Sheerness Dockyard

On the 8th August 1665 the Navy Board ordered the Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard to equip Sheerness Yard with materials and workers to clean the hull of the ships, the same year Samual Pepys visited the yard to begin the planning of the construction works. His diary reads: “To Sheerness where we walked up and down, laying out the ground to be taken in for a dockyard, a most proper place”. The first building to be constructed was a storehouse, used to store provisions that were to be sent out to ships. Three months later orders were sent from the Navy Board that all ships in need of cleaning, minor repairs and refitting go to Sheerness Dockyard; by doing this they relieved some of the work at Chatham Dockyard as the men there were struggling to keep up with the workload and they also avoided the plague that was raging at Chatham. To be able to accommodate this extra workload more buildings and more suitable cranes were planned, these plans and cost estimate were sent to Samual Pepys who agreed to the work. This work was completed at the end of 1665.

During the following year plans were drawn up by Bernard de Gomme for the building of a new fort at Ness Point, adjacent to the new Dockyard to protect it and the King’s fleet anchored at Chatham, however before the fort could be completed the Dutch attacked and invaded the fort and surrounding area. They removed as much of the stores as they could carry on their ships and burnt anything they could not keep, including destroying the new fort. They finally left with £3000 worth of stores, guns and ammunition. They then sailed up the River Medway to Chatham where they took the Royal Charles (the English flagship), another ship, and destroyed the rest of the fleet. By the end of 1668 both the fort and dockyard were operational again. The first dry dock was completed in 1673 and the first ship was launched four years later, this ship was to become one of many launched at Sheerness.

Sir Phineas Pett was appointed Resident Commissioner of Sheerness and Chatham Dockyards on 19th April 1686, he was to reside at Chatham Dockyard on a salary of £500 per year. Thirteen years later on the same date a shipwright was discharged from a hulk at Sheerness due to his age and inability to carry out his work. The shipwright petitioned the Admiralty for a position on a Chatham hulk as he was very poor and luckily Their Lordships approved. By this time the dockyard had grown considerably and now consisted of around 20 buildings, a number of docks and slips and a mast pond. The building would have consisted of stores, saw pits, wheelwrights shop and other essential workshops. In 1794 a house for the Commissioner had also been built and Ordnance Stores are also marked near Powder Monkey Bay and the Gun wharf. By this time a new telegraph system had been invented and was in use by the Admiralty between Chatham, Sheerness and Deal, this was to be replaced in 1822 by a semaphore system.

The next major event at Sheerness was the Mutiny at the Nore. Naval crews of 28 naval vessels started a Mutiny at the Nore anchorage, the sailors were angry due to poor working conditions, un-equal pay, not enough leave, poor rations and they wanted an end to people being forcefully enrolled in the Navy (press-ganged). Richard Parker, a former officer who had been voted president of the fleet by the mutineers, led the rebellion and blockaded access to London, this meant all trade was unable to carry on. The Garrison was increased to 3,000 men to protect the fort and dockyard if they attacked and the shot was kept warm for the batteries. The mutiny was hijacked by radical delegates and started to turn sour, due to lack of food and disagreement between the mutineers they started to leave. Parker and co-conspirators were dealt with severely and were hanged by the Admiralty for treason, the executions taking place upon the ship ‘Sandwich’.

The dockyard steadily grew and by 1800 it consisted of two dry docks, two slips and around 30 buildings. It was soon realised that the present dockyard was struggling to keep up with the work expected of it, the building were badly placed and room was short. With this in mind it was decided the dockyard needed a complete overhaul. John Rennie was asked to survey and design the new dockyard and work began on 23rd December 1813 with the first piles being driven. In total the works cost £2,586,063 and took 10 years to complete. The docks were re-opened by HRH the Duke of Clarence on 5th September 1823 and Howe, a 1st rate ship, was floated into No.1 dock as part of the ceremonies. During this works, in 1816, dockyard workers set up the Sheerness Economical society to buy food in bulk to distribute to other workers and their families at a reduced cost compared to local shops. The company Joliffe and Banks (Sir Edward Banks) were contracted to build a number of buildings including the Captain-Superintendants House, the Admirals House, to be the home of the Commander-in-Chief The Nore and Naval Terrace to name a few in 1827.

Sheerness Dockyard was the scene of a riot in 1830 after a Warden accused one of the workers of being in possession of the ‘Kings stores’ as he was leaving the dockyard to go home. A large number of workers heard this accusation and tried attacking the Warden. Three Constables and Commissioner Lewis attempted to get the Warder to the safety of his home but by the time they reached the Barrier Gate they realised that the Military Guards had to be called to help, by this time Commissioner Lewis had been struck with thrown stones and bricks. The worker, a mechanic, pleaded guilty to theft at his trial and was fined and discharged from the yard. Eight years later the Temeraire, a 2nd rate ship, fired her guns for the last time as a 21 gun salute for Queen Victoria’s coronation on the 28th June. Moored at the Nore, the crew were treated to a double issue of run and shore leave to Sheerness as part of the celebration.

The ship Actaeon was commissioned at Sheerness as a Torpedo School on 6th June 1905, she was later moved to Chatham. Four years later in June 1908 the gunnery school, HMS Wildfire, was closed and all courses were moved to Pembroke although the firing range remained in use. The same year Agincourt, a battleship, arrived at sheerness Dockyard to be stripped and converted into a coal hulk. 1000 extra labourers were hired to help in this task and she was later moored just off Sheerness until Trafalgar Day in 1960. On the 10th January 1912 Sheerness was involved in another history making exercise when the battleship Africa was moored off the dockyard, her purpose being the first Royal Naval warship to launch an aircraft, a Shorts S27 seaplane from a ramp over the forward gun turrets. In 1914 and 1915 two ships exploded causing a great loss of life off the coast of Sheerness, both were unfortunate accidents.

Before and during WWII ships entering the River Medway were ordered to remove all their ammunition at Sheerness Dockyard so to prevent any serious and damaging explosions at Chatham Dockyard or near the Ordnance Store at Upnor. The dockyard was still in use during this time repairing and making adjustments to ships, it also played a vital role during the Dunkirk evacuation with many small boats being brought to Sheerness to be checked over by the Navy. It was here they were provided fuel, rations and charts and arranged in convoys before they were sent to Ramsgate before entering the deep waters on a dangerous mission to save all they could from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The 18th February 1958 brought bad news to the dockyard workers when an announcement from the Government confirmed the dockyard at Sheerness was to close, they had two years to find alternative employment.

Designed & built by - Kevin Ali