Chatham Royal Dockyard and Infrastructure II

Chatham Dockyard in 1790 (by Nicholas Pocock) HMS Royal George on the right fitting out in the River Medway off what is now Sun Pier, with HMS Queen Charlotte under construction in the centre background. This is a view from Chatham Ness, today the southernmost point of the Medway City Estate

The mill, which was completed in June 1814, immediately brought about considerable financial savings that resulted from the sharp reduction in the number of sawyers employed in the cutting of planks and horse teams used in the movement of timber in both its sawn and unsawn state. In addition, because of its innovative design, it became a notable attraction, with a number of foreign dignitaries brought to the yard for the purpose of viewing its various component parts. One who was particularly impressed was William Wildash when writing a history of the area that was published in 1817:

These saw mills, as the name imports, are employed in converting the fir timber used in the service of the yard into planks or boards; and are erected on an eminence about 35 feet above the level of the lowest part of the yard. To the ground on the north side of the mill; which is appropriated to the stowage of timber, balks are floated from the river by means of a canal which runs open about 250 feet; this canal on entering the rising ground becomes a tunnel in length about 300 feet, and empties itself into an elliptical basin the length of which is 90 feet, the breadth 72 feet, and the depth 44 feet. The operation of raising the timber from this basis is worthy of observation; and the steady, though quick motion with which it ascends is truly astonishing. We have witnessed a balk of 60 feet long, and 16 inches square, raised to the top of the standard 60 feet in the space of 60 seconds! The saw mill is constructed on a very extensive scale; and the mechanism of it may be reduced to three principle things; the first, that is the saw drawn up and down as long as is necessary, by a motion communicated to the wheel by steam; the second, that the timber to be cut into boards is advanced by a uniform motion to receive the strokes of the saw; for here the wood is to meet the saw, and not the saw to follow the wood, therefore the motion of the wood and that of the saw immediately depends the one on the other; the third, that where the saw has cut through the whole length of the piece, the whole machine stops of itself, and remains immovable; lest having no obstacle to surmount, the moving power should turn the wheel with too great velocity, and break some part of the machine.

Edward Holl’s association with the saw mill was that of overseeing the construction and approving the plans submitted by Brunel. As a civil architect, rather than an engineer, his interest was in the structure of the building rather than that of the machinery that it housed. With regard to the other major construction works that were undertaken at this time, the chapel and the office building were based entirely on plans produced by Holl. Both are still features of the dockyard; substantial and pleasant in design, they clearly reflect the undoubted talents of this particular architect. The chapel, which stands immediately north of the Main Gate and on land previously used for the storage of timber, is a rectangular building of yellow stock brick with details of Purbeck marble. It has a light and spacious interior with cast-iron columns supporting a tiered gallery. The offices, designed initially for use by the Commissioner and the principal officers of the yard, were located in a central position, which was close to the dry docks and building slips. Of brick construction and two storeys in height, it has an east-facing main entrance that leads directly to a corridor that interlinks with all of the separate internal offices. This, in itself, was something of an innovation, earlier offices at Chatham being grouped in separate parts of a building and provided with separate entrances. Administratively, this reinforced the independent authority possessed by the principal officers and helped create barriers in the smooth day-to-day operations carried out within the yard.

Prior to the construction of the dockyard chapel, only limited attention had been given to the spiritual needs of the workforce. Although the yard had long possessed a chaplain, services were normally performed on board one of the many ageing hulks that were moored in the Medway. In 1773 it was reported that Revenge ‘has divine service performed in it by the chaplain of the yard regularly every Sunday.’ The growth of Methodism in the Medway area, a denomination that was attracting into its ranks some of the artisans and labourers of the yard, resulted in more attention being given to the construction of chapels funded by government money.

As a means of countering Methodism, the new chapel was hardly likely to attract into the ranks of the established church those it had lost to the particular tenets of that movement. Methodism had a certain openness that tended towards democracy, something far removed from the thinking that clearly underpinned the seating arrangement established for the new dockyard chapel upon its completion in 1808. Every member of the congregation was accorded a seat in the building based on rank, with the Commissioner and his family provided with a high-sided box pew at the very front. Around him were positioned the principal officers, also in high-sided box pews. Artificers not of officer rank were seated much further back, with a final row of pews reserved for the officers’ apprentices. The gallery was similarly reserved, seating given over to those of the Ordinary and officers of the Royal Marines. This strict recognition of rank was hardly likely to counter the growth of Methodism, a sect that attracted those who saw all as equal in the eyes of the Almighty.

Departing from the architectural contributions made by Edward Holl, it is useful to direct further attention to Samuel Bentham. This is because of an additional contribution that he made to the yard and one so important that, without it, there was every certainty that the yard at Chatham would have been closed and replaced by an entirely new dockyard. Bentham’s achievement was that of overcoming the problem of shoaling and the consequent difficulty of getting ships to the dockyard. First explored as an issue at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had gained, as already noted, increasing severity throughout the following century and by the year 1800 there was a definite fear that larger ships would be completely unable to reach the yard.

