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

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 Dockyard provided over 500 ships for the Royal Navy, and was 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.

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

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 It was, however superseded first by Portsmouth, then Plymouth, when the main naval enemy became France, and the Western approaches the chief theatre of operations.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 a 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 built in this Dockyard, and which still exist, are HMS Victory, launched in 1765 – now preserved at Portsmouth Naval Base (formerly Portsmouth Royal Dockyard), and HMS Unicorn, (a Leda class frigate) launched 1824 – now preserved afloat at Dundee. Between 1862 and 1885, the yard had a large building programme and St Mary's basins were constructed along St Mary's creek. The three basins were 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.[1] When the yards at Deptford and Woolwich closed in 1869, Chatham again became relatively important and remained so until its closure in 1984.

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.[1] 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.[1]

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.[2] The Basins have new uses, St Mary's Island is now housing and part of the Victorian Dockyard forms the portal to the Medway Tunnel. Other military buildings have now been refitted and are used by the Universities at Medway.


  • 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".
  • Billy Childish, artist, was an apprentice stonemason at the yard in 1976/77.
  • Francis Drake also lived in the old hulks there and spent his youth in Medway. His father was also a vicar at nearby Upnor.


  • 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.
      • The Chatham Churchwardens’ accounts show that Richard, a cousin of Phineas Pett, was Churchwarden from 1634 to 1643. Further details under Peter Pett.
  • 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.

Significant buildings within the Georgian Dockyard


Wood and Canvas

  • The Mast Ponds. 1697,1702. Fir logs were seasoned by immersing them in salt water while the sap died back.
    • South Mast Pond 1697. Now a car park.
    • North Mast Pond,1702. The ponds were connected by canal.
  • Clocktower building 1723. The oldest surviving naval storehouse in any Royal Dockyard. The ground floor was a 'present use store' and the upper floor was a mould loft. It was rebuilt in 1802 – the timber cladding was replaced by brick. In the 20th century it was used for offices, and was adapted in 1996-7 to become the University of Kent's Bridge Warden's College.[4]
  • Sail and Colour Loft 1723. Constructed from timber recycled from warships probably from the Dutch Wars. Lower floors were for storage, and the upper floor is a large open space for sail construction. In 1758 there were 45 sailmakers. They sewed 2 ft (0.61 m) strips of canvas into the sails using 108 to 116 stitches per yard.. Flags denoting nationality and for signals were made here.
  • Timber Seasoning Sheds 1774. These were built to a standard design with bays 45 ft (13.7m) by 20 ft (6.1m). These are the first standardised industrial buildings. There were 75 bays erected at Chatham Dockyard, to hold three years worth of timber.
  • Wheelwrights' shop c1780. This three bay building was built as a mast house using 'reclaimed' timber. The top bay was used by the wheel wrights who constructed and repaired the wheels on the dockyard carts, and may have made ships wheels. The middle bay was used by the pumpmakers and the coak and treenail makers. Pumps were simple affairs, made of wood with iron and leather fittings. Coaks were the bearings in pulley blocks, and treenails were the long oak pins, made on a lathe, or moot that were used to pin the planking to the frames. The west bay was used by the capstan makers, capstans were used to raise the anchor.
  • Masthouses and mould loft 1753-8. Masthouses were used to make and store masts. Here there are 7 interlinking masthouses. Above them is the mould loft where the lines of HMS Victory were laid down. The lines of each frame of a ship would be taken from the plan and scribed full size, into the floor by shipwrights. From this patterns or moulds would be built using softwoods, and from these the actual frames would be built and shaped. This building houses the 'Wooden Walls Exhibition'.
  • Joiners Shop c. 1790 originally to make treenails, but later used by the yards joiners. The Resolute Desk (the Oval Office desk)was constructed here by Dockyard Joiners from the timbers of HMS Resolute.
  • Lower boat House c1820 built as a storehouse for squared timber, and later to store ship's boats.

