Chatham Dockyard and its Defences
Chatham Dockyard and its Defences is part of the Tentative list of United Kingdom in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Chatham Dockyard was one of the main naval bases of the British Royal Navy at the height of its imperial power. In the 18th century it was the primary base of the national fleet, however by the 19th century it had become the hub of ship production for one of the world’s most powerful navies. The dockyard is in Kent around 50km east of London and has been a museum since ship production stopped in 1984. This has protected the core of the 18th century dockyard and nearby coastal defences, meaning it is one of the best preserved naval dockyards from the age of wind powered sailing.
Map of Chatham Dockyard and its DefencesLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
Just as the pandemic hit in early 2020 a new £20 note entered circulation in the UK. The portrait on the reverse of the banknote is of the 19th century artist JMW Turner and behind him can be seen details of his 1839 work The Fighting Temeraire, Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838. This picture depicts a once-grand ship of the line, famed for its performance at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, masts bare, being hauled away for dismantling by a low dark churning paddle-steamer. It represents the replacement of the age of sail with that of steam. More generally, it represents the passing away of greatness. It provided a sombre leitmotif to my visit to Chatham Historic Dockyard. The Temeraire was constructed in the Chatham shipyards on the River Medway, and it was from Sheerness at the mouth of the river that it departed for its final voyage. And at the dockyard itself visitors can view the last remains of the similarly-feted HMS Namur, broken up just six years before the Temeraire and its timbers used to support the floor of a workshop. Chatham reached its apogee in constructing these romantic warships of the age of sail. But as sail turned to steam and then oil and ships became larger and more complex Chatham Dockyard was outmatched. In the 1980s she, too, was broken up, sold off and built over.
The core remains in the form of the Chatham Historic Dockyard, however, and provides a very enjoyable, informative – and full – day out. It calls itself ‘the most complete Dockyard of the Age of Sail in the world’. Its core is a collection of buildings from the 18th and early 19th century, the peak of Britain’s maritime power, situated on the southern bank of the River Medway which flows east from here to empty into a wide estuary of islets and banks south of the mouth of the River Thames. Visitors enter through the mid-18th century wooden mast house which houses the ‘Command of the Seas’ exhibition (explaining the background and purpose of the Royal Dockyard – to support Britain’s growing overseas interests by constructing naval ships). To the right on the riverbank are the 19th century covered slipways and dry docks where ships were constructed. To the left is the Smithery. Walking forwards brings you to the Ropery and the ‘Steel, Steam and Submarines’ exhibition which looks at the history of the dockyard itself. Other period buildings are dotted about, from the grand Commissioner’s House and garden all the way up past the dockyard church to the barracks and then the main gate, emblazoned with the crests of Kings George I and III. During our visit a period steam train of the early 20th century shuttled back and forth, adding to the ambiance.
The historic environment is complimented by some of the exhibits. The two exhibitions mentioned above do a good job of drawing out the OUV. My 1-year-old daughter loved the huge ship’s figureheads dotted about. One of the highlights is the Ropery, which proved to be the most interesting 30 minutes devoted to the history of rope-making I’ve ever spent! I have always thought of rope as just a component part but rope was (and still is) made here on site with hemp fibre twisted together to make yarn, which is twisted together into strands, which are twisted together into hawsers (the ropes people will actually be handling), which may be twisted together into cables. Apparently the only ‘rope’ on board a boat will be that of the ship’s bell. Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, which was built at Chatham needed 31 miles of rope in total. On an annual basis the quarter-mile long ropewalk at Chatham would have made enough rope to stretch all the way to Moscow.
There are three vessels stationed in the dry docks to have a look around. HMS Gannet is an example of a late 19th century sail ship built here and the Cold War-era HM Submarine Ocelot was the last vessel constructed here for the Royal Navy (though three sister submarines were constructed immediately afterwards for the Canadian Navy). HMS Cavalier is a WWII destroyer with only a tenuous connection to Chatham (she was decommissioned here). Gannet and Cavalier were accessible to look around on your own, but due to the confined spaces Ocelot was only visitable on a (free) timed tour on our visit; we were taught both the ‘safe’ and the ‘fun / cinematic’ ways to pass through the sub’s hatches though.
Like Cavalier, some of the other stuff on display at Chatham did feel slightly tenuous (the collection of historic lifeboats for example).
I think that the range of extant preserved buildings, the way they are presented to the public, and the fact that they represent the Age of Sail (and the growth of what came to be the world’s greatest naval power) do merit inscription for the Historic Dockyard. And looking at the UK’s current T-List I would argue that only the Zenith of Iron Age Shetland proposal rivals it in terms of value. While Chatham does have a long history dating back to the reign of King Henry VIII as first a naval harbour and then a Royal Dockyard I think that any nomination should focus on the 18th and 19th centuries. The dockyard of the 17th century Stuarts may have laid its foundations but there is nothing to see of it. With regards to the similarly-nominated defences, it is possible to sneak views of the 16th century Upnor Castle across the Medway but I don’t believe it adds anything to the site (and it did little to prevent the infamous 1667 Raid on the Medway when the nascent Dutch Republic sailed up the river, destroyed 13 ships of the Royal Navy and towed away the king’s flagship). In comparison, if the landward defensive lines are to be included (a topic on which I cannot comment because I did not visit them) then the nomination should also include the mid-19th century river defences – Hoo and Darnet Forts which were built on islands in the inner estuary and, ideally, Garrison Point Fort at Sheerness at the mouth of the river (though I understand that continued reuse and adaptation for a variety of port roles has severely undermined its integrity).
