Sheerness Dockyard also known as the Sheerness Station  was a Royal Navy Dockyard located on the Sheerness peninsula, at the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was opened in the 1660s and closed in 1960.
|HM Dockyard, Sheerness|
|Part of Nore Command|
|Controlled by||The Navy Board (until 1832); the Admiralty (after 1832).|
|Fate||Now in use as a commercial port|
|Events||Raid on the Medway, 1667|
In the Age of Sail, the Royal Navy would often establish shore facilities close to safe anchorages where the fleet would be based in home waters. This was the case when, around 1567, a Royal Dockyard was established at Chatham, Kent, on the bank of the River Medway. At that time, HM Ships would often lay at anchor either within the river, on Chatham Reach or Gillingham Reach, or beyond it, around The Nore.
Chatham Dockyard had its disadvantages, however. The vagaries of wind and tide, coupled with the restricted depth of the river, meant that vessels entering the river, for repairs or to replenish supplies at Chatham, could be delayed for considerable lengths of time. What was an inconvenience at times of peace became a serious impediment at times of war; and for this reason, warships based in the Nore would tend if possible to avoid entering the river, and would try to do all but the most serious repairs while afloat and at anchor. At the same time, those who were responsible for supplying warships with their weapons, victuals and equipment were obliged to ferry items to and from The Nore using small boats.
In order to operate more effectively, the Navy Board began to explore options for developing a new dockyard at the mouth of the Medway, able to be accessed by ships directly from the North Sea and Thames Estuary. Possible locations were explored on both the Isle of Grain and the Isle of Sheppey; the Board decided on a location at the north-west tip of Sheppey alongside a 16th-century blockhouse (built to supplement the Henrician defences of the Thames): Sheerness.
In 1665 Samuel Pepys, who was Clerk of the Acts of the Navy Board, recorded visiting Sheerness to measure out the site for the new dockyard. The situation was overtaken, however, by the escalating Anglo-Dutch conflict: in order to make the ships in The Nore battle-ready, temporary buildings were hastily erected. Work continued, but in 1667 the still-incomplete dockyard was easily captured, together with the adjacent fort, by the Dutch Navy and used as the base for a daring raid on the English ships at anchor in the Medway. Both fort and dockyard were left in flames, along with a significant number of the ships moored in the river.
In 1666 Sir Bernard de Gomme had been engaged to strengthen the blockhouse on the northern tip of the promontory. After the Dutch raid the following year, an expanded fort was planned. The blockhouse (which became the Governor's residence) was strengthened, and encircled by a semi-circular gun battery to the north, while to the south a line of fortification was constructed, which cut off the northernmost part of Sheerness behind a flooded ditch.
The garrisoned fort, enclosed by walls to the west and east, took up most of this fortified area, leaving the dockyard to occupy the remaining small parcel of land north of the ditch, on the Medway side of the fort (outside its western wall). A gateway through this wall, accessed from the dockyard, provided the main entrance to the fort; the gatehouse was a prominent feature and contained a chapel on its first floor.
Sheerness Dockyard initially functioned as an extension to that at Chatham and it was overseen by Chatham's resident Commissioner for much of its early history. It was conceived primarily for the repair and maintenance of naval ships; with one small exception, no shipbuilding took place until 1691. Low quality housing, the poor water supply near the dockyard and a likelihood of contracting ague from the surrounding marshland all led to a lack of workers and caused construction delays. The first dry-dock was not completed until 1708; a second was added in 1720. Access to the two dry docks was by way of a tidal basin, tellingly known as the Mud Dock; there was a small shipbuilding slip to its north and an ordnance wharf to the south, with timber stores and a mast pond beyond.
The constricted area of land available to the dockyard caused problems for its operation and development. Several hulks were positioned on the foreshore close to the dockyard, initially to serve as breakwaters, but soon they served to accommodate both personnel and dockyard activities. The space between the hulks (and, as they began to rot, the hulks themselves) were progressively infilled with soil, with new hulks then being added as part of the process. In this way, the land occupied by the dockyard began to expand (as is clearly seen in a surviving model of the dockyard, created in 1774 and now in the National Maritime Museum) By this time two more dry docks had been added, and over the next ten years living conditions were substantially improved by the sinking of a well to provide drinking water (which had previously had to be ferried in). By 1800 the Dockyard filled all available space and in addition was making use of several buildings within the walls of the Garrison Fort.
There was no established settlement in the vicinity of Sheerness, so most of the workers were initially housed in the hulks. By 1738, dockyard construction workers had built the first houses in Sheerness, using materials they were allowed to take from the yard. The grey-blue naval paint they used on the exteriors led to their homes becoming known as the Blue Houses. This was eventually corrupted to Blue Town (which is now the name of the north-west area of Sheerness lying just beyond the current dockyard perimeter). The modern town of Sheerness has its origins in Mile Town, which was established later in the 18th century at a mile's distance from the dockyard (Blue Town having by then filled the space available).
