Arrow-Leftarrow-down arrow-left-small arrow-leftarrow-right-small arrow-rightarrow-up arrowbig-left-arrowbig-right-arrowcloseFacebook Linkedin Linkedin markscroll-arrow search speech TripAdvisor TripAdvisor twitter-inline twittervideo-iconYouTube
Dockyard Characters14th February 2024

Dockyard Love Stories

Dockyard Love Stories

This Valentine’s Day, we are looking back at Dockyard love stories.

One of The Dockyard’s more well-known love stories is that of Jan and Fred Cordier.

CHATHAM-BORN Fred started working in the ropery at age 15 as a yard boy, eventually becoming the last official master rope maker. He was awarded an MBE for 50 years of service to rope making and collected it at Buckingham Palace from HRH Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. Fred picked up something even more valuable though during his time at the Ropery in Chatham when he met and married Janice – known as Jan.

Women’s Work

Jan started at the Ropery in 1972 as one of ‘the women of the spinning rooms’. Jan went on to supervise in the spinning rooms, retiring in 2013 at 71.

Up until 1983, the men of the ropery and the women of the spinning rooms were kept apart. Despite this, many of the men and women found ways of meeting up and lots went on to find their life partners at the Dockyard.

Jan explains: “They tried to keep us apart, the men downstairs and the women upstairs, but we got into secret places to see each other! During the MOD days it was doubly secret, and we were told that we mustn’t mix, but on a Friday we used to go to the fish shop in Brompton High Street at the top of Chatham – that’s where we really got together.”

Historic Ropery

The Ropery at the Historic Dockyard Chatham is the last remaining ropery in operation in the country. Over 400 years of ropemaking are tied up in the Dockyard. Fred explains that the machines still used today in the Ropery are a couple of hundred years old. “If you need a spare part now, it has to be made in a foundry. A lot of the machinery though is original – even the brakes!” As I speak to Fred, he tells me that he received a call from one of the ropemakers this morning about a problem with the machinery, and despite being retired a decade, Fred was able to help him out with directions on what to do because the machinery is still the same.

Fred started off as a yard boy before going on to labour in the Ropery and then becoming a Master Ropemaker himself. However, he says, that despite 50 years in the job, he really shouldn’t have been in the Ropery; “there was some mix-up on my first day and I was sent there. The foreman said “you shouldn’t be here!” but then he decided to keep me.”

The longest brick building in Europe, and over 400 years in age, the Ropery is full of stories, including ghostly ones. Fred admits that he has seen unusual things as he walked the 1/4 mile length of the Rope Walk. He says “when we were closing up and locking the building down at the end of the day, I’d have to walk the floor, switching off the lights as I went, it would take about an hour to do. One day I was looking along the bottom floor and could see someone down the end, but as I approached, they disappeared into the wall. I knew that there was no one down there. It’s an atmospheric place though, as you walked along, switching the lights off, you’d hear sounds behind you but it was just the floorboards settling – it could be quite mind-blowing at times!”

Royal Visit

Fred recalls a time when HRH Queen Elizabeth II was visiting the Ropery and the team had been instructed not to ring any of the bells. Fred says, “We were all standing down one end of the building and as the Queen entered all the bells started going off – we thought someone was in the building down the other end. They sent security down but they couldn’t find anyone down there and the door was locked.”

Working in the Ropery

Workers in the Ropery, whatever century they worked there, required fitness and strength to deal with the task at hand. Fred explains: “It was a very physical job. In the 1980s, they’d send people from the dole queue and if 20 boys started on a Monday, by the end of the week there’d only be 2 left, and after a month, only one!”

The workers of the Rope Walk would walk the floor 25 times a day. Fred says: “I once worked out that we walked 13 miles a day, and even if you were working on the capstone end, where you were stationary, you’d throw down half a mile of rope a day.”

It was not less demanding in the spinning room, Jan recalls: “It was hard work to begin with but once you got into it (after 2 or 3 years), it sort of came upon you. I think it kept us very fit. I still think of spinning now.”

Retirement

Despite being retired a decade this year, Fred says that he still misses the Ropery and the smell of rope and tar. His legacy and that of his wife Jan’s lives on though in the new gallery space where their story is shared.

Fred was also instrumental in a small way in ensuring that an important artefact would be shared with the public in the new exhibition. Some years ago, Fred gave a piece of 100-year-old rope to Des Pawson (MBE) for his important rope museum in Ipswich, and this year Des donated his collection so that it could be included in the new Ropery Gallery. On launch day, Fred will get a chance to see the rope again – a piece that Fred had his hands on (and got splinters from!) As it returned to its original home of Chatham.

Jan, who turns 80 this year and lives with Fred in their home opposite the Dockyard gates in Chatham says: “I still think about my time at the Dockyard, meeting Fred, the laughs we had in the spinning room – it was good and we had fun.”

DOCKYARD LOVE STORIES in periscope

The Dockyard’s own newspaper Periscope featured a number of love stories over the years. These are just a select few.

Dockyard Love Story

A Chance encounter

On a fateful day in August 1955, Beryle Hanson was attending Chatham Dockyard’s Naval Day with a girlfriend. Whilst on the deck of HMS Diamond and enjoying a bag of peanuts she heard a call from above her.

There she spied a tall skinny lad calling down to her from above, “Give us a peanut”. It turned out to be Brian Hyland, a young man visiting from Sidcup on a cycling holiday.

Brian, called ‘Dick’ (by all except by his mother), and Beryle began courting almost immediately, clearly falling hard for each other in what would be a love for the ages.

Dick, from Sidcup, was an apprentice at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, so would regularly cycle the 70-mile return trip to court Beryle at weekends.

Brian and Beryle were married in August 1958 at Chatham Registrar’s Office and throughout their lives, Dick was always lovingly referred to as ‘Peanuts” by Beryle.

Dick passed away during a short fight with MND at The Quay (old Chatham Dockyard) in 2013. Beryle passed away peacefully in December 2020.

Share your story

This year The Historic Dockyard Chatham is celebrating its 40th anniversary. We would love to hear your stories of when the dockyard was a working site.

Were you an apprentice here like volunteers Dave, John M, and John S?

Did you win the Miss Chatham Dockyard competition?

Whatever your story, we’d love to hear from you.

Sign up to our newsletter