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Dockyard 4018th March 2024

First in Line

Patrick Boniface recalls being the first visitor to the Historic Dockyard when it opened in 1985.

40 years! It is quite an impressive number when I look back at the school kid I was as I waited patiently outside what was then the museum entrance for it to open for the first time. You see I am now a journalist working within the naval and maritime sectors with 14 books to my name and a radio career to boot, but back in 1985 I was still at school but with a passion for all things navy.

Growing up in Maidstone I loved the idea that the Royal Navy was just over the North Downs and that every spring I got to pester my Dad to drive me up to Chatham and walk with me around the Basins and look at all the wonderful warships on display within the Dockyard. In 1981 I remember not minding that I couldn’t get on any warships at Navy Days because they were too popular, we settled for tours around RFA Sir Percivale and RFA Grey Rover, but a fire had been lit in me.

I wanted to be a Royal Navy officer, a helicopter pilot, but with poor eyesight, bad maths and poor exam results, an officer position was unlikely and there was no way I was going into the navy to be shouted at, so journalism about the Navy became my next best option.

So it was there on opening day that I was dropped off by my parents. I remember it being quite lonely at first and chilly, but four decades of forgetfulness may have clouded my memories. I do recall, however, that I was excited. Expectations were getting the better of me. Imagining what lay behind the walls that had shielded the dockyard from the outside world for so long. That I was first in the queue surprised me. I was expecting it to be heaving with people who shared my fascination with what lay inside Chatham Dockyard. But there I was with some pennies in my pocket to find a phone box to call my parents when I was done so they could collect their naval enthusiast son and bring him home.

Finally, the door to the old museum building opened and out stepped Sir Stuart Pringle. He smiled at me and said something like ‘You must be keen, you’ve been here hours’. And I had. But I didn’t mind. I was the first member of the public to see inside the new museum, sample what everyone else would eventually come to see.

I saw industry, warfare, models and sails, surprising buildings, railways and beautiful boltholes that seemed out of place in an industrial landscape. 400 years of naval history in one place, but such a vast site. I was just 15 years old and staggered by the variety and complexity of the dockyard.

In 1985 there were no preserved warships in the dry docks and the museum building was hidden away up by the main gate. All the attractions that we have today were years ahead in the future, but to feel the history of the place was something special and that I was now part of the history of Chatham Historic Dockyard, a permanent small part of the place I have visited every single year, both professionally and for fun, since then is an honour and a treat.

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