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40 years in the making

Introduction

heading

On 30 March 1984 Chatham Dockyard closed, ending 400 years of the Royal Navy’s presence in Chatham and the surrounding area.

In the lead up to closure, a group of determined individuals, with a wide skill-set, came together with a shared mission – to rescue and preserve 80 acres of the Historic Dockyard.

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was formed on the very same day the working dockyard closed. Tasked with the purpose of saving the 80 acres of this uniquely historic site and to provide a beacon of hope for the community.

In 2024, marking four decades since its inception, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, who began the work of preserving, conserving and finding a use for the historic site, is simultaneously remembering the closure and what it meant to Chatham, while also celebrating the remarkable achievements of the last forty years.

This interactive timeline charts the pivotal decisions taken leading up to the closure and the subsequent transformative developments on the historic estate. Navigate by scrolling the page or use the menu to select a decade that intrigues you most.

The early 1980s – and the beginning of the rescue plan

1981-1984

At its height (post 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.

“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.”

Richard Morsley, Chief Executive, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

25 June 1981

Defence Secretary Sir John Nott announced the dockyard closure to the House of Commons.

A three-year rundown of the naval base began.

July 1981

The Dockyard Defence Committee (DDC) was set up by a group of Kent County Councillors and MPs in an attempt to save the Dockyard from closure.

3 July 1981

1,000s of Dockyard workers stage a mass march through the Medway towns in protest at the decision to close Chatham Dockyard.

11 December 1982

Secretary of State for Trade, Patrick Jenkin, meets with 50 representatives from local authorities, commercial bodies and trade unions

1982

Redundancy notices recalled due to the Falklands Conflict.

3 October 1983

Flag lowered for the last time as the Admiral leaves the Dockyard.

The early 1980s

the beginning of the rescue plan

1981

“We knew that there was going to be an announcement made about the closure of one of the Royal Naval Dockyard’s but nobody knew when it was going to be or who it would be.

“I was a civilian member of the War Room, and oddly enough, the day before the announcement was made in the House of Commons by Secretary of Defence John Nott, we went to the annual cocktail party, held on the lawn outside of the War Room.  I still get emotional thinking about these things. We’d had the cocktail party, the Royal Marine band was there, and (Chatham’s) Rear-Admiral George M.K. Brewer’s car was at the bottom of the steps.  My wife Pat and I saw the Admiral walk down the steps to his car with tears rolling down his face and I said to Pat – “there – you’ve got your answer, it’s Chatham”.  He’d been told that very afternoon.

John Spence OBE

25 June – Closure announced

Defence Secretary Sir John Nott announces the dockyard closure to the House of Commons. A three-year rundown of the naval base begins.

A group of dockyard workers travelled to London that morning to lobby MPs in an attempt to stop the closure decision but heard the news when they returned to Medway.

Sir Frederick Burden (MP for Gillingham) described the day in the House as:

“… the most distressing day that I have experienced in the 30 years that I have been a Member of this House.”

July

The Dockyard Defence Committee (DDC) was set up by a group of Kent County Councillors and MPs in an attempt to save the Dockyard from closure.

This group included John Spence, ex naval commander and former Mayor of Gillingham mayor Harry Blease, Peggy Fenner (MP for Rochester & Chatham) and her predecessor Rob Bean (Labour). Keith Speed, who resigned as MP for Ashford just after the closure announcement was also involved in the DDC.

3 July

1,000s of Dockyard workers stage a mass march through the Medway towns in protest at the decision to close Chatham Dockyard.

This started from outside Main Gate and ended in a rally at Jackson’s playing field in Rochester.

7 July

Dockyard workers protest closure in London.

July

Yard Closure Planning Department set up – former Dockyard apprentice, Dennis Underdown, leads a team responsible for preparation, monitoring and maintenance of closure plan, ancient monuments, proposals for office accommodation and return of surplus office equipment and machinery.

The group’s initial task was to prepare a closure plan for MODHQ. Another task was showing prospective buyers around.