In 1796, following the development of Blue Town, a wider area of land (including the new houses) was enclosed behind a bastioned trace, which was further strengthened during the Napoleonic Wars of the following century. In addition, a defensive straight canal had been dug south of Mile Town in 1782, two miles in length, stretching from the Medway to the Thames.
By the early nineteenth century, the old hulks underpinning the reclaimed land of the Dockyard were seriously decaying and the site was becoming increasingly unstable. The Dockyard, however, was getting busier, since it (unlike the nearby Chatham, Woolwich and Deptford yards) was not prone to silting. By 1810, designs had been submitted to the Controller of the Navy by both Samuel Bentham and John Rennie the Elder for a relatively modest rebuilding of the yard. Over the next three years, both Bentham and Rennie produced far more ambitious schemes: first, in 1812, Bentham drew up a radical panopticon-inspired proposal for the site, with docks, slips and storehouses all radiating from a central hub, which was occupied by a six-storey hexagonal office block; but it was Rennie's 1813 plan that gained approval.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the old Sheerness Dockyard was closed in 1815 and work began to Rennie's meticulous designs. The principal architect was Surveyor of Buildings to the Navy Board, Edward Holl, assisted by William Miller. After Holl's death in 1823, George L. Taylor (an established architect with a practice in London responsible for some of London's most fashionable squares) took over as principal. The plan was for an entirely new dockyard, at 56 acres more than double the size of the old one. The site's quicksand and mud banks provided a substantial civil engineering challenge; thousands of wooden piles had to be put in place to support the inverted arch foundations of the docks, wharves, basins and buildings. A scale-model created at the time shows in great detail the original design (foundations included) of each element.
In all the project cost £2,586,083 and was largely complete by 1830. Sheerness was unusual among Dockyards in the unity and clarity of its design, having been built in one phase of construction, of a single architectural style according to a unified plan (rather than developing piecemeal over time).
The site was approximately triangular in shape when viewed from the air: Rennie's perimeter wall (1824–31) was built south-east from the Boat Basin (at the northernmost tip of the yard) running parallel with the Thames Estuary foreshore as far as the main gate, after which the wall (as can still be seen) turned southwards past the officers' houses, before turning sharply and continuing in a westerly direction as far as the river (though deviating south again at one point to accommodate the mast houses at the southern end of the site); the river then made up the third side of the triangle.
The principal buildings and structures were laid out along the bank of the Medway; from north (i.e. Garrison Point) to South, these were:
The Great Basin, with its three dry docks, formed the Dockyard's centre of operations; they were designed to accommodate First Rate Ships of the Line. It was the first area of the yard to be completed and was formally opened by the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) on 5 September 1823. (The next areas to be completed were the Small Basin and the Boat Basin, with its smaller pair of docks; construction of major buildings continuing for several years afterwards.) As part of Rennie's co-ordinated plan, all the dry docks were connected by a single culvert to the pump house in the south of the yard.
Behind the three larger dry docks (Nos.1-3) were a pair of suppling kilns (1828), beyond which a long two-storey building (known today as the Archway Block, 1830) was built to Holl's design; it consisted of five interlinked blocks, each of five bays, housing saw pits and seasoning stores on the ground floor, with mould lofts, joiners' shops and other stores accommodated above. Its eponymous archway spanned a main east-west road in the Dockyard, at the far end of which stood the Dockyard Chapel (1828).
Behind the Quadrangular Storehouse, and equal to it in length, the Smithery was built (begun in 1822). Further north, another suppling kiln and a smaller saw-pit building (1828) served the other docks (Nos. 4 & 5); there was also a pitch house (1829) nearby, designed by Taylor. Further south, behind the mast houses, there was a small foundry; it was destined to grow significantly in later years as use of metal in shipbuilding vastly increased.
At the east end of the site, near the chapel, were grouped the main residential buildings pertaining to the senior officers of the Dockyard:
The Chapel (and the Naval Terrace alongside it) were placed outside the perimeter wall of the Dockyard.
The area between the residences at the east end and the basins and docks to the west was initially kept clear, in large part, to allow for storage of timber; though the artesian well (dated, on the Well House, to 1800) which had so transformed life in the old Dockyard, was located here in relative isolation. In addition, the yard's Pay Office with its strong room (1828) was placed in this area, not too far from the main gate.
The land to the north of the rebuilt Dockyard, lying between the perimeter wall and the Estuary foreshore, was almost entirely given over to the Garrison, which had been displaced by the rebuilding. On a long narrow strip of land was built officers' accommodation, guard houses, barrack blocks, a parade ground and (within the bastion at the southern end of the site) a gunpowder magazine.
