Please explore our digital learning resources for the history of Chatham Dockyard, from the 17th Century to the present day. Scroll through the content below or click on the tiles to jump to a particular part of the Dockyard’s history.
British naval dockyards were situated, not only on British shores during the 17th and 18th centuries: Chatham, Deptford, Harwich, Pembroke, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheerness, Woolwich, Gibraltar, Jamaica, Halifax (Canada)and Antigua.
British Naval Dockyards in England in 17th and 18th centuries:
Trading and Naval input
Between 1532 and 1832, British ships were responsible for taking around third of an estimated 12 million African people to the Americas to be slaves. The slave trade had been started by the Portuguese and some Spanish, but the British had become involved in the 16th Century. The British termed this the ‘triangular trade’. They would leave major ports, such as Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, and set sail to West Africa, carrying goods to exchange for African people, whom they enslaved and took with them to the West Indies or North America, where they would be sold. They would then purchase a range of goods and return to the Britain.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, attitudes to the slave trade changed and a resistance started to emerge. African people started to fight against capture, both in Africa and in the Americas. Rebellions began and some enslaved people managed to escaped capture. An abolitionist movement began and in 1807 an Act was passed to abolish the trading of slaves, although it was another 30 years or more before enslaved labour ended in the English colonies. William Wilberforce, who was heavily influenced by the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, was instrumental in this change. He had campaigned against slavery for 20 years, taking his cause to the Houses of Parliament. The Royal Navy’s West African squadron were formed to patrol the African coast to supress the British involvement in the slave trade.
Alongside ‘the triangular trade’, in the mid-1700’s, the ‘Seven Year War’ (1756-1762) between England and France occurred. This war was about the ownership of land, but primarily it was fuelled by trade. The Caribbean islands were important because of their sugar colonies and the protection of these, sparked many naval battles at sea between the English and the French. The Spanish even joined in to help protect their own plantations. Similarly, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a Naval presence was established after colonisation, to protect land and subsequent trading opportunities from the French.
The Original Tudor Dockyard
During the Tudor reign the Navy was a seasonal force that sailed from Portsmouth during the better weather. Chatham on the River Medway was used to overwinter the fleet. This had two main advantages. Firstly, due to its location on the south coast, Portsmouth had proved susceptible to attack from France, as seen in the sinking of the Mary Rose.
Secondly, the fleet was under attack but of a different kind. Portsmouth harbour had become infested with ‘Teredo Navalis,’ a marine boring mollusc that would eat into the ship’s timbers causing damage. At the time the River Medway ran fresh water in the winter and saltwater in the summer. The molluscs did not tolerate these changes of water salinity. In addition, the River Medway was selected because the River Thames was becoming increasingly busy with merchant ships and trade and Portsmouth was considered too far away from government, and supplies that the supporting dockyard stores required. The Tudor Dockyard’s original position was closer to Chatham Town Centre than it is today, on rented marsh land, with rented housing for storage, established in 1570.
The following shows the increased expenditure/investment in the area at the time, due to the establishment of a dockyard:
(Extract taken from ‘A History of Chatham Dockyard’, Crawshaw, J.D. 1998)
The original ‘yard’ was used to moor, repair and clean ships to begin with. The first Chatham built ship is believed to be the Merlyon (or Merlin), a pinnace with 10 guns, built in 1579. The Merlin went on to fight against the Spanish Armada, alongside another Chatham built ship, the Sunne.
Relocation, development and impact on the local area
In the 1600’s to save the expense of ships having to move between Deptford and Chatham for graving (a process of cleaning the bottom of a ship), a proposal for a larger provision at Chatham was made. Sir Peter Buck, (of Eastgate House), realised that there was a better location down river at the current Dockyard site, which had options for expansion that the present site did not have. Sir Peter went on to become the Clerk of the Ships at the Office of Marine Causes in 1596, one of the four most senior naval posts in England.
With its relocation in 1618, the dockyard began to develop into a more substantial Naval provision.
The relocation allowed the building of an enclosed yard and dry dock. Soon buildings began to be erected on the new site, and a lime kiln was built to aid this. Then in 1621 the first rope house was added with a second added 5 years later. The development of the dockyard, its docks and buildings, provided employment for local people, and building and improvements continued on site throughout the 1600s and into the early 1700s.
