Sheerness Dockyard does not rival either in its importance or its
strategic situation the Naval establishments, which I have so far dealt
with, although there was a time when the Thames and the Medway held a
greater place in our Naval organisation than even Portsmouth or
Plymouth. The yard was
established in the reign of Charles II. As an adjunct to the Chatham
establishment, and it remained under the inspection of the Commissioner
of the latter yard until 1796. As
a completed modern Naval establishment it can scarcely be said to belong
to a period earlier than about the year 1823.
Its efficiency in building, docking, and general constructive and
repairing facilities belongs to comparatively recent times, and presents
a marked contrast to its state in earlier days.
Yet the situation of Sheerness marked it out long ago as of great
importance. It was not only
an outpost of the Medway, but a position from which the Thames might
receive protection, and the Norce command has always held a great place
in our Naval annals from the time when the Dutch Wars gave that part of
our coast new and larger importance for Chatham and Sheerness together
formed the nearest base for fleets assembled in the Downs.
In ancient times the estuary of the Thames and Medway had
attracted to enterprise of invading tribesman, and the misty morasses
and sandy flats, which existed where, now are the docks and storehouses
depicted, witnessed the incursions both of Saxons and Danes.
In much later times Sheerness was associated with two events that
cast their shadows upon certain striking pages of Naval history.
It was the scene of the memorable onslaught of the Dutch in 1667,
and it was here that the Mutiny of the Norce, in 1797, had its origin
and its end.
There is a passage in Pepys’s Diary, under the date of August
3, 1665, two years before the Dutch attack, which seems to mark the
practical origin of the establishment.
“To Sheerness, where we walked up and down, laying out the
ground to be taken in for a yard to lay provisions for cleaning and
repairing of ships; and a most proper place it is for the purpose.”
Some doubt exists as to what Naval facilities existed at this
Northwestern point of the Isle of Sheppey at the time, but they were
almost certainly of small importance.
Probably the swampy land had already been drained, some works
with this purpose being undertaken even as early as the reign of Edward
III. but it could only have been a desolate region at the best.
That the Elizabethan seamen used it is well known.
After the battle of Gravelines in which the last great blow had
been at the Spanish Armada, many ships assembled at Sheerness, where a
terrible epidemic broke out. The
men died like flies, and the ships were in such a state that they seemed
to call for immediate overhauling and refitting.
It was therefore decided to reduce the fleet to a hundred sail,
and Drake and Hawkins hurried down to Sheerness to carry out the orders,
only to discover the disease had spread, and that the mortality was
appalling. It is quite
clear, now ever, that Sheerness was in their time merely an outpost of
Chatham. When the new
Armada was being prepared, orders for the safe guarding of the Medway
were issued, under which a ketch was to ride without Sheerness, and, on
sight of any enemy’s vessel, was to give intelligence to an “Aid”
riding within Sheerness, which was thereupon to prepare to meet the
enemy, and to fire three guns as a warning, so that other vessels might
give the alarm all the way up to Chatham.
We are, therefore, evidently justified in regarding 1665 as the
year in which the old Sheerness Yard practically began.
There was apprehension that the Dutch might attack the place, and
a clamour that fortifications were needed.
We learn that Pepys, in the next year, “spent some time
discoursing of business, among others arguing with the Commissioner
about his proposing to lay out so much money upon Sheerness, unless it
be to the slighting of Chatham Yard, for it is a much better place than
Chatham.” But things were
not well known at that time, and the Diarist, on October 28, 1666,
referring to the “Diamond heeling over when she was being careened at
Sheerness, speaks of it as a further mark “of the method all the
King’s work is now done in.”
In February 1667, the King and the Duke of York visited the place
to make arrangements for defence. Little,
however, seems to have been done, for Sheerness fell an easy prey.
In June of the same year Van Ghent, detached by De Ruyter,
entered the Medway, while Captains Van Brakel, Magnussen, and Du Bois
bombarded Sheerness Fort, then in an unfinished condition, and the
renegade Colonel Dolman landed with soldiers and seamen and, within an
hour and a half, compelled the defenders, under Sir Edward Spragge, to
evacuate the place and retreat up the river to a battery near Gillingham,
nearly opposite Upnor Castle. The
tale of the capture of Sheerness and the burning of our fleet in the
Medway has been told by many pens, and is the most striking episode in
the history of our Eastern naval ports.
