pepys was anxious about the state of affairs in 1662. He was informed that the fund had been much abused, and that it would be a meritorious act to look after it, "which I am resolved to do, if God bless me". A committee was appointed and he discovered many things which did not please him. French rules were, therefore, laid down, but abuse was not altogether checked. Yet, as Mr Oppenheim says, the administration of the Chatham Chest in early Stuart times was undoubtedly in a condition of ideal purity compared with the depths of organised infamy to which it sank during the eighteenth century. The chest continued to exist under varying regulations until 1803, when it was transferred to the Directors of the Chest at Greenwich and practically became a part of the relief fund of Greenwich Hospital.
James I took much interest in Chatham, and visited it in 1606 with King Christian of Denmark and many noblemen, being received with a great salute, and they dined on board one of the ships. The growing importance of the place was marked by the fact that in 1619 and 1620 it obtained two mast docks, and that much additional ground was bought, on which a dock, storehouse, and various brick and lime kilns might be erected. Another dock was in hand in 1623, in which year Hawkin's chain was replaced by a boom of masts, iron, cordage, and the hulls of two ships, and two pinnacles. This defensive arrangement was further improved about 1645. Two of Elizabeth's ships, the Garland, of 1590, and the Mary Rose, 1598, had been used in construction of a wharf. (Photograph below right shows the Great Sheers at Chatham Yard - The battleships Irresistible and Goliath in No.2 basin.).
The early officers of the establishment were interesting personages. Phineas Pett, the great shipbuilder, was appointed keeper of the plank-yard in 1600, and assistant to the master shipwright in 1601. Four years later he became himself one of the King's master shipwrights, and was the designer of the famous Prince Royal, and in 1630 he was appointed assistant to the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, to reside at Chatham, and he died there in 1647. His son Peter succeeded him in 1647 or 1648, but was removed from his office of commissioner in 1667, owing to the blame cast upon him in regard to the success of the Dutch fleet in the Medway. Sir John Cox, who fought in the 4 days action with the Dutch in June 1666, and was killed in the battle of Solebay in 1672, was appointed resident commissioner at Chatham in 1669. Another Pett, Sir Phineas, grand-nephew of the first commissioner at Chatham, was appointed master shipwright at the yard in July 1660. He was dismissed a few years later for misbehaviour in office, but was restored to favour, became a member of the Navy Board, was transferred to Chatham again in 1686, and was dismissed for political reasons in 1689.
The pages of Pepys are full of interesting matter concerning Chatham Dockyard. On July 11 1663 he writes: "By barge to St Mary's Creek, where commissioner Pett (doubtful of the growing greatness of Portsmouth by the finding of those creeks there) do design a wet dock at no great charge, and yet no little one; he thinks towards ?10,000. And the place indeed is likely to be a very fit place when the king hath money to do with." Pepys was at Chatham again, viewing the yard with Commissioner Pett on October 2nd 1665. "And among other things, a team of four horses come close by us, he being with me drawing a piece of timber that I am confident one man could easily have carried upon his back. I made the horses be taken away, and a man or two to take the timber away with their hands." Pepys did not entirely trust Pett, and the disgrace of the Commissioner came with the Dutch raid of 1667. De Ruyter's detached squadron attacked Sheerness, and took it, creating a panic in London, and orders were given to sink ships in the river, with the intention of blocking the channel to Chatham, but on June 12 De Ruyter advanced up the Medway, passed Upnor Castle with little opposition, and attacked a number of our ships lying above that point. These were given to the flames, and some of the finest vessels in the navy, including the Royal James, 82, the Loyal London, 90, and the Royal Oak, 76, perished, while the Royal Charles, 90, was captured and carried off. Thus, at Chatham befel one of the most humiliating incidents in all our naval history. On the last day of the gloomy month, Pepys was there and heard that there had been but one man killed on shore. "Thence by barge, it raining hard, down to the chain; and in our way did see the sad wrecks of the poor Royal Oak, James and London and several others of our ships by us sunk, and several of the enemy's, whereof three men-of-war that they could not get off, and so burnt. So to the chain, and there saw it fast at the end on the Upnor side of the river; and where it broke nobody can tell me."
In the reign of Charles I the first wet dock or basin was constructed at Chatham, and the same monarch erected large storehouses and a sail loft, and enlarged the yard. Yet, at the same time, the Crown was very short of money, and the Chatham shipwrights threatened to cease work unless they were paid, the men being so turbulent that they actually besieged the Navy Commissioners. The unhappy commissioners were constantly ordered to perform impossibilities, and, when it was asked at what cost ships were built, the Chatham dockyardmen said they had been twelve months "without one penny being paid, neither having any allowance for meat or drink, by which many of them, having pawned all they can, others turned out of doors for nonpayment of rent, which, with the cries of their wives and children for food and necessaries, doth utterly dishearten them." Driven to desperation, the Chatham men at last marched up to London in a body, whereupon the Treasurer of the Navy made a promise which was not fulfilled, while, as Mr Oppenheim says, "the ragged misery of the visitors was an outrage on the scented decorum of the Court." ( Photograph left shows the building of the ship - a battleship receiving her skin plating.)
