Experiencing History at the Historic Dockyard Chatham

It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire – an empire that spanned the entire globe. The map was practically painted pink from the Americas to Australia and beyond. At its peak the British Empire was the biggest empire to have ever existed on the planet, an empire that counted over 458 million people. Quite a size and quite a power!

But it would have been nothing if it wasn’t for a minuscule point on the map. Look at a globe and you probably won’t even see its name. However, it was on the shoulders and backs of the people stationed at the Historic Dockyard Chatham that the magnificent British Empire was created.

It was at the Historic Dockyard Chatham that ships were constructed and repaired before they sailed off to far-off lands.

It was at the Historic Dockyard Chatham that fleets were built to protect Britain and its empire. It was at the Historic Dockyard Chatham that transport means for exotic goods were created.

And it was the Historic Dockyard Chatham that we had the privilege off visiting last month to learn all about its history.


During the mid-16th century, Chatham was designated as a Royal dockyard and for centuries it has remined one of Britain’s most important centres for warship building and repair.  It may have moved a little from its original location but Chatham will always be associated with its dockyard. During the 17th and 18th centuries it became one of the countries largest and most important industrial sites and gained a record for having Europe’s longest building – the Victorian ropery. Today the dockyard is a museum that teaches its visitors all about the ships that were once constructed here, how they were constructed and what they were used for.


As it’s name suggests the Historic Dockyard is located in Chatham, right beside Rochester in South East England.

Upon arriving at the Historic Dockyard Chatham the first thing that will hit you is the museum’s sheer size. The Dockyard is surrounded by a wall that runs along the main road.

As you make your way along it you will probably pass a large gate. This was once the Main Gate, an imposing brick gatehouse that was constructed in the 1720s during George 1st reign. It was used for 250 years as the main entrance for the dockyard workers and also accommodated the Boatswain of the Yard and the Master Yard Porter.

It isn’t however the main entrance these days. Continue along the long brick wall until signs direct you into one of the covered slips. These now house the car park among other things. It is also here that your visit to the museum begins.

The historic dockyard chatham location map


The ticket booths for the museum are found within the Mast Houses. These large white buildings across from the carpark were recently renovated and the entrance – a little black building – was slipped in-between them. As you walk towards the entrance you will notice a large blank area covered in pebbles that almost looks like an overflow carpark. This is in fact the location of the Mast Pond – once used for storing the dockyard’s timber so that it wouldn’t become damaged before it was made into masts. A canal once connected the timber yard to the mast pond, so that timber could be sent straight down when required. Part of the canal is still visible today. Whilst there is not much left to see here, the outline of what it once was is nonetheless interesting. Tickets for the Historic Dockyard Chatham cost 24£ per adult and 14£ per child. Alternatively you can buy a family ticket for 63£. This might seem a little dear at first, it certainly did to us. That is until we realised it wasn’t a day ticket. The entrance ticket is actually valid for the entire year and there is so much to see at Chatham Historic Dockyards, that the fee is definitely good value for money.

entrance buildings to the historic dockyard chatham


Buy your tickets and then move on to explore the interior of the Mast houses and Mould Loft. The Mast Houses comprise seven buildings which were built during the 1750s. All seven houses were used to make and store masts for ships. Some masts were as tall as 90ft! The timber logs would be dragged out of the Mast Pond and brought into the building where they were then worked and shaped to purpose. Above the Mast Houses is the Mould Loft. This is where the shipwrights used to mark out the shape of each new ships hull. The moulds they produced were then used to guide the entire shipbuilding process.


Nowadays the Mast Houses and Mould Loft house the Command of the Oceans exhibit, which shows visitors how wooden hulled sail-powered warships (once designed, built and repaired at Chatham Dockyard) came to dominate the 18th century seas. There are several galleries that teach you how these impressive ships were crafted. You also learn a lot about the daily life of the men that worked at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. This is an interactive exhibit perfect for all ages and you can try out a few of the crafts for yourself – from sawing large pieces of timber to hammering rope between the planks to stop water flooding the ships. There are also several galleries that describe the life of the seamen that went on to sail the ships created at the dockyard. The exhibit even explains how and what the seamen ate – three square meals a day. Did you know that the seamen’s square wooden plates are the origin of this very famous saying? Full of artefacts and information, the exhibition will either make you wish you could have experienced those times for yourself, or be glad those days are long behind us.

gigantic model ship in the command of the ocean exhibit at the historic dockyard chatham
husband pulling the ropes in the command of the ocean exhibit at the historic dockyard chatham


