Inhospitable though the place was, there were those who were beginning to recognise its strategic potential. Between Sheerness and the opposite Isle of Grain lay the mouth of the River Medway and up river at Chatham was the fleet anchorage of the Royal Navy. Those who controlled Sheerness thus held the key to the river and had the fate of England’s warships in their hands.
Sheerness was also becoming of interest to the Admiralty for another reason. The three royal naval dockyards of the Thames and Medway – Deptford, Woolwich and Chatham – were all sited up river at some distance from the sea. Ships using these yards for minor repairs and maintenance found the passage up river to be a rather tedious exercise which, for a large sailing ship relying on favourable winds and tides, might require days rather than hours. A similar problem existed for ships at the yards when they were ordered to put to sea. They had to first negotiate the river before being able to enter the widening and deepening waters of the Thames estuary.
A short distance off Sheerness lay the Nore, a long east-west sandbank producing a large stretch of calmer water used by the navy as a convenient anchorage. Ships anchoring at the Nore, in need of small repairs of the kind necessitated through the normal wear and tear of ships at sea, would, rather than having to go up to one of the dockyards, carry out the work themselves; the crews used materials that were shipped down to them, occasionally employing shipwrights if more specialised tasks were involved. Re-victualling was also carried out off Sheerness, supplies being brought from Chatham, or from Queenborough, the little Sheppey borough that stood on the banks of the Swale about two miles to the south of Sheerness Point. Likewise fresh powder and shot for the ordnance would be conveyed down river to the waiting ships.
When a war with the Dutch began in March 1665, the two enemies faced each other across the North Sea, which was thus likely to be the major arena for any naval engagements. Geography dictated that it would fall mainly to the dockyards of the Thames and Medway to maintain the ships of the English fleet in a battle-ready condition. Minds began to concentrate at the Admiralty on ways to overcome the problems presented by these dockyards in regard to the wartime need for a quick turn-round of ships coming in for new stores and repairs.
What was required was a new facility having immediate access to the open sea and located where it could work in conjunction with the river yards. For this purpose the Isle of Grain was considered as was Queenborough. Also contemplated was Sheerness which was already put to some use by the navy, the broad mudflats exposed at low tide off the foreshore on the southern side of the Point having for some years been utilized for the careening of ships – examining, cleaning and effecting minor repairs on the normally submerged parts of their hulls. In the end it would be Sheerness that would find most favour as being suitable for the required purpose.
While the size and form of a new yard at Sheerness was still being pondered, the needs of the ships at the Nore were in need of more immediate attention and, in the spring of 1665, a small ready-to-use victualling storehouse was erected adjacent to the foreshore near the Point. As readily available supplies of spare masts, yards, rigging and canvas came into demand to keep the fighting ships at sea, a stockpile of these stores was also begun at Sheerness in what was rapidly turning into a ramshackle little depot.
In August a party of senior naval officials, including the great Samuel Pepys, landed at Sheerness to survey the ground and peg out the proposed layout for the new dockyard. Events then started to move quickly. The work of construction was shortly put in hand and, by mid-November, had been sufficiently advanced for it to be announced that thenceforth the large ships of the navy would be refitted there. In the meanwhile, adjacent to the dockyard at the Point, work on erecting a fort to contain twenty-nine pieces of ordnance was also underway. In comparison with the need-driven rate of construction for the dockyard, however, progress on the fort would prove painfully slow.
The fort was still not completed when, in June 1667, a Dutch fleet appeared over the horizon intent on attacking the fleet in the Medway in precisely the way that the fort was being constructed to prevent. The fort, under-manned and with most of its armaments not yet in place, had only seven guns which could be made immediately serviceable. After an exchange of fire with the encroaching enemy ships, the defenders decided to give up the unequal struggle, and hurriedly abandoned the fort to its fate. The Dutch, landing shortly afterwards, were thus able to march into both fort and dockyard without opposition. With Sheerness in their hands the Dutch ships began the next phase of their operation. Advancing up the River Medway, they decimated the ships of the English fleet that they found moored there. The triumphant Dutch then sailed back to Holland, but not before they had destroyed the fort and laid waste the dockyard at Sheerness. A few weeks later a peace treaty was concluded with the English.
The capture of the fort and dockyard, and subsequent wrecking of the fleet had been a massive blow to English pride. To prevent repetition of the disaster, plans were immediately drawn up and put into effect to build a far more powerful fortress at Sheerness. At the same time action was initiated at the dockyard to get it back into an operational condition as quickly as possible. By the end of 1672 work on the sturdy fort and adjacent dockyard had both reached completion. Thus there came to be established at Sheerness an association with the navy and military that was destined to endure for the next three centuries.
Initially, Sheerness Dockyard functioned as an extension to that at Chatham and was overseen by Chatham’s resident commissioner for much if its early history. Conceived primarily for the repair and maintenance of naval ships, there was one small exception – no shipbuilding took place there until 1691. Unlike other English dockyards, Sheerness had no town nearby. Low quality housing, a poor water supply and a high risk of contracting argue (a form of malaria) from the surrounding marshland led to a delay in construction and a lack of workers. The first dry-dock was not completed until 1708 and a second was added in 1720. The constricted area of the land available caused operational and developmental problems. Several hulks were positioned on the foreshore to act as breakwaters, but soon they were accommodating personnel and dockyard activities. The space between the hulks and, as they began to rot, the hulks themselves were infilled with soil so that new hulks could be added. There was no established settlement in Sheerness’s vicinity so most of the workers were housed in the hulks initially.
