Chatham Dockyard

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HM Royal Dockyard, Chatham
Ensign of the Royal Navy animated.gif
Chatham in Kingdom of England
Area400 acres (1.6 km2)
Site information
OperatorNavy Royal
Royal Navy
Controlled byOffices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine
Council of the Marine
Navy Board
Board of Admiralty
Site history
In use1512-1984
EventsRaid on the Medway
Installation information
Clerk of the King's Ships (1512-1545)
Master-Shipwright, Chatham Dockyard (1572-1631)
Resident Commissioner Chatham (1631-1832)
Captain-Superintendent, Chatham Dockyard (1832-1876)
Admiral-Superintendent, Chatham Dockyard (1876-1971)
Port Admiral, Chatham (1971-1983)

Chatham Dockyard or formally HM Royal Dockyard Chatham was a Royal Naval Dockyard located on the River Medway in Kent. Established in Chatham in the mid-16th century, the dockyard subsequently expanded into neighbouring Gillingham (at its most extensive, in the early 20th century, two-thirds of the dockyard lay in Gillingham, one-third in Chatham).

It came into existence at the time when, following the Reformation, relations with the Catholic countries of Europe had worsened, leading to a requirement for additional defences. For 414 years Chatham Royal Dockyard provided over 500 ships for the Navy Royal and Royal Navy, and was at the forefront of shipbuilding, industrial and architectural technology. At its height, it employed over 10,000 skilled artisans and covered 400 acres (1.6 km²). Chatham dockyard closed in 1984, and 84 acres (340,000 m2) of the Georgian dockyard is now managed as a visitor attraction by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.


Engraving of "Chatham Dockyard from Fort Pitt" from Ireland's History of Kent, Vol. 4, 1831. Facing p. 349. Drawn by G. Sheppard, engraved by R. Roffe.
Chatham Dockyard in 1939 from the air some of the ships identified include No's 3. Heavy Cruiser HMS York, 5. Light Cruiser HMS Emerald, 7a Light Cruiser HMS Cairo, 12. Heavy Cruiser Berwick Class

The Treasurer of Marine Causes accounts of the King's Exchequer for the year 1544 identifies Deptford Dockyard as the dockyard that carried out all the major repairs to the King's Ships that year. That was soon to change (although Deptford remained a dockyard for over three centuries).

Jillingham water

Chatham's establishment as a naval dockyard was precipitated by the use of the Medway as a safe anchorage by the ships of what was to become (under King Henry VIII) England's permanent Navy Royal. In 1550, a decree was issued to the Lord High Admiral of England that:

the Kinges shipps shulde be harborowed [harboured] in Jillingham Water – saving [except] those that be at Portsmouth – to remaigne there till the yere be further spent...

Even prior to this, there is evidence of certain shore facilities being established in the vicinity for the benefit of the King's ships at anchor: there are isolated references from as early as 1509 to the hiring of a storehouse nearby[1] and from 1547 this becomes a fixed item in the Treasurer's annual accounts. (At around the same time a victualling store was also established, in nearby Rochester, to provide the ships and their crews with food.) The storehouse would have furnished ships with such necessary consumables as rope, pulleys, sailcloth and timber; for more specialised repairs and maintenance, however, they would have had to travel to one of the purpose-built royal dockyards (the nearest being those on the Thames: Deptford and Woolwich).

Early dockyard

1567 is generally seen as the date of Chatham's establishment as a Royal Naval Dockyard.[2] In the years that followed the ground was prepared, accommodation was secured and a mast pond was installed. The renowned Tudor shipwright Mathew Baker was appointed to Chatham in 1572 (though he was primarily based at Deptford). Under his supervision the site was developed to include sawpits, workshops, a wharf with a crane and, most significantly, its first dry dock, which opened in 1581. The dockyard received its first royal visit, from Elizabeth I, in 1573. The first ship to be built at the dockyard, HMS Sunne was launched in 1586.[3]