Continue through the exhibit until you reach its epicentre. Hidden below the floorboards you will encounter the ship that time forgot – the Namur. The Namur was a 90-gun second rate ship of the line built in the Historic Dockyard Chatham and launched in 1756. She took part in nine sea battles and her honours surpassed even those of the Victory. The Namur was captained by Charles Austen, the brother of famous writer Jane Austen, and crewed by Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) – an important figure in the abolishment of the slave trade. In the 1830s after a life of adventure at sea she was returned to her birthplace and pulled apart. It wasn’t until 1995, that the timbers of the Namur were rediscovered. Propping up the ground floor of the mast house, the Namur had been hidden from sight below the floorboards for over a century. Today here timbers can be viewed in all their glory and the exhibit tells us about her rich history.

husband looking at the namur exhibit at the historic dockyard chatham


As you exit the Mast Houses you are met by the Museum Square, a large open area from which you can glimpse three famous ships that now call the Historic Dockyard Chatham their permanent home.  But this isn’t where we started our tour. To the right of the square, you will spot five covered slips lining the riverbank. These massive structures were built between 1838 and 1855 and were once used to protect ships during construction (mainly to prevent their timber from rotting). The first two slips were originally built by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic war and used to be located in front of the Commissioners House. The oldest remaining slip nowadays however is no.3.


Slip 4 houses Chatham dockyards collection of lifeboats, which just happens to be the UK’s biggest collection of historic lifeboats. The collection contains all sorts of lifeboats, from the wooden rowing boats that were used in Victorian times and were completely exposed to the elements, to today’s more advanced vessels that rescue hundreds of people every year. Whilst most people probably hope that they never have to board one of these boats, the exhibition nonetheless offers a unique opportunity to get up and close to them. It also really makes you appreciate the fact that the lifeboat service still exists today as well as the men that risk their own lives on a daily basis to save those in peril at sea.

collection of life boats exhibit at the historic dockyard chatham


Slip 3 can be accessed from Slip 4 and is aptly named The Big Space. A magnificently covered slip, The Big Space is a remarkable architectural achievement that was built in 1838 and may have once been Europe’s largest wide-span timber structure. A cantilever frame designed by Sir Robert Seppings, a Surveyor to the Navy Board and former Master Shipwright at Chatham, the structure features a curved ‘apse’ at its landward end that allows for the ships bow to be accommodated. There is a mezzanine floor that was installed in 1904 to store ships boats that definitely should be visited to get and up-close look at the timber roof, a truly beautiful sight to rival even cathedrals. The ground floor of the Big Space houses large objects that include vehicles, weapons and heavy machinery of war. Dusty but worth a look.

the big space in the historic dockyard chatham
ceiling of the big space in the historic dockyard chatham


Leaving the covered slips you come upon the dry docks of Chatham dockyard. This is where ships could be removed from the water for work that would never have been possible out at sea or in a river. But it isn’t the dry docks that will astound you – it’s what’s sitting in those docks.


The HMS Gannet is a transitional period sloop, built 10 miles downriver in Sheerness. Her hull is built from teak and looks similar to that of a sailing ship. If you thought she was a sailing ship then you were actually half right – she can be propelled by both sail and steam. These days however her engine room is bare, as her engines and all the associated machinery were removed years ago. HMS Gannet is freely accessible to the public and you can even visit the captains’ quarters at the back of the ship. Here a glass floor allows for dizzying views all the way to the bottom of the dock. The ship also contains a small exhibition about her glorious past. Did you know for instance that the HMS Gannet was once used to train young seamen?

husband on board the hms garnet at the historic dockyard chatham
rooflight in the hms garnet at the historic dockyard chatham


Beside the Gannet lies HMS Ocelot, the last warship ever built at Chatham for the Royal Navy and one of the 57 submarines built there between 1908 and 1966. Tours can be booked at the entrance of the dockyards at no extra cost and are definitely worth the wait. The 30 minute tour takes you within the vessel and shows you how cramped and claustrophobic life on board a submarine can be. Whilst the tour feels really quick (time seems to pass faster on a submarine) there is a lot of information to get through. Our guide was brilliant at giving us an insight into the life of the seamen who once served on board this vessel for months at a time.

hms ocelot submarine from outside at the historic dockyard chatham
sign on the hms ocelot submarine at the historic dockyard chatham


The last of the three dry-dock ships is the HMS Cavalier. A CA-class destroyer that served at the end of World War 2 and during the Cold War, she is a metal monster covered in guns and is preserved as a memorial to the 142 Royal Navy destroyers sunk during the Second World War. Visitors are free to roam on the Cavalier and there are plenty of rooms to see – from the Captain’s cabin to the ships mess. Don’t forget to visit the bridge, if you can figure out how to get to it through the maze of corridors.

hms cavalier from outside at the historic dockyard chatham
war memorial beside the hms cavalier from outside at the historic dockyard chatham


The next part of the dockyards is dedicated to the many trades required to fit a ship for sea once the hull and masts have been assembled. Note that not all of these buildings can be entered as some of them have been sold or rented off to other businesses as well as a college. Whilst Chatham is no longer used to construct ships, it is still a working dockyard it would seem.


