Royal Navy Warships at Chatham Shipyards I


The Launching of HMS Trafalgar at Chatham 26 July 1820, 1836 (pencil and watercolour), Whichelo, C. John Mayle (1784-1865) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library

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.

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