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 4028th March 2024

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust is this week marking the 40th Anniversary of the closure of Chatham Dockyard and the creation of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust four decades ago

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

On 30 March 1984 Chatham Dockyard’s gates closed, ending 400 years of the Royal Navy’s presence in Chatham and the surrounding area. The very same day, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was formed to save 80 acres of this uniquely historic site and provide a beacon of hope for the community.

“As Patron…it has given me enormous pleasure to see all that has been achieved here over the last forty years.”

His Majesty The King. As His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, Chairman of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust shows His Majesty The King the site. His Majesty visited the dockyard as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, following his appointment as Patron of the Trust in 2013. His Majesty The King as His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, the King was appointed Patron of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust in 2013.

At its height (during the Second World War), the Dockyard employed more than 17,000 workers from more than 26 different trades. Just prior to the announcement of its closure, the Dockyard employed 6,500 civilians.

Richard Morsley, CEO of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust says:

“In 1984, the year of Band Aid and the Miner’s Strike, the closure of the Dockyard in Chatham went unnoticed by many outside of the Medway Towns. Its closure was more than purely an economic impact, the Dockyard provided identity, purpose and value to the community; it was akin to the heart being ripped out of the Medway Towns.”

As the biggest employer, the importance of the dockyard to the community cannot be understated.

Richard Morsley continues: “For nearly 400-years, the Royal Dockyard at Chatham played a hugely significant role in supporting the Royal Navy. Within its walls and on its slips over 400 ships and submarines were built, including HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. During its long history, from the Age of Sail through to the Falklands Conflict, thousands more ships and submarines were maintained and refitted in Chatham.”

Described as the ‘mainspring of the Medway Towns’ economy’, the dockyard supported local businesses who were dependent upon the dockyard or its workforce for their order book.

The largest educator in the Medway ceased over night on 30 March 1984

Richard Morsley explains: “It was also the education centre for the Medway Towns. School leavers would take the Dockyard Exam – this would determine their level of training and apprenticeship from the boiler room to the Admiral’s office. From shipbuilding to architecture – trades were taught and forged at the Dockyard.”

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Aerial of HMS CAVALIER, HM Submarine OCELOT and HMS GANNET by Geoff Watkins Aerial Imaging South East
Saving the dockyard has taken FOUR decades

Forty years on and the Trust, who began the work of preserving, conserving and finding a use for the historic site in 1984, is simultaneously remembering the closure and what it meant to Chatham, while also celebrating the achievements of the last four decades which have seen:

– 47 Scheduled Ancient Monument buildings saved

– World-class exhibitions curated and housed on site

– Architectural awards for excellence

– The creation of new jobs and sectors

– Welcoming 180 businesses on to the site

– Saving the oldest Ropery in Europe and continuing to keep the 400 year old skills alive in practice

– Providing a permanent home for the HM Submarine Ocelot, HMS Cavalier and HMS Gannet

– The creation of a creative hub in the Medway

– An education campus for University of Kent and Mid Kent College (Medway School of Arts)

– Contributing c £30 million a year to the local economy (The last economic impact study, pre- covid, estimated the Dockyard to have contributed £29.5 million to the Kent and Medway economies in 2017/18. This figure is being reappraised following the creation of further office space onsite and visitor numbers increasing).

Phoenix from the Flames

Thanks to inspired leadership and determined strategic planning, this incomparable historic site was saved…

His Majesty The King. As His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.

Dockyard CEO Richard Morsley, says:

Regeneration of the site has taken nearly four decades, and today The Historic Dockyard Chatham is a vibrant and thriving mixed- use heritage estate; an award winning museum and visitor attraction, educational campus, commercial and residential estate, and filming location.

“The partnerships formed during this time and the milestones passed, have helped to deliver much-needed hope for the locality, whilst also placing Chatham on the international stage as a destination not just for education and creativity but also as the best preserved Dockyard of the Age of Sail.”

40 years and over 80 movies, shows and videos filmed at The Historic Dockyard Chatham

In the 40 years since the iconic Chatham Dockyard closed its gates as a working dockyard on 30 March 1984, the historic space has found new life as a visitor attraction, multi-business site and as a location set for Hollywood blockbusters and Netflix favourites like The Crown and Call the Midwife.

