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At Chatham Royal Dockyard

July 1, 2019
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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 1, 2019

    Great photos GA which really give a sense of the huge scale of the dockyards and the ropery, and the ‘vertiginous amazement’ of the covered walkway!

    Also interested to see that their ancient mulberry tree also has props like the dear old Bethnal Green mulberry.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 1, 2019

    It’s often used as a big out-&-indoor set for filming, which if you are an “extra” means you get to wander around … fascinating

  3. James Wyburd permalink
    July 1, 2019

    I think the magnificent Gentle Author should be kinder about the British Empire which certainly did more good than harm – if this was not so the Commonwealth, the largest country grouping in the world would not exist as it does. The great exception is the monumental wickedness of slavery, an ancient and world wide activity at the time especially within Africa. Yet it should not be forgotten that slavery was eradicated worldwide, not just in the UK, by the Royal Navy, largely by ships constructed at Chatham.

  4. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 1, 2019

    My Great Grandfather worked for the Royal Navy in Chatham Kent as a Ships Carpenter in or around the 1830s,wnt on to marry there and have 4 children and moved them all too Bethnal Green for a better life working in the Furniture Trade which was then going full blast in Bethnal Green by then, one of his Children my Grandfather followed him into the trade,as a cigar box maker, still have one of his pieces on my desk,he then went on to open pubs, and coach hire. But sadly died at a young age leaving 5 children of school age to be looked after by my Grandmother, she was not treated good by his business partners and was left with one pub to bring up her family which she did for the reminder of her life. Good pictures GA and thanks.

  5. July 1, 2019

    Thank you for the virtual tour and wonderful photos GA of this amazing place, have just added it to my ‘must see’ list.
    I especially loved the photo of the supported seventeenth century mulberry tree, being shown more care and respect than the ancient one we are all fighting to save.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    July 1, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the great tour and photos of the Chatham Royal Dockyard. Glad to see that this vast site is being preserved. I really enjoy the Docklands Museum on the Thames. For those with maritime interest I would suggest checking out the USS Constitution Museum when visiting Boston.

    I was particularly taken with the ropewalk in Chatham and glad to know it is still in use.

  7. July 1, 2019

    Ahoy — a very good and interesting post!

    Love & Peace

  8. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 1, 2019

    Another fascinating piece GA, how do you do it? So much history of our country owes its being to our maritime strength, whether used for good or ill, probably a mixture of both, we certainly would not have become the force that we were without it. I have shipwrights in my family tree so I find all of this really interesting and the ropewalk, they are incredible and I remember seeing the one at Toulon in France, and being unable to believe just how long it was, I think the men ride bicycles to get from one end to another!

  9. David P B Feder permalink
    July 1, 2019

    Excellent! So well-written, I could fairly smell the tar, the sisal rope, and the machine oil. Wonderful!

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    July 1, 2019

    Excellent – this brings back fond memories of a visit with our son many years ago. Thank you.

  11. July 2, 2019

    I worked at Chatham Dockyard until its closure best time best friends all came to an end 8500 became unemployed sad times now this Maritime country has nothing
    Chatham is a good day for the family lots do and see enjoy
    wonderful photographes thank you.

  12. Bob Taylor permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Been twice before and never fails to amaze me.My wifes family had people who worked ther.

  13. Stephen Baisden permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Great story. I’ve always loved the naval history of England.

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