Victory flying the Blue Ensign (with the pre-1801 Union Jack), from The Fleet Offshore, 1780–90, an anonymous piece of folk art now at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire.

In total, the Royal Navy at Trafalgar assembled a winning fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line. Many of their names, including Victory, Temeraire and Bellerophon, have firmly entered into the annals of history and been accounted as among the most famous ships to sail the oceans of the world. Of significance, also, is that six of the battleships that fought at Trafalgar, including the aforementioned three, were all built on the river Medway. Of these, Victory (100), Temeraire (98), Leviathan (74) and Revenge (74) were all launched at Chatham, while Bellerophon (74), the ‘Billy Ruffian’ to her crew, was a product of Frindsbury, and Polyphemus (74) a Sheerness-built warship. In its own right, Chatham can rightly claim to have built more battleships of the Trafalgar fleet than any other royal dockyard while the Medway in general constructed more vessels of that same fleet than any other area of the country.

None of this was simple coincidence. Chatham was an industrial-military complex that had few rivals, with the dockyard having acquired a particular specialism in building those mighty wooden walls that were the nation’s first line of defence. Although not the role that had originally been envisaged for the dockyard at Chatham, strategic needs had forced upon it this new arrangement. Situated on the east side of the country, and some sixteen miles up river, the yard at Chatham had proved itself increasingly unsuitable as a naval base – especially when the enemy was France or Spain. Much more convenient, and sheltered by the Isle of Wight, was the fleet anchorage and harbour linked to the dockyard at Portsmouth. With the Royal Navy beginning to range more frequently into the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic, it was this yard that had now acquired supremacy, supported in its efforts by the rapidly expanding and more recent yard that had been established at Plymouth.

While both Portsmouth and Plymouth had the facilities to build ships, this was not the major given task of these two yards. Instead, work undertaken was directed to that of supporting the fleet in operation. They were the yards that prepared new fleets when war was declared or carried out short- or medium-term repairs on ships that needed to be quickly got back to sea. When the nation was at peace, these two yards had harbours filled with ships in Ordinary, the workforce carrying out regular inspections and ensuring that these vessels were ready for a future conflict. It was also during such periods that Portsmouth and Plymouth were best placed to build new ships, these two yards then having the spare capacity to undertake such work.

At Chatham things were very different. It was no longer a first line operational fleet base. Apart from anything else, there were increasing problems with the Medway, this resulting from the continued silting of the river. Sometimes it might take two weeks or more for a large warship to successfully navigate the river from its mouth to the dockyard. Eating up much of this time was the need to await a suitable combination of wind and tides that would permit navigation of the various shoals and bends that permeated the river. According to one particular Admiralty observation made in 1774, ‘there is only six points of the compass for a wind with which ships of the line can sail down, and ten to sail up and that only for a few days in the spring tides.’ In an examination of the problem that was undertaken in September 1790, it was found that numerous vessels had taken fourteen days to transit this stretch of the Medway, while others had taken in excess of a month. Lenox (70), a third rate drawing 21ft of water, had, during the year 1756, been detained in Chatham Reach for a total of six weeks, the tides too shallow for an earlier departure.

At the very least, an operational naval base, in undertaking repair and maintenance work on urgently needed warships, should be in a position to provide a fast turnaround time. These extensive delays in navigating the Medway ensured that Chatham could not be relied upon to meet this basic requirement. Instead, the dockyard at Chatham had to be directed towards the equally essential role of both constructing new ships and undertaking more extensive repair work on a ship that was likely to be dry-docked for several months. A vessel that merely required careening and therefore needed only to be in dry dock for a few days, if sent to Chatham, might ultimately be out of service for several months, with much of this time taken by the lengthy delays in waiting for a suitable tide and wind.

The Earl of Sandwich, while First Lord, clearly recognised that Chatham was of great value to the Navy, but only if it was used for tasks to which it was best suited. In 1773 he wrote:

I am now more and more convinced that if [Chatham] is kept singly to its proper use as a building yard, possibly more service may be obtained from it than from any other dockyard in His Majesty’s dominions; the great extent of the yard that faces the river and the great length of the harbour which has the room to moor half the fleet of England of a moderate draught of water, are conveniences that are not to be found elsewhere; and it will appear by the repairs that have been carried on during the visitations I have lately made, that more business in the way of building and repairs has been done here than in any other one, possibly more than in any two of the other yards.

