Chatham Historic Naval Dockyard

Good friends of ours served in both the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy, and during their RN days they served at Chatham Dockyard. They highly recommended the Historic Dockyard as a place to visit, while we are in Kent.

Our plans for today were a drive around Isle of Sheppey, then onto Chatham and the Historic Naval Dockyard. Read on to find out why this probably wasn’t the best plan.

We departed immediately after breakfast and while the GPS/Google both recommended the M2 motorway, we elected to take the local A2 through Faversham & Sittingbourne. Definitely more scenic than motorways, but can we say slow, almost as bad as Vancouver traffic. After a couple of hours driving around the Isle of Sheppey, we departed for Chatham.

Chatham Historic Navy Dockyard

Using my dad’s rather old GPS, which didn’t have the dockyard as a POI, we entered the address and followed the directions into Chatham. Down by the water, it advised we had reached our destination, so we parked, then set off for the dockyard. Couldn’t find anything resembling a dockyard, so we stopped at the library for directions. “Just continue along the road parallel to the river and yes, it’s easy walking distance”.

Historic Dockyard goods entrance

After 1/2 mile, mostly uphill, we reached the above gate. However, it is only for vehicles and employees, the visitor entrance is another 1/2 mile down the road. Finally reaching the entrance about 15:00, we noted they have a huge and complimentary parking lot.


  • Adult – UKP 24.00
  • Senior – UKP 21.50
  • Discount of UKP 2.00 for online purchases

Hours of operation – 10:00 to 18:00 (Mar to Oct)

A single admission provides an annual pass permitting unlimited visits, which is fortunate, as arriving at 15:00, we couldn’t possibly see everything.


Old covered building docks 

The entire dockyard is a massive complex, spreading out about 1/2 mile along the River Medway. The dockyard includes:

  • Command of the Oceans
  • RNLI exhibition
  • 2 ships + submarine
  • Rope factory
  • Smithery
  • Others

On entering, you are met by staff, who can supply timed tickets for the Command of the Oceans, submarine and rope factory. I suggest planning your day around the timed tickets you receive.

Command of the Oceans

This is located in the main building. Our group consisted of Judi and I, plus 4 others and while waiting for our time we watched a short film about the dockyard development. The attraction started with an audio-visual presentation, which takes place in multiple rooms, which you walk through. You follow an ex-employee and his grandson through the shipyard and the process of building the ships, eventually meeting the naval architect, as he tries to convince the lad to embark on a career as a Shipwright. Each room was well decorated to compliment the audio-visual display. Unfortunately, each room was pitch dark, so photographs were not possible. It lasted about 1/2 hr and was most enjoyable and informative.

HMS Victory model

After the audio-visual presentation, they have 4 buildings with models and artifacts dating from the 1700’s. Many of the artifacts are from HMS Invincible, which hit a sandbar in The Solent, and sank in 1758. Originally a 74-gun French ship, she was captured by the Royal Navy and converted to a British ship. Many of the artifacts were rescued from the seabed.

Seaman’s plate

The above plate was one of the artifacts retrieved from the wreck of HMS Invincible.

The exit to the cafeteria is through the basement of the old Wheelright’s shop, which is now an atmospherically controlled environment. While modifying the original shop they discovered old timbers under the floor.

Almost 250 year old timbers

Markings on the timbers indicted they were from HMS Namur, which was built and launched at Chatham in 1756, and broken up in 1833. The timbers were preserved and are now on display.

RNLI Exhibition

A charitable organisation founded in 1824, they provide lifesaving services around the entire UK coastline. The exhibition displays a number of old boats and equipment, and tells the story of the organisation.

RNLI Lifeboat Grace Darling

This was most topical, as only last week, while visiting the Farne Islands, we learned the story of the daring rescue performed by Grace Darling and her dad. The above boat was built in 1954 and served the RNLI for 30 years, the first 13 years at Seahouses, by the Farne Islands.

Rope Factory

The Royal Navy originally had 4 rope factories, but Chatham is the only one still making rope. It started in 1618, so yes, next year they celebrate their 400 year anniversary. At over 1,100 feet long, it was the longest brick building in the world.

The upper floor of the 1,100′ building still used to make rope

We scheduled a tour, which was most interesting and informative. The guide starts with the history of the dockyard and introduces the different types of rope they manufactured – all man-made fibres. We then headed upstairs, where he described the entire process of making ropes from many individual fibres. He then demonstrated the process using a machine similar to those on the top floor.

Rope making machine

They start with each half at opposite ends of the building, and start by twisting the yarns into individual strands. The strands are then relocated on the machine and a device added, that when the machine is rotated forms the completed rope.

Judi at the ladies entrance

Until 1864 only men were employed at the dockyard, but with the purchase of spinning machines to create yarn from the fibres, many men were re-assigned and ladies were hired. They worked on a separate floor, had their own entrance and even worked different hours.


They have 2 ships and a submarine on display, in 3 of the old drydocks.

HMS Cavalier, a WW 2 destroyer built on the Isle of Wight and launched in 1944. She completed war service and remained in service until 1972. This ship is open to visitors. At the head of the dock is a plaque advising this was the building dock used for Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, which was launched at Chatham in 1765.

Plaque identifying the building dock of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship

HMS Gannet, a combination steam and sailing vessel

Launched in 1878, she could make almost 12 kts with steam, but 15 kts under sail. Decommissioned  after less than 30 years in 1895, she became an RN training ship and then laterally a dormitory ship for naval trainees at Hamble.

HMS Ocelot – diesel submarine

An Oberon class diesel electric submarine, she was commissioned in 1964, spending 27 years in RN service. Timed tickets are required to visit the submarine, which are available from the main entrance.

# 1 Smithery

This is a diverse collection of displays, comprising hands on exhibits to a large gallery displaying works of art and ship models.

Pipe bending shop

The pipe design was created on the floor using pegs stuck in the holes. When the hot pipe was removed from the furnace, it was shaped on the floor around the pegs. A simple, but effective process.

Old Blacksmith’s shop

Dockyard Commissioner

This was the most senior person at the dockyard, who received luxury accommodation and a significant salary.

The Commissioners Mansion

In 1803, the Commissioner received a salary of UKP 1,000 per annum, which is a substantial figure. Converted to today’s money, it is the equivalent of many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The highly skilled Shipwrights were paid about UKP 72 to 75 per annum, which equates to about UKP 70,000 in today’s money. A substantial salary.

With only about 3 hours the first day, we returned for a full 2nd day, but still only visited maybe 1/2 the attractions. If returning, I would definitely be at the entrance when they open at 10:00 and plan to stay the full day. The dockyard is also very kid friendly, with lots of kid’s activities.


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