Along the estuary foreshore, a further line of fortification was constructed, connecting de Gomme's defences at the northern end with those south of Blue Town. All along the foreshore, a series of guns were placed; and in 1850 a new gun battery was installed in the Centre Bastion, designed to work in tandem with the new Grain Tower gun emplacement on the opposite side of the river. Ten years later, work began on replacing the old semi-circular gun battery on the promontory with a new casemated fort to replace the old blockhouse: Garrison Point Fort.
Between what became known as Garrison Point and the Garrison itself stood Admiralty House, a large residence built in 1829 for the Port Admiral. In May 1827, the Duke of Clarence, newly appointed to the office of Lord High Admiral, had ordered its construction on land purchased from the Board of Ordnance. The Duke himself did not make use of it (despite persistent rumours that he planned to move in); instead, Vice-Admiral Sir John Beresford took up residence and it went on to accommodate him and his successors as Commander-in-Chief, The Nore until 1907 (after which it housed the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet).
Before the rebuilding of Sheerness was complete, the Admiralty was beginning to invest in steam propulsion for warships, with the opening of its first Steam Factory at Woolwich Dockyard in 1831. This marked the start of an era of fast-paced technological change, and in the 1840s massive expansion took place at Portsmouth and Devonport to provide new basins and docks, which were served by factories, foundries, boiler-makers, fitting-shops and other facilities for mechanical engineering. The Royal Navy was still for the most part a sailing Navy at this stage, with steam providing auxiliary power rather than the main means of propulsion; this was to change over the course of the next thirty years.
The rebuilt Sheerness, which had been designed primarily for the repair and maintenance of sailing ships, soon found itself having to adapt to the changing demands of steam technology. Most particularly, because Chatham Dockyard was not expanded and adapted for steam until the 1860s, Sheerness found itself under pressure to provide interim facilities for repair and maintenance of steam-powered ships based in the Nore. This became an immediate priority with the outbreak of the Crimean War: so in 1854, a new Steam Factory was built 'in haste' at Sheerness by Godfrey Greene, with the second mast house being converted into an engineering foundry and fitting shop. By 1868 just under 500 men and boys were employed in the factory; sited in the south part of the Dockyard, it was served by its own entrance (later called the South Gate) in the perimeter wall. Also in 1854, No.1 Dock and No.3 Dock were both lengthened to accommodate the larger ships now coming in for repair.
The main Smithery, which stood behind the Quadrangle Store, had been provided with steam-powered hammers in 1846, and steam technology began to be used in various other parts of the yard; for instance, in 1856-8 a new steam-powered saw mill was built, to Greene's designs, replacing the manual saw pits built just 25 years earlier. Greene built a second Smithery in 1856, alongside the first, this time with an all-metal frame; a technique he took to new heights in 1858-60 with the building of a four-storey Boat Store (behind the Working Boat House), remarkable for its size, for its 'efficient storage and handling arrangement' and above all for its remarkable structural innovations: 'The all-metal frame was made rigid by portal bracing, subsequently adopted by the skyscraper pioneers in Chicago, and universal for modern steel-framed building'.
The introduction of ironclad warships after Crimea led to further new buildings in and around the Dockyard. An assortment of mechanical workshops - fitting shops, bending shops, boiler shops - began to fill available space around the basins and docks, and by the end of the century the old Working Mast House had become a Shipwright's Machine Shop, nestled among foundries and factories.
In 1824, the Admiralty declared that Sheerness would continue to serve primarily as a refitting base, leaving Chatham Dockyard to focus on shipbuilding. Provision of a single covered slip, however, indicates that (as in the old yard) some shipbuilding was also envisaged. In the second half of the century, dry docks began to be used for shipbuilding to some extent (especially as many of the old slips became too small for the fast-expanding size of new warships). At Sheerness, No.2 Dock was designated for this purpose and (like the slip) covered with a long pitched roof.
Beginning with HMS Sheerness in 1677, over 100 ships were built at Sheerness Dockyard over a 225-year period, including the following:
In the early 20th century, the Admiralty decided that shipbuilding should cease at Sheerness to allow the yard to focus on a new specialised role: refitting torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers. Dry docks 4 and 5 were accordingly lengthened in 1906 to enable them to accommodate the latter, and in 1912 the roof over the old shipbuilding dock (No.2 Dock) was demolished. This specialised work continued through World War I. After the war, to keep the yard from closing, it was occasionally sent vessels built by private contractors that required completion (such as HMS Thracian and the submarine HMS L27). During World War Two, when a flotilla of minesweepers was based at Sheerness, a number of motor-launches were built at the yard; but, as in the previous conflict, the main business of the yard was refit and repair of ships on active service.