A carving of the Royal Arms of Charles from the stern of the
“Royal Charles,” which was captured on that occasion, and became the
flagship of De Ruyter, is now in the Royal Museum at Amsterdam.
“To Whitehall,” writes Pepys, in the mouth following the
Dutch attack, “and, looking out of the window into the garden, I saw
the King (whom I have had no desire to see since the Dutch came upon the
coast first to Sheerness, for shame that I should see him, or he me,
methinks, after such a dishonour) come upon the garden; with him two or
three idle Lords; and instantly after him, in another walk, my Lady
Castlemaine, led by Bab May; at which I was surprised, having but newly
heard stories of the King and her being parted for ever.”
Not much seems to be known of the growth of Sheerness in the
times that immediately followed the Dutch wars, but the fortifications
were undoubtedly strengthened, and towards the end of the eighteenth
century there seem to have been two docks and a dry dock with other
works. Engravings of
Sheerness and Chatham Yards, which were published in 1738 and 1739, show
the former to have had somewhat extensive fortifications, and that some
ship building and repairing work ways in progress.
It was long, however, before a continuous wall of masonry
protected the riverfront, the docks being approached through a
“gut-way.” The growth
of the place is indicated by the fact that the Government, in 1782, went
to considerable cost in providing a supply of fresh water by sinking a
In the period of the Great War fleets often lay in the mouth of
the Medway, and thus it was that the second dark page in the history of
Sheerness came to be written. Vice-Admiral
Charles Buckner was commander-in-chief at the Nore when the mutineers of
1797 presented their demands. They
were refused, and when the Admiral gave Parker and his associates ten
minutes in which to make up their minds regarding the ultimatum of the
Admiralty, they went into harbour in their boats, seized the gun-boats
which lay there, and took them out to the Nore, each boat defiantly
firing a shot at the Sheerness Fort as she passed by, while the
delegates declared “that nothing could be settled until three of the
Board of Admiralty came down to Sheerness.”
The mutineers thereupon hauled down the flag of Admiral Buckner
in the “Sandwich,” and hoisted instead the red flag of mutiny,
obliging every ship then lying near Sheerness to drop down to the Nore,
where the mutinous fleet was assembled.
Some members of the Board of Admiralty went down to Sheerness and
attempted to reason with the delegates in the house of the Commissioner,
but the men were more insolent than ever, and it was manifest that they
were in relations with the French, and that the most desperate of the
contemplated the idea of carrying some ships into Brest.
A more honest spirit, however, generally prevailed, and soon the
terrible mutiny were quelled. There
were sanguinary struggles in some of the ships, which took refuge in the
Thames or under the guns of Sheerness, and on June 13 a disposition to
submit was shown. On the
next day the “Sandwich” came up to Sheerness, and Admiral Buckner,
sending some soldiers on board, affected the arrest of Parker.
Many of the Chiefs of the mutiny suffered, and the ringleader was
condemned by court-martial on board the “Sandwich” at Sheerness on
June 22, and his execution took place some days later in the same ship.
Thus Sheerness, which witnessed the outbreak of the great mutiny,
saw also its collapse. The
place had been brought into telegraphic communication with the Admiralty
by means of semaphore stations about a year before.
The main line from the Admiralty to the east was to Deal, for
communication with the ships in the downs, with intermediate stations at
West Square, New Cross, Shcoter’s Hill, Swanscombe, Gadshill, Callum
Hill, Beacon Hill, Shottenden, Barham Down, and Bettishanger, and there
was a branch from Beacon Hill to Sheerness, with intermediate posts at
Tong and Barrow Hill. This,
again, is an indication of the growing importance of the port and of the
increased facilities of that important time.
Yet the establishments were still upon a restricted scale, and it
would appear that the men and some of the officers employed in the yard
lived in hulks lying in the stream.