These observations, as made by Sandwich, doubtless formed the basis of a paragraph which appeared in a general account of all the yards that was presented to George III in 1774. Once again they relate to the value of Chatham as a building yard rather than that of being an operational naval base:

Although from the alteration of affairs of Europe [Chatham] cannot now be called the great naval arsenal of the kingdom … yet it is of no less importance than it was in every respect except that for speedy equipment of great ships, the uses of it being in every other respect improved, such as for building and repairing even large ships, from where they may occasionally be moved to Portsmouth and Plymouth, and is the properest station for laying up and equipping the greatest number of smaller ships, of the line, frigates and as in cases of sudden and great armaments, the greater the number of ports the fleet is divided to the better for expeditious equipment and getting them round to the general rendezvous.

As indicated, the most important of these various designated roles was that of warship construction. By 1772, Chatham had six building slips, a number only equalled by Deptford. The result was that during the final three decades of the eighteenth century, Chatham launched a total of thirty-five vessels; this far exceeded that of all other naval building yards in the country, in both number and total tonnage. Furthermore, due to this dedicated specialism, other shipbuilding yards were also attracted into the area, knowing that government contracts were easier to acquire if they were sited close to an existing naval dockyard. Apart from anything else, a naval warship that was constructed outside of a royal dockyard had to be regularly inspected by an assistant Master Shipwright employed in one of the yards. In addition, the vessel, once launched, would automatically be moved to a government yard for completion and final commissioning. For this reason, a number of private yards gravitated to the Rochester and Frindsbury area, these including Greaves and Nicholson, the yard that built Bellerophon. In being situated at Frindsbury, Greaves and Nicholson were immediately across the river from the naval dockyard at Chatham, a distance of less than 500 yards. Once constructed, Bellerophon had been taken across the river to the Chatham yard and immediately dry-docked for the purpose of tarring the hull prior to transfer to the dockyard Ordinary for fitting out.

With Chatham having become a significant building yard, as opposed to an operational naval base, there was a considerable financial downside. Government expenditure on the improvement of shore-based facilities was invariably directed to Portsmouth and Plymouth, with both these yards the recipient of major improvement programmes that were undertaken during the mid-eighteenth century. At Chatham, the workforce had to make do and mend, with only relatively minute sums being directed to their yard. Instead, older buildings that might have been replaced if found at one of the two strategic yards, were retained through the undertaking of frequent repair work. Although it was recognised that something eventually would have to be done, with the already cited report that was presented to George III in 1774 making the following point:

Those [buildings] now there have been very good when first built but as this was the yard that had any considerable building in it such as remain of those that were the first built are in a very decay’d state and must by degree as money can be spared from other services, be pulled down and rebuilt.

Little, however, was to be done at that time, Chatham having first to weather the War of American Independence (1775–83), with new building work only being undertaken on two new building slips and a number of timber drying sheds.

However, the inadequacies of Chatham were clearly demonstrated at this time. In September 1770, when a controversy arose over the frequently contested Falkland Islands, war with Spain was viewed as a distinct possibility. Orders were given for the fleet to be mobilised, with Chatham receiving instructions to prepare nine ships for Channel service. Despite the urgency, Chatham was quite unable to respond, with three of the dry docks already occupied while the fourth was out of use due to a long-term repair need to its own timberwork. Matters were further compounded by the absence of a masting hulk, a large vessel fitted with lifting gear and used to step into position the masts of warships being prepared for service. At that time, and serving as additional proof that facilities at Chatham needed considerable updating, the ageing Chatham mast hulk was itself occupying one of the dry docks, being also in considerable need of repair.

The ill-preparedness of Chatham at the time of the Falklands crisis was duplicated at the outset of the American War in 1775. Even before the actual declaration of hostilities, complaints were voiced that the dockyard was behind with work that had been allocated to it, a situation made worse by a shipwrights’ strike earlier in the year over the imposition of task work. With the situation in America rapidly deteriorating, the workload at Chatham increased. By the end of October warrants had been received from the Navy Board for the fitting out of eleven ships ‘for foreign service’, with three of the four dry docks allocated to this work. All seemed to be going reasonably well until the following summer. Upon examining the Old Single Dock in June 1776, a structure that had now seen 150 years of usage, extensive areas of wood rot were revealed. This had caused ‘the apron’, the ledge upon which the entrance gates rested, to start breaking up so that ‘the whole must be taken up, and piles drove to secure the groundways’. It was determined that this work must be immediately undertaken, with all available house carpenters transferred to the task and so delaying work due to have been undertaken on the thirty-two-gun Montreal.