15 October

Chatham Dockyard closure protesters line the route for delegates attending the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.

1982

March

A job centre was set up within the Dockyard to help workers facing redundancy and unemployment.

April

Official opening of the Chatham Dockyard Historical Society museum in the Lead & Paint Mill – ‘Chatham Naval Base Historical Centre’ – by Port Admiral, Rear Admiral Brewer.

This housed a collection of artefacts, photographs and models that the group had started rescuing from around the site during the final years. This gallery explored dockyard trades and the life and times of the dockyard worker.

Chatham Dockyard Historical Society (CDHS) was formed two years earlier in 1980, by a group of Dockyard employees. Their aim was to set up a small museum within the Dockyard site to tell the story of the history and traditions of the Dockyard.

The Personnel Manager at that time, Alan Maunder, offered the use of two rooms in the old Lead & Paint Mill.

Falklands War (2 April – 14 June)

Chatham becomes the home of the standby fleet (consisting of Tribal class frigates and anti-aircraft vessels that were returned to service to free up the rest of the fleet).

The Dockyard also carries out key refits during the Falklands War, for example HMS ENDURANCE, HMS CONQUEROR and HMS COURAGEOUS.

Workers are involved in the fabrication of parts for other Dockyards and the adaption of the Merchant fleet that operated as part of the Task Force.

There is some hope this will secure Chatham Dockyard’s future, but the closedown process continues.

At the same time as the Falklands activities – Chatham was stripping stores, closing buildings, sending resources to other dockyards.

They also had to decide what to do with apprentices and workers – options included transfer to Plymouth and Portsmouth – they encouraged the workforce to move there or take redundancy. Many older workers took redundancy.

6 August

Rear Admiral William Higgins replaces Rear Admiral George Brewer as Flag Officer Medway and Port Admiral. Higgins had been Commodore of the RN Barracks in Devonport.

20 August – the return of HMS ENDURANCE

Many of the Dockyard workforce and members of the public welcomed HMS ENDURANCE home after the Falklands.

Image: HMS ENDURANCE returns to Chatham Dockyard. Chatham Dockyard Historical Society Collection.

The ship sailed up the River Medway and entered No.3 Basin. Tugs and a small fleet of boats had been out to welcome ENDURANCE and crowds lined the banks of the river. Thousands more people were gathered around No.3 Basin.

Fleet Air Arm Wasp helicopters flew overhead, fire tenders discharged multi-coloured jets of water and thousands of red, white and blue balloons were released.

ENDURANCE’s captain defied orders to go to Portsmouth as he wanted to bring the ship back to Chatham as a symbol after the Falklands.

August

Kent County Council commissioned a report from leading consultants Richard Ellis, Chartered Surveyors, and Hugh Wilson & Lewis Womersley, Architects & Town Planners.

This was published in August 1982 and contained in outline a blueprint for the future of the Dockyard, including options for a museum or a ‘living dockyard.’

December

Arrangements were underway to lease part of the Sail & Colour Loft to Zephyr Flags and Banners, who were poised to take over flag making operation when the Ministry of Defence ceased production in February 1984.

The company had a 5-year guaranteed order book – making flags for the Navy.

1983

11 April

Cosalt PLC takes over commercial running of Ropery.

Outgoing Ropery Inspector, Maurice Adcock, who had worked in the Dockyard for 41 years, was brought back as manager with five of the original staff.

The Grimsby-based company had a 5-year running plan. They took over No.1 Workbase, installing ‘modern’ polypropylene rope making machinery in there so they could make the smaller rope sizes using modern materials.

The company moved to Northern Ireland after the 5 years.

North Kent Joinery is also established during 1983.

The company were one of the early post-closure commercial tenants on site.

They have become one of the UK’s leading bespoke joinery companies with clients across Kent, the UK and Europe and they are still a tenant on site today.

30 September – Haul Down Ceremony

This major ceremony marked the formal departure of the Port Admiral and the Royal Navy from Chatham.