In 1854, a wing of the Victualling Store, which stood alongside the entrance to the Small Basin, was converted to serve as a Naval Barracks: a unique pre-20th century example of a shore building in Britain being used as a barracks for naval personnel. It seems to have been used to house very young ordinary seamen under training but awaiting posting to a training ship.
Then, in 1892, the building as a whole was repurposed and reopened as a Royal Naval Gunnery School, providing specialist training in naval artillery. A training battery of 9-pounder guns was provided a few miles along the coast with a rifle range alongside. The school soon outgrew its accommodation; in 1908 it moved to new purpose-built accommodation alongside HMS Pembroke and the Victualling Store reverted to providing barracks accommodation.
In 1937, the same building again found a new use, this time being commissioned as a boys' training establishment: HMS Wildfire. It remained in commission until 1950; after closure, the 'Wildfire Building' (as it had come to be known) again reverted to providing accommodation until shortly before the closure of the Dockyard.
As at other Royal Dockyards, a school for apprentices was established at Sheerness in 1842. Fifty years later it was given its own purpose-built accommodation. It was (again in common with equivalent institutions elsewhere) renamed as the Dockyard Technical College in 1952, before closing a few years later along with the rest of the yard.
In February 1958 it was announced in Parliament that Sheerness Dockyard would close. The garrison was decommissioned in 1959 and on 31 March 1960 the closing ceremony took place for the Dockyard; the dockyard closure led to all 2,500 dockyard employees being made redundant. Once the Royal Navy had vacated Sheerness dockyard, the Medway Port Authority took over the site for commercial use.
In 1959, the First Lord of the Admiralty had announced that 'Seventeen residences and eight other buildings, including the quadrangle, the old Admiralty House and the dockyard church, [had] been listed under Section 30 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, as buildings of special architectural and historical interest.' Nevertheless, several of these very significant Dockyard buildings were demolished in the years that followed, including Admiralty House in 1964 and the Quadrangular Storehouse in 1978. The Small and Great Basins were also filled with rubble and covered over in the 1970s, along with Nos.1-3 Dry Docks, and to the east the former Garrison area was completely levelled.
A high priority was placed on finding new employment for the local workforce. From 1974-1994 Olau Line operated a ferry service out of the northern part of the former Dockyard from Sheerness to Flushing. The rest of the site continued to be developed as a commercial port with much land reclamation taking place along the river bank and extending south of the former Dockyard site. A steelworks, established in 1971 on what had been military land to the south of the Dockyard, closed in 2012.
The commercial port is currently operated by The Peel Group under the name London Medway. As the local port authority, their Medway Ports division controls navigation on the River Medway from a headquarters in Garrison Point Fort.
50 listed structures were destroyed at Sheerness in the 20 years following its closure; but while much of the former Dockyard has been lost, much still remains, and that has received greater recognition and attention in recent years. Historic England describes 'the whole dockyard' as 'a notable feat of marine engineering, with all the masonry carried on piles, represent[ing] the greatest piece of dock engineering by one of the great engineers of the C19'.
A campaign by Save Britain's Heritage saw the former dockyard placed on the World Monuments Fund watch list in 2010, noting that: 'Despite terrible losses, the site still contains a wealth of historic buildings. The problem now is that a majority of these structures stand empty and decaying.'
Much of the former residential quarter of the Dockyard had been sold to a property developer around the turn of the millennium. When planning permission was denied for its redevelopment in 2011, the Spitalfields Trust orchestrated its 'rescue and acquisition'; the area within the perimeter wall that was acquired (in the south-east corner of the former Dockyard) includes six Grade II* and four Grade II listed buildings which are now being restored and refurbished.
In 2013, the trust also acquired the former Dockyard Church, which had been gutted by fire in 2001. A new charity was formed (the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust) with a view to restoring the building and using it, among other things, to put Rennie's 1825 model of the Dockyard on public display. A National Lottery Heritage Fund grant in 2019 enabled the redevelopment by Hugh Broughton Architects to commence. Work got underway in November 2020, with a scheduled opening date of September 2022; only a fraction of the model is to be put on display, however.
Uncertainty remains, however, as to the future of other listed buildings within the former dockyard, above all:
Along with the Boat Store a good number of other listed and unlisted buildings and structures survive, several of which are now also judged to have been innovatory in their use of metal as a construction material, for example:
In 2016 the former Garrison Hospital of 1856, which had been threatened with demolition, was listed for being of special architectural and historic interest. Built on one of the defensive bastions outside the garrison gate, it latterly served as offices for the steelworks and is now owned by Peel Ports.
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