In deciding to construct a considerably enlarged dockyard at Chatham during the early years of the seventeenth century it had been assumed that the river might actually have been gaining in depth. This, of course, had proved itself to be a completely false assumption, with the Navy having to now live up to the consequences of this error. One of the first pieces of evidence to reveal that serious problems lay on the horizon was produced in 1724 by the yard Commissioner, Thomas Kempthorne. He complained that larger ships were unable to move up river other than on a tide that was between half flood and half ebb. As a result of Kempthorne’s concern, a careful survey was undertaken, with numerous soundings taken at various points of the river. In West Gillingham Reach, where a number of larger ships were moored, it was discovered that on a spring tide, the greatest depth of water was 27ft but this fell to 17ft during a neap tide. Even less favourable was the deepest point of East Gillingham Reach where there was only 19ft on a spring tide, this falling to 16ft. As a point of reference, it should be noted that the larger warships of this period generally required a depth of between 21ft and 24ft.

By the 1770s the situation had become even more serious. Instead of ships being able to move up river when between half flood and half ebb, such was now possible only on a spring tide. In other words, ships that were once able to navigate the Medway on tidal conditions occurring twice in every 24 hours, were now restricted to a particular tide that only took place once every lunar month. Furthermore, mobility of shipping on the Medway continued to decline, a survey of 1763 showing that since 1724 the depth of water on a spring tide in Cockham Wood Reach had been reduced by 2ft, while the area between Chatham Quay and Upnor Castle had seen a reduction in depth of 4ft.

As well as presenting a problem for navigational purposes, the increasing shallowness of the Medway also undermined its value as a naval harbour. To allow larger ships to continue using the river for this purpose they had either to be deliberately lightened, to reduce the draft that each required, or ran the risk that the keel or lower hull timbers would suffer damage by scraping the bottom of the river. Neither alternative was acceptable, as a deliberately lightened ship would have timbers that were normally submerged in seawater now constantly exposed to the sun. As a result, the consequent drying process would lead to this part of the ship becoming subject to dry rot.

The problem of mooring ships in the Medway was highlighted in 1771 following an Admiralty inspection of the dockyard and harbour that found:

On enquiry that the depth of water in this port is scarcely adequate for the draughts of the capital ships built according to the present estimates, as few of them can have the proper quantity of ballast on board, and remain constantly on float. The consequence of which is very apparent … [and] which weakens them greatly and makes them sooner unfit for service.

Two years later, during a visitation to Chatham, the Earl of Sandwich, in his capacity as First Lord, added:

It must be allowed that this port is not so useful as formerly from the increased size of our ships, so that there are few above five places where a ship of the line can lay afloat properly ballasted.

The problem was effectively put on hold until the early years of the following century when John Rennie was requested to view a whole range of problems associated with the further development of the royal dockyards, including that of warships finding it difficult to both navigate the Medway and use these waters for long-term harbouring. Working closely with John Whidby, the Master Attendant at Woolwich, and William Jessop, a consulting engineer, he began to unravel the problem as to why the Medway was subject to such an alarming degree of shoaling. Noting it to be a problem that was not simply restricted to the Medway, they settled upon the notion that it was a result of recent industrial and agrarian developments. Further up river, and beyond where the dockyard was sited, towns and villages were expanding. As they did so, they caused deposits of mud to enter the rivers and feed into the navigable channels and dockyard harbours. Additional deposits also found their way into these same rivers from agricultural improvements and land drainage. Specifically, for the Medway, much of the blame was placed on Rochester Bridge, a point Rennie included in his report:

If Rochester Bridge had been pulled down some years since, and a new one built in the line of the streets through Strood and Rochester, with piers of suitable dimensions, instead of repairing the old one, the large starlings of which act as a dam, and prevent the tide from flowing up to the extent it otherwise would do, the depth of water in front of Chatham, Rochester, and in Cockham Wood Reach, would have been greatly improved. The trustees unfortunately determined on repairing the old bridge. This nuisance still remains and no advantage whatever has been gained. Unless, therefore, something is done to preserve at least, if not to improve the navigation of the Medway, the soundings will go on diminishing in depth and the dockyard will become less useful. In its present state, vessels of large draught of water must have all their guns and stores taken out before they can come up the dockyard and be dismasted before they can be taken into the dock.

At that time, Rennie could see no real solution to the problem and favoured construction of an alternative yard at Northfleet, this to replace not just Chatham but also the yards of Woolwich and Deptford. The only drawback, however, was that of the likely cost of such a project, with Rennie suggesting a sum of £6 million. Others disputed this figure, with the Admiralty suggesting that this sum might well double upon construction work getting underway. The project got as far as having outline plans drawn up and the appropriate land purchased. Indeed, the entire Northfleet complex might have been constructed, and Chatham dockyard closed, if it had not been for Samuel Bentham developing a super-efficient dredger through the adoption of steam power. A dramatic improvement on the hand dredgers previously used and operated by dockyard scavelmen, its use resulted in the rapid clearing of many of the problematic shoals. Those hand dredgers had been hopelessly inefficient, removing from the bed of the river no more than a few tons of mud each day. In contrast, a steam-powered dredger based on Bentham’s original design was removing, by 1823, as much as 175 tons of mud per day.

Inevitably, it was Bentham’s development of the steam dredger that saved Chatham from an ignominious closure during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Instead this valuable military complex was not only to continue in its important shipbuilding and repair role but was to enter into a new period of supremacy. Within forty years of those closure threats, Chatham had been earmarked for a programme of expansion that was so massive in scale that it actually quadrupled the land area of the existing yard. Furthermore, it took on its very own specialism through the building of ironclads. Not only was Chatham the first royal dockyard to build an ironclad, but it also became the lead yard when any new class of ironclad battleship was laid down. Although his name is rarely spoken in Chatham, Samuel Bentham was the man who saved Chatham Dockyard – that is, until Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene some 140 years later.