Dry Docks and Covered Slips

  • The covered slips 1838–55. It was on slipways that ships were built. The slipways were covered to prevent ships rotting before they had been launched. The earliest covered slips no longer exist. By 1838 the use of cast and wrought iron in buildings had become feasible. The oldest slip had a wooden roof, three had cast iron roofing and the last used wrought iron. They are of unique importance in the development of wide span structures such as were later used by the railways.
    • No 3 Slip 1838. This had a linked truss structure and was originally covered in tarred paper, which was quickly replaced with a zinc roof. The slip was backfilled around 1900 and a steel mezzanine floor was added. It became a store house for ship's boats.
    • No 4, 5 and 6 Slips 1848. These were designed by Captain Thomas Mould, Royal Engineers, and erected by Bakers and Sons of Lambeth. Similar structures were erected at Portsmouth but these are no longer extant. They predate the London train sheds of Paddington and King's Cross which were often cited as the country's first wide span metal structures.
    • No 7 Slip, is one of the earliest examples of a modern metal trussed roof. It was designed in 1852 by Colonel Godfrey T. Green, Royal Engineers. It was used for shipbuilding until 1966, HMS Ocelot was launched from there 5 May 1962.
  • Dry Dock. The docks are filled by sluice gates set into the caissons, and emptied by a series of underground culverts connected to the pumping station.
    • No 2 Drydock 1856 was built on the site of 'The Old Single Dock' where HMS Victory was constructed. In 1863, this dock constructed HMS Achilles, the first iron battleship to be built in a Royal Dockyard. It now houses HMS Cavalier it was renamed Victory dock after HMS Victory in 2005 to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, it was attended by the 2nd sea lord at the time Admiral Sir James Michael Burnell-Nugent.
    • No 3 Drydock 1820 the first to be constructed of stone, was designed by John Rennie. It now houses HMS Ocelot.
    • No 4 Drydock 1840 now houses HMS Gannet.
  • South Dock Pumping Station 1822, designed by John Rennie. It originally housed a beam engine, this was replaced by an electric pump in 1920. The building is still in use.

Offices and Residential

  • Commissioner's House 1704. This is the oldest surviving naval building in England. It is Grade I listed.[5] It was built for the Resident Commissioner, his family and servants. The previous building was built in 1640 for Phineas Pett. In 1703, Captain George St Lo took up the post and petitioned the Admiralty for a more suitable residence. Internally the principal feature is the main staircase with its painted wooden ceiling attributed to Thomas Highmore (Serjeant Painter), to sketches by Sir James Thornhill.
  • Commissioner's Garden dating from 1640. The lower terraces are one of the first Italianate Water Gardens in England. There is a 400-year old Mulberry Tree, from where Oliver Cromwell reputedly watched the Roundhead Army take Rochester from the Royalists. There is an 18th-century icehouse and an Edwardian conservatory with its great vine.
  • Officers' Terrace 1722-3. Twelve houses built for senior officers in the Dockyard. The ground floor were built as offices, the first floor contained reception rooms with bedrooms above. Each has a 18C walled garden, which again are now very rare. They are now privately owned.
  • House Carpenters' Shop c 1740. Built to harmonise with the officers' terrace. House Carpenters worked solely on maintaining the dockyard buildings.
  • Main gatehouse 1722, designed by the master shipwright in the style of Vanbrugh. It bears the arms of George III. Inside was the muster bell.
  • Guard House 1764. Built when Marines were introduced into the Dockyard to improve security. It continued in use till 1984.
  • Stables. For officers' horses.
  • Cashiers' Office 18C. John Dickens, father of Charles Dickens worked here from 1817–1822. It is still used as offices.
  • Admiral's Offices 1808. Designed by Edward Holl as offices for the master shipwright. The roofline was low so it would not obstruct the view from the officers' terrace. Later it became Port Admiral's office and was extended. The northern extension became the dockyard's communication centre.
  • Assistant Queens Harbourmaster's Office c 1770. The main entry to the dockyard in the age of sail was the Queen's Stairs, this office was built alongside. In 1865, the whole of the tidal Medway from Allington Lock to Sheerness was designated as a dockyard port and the Assistant Queen's Habourmaster was responsible for all moorings and movements.
  • Thunderbolt Pier, a pier named after HMS Thunderbolt, built 1856, which was used as a floating pierhead from 1873 until 1948, when she was rammed and sunk.
  • Captain of the Dockyard's House 19C.

