One of the most important buildings to survive at Chatham from the age of sail its timber frame is built from re-used warship deck beams and knees.
The first floor Mould Loft was a large drawing board used at the start of the shipbuilding process. Here the most skilled shipwrights converted small scale ships’ plans into to full size lines scribed into the floor that showed the outside shape of the hull.
The ground floor was a series of Mast Houses where the mastmakers made masts and spars from fir logs that had been seasoned under water in the dockyard’s mast ponds.
HMS Victory’s lines were almost certainly laid down in this building and her masts and spars made here too.
Built as three parallel Mast Houses it is thought to have been erected to store masts and spars from ships returning to Chatham at the end of the American War of Independence. It was later adapted to form workshops for some of the minor trades involved in warship construction – including the capstan makers, pump makers, the coak & trenail makers and the wheelwrights.
In 1995 archaeologists discovered the remains of part of the frame of an 18th century warship beneath its floor. Archaeological and historical research has identified the ship as being the Namur, a 2nd Rate ship of the line built at Chatham in 1756.
In 1805 the dockyard officers petitioned the Navy Board for a new Smithery at Chatham to replace an earlier and smaller 18th century Smiths’ Shop as a result of the “great introduction of iron work in Building and repair of Ships”.
The work was given to Edward Holl, the Navy Board architect, and built between 1806-08. It is now the most complete example of a smithery from the age of sail to survive in a dockyard.
During the mid-19th century the use of iron in shipbuilding increased dramatically and the building was adapted and extended to provide space for new workshops and steam powered tools. Naysmith hammers, rivet making machines and a large frame bending floor were all introduced. No1 Smithery remained in use until 1974.
Today No 1 Smithery houses collections from Royal Museums Greenwich and Imperial War Museums, as well as the Historic Dockyard’s temporary exhibition gallery.
The decision to build Achilles at the Dockyard in 1861 led the requirement for new buildings to be able to house the machine tools required to work with iron. Achilles was to be built in No.2 Dock and it was decided that the new building, No1 Machine Shop, should be built adjacent to it, allowing an easier transfer of the shaped iron for construction.
The building had enough room to take two new plate furnaces and two angle-iron furnaces. In addition hydraulic machinery for bending the iron plate, punching holes, shearing and planning the metal work were installed. In 1865 the building was extended with the Armour Plate Shop, now the Trust’s railway workshop and waggonstop canteen. In a stark contrast to the hand tools used for wooden warship construction, both would have been noisy working spaces.
Despite their appearance, both are important structures that mark the transition from the timber-hulled sail-powered ship of the age of sail to the arrival of the iron and steel hulled steam powered Navy.
In the 17th century most of the manufacture and repair of sails were carried out by civilian sailmakers. However, the yard’s officers became unhappy with their speed of work, especially in times of war. In 1716 the Navy Board ordered the majority of sail making to be undertaken in-house within the Royal Dockyards. As part of the major rebuild of Chatham Dockyard in the 1720s the Sail Loft was constructed.
Along with sails, flags were made here . It is likely that during Victory’s Great Repair in 1803, she was fitted with sails and flags made here. Those flags would have flown Nelson’s famous signal prior to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – “England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty”.
As the Navy’s use of flags increased a separate female workforce was employed to make them and they soon became known as the ‘Ladies of the Sail Loft’
Today this building is home to Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust as well as University of Kent’s Business School.