(Extract taken from ‘A History of Chatham Dockyard’, Crawshaw, J.D. 1998)
In the early 1700’s the following were constructed at the site: The main gate, Dockyard terrace, clock tower building, sail loft, stables, commissioners house, North mast pond, extension to the outside wall around the ropery, cordage house, tar cellar.
At the beginning of the century (1701) Chatham Dockyard was considered to be the largest civilian labour employer in the South East, with an estimated 1,000 people employed, but by the end of the century this had risen to an estimate of just over 2,000. Part of the appeal of working at the Dockyard was its competitive wages, with skilled artisans earning around a third more than others would. This would have also encouraged workers to travel across the country for jobs at Chatham Dockyard. In addition to this, in comparison to other businesses, it very rarely laid employees off, choosing, even during more quiet times to employ more people than necessary, to be prepared for any influx of work, perhaps caused by wars, or other causes. This gave more job security for civilian workers than other businesses. In the later part of the century, it also introduced a pension scheme for the yard workers.
(Image: 1756. British Library)
The role of the dockyard changed during the 18th Century. In the 17th Century it had been the most important Naval yard, especially in the Dutch trade wars, because of its location. In the mid-1700’s it was noted that warships leaving Sheerness to travel to Chatham, took some time to navigate the River Medway, with the longest taking over 4 months. This was due to the River Medway silting up – a problem not solved until the advent of steam dredging. There was also a change of focus for the navy, due to developing trade in the New World and East Indies, including slavery. The development of this ‘triangle trade’ meant that Plymouth was in a much better position, with its deep water anchorage and access to the Atlantic Ocean.
It was then decided that the yard was better positioned to be used for building and repairs.
The growth of the dockyard had an impact on other local business, with more people wanting to come to the Medway area. There were businesses that supplied food to the navy, bakeries, pickling houses, breweries (2 in Chatham), coopers, public houses. From Hearth Tax records for 1664, the Compton Census 1676, local information, such as parish registers and archive documents and a range of other sources, the population of Chatham can be estimated. It rises dramatically through the 16 and 1700s. Primarily this was because of the importance of and the expansion of the Dockyard.
From the sources below, it seems likely that population in Medway (Rochester and Chatham) was as follows:
|1600||Chatham||Under 1,000||Chatham grew steadily 1600 – 1650 with Dockyard extensions|
|1664||Rochester||3,026||1664 Hearth Tax returns|
|1664||Chatham||1,857||1664 Hearth Tax returns|
|1676||Chatham||At least 3,000||Compton Census|
|1700||Chatham||At least 5,000||.|
Notes by N. Crowe, Medway Archive Centre, June 2020.
The Compton Census of 1676. This was a count of conformist, non-conformist and Roman Catholic persons. See The Compton census of 1676 : a critical edition / edited by Anne Whiteman with the assistance of Mary Clapinson. London : Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1986.
Hearth Tax records for c.1664. See Kent Hearth Tax ed Harrington.
Other books utilise these sources to guess at population before 1800.
Armstrong, A. The economy of Kent, 1640 – 1914
Chalkin, C.W. Seventeenth-century Kent: a social and economic history
Zell, Early Modern Kent , 1540 – 1640
Preston, J. Industrial Medway
With the introduction of the Census in 1841 you can see the growth of the Medway area between 1800 and 1900.
Changing populations in Medway:
Source: GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Medway UA through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time. http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10084702/cube/TOT_POP
Late 19th Century and economic depression
Most of the area was linked to the dockyards needs, and those that worked within it. Housing was mostly inhabited by those working in trades related to the dockyard, those who were directly involved with shipping or those who were ‘seafaring’ people. There were also private shipyards that set up along the river in the 1800’s, who would build barges to help transport goods along the river. There were water mills further along the River Medway, which produced things like paper, that also needed to be transported by barge.
The industrial revolution during the 1800’s brought lots of new developments to the dockyard and these would have provided new employment opportunities for Chatham and the surrounding area.