Anchor Wharf and the Ropery

  • Anchor Wharf Store Houses 1778–1805 are the largest storehouses ever built for the navy.
    • The southern building, Store House No 3, completed in 1785, is subdivided with timber lattice partitions as a 'lay apart store' a store for equipment from vessels under repair.
    • The northern building was used as a fitted rigging house, and a general store for equipment to fit out newly built ships.
  • The Fitted Rigging House is now used as the Library and houses the Steam Steel and Submarines 1832–1984 gallery.
  • The Ropery consists of Hemp Houses (1728 extended 1812), Yarn Houses and a double Rope House with attached Hatchelling House. The Ropery is still in use being operated by Master Ropemakers Ltd.
    • The Double Rope House has spinning on the upper floors and ropemaking ( a ropewalk) on the ground floor. It is 346 m (1135 ft) long, and when constructed was the longest brickbuilt building in Europe capable of laying a 1,000 ft (300 m) rope. Over 200 men were required before 1836, to make and lay a 20in (circumference) cable. All was done by hand. Steam power in the form of a beam engine was introduced in 1836, and then electricity in the early 1900s.
    • The White Yarn House to store the yarn before it was tarred to prevent rot.
    • The Tarring House with its 'Tar Kettle' and horse drawn winch.
    • The Black Yarn House to store the tarred yarn. The tarring process declined as manila replaced hemp, and sisal replaced manila. These fibres were chemically protected at the hatchelling stage and tarring stopped in the 1940s.

Later buildings

  • No 1. Smithery 1808. It was designed by Edward Holl, for production of Anchors and Chain. Anchors could weigh 72 cwt (3657 kg), and were forged by hand. Anchorsmiths were give an allowance of 8 pintsof strong beer a day, because of the difficult working conditions.
  • Dockyard Church 1806. Designed by Edward Holl it has a gallery supported on cast iron columns, one of the first uses of cast iron in the dockyard. Last used in 1981.
  • Brunel Saw Mill 1814. Until 1814 timber was cut by pairs of men, one above and one below the log. In 1758, there were 43 pairs of sawyers working in the yard. In 1812, the sawmill was designed by Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The mill was driven by steam. The mill was linked to the mast ponds by a mechanical timber transport system, and underground canals. Later the basement was converted into a steam laundry.
  • Lead and Paint Mill 1818. Designed by Edward Holl to be fireproof. There was a lead furnace, casting area and steam powered double rolling mill, paint mills for grinding pigment, canvas stretching frames, and vats for storing and boiling linseed oil. A warship was painted every 4 months.
  • No 1 Machine Shop. This building retains it original structure and roof glazing. It was used to house the machine tools needed to produce HMS Achilles, the first iron battleship built in a Royal Dockyard. This building has now become home to the railway workshop.
  • The Galvanising Shop c1890. Galvanising is a process of dipping steel in molten zinc to prevent it from rusting. There were baths of acid and molten zinc, the fumes vented through louvres in the roof. It is currently used as a visitors centre.
  • Chain Cable Shed c1900, built to protect newly manufactured anchor chain. It is supported by a row of 28 captured French and Spanish guns.

Defence of the dockyard

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.

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 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. 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. 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 Fort Gillingham and Cockham Wood Fort were 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 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.

The dockyard's final task was refitting nuclear submarines. HMS Hermione was the last ship launched from there, though she had not been built there, but merely refitted.

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[6] and Nordic Recycling Ltd.[7]

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. The other tranche was converted into a mixed commercial, residential and leisure development (including a Marina). These are Basins 1 and 2.

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.

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


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 Miserables,[10] Call the Midwife,[11] Mr Selfridge,[12] Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,[13] Oliver Twist[14] and The World is Not Enough[15]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chatham Dockyard in Old Photographs, Philip MacDougall, 1994, pub Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, ISBN 1-84015-038-6.
  2. BBC Report:-World heritage bid for dockyard
  3. The Historic Dockyard Chatham-where, legends were created. Guide Book. 2005. Jarrold Publishing
  4. "Bridge Wardens' College Teaching and Meeting Rooms". Retrieved October 27, 2013. 
  5. "Former Commissioners House and Attached Staff Accomodation, Medway". Retrieved October 27, 2013. 
  6. Papersafe UK, Berth 6, Basin 3, Chatham | STORAGE. Yell. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
  8. "Chatham Waters". Retrieved 12 April 2013. 
  9. ""New era" for Gillingham as Chatham Docks approved". Retrieved 14 September 2013. 
  10. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Les Miserables Film Focus". 
  11. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Call The Midwife Film Focus". 
  12. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Mr Selfridge Film Focus". 
  13. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Film Focus". 
  14. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Oliver Twist Film Focus". 
  15. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office The World is Not EnoughFilm Focus".

External links

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