Relocation and consolidation

James I used Chatham dockyard for a meeting in 1606 with Christian IV of Denmark.[4] In 1613, the dockyard moved from its original location (now the gun wharf to the south) to its present site.[3] The growing importance of the dockyard was illustrated with the addition of two new mast ponds, and the granting of additional land on which a dock, storehouse, and various brick and lime kilns were planned. Peter Pett, of the Pett family of shipwrights whose history is closely connected to the Chatham dockyard, became commissioner in 1649.[5]

One of the disadvantages of Chatham (and also of the Thames-side yards) was their relative inaccessibility for ships at sea (including those anchored in The Nore). Therefore, rather than risk being constrained by wind, tide and draught on a journey upriver, ships would seek as often as possible to do running repairs and maintenance while at anchor, and would only travel to the dockyard when necessary. Thus deliveries of victuals, ordnance and other supplies were made by small boats, sailing regularly between Chatham and The Nore.[6]


Seeking to alleviate this less-than-satisfactory situation, the Navy Board explored options for developing a shore facility with direct access from the open water of the Thames Estuary. The escalating Anglo-Dutch wars forced their hand, however: several temporary buildings were hastily erected in Sheerness, at the mouth of the Medway, to enable ships to re-arm, re-victual and (if necessary) be repaired as quickly as possible. In 1665, the Navy Board approved Sheerness as a site for a new dockyard, and building work began; but in 1667 the still-incomplete Sheerness Dockyard was captured by the Dutch Navy and used as the base for a humiliating attack on the English fleet at anchor in the Medway itself. Sheerness remained operational as a royal dockyard until 1959, but it was never considered a major shore establishment and in several respects it operated as a subsidiary yard to Chatham.


By the late 17th century Chatham was the largest refitting dockyard, important during the Dutch wars. It was, however, superseded in the following century, first by Portsmouth Dockyard, then Plymouth Dockyard, when the main naval enemy became France, and the Western approaches the chief theatre of operations. In addition, the Medway had begun to silt up, making navigation more difficult. Nevertheless, following a visit by the Board of Admiralty in 1773, the decision was taken to invest further in Chatham, which developed into a building yard rather than a refitting base.[5] Among many vessels built in this Dockyard and which still exist, are HMS Victory, launched in 1765 – now preserved at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.[7]

By the year 1770 the establishment had so expanded that, including the gun wharf, it stretched one mile (1.6 km) in length, and included an area of in excess of 95 acres (380,000 m2), possessing four slip ways and four large docks. The officers and men employed in the yard also increased, and by 1798 they numbered 1,664, including 49 officers and clerks and 624 shipwrights. Additionally required were the blockmakers, caulkers, pitch-heaters, blacksmiths, joiners and carpenters, sail makers, riggers, and ropemakers (274), as well as bricklayers, labourers and others.[8]


Between 1862 and 1885, the yard underwent another large building programme as the Admiralty adjusted to the new technology of steam-powered ships with metal hulls. Three basins were constructed along St Mary's creek: of 28 acres (110,000 m2), 20 acres (81,000 m2) and 21 acres (85,000 m2). There were four new dry docks. Much of the work was done by convict labour. The construction materials required regenerated the North Kent brick and cement industries. It is estimated that 110 million bricks were used. These basins formed the Victorian Dockyard. Chatham built on average, two new ships each year.

With the 20th century came the C-class submarine, HMS C17 was launched at Chatham in 1908, and during World War I, twelve submarines were built here, but when hostilities ceased, uncompleted boats were scrapped and five years passed before a further ship was launched. In the interwar years, eight S-class submarines were built at Chatham but this was a period of decline. During World War II there were 1,360 refits and sixteen launchings.