View of Chatham Harbour, Kent, England, showing Fort Pitt, after a painting. 1800-1900 Mytchett (RAMC):
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_Chatham_Harbour,_showing_Fort_Pitt,_Wellcome_L0038373.jpg L0038373 View of Chatham Harbour, showing Fort Pitt, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images firstname.lastname@example.org http://wellcomeimages.org View of Chatham Harbour, Kent, England, showing Fort Pitt, after a painting. 1800-1900 Mytchett (RAMC) Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Medway towns in the early 1800s. Drawn by R Creighton:
1884 map, showing the ‘Royal Dock Yard’ (centre) with the river to the west, new extension to the north, barracks and fortifications to the east:
By the late 1800, however, Medway was facing economic depression after the cycle of boom during the war years and bust during peacetime. Chatham Dockyard had to lay off many workers and with many businesses being reliant on those working at the yard, things were hard. Both Deptford and Woolwich Royal Yards were closed (1869), with men being retired or temporarily retired, assisted to emigrate (to Canada), discharged with or without gratuities and some died. In Chatham discharges were made to make way for those skilled workers from the two other yards. Other parts of the dockyard saw loses of jobs, one of which was the ropery.
In 1870, with the onset of the Franco-Prussian war, meant that those in retirement were asked to come back to the yard, but it was a period of instability not just around the Dockyards but across the country and unemployment was high. There were empty houses in the parish, where people searched for work elsewhere and demand on the Medway Board of Guardians for relief for women and children increased, as men went away to find jobs.
(Extract taken from ‘A History of Chatham Dockyard’, Crawshaw, J.D. 1998. P 109)
The development of St. Mary’s Island to house three new basins during 1883 to 1887, meant that Medway then saw an influx of people from outside of the area and employment at the Dockyard went from 5,000 in 1885 to 10,000 in 1903. Some came from other yards that had been closed, or South Wales. Looking at the population data from this era, there is a 50% population increase in the Medway towns between 1880 and 1900.
Before expansion in 1864:
Map showing the three basins developed between the Dockyard and St. Mary’s Island 1883:
A more detailed view of the developed basins and St. Mary’s Island in 1887:
Source: All three images from Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
To accommodate this, housing changed dramatically in the area. Dockyard workers had needed housing and although many chose to live in Chatham itself, Brompton provided a more affluent area for officers and Gillingham began to rapid grow as yard workers moved in. Gillingham was no longer a village, but a town. At first, fields and farms were dug up to provide brick soil, and then the bricks were turned into housing. Bricks had also been used to help build the growing dockyard itself. This provided employment for people of the area. The same was true of Luton. Both areas had room for expansion, whereas Chatham itself had already been expanded and developed significantly.
Chatham is referred to in Domesday as CETEHAM and is thought to be derived from the Saxon word cyte, meaning cottage and ham, meaning village. So, Chatham was a village of cottages. This is a stark contrast to Chatham by the end of the 19th century and the development of a Naval Dockyard in the area played a huge part in the transformation of the area over time.
The Growth of the Dockyard and historical events in 16th to 19th Century.
An historical timeline of Dockyard:
HMS Africa was the last ship to be built in Chatham and was commissioned in 1905. Launched in 1906, the ship briefly served with the Atlantic Fleet, before serving with the Channel Fleet from 1907. In 1912, HMS Africa was the first British ship to launch an aircraft and went on to be part of an international blockade in the first Balkan War.
After being brought home in 1913, the ship then went on to serve as part of the Grand Fleet, whose role was to patrol and search for German vessels in the First World War. Once the war was over, Africa served in the Adriatic Sea, then transferred to be based in Sierra Leone, where her crew contracted Spanish flu in1917. In 1918 Africa returned to Britain and was decommissioned in the November. The ship was scrapped in 1920.
At the beginning of the 20th Century HMS Dreadnought was launched (1906) and had an enormous impact on shipbuilding and its future. The quantity of heavy calibre guns and steam turbine propulsion was revolutionary and led to dreadnoughts being built across the world and their size continuing to expand. A generation of battleships that followed the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, were referred to as Dreadnoughts themselves and those that had come before, referred to as pre-dreadnoughts.