The Dockyard was first used as a film location in 1989 for the television show Great Expectations (Disney Channel). The following year the Ropery’s exteriors featured in the film The Mill on the Floss. In 1999 big budget Hollywood came to the Dockyard for The Mummy and the same year saw James Bond chase down the Medway in a boat and film at the dockyard for The World is Not Enough.

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Cast of Call The Midwife walking through The Historic Dockyard Chatham

Olivia Horner, Director of Commercial and Operations at the Historic Dockyard, is in charge of liaising with film and music video enquiries.

She says:

“Filming for us is really important – it’s income that goes directly back into our charity to help preserve our site and historic buildings.

Filming also plays a significant role in helping us reach new audiences and engage people who wouldnt typically visit the Dockyard. For Call The Midwife, we attract 15,000 visitors each year who come to see us for the location tour, but what we end up seeing is repeat visitation when they experience what we have here in Chatham.”

Over a fairly short time span, Hollywood blockbusters, popular television shows and mini series have been filmed at the dockyard.

Created in partnership with award-winning television production company, Neal Street Productions, the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour at The Historic Dockyard Chatham is the only one of its kind in the world.

Visitors to the tour are guided through the site by their very own costumed Midwife, armed with a photograph book and tales of their #sisters’, before being allowed to explore the sets, costumes and props in an exclusive gallery.

Dame Pippa Harris DBE, Executive Producer, says:

“Call the Midwife has had a long and successful relationship with The Historic Dockyard Chatham from filming many of the iconic external scenes to running a wonderful tour and exhibition. Our cast and crew love filming there against such an authentic backdrop.”

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Image courtesy of Neal Street Productions

Big names from stage and screen have been spotted filming at the dockyard. Olivia Horner says:

Having the likes of Robert Downey Junior, Tom Hiddleston and Ed Sheeran here, adds another level of excitement and the whole team gets a real buzz out of hosting them here in Chatham. You never quite know what you are going to see when there’s filming taking place; you could have the cast of Call The Midwife in Midwife Alley, or Tom Hiddleston running past your window.”

The current Chairman, Admiral Sir Trevor Soar KCB OBE DL, has led the Board which has delivered transformational change over recent years including the renovation of the Fitted Rigging House; the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour in partnership with Neal Street Productions; a new Ropery Gallery and steered the charity through a global pandemic.

Sir Trevor says:

Chatham Royal Dockyard has played a crucial role in the history of the Royal Navy and of the nation for over some four centuries. As the major employer in the Medway towns, over this period, its significance in the local community has been incalculable, so closure of the yard in 1984 came as an unprecedented blow.”

The Historic Dockyard Chatham today offers the most complete evidence of how the sailing navy went from wooden warships to nuclear submarines, Sir Trevor says:

The dockyard and its workforce is an extraordinary testimony to generations of skill and human enterprise.”

As the sixth chairman of the Trust, Sir Trevor Soar pays enormous tribute to the work of his predecessors and their Trustees over the last 40 years:

They have led the transformation of the dockyard from a state of dilapidation to its present position of pre-eminence. Their hard work, ambition and entrepreneurial approach over the last 40 years has been instrumental in the dockyard becoming the most complete and best preserved dockyard of the Age of Sail in the world.”

Of the future, Sir Trevor says:

“As a Trust we actively seek opportunities, and have the agility and ambition that not many organisations have to be dynamic and take things forward. I am very excited about the future – a future that we’d never have envisioned ten years ago, let alone 40 years ago.”

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
30 March 1984 the gates closing on the working Royal Dockyard

BACKGROUND: From 1984 – 2024

After 400 years as a Royal Dockyard, the closure on 30 March 1984 was marked with mementoes handed to the new owners of the site to signify the spirit of regeneration.

A baton was handed to Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart R Pringle Bt KCB DSc, Chairman and Chief Executive of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.

The baton listed all the ships built at Chatham between 1547 – 1984; and read:

“This baton was handed over on 30 March 1984 to symbolise passing on the responsibility for continuing and developing the tradition of high standards in skill and performance which were maintained on the Dockyard site for over 400 years.”

The Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust had its inaugural meeting at the Ministry of Defence building on Whitehall that same afternoon. The CHDT was established with an endowment from the government of £11.35 million, representing the minimum sum felt necessary to enable immediate maintenance priorities to be met, and giving the Trust sufficient breathing space to be able to establish commercial ventures to generate sufficient income to secure its long-term future.