The Clock Tower Building is a large building topped with a tower that has four clock faces and a gilded weathervane. Built in 1723 it was positioned at the head of the dry docks as a present use store. A present to hand store is a store that holds materials most commonly used by shipbuilders and ship fitters. This includes iron, tar and ropes. Originally a timber-clad building, it was rebuilt in brick in 1802. One can imagine the workers regularly peering up at the clock tower to see how much time was left to the end of their shift.

the clock tower building at the historic dockyard chatham


Beside the Clock tower building is the Admirals Office. A brick building built in 1808, it once housed the offices for the Master Shipwright and other senior dockyard officials. Later on it became the Port Admirals office and this is how it gained its current name.

external canals at the historic dockyard chatham


Across from the Admirals Office is the Railway Workshop and canteen. The canteen is reasonably priced and offers both hot and cold food. If you choose to eat inside of the building you will be surrounded by the historic trains that are currently being stored here. Originally though this building was used for the manufacturing of the armour hull of the ships. The giant steam hammers dotted around the dockyard give a good indication of the size and scale of the job that was once carried out in this facility.

railway workshop and canteen at the historic dockyard chatham


When most people hear the name Horatio Nelson, I’m guessing they picture a heroic Admiral fighting the evils of Napoleon, commanding fleets of ships and securing the seas for the UK. But even Horatio Nelson had to start somewhere. Chatham is where he joined his first ship as a Post Captain. Just across the open area beside the Railway Workshop is the Admirals walk, a path once used for ceremonial embarking and disembarking via the Queen’s Stairs. It was these stairs that Nelson must have used when he joined the Agamemnon (a ship that is said to have been his favourite). The stairs and walkway still exist, although without the grandeur they once had.

gate at the admirals walk at the historic dockyard chatham


The Historic Dockyard Chatham was a living dockyard filled with officers and staff. It is its people that made this dockyard into what it was. The dockyard features both domestic and administrative buildings, used by these men on a daily basis and providing them with a somewhat comfortable life.


Running along the back of Chatham Dockyard is the Officers Terrace. This terrace contains 12 separate houses, built in 1722 to provide comfortable housing for the dockyards principal officers. All 12 houses enjoy views across the Medway and each house comes with its own garden. Interestingly the roof of the Admirals Office was purposefully kept low, so as to not obscure the view from the Officers Terrace. The houses are used as private residences to this day.

the officers terrace at the historic dockyard chatham
husband walking along the officers terrace at the historic dockyard chatham


Beside the Officers Terrace, you will find a building, which once served as the workplace of one of Britain’s most famous writers – Charles Dickens. John Dickens, Charles’ father was notorious for mishandling money. Always in debt, he lived far beyond his means. How ironic then that he worked as a wage clerk in the Cashiers Office at Chatham Dockyard. As wage clerk, John Dickens ensured that sailors disembarking from their ships received their just pay. Charles was but a child when his father was employed in Chatham. However, he remembered the dockyard fondly and later wrote about his experience in “The Uncommercial Traveller.

cherry blossom at the historic dockyard chatham


The large garden of the Commissioner’s House is located behind the cashier’s office. The garden includes an Edwardian glasshouse, an 18th-century ice house and a 17th-century mulberry tree. The garden enjoys a great view of Rochester and it is said that Cromwell watched Rochester surrender to his forces during the English Civil War from that very garden. The Commissioners house is a grand mansion built in 1704 and has the honour of being Britain’s oldest intact naval building. The Commissioner held an incredibly important position within Chatham and was directly responsible for running the dockyard. His house stands at the centre of the dockyard. The house was originally built for Captain George St Lo, on the site of an earlier residence from 1640. It was said when George arrived at Chatham he felt that the old residence was a poor substitute for his previous home and had the new one built in its place. The house is not usually open to the public and we didn’t get to enter it during our visit. Word of mouth, however, has it that the house’s most attractive internal feature is a painted ceiling depicting an assembly of the gods, copied from HMS Royal Sovereign.

the commissioner house at the historic dockyard chatham


Religion has always had an important role in society and so it comes as no surprise that the Historic Dockyard Chatham has its very own chapel. The first chapel at the dockyard was built on board a hulk on the river. You can perhaps imagine that this wasn’t particularly practical. This is why a brick church was constructed near the entrance of the Dockyard in 1806-10 – The Royal Dockyard Church. Its internal gallery is supported by columns made out of cast-iron, one of the dockyards earliest uses of the material.


The largest buildings in the dockyard are No1 Smithery, the Anchor Wharf Storehouses, the Sail and Colour Loft and the Ropery. These monstrously huge buildings loom over the dockyard. Did you know that the Ropery was, in fact, the longest building in Europe?


