A hidden chapter in naval history is being unveiled in Chatham’s Historic Dockyard's new display, Command of the Oceans – brought about by a mysterious find more than 20 years ago.
A chance find of hundreds of ancient timbers under the floorboards at the Historic Dockyard turned out to be one of the most significant naval archaeological discoveries since the Mary Rose.
Some 245 giant timbers from the British warship HMS Namur had lain undiscovered underneath the wheelwright’s shop for two centuries.
Discovered in 1995, it took experts years to identify the find – which is about 10% of the ship – and research its history, although it is still a mystery why they were put there.
The years of painstaking conservation now mean visitors can see them atmospherically lit in the same spot and learn about the ship they came from with a new sunken gallery space.
The timbers include ‘race marks’, which tracked when each timber was sourced by the Navy. They also all have a position mark so historians know where they were in the ship.
It took some six years to secure the funding for the project, and 18 months of work to put it all together.
Visitors will be surprised to find the Namur’s timbers are not behind glass.
Richard Holdsworth, preservation and education director, said: “We want people to come close to them. This is how they were in 1834. We know it was Chatham-built, so of course it was built to last.”
He added: “We’re so proud of what we have achieved.”
TV historian Dan Snow said: “The Namur is the ship that defined this course of British history. Her remains enable us to better understand the shipbuilding ingenuity at Chatham, which was crucial in developing British naval dominance which in turn helped extend Britain’s influence around the world.”
Who were the men who worked in the dockyard and built the ships?
Visitors to Command of the Oceans can learn about the 2,500 men who were working in the yard on one day in 1803.
Staff have spent months researching a day in the life of the dockyard, complete with the names, ages, salary and occupation for all of them. There was even a rat catcher. They researched 50 of the men’s lives in more detail, which visitors can see on tablets around the exhibit.
Community engagement officer Vicky Price said: “We knew we wanted to be able to tell visitors about the magnitude of the workforce, the highly skilled nature of the trades and, if possible, the detail about who they were. We picked March 31, 1803, as it was a short period of peace when ships came into the dockyard for maintenance.”
The starting point was the original pay books from the dockyard, which were held in the National Archives.
“They were very good at keeping records of pay then,” said Vicky. “The pay was good, but we have evidence of some them petitioning for their pay, so they often had to wait for their salary.”
Of the 2,500, the majority were local men, while about 700 were sailors on the ships. The exhibition includes an interactive green screen where you can see yourself at work on board and try your hand at some of the jobs, such as mastmaker, sawyer and caulker.
The dockyard has been partially redesigned in a £9m project to incorporate the Command of the Oceans exhibit.
A new entrance includes an area where you can learn about the yard, its history and where it fitted into naval and military heritage, all for free.
There is a n interactive display and you can pick up a free trail where you can find places around Kent in the area and around Kent to discover its history, including Brompton Barracks, Fort Amherst, Upnor Castle and the Royal Engineers Museum. There is also a cafe. and hospitality area.
As visitors enter the Command of the Oceans exhibition they are greeted by a presentation on a big screen by TV presenter Fiona Bruce, who was so interested in the project, she asked to be involved.
HMS Namur was the first warship to have a round bow, a design pioneered at Chatham in response to Nelson’s tactic of ‘cutting the line’, which helped withstand assault as they approached the enemy line in battle.
Its 47-year service covered three major wars – including the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and nine fleet actions – and was one of the principal ships to fight in all key battles during the golden period of the Age of Sail.
Jane Austen’s brother, Sir Charles John Austen, was the ship’s captain from 1811 to 1814 and his sister used his experiences for naval characters in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
Command of the Oceans opens to the public on Friday, May 27. The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, is at Chatham Maritime. Entry is £24, £14 for five to 15-year-olds. Tickets entitle visitors to a year’s entry. For details, visit thedockyard.co.uk