Chatham Royal Dockyard and Infrastructure I

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Farington, Joseph; Chatham Dockyard; National Maritime Museum;

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Farington, Joseph; Chatham Dockyard; National Maritime Museum;

Looking from right to left (i.e. south to north) along the river bank can be seen: the two Anchor Wharf Storehouses (with the Rope House and associated buildings behind); two shipbuilding slips (between which can be seen the Commissioner’s House with its large garden, beyond which is the Sail and Colour Loft); two dry docks (with Clock Tower Storehouse behind them, and the Officers’ Terrace beyond); the old Smithery (later demolished); two more dry docks (beyond which can be seen the Masthouses and Mouldloft); further building slips (with the two Mast Ponds beyond them); and some Boat Houses (later demolished). In the distance (far left) St Mary’s Island can be seen, and ships at anchor on Gillingham Reach. In the centre of the painting, beyond the walls of the Dockyard, is the town of Brompton and, to the right, Chatham Barracks

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.

Much more expensive than building new slipways, or adding the occasional work shop or timber drying shed, was the massive expenditure that would eventually be needed to renew much else that existed in the dockyard. Apart from the ageing dry docks, considerable attention would have to be given to the ropery, an area of manufacture within the dockyard that had also seen 150 years of service by the time of the American War. In 1785, with that particular war now concluded, an Admiralty visitation to the dockyard made a number of points relative to its renewal. Several buildings were condemned and a number of others viewed as in urgent need of repair. The plank house, armourers’ shop, treenail house, main storehouse and Rope House were recommended for demolition while the mast houses, rigging house, hemp house and wharves were in need of repair. Regarding the house carpenters and joiners’ shop, Commissioner Charles Proby was instructed by the Navy Board that:

These buildings being much too confined and very inadequate to the service of the yard, you are to consider and report to the [Navy] Board your opinion how they can be enlarged and whether extending the former into the Deal yard and lengthening the lot towards the present storehouse.

Not surprisingly, as each year passed, increasingly large sums of money were required for the simple upkeep and repair of buildings that should either have been demolished or totally renovated. In 1784 alone, £20,000 was allowed for repair work at Chatham. At that time improvements were being carried out to the Anchor Wharf, with a new storehouse being built upon the wharf at a cost of £3,500.

By 1786 plans were well in hand for a renewal of many of those buildings that had been highlighted as in need of demolition. At the beginning of that year work had started upon the Anchor Wharf Storehouse and designed to replace one that the 1785 visitation had considered ‘too confined for the purpose intended’. In 1786, also, there was a further visitation to the dockyard, the main purpose of which was the finalisation of plans for a new ropery. A strict order of work was laid down, in which the old Rope House was to be completely replaced by a new double Rope House built to the same design as one already constructed at Portsmouth:

We propose to begin with the hatchelling, tarring and white and black yarn houses and to employ the rope makers in the present laying house. Then, to take down the old spinning house, hatchelling, tarring and black yarn house connected with it, and build the double Rope House, and afterwards to take down the old laying house and rigging house and build a new rigging house and in the meantime a temporary rigging house may be immediately prepared for employing the riggers whilst necessary.

Reconstruction of the ropery was the most extensive of the new work to be undertaken. Originally established during the seventeenth century, the ropeyard had witnessed few alterations since the beginning of the eighteenth century. A particularly significant feature was that of the earlier ropery having separate spinning and laying houses, these respectively of 1,120ft and 1,160ft in length, resulting from the need of these buildings to be as long as the longest piece of rope manufactured. It was in the spinning house that hemp was continuously spun into yarn while in the laying house the yarn was first twisted into strands and then worked into rope. Prior to the yarn being transferred from the spinning house to the laying house it was initially stored in the white yarn house prior to being tarred. Serving as a preservative, the tarring of the yarn was carried out in the tarring house, with the tarred yarn, once dry, being stored in the black yarn house.

Apart from the Rope House and its various spinning and laying floors, other buildings associated with the rope-making process were the hatchelling, hemp and rigging houses. The purpose of each of these buildings was fairly straightforward, with the hemp houses, of which there were several at Chatham, being stores in which bales of hemp were first secured upon arrival in the dockyard during the autumn. As for the hatchelling house, this was where the hatchelling boards, used for the combing of the tangled hemp prior to it being spun into yarn, were located. Finally, the rigging house was where the finished rope was taken for cutting, splicing and dressing.