Running along the river, the brick buildings of the Anchor Wharf Store houses, are the largest storehouses ever built for the Royal Navy. They were built and used for the direct transportation of goods to and from the ships tied up in the adjacent river. Each building is made up of five floors with a separate door on each floor. They could hold everything a ship could possibly need. These days the store houses house an exhibition about Steam, Steel and Submarines. This exhibition tells the tale of the dockyard and covers the launch of the very first steam paddle ship built in the Historic Dockyard Chatham in 1832, as well as the closure of the dock yard in 1984. It also delves into the long history of post sail technologies used at Chatham, from steel hulls to submarines. Finally the exhibition includes plenty of first hand stories from the men that once worked in Chatham.

the anchor wharf store houses at the historic dockyard chatham


Before the invention of steam power, ships were propelled with sails. And so the Sail and Colour Loft building is where some of the most important activities at the dockyard took place. The top floor of the building was kept open plan so that sails could be manufactured within. Sails were huge and their creation required plenty of space. The lower floors of the building on the other were used for storage, mainly for all the tools required in the creation of these giant sails. Flags were used on ships for communication. And so a large workforce of women was employed in this building to stitch the flag. Whilst at first glance it might seem to be quite forward thinking to have men and women working together in such close quarters, the truth of the matter is that the light inside this building was so poor that many people who worked here developed bad eyesight. Unlike the women working in the ropery, the women that worked in the Sail and Colour Loft were known as ladies.


No1 Smithery was where all metal work took place – anything from the production of chains to that of anchors. Huge machines were required for this task as well as a lot of man hours. It was hard work but the men were given a daily allowance of 8 pints of beer. I suppose every cloud has it’s silver lining… These days the building holds item on loan from Greenwich Maritime Museum as well as several temporary exhibitions. These exhibitions change on a regular basis and are a lot of fun for kids.

bridges between buildings in the anchor wharf store houses at the historic dockyard chatham


The Ropery is huge! When you are inside of it, you can barely see the end of the building. Its gigantic proportions, however, were required in order to produce the lengths of rope that were used on the ships of the dockyard. The length of these ropes was sometimes unimaginable. Take the HMS Victory, for instance, it required 31 miles of rope alone. The ropery is made up of a Hemp House, where hemp was stored before it was used to make rope, the Yarn House, where the spun hemp was covered in tar to prevent it from rotting, and the rope house, a quarter of a mile long building where the rope was eventually spun. In order to visit the ropery, you will need to book a tour at the entrance of the Historic Dockyard Chatham when you first arrive. We had the privilege of being shown around the ropery by our tour guide Vicky, a rough Victorian woman with a quick wit. In fact, her character impersonation was so believable that we were too scared to ask her for directions when we first approached the building. Vicky took us through the history and work life at the ropery. She showed us the different roles that were once required in the manufacturing process and then explained why as technology developed men were slowly replaced by (cheaper) women. Vicky interacted with the entire guided group and even got a couple of volunteers to make rope the old-fashioned way. The children in our group love it and in fact so did the adults. This part of the Dockyard is well worth a visit. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the making of rope, the tour will definitely make you laugh and learn a lot about our society.

inside the ropery at the historic dockyard chatham
finished ropes inside the ropery at the historic dockyard chatham


Historic Dockyard Chatham
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The world isn’t what it once was. Great Britain no longer rules the seas with its fleet of ships. Napoleon isn’t hiding around the corner. And the Historic Dockyard Chatham isn’t pumping outlines of ships ready to keep Britain great during times of war. But the dockyard is doing something to keep Britain’s history great. It’s an opportunity to see the past in all its glory. There’s not many places you can go these days that have such an array of preserved buildings and ships, a place to make you feel like you’re actually experiencing history. The Historic Dockyard Chatham definitely brings history to life and is, therefore, worth at least one visit if not more. Its huge size is difficult to take on in one day. Thankfully, however, your entrance tickets allows you to return for an unlimited amount for a year. So once you have visited the Dockyard for the first time, I’m sure you’ll want to keep going back to it again and again.


Church Lane

Chatham ME4 4TE


01634 823800

Adult: 24£ / Child: 14£

Please Note that we received complimentary entrance tickets for the purpose of this review. However, as always, all opinions expressed are my own.





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Gary is the co-author of A Life Beautifully Travelled and Katharina's husband. He started travelling around the globe when he was 16 and joined ship as an engineer. He was born in Scotland, then lived in London for a couple of years before moving to Yorkshire with his family. Together with his wife, he has explored over 87 cities, 16 countries and 4 continents. He has a particular passion for South-East Asia, especially Japan and Singapore.

He is also an amateur historian and spends most of his spare time devouring books to further his knowledge on the topic. There isn't much about history that this man doesn't know. He hopes that his son Finn will one day share both his passion for travel and history, which is why he frequently organises cultural weekend getaways for the entire family.


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