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Collections12th March 2021

Celebrating Mother’s Day through family memories

For Mother’s Day we’re travelling back in time with our Visitor Experience Manager, Pam Wood.

Pam has worked at The Historic Dockyard Chatham since 1989, continuing a family legacy of female workers at the dockyard.

Here she reminisces on some special family memories…

“I grew up with stories of the ropery from my grandmother, whose own mother worked in the spinning rooms, my nan worked there too. Mum worked in the ‘yard in her younger years, with all the women leaving the ‘yard when they got married – as was the way of the world then.”

With a growing curiosity around family history, Pam returned to Medway in November 1999 to look for any evidence of the stories her nan used to tell her.

One of Pam’s biggest historical finds was discovered through using the census online. She started looking into Commissioner’s House before her research led her to Officer’s Terrace, where she discovered one of her relatives worked there as a maid.

“My grandad worked on the ropewalk, and my nan in the ropery hemp houses and spinning room – here’s a photo of my nan and grandad. To think that I walk in the footsteps on my own families past – male and female, every day at the ‘yard is so special. He would sit at main gate and walk her home – that’s how the romance started, however unfortunately it wasn’t a happy ending! Grandad went off to war but when he returned, he decided he didn’t want to work at the ropery as it seemed too boring. He went off to work elsewhere at the ‘yard and they soon broke up.”

“Funnily enough I often get quite wheezy in the ropery and often stop to think what the conditions would have been like when by grandmother worked there – with all the fibres in the air – it’s unimaginable. I take my hat off to them all in working in those conditions.”

Another story Pam recalls is the disaster involving HMS Talent:

“It was very dramatic, 100 men working in the dry dock when the caisson at the back gave way and the force of the river Medway came in, lifted submarine out of the dock, and shot across the river. 3 men lost their lives and 33 injured.”

“My nan would tell the story of how the women who worked in the Clock Tower building made constant cups of tea, keeping people comfortable in the situation of disaster. They had all witnessed this huge wave of water – tidal wave!  Today I keep this memory alive by re-telling this story into pop up talks.”

“Another big story that my nan used to recall was the announcement of the 3 ships going down – Three Cruisers  – from the First World War (HMS Hogue, HMS Cressy and HMS Aboukir). She’d recall the silence of going through Medway with women assembling at the town hall to find out who was lost at sea.”

When listening to Pam’s story, she mentions that although many women left the dockyard to bring up the children, they had the role of almost ‘feeding’ the dockyard, encouraging their children to go to work there, continuing the family cycle, and having that ‘job for life’ security back then.

These are only small snippets of Pam’s incredible stories. Many more will be shared this spring 2021, as part of our new temporary exhibition: Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard. The exhibition will chart over 200 years of female workers at Chatham. Featuring stories of the first women of the Spinning Rooms and Sail and Colour Loft; tales of stowaways and women masquerading as men; and the extraordinary women whose impact left a lasting legacy. Find out more.

This Mother’s Day, if you’re lucky enough to have your mother or your grandmother in your life, take some time to chat to them and ask about your own family history – you might be surprised what you find out.

Pam as a child at the front, with the generations of female dockyard workers: her mother, nan, sister and a neighbour who worked in Admirals Offices. 

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