£11.35 million

Renovating buildings is an expensive task. Renovating one Schedule Ancient Monument building is a significant undertaking – what do you do when you have 47 to save?

The government awarded the Trust £11.35million but they didn’t receive all the money to do what they wanted – £3.5m was already allocated by the government for the re- roofing of The Ropery – the longest brick building in Europe, with one of the longest roofs in Europe!

Of the £7.85 million that was remaining (after the money was deducted for the ropery roof) it left little financial discretion.

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

“Preservation by re-use” became the remit for the Trust. They’d looked (prior to closure) at other convincing models, and even visited Boston to see the achievements there where the US had saved a large historic industrial complex.

The scale and difficulty of saving the world’s most complete dockyard of the Age of Sail, was not lost on Richard Holdsworth who in April 1985 became The Historic Dockyard Trust’s first curator (and stayed for over 30 years).

Richard says: “The Dockyard was the reason Chatham and the Medway towns existed. The 80 acres of heritage, or a square mile, is entirely built heritage, and on a huge scale.”

The Dockyard is like no other site, or museum, due in part to its size, and the fact that it is home to over 100 buildings built from the 1700s onwards.

Richard Holdsworth says:

“Some of the heritage equivalents are the big northern mill complexes in Manchester, Cromford Mill in New Lanark (Scotland), Ironbridge, or world heritage sites. The difference with Chatham is it wasn’t a question of a changing industry – this was a closure as the result of a direct government decision”.

Slowly but surely the public began to come through the gates of the Dockyard. A new visitor centre was opened in July 1985, but Richard Holdsworth explains:

“The experience was very much ‘look at the history of the dockyard in one building then walk around the derelict buildings and mind your step’. The Ropery, the first gallery, opened two years later and enabled visitors to see the working naval ropery.”

In 1986, the first full year of opening to the public, 14,000 people came to the The Historic Dockyard Chatham.

Residential housing works started in 1986 with the renovation of No.1 Officer’s Terrace. In April 1987 the first exhibition in the Ropery was opened and the Historic Dockyard’s own rope making company Master Ropermakers ran the commercial operation in the Ropery.

In July 1987 the Victorian sloop HMS Gannet first arrived on site as part of an employment training scheme part funded by Kent County Council.

A temporary exhibition gallery opened in 1988 and the Sail & Colour Loft opened with a viewing gallery so visitors could see people working with traditional skills.

During the period of 1989/1990 the Trust tackled the restoration of its first major Scheduled Ancient Monument, the Mast Houses and Mould Loft to house the site’s first major museum gallery, Wooden Walls – a reconstruction of the dockyard of the Age of Sail.

In 1990, the wooden Walls gallery was awarded the English Tourist Board’s highest national award for development of a tourist attraction – The England Excellence Award and the Mast Houses and Mould Loft received a commendation in the 1990 Civic Trust Awards.

The early ’90s at the dockyard would see a submarine return ‘home’ and a world- beating discovery.

On the 26th August 1995 HM Submarine Ocelot opened to visitors in Basin 2 at Chatham Maritime. It was open on weekends and members of the recently formed Chatham Historic Dockyard Voluntary Service were involved with delivering tours for the public. Ocelot was special for Chatham – she was the last submarine to be built for the British Royal Navy there, so her return ‘home’ felt significant to many.

Just a few months later on the 18th December 1995, timbers were discovered beneath the floor of the Wheelwright’s Shop during renovations to the building. Deemed the single most important warship discovery in Northern Europe since that of the Mary Rose.

The Scottish Institute of Maritime Archaeology undertook extensive tests and the timbers were discovered to be from Age of Sail second rate ship of the line, Namur. Namur was built at Chatham Dockyard between 1750 and 1756 and the timbers were laid beneath the floor after the ship was broken up in 1834.

In August 1995 Ocelot opened to the public and in the space of a year received 28,000 visitors. The Trust was in desperate need of funds to stay open and continue with its burgeoning offering to visitors.


The Dockyard is considered the highest level of heritage due to its unique and unaltered collection of industrial buildings from the Age of Sail. It still has the highest concentration of scheduled monuments on any single site.

A study contracted in 1996 to KPMG which concluded with an outline of the work that was needed on the commercial estate to secure the future, this paved the way for the first big Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF – now National Lottery Heritage Fund) application.

