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Upnor Castle and the founding of the dockyard
Upnor's history is closely linked with that of the British Navy.
During the 16th century, the river Medway began to be used
as anchorage for the fleet or at least that part of it which was
out of commission. This concentration of laid-up warships led to
the building of facilities for them, starting in 1547 with the hire
of a storehouse in Gillingham. More buildings followed. Land was
obtained for making a mast dock and before long the new Chatham
dockyard had joined Deptford and Woolwich in the business of
building ships for the Crown.
By 1564, most of the British fleet was moored in the Medway. The
ships rode at anchor without sails or rigging, completely at the
mercy of any bold enemy attack up the river. Henry VIII had built
five riverside blockhouses to guard the Thames but, apart from the
fort at Sheerness, the Medway remained unprotected. It was this
situation that the building of Upnor Castle was designed to remedy
The original fort consisted of an angled gun platform and a
rectangular residential block built for the gunners over the river
bank. The whole structure was flanked by two towers for further
guns and small arms. Between 1599 and 1601 these towers were
rebuilt and a gatehouse and courtyard added to give the castle
something like its appearance today.
In 1667 the castle saw action when a Dutch squadron under the
command of Michael de Ruyter sailed up the Medway and stole away
the English flagship, the Royal Charles. Although fire from Upnor
and other batteries prevented the Dutch ships from reaching the
dockyard, this was nevertheless a humiliating defeat for the
English, "a dishonour never to be wiped off", according to the
writer John Evelyn.
Shortly after this, Upnor Castle was converted into a gunpowder
store and magazine, becoming the largest and most important powder
store in the country. Today, the building still displays many of
the alterations made to ensure the safe storage of gunpowder,
including a separate barrack block for the garrison. It continued
to serve as a magazine throughout the 19th century.
Castle was finally transferred to the Ministry of Works in
1961 to be maintained as a national monument.
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