Chatham was not ideally placed to build the new Dreadnought, although there were studies to look at building a new basin in St Mary’s island with a separate connection to the Medway or moving the whole dockyard to the Isle of Grain. The building of a new dockyard at Rosyth, a more suitably positioned dockyard, superseded these plans.
The dockyard would now have a new focus in the 20th Century. With the ceasing of battleship building at the yard, the dockyard now turned to building submarines. The issues around navigation of the river, would not be relevant for these vessels.
Chatham was the first Royal Dockyard to build submarines and went on to specialise in both building and maintenance. Over a period that spanned two World Wars, 1908 to 1945, the Dockyard built 50 submarines on the site and a further 7 before its closure.
On site there were further developments. In 1904 a new railway was built within the Dockyard. Overall, there was 17 miles of railway track at the Dockyard that would have covered all the way across the site. One locomotion was used during the Second World War to pull A/A guns around the dockyard, as a defence against an air attack.
Image: Dockyard Archive -2007.0063.63_PHA.14419 (4)
Things were not just changing in the Dockyard. Across the Medway towns a public electric tram system was introduced, which helped some of the Dockyard workers get to the site. The leisure industry was changing too, with cinemas opening across Chatham and Gillingham, working men’s clubs and sports associations.
First World War – July 1914- November 1918
The first naval shot of the First World War was fired by a Chatham division naval destroyer, HMS Lance, in the North Sea. The first warship lost was the Pathfinder, part of Chatham Division. Soon after, the immediate effect of the war on Chatham, was felt as three Chatham cruisers, HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy were sunk in the North Sea, off the Dutch coast, by a German U9 boat, on 22nd September. These cruisers were later referred to as the ‘live bait squadron’ This is because the Royal Navy would have known that they were at risk, after their supporting torpedo ships had to return to England, because of bad weather. 1,459 lives were lost, with two Dutch merchant ships and English fishing boats saving those that were to survive.
This was the first time any navy had faced mines and torpedoes and the impact was far greater than the navy had expected.
The following images show examples of the extent to which destroyers were damaged:
The lives of those lost are remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial on the Great Lines, Gillingham.
By Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2748208
In 1916, there was national conscription. However, many of the Dockyard workers were not called up to fulfil this duty, as it was considered that they were doing ‘their bit’ already for the war effort. They were given a blue and gilt badge to confirm they were doing so.
Military service act 1916:
Images: Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30729
On War service badge
© IWM INS 7768 https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/on-war-service-badge
Battles and bombings
Battle of Jutland – 31st May- 1st June 1916
Chatham Division ships took part in the Battle of Jutland, which was the only time British and German dreadnought ships clashed, during the war. The Germans were hoping to come in to contact with the British fleet, who had already had intelligence of this. Somehow, the Germans missed the British fleet, even though they were well prepared, hoping to trap the British with their U-boats. Both fleets came into battle after both investigating a merchant ship that was sailing between the two. Then the battle commenced. Over 6,000 British personnel were killed during the battle.
Bombing of HMS Pembroke
On 3rd September 1917, 5 German Gotha planes, surprised the Navy at Chatham, when they bombed the Drill Shed at the Royal Navy barracks, HMS Pembroke (now the Drill Hall Library, University of Greenwich). 131 lives were lost, as many of the men had been asleep in their hammocks, under a glass roof, which subsequently fell on them. This was the largest single loss of life in England from an air raid in the First World War.
Source: German Gotha G.III bomber. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:German_Gotha_G.III_bomber_c1917.jpg
Fragments of one of the bombs dropped:
Zeebrugge – 23rd April 1918
In April 1918, the Chatham Division took part in a daring raid to attempt to stop German U-boats from being able to leave the Bruges Canal and exit to the sea. The Chatham built ship, HMS Vindictive led the way, but wind and the subsequent ineffective smokescreen meant that she took many hits and was not in a position to use her guns to support both her landing fleet and those from HMS Daffodil and Iris. There were a lot of casualties but at least HM submarine C3 was able to destroy a viaduct to prevent more German troops from advancing. Three ships, HMS Intrepid, HMS Iphigenia and HMS Thetis, finally made their way to the entrance of the canal and were sunk to prevent the Germans from reaching the English Channel. Those returning to the Chatham Barracks were welcomed as heroes
Remembrance ceremony in 1936:
War and the local population
Looking at the population data for 1915 to 1920, there is no significant increase in the population in the Medway towns and only a small incline between 1920 and 1930.
