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Three ex-Chatham Dockyard workers Brian Jenkins, Barry Stevens and John Nicholas speak about life 30 years after the Yard closed its doors

31 March 2014
by Chris Price

On March 31, 1984, Chatham Dockyard closed its doors forever, ending 414 years of history.

Three decades after the last tradesmen laid down their tools, three ex-workers tell their story.

Although the Dockyard closed 30 years ago this month, Brian Jenkins is still a major presence.

HMS Dreadnought and HMS Warspite at the Nuclear Refitting Complex at Chatham Dockyard in 1979

HMS Dreadnought and HMS Warspite at the Nuclear Refitting Complex at Chatham Dockyard in 1979

As president of the Chatham Dockyard Historical Society, he helps run the Dockyard Museum, which preserves naval artefacts in the old Lead and Paint Mill.

He worked at the site from 1953 to 1984, latterly as a recorder, and is the longest serving Dockyard employee remaining in the group.

“I still dream about it,” he said.

“I will be taking work off someone and then I think, ‘why am I doing this? It closed in 1984’ and then I wake up.

“It’s installed in you. I met an ex-chargeman a few years ago in Gillingham High Street and asked him if he still remembered the yard. He said he had moved on and couldn’t even remember his number any more. I told him ‘you’re 3872’. It’s all just ingrained.”

Chatham Dockyard Historical Society president Brian Jenkins

Chatham Dockyard Historical Society president Brian Jenkins

Initially, Brian did not believe it when he heard the Dockyard was to close on the radio. It was only when he got home and heard the news again that the reality set in.

“For about 200 years there had been rumours about it closing,” he said. “My father worked here before me and there was always talk about it being closed.

“After working there so many years, when I heard it on the radio I thought they must have got that wrong. Then I heard it again when I went home and I thought ‘that’s different’.

“Then a job came up to get rid of all the machinery. I thought it would mean they couldn’t get rid of me until it closed, so I went for it and got it.

“You had all the businesses which relied on the Dockyard. The closure didn’t end with the people employed here. The area has never recovered..." - Historical Society president Brian Jenkins

Having worked there for 30 years, Brian was not happy with his redundancy money, which came in at about £15,000.

His career afterwards was varied, working for a flight simulator company and as a shop manager for Shelter.

“I didn’t feel lost looking for work because recorders mixed with all sorts of people,” he said, “but when I went to the Job Centre they said my age might be a problem.

“I was 48 and I thought ‘that’s nice’. I travelled to Sittingbourne and Maidstone looking for work and eventually I found it.”

Despite finding odd jobs for the rest of his working life, he believes Medway has never recovered from the damage caused by the closure of its biggest employer.

Brian, of Lower Woodlands Road, Gillingham, said: “The towns have still not got back to normal.

“You had all the businesses which relied on the Dockyard. The closure didn’t end with the people employed here. The area has never recovered.

“Industry has gone downhill terribly. Chatham and Gillingham were only built because of the Dockyard.

“Not everyone is as lucky as I was. People really suffered. I can’t see how all the lesser traders and labourers all found work.”

Today he works hard to preserve the 414-year history of the site, and can be found in the museum every Thursday and usually more.

He said: “You mustn’t live in the past but you should remember it.

“I did enjoy working there. It was like a village. You knew everyone.

“The beauty of it was you knew where your job finished and where the next one up in authority carried on. You haven’t got that now.”

Former Chatham Dockyard worker Barry Stevens

Former Chatham Dockyard worker Barry Stevens

The closure of the Dockyard sent Barry Stevens on a 250-mile journey which disrupted his family life.

He worked there from 1960 to its closure in 1984, beginning as an apprentice and eventually reaching the role of chargehand.

He worked on the last ever vessel launched at the site, HMS Hermione, going on sea trials with the vessel.

Shortly before the Dockyard closed, he was transferred to Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth.

Barry, who lives in Gravesend, said: “You didn’t have any choice. You either went to Plymouth or you were leaving. There was no redundancy offer.

“I was there six months before I’d had enough and came home.”

Chatham Historic Dockyard

Chatham Historic Dockyard

Barry’s career in Plymouth lasted six months.

He would travel home by train at weekends as he did not want to disrupt his children’s schooling.

He had a son going to college and a daughter who had just passed the 11+ but there are no grammar schools in the West Country.

Leaving by train at about 4pm on a Friday, he would get back at about 9pm and then head back on Sunday afternoon.

He said: “I was in a council house at the time. I was offered a council house out there but it was nothing like what we had in Gravesend.

“It was not much fun. To be honest, they didn’t want us in Plymouth because we were taking up their jobs.”

But there was life for Barry after Plymouth. After moving back to Kent full-time, he began teaching woodwork and metalwork with the YTS before moving into a career in social work.

Yet he missed his days at the Dockyard.

He said: “It was a good place to work. The apprenticeship was second to none. There was very good camaraderie.”

He will always remember hearing about the Dockyard closing on the radio.

He said: “It was bad news. It was the day when everyone went home at 4pm. There was no overtime done that night.

“It was announced on the radio and we were all quite upset.

“At that time I didn’t think there would be any other jobs going. It was the biggest employer in this area.”

Ex-Chatham Dockyard worker John Nicholas

Ex-Chatham Dockyard worker John Nicholas

 

It took two years for John Nicholas to decide what he was going to do after the announcement in 1981 that the Dockyard was to close.

He worked there from 1960 to 1983 in various roles on craft ships, nuclear submarines and recording.

Yet much of the workforce was offered redundancy in the lead up to the final closure, which prompted John’s hand.

He said: “There was a big shedding of labour. They got rid of 60% of the workforce.

“That was a big redundancy but the rest of the workforce soldiered on until 1984.

“I had two young daughters and I didn’t know whether to go or stay. Then one day I thought ‘have a change from ship building’ because I realised the days of the industry were limited.

“I was dockyard fodder and I thought I would take my chances outside.”

After working a few jobs, John, 68, eventually joined BT. After several years, they offered him a golden handshake in the days of the final salary pensions. He saw out the final five years of his career as a caretaker.

John, of Magpie Hall Road, Chatham, said: “On reflection I would have liked to have gone for further education but when you have a wife and children you need the money.

Ex-Chatham Dockyard workers Brian Jenkins, left, John Nicholas, centre, and Barry Stevens

Ex-Chatham Dockyard workers Brian Jenkins, left, John Nicholas, centre, and Barry Stevens

“It was only after you left the Dockyard that you realised how good the money was there.”

The shock of the announcement still lives on with John, who believes Britain changed after the site closed.

He said: “Maggie Thatcher accelerated the decimation of British industry.

“China and India would have come up and done that anyway but Thatcher aided the speed at which industry shut down in the Medway Towns.”

“When we heard it [the announcement] a lot of us just sat there in shock. I hadn’t heard any announcement was going to be made about defence cuts.

“If it happened now with the economy like it is, it would be much tougher because there are no engineering jobs left now.

He added: “If we are honest most of us did enjoy it there.”

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