If museums provide a glimpse into the past, then “living museums” are a window into the lives of our ancestors. The Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham once occupied 400 acres and employed 10,000 skilled craftsmen along the banks of the River Medway in Kent. This is the county of my ancestors flowing back from my maternal grandmother, Emily Sarah May, though I have no specific evidence, yet, that any of 3 generations from 1750 to 1880 were employed there. Nevertheless, it is a place of great historical significance having been operational from 1567 to 1984 and therefore spanning the centuries between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. Today it is a magnificent visitor attraction of 80 acres and managed by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
We arrived and parked at 10am in the pouring rain, typical English weather for spending 3-4 hours exploring an outdoor heritage museum! It’s not cheap, £22 per adult entrance fee with a £2.50 reduction for decrepit oldies such as ourselves, but I never understand this because our ability to pay has little to do with our age!
We headed straight for the Ropery, a fascinating factory built in 1728 where rope of varying thickness are spun and coiled in lengths of 300 metres in length, requiring 200 men to create a 20in cable. This continued until a beam engine operating under steam power was introduced in 1836, and then electricity in the 1900s. At certain times of the day you can see the machinery in operation, still producing massive hemp rope used on ships around the world to this day. A fantastic sight, but a source of wonder at imagining 200 men twisting and pulling thin strands of hemp into something looking like this:
We left the Ropery in a steady drizzle of rain walking past some significant “listed buildings” of the site including The Commissioner’s House, The Masthouses, The Clocktower Building, The Smithery and the interior of one of the Covered Slips.
The “slips” were buildings where the ships were actually built with the photo above showing No.3 Slip built in 1838. The Clocktower Building dates from 1723 and is the oldest surviving naval storehouse in any Royal Dockyard. In 1997 it was refurbished to become a college of University of Kent. The Commissioner’s House was built in 1704 and is the oldest surviving naval building in England. It housed the Commissioner of the Royal Navy Board together with his family and servants. Finally, The Smithery dates from 1808 and was where anchors and chains were forged by hand in extremely hot conditions with anchors weighing up to almost 4000kg. No wonder the anchorsmiths were given 8 pints of beer a day, no doubt staggering home at the end of each day more from the alcohol than fatigue!
Naturally ships are a feature of this massive museum too and there are three standing along the ancient quayside; HM Submarine Ocelot, HMS Gannet and HMS Cavalier.
Ocelot was a Cold War submarine, launched in 1962 and was the last Royal Navy ship to be built at Chatham. Cavalier was a WW2 Destroyer commissioned in 1944 and served in the Arctic, The Western Approaches and the Pacific Fleet before decommissioning in 1972. Finally, Gannet is a Sloop of the Victorian Royal Navy and was built in 1878 at nearby Sheerness, also on the River Medway, before “patrolling the oceans of the world”. We spent quite some time clambering around these ships, so cramped, and once again marvelling at how people worked, lived and fought under such conditions!
We wandered around a number of other exhibitions,including the lifeboat museum, and a gallery of maritime and naval paintings, before the rain and cold weather overcame us. We had been so absorbed in the scale and variety of exhibits in the dockyard we had gone way beyond lunchtime and scuttled back to the car and drove back to our hotel alongside the River Medway just a few miles away. Next, we would visit Upnor Castle on the opposite side of the river, built to supposedly protect the dockyard from attack. “Supposedly” being the operative word as the Dutch navy taught us a lesson that was never to be repeated!