Source: GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Medway UA through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time. http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10084702/cube/TOT_POP
Rationing and digging for victory
Towards the end of the war, food was becoming more expensive and shorter in supply, so people were encouraged to grow their own produce in allotments and small holdings. Examples of this were in Walderslade and Hempstead. Rationing began. In the Second World War a campaign entitled Dig for Victory was launched once more to help with the shortfall in supplies.
The Ministry of Agriculture even produced detailed information on how to grow your own food:
After the war, the country was economically in a poor state as it tried to pay for the efforts of the war and limits were put on the naval force under the Washington Naval Treaty, 1921. This limited the construction of vessels at the Dockyard and meant that dockyard workers were discharged. The implications to the local community would have been significant, with the country trying to re-establish itself, families having lost their income and in some cases, their main wage earner (8,500 Royal Naval personnel who were based in Chatham, died in the First World War).
Across the country employment decreased significantly in the inter-war years. At the dockyard, hours were reduced, bonuses seized, apprentice intake was reduced and, the closure of other dockyards had an effect, as established workers from those, were transferred to Chatham. In addition to this there was the Great Depression that started with the American stock market crash in 1929, which had an impact on the demand for British and European exports.
Employment rate, U.K., 1861 to 2018:
Source: Bank of England – A Millennium of Macroeconomic Data. https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/uksectoraccounts/compendium/economicreview/april2019/longtermtrendsinukemployment1861to2018#trends-of-the-employment-rate
Employment in Medway 1840 -2010:
Navy days were an opportunity for the public to see the Dockyard and the vessels. The following is a clip from one such day in 1929.
Second World War – September 1939 – September 1945
The Medway Towns during the war.
After fruitless negotiations with Germany to try to halt their territorial ambitions, war was declared in September 1939, resulting from the German occupation of Poland.
As a prime target for air raids, naval dockyards developed precautions to protect personnel.
Over the course of the Second World War, Chatham fared better than the much of the Medway Towns, London and the other Royal Dockyards, with only 15 dockyard personnel losing their lives. The worst hit, at the Dockyard, was on the 3rd December 1940, when the Rigging House, Factory and Loco Shop were all hit. It is unclear why it was not a larger target for the Germans, considering its proximity to London.
The following records, supplied by Medway Archive Centre , show the cause and impact of bombs dropped within Medway:
Chatham Division Manned Ships
The Battle of the River Plate – HMS Ajax
Shortly before the occupation of Poland, Germany sent two panzerchiffe – a type of boat known to the British as pocket battleships, into the Atlantic Ocean to destroy merchant vessels and lure the British and French Navy into sending valuable resources to destroy them, as war was about to break out in Europe and also to destroy valuable resources for the Allies war effort.
By October 5th, one of the pocket battleships, the Admiral Graf Spee, had sunk 5 merchant boats, which resulted in 8 naval task forces being sent out to look for her in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. There were 3 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships and 15 cruisers in total sent to find her. The panzerchiffe, were fast and heavily armed boats, which made them ideal for their hit and run task. Graf Spee went on to travel around Africa and sank a further 6 merchant ships, before heading up to South America, sinking a further 2 merchant ships on the way, to head toward the shipping lanes of the River Plate.
HMS Ajax (manned by Chatham Division personnel and the flagship flying Commodore Harwood’s broad pennant), HMS Exeter, and HMS Achilles intercepted Graf Spee, on 13th December, dividing themselves to approach on each side, to counterbalance the superior gun power that the German boat had. Exeter was hit and most officers on the bridge were killed but Exeter fought on, launching torpedoes. However, it was hit again and struggled to keep up, finally having to divert to the Falklands for repair.