For a ropery there were two alternative layouts. Either there could be a separate spinning house or laying floor, as existed at Chatham, or the two could be combined under one roof. A double Rope House (the name given to a ropery that combined the spinning and laying floors), as now planned for Chatham, did allow for savings to be made in building costs but it would reduce output. Of late, two dockyards had received new Rope Houses, those yards being Plymouth and Portsmouth, with the former seeing construction of separate laying and spinning houses, and Portsmouth a double Rope House. It was the comparison of these that had led the Navy Board to adopt a double Rope House at Chatham: the two separate houses at Plymouth being capable of producing so much rope that it was constantly under-utilised.

In April 1787, detailed plans for the new Rope House at Chatham were finalised:

Money being granted for the erection of a new double Rope House, tarring and white and black yarn houses and a hatchelling house connected with the Rope House in your yard, we acquaint you that drawings of such of them are due to be carried on by the artificers of the yard will be sent to you by the Brompton coach, in a day or two, and direct and require you to carry on the said buildings agreeable thereto.

The latter also went on to inform the Commissioner as to exactly how the work was to proceed:

… as it is intended soon to contract for the carrying on about one fourth part of the Double Rope House in this year … you are to begin with the south end, and to take down the present spinning house immediately, as far as is necessary for carrying on the same, and to proceed therein accordingly, taking care to preserve the old materials as much as possible and make use of as many as may be applicable to the new building.

Although the new Rope House was to be built on the site of the old spinning house, the fact of it being of a greater length, the spinning house being 17ft shorter meant that it extended into ground belonging to the Commissioner’s garden:

And it being necessary in carrying this part of the building to take down and reinstate the Commissioner’s garden, also a part of the south wall of said garden in order to extend the present range with the projecting part of the said wall westward of the ropeyard.

A significant feature of the new building was that it was to be constructed of brick, whereas the spinning and laying houses that it was to replace were of timber construction. This made a good deal of sense as the ropeyard area was always at high risk of fire, this through the combination of highly combustible hemp and the open fire that was needed to heat the tarring kettles. At Portsmouth, where the new double Rope House constructed at that dockyard had also replaced an earlier timber Rope House, fires had struck on three occasions. The first two of these, breaking out in July 1760 and July 1770, were almost certainly accidental and aided by the heat of summer. However, the third fire, this occurring in June 1776, was certainly not an accident, deliberately started by James Aitkin, a sympathiser for the American cause. It was this latter fire that had led to the rebuilding of the Portsmouth ropery, the fire having destroyed much of the original building. The yard at Chatham had also narrowly escaped a similar fate, James Aitkin having visited Chatham for the purpose of starting a similar fire appears to have had problems in gaining access to the yard, turning his attention to Portsmouth. Eventually, Aitkin was arrested in Bristol where he was in the process of setting fire to a number of storehouses.

Obviously this extensive rebuilding work would seriously interfere with normal dockyard routine. Yet, despite the immense upheaval that occurred within the ropeyard, it did not prevent the continued manufacture of rope. For one thing, a temporary rigging house was constructed close to the Commissioner’s garden, while the laying house was not demolished until completion of the new Rope House. This meant that the laying house, for the next few years, could double as a spinning house. If additional rope was still required then this could either be transferred from one of the other dockyards, or manufactured under contract. For the actual building programme, few additional workers were employed, considerable use being made of the yard’s existing force of labourers, house carpenters and plumbers. In April 1787, however, reference is made to the employment of two additional bricklayers who would be employed upon the yarn, tarring and hatchelling houses. They were to be dismissed once this work was completed.

The double Rope House was substantially completed by December 1790. It was approximately 1,250ft in total length, with the interior divided into 100 bays and two separate sections for the accommodation of the laying and spinning floors. Of brick construction, it was given a lead roof, with much of the lead being taken from the old spinning house. Windows were originally unglazed, this to help in the extraction of dust from the working area of each floor. The entire building was of three storeys, each of which had a separate laying and spinning floor, while a cellar provided a storage space for tar. Attached to the north end of the Rope House were separate hemp and hatchelling houses.

Earlier, in 1786, the main storehouse was completed. Just over 600ft in length, it was of brick construction and stood to the south of the Rope House, being sited on the Anchor Wharf. To the west of the Rope House the new yarn and tarring houses were constructed. All were of similar design, being of brick and two storeys in height. The white yarn house was connected to the Rope House spinning floor by a wooden bridge, allowing the hauls of yarn to be taken direct from the spinning house floor. Each of these buildings was completed by 1789, with the tarring house put into use by May. A separate hemp house, two storeys in height and constructed of brick, was also erected and stood to the east of the Rope House.

Apart from that carried out on the ropery, only a limited amount of rebuilding work was undertaken, although a large number of the older buildings were either more extensively repaired or completely renovated. Such was the case with the older mast houses dating to the reign of William III. Between 1785 and 1787 both the plank house and treenail house were pulled down and re-sited, while the house carpenters and joiners’ shops were enlarged and extended. In 1787, £1,440 was set aside for building two new storehouses over the south-west mast pond and £1,500 for two new mast houses sited next to this same mast pond. It is also recorded that in July 1787 work was in hand upon the renovation of the Commissioner’s House.

