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The Royal Dockyard
The presence of the
river has always been a major factor in the story of the Medway
area. Its quiet but accessible lower reaches proved to be a useful
safe anchorage as the size of the English navy increased. The
storehouse set up by Henry VIII in 1547 to serve the large number
of ships moored in "Jillingham Water" was just the beginning.
Within a hundred years Chatham Dockyard and its facilities for
building, refitting and provisioning warships were firmly
established. The first ship, the Sunne, was launched in
Even during this early period of its history, the dockyard
employed hundreds of people. In peacetime, however, work could be
hard to come by and many Commissioners refer to the near-starving
condition of the men. Relations were not always cordial and there
were disputes over the payment of wages, as well as complaints
about the behaviour of the workers. “I used to think those at
Portsmouth the worst in the world,” wrote Sir Thomas Middleton in
1668, “but they are saints compared to those at Chatham.”
At the beginning of the 18th century many improvements and
additions were made to the dockyard, the majority of which may
still be seen today. Lines of complex fortifications were also
constructed in the Medway area to protect this vital naval base
from attack by sea or land. Many survive to this day, with the most
extensive example, Fort
Amherst, now restored and open to the public.
In 1759, the keel of HMS Victory was laid down at
Chatham. The ship was launched six years later in 1765.
Victory lay at her moorings for thirteen years before she
was commissioned and Admiral Nelson took the vessel as his flagship
An enormous extension into St Mary’s Island was begun in 1864.
This was planned to add 380 acres to the yard’s existing 97. It
cost £1.75 million and was finally finished in 1885. By this time
the dockyard at Woolwich had closed and some of the machinery and
workshops had been moved to Chatham. The maximum total number of
workers was reached during the Second World War, when 11,000 men
and 2,000 women were employed.
During the period of adjustment after the war, Chatham Dockyard
was restricted to building submarines and refitting ships. Despite
the opening of facilities for nuclear submarines, the dockyard
closed in 1984, putting many thousands of people out of work.
(Photograph copyright Kent Messenger and appears with kind
permission. For viewing only.)
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