This year marks our 400 anniversary since the Royal Dockyard was established! To celebrate this, we are putting on a number of programmes and activities for the year. We would also love for you to get involved in our celebration too! Scroll below to see how you can get involved, see the calendar of events and our 400 years of history.
We want you to share you moments here at The Dockyard with us! Upload your photos to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #400moments and we will collect these throughout the year and showcase them on our platforms too! Competitions will be run throughout the year too – keep an eye out!
2nd March – Sunday 11th March
Explore one of Britain’s first major industrial complexes through this engaging walking tour. These tours will bring to life one of the most significant collections of industrial architecture that chart the story of ship building from the primacy of the Age of Sail to the revolution of steam and Iron
23rd March – 17th June at No.1 Smithery
Creation has been at the heart of Chatham for four hundred years. Over the centuries the work of the Dockyard has inspired artists from JMW Turner to Eric Ravilious and more recently Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA). This exhibition brings works together for the first time that celebrate not only the Dockyard but also reconnects it back to the sea, exploring the emotions that both Chatham and the sea have had on artists from the 17th century to the present day.
3rd April – 17th April
The Captain’s Cat Egg Hunt is back! Egg-xplore the Dockyard to find the eggs with our trail and claim your free prize at the end!
16th May – 19th May
Ever wondered what happens when we close for the evening? Join us on one of our Museum at Night sessions and have a fun filled evening with the team exploring the Dockyard after the doors have shut!
26th May – 3rd June
Can you track the unicorns and mermaids at the Dockyard? This half term we delve into the world of myths that lent themselves to ship’s made at Chatham, but can you find where they are today?
5th July – 15th September
Journey through pivotal moments in world history, modelled in LEGO® bricks by Warren Elsmore and his team of artists. Forget dry lists of kings or endless battles – this is history brought to life featuring key figures from Mozart to Martin Luther King, scientific discoveries from the Big Bang to DNA, and recent history from mobile phones to the moon landings.
5th July – 2nd September
Join us for a jam packed summer of fun for all ages at the Dockyard. The Pirates are back and are taking over the Gannet – join them on an adventure and see where you may end up. Meanwhile Doc is back conducting experiments once again and needs your help – are you brave enough to face the big BANG!!
8th & 9th September
Discover the hidden gem that is the Commissioner’s House. For one weekend, book a tour and explore one of Britain’s oldest surviving Navy Board buildings that boasts an impressive painting ceiling. Walk in the garden in the footsteps of Samuel Pepys and see the Mulberry Tree where Oliver Cromwell once sat under.
4th October – 2nd December
This revealing exhibition celebrates the Black community of Kent over the centuries – from leading lights in the abolitionist movement in the 18th century to families making their homes in Kent. Discover the challenges faced by the community and the remarkable stories of those who sought to make change. This exhibition is in partnership with the Medway Afro Caribbean Association and sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
20th October – 28th October
Enter the Enchanted Garden once again this October Half term and find out what the Fairies have been up to since last year. A week packed full of fun activities and storytelling for all ages!
The first evidence of naval activity on the River Medway is found in the pipe roll accounts for 1547 which record the rental of two storehouses in Jyllingham Water. In 1558 orders were given that Queen’s ships should overwinter in the Medway and by 1570 a slipway and storehouses had been built by the river below St Mary’s Church. In 1579 Chatham’s first ship, the 10-gun pinnace Merlyne was launched – in plenty of time to face the might of the Spanish Armada.
The early 17th century saw Chatham become Britain’s principal fleet base and in 1618 the dockyard moved to the site of the present Historic Dockyard. Here the full range of facilities needed for building, maintaining and repairing the fleet could be constructed including dry docks, slipways, mast ponds, storehouses, a Ropery, forges and accommodation for the senior officials.
Chatham’s status as fleet base was underlined in June 1667 when the yard became the target of the Dutch fleet who broke the defensive chain laid across the river at Gillingham, carried off the Royal Charles, flagship of the fleet and burnt many other ships.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the arrival of William of Orange catapulted the country into over a century of conflict with France over religion, trade and France’s worldwide imperialist ambitions – particularly in North America and the East Indies. The Royal Navy’s role changed, away from a concentration on home defence and the North Sea, to projecting power and protecting trade across the world. The fleet moved westwards to Portsmouth and to the newly-built Plymouth Dock.
Chatham now became Britain’s principal shipbuilding and repair yard and by the time of the construction of the Mast houses with a Mould Loft in 1755 (now the home of the Historic Dockyard’s Command of the Oceans galleries) the dockyard had taken on many of the physical characteristics and buildings seen at the Historic Dockyard today.
From 1756 and the start of the Seven Years War to 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars the dockyard launched twenty-six line of battle warships into the River Medway – five were first-rate 100-gun ships, including the most famous British ship of the age of sail of all – the Victory, eleven second-rates, including the Namur, the ship beneath the floor archaeological find, and ten third-rates, together with many more smaller ships and countless numbers of small, middling and great repairs.
This may not sound like much but it was a truly major effort for large ships of the line, as it could take up to five years to build and require the input of many hundreds of skilled men working in 26 different trades. In the era before the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Dockyards of the major European powers – Britain, France & Spain were effectively the world’s first integrated factories – where the efforts of many different trades were combined into a single endeavour – the construction of the timber hulled sail-powered warship. Chatham Dockyard was one of the largest.
The Napoleonic Wars led to great pressure on the Royal Navy’s dockyards. The Navy’s response set in motion a series of events that were to have a major impact – not just on the dockyard, but on Britain and the world. A new department was established with many of the most forward thinking engineers of the time who set about increasing dockyard productivity through the mechanisation – turning making into manufacturing. Chatham was at the forefront of many of these developments including mechanisation of the Ropery which remains in operation today.
The pace of technological change accelerated from the 1830’s with iron increasingly used in both ships and dockyard buildings such as the Historic Dockyard’s Covered Slips. In 1860 the dockyard began work on the construction of HMS Achilles, the first steam-powered iron battleship to be built in a Royal Dockyard. The impact of iron, steel and steam was more than just the adoption of new materials and methods of propulsion; it led to both changes in working practices within the dockyards and to the construction of much larger and better armed vessels.
Almost overnight the Royal Navy lost its numerical advantage in the number and size of its ships compared to competitor navies and had to work hard to build new ships to maintain supremacy at sea. A series of new naval construction ‘races’ began, firstly with France and later with the United States and Germany that were to last until the First World War.
At Chatham this led to the construction of the Victorian extension to the north of dockyard of the age of sail, effectively creating a new dockyard for the age of steel and steam, over 400 acres in size. St Mary’s Creek was turned into three large wet basins, one with four large non-tidal dry docks, a large factory for engine building and a boilershop enabling ever larger and more complex battleships and cruisers to be built at an ever faster rate.
The technological change that had driven Chatham’s development in the latter half of the 19th century was to herald both its downfall and resurrection in the early years of the 20th century. Downfall came with the construction of the 527 feet long turbine-powered battleship Dreadnought at Portsmouth in 1906 and the rapid development of even longer ships – ships that were too long to be launched into the River Medway without major redevelopment of the site. Chatham’s role as a battleship builder came to an end. Resurrection came in the form of C17, Chatham’s first submarine launched in 1908. Between then and 1966 the dockyard built 57 submarines including HMS Ocelot, launched in 1962, the last built for the Royal Navy and now preserved at The Historic Dockyard. Although shipbuilding came to an end in 1966 warship repair did not, with the yard being given a final lease of life through the construction of a nuclear submarine refuelling facility which operated until the yard finally closed in 1984.