Chatham Dockyard

From Academic Kids

Chatham Dockyard, located on the River Medway in Kent, England, came into existence at the time when, following the Reformation, relations with the Catholic countries of Europe had worsened, and thus requiring added defences. 80 acres (324,000 m²) of the site now form a visitor attraction known as Chatham Historic Dockyard.


Outline history

  • 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; 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” .
  • Chatham was established as a royal dockyard by Elizabeth I in 1567. She herself visited the yard in 1573. By the late 17th century it was the largest refitting dockyard, important during the Dutch wars.
  • It was, however superseded first by Portsmouth, then Plymouth, when the main naval enemy became France, and the Western approaches the chief theatre of operations.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.
  • Chatham became a building yard rather than refitting base. In 1622 the dockyard moved from its original location (now the gun wharf to the south) to its present site. Among many other vessels HMS Victory was built here, launched in 1765.
  • In the 1860s the yard had a large building programme and St Mary's basin was constructed for the steam navy.
  • When the yards at Deptford and Woolwich closed in 1869, Chatham again became relatively important and remained so until 1983 when it closed.
  • The site is now a museum, under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. The Trust has applied for the Dockyard to become a World Heritage Site.


  • Peter Pett, of the family of shipwrights whose history is so closely connected to the Chatham dockyard, was appointed first "Master Shipwright" for Chatham in about 1545.
  • King James I used Chatham dockyard for a meeting in 1606 with Christian IV of Denmark.
  • The Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard held a seat and a vote on the Navy Board in London. Among the Commissioners were:
    • Sir Edward Gregory, who was the last civilian to hold the office, and retired in 1703
    • Captain Charles Cunningham, retired 1829. His retirement led to the dockyard being placed temporarily under the inspection of Captain J M Lewes, Resident Commissioner at Sheerness.
    • Captain, (later Admiral), Sir Charles Bullen was the first Superintendent, being appointed in December 1831, and 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".


  • William Camden (1551-1623) described Chatham dockyard as
    • stored for the finest fleet the sun ever beheld, and ready at a minute’s 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.
  • From the will of Richard Holborne (1654), Shipwright, comes a description of the Dockyard area of Chatham :
    • It talks about his ould it is now fenced with the brewing house and garden joyning it with the belle now standing...and the wharfe in the millponde...unto the fence of James have ingresse, egresse, and regresse through that way unto the waterside or water gate...and...the greate Gate Westward...and the...pumpe.
  • Daniel Defoe visiting the yard in 1705, also spoke of its achievements with an almost incredulous enthusiasm:
    • 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.

Defence of the dockyard

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 1667, the Dutch fleet were able to sail right past it to attack the British fleet, to carry off the pride of the fleet the Royal Charles back to the Netherlands.

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. Hawkin's chain was later replaced with a boom of masts, iron, cordage, and the hulls of two old ships, besides a couple of ruined pinnacles. This arrangement was again upgraded around 1645.

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 [complete details can be seen at the external link]:

  • 1669 Gillingham and Cockham Wood forts built
  • 1756 Chatham [or Cumberland] Lines built. This fortification, and its subsequent upgrading, were to concentrate on an overland attack, so that they were built to face the south. It included redoubts at Amherst and Townsend. The Lines enclosed the entire dockyard on its eastern side.
  • 1805-1812 Amherst redoubt now Fort Amherst; new forts named Pitt and Clarence.
  • 1860s Grain Fort, and other smaller batteries in that area
  • 1870-1892 A number of forts built at a greater distance from the dockyard: Forts Bridgewood, Luton, Borstal, Horsted and Darland. These became known as the ‘’Great Lines’’. Forts Darnet and Hoo built on islands in the River Medway.

Growth of the dockyard

The growing importance of the dockyard was illustrated between 1619-20 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.

The renewed outbreak of war with Spain demonstrated the need for such readiness, and in 1710 land was ordered to be bought to improve the dockyard.

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 1664, 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.

When the Dockyard closed in 1984 its final task had been that of refitting nuclear submarines. HMS Hermione was the last ship launched from there.

The dockyard covered 400 acres (1.6 km²). After closure this was divided into three sections. The easternmost basin was handed over to the Medway Ports Authority and is now a commercial port. Another slice was converted into a mixed commercial, residential and leisure development. 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.

See also

Chatham Historic Dockyard

External links


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