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At Chatham Dockyard

July 10, 2016
by the gentle author

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.

Horatio Nelson

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

You may also like to read about

At Sheerness Dockyard

At The Old Naval College, Greenwich

8 Responses leave one →
  1. July 10, 2016

    I had no idea that this place was so huge. Thanks for the breathtaking photos. There must have been a lot of blood, sweat and tears there in the course of the centuries. Valerie

  2. July 10, 2016

    A great post with wonderful pictures, thank you. One of my favourite places, I love the atmosphere there. Thanks also for your observation of your personal reaction being mixed with discomfort regarding the consequences of that maritime might, something for me to ponder, I hadn’t considered this before, I am also so awe struck by the eveidence of such hard work and quality of engineering, discipline and workmanship. I am fascinated by our industrial past, specially around the London area and very much enjoyed making the connections between the work at Chatham dockyard and maritime Greenwich where I live.

  3. July 10, 2016

    I remember going to the historic dockyard at Chatham a year or so after it closed it looked sad then. Pleased to see its up and running as part of our maritime heritage. Lots of good hearted volunteers and staff must be dedicated to this yard. I am sure Samuel Pepys (1665) would have been pleased with the result. Sam was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty his office was in Seething Lane in the City. Chatham was in his area of responsibility. The Rope Works was important here, rope rigging would rot after a few years of active service. Sam Pepys was always arguing with contractors about the contract price of replacement rope. Sails and rope rigging was the engine room of the sailing warship. The Commissioner’s Garden a kind of ‘Secret Garden’ looks superb, pleased that GA has included it and the mulberry tree of course. John

  4. July 10, 2016

    My son and my dad have happy shared memories of visiting the dockyard. My late step father, who was a navy cook, was stationed there after the war. Such rich maritime history. One imagines Peyps bustling between London, Greenwich and Chatham, intent on carrying out the King’s business. For me, Chatham is crossing the Medway by railway bridge as the train makes its way to the East Kent Coast where my father lives.

  5. July 10, 2016

    Such a shame our industrialists an politicians were too myopic to generate jobs to replace the thousands, leaving this part of Kent struggling with low wages and high unemployment. Tourism and heritage a major saver of employment

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    July 10, 2016

    More interesting history and a peep into a ‘secret’ garden. I would like to be let loose in there as it looks as if much more could be made of it but perhaps I am not being fair, no doubt people are doing their very best in what may be difficult circumstances. Don’t feel too bad about our colonial past GA, it was a different world then and exploitation was the name of the game, we can’t change the past and some of what was done was beneficial, we did after all introduce India to cricket!! Don’t mention the religion or slavery to me though.

    I am proud of our maritime history as my father’s ancestors were shipbuilders and real craftsmen who, I suspect, have passed on a love of wood and woodworking to their descendants. I am always in trouble if we go to a stately home or somewhere where notices ask you not to touch as I love the feel of wood, and long to run my fingers over the mahogany and walnut of the furniture, and the smell of freshly sawn wood is better than any scent to me!

  7. Shawdian permalink
    July 11, 2016


    These photos are fantastic! Thank you for sharing. I just adore vintage Ships. I live across the Solent from Portsmouth where Neslons Victory & others are docked and just love to cross the
    water to visit when I get the urge. I must try to get to Chatham, this ship looks delightful. These photos are wonderful (glad to see the Mullberry getting a look in too) Just love to look over this. Cliff you look spelndid and what stories you must have to tell. Hope I get to meet you one day, can not wait! I am proud of our Marine Time History and get a lot of information from the Samuel Pepe’s Diaries which are a great historical read. More like this post please

  8. July 13, 2016

    I used to live in the area when I was a young girl and remember going to the dockyards to wave off a ship that was departing for the Falklands war.

    Thank you for this post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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