It was in the beginning of the last century that the Admiralty
took in hand seriously the work of extending the Naval establishments.
There was still a great deal of marsh about the place, and it has
been estimated that piles to the number of about a million were sunk to
enable the foundations of the new buildings to be laid.
It is to this period that the main gate and several other houses
and edifices at Sheerness belong. They
have a family likeness to the buildings erected at other yards.
The same necessities, and the taste and experience of those
concerned in the design, led to this similarity of character.
Ten years were devoted to the creation of Sheerness as a modern
establishment. Sir George Rennie was the engineer employed, while Mr. Hole,
civil architect of the Admiralty, made designs for the buildings, which
cost £969,326, while the outlay upon engineering works is said to have
been £1,616,757, thus bringing up the total cost to a sum of £2,586,083,
in addition to which the high brick enclosing wall cost about £50,000.
The first pile was driven on December 23, 1813, and in the next
year Robert Viscount Melville, then First Lord of the Admiralty, visited
Sheerness to lay the foundation-stone of the yard, the Commissioner of
the yard then being Captain William Granville Lobb, who was succeeded,
in 1814, by Captain the Hon. Courtenay Boyle, who held the post until
1822, and thus presided over the work at Sheerness almost until its
completion. The new works
were opened for public service on September 23, 1823, which, as I have
said, may be regarded as the beginning of the history of Sheerness as a
modern Naval establishment.
Sheerness Dockyard, as it was then formed, has remained unchanged
in its principal lines since that date, although the introduction of
steam, and the substitution of iron and steel for wood in shipbuilding,
have necessarily involved the erection of new shops, extensive work upon
the docks and buildings, and the addition of much machinery, which I
shall have an opportunity of describing with some fullness in another
The dockyard at Sheerness, completed in 1823, and
grafted, if one may use the expression, upon the trunk of its Pepysian
predecessor, is that which exists, developed in various ways, at the
present time. Geographical
and strategical conditions have forbidden it to share to the full in the
great advance made by the dockyard establishments in general.
It is a yard devoted, so far as constructive work is concerned,
to the building of sloops and gunboats, and occasionally of second and
third class cruisers. Whatever
has been necessary for its completeness, within its restricted limits,
has been well provided. There
is more important work elsewhere. Thus
it is at Portsmouth that two of the new docks are to be lengthened to
500-ft., to admit the battleships of the King Edward VII. Class an
illustration of how our Naval establishments are adapted to meet the
needs of the growing fleet. It
was at Devonport that the “Implacable” was built with a relative
lightness of hull and fitting, as compared with the “Formidable” at
Portsmouth, which lately won the admiration of the Admiralty, and caused
a conference between the officers of the two yards to be ordered-a
remarkable example of how progress in one establishment reacts upon
another, bringing all into a general line of advance.
If operations of such magnitude do not take place at Sheerness,
we may point to the inter-relation of the yard with that at Chatham, and
to the remarkable progress that both have made.
At Sheerness, as at other yards, may be seen hammers striking
terrific blows, sheers lifting monstrous weights, punching machines
striking holes through hard steel as easy as a pin going through a piece
of paper, drilling machines penetrating the adamantine substance with no
more difficulty that a corkscrew passes through a cork, and shearing
machines biting off pieces of steel as a knife cuts slices of bread.
In a word, here are many mighty forces subdued by the engineer
and harnessed for the shipbuilder’s needs.
The great changes at Chatham Dockyard, and the increase of
constructive facilities there, have done much to increase the importance
of Sheerness, because of the fact that many ships necessarily make a
stay at the latter port for compass adjustment, taking in ammunition,
and sometimes for coaling. About five years ago the channel of the Medway was deepened
and widened so as to admit of the largest vessels passing to and fro
between Chatham and the sea at every tide, and in order that sufficient
water might be obtained for mooring ships.
These improvements have done much to increase the value of the
twin ports on the east side of the island.
The comparative Naval value of Sheerness as a dockyard may have
tended in some degree to diminish, but in case of war there can be no
doubt that the place would immediately regain its old importance, and
ships of the smaller classes would find facilities in the yard for
extensive repair without going up the Medway to Chatham.
