At Chatham Dockyard
Cliff, HMS Gannett
Behold the ancient mariner I met at Chatham Dockyard. After a long career navigating the seven seas, he now guides visitors around HMS Gannett permanently berthed in a dry dock on the Medway.
Over three hundred years, more than four hundred warships were constructed here and, during the eighteenth century, Chatham became one of this country’s largest industrial sites. Even today – thirty years after it ceased to be a working dockyard – the legacy of this endeavour over such a long period and on such a scale is awe-inspiring.
The vast wooden vault of the covered slipway, dating from 1834, is something akin to a cathedral or an aircraft hangar, and climbing up into the roof is a spatial experience of vertiginous amazement. At the other end of the dockyard, a ropewalk contains a room that is a quarter of a mile long for spinning yarn into cables. Midway between these two, I discovered the Commissioner’s Garden, offering a horticultural oasis in the midst of all this industry with a seventeenth century Mulberry at its heart.
Yet as my feet grew weary, my sense of wonder grew troubled by more complicated thoughts and emotions. The countless thousands that laboured long and hard in this dockyard through the centuries produced the maritime might which permitted Britain to wrestle control of the Atlantic from the French and the Spanish, and build its global empire, delivering incalculable wealth at the expense of the people in its colonial territories.
For better or worse, to see the machinery of this history made manifest at Chatham is an experience of wonder tinged with horror which cannot be easily reconciled, yet it is an inescapable part of this country’s identity that compels our attention if we are to understand our own past.
HMS Gannet (1878)
The covered slipway (1838)
The covered slip was designed by Sir Robert Sebbings, Surveyor to the Navy Board & former Shipwright
HMS Ocelot (1962)
HMS Cavalier (1944)
Threads of yarn are twisted to make twine
Rope continues to be manufactured today in the ropewalk
Machinery from 1811 is still in use
The rope walk dates from 1729
Women were employed from 1864 when mechanisation was introduced
Officers’ houses (1722-33)
The Cashier’s Office where Charles Dickens’ father John Dickens worked as a clerk, 1817-22
Figures and coat of arms from HMS Chatham (1911) on the Admiral’s Offices
Sail & Colour Loft (1734) where the sails for HMS Victory were made
Admiral’s Offices (1808) with George III’s coat of arms
Entrance to the Commissioner’s Garden
Seventeenth century Mulberry tree in the Commissioner’s Garden
Richard Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington, and Royal Dockyard Church (1755)
Main Gate (1720) with arms of George I
Visit CHATHAM HISTORIC DOCKYARD, open every day from February until November
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