But Chatham was growing in importance, though there was manifest need for docking accommodation. Defoe visited the place in 1705, and speaks with an enthusiasm of its achievements which may pass belief. "So great is the order and application there that a first-rate vessel of war of 106 guns, ordered to be commissioned by Sir Cloudesley Shovell, was ready in three days. At the time the order was given the vessel was entirely unrigged; yet the masts were raised, sails bent, anchors and cables on board, in that time.
|The outbreak of war with France and Spain had
demonstrated the need for expansion in that quarter, and in 1710 land was
ordered to be bought to improve the establishment. The largest classes of
ships were built at Chatham in the years that followed. Thus the Plymouth,
80, was built in 1722, and the Royal Sovereign, 100, in 1728, both from
designs by J Rosewell. The Ramillies, 74 was launched in 1763, the
Victory, 100, in 1765, the Barfleur, 98, in 1768, the Queen Charlotte,
100, in 1789, and the Ville de Paris, 110, in 1795. By the year 1770 the
establishment had so grown that, including the gun wharf it extended a
mile in length, had an area of over 95 acres, and possessed four slips and
four large docks. The officers and men employed in the yard had also
greatly increased, and it may be interesting to say that in 1798 they
numbered 1,664, including 49 officers and clerks, and 624 shipwrights. The
others were blockmakers, caulkers, pitch-heaters, blacksmiths, joiners,
carpenters, sail makers, riggers, and ropemakers (these last number 274),
as well as bricklayers, labourers and others. since that time the men
employed at Chatham have more than quadrupled in number, as the
establishment has increased in extent.
The importance of the dockyard in the days of the Great War and the menaces of the time forced upon the authorities in the latter half of the eighteenth century the necessity of creating adequate defences for the place in the shape of earthworks and forts. These were the well known Chatham Lines. The Inner Lines enclosed the dockyard, barracks, St Mary's Church, and the town of Old Brompton, while the Outer Lines was a name given to the open space devoted to sports and military manoeuvres. Charles Dickens, who knew Chatham well, spoke of the defences in an article in Household Words, which may be quoted:
"I took a walk upon these Lines, and mused among the fortifications, grassy and innocent on the surface at present, but tough subjects at the core. Here I saw the artfullest pits and drawbridges, the slyest batteries in most unexpected angles and turnings, the lowest, deepest-set, beetle-browed little windows down among the stinging nettles at the bottom of trenches. Steeped in these mysteries, I wandered round the trenches of Fort Pitt, and then away to Fort Clarence, and, looking down the river from the sloping bank, I saw even there, upon the shore, a stranded little fort, with its weather beaten brick face staring at the mud."
Sir Edward Gregory, who retired in 1703 (Clerk of the Cheque at Chatham for nearly 20 years), had been the last civilian to hold office as Commissioner of the yard. The last Resident Commissioner was Captain Charles Cunningham on whose retirement, in 1829, the dockyard was placed temporarily under the inspection of Captain J M Lewes, Resident Commissioner at Sheerness. Captain, afterwards Admiral, Sir Charles Bullen was the first Superintendent, being appointed in December 1831, and being invested with the same power and authority as the Commissioners, his predecessors, except in matters which were required by Act of Parliament to be done by the Commissioner of the Navy. As is well known, the Navy Board was abolished shortly afterwards, its powers being transferred to the Admiralty, and the Resident Commissioners at all the yards were replaced by admirals or captains as Superintendents.
In 1879, when the new system was working, and when the Chief Constructor had long replaced the old Master Builder, there were 3,800 men at Chatham yard, and yet only one Chief Constructor, whereas under the older system the supervision would have been under many more officers. At the same time the dockyard had increased in extent from 95 to 500 acres. In the first years of the nineteenth century Sir Robert Seppings, who was a Master Builder at Chatham, attained great eminence as a naval constructor. Since his time a revolution has taken place in the constructive work at the yard, and many of the conditions that existed even 20 years ago have changed.