Ajax and Achilles, both light cruisers, found it both difficult to see the damage to the Graf Spee and to aim their weapons accurately due to smoke, but eventually got a positional advantage and managed to hit the German vessel. Ajax was next to be hit and lose one of her gun turrets and it was not long before the two cruisers had to pull back and just follow the Graf Spee as it headed to the River Plate.
The German vessel had been damaged more significantly than the Royal Navy realised and travelled into the port of Montevideo in Uruguay on the 14th December, asking for two weeks to make repairs. International law, allowed only 48 hours for repairs, so the British Minister there ordered the Graf Spee to leave. With only the Ajax and Achilles and HMS Cumberland now in the area this was a problem. The British managed to keep Graf Spee in port by using a rule from the Hague Convention, which stated that a hostile warship could not leave a port within 24 hours of a merchant ship leaving with it’s adversary’s flag flying. So, they just ensured that merchant ships kept leaving the port with the British flag, until support came.
The Captain of the Graf Spee realised that there was now no way out and on the evening of the 17th December, the Graf Spee moved out of port, into the River Plate, where a series of explosions placed by the crew themselves, sank the vessel.
The Graf Spee:
The Sinking Of The Bismarck – HMS Sheffield.
The German battleship, Bismarck was the largest battleship in Europe and was finished around the time the second world war commenced. It was given the task of infiltrating Merchant ships in the Atlantic, on route to Britain, to destroy them and dramatically affect the supplies for the British war effort.
It set sail with 3 supporting vessels, as well as air support from the Luftwaffe. Quite early on, they were spotted by a Swedish ship, but they were not concerned as Sweden was a neutral country. However, the vessel immediately sent a message to notify of the German’s presence on route to the Atlantic and this in turn reached the British. With two Luftwaffe flying to Scapa Flow in Scotland, observing the ships still moored there, the Germans would have been even more at ease.
British aircraft did manage to track down the ships, whilst anchored and taking on supplies and sent bombers out to attack. The Bismarck and her escort then made for the open water.
HMS Suffolk and Norfolk were the first to track down the Bismarck and her supporting ship Prinz Eugen, with HMS Hood (previously the largest battleship) and HMS Prince of Wales following on. The Hood was sunk quickly, and the Prince of Wales was severely damaged and had to retreat, but not before getting a hit on the Bismarck. With a trail of oil leaving her, the Bismarck tried to get to port for repairs, with the Suffolk, Norfolk and Prince of Wales trailing her. This was too good an opportunity for the British and they saw an opportunity to destroy the German’s biggest battleship.
The British Navy sent in 6 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 13 cruisers, 21 destroyers and 2 aircraft carriers to try to destroy this incredible vessel. HMS Sheffield, manned by personnel from the Chatham Division, was one of the cruisers who was trying to track down the German battleship.
Unfortunately, when aircraft left HMS Ark Royal, they had not been told that HMS Sheffield was shadowing the Bismarck and believing they had reached their target, fired torpedoes at the Sheffield instead. Luckily, these malfunctioned, leaving the Sheffield unscathed.
One of the air strikes did hit the Bismarck’s rudder and with the boat no longer able to sail straight, it was forced to circle. This gave the British a chance to descend on the vessel and there was heavy fire from multiple Royal Naval, and Allied vessels, as well as return fire from the Bismarck. HMS Dorsetshire, fired torpedoes at the Bismarck, two of which hit. The amount of damaged already caused, plus these final hits and that fact that the Germans had already detonated scuttling charges, finally saw the ship sink rapidly on 27th May 1941.
HMS Sheffield at Scapa Flow (IWM image):
Remembering those who died
The Chatham Royal Naval War Memorial, situated on the Great Lines, displays the names of all those from the port of Chatham who lost their lives in both world wars. There are just over 18,500 in total with some 8500 names listed from the First World War and and 10,000 from the Second World War.
In addition, there are 844 members of the Chatham Division who died in the Second World War, listed in a book of remembrance held in Rochester Cathedral.
Cold War 1947 to 1991
After the Second World War the key world powers were USA and USSR, who had fought together as Allies against Germany and Japan. Both were trying to gain support in Europe. The USA by offering European countries loans to revive economies and the USSR wanted to protect its borders and set up 4 USSR governments in liberated countries that flanked its boarders. This created a border in Europe, known as the Iron Curtain and the separation of an Eastern and Western block. Germany was divided into East and West at this time.