By 1738 workers from the Dockyard had built the first houses in Sheerness, a small shanty named Blue Town – so-called from the grey-blue paint they had purloined from the dockyard and used on the exterior of the houses. In the latter half of the eighteenth century a new outlying colony, Mile Town (a mile from the Dockyard) had sprung up, forming the nucleus of the modern town of Sheerness.
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. However, since it was not prone to silting (like the nearby Chatham, Woolwich and Deptford yards), it was getting busier. Drastic action was required and in 1813, a major rebuilding of the dockyard got underway. The scheme adopted for the reconstruction was that of the noted civil engineer, John Rennie. The first phase of the work – the Great Basin with its three dry docks and associated buildings – was formally opened on 5 September 1823 by Admiral of the Fleet, the Duke of Clarence, third son of George III. The Small Basin and Boat Basin were the next to be finished, the erection of the various necessary workshops, accommodation and other buildings continuing for several more years before the new dockyard, occupying sixty acres, was largely complete by 1830. In all the project cost £2,586,083.
When Queen Victoria commenced her reign in 1837, Sheerness stood as a state-of-the-art dockyard for the building and repair of the great oak-built and broadside-firing sailing ships of the Royal Navy. However, the Admiralty was beginning to invest in steam propulsion for warships, demonstrated by the opening of its first Steam Factory at Woolwich Dockyard in 1831. With momentum provided by the Industrial Revolution, this marked the start of an era of fast-paced technological change. As the nineteenth century progressed, the yard would have to continuously update its facilities and skills to meet the ever shifting demands of warship design: sail gave way to steam, paddle
to propeller, and wood to iron then steel. These and many other changes were reflected in the new roles being allocated to traditional dockyard buildings, like the working Mast House, which were being converted for engineering use as machine and fitting shops. This became an immediate priority with outbreak of the Crimean War, and in 1854 a new Steam Factory was hastily built at Sheerness by Godfrey Greeene.
In 1824 the Admirality had announced that Sheerness would continue to serve primarily as a refitting base, leaving Chatham Dockyard to focus on shipbuilding. However, by the second half of the century dry docks began to be used for shipbuilding to some extent. Beginning in 1677 and lasting for over 225-year years, over 100 ships were built at Sheerness, including: HMS Medway (1693); HMS Salamander (1832) - one of the first paddle steamers in the Royal Navy; HMS Rattler (1843) - the first warship to use screw propulsion; HMS Diamond (1874) - the last purely wooden ship to be built at the dockyard; HMS Gannet (1878) - the only surviving Sheerness-built vessel and HMS Cadmus (1903) - the last warship to be launched at Sheerness.
During the rebuilding of the dockyard, the military establishment were relocated along a coastal strip that stretched eastwards which soon became known as Garrison Point. A new parade ground, barrack blocks and other buildings, such as a gun battery, were established. Defences were erected facing the sea and in 1855 a Martello-style tower was erected on the Isle of Grain opposite Garrison Point. A new fort, thirteen years in the making, was completed in 1877. More compact but stronger than its predecessor and constructed out of Cornish granite, it could accommodate a garrison of 360 men.
In 1854 a wing of the Victualling Store, which stood next to the Small Basin, was converted to serve as a Naval Barracks. In 1892 the building as a whole was re-purposed and reopened as a Royal Naval Gunnery School. This soon outgrew its accommodation, so in 1908 it moved to new purpose-built accommodation at Chatham and the Victualling Store reverted back to providing barracks accommodation. The same building found a new use again in 1937, this time being commissioned as a boys’ training establishment: HMS Wildfire, which remained in commission until 1950.
In the early twentieth century the Admiralty decide to cease shipbuilding at Sheerness to allow the yard to focus on a new specialised role – refitting torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers. This work continued through World War I, but after the return to peace in 1918 the workload plummeted, men were laid off and there were persistent rumours of closure. To keep working going at a minimal ships launched by private ship builders were ordered to Sheerness for completion. During World War II, a flotilla of minesweepers were based at Sheerness and a number of motor-launches were built at the yard, but, as in the previous conflict, the main business of the yard remained the refit and repair of ships on active service. In spite of Sheerness’s vulnerable east coast position, the dockyard remained free of air raids and it managed to emerge from the war virtually unscathed.
The post-war years were a period of severe retrenchment. As Britain abandoned its worldwide commitments and focused on finding ways to save national expenditure, the home dockyards became under-used. In February 1958 it was announced in Parliament that Sheerness Dockyard was to be closed. Within a year the garrison had been decommissioned and on 31 March 1960 the closing ceremony took place for the dockyard. The closure led to all 2,500 employees being made redundant. A private harbour company, Medway Port Authority, then took over both the dockyard and the garrison to develop the site for commercial use.