Richard Holdsworth says of KPMG study and the HLF:

“It was clear that the infrastructure works needed to be done in order to make the place work – the electricity supply system in most of the buildings wasn’t fit to be connected, so part of the HLF award paid for replacement of high voltage cabling and transformers across the a estate, making reuse of the buildings viable. We were able to do a lot of backlog building maintenance work that enabled the easier buildings to come back in commercial use. It was a transformational time.”

New funds came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The initial grant was £8.8m with a further £4.7m from the City of Rochester upon Medway (predecessor to Medway Council). The balance up to the recommended £14.7million came from English Heritage and other trusts. HLF provided a further £1.2m in revenue support and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport agreed to grant aid of £300,000 annually which revolutionised the Trust’s financial resources.

Richard Holdsworth says:

“Without that first HLF award, the Dockyard would have stalled and probably would never have been able to get to effective revenue based sustainability that it has today. The HLF award laid the foundations for bringing the Dockyard back into use.”

Further funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund over the years has seen grants towards the Smithery, the Command of the Oceans visitor experience and Fitted Rigging House projects meaning that total investment from this source alone has been over £30m.

Together with many other other grants, the Historic Dockyard has benefitted from financial support that could only once have been dreamed of in 1984.

Learning and preservation: a return on the money

A new focus was gained by recruiting Bill Ferris CBE DL as Chief Executive Officer in 2001. Coming from a business background he brought a different perspective and focused on learning and preservation.

Bill Ferris says :

“The light bulb moment for me was, the visitor attraction was important but the Trust has two objectives – learning and preservation and neither are more important, and if you!re going to succeed in both you have to put both at the centre of everything.

“The buildings, once seen as liabilities, could become the assets that with careful planned re use could create a diverse and sustainable mixed income base.”

Bill Ferris came to the Trust with significant heritage management experience and became the driving force behind developing the ‘preservation through reuse’ strategy. This saw him oversee key milestones and secure funding for the regeneration of No.1Smithery (2010), one of the foremost gallery spaces in Kent, Command of the Oceans in 2016 and the Fitted Rigging House development in 2019 which saw the Trust fill one of its last major buildings with life – enabling the ‘living museum’ concept first mooted by John Spence and the team in 1984 to become a reality.

Bill Ferris says of the progress of the Trust:

“In the early days if you’d said it would take 40 years local people wouldn’t have been happy. That said, I think some of the early day stuff was too ambitious in terms of time- frame and cost estimates. It was a derelict 80 acre site and I don’t think anyone had any idea of the scale or cost involved.”

An economic impact study undertaken by DC Research in 2019 showed that the Dockyard had an annual benefit to the local economy of c.£30million.

Bill Ferris says:

“It’s a good return on the £40million investment – if you went to the bank to borrow money as a PLC with a project they’d want 15 – 20% return, we were getting nearer 50%.”

Inward investment was difficult in the early days but as visitor numbers increased and the Heritage Lottery Fund continued to invest, Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, Chair of the Trust from 2005 – 16 says of the HLF investment:

“Things were going in the right direction. We had dedicated and skilled people in Bill Ferris, Richard Holdsworth and others.”

Keen to underline the significance of Chatham in the national consciousness Sir Ian explains: “Chatham is where Nelson joined his first ship. But perhaps more importantly, when Great Britain, in the 17th and 18th centuries, began trading around the world, that trade brought us wealth as a nation. It was naval dockyards like Chatham that were critically important for naval ship building and supporting the fleet that defended that trade. Understanding this key linkage between the Navy, the Dockyard and our influence and wealth as a nation helped me to explain the Dockyard’s importance to those who wished to invest in its future.”

Investment in the buildings brought them back into use to demonstrate the story of the Dockyard, increased the interest of influential people, and reminded our visitors of the part Chatham played in the history of our nation.

Asked about the top three achievements of the last 40 years, Sir Ian says: “Bringing such a large number of derelict buildings back into use; bringing the Dockyard to the attention of thousands of visitors who had not hitherto understood its importance; and continuing to engage loyal local people who came to work in the dockyard both as staff and volunteers.”

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
The Historic Dockyard Chatham from above: credit Geoff Watkins Aerial Imaging South East

The future

Over the space of 40 years, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust has delivered what they set out to do in 1984, thanks to a high-level understanding of heritage and by taking a dynamic entrepreneurial approach, The Trust has funding and projects lined up that will take the dockyard into the future.