All this renewal work meant that the dockyard, as a whole, was in a much better position to undertake demands that were to be placed upon it by the war with Revolutionary France that was to break out in February 1793. Certainly the docks and slipways were in a much better state of repair, with only repairs on the first dock required, but this was not undertaken until 1801 when the first period of a long, drawn-out war with France was within months of being temporarily concluded. With the dockyard entering the new century, a further series of buildings and other structures began to be added. Directly related to ship construction was the addition of three new building slips, these constructed in 1804, 1811 and 1813. In addition, two mould lofts were also added, these dating to 1804 and 1811. On the clerical side, and resulting from a set of offices constructed in 1750 having now been declared structurally unsafe, a new office building was constructed in the centre of the yard and subsequently known as the Admiral’s Offices, this completed in 1808. To meet the spiritual needs of those employed at the yard, a chapel was added in 1808, this replacing earlier dependence on the parish church of St Mary’s. Finally, but of considerable significance, was construction of a steam-powered saw mill, this built to a revolutionary design that transformed the means by which timber was both transported around the yard and cut to shape.

Reference has already been made to both Samuel Bentham and Edward Holl, individuals who were closely connected with civil construction works undertaken during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Admittedly, as far as Samuel Bentham was concerned, he had already ceased holding office by the time that work began on the saw mill, but it was his foresight in recognising that steam power could be applied to the cutting of timber that directly led to its construction at Chatham. Of more significance, perhaps, was that Bentham, in attempting to apply the power of steam to dockyard manufacturing processes, acquired the services of Marc Brunel, an asylum seeker from France, whose genius in this area of engineering was unsurpassed. Successfully working on an Admiralty project at Portsmouth, Brunel went on to submit to the Navy Board a detailed paper that outlined the total savings that could be made from the construction of a mill at Chatham.

At that time Chatham employed about 150 sawyers, each normally paid at the rate of 4s 2d per 100ft sawn. Given that, on average, a pair of sawyers working in a sawpit could saw about 220ft, this meant they had a joint weekly wage of 55s with the dockyard’s annual expenditure on this item approaching £11,000. Brunel, in his estimates, reckoned that the saw mill he advocated for Chatham could not only produce considerably more timber but would require, through a considerable reduction in the number of sawyers employed, only £2,000 for wages and maintenance of machinery.

The saw mill that Brunel designed for Chatham consisted of eight saw frames that each carried an average of thirty-six saws, so producing 1,260ft of sawing per minute. While it would be impossible to maintain such a rate throughout the day, the potential was so great that this one unit could meet the needs of all the nation’s dockyards. Potential savings on sawing alone were enormous. In addition, though, Brunel planned further savings by giving attention not only to wood sawing but the means by which timber was conveyed across the yard. Prior to the erection of the saw mill, all log timber arriving at Chatham was landed at the dockyard wharf before being dragged to a convenient place for stacking. According to Brunel, in any one year:

There is required at least 6,000 goings and comings of teams of horses, merely to lay the timber for survey – 6,000 times to and from the stacks – at least as many more times one hundred yards in aiding the lifting on the stacks.

From the timber stacks, the logs, once surveyed, would have to be removed to the point of cutting and then, once sawn, to a new stacking area. All this movement of timber, when the cost of wages and the employment of horses were included, amounted to a further expenditure of £14,000.

Instead of continuing such an uneconomic system within the dockyard at Chatham, Brunel proposed to extend the use of the steam engine to be installed in the mill, so it could also assist in the transporting of timber across the yard. The process would begin with construction of an underground canal that interlinked with the river and connected to a stacking and timber-surveying area sited close to the mill. Along this canal, the newly arrived timber would be floated. Apart from savings in the cost of moving the newly arrived timber, there was an added advantage of using the canal; the timber was freed from the sand and gravel that collected during the dragging and which impeded the operation of the saw. Once the timber reached the end of the canal it entered a reservoir from which a mechanical lift, also powered by the saw mill steam engine, removed each log. As soon as it reached the surface, the arm of a moveable crane on rails grabbed it. Having seized the log, the crane then descended a gradual incline before gently depositing its burden on the drying beds where it would be surveyed. In the meantime the crane would be drawn back to its original position by a chain once again operated by the saw mill steam engine. The same crane was also employed in conveying the dried timber to the saw mill where, once converted, the scantlings, or sawn timber was conveyed to any part of the yard by single horse trucks.