In 1949 the USSR tested their first nuclear bomb, and NATO (North Atlantic Alliance Organisation) was founded by an alliance of countries, including USA and Britain. It’s role was to secure peace in Europe, peaceful resolution to disagreements and to offer collaborative defence. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington by a dozen European and North American countries.
In 1966, Chatham Dockyard adapted to Naval requirements yet again, with the development of a Nuclear Refitting Centre. HMS Valiant was the first nuclear powered submarine to come to the yard.
The naval dockyard was operational up until 1984. Its closure was announced on 25th June 1981 in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Defence – Mr John Nott. It was part of a wider review and formed part of the governments white paper on defence. It was welcomed by many but raised many questions both on the day and subsequently.
Quotes from Mr John Nott’s speech:
“If we are to be able to build new ships in our shipyards and fulfil other priority defence tasks, we simply cannot afford to sustain such a policy of refit and modernisation …”
“As regards support, the change in policy on refits which I have described earlier will mean that we cannot justify keeping a dockyard organisation of its present size. I regret to inform the House that the base and dockyard in Chatham will have to close in 1984.”
“Overall civilian numbers in the Ministry of Defence will fall by between 15,000 and 20,000 as a result of our measures. Our total work force will in due course be significantly below 200,000. Redundancies will, I am afraid, be inescapable.”
There were many questioned raised in the House, regarding the redundancies and loss of skills.
Mr Brynmore Johns, Pontypridd MP, said of the closure, “The area already has an unemployment rate of 14.3 per cent. If Chatham is closed, the rate will rise to 25 per cent., and with the indirect consequences it may go up to 33 per cent. At the same time, we shall lose the greatest source of expertise in SSN—nuclear-powered submarine—refitting in the Navy.”
Mrs. Peggy Fenner (Rochester and Chatham) asked, “What are my right hon. Friend’s plans for the 7,000 work force and their great expertise? Forty-five per cent. of them are dedicated to submarine refitting.”
Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham), described the day in the House as,”… the most distressing day that I have experienced in the 30 years that I have been a Member of this House.”
He went on to say, “About 9,000 men and women employed in the dockyard will now cease work two or three years hence. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the level of unemployment in the area is now more than 13 per cent. and that it has risen by 5 per cent. in the last year?” He included ancillary workers into his figures.
In April 1982, the Falklands war broke out and urgent work was required on several naval ships so they could attend. Some of the Dockyard workforce hoped that this might change government thinking about the Dockyard and prove the importance of having an active naval dockyard in Chatham. However, this was not to be. With defence cuts and the ever-decreasing number of naval ships and personnel, the closure was to continue. In 1945 the Royal Navy had over 800 vessels in service, compared to 1982, when it had reduced to a quarter of this.
Nearly 7,000 people were employed in the dockyard and it was estimated that a further 10,000 outside of the dockyard were working in industries that were reliant upon it. Before the dockyard was closed, unemployment in the area was already above the national average. In the mid-1980’s the unemployment rate in Medway rose to 16% (State of Medway Report, Economy and Employment (incl. Employment land), Medway Council, July 2009). In comparison, the national average at the time was 11.5% in 1983 and 11.4% in 1985 (ONS: Labour market statistics time series April 2020).
BBC radio Kent’s coverage of the closure day:
Out of those working there at the time, a large proportion were given either compulsory or voluntary redundancy, approximately 1,500 retired and a further 2,000 were transferred to other naval bases, some of whom commuted and only returned at weekends and some found other positions before the final closure.
The following shows local mayors and Steuart Pringle, the first Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust chairman and CEO, who is holding a casket containing a scroll passing on the mantle of the yard to the Trust:
Graffiti board: Political graffiti inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s government closure of HM Dockyard Chatham. Discovered in lightbox room, rear right hand corner, second floor of the Sail and Colour Loft.
