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On This Day3rd January 2024

On This Day: Brunel’s Sawmill

On this day in 1812, the Admiralty commissioned Marc Isambard Brunel to design a new steam-powered sawmill at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham.

Marc Isambard Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) designed an intricate system at the dockyard that would revolutionise how timber was moved, handled, and cut around the site. The Sawmill at Chatham is viewed as a development of his block-making mill at Portsmouth that opened in 1803 and is the start of the age of mass-production.

Steam-Powered Sawmill

At the heart of Brunel’s designs was a large steam-powered machine that operated eight large timber-cutting frames that were capable of holding up to 36 saws and could be staffed by only two attendants. The dockyard still employed a number of men to saw timber planks by hand but the number was greatly reduced by Brunel’s machine.

Within the mill itself, Brunel designed a sawing hall with a pitched roof and two open sides with two 3 storey wings; one to house the boiler and engine with the housing a large cast-iron water-tank.

For Brunel’s new sawmill to be as efficient as he envisioned, he looked beyond just revolutionising the Mill itself and set his sights on the whole system of how timber arrived and moved within the dockyard.

Dockyard Canal

To move timber around, Brunel utilised a new canal system rather than depend on horse and cart. His new canal and canal tunnel were over 500 ft long and linked the South Mast Pond to a deep oval brick lined shaft just in front of the water tank at the Sawmill.

Timber was floated by canal and through the canal tunnel to a shaft at the base of the mill where a counterpoise was filled with water to raise the load up to ground level. Once on the surface, as a crane (which travelled on a gantry) manoeuvred the wood onto a carriage to be taken into the sawing hall. After being cut, the timber was taken by carriage to be seasoned.

Construction of Brunel’s Sawmill and Canal took two years to be completed and opened in 1814.

The Sawmill Today

Today, the Sawmill is home to North Kent Joinery who have called Brunel’s Sawmill home since the late 1980’s. Many of the original features can still be seen within the sawing hall.

In the main visitor car park, Brunel’s Sawmill Canal Lock can still be seen alongside the South Mast Pond that were connected to the sawmill by canal and canal tunnel. The tunnel has since been filled in and is inaccessible.

Next time you are visiting The Historic Dockyard Chatham, take a moment to stop and appreciate, Marc Isambard Brunel’s Sawmill, which is an often overlooked but very important part of The Dockyard’s history.

In 2018, Bonhams’ auction house sold an autograph watercolour design for his steam-powered sawmill at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham, [c.1812] view on their website:

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