Last years

The final boats constructed in Chatham were Oberon class submarine's – HMS Ocelot was the last vessel built for the Royal Navy, and the final vessel was HMCS Okanagan built for the Royal Canadian Navy and launched on 17 September 1966. In 1968, a nuclear submarine refitting complex was built complete with refuelling cranes and health physics building. In spite of this in June 1981, it was announced to Parliament that the dockyard would be run down and closed in 1984.[9]

In the mid-1980s Defence Estates disposed of the former Royal Navy ratings Married Quarters on the nearby Walderslade Estate, which were sold by public auction. These were previously occupied by personnel from the Royal Navy dockyard Chatham, with 110 married quarters being sold. The Georgian site is now a visitor attraction, under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. The Trust is preparing an application for the Dockyard and its Defences to become a World Heritage Site.[10]

Yard Facilities

Anchor Wharf and the Ropery
  • Anchor Wharf Store Houses 1778–1805 (at nearly 700 feet long) are the largest storehouses ever built for the navy.[11]
    • The southern building, Store House No 3, completed in 1785, is subdivided with timber lattice partitions as a "lay apart store", a store for equipment from vessels under repair. It has been Grade I listed since August 1999.[11]
    • The northern building was used as a fitted rigging house, and a general store for equipment to fit out newly built ships. It also has been Grade I listed since August 1999.[12] The Fitted Rigging House is now used as the Library and houses the Steam Steel and Submarines 1832–1984 gallery.[13]
  • The Ropery consists of Hemp Houses (1728 extended 1812), Yarn Houses and a double Rope House with attached Hatchelling House. Hatchelling is combing the hemp fibres to straighten them out before spinning. This was the first stage of the ropemaking process. The Ropery is still in use, being operated by Master Ropemakers Ltd.[14]
    • The Double Rope House has spinning on the upper floors and ropemaking (a ropewalk) on the ground floor.[15] It is 346 m (1,135 ft) long, and when constructed was the longest brickbuilt building in Europe capable of laying a 1,000 ft (300 m) rope. Over 200 men were required before 1836, to make and lay a 20in (circumference) cable. All was done by hand. Steam power in the form of a beam engine was introduced in 1836, and then electricity in the early 1900s.
    • The White Yarn House to store the yarn before it was tarred to prevent rot.
    • The Tarring House with its "Tar Kettle" and horse drawn winch.
    • The Black Yarn House to store the tarred yarn. The tarring process declined as manila replaced hemp, and sisal replaced manila. These fibres were chemically protected at the hatchelling stage and tarring stopped in the 1940s.
The Gun Wharf Chatham

The Gun Wharf Chatham or formally HM Gun Wharf Chatham was established in 1622 on the site of the old Chatham Dockyard that had relocated. It remained operational until 1855. The yard was responsible for the storing and supplying of naval ordnance to the Navy Royal and later Royal Navy. It was controlled by the Board of Ordnance.

Associated Establishments

Royal Marine Barracks Chatham circa 1890's
Royal Naval Barracks Chatham
Royal Naval Hospital Chatham in 1909

The Dockyard led to large numbers of military personnel being garrisoned in associated establishments at Chatham and the surrounding area. A good many were engaged in manning the defences, but some had other duties; others were accommodated there for convenience prior to embarking on ships for duties overseas, or following their disembarkation. Initially, soldiers were housed under canvas or else billetted in houses and inns, but from the 18th century barracks began to be constructed. The oldest surviving barracks in the Chatham area is in Upnor; dating from 1718, it housed the detachment of 64 men responsible for guarding the gunpowder store in Upnor Castle.

Infantry Barracks (Kitchener Barracks)

Chatham Infantry Barracks was opened in 1757 to house troops manning the fortifications which had recently been built to defend the Dockyard. Within the space of 20 years it had taken on the additional role of national recruitment centre for the British Army, providing basic training for all new recruits. This role ceased in 1803, but the barracks went on to serve as a home depot for numerous regiments stationed around the globe. Accommodating some 1,800 men, Chatham was one of the first large-scale Army barracks in England, and remained in military use until 2014. One barrack block remains from 1757; the rest was largely demolished and rebuilt to a more modern design in the 1930s–50s. In 1928 the barracks was taken over by the Royal Engineers and renamed Kitchener Barracks. In 2014 the site was sold to a property developer, with permission given the following year for the building of 295 homes. The main 1930s barracks building will be retained, along with the remaining earlier structures.[16]

