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Sheerness Dockyard 

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Sheerness Dockyard.  Photographs and history of the Royal Naval establishment at Sheerness.

Sheerness Dockyard

           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 deep well.

           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 article.         

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 describing.

           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 seriously injured.

           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.

Sheerness Gunnery School (HMS Wildfire), Chief and First Class Petty Officers' Annual Outing, September 1904.

Most caps have HMS Wildfire, but there is one of HMS Immortalite and one of HMS Swordfish.

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Football Team of HMS Wildifire - Jack Barnard, 2nd from left, back row.

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The Main Gate if the Dockyard (1901).

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View over the North Chamber (1901).

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A Model of Sheerness Dockyard (1901).

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Dockyard Terrace and Lawn (1901).

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The Foundry (1901).

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View over the Dockyard Basin (1901).

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Convoluted Pipes in the Stores (1901).

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The Dockyard Chapel (1901).

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The House of the Captain Superintendent (1901).

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The School at Sheernes (1901).

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Inside the Royal Naval Gunnery School (1901).

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Training for Shore Work on Rough Ground (1901).

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Storehouse for Ship's Boats (1901).

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The Main Storehouse (1901).

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