With regard to Chatham’s important shipbuilding role, it was much easier to plan ahead, a sudden emergency less likely to impact upon plans that had often been agreed several years in advance. Indeed, those employed in building a particular vessel, in the event of a sudden fleet mobilisation could be moved from the construction of a new vessel to that of helping prepare a vessel that had been newly taken from the Ordinary. Most new construction work was undertaken on a building slip, this ensuring that all dry docks were available for the repairing and maintenance of ships as and when required. However, there were exceptions, with the larger first- and second-rate three-decked warships often being built in dry dock. Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, the 100-gun Victory, was one such example. She had been built in the Old Single Dock, having her keel first laid down in 1759 and eventually floated out in 1765. That she remained in dry dock for such a lengthy period underlines the problem of using the dry dock for new construction work, as it blocked use of this facility for the entire period of construction, including six months that was usually set aside for the vessel to season in frame. However, Victory’s long-term occupancy of the Old Single Dock was an exception, her period of seasoning having been extended by a change in the international situation. At the time she was laid down, the subsequently named Seven Years War (1756–63) was creating a considerable demand for such vessels and her construction was regarded as urgent. Following a series of stunning victories that took place in the same year as she was laid down, it was no longer felt necessary to complete her for immediate wartime service and for this reason she remained in dry dock for six years. In commemoration of those victories, the year 1759 became known as the Year of Victories, with the new first-rate under construction at Chatham taking her name from that particularly momentous year.

Three important documents relating to the construction of Victory are held at the National Maritime Museum and recently highlighted by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Society in their newsletter Chips. One relates to the naming of the ship and the other two to her successful launch. On 30 October 1760 the Navy Board informed the officers at Chatham dockyard:

The Right honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty having directed us to cause the ships and sloops mentioned on the other side to be registered on the list of the Royal Navy by the names against each expressed; We direct you to cause them to be entered on your Books, and called by those names accordingly.

On the other side of the document were listed three ships that were then under construction at Chatham, these of 100, ninety and seventy-four guns and to be named respectively, Victory, London and Ramillies. As to the launch of Victory, the officers at Chatham received a further letter, this dated 30 April 1765:

The Master Shipwright having acquainted us that His Majesty’s Ship Victory building in the Old Single Dock will be ready to launch the ensuing Spring Tides. These are to direct and require you to cause her to be launched at that time accordingly if she is in all respects ready for it.

Confirming that this was carried out according to those instructions, Commissioner Hanway wrote to both the Navy Board and Admiralty informing them that Victory had been floated out of the Old Single Dock on 7 May, with this reply received from Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Board of Admiralty:

I have communicated to My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 6 & 7 inst. the former giving an Account of the Augusta being put out of the Dock, the latter of the Victory being safely launched yesterday.

Following her launch (or floating out), Victory spent the next thirteen years in the Ordinary, there being no particular need for a ship of her size during the years of peace that had followed the ending of the Seven Years War and the immediate opening years of the American War of Independence. It was not, therefore, until 1778 that she left the Medway, going on to serve in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Following a further period in the Chatham Ordinary, she was called upon to serve in 1793 upon the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France. A further return to Chatham saw Victory entering dry dock in 1800 for what was termed a ‘middling’ repair. On inspection it was found that far more work would have to be carried out than had initially been anticipated. The ‘middling’ repair subsequently became a rebuild, at a cost of £70,933, with much of the hull and stern replaced, rigging and masts renewed and modifications made to the bulwark. Undocked on 11 April 1803, she was immediately ordered to Spithead where she was to wear the flag of Admiral Nelson. Still flying his flag, she went on to gain immortal fame in October 1805 when she, with Temeraire immediately to her stern, led the British fleet at Trafalgar.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 1836 oil on canvas by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield. Stanfield shows the damaged Redoutable caught between Victory (foreground) and Temeraire (seen bow on). Fougueux, coming up on Temeraire‘s starboard side, has just received a broadside.

While Chatham had four dry docks, all of them dating back to the seventeenth century, the building slips were considerably more recent in age. Admittedly the oldest had its origins in the previous century, but a second building slip of the same period had been replaced in 1738. To this original pair, a further two dry docks were added shortly after the Seven Years War, with a final pair built between 1772 and 1774. The fact of Chatham having only two building slips at the time of Victory being laid down is a further factor in explaining why she was built in dry dock rather than on a building slip, there being at that time neither a sufficient number of slips nor one of a size sufficient to take the new vessel. With the construction of four new slipways in a relatively short period of time, it ensured that dry docks would now have to be used even more infrequently for the construction of new vessels.