The resources of the dockyard had been fully employed, and an ever-increasing strain at length forced upon the attention of the authorities the necessity for the expansion of the establishments. Sir J Rennie, the eminent engineer who was so greatly concerned in the Portsmouth works, was consulted in regard to the necessities, and an important plan for an enlargement was prepared by him. It was not, however, until 1853 that the Admiralty became possessed of the whole of St Mary's Island and some neighbouring land, upon which the extension was to be made. Three years later the Navy Estimates bore a charge of ?160,000 towards the work, and a large employment of convict labour was contemplated. Progress was slow, and little was done until 1864, when General Sir A Clarke, who was then Director of Works at the Admiralty, took up the matter energetically. The works were in hand about 18 years, the estimates of 1884-1885 bearing a small charge practically for completion.
The huge crane which is depicted (top left, the largest crane at Chatham), the dockyard railway as a great facility for work (top right a working party leave the storehouse by the dockyard railway), and the vast basins and docks, are thus accounted for. It is a proud record of a great work done, and does not take any account of the cruisers built at the yard. Chatham on the other hand has many memorials of the old navy, including a large collection of figureheads, which almost rivals that at Devonport. We see also that there is still scope for the deft hands of women in the naval service. (below right women making flags in the Chatham loft), and they do good work in the spinning of hemp for cables (above left women spinning hemp for cables).
|The great extension of the Chatham Dockyard initiated in
1853, gave us the establishment as it exists today. The
old establishment still exists, however, with some modifications from its
former state, and possesses its old wooden slips and docks. There are four
iron slips dating from about 40 years ago, and the old saw-pits are there,
with other evidences of the Navy in the early part of the last century and
century before. The fine figureheads which are illustrated indicate
how the evidences of the past are are treasured at Chatham (See top right
and below left), and it would have been a pleasure to describe some other
relics of the place. There was a discovery of a vessel some 36 ft below
the ground level, made a few years ago when the excavation for the present
basins was in progress. There can be little doubt that this was one of the
Dutch ships which made the raid up the Medway in 1667. She
stood upright in the mud, still possessing her guns and large quantities
of shot in her lockers, many of which relics have their place in the
But it is now time to turn to the extension works of the present day. The three great basins, lying in a west and east line, give access in both directions to the Medway, the eastern opening - from No.3 basin - being through two large locks, which can be used in case of necessity for docking ships. the first basin, that to the west, was opened in 1872 with much ceremony, as well as two of the four docks on its south side. These new graving docks are more than 400 ft long and 100 ft wide, and the basin itself has a length of about 1,600 ft by 900 ft. At its eastern end is an opening into No.2 basin, which is about 1,500 ft long by 800 ft wide, and from this again into basin No. 3, which has an extreme length of about 1,800 ft, its width except towards the east, where it is wider and irregular in shape, being some 800 ft. It is from the basin last mentioned that access is gained to the Medway through the two locks, outside of which are the collier dock, with slips, and other important parts of the establishment. This immense addition to Chatham dockyard, which was practically the creation of a new establishment fitted to cope with the growing needs of the Fleet, was completed in 1885, when a simple inaugural ceremony took place in September.
The extension of the dockyard was not confined to basins and docks. With the larger future designed for the establishment, many factories, workshops, and stores became necessary, these being erected in convenient positions adjacent to the basins. The gunnery, torpedo and engine shops and other factories and storehouses, are of great size, and the manufacturing establishments are fitted with the latest appliances for work of every description. There is a mighty Hydraulic crane capable of lifting about 200 tons, and the equipment in apparatus of that kind is very complicated indeed. As in other Naval establishments there are steam-hammers, punching machines (see right), sheering machines, steam saw-mills amongst others. The creating of such an establishment where lay an expanse of some 400 acres of desolate marsh, abounding in swamps and dykes, was an achievement to be proud of, and we cannot withhold admiration from the energy with which the work was undertaken and the zeal with which it was executed. It had been foreseen that with the enlargement of the dockyard, and the creation of facilities for building and repairing the largest classes of vessels, the channel of the Medway would have to be improved. That ancient waterway, winding through level tracts, and abounding in creeks, was too shallow for our modern leviathans, and a very great work has since been completed in dredging the bed of the river. Ten years ago the work was in progress, and it was completed in 1896, though, of course, dredging operations are continually necessary to prevent the silting up of the passage.