At the present time the establishment possesses three docks
entered from the steam basin, and two from the lower camber, as well as
one important building slip adjoining the latter.
The dockyard basin is 521-ft. long, and has an extreme breadth of
a little over 300-ft., and upon its margin is the great mast sheers and
boiler sheers, as well as a powerful crane.
The largest of the docks is No.3, with a length of 286-ft. 8-in.
No.1 dock is only a few inches less, but no.2 dock, which is
housed in, does not exceed 224-ft.
Two of these docks have been increased in length by about 25-ft.
since they were first constructed, and the Admiralty some years ago
entertained the idea of still further enlargement, in order that
second-class cruisers, or even larger vessels, might be docked but for
various reasons which do not seem to be well known, but which were
doubtless concerned with considerations of high policy, the idea appears
to have been abandoned. Docks
Nos.4 and 5, which are entered from the lower camber, are smaller than
the others, and are adapted for sloops and gunboats only.
All the docks at Sheerness are of the best workmanship, and in
their character leave a little to desire, although the officers of the
yard may well wish they were adapted for larger work.
It must, however, be remembered that Sheerness and Chatham are in
a very real sense sister establishments, each being complementary to the
other, and that what Sheerness cannot do can be undertaken with ease at
the larger yard, which I shall presently have an opportunity of
The mention of the docking and building facilities at Sheerness
brings us appropriately to a consideration of the classes of vessels,
which have been built and are being built there.
The largest ever constructed in the yard was the was the
second-class cruiser “Charybdis.”
Of 4,360 tons, 320-ft. long, with 49-ft. 6-in. beam, which was
launched in 1893. She had
been preceded two years earlier by the “Brilliant,” of 3,600 tons,
and several third-class cruisers have been built in the yard including
the “Barracouta,” 1,580 tons, and the “Pelorus,” and several
other vessels of the “P.” class.
The building of sloops is constantly in hand. The “Swallow” in 1885, the “Buzzard” in 1887, the
“Daphne” in 1888, and the “Rosario” and “Condor” in 1898,
are among those built at Sheerness, and the new sloops, “Vestal,”
Shearwater,” “Odin,” “Merlin,” “Fantome,” and
“Espiegle” are the work of the yard. The gunboats and torpedo gunboats which have been constructed
there are also very numerous. They
include the “Pigmy,” “Goldfinch,” “Alarm,” “Circe,”
“Leda,” “Hebe,” “Gossamer,” and “Gleaner.”
Other gunboats, also, like the “Speedy,” “Onyx,”
“Niger,” and “Renard” have been completed at Sheerness after
being delivered by the contractors. A great deal of work was done in the yard during the Russian
War, when ship’s of her great Majesty’s Navy were constantly coming
and going between Sheerness and the scenes of operation.
Thirty years ago there were 870 men on the permanent list of the
establishment, but within twenty-five years that number fell to 620. Although the number of hired men show some increase,
Sheerness still remains among the smallest of our building
establishments, notwithstanding that a great deal of varied and
indispensable work is constantly in hand there.
The most considerable additions made in the establishment since
it was completed in 1823 have been the building, and the more recent
extension, of the steam factory near the south gate.
Engine building began here in 1889, when the “Goldfinch,”
“Gossamer,” and “Gleaner,” followed by the “Hebe,” and the
“Torch” and “Alert” sloops, wee both built and engined I the
yard. The steam factory is
not, however, by any means a rival of Keyham, which has supplied much
machinery for Sheerness-built boats.
The Admiralty, however, wisely recognises the importance of
maintaining machine shops and steam factory in constant work at this
point of vantage and ready access on the east coast.
Adjoining the steam basin is the Royal Naval Gunnery School-the
Whale Island of the port occupying a building originally devoted to the
work of victualling, and afterwards employed as Naval barracks.
The gunnery establishment has quite outgrown the limits of
accommodation it provided, and in 1898 the Admiralty seriously undertook
the work of supplying the deficiency.