As other posters have commented, entrance is expensive – I paid £57 for two adults and a child. Tickets do permit unlimited visits within the space of 12 months, which helps to get the most out of an extensive site (in fact children can take part in a series of ‘Dockyard Explorer’ challenges on subsequent visits whereby they ‘climb the ranks’). That isn’t much use for people who do not live locally. The other problem I found was that, due to limits on numbers due to Covid, three of the attractions had to be pre-booked for specific ticketed slots on arrival. These were the rope-making demonstration (which I would describe as highly useful for people looking to understand the importance of the site), the tour of the Ocelot (enjoyable but not imperative), and a children’s science show looking at fundamental forces like buoyance / upthrust, gravity and levers (which my 5-year old enjoyed). Put those together and you have already lost two hours out of your day before you even have chance to look at anything else. I would recommend you plan your day carefully and think what aspects will interest you the most.
The site is perfectly feasible as a day trip from London. Trains take 40 minutes to Chatham from Victoria Station, with a 1.5 mile walk to the Dockyard (more if you want to swing by the Great Lines Heritage Park). There are also direct trains that will get you from Chatham to Kent’s existing World Heritage Site in Canterbury in 45 minutes.
(Visited August 2021)
I visited this WHS in May 2019. It was a very convenient stopover from London en route to Canterbury. The entrance ticket is expensive but considering the Historic Dockyard's size and other industrial WHS already on the list it's quite reasonable. Parking is also included in the ticket and if you visit on a quiet morning like I did, most probably you'll be parking inside the 1848 No. 5 Covered Slip.
Even though I'm not an industrial heritage fan, I was pleasantly surprised with this tentative WHS. To a certain extent its OUV is justified and it might even fill in some maritime heritage gaps if inscribed. It is at least as deserving as the other industrial WHS in the UK. All the fortifications built to defend this strategic dockyard are included and can be easily viewed for free if you're travelling by car. The best examples are Fort Amherst and Upnor Castle even though all in all the Lower Lines and Great Lines Heritage Parks are a bit neglected.
The Historic Dock information video at the visitor centre gives a very good overview of how the bygone age of sails, industrialisation, the new iron age, steam power, underwater warfare are all represented in one ensemble of over a hundred buildings and structures, some of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments. The dockyard is run on the principle of preservation through reuse. Some of the buildings are open to visitors, while others are occupied by residential tenants, businesses and faculties of the University of Kent.
The buildings, places and 'monuments' I enjoyed most were definitely the interesting Victorian ropery, HM Submarine Ocelot, HMS Cavalier, HMS Gannet, the lifeboats and the contrast between restored wooden administrative buildings and mast houses, and the red brick smithery, commissioner's house and main gate (full of old graffiti!).
I went to Chatham Dockyard (and the nearby city of Rochester) in June 2016. As Nan Mungard says, it's shockingly expensive, at £24! I had a National Art Pass, however, which allows free access.
The site is large and was very undervisited for a Saturday in June (hint to management: it might have something to do with the price). We enjoyed the submarine tour but the rest of the museum site verged on the dull. Huge buildings full of vehicles and model ships. A modern art gallery, some of which's works give the Saatchi Gallery a run for its money in terms of absurdity.
To be fair though I must withhold full judgement because I didn't go in the exciting-sounding "rope making experience" as several buildings closed an hour before the overall dockyard's closing time.
We did Chatham on a day trip from London. It was terrible spring weather (cold, wet, windy), so our general inclination was not to stay long. Surprisingly, we ended up staying for hours; there was a lot to see and enjoy.
The shipyard itself is quite a site when you pull in. Large halls from the 19th century greet you. The site shows you how ships were built in the British empire and how these ships looked over time. There are even a few steam trains running to show how they transported goods. Quite impressive. And very enjoyable for kids who fancy "tuc tuc" trains, one of them travelling with us ;)
Included in the site are also fortifications. Given we already ran out of time visiting the shipyard we skipped on these.
Looking at the shipyard connection, it seems rather probable that the site will be added. It doesn't look as if industrial shipyards from the 19th century are present at all on the WHS list. And this is a shipyard of the prime naval power at the time. I think they should remove some clutter from the site, e.g. a parking space in a key site structure, but otherwise this should be fine.
We went by car. It was a 1.5h ride. On the site you can move by foot. Not sure how you would get there by public transport, but it should be possible.
Things to do
You can visit a submarine and a rope maker. However, these require a reservation and that may require waiting for hours. We actually missed ours as we were exploring one of the museum boats.
Things not to do
Don't eat here. Food was terrible.
This is really expensive, even for English standards. I think we had to buy a annual pass for 20 GBP.
2012 Added to Tentative List
The site has 8 locations