Royal Marine Barracks

The Royal Marine Barracks, Chatham were established in 1779, on a site nestled between the Gun Wharf to the west, the Dockyard to the north, and Infantry Barracks to the east. The site was expanded and rebuilt in the 1860s; in 1905 the Royal Marines took over Melville Barracks, which stood between Dock Road and Brompton Hill (it had formerly served as Chatham's Royal Naval Hospital). The Marines were withdrawn from Chatham in 1950, and the buildings were later demolished. Medway Council offices and car park now stand on the site.[17]

Artillery/Engineer Barracks (Brompton Barracks)

A barracks was built in Brompton in 1804–06 for the Royal Artillery gunners serving on the defensive Lines (previously they had been accommodated in the Infantry Barracks). There was space for some 500 horses and 1,000 men. In 1812 the Royal Engineers Establishment was founded within the barracks to provide instruction in military engineering. The Establishment grew, and by 1856 the Artillery had moved out; Brompton Barracks remains in service as headquarters of the Royal Engineers.[18]

St Mary's Barracks

St Mary's Casemated Barracks were built during the Peninsular War and initially held French prisoners of war. After the war's end, they went on to serve as a gunpowder store for a time, and were used by the Royal Engineers (based nearby in Brompton Barracks). From 1844 St Mary's was used as an 'Invalid Barracks', accommodating soldiers having to return from service in different parts of the British Empire because of illness, injury or age.[19] Built within the defensive earthworks to the north of Chatham, St Mary's Barracks was demolished in the 1960s and the land used for housing.[20]

Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham

The Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham (later HMS Pembroke) opened in 1902; prior to this, most Naval (as opposed to Dockyard) personnel were accommodated on board their ships or on hulks moored nearby. Built on the site of what had been a convict prison, the barracks complex could accommodate 4,742 officers and seamen in a series of large blocks built along the length of a terrace. Below the terrace lay the parade ground and its adjacent drill hall and other amenities. A further 3,000 troops could be accommodated in times of "total emergency" (900 were sleeping in the Drill Hall when it suffered a direct hit from two bombs in September 1917, which killed over 130 men). The barracks were set to close in 1961 when the majority of naval personnel were withdrawn from Chatham;[21] however, it went on to serve instead as the RN Supply and Secretariat School in succession to Template:Ship, before finally being closed along with the Dockyard in 1984. The majority of its buildings are still standing, several of them occupied by the Universities at Medway.[22]

Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham

Melville Hospital, Chatham; opened 1828, replaced by Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham in 1905, converted into RM barracks extension, demolished c.1960.

Administration of the Dockyard (Navy Board)

The Commissioner's House (1704), was built for Captain George St Lo, who found the previous house unsuitable. It remains the oldest surviving naval building in England.

The first naval administrators of dockyards during the early Tudor period were called Clerks of the Kings Marine. By the late 16th century the master shipwright was the senior official. The dockyards were run entirely by naval officers who were civilian employees of the Council of the Marine later called the Navy Board, not sea officers.

The senior officials of each dockyard from the early 17th century was the resident commissioner, who was supported by his now deputy the master shipwright -responsible for building and repairs. Other senior officers of the yard included the clerk of cheque and storekeeper - responsible for finance and administration. The master attendants and boatswain -supervised yard craft and boats in ordinary (on reserve) and The master ropemaker -responsible for the ropeyard. This remained the organisation of the yards until 1832.[23]

After 1832 the Navy Board was abolished and all yards and establishments, except gun wharves, were amalgamated under a single authority the Board of Admiralty. The victualling yards, however, continued to be practically independent. The senior official was now a serving sea officer – the superintendent, admiral or captain-superintendent – who was often also the port admiral, or flag officer.[24] This remained the system until 1971.

Master-Shipwright, Chatham Dockyard (1572-1631)

Resident Commissioner Chatham (1618-1832)

Master-Attendant, Chatham Dockyard (1701-1776)

Master-Shipwright, Chatham Dockyard (1631-1813)

Clerk of the Cheque Chatham, Chatham Dockyard (1727-1829)


  1. Robert Poole Parmiter, August, 1727 - April, 1734
  2. Thomas Coleby, April, 1734 - February, 1768.
  3. William Campbell, February, 1768 - December, 1791.
  4. George Thomas, December, 1791 - December, 1829.