The Port Admiral’s flag was lowered at sunset, accompanied by a Royal Marine Band beat retreat and a 13-gun salute, signalling the end of the Medway Command.

The ceremony was witnessed by thousands of local people, who were addressed by CFS, Vice Admiral Sir James Kennon from the Admiralty Board and Port Admiral, Rear Admiral Higgins.

The responsibility for the day to day running of the Dockyard then sat with the General Manager until the final closedown on 30 March 1984.

16 November

Meeting with Peter Rees, Chief Secretary of the Treasury, and MP for Dover to discuss funding for the future of the dockyard.

23 November – Chatham closure dinner

A formal black-tie event was held at the new Crest Hotel in Chatham. The department was praised for conducting a ‘smooth and trouble-free closure operation’ and toasted ‘Chatham! May the tradition and the memory live on!’

Christmas

An announcement was made in the House of Commons immediately before Christmas 1983 that a trust for the historic dockyard would be established to take over the freehold of the site from the Ministry of Defence, sponsored by the two secretaries of state (who remain formal members of CHDT to this day).

1984

20 January – PSTO(N) Farewell Party

Planned by staff since the closure announcement. PSTO(N) writers Mrs Bess Salmon, Mrs Pam Woodard, Mrs Julia Simmonds and Mrs Brenda Willis each saved 50p a week over 2 years, into a special account, saving a total of £200 which was spent on provisions and a special cake. 100 past and present colleagues attended.

15 February

Non-industrial staff party in the Clock Tower Office with 100 friends and former colleagues. After this many of the staff retired or were transferred the following week.

A Rear Party of 30 non-industrial and 40 industrial workers took charge of remaining matters for the final 6 weeks.

How did Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust come into being?

John Spence was one of those involved in the setting up of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust – which held its first meeting on the day the Dockyard finally closed its gates (30 March 1984).  

Prior to the gates closing, as both a member of the local authority and a dedicated employee of the Dockyard, John was well placed to liaise with Kent County Council, and Medway councillors, and help build a rapport with the government.

John says:

“I had quite a lot to do with saving the Historic Dockyard –  from the early meetings where I led on behalf of the Kent County Council – and with members of the local authority, we were able to establish a rapport with the government (which helped with later matters) to attending the first meeting of the Board which was held in the Admiralty main building in London on the very same afternoon the gates of the Dockyard closure.”

Rodney Chambers OBE, who was very active in local politics and a member of Kent County Council, worked alongside John Spence and other interested parties. Rodney was keen for the Medway Towns to step up and to look after their own interests.

Rodney Chambers says:

“My constituents were either Dockyard workers or ex-Dockyard workers, and many of them had come out of the Navy and had gone into the Dockyard.

“My overwhelming emotion was anger – it was a political anger.  I was a conservative, I’d been elected as a conservative, and it was a conservative government who’d always considered to be good on defence, so I felt badly let down. My attitude was, when it became inevitable, we had got to start to look after ourselves.  I felt the only way forward for the impact for the closure of the dockyard was for us to take control of the destiny of the Medway towns.”

Decade one

1984 – 1994

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25 June 1981

Defence Secretary Sir John Nott announced the dockyard closure to the House of Commons. A three-year rundown of the naval base began.

A group of dockyard workers travelled to London that morning to lobby MPs in an attempt to stop the closure decision but heard the news when they returned to Medway.

Decade tWO

1994 – 2004

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6 July 1995

10th anniversary of Chatham Historic Dockyard as an award-winning visitor attraction.

26 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.

Decade three

2004 – 2014

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Decade four

2014 – 2024

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Pre-closure

Card stac king

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25th June 1981

Defence Secretary Sir John Nott announces the dockyard closure to the House of Commons. A three-year rundown of the naval base begins

A group of dockyard workers travelled to London that morning to lobby MPs in an attempt to stop the closure decision but heard the news when they returned to Medway.