“This Happy Place…” c.1981 – 84
A former dockyard painter wrote these words at the time of the closure. The emotions expressed symbolise not only the anger felt towards closure, but also the strong sense of belonging that workers had to the site. The board was discovered twenty-five years later in the Sail and Colour Loft.
Memorial lock and key:
In 1984 the land was divided into three sections, to be developed and maintained by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, English Estates and Medway Ports Authority. In 1986 Part of the area (excluding Chatham Historic Dockyard), became an Enterprise zone with the objectives being:
Chatham Maritime and Chatham Historic Dockyard Development Plan (Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust and English Estates).
At this point, Cliffe Construction Ltd set up their first office on, what is now known as, the Medway City Estate in 1985, after its managing director had bought land there in 1979. The industrial estate continued to expand and played another significant part in the regeneration and development of the Medway Towns.
Delays and the impact of the Medway Tunnel
In June 1996, the Medway Tunnel opened, which was part of the Northern relief road. The tunnel itself, was vital for the regeneration and development of the site, providing local access and access for heavier vehicles proceeding to Medway Ports and for alleviating traffic congestion through the Medway Towns. It would provide a third crossing across the River Medway.
Other reasons for the delay in redeveloping the area were, the extensive land clearance that had been required on St. Mary’s Island and the economic recession between 1989 to 1995.
Regeneration takes off
In 1999 SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) took responsibility for the site. 250 new homes, some office and educational facilities and the installation of locks and a lifting bridge at Basin 1 had already been completed at this point. Pembroke Barracks was now used by the University of Greenwich and the Natural Resources Institute.
Planning permission had been given for, 1,700 dwellings, a neighbourhood area which would include retail and medical facilities, a primary school and other required community resources. There was a proposal for a central landscape feature and open space that would link residential areas with the neighbourhood area and a riverside path for pedestrians and cyclists.
The council were keen to ‘capitalise on the site’s natural assets’, including the river, the basins, and incorporate ‘bold, imaginative approaches…to design and layout of the housing areas’. To encourage visitors to the area a ‘mixed use zone’ was proposed and would include a factory retail outlet, a hotel, a marina, a range of businesses, a public house and other leisure facilities. Basin 1 was to hold a range of restaurants. 3 listed structures, previously part of the Naval base, were to also be restored.
Transport and provision for personal transport needed to be considered and pedestrian and cycle paths were included.
Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
With an area of 37 hectares, the Trust had the largest concentration of scheduled ancient monuments in Kent, the most complete Victorian and Georgian Royal Dockyard in Britain, was a site of World significance and a conservation area. At this time, it was already a mixed-use site, with residential properties (both new and historical) and businesses, as well as being a successful tourist attraction.
Any new developments would need planning permissions and would need to take into consider a range of local planning and development strategies for the area. The requirement was that future development of the interface land between the Historic Dockyard and Chatham Maritime would require proper planning and should link the sites together with a proper supporting infrastructure.
Developments on St. Mary’s Island needed to be complementary and sympathetic to the work and aims of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
St. Mary’s Island is now a busy residential area, with entertainment and leisure facilities surrounding Basin 1. The Pembroke site is a busy university site with original buildings in use.
The Historic Dockyard is a multipurpose site, which includes residential properties (both original Georgian and more modern properties) and a range of original buildings which have been renovated and are now used by businesses, tenants, residents and the University of Kent. The rental income from the properties helps to support the conservation work of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. The site is the most complete Dockyard of the Age of Sail and is open to the public as a visitor attraction and museum. Visitors can view the many different educational galleries, the 3 warships, and the original dockyard architecture, historic buildings and scheduled ancient monuments on site.
Future developments – what’s next?
Currently Chatham ports are looking to close in 2025.
Housing development is still under completion on St. Mary’s Island.
Regeneration of interface lands between the Dockyard and St Mary’s Island is to be commenced from 2021.
List of relevant documents:
Evaluating the South East England Development Agency’s STRATEGIC DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES Case Studies, SEEDA
Medway Local Plan 2003, Medway Council
Medway Local Plan 2012 – 2035 and Section 2 Vision and Strategic Objectives for Medway 2035, Medway Council
Chatham Dockyard and Its Defences Planning Policy Document, adopted January 2015, Medway Council