Clerk of the Ropeyard, Chatham Dockyard (1628-1822)


  1. John Waller, 1628 - 1643.
  2. Major John Brown, 1652 -1660.
  3. John Allen, 1660 - 1663.
  4. John Owen, 1663 - 1690.
  5. Henry Cole, 1690 - 1714.
  6. Thomas Rogers, 1714 - 1715, To Storekeeper, Portsmouth
  7. Edward Gerrard, 1715 -1719, from Clerk of Survey, Kinsale
  8. Bryant Bentham, August, 1719 - February, 1729, (to Clerk of Cheque, Sheerness).
  9. John Sargent, February, 1729 - June, 1730, (to Clerk of Survey, Deptford).
  10. Andrew Phillips, June, 1730 - 1739, (to Clerk of Cheque Chatham).
  11. Newland Rice, 1739 - 1745, (to Clerk of Cheque Chatham).
  12. William Campbell, 1756 - February, 1768, (to Clerk of Cheque Chatham).
  13. Frederick Forrest, February, 1768 - November, 1788.
  14. George Gainer, November, 1788 - 1792.
  15. John Burton, 1792 - 1798, (Ex-Storekeeper of Victualling to Clerk of Survey, Chatham)
  16. Thomas Burnett, 1798 - 1801, (Ex-Purser of Centurion, to Clerk of Survey, Woolwich)
  17. John W Lloyd. 1801 - 1806, (to Clerk of Survey, Deptford).
  18. William Wilkins Scott, 1806 - 1809.
  19. Pierce Edgecumbe, 1809 -1812, (Of Good Testimony) to Clerk of Survey Woolwich, and in 1819 to Clerk of Survey Chatham.
  20. Thomas Mears Haite, 1812 - 1822, Ex-Clerk of Survey, Plymouth

1822 Post discontinued

Clerk of the Survey, Chatham Dockyard (1726-1775)

Administration of the Dockyard (Board of Admiralty)

Orginally built in 1808 for the principle officers of the dockyard. In 1832 following the abolition of the Navy Board it became the Admiral Superintendents and Captain Superintendents Office. In 1971 it became the office of the Port Admiral, Chatham

Captain-Superintendent, Chatham Dockyard (1832-1876)

Admiral-Superintendent, Chatham Dockyard (1879-1964)

Captain of Chatham Dockyard (1904-1964)


  1. Captain Frank H. Henderson, 10 February, 1904 – 11 June, 1905 (and as King's Harbour Master)
  2. Captain Thomas Y. Greet, 1 September, 1905 – 30 June, 1907
  3. Captain Ernest H. Grafton, 16 September, 1913 – 23 October, 1916
  4. Captain Mortimer L'E. Silver, 24 October, 1916 – 10 October, 1919
  5. Captain Charles S. Wills, 10 October, 1919 – 20 March, 1922
  6. Captain Ernest W. Leir, 14 February, 1923 – 1 February, 1924
  7. Captain Alfred F. B. Carpenter, 1 February, 1924 – 1 February, 1926
  8. Captain Robert C. Hamilton, 1 February, 1926 – 1 February, 1928 (also King's Harbour Master)
  9. Captain Arthur K. Betty, 1 February, 1928 – 9 August, 1929 (ditto)
  10. Captain Niel O'Neill, 9 August, 1929 – 14 August, 1931 (ditto)
  11. Captain Aubrey T. Tillard, 10 August, 1931 – 15 October, 1932 (ditto)
  12. Captain Algernon R. Smithwick, 15 October, 1932 – 7 March, 1935 (ditto)
  13. Captain Charles G. Stuart, 7 March, 1935 – 21 May, 1937 (ditto)
  14. Captain Edye K. Boddam-Whetham, 21 May, 1937 – 31 July, 1939
  15. Captain Cecil S. Sandford, 31 July, 1939 – 9 July, 1941 (and as King's Harbour Master and Deputy Superintendent)
  16. Captain Lawrence F. N. Ommanney, 15 August, 1941 – 10 March, 1943 (ditto)
  17. Captain Alban E.T. Tate, November 1942-September 1943
  18. Captain John B. May: September, 1943 - February, 1946
  19. Captain Cyril I. Horton: February-August 1946
  20. Captain Francis B. Lloyd: August 1946-November 1947
  21. Captain Reginald F. Nichols: November 1947-November 1949
  22. Captain Basil Jones: November 1949-October 1951
  23. Captain Richard C. Boyle: October 1951-October 1953
  24. Captain John F. Cochrane: October 1953-October 1955
  25. Captain Roger C. Lewis: October 1955-July 1958
  26. Captain Christopher C. Suther: July 1958-March 1961
  27. Captain Peter G.C. Dickens: March 1961-April 1964