The last ten years have seen further progress in the establishment. No.5 dock has been lengthened in order that it may accommodate cruisers of the Diadem class (435ft), this work having been completed about September 1898. A new coaling depot is being created to facilitate and expedite the work. The reconstruction of the foundry also became necessary, but considerable difficulties occurred, and it was at length decided that a new foundry should be constructed. As a matter of fact, the foundations of the old structure had given way, thus illustrating one of the great difficulties which have been encountered at the Chatham yard. Provision was made for the new foundry in the Estimates of 1899-1900, as also for a new building slip. Some delay, however, occurred in completing the plans for the latter, but good progress is being made, as also with other works in progress at the yard, and the foundry will be completed in 1902. Progress is also being made with the coaling establishment, and a new dock is to be added. (Below right a plan of Chatham Dockyard)
The increase in Chatham Dockyard has not been in material matters only. The additions made to the fleet have involved a great augmentation in the number of officers and men at port, and the necessity for larger accommodation became a pressing need six or seven years ago. The extension works had been partly executed by convict labour, and the convict prison became available for conversion into barracks. There was, however, a great need for suitable new buildings, and the inconvenience of putting seamen into hulks at the port was strongly urged in 1894. It was then proposed to commence a new Naval barracks to accommodate 3,500 officers and men, and after which it would be possible to remove the old hulks, and to find space for the berthing of modern vessels, and designs were prepared, but a difficulty arose in regard to the necessary land, and a long delay resulted. Negotiations were entered into with the War Office for a site, upon part of which the Brennan torpedo factory stood, but in 1898 the military authorities were still reconstructing the factory, so that the land might be made available. Meanwhile the contract was signed for the construction of the barracks, and considerable progress has since been made, the western block having been completed, while two other blocks are well above ground. The delay has been unfortunate, for the inconvenience and discomfort of a seaman's life on board a hulk are an important consideration in these days, when the comforts of the shore exercise such a powerful attraction upon the men of the fleet. (below left cruisers are berthed for repair and refit)
The necessity of extending the hospital accommodation was also recognised by the authorities, and a proposal was formulated in 1896 for building a new hospital, with 600 beds; the old building, besides being too small, was obsolete in design and defective in construction. In particular there was no provision for the isolation of infectious cases, and no wards were arranged for the seriously injured patients. Moreover, the grounds in which the hospital stood were limited in size, and did not admit of any extension of the old building. The foundations of the main building of the new hospital were laid by the beginning of 1900, and the establishment is now approaching completion. With these increased facilities, soon to be made available, we may link an improvement in the water supply which has been effected. Much has, indeed, been done for the increased number of seamen retained in reserve at the port, and when the barracks and hospital are in use, one great disadvantage of Chatham will have been removed.
It might appear to the casual observer, seeing the immense mass and variety of stores lying alongside a ship, that some confusion must exist, but it would not be long before they discerned that a thorough system of organisation evolves order and progress out of apparent chaos. Each man knows exactly his work, and everything is done with order and regularity. The building of a ship takes place accordance with plans prepared at the Admiralty, and the operation is conducted under the immediate orders of the Chief Constructor of the Dockyard. The calculations for displacement have already been made, and the conditions which affect the draught of water have been fully taken into account. A matter of extreme importance, therefore, is that the intended weights shall actually be built into the ship and no more, a matter which in former times, owing to modifications of plans, was sometimes neglected, with the result that ships have not floated at their intended waterline and that the armouring upon them has not afforded the protection designed and required.
In the picture (right) which illustrates the mast of the Irresistible, the Goliath will be seen completing at her berth in the basin. It will be noticed that an office is provided for that important functionary the recorder of weights, whose business is to keep a very accurate account. A notification is also affixed on the office in these words: "All materials to be weighed before being taken on board." Thus is assurance made in the matter of displacement, and it is truly astonishing how closely the calculated displacement approximates the to the real. The responsibility for launching a ship also devolves to the Chief Constructor of the yard, but, as soon as she is in the water, it is the duty of the King's harbourmaster to bring her alongside the wharf, where the work of structural completion and equipment goes on. The recent launch of the Prince of Wales at Chatham Dockyard brought to the minds of many the very great importance of all the functions which attend building, launching and completing. The smallest miscalculation may lead to serious difficulties, and it is therefore, always with a sense of relief that the good ship is seen gliding down the ways into the element which she is to grace and command. Cabins have then to be provided, mess-places and storerooms to be arranged, the engines, boilers, hydraulic and electrical gear to be fitted, and a vast deal of other work to be done, and a ship in this stage is, therefore, always a scene of bustling activity. All the officers of the yard have important functions in regard to the building and equipping of ships, and it is the custom for them to meet each morning at the office of the Admiral Superintendent to learn the orders from the Admiralty, and then to decide how they shall be carried into execution - a system that conduces much to rapidity and efficiency of work. Finally let it be said that Rear-Admiral Swinton C Holland is the Superintendent at Chatham, and Captain Archibald G Douglas the Staff Captain and King's Harbourmaster, while the Chief Constructor is W James, Esq. the Chief Engineer W G Littlejohns, and the Naval Store Officer H J Laslett. (Above left shows the Pembroke Gate).
The battleship Albemarle being built at Chatham in 1901.
The Parade Ground at Chatham.
Sent in by Ian Anderson