New buildings were to be erected to accommodate 30 officers and
1,000 men, and plans were prepared for the purpose, but a difficulty
occurred which caused the plan to be abandoned.
The only available site was found on examination to be unsuitable
on sanitary grounds, and negotiations for a better site at Chatham were
therefore begun. The change
to be effected in the gunnery school was linked with the creation of a
torpedo school for Sheerness and Chatham, and the latter establishment
was ready for operations about the year 1896, and added largely to the
efficiency of the naval port.
The great storehouse, which is illustrated, is the largest
building in the yard, and is stated to have been erected on some 6,000
piles. Here is collected a huge aggregate of the immense variety of
stores required for His Majesty’s Ships.
Here, also, are the rigging house, the chart office, and the sail
loft. On the road leading
from the main gate are the smithery, the boiler shop, the saw mills, the
joinery, the pay office, and the office of the dockyard reserve, as well
as the timber sheds, the muster offices, a dining-room for the dockyard
artisans, and other buildings.
Near to the upper camber and to the gunnery school stand
the offices of the Captain-Superintendent for Sheerness, like Pembroke,
is under the rule of an officer below flag rank-being the Chief officer
of the dockyard, and in the same buildings the Chief Constructor, the
Naval Storekeeper, and the Cashier have their offices.
Admiralty House, the official residence of the Port Admiral-the
Commander-in-Chief at the Nore-lies outside the dockyard, and actually
in the garrison, but the distance is very short, and there is a private
way of access. King William
IV. Has left his mark upon most of our Naval establishments, and
Admiralty House was built as a Royal residence whenever His Majesty,
then Duke of Clarence, came to stay at Sheerness, and it is even said
that the place might have received the name of Clarence Town but for the
history that belonged to the old and existing name.
Admiralty House is thus interesting as associating the place with
our sailor king. Another
dockyard building standing outside the yard is the chapel, of classic
aspect, which is depicted. A
century ago it would appear that service was conducted on board a hulk
moored off the yard; but a church was erected, which was destroyed by
fire twenty years ago, when two lives were lost and several men were
Allusion was made in the last article to the insufficient
defences of Sheerness, which made it an easy prey for the Dutch in 1667.
The resistance then offered does not, indeed, appear to have been
a very sturdy one, but probably the defenders thought it better to
retire to a secure fort, where they could be of real value, than to run
the risk of being cut off and captured in an outlying position.
The place remained in a state of insecurity, so far as land
defences were concerned, until the middle of the last century, when
attention was drawn to the unsatisfactory and dangerous condition of
affairs, and the forts at Garrison Point and on the Isle of Grain,
opposite to Sheerness, were therefore erected, completely commanding the
mouth of the Medway, and partially protecting that of the Thames, which
has for further security the works at Shoeburyness, the school of army
gunnery, on the Essex side. Sheerness
may now be deemed secure against attack, though it has been suggested
that long-range fire might be dangerous to it.
However, it is not likely that so important a Naval station will
remain without the protection of a Naval Force.
A few years ago the fortifications on the Isle of Grain were
added to, and others were erected at Barton’s Point, where a rifle
range for the port has lately been opened.
Recent types of heavy ordnance have been mounted in existing
works, and a considerable number of old guns have been replaced, and
there is also a station for the Brennan torpedo at Garrison Point.
These are matters in which very rapid progress has been made at
Sheerness, and are marks of the greater importance, which attaches to
the yard, suggesting that a time may come when its resources as a Naval
base will be further developed. A considerable change has also taken place in the port.
Instead of the old wooden guard-ship, which was there a few years
ago, the “Sans Pareil” is now the port guard ship, and several other
vessels are also stationed there. Thus Sheerness presents features indicating a useful and
important future. It only
remains to say that Captain Gerald C. Langley is the Superintendent of
the yard, that Captain Walter S. Chambre is the staff Captain and
King’s Harbour-master, C. P. Lemon, Esq., the Chief Constructor of the
yard, R. H. Andrews, Esq., the Chief Engineer, and J. Davisson, Esq., the Naval Store Officer.
Extract from "The Navy and Army Illustrated"
- by John Leyland.