With the highest naval credentials and a flair for business, Sir Trevor is a safe pair of hands to steer the dockyard into the future.

Sir Trevor is keen to explain that the charity, whose profits go towards preserving the historic dockyard and fulfilling its learning objective, is entrepreneurial:

We’ve established a level of credibility with funders where they know we will return that investment through our Preservation by Re-use’ approach.”

New projects like the forthcoming Docking Station is key to the future strategy. Sir Trevor says:

“The Docking Station in partnership with the University of Kent and Medway Council, will create a centre for the creative industries opening up new opportunities for the future. As a Trust we actively seek opportunities, and have the agility and ambition that not many organisations have to be dynamic and take things forward.

Sir Trevor Soar says of the future:

“I am very excited about the future – a future that we’d never have envisioned ten years ago, let alone 40 years ago.”

Dockyard in Numbers in 2024:

Then & Now

John De Rose

Then: On hearing the news of the dockyard closure, former shipwright, John De Rose said: “I thought what am I going to do now, I thought I’d be here all my life, I’d been promoted once and was due for promotion again, and I went for a foreman of the yard.

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

“We heard early in 1981, and this was a year before the Falklands War, so we had jobs to do and we did those jobs. I didn’t feel there was a lessening of will power to work. The people who worked for me got on with their job, and it was 1982 when I left.”

Life changed for John’s family as he went away to work abroad, which affected his family life. “It never really made sense other than the government needed to save money.”

John organises a Dockyard Workers reunion once a year.

Linda Brown

Now: “There aren’t many people who don’t want to visit the Dockyard. I’ve been a volunteer for the last ten years working with school parties and then began a research project in the library. I love being here and I love the Dockyard. I love sharing that information to kids and visitors.

“I think the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust has done a fantastic job – it’s a two or three day visit for anyone, so people keep coming back.”

Then: In June 1970 Linda Brown first walked through the dockyard gates: “I started in HR/ personnel department working with the drawing office and clerical office, and eventually worked directly to the Captain who worked as the Nuclear Power manager.” A sensitive area, the Nuclear power department was covered by the Official Secrets Act.

40th Anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Linda Brown in the early 1970s at The Dockyard

Linda says: “I was the first woman to go into a nuclear reactor compartment on a nuclear submarine. Up to that time, most apprentices had been male, but in the 1970s we started getting applications from girls to do the apprenticeship course – if they were to do this, they would need to go into sensitive areas like the nuclear reactor apartment and they wanted to know if it was physically possible for a woman to get in there! That kind of thing wouldn’t happen today – someone questioning whether a woman was physically able to do it. It wouldn’t happen in the Trust now or over the last 40 years. I never ever encountered misogyny – apart from that occasion. My own experience there was that I could be strong, and I could speak my mind (and I did – frequently, and politely).”

Linda featured several times in the dockyard’s very own newspaper called #Periscope!, even as #Maid of the Month!, a tradition that endured through the 1970s.

As a woman, Linda’s career progression wasn’t held back, she rose from clerical officer in 1970 to Higher Executive Office in 1978 before leaving to have a family.

Linda remembers how busy the Dockyard was: “There was always something interesting happening in the #yard, always something going on – a ship coming and going, celebrations when a ship was finished being commissioned, you could get involved with the daily life, go up to Bull’s Nose and see the ships coming and going.”

Now: Linda returned to the dockyard in 2008 as a learning facilitator in a paid position, following twenty years of working in a school.

She explains: “The education department and Visitor Experience team gave the first tours of the dockyard. I feel very fortunate to have been the first official dedicated Learning Facilitator at the Dockyard.”

Although retired (2023), Linda still helps out at the dockyard on a regular basis.

Memories from the first visitor through the gates of The Historic Dockyard Chatham: 1984

Patrick Boniface, a journalist working within the naval and maritime sectors, and author of 14 books, was (as a school boy) the first visitor to step foot in The Historic Dockyard Chatham when it opened in 1984.

He says: “40 years ago I waited patiently outside what was then the museum entrance for it to open for the first time. Back in 1984 I was still at school 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.

“I was there on opening day – 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 that 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. 500 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 1984 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.”

Further Information

Sign up to our newsletter