“At the office all the morning, where Sir W. Pen come, being returned from Chatham, from considering the means of fortifying the river Medway, by a chain at the stakes, and ships laid there with guns to keep the enemy from coming up to burn our ships; all our care now being to fortify ourselves against their invading us.”
Samuel Pepys 23 March 1667
In February 1667 Charles II’s government, reeling under the financial pressure of war and the impact on England’s economy of both the Great Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of London of September 1666, began to seek a peace settlement with the Dutch with negotiations underway at Breda from March onwards.
At the time it was felt that any Dutch naval attack on England’s East Coast was most likely to be against the small naval dockyard and base at Harwich where a squadron of frigates was kept manned and whose defences were improved. However lack of money kept the largest ships of the fleet lying at Chatham unmanned and unarmed. A new chain protected by gun platforms was ordered to be placed across the between Hoo Ness island and Gillingham with work continuing to build a new blockhouse (fort) at Sheerness. The 42-gun Unity ( a Dutch ship captured the previous year) was also stationed off Sheerness as guardship for the Medway supported by a number of smaller craft and fireships.
The parlous state of the Navy’s finances in 1667 impacted on everything the Navy Board attempted to put in place – sailors and dockyard men waited months for their pay with some reduced to starvation. In April Commissioner Taylor at Harwich had written to his colleagues on the Navy Board
“…I am sorry to seen men really perish for want wherewithal to get nourishment. One yesterday came to see me crying for something to relieve him. I ordered him 10s. He went and got hot drink and something to help him and so drank it and died within 2 hours”
The Navy Board’s lack of money or even credit also seems to have hindered its attempts to put the new chain in place across the Medway, as Peter Pett Commissioner at Chatham recorded in a letter to the Board on April 27th 1667 “The chain ships are fixed at Gillingham and the claws for fastening and heaving up the chain which Mr Rufferd has promised in a few days – it had been done sooner could he have received money”. Despite these assurances it was not until May 10th that Pett could report that “the chain is promised to be despatched tomorrow and all things are ready for fixing it”