From Spitalfields To Sheerness
Naval Terrace, Sheerness Dockyard
On a drizzly afternoon in autumn, it could easily have been a melancholy experience to visit the derelict church and old terraces that comprise the last fragments of the Georgian dockyard at Sheerness, if it were not for the fact that they are currently under restoration thanks to the bold initiative of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Sheerness Dockyard was built to a grand triangular masterplan by the great engineer John Rennie the Elder in the eighteen-twenties. Completed in 1830, it remained in use by the Royal Navy until 1960 when it was turned over to commercial use with the loss of thousands of jobs, devastating the local community and wiping out part of the town. Today, Sheerness is the country’s largest port for motor imports and very little of Rennie’s dockyard survives apart from the residential quarter. Only a scale model of 1820 exists as testimony to the former realisation of Rennie’s vision.
Sold off to developers at the end of the last century, the terraces were left to decay and the church was burnt out in 2001. But, when plans to build blocks of flats collapsed in 2010, the Spitalfields Trust was able to step in and buy the four acre site with the assistance of a loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund and a handful of brave investors who took on individual properties. Since then, the fine houses which – apart from one original resident – were empty for decades, have been repaired by their new owners, removing the accretions of the twentieth century and restoring the landscaping of the original design.
Edward Holl and his successor George Ledwell Taylor were the architects responsible for executing Rennie’s designs, and the terraces at Sheerness have a familiar quality as if they had been transplanted from Canonbury or Camden Town. The proximity of the container port with its great cranes looming enforces this sense of surrealism yet, unexpectedly, the utilitarian designs of different centuries sit side-by-side in unlikely harmony.
Built to house the principal officers of the dockyard and their families, these buildings are characterised by an austere elegance and graceful proportion, with subtle distinctions of social hierarchy reflected in their construction. This is undemonstrative architecture and, upon entering, you are aware of generous spaces with plenty of light, use of quality materials and considered detailing throughout.
While the restoration and repair of these houses is in an advanced state with many new occupants in residence, the shell of George Ledwell Taylor’s Dockyard Church presents the next challenge. Dramatically combining iron and brick and possessing an impressive portico, it is a magnificent ruin at present, but the Trust intends to restore it as a community centre with spaces for small businesses to operate and as a home for the dockyard model of 1820.
Without this intervention, none of these important buildings would have had a future but, employing the skills honed in saving the old houses in Spitalfields more than thirty years ago, the members of the Trust are able to add them to the long list of over seventy buildings they have rescued since 1977.
Sheerness Dockyard under construction c.1826. The view looks south and shows the excavation of the Boat Basin in the foreground and the U-shaped Victualling Storehouse in the distance. This building was completed in 1826 to a design by Edward Holl but no longer survives.
John Rennie’s turning bridge with the Great Basin beyond, filled in shortly after the Naval Dockyard closed in 1961
The Great Basin under construction with the three eastern dry docks taking shape in the distance.
Captain Superintendent’s House undergoing restoration
Plan of the residential quarter showing the hierarchy of accommodation and the walled gardens and coach houses which survive at Naval Terrace.
View of the Captain’s Superintendent’s house c.1910
Entrance of the Captain’s Superintendent’s House
Hallway in Dockyard Terrace
The Police House
Dockyard Church seen from Regency Close
Interior of the Dockyard Church today
Naval Terrace and Dockyard Church c.1900
The plan is restore the church as a community centre with spaces for small businesses.
Interior of Dockyard Church c.1900
Dockyard Church and Naval Terrace portrayed upon a piece of Mauchlin ware, eighteen-eighties
Cadets pose in front of Naval Terrace c.1870
Sheerness Dockyard in the nineteen-seventies, looking west – with the terraces in the foreground
Archive images courtesy of Martin Hawkins
You may also like to read about the Spitalfields Trust’s restoration of Shurland Hall