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Fading down the river: How the closure of Chatham Dockyard ended a 400 year story

If the river was the lifeblood of the Medway Towns, then Chatham Dockyard was the beating heart.

And when Defence Minister John Nott announced the closure of the dockyard in 1981, the prognosis for the Towns did not look good.

Chatham Dockyard, Yard Closure protesters get their message across on the route for delegates attending the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, October 15 1981
Chatham Dockyard, Yard Closure protesters get their message across on the route for delegates attending the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, October 15 1981

Brief reprieve came in the unlikely form of Margaret Thatcher herself when she took Britain to war in the Falklands, prompting redundancy notices to be withdrawn in 1982 as Chatham's shipwrights once again prepared vessels for the South Atlantic.

But when the conflict was over the dockyard would get little more mercy from Thatcher than the Argentinians.

Four centuries as a cornerstone of the Royal Navy was over. For 414 years Chatham's Royal Dockyard had provided over 500 ships for what became the world's most powerful fleet, and was at the forefront of shipbuilding, industrial and architectural technology, employing more than 10,000 skilled artisans and covering a site 400 acres.

But now more than 7,000 people would be made redundant and by the time the dockyard closed for good in 1984, unemployment in Medway had risen to almost 19 percent.

"A challenge awaits the Medway Towns in this difficult time, to attract new employers," Rear Admiral Bill Higgins had said when the White Ensign was lowered for the last time in October 1983, and in the aftermath of the closure fears grew for the future of the Towns.

The flag comes down on 400 years of history....The flag at Chatham Dock Yard is lowered for the last time on October 3 1983 when the admiral left the Dockyard
The flag comes down on 400 years of history....The flag at Chatham Dock Yard is lowered for the last time on October 3 1983 when the admiral left the Dockyard

The dockyard had provided income and stability for generations, but beyond that it had given a sense of identity, purpose and value to the people of Medway; and without that bedrock many feared the Medway Towns would degenerate into a social and cultural wasteland.

Thirty six years after the closure, Medway folk might be struck by a sense of deja vu, as D-Day looms in the battle over the future of the existing Chatham Docks.

One of Kent's biggest ports the site is due to be developed for housing and will shut in 2025 when business leases expire with landowners Peel L&P, resulting in 800 direct job losses and potentially affecting a further 1,440 more local jobs.

It's nothing on the same scale as when the naval dockyard closed, but for those who remember the importance of Chatham's industrial might in the glory days of British manufacturing, the closure is another depressing step into a strange new world, devoid of the fire, clamour and energy of heavy industry.

The dockyard in 1970
The dockyard in 1970

But while the outlook might be gloomy, there is hope - because even during the bleakest years after the dockyard's closure there was hope too.

Back in 1983 Rear Admiral Bill Higgins had spoken of the challenge ahead, and the business brains of Medway answered the call.

Part of the former Naval base was to be transformed into a visitor attraction, the Historic Dockyard, while large-scale commercial development began to create what would become Chatham Maritime. Plans for the development of 1,600 homes on St Mary's Island were announced, together with a £125 million factory, shopping and leisure development at Chatham Maritime.

The former site also took on new life when the universities of Greenwich and Kent took up premises in the former Navy barracks HMS Pembroke.

So, even if Chatham Docks, are to close, those behind the closure say new development plans can spark regeneration in the area.

And of course, Chatham will never lose its history as a maritime base.

Defiant dockyard workers take their protests to the TUC conference in October, 1981
Defiant dockyard workers take their protests to the TUC conference in October, 1981

For the Royal Navy the Towns retain an important place in its story, which will never be forgotten, and only last year, hundreds gathered to watch as the crew of the new patrol ship HMS Medway was given the freedom of the Towns.

The Royal Navy's latest offshore patrol vessel was commissioned in Chatham in September, and the crew stepped ashore to parade through the town centre led by the Royal Marine Band and joined by sea cadets.

At the Historic Dockyard too the work goes on to preserve the memory of those that helped forge Britain's supremacy on the sevens seas.

The award winning Command of the Oceans exhibition tells the story of the dockyard’s role from the 16th century when Sir Francis Drake learned his skills at Chatham, through its golden period of the Age of Sail from 1700-1820 when the Dockyard’s shipwrights built the most powerful sea force in the world.

The 260-year-old timbers of HMS Namur (1756), which were discovered buried beneath the dockyard are now on display where they were laid to rest, and visitors can find a treasure trove of archaeology recovered from the sea bed, from the HMS Invincible of 1758.

The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W Turner
The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W Turner

The stories too live on - such as that of The Fighting Temeraire gun ship, built at Chatham, which fought valiantly at The Battle of Trafalgar before being immortalised in paint by William Turner, and in song by Sir Henry Newbolt and latterly Medway artist and songwriter Billy Childish.

Turner's painting shows the old heroic warship being towed up the Thames to Rotherhithe by a paddle-wheel steam tug to be broken up in 1838, and is symbolic of the demise of the age of sail - and perhaps symbolic of the inherent mortality of all heroic strength.

Just as with the dockyard itself, it's up to us whether to get depressed because the ship is no more, or to raise a glass to the fact that she ever was.

As Sir Henry Newbolt put it: "And she's fading down the river, But in England's song for ever, She's the Fighting Téméraire."

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