July 1981

The Dockyard Defence Committee (DDC) was set up by a group of Kent County Councillors and MPs in an attempt to save the Dockyard from closure. This group included John Spence, ex naval commander and former Mayor of Gillingham mayor Harry Blease, Peggy Fenner (MP for Rochester & Chatham) and her predecessor Rob Bean (Labour). Keith Speed, who resigned as MP for Ashford just after the closure announcement was also involved in the DDC.

3rd July 1981

1000s of Dockyard workers stage a mass march through the Medway towns in protest at the decision to close Chatham Dockyard. This started from outside Main Gate and ended in a rally at Jackson’s playing field in Rochester. 

3rd July 1981

1000s of Dockyard workers stage a mass march through the Medway towns in protest at the decision to close Chatham Dockyard. This started from outside Main Gate and ended in a rally at Jackson’s playing field in Rochester. 

Decade One

1984-1994

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Decade One

1984-1994

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Decade One

1984-1994

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Decade One

1984-1994

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Image caption

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Decade One

1984-1994

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First Board of Trustees

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30th March

1984

Formation of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. On its initial establishment, the Trust had no staff apart from one or two former dockyard employees who remained to provide administrative and office support.

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.

There was a three-way land split between Medway Ports Authority, English Industrial Estates and Chatham Historic Dockyard. There were 47 Scheduled Ancient Monuments within the Historic Dockyard site and this land split was a solution for preserving those and protecting heritage. The cheapest option was to set up an independent trust.

There was no initial expectation or aspiration for any development or significant work. The Trust was given the land as an experiment. The English Industrial Estates land was regenerated as a brown site (the first time in Southern England) with an aim to reintroduce the 5000-7000 jobs lost as a result of the Dockyard closure. Medway Ports Authority took over the commercial running of the port, they already operated Sheerness and took control of river and maritime activity, which had previously been Admiralty. No.3 Basin was used as an impounded dock (not possible at Sheerness) and encouraged port-based industries to the site.

1st April

1984

Trust assumes responsibility for the running of the dockyard site.

1984

£3 million from government endowment earmarked for repairs to the Ropery roof, which was finished in 1986/1987.

After Dockyard closure, CDHS acquired more artefacts. The Trust allowed them to use more of the Lead & Paint Mill to store and display objects.

1st April

1985

Richard Holdsworth joins the Trust as their first Curator. One of his first tasks was to put exhibition content together for the Galvanising Shop, which was to be the visitor entrance, ready for the site opening to the public. Over his 36-year career with the Trust, Richard has steered the Dockyard through periods of great change, instrumental in forming key partnerships and key capital projects like No.1 Smithery and Command of the Oceans.

6th July

1985

Historic Dockyard opened as visitor attraction. The Galvanising Shop is the first gallery to open on site as the Visitor Centre. Visitors could experience the history of the Dockyard through objects, models, maps and film and explore areas of the semi-derelict site. Designers Robert Wade had worked on adapting the Galvanising Shop.

Decade One

1984-1994

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Late 1980s

Development of Clocktower building as Bridgewarden’s College for the University of Kent. The closure of the Dockyard had decimated the further education opportunities in the Medway towns. CHDT Trustee John Spence was very involved in this project and instrumental in bringing higher education provision back to the Medway towns.

Late 1980s

Development of Clocktower building as Bridgewarden’s College for the University of Kent. The closure of the Dockyard had decimated the further education opportunities in the Medway towns. CHDT Trustee John Spence was very involved in this project and instrumental in bringing higher education provision back to the Medway towns.

Late 1980s

Development of Clocktower building as Bridgewarden’s College for the University of Kent. The closure of the Dockyard had decimated the further education opportunities in the Medway towns. CHDT Trustee John Spence was very involved in this project and instrumental in bringing higher education provision back to the Medway towns.

Late 1980s

Development of Clocktower building as Bridgewarden’s College for the University of Kent. The closure of the Dockyard had decimated the further education opportunities in the Medway towns. CHDT Trustee John Spence was very involved in this project and instrumental in bringing higher education provision back to the Medway towns.

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