Administration of the Dockyard (Navy Board, Ministry of Defence)

Admiral-Superintendent, Chatham Dockyard (1964-1971)

Captain of Chatham Dockyard (1964-1971)

  1. Captain Peter G.C. Dickens: April 1964-November 1964
  2. Captain Ian G.H. Garnett: November 1964-June 1966
  3. Captain David V. Morgan: June 1966-May 1968
  4. Captain Sir Edward F.Archdale, Bt.: May 1968-July 1971

Port Admiral, Chatham (1971-1983)

Captain of Chatham Dockyard (1971-1979)

  1. Captain Laurence W.H. Taylor: July 1971-May 1974
  2. Captain David C.R. Walters: May 1974-August 1976
  3. Captain Peter J. Shaw: August 1976-April 1979


  1. "20th-Century Naval Dockyards...Characterisation Report, Part 1". Historic England. Naval Dockyards Society. Retrieved 7 February 2017.
  2. "Research guide: Royal Dockyard names and locations". National Archives. Retrieved 7 February 2017.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Guidebook, p. 28
  4. "Visits to Rochester and Chatham" (PDF). Kent Archaeology. p. 55.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Guidebook, p. 29
  6. Hughes, David T. (2002). Sheerness Naval Dockyard and Garrison. Stroud, Gloucs.: The History Press.
  7. Eastland & Ballantyne, p. 13
  8. "Chatham Dockyard". Battleships cruisers. Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  9. "Chatham Dockyard: Lasting impact three decades on". BBC. 31 March 2014. Retrieved 1 January 2018.
  10. "World heritage bid for dockyard". BBC. 6 June 2007. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Former Storehouse Number 3 and Former Chain Cable Store, Medway". Retrieved 8 January 2014.
  12. "Former Storehouse Number 2 and Former Rigging Store, Medway". Retrieved 8 January 2014.
  13. Guidebook, p. 17
  14. "Master Ropemakers Chatham". Retrieved 8 January 2014.
  15. Guidebook, p. 18
  16. "Kitchener Barracks to be converted for housing". Kent on line. 30 April 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  17. "Chatham Royal Naval Division Barracks". Roll of Honour. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  18. "Brompton Barracks". Brompton History. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  19. "Illustrated London News, March 8 1856". Kent History Forum. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  20. "Fort Amherst Guidebook". Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  21. Copy of government briefing paper
  22. Coad, Jonathan (2013). Support for the Fleet. Swindon: English Heritage.
  23. Archives, The National. "The National Archives - Royal Naval dockyard staff". The National Archives. Kew, London: National Archives UK. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  24. National Archives UK
  25. Harrison, Simon (2010–2020). "Clerk of the Cheque at Chatham Dockyard". Cy Harrison. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  26. Harrison, Simon (2010–2020). "Clerk of the Ropeyard at Chatham Dockyard". Cy Harrison. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  27. Harley, Simon; Lovell, Tony (22 February 2020). "Chatham Royal Dockyard - The Dreadnought Project". Harley and Lovell. Retrieved 14 September 2020.

Template:Navy Royal Shore Establishments