The historu of Chatham Maritime Trust

The History of Chatham Maritime Trust

The history of the Royal Dockyard at Chatham dates back to 1547, with the first record of naval activity being the rental of two storehouses on Jyllingham Water. Half a century later Chatham had become a major base for the navy of Queen Elizabeth I and it served many of the ships that fought against the Spanish Armada.

Over the next four centuries more than 400 warships were constructed in the Dockyard, including Nelson’s flagship Victory and Achilles, the first iron warship built for the Royal Navy. In 1667 Chatham was attacked by the Dutch fleet, which destroyed much of the fleet at anchor, and towed away the flagship Royal Charles.

During the 18th Century, Chatham became less important as a fleet base, as the emphasis of naval activity had switched to the Mediterranean and the New World, for which other ports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth were better situated. Chatham’s role became one of shipbuilding and maintenance, and many famous ships were built at the Dockyard, including HMS Victory, which was launched in 1765.

The development of large steam powered iron warships led to the large-scale expansion of the Dockyard in the 1860s. This expansion took place around St Mary’s Island to the north of the original dockyard and involved the creation of three large basins and more dry docks. Originally un-reclaimed marshland, the Island had to be drained and built up by eight feet before construction work could begin. Convicts from the local prison were used as labourers. By 1875, over 110 million bricks had been produced in the brickfields created on the Island. That this expansion took place on a greenfield site aided the survival of the remarkable collection of 18th and 19th century industrial, administrative and domestic buildings which now form The Historic Dockyard. In other Royal Dockyards, original 18th century structures had to be demolished to make way for the new buildings required by the ‘steam navy’.

Much of the ship building in the 20th century was of submarines and latterly the refitting of nuclear submarines became a major activity. An early product of the ‘peace dividend’, the Dockyard closed in 1984.

Estimates vary as to the number of job losses but around 7,000 were probably lost within the Dockyard and with almost as many in supporting industries. Traditionally the Dockyard workforce was drawn from a very small area and, coupled with the closure of the Isle of Grain refinery, the impact on the Medway Towns was significant.

The site was essentially divided into three:

  1. The southernmost 80 acres, very much the original dockyard of the Age of Sail, were passed to Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which exists to restore, preserve and interpret this unique site as a visitor attraction. This site contains over 90 buildings and structures of which 47 are listed.
  2. The easternmost of Basin (no. 3) passed to Medway Ports to become the Chatham Docks, now owned by Peel Ports.
  3. The remaining 140 hectares (350 acres) of the site, including the other two basins and much of the 1860s area of development became Chatham Maritime, under the responsibility of English Estates, later English Partnerships, the Government’s urban regeneration agency. Chatham Maritime was at the time one of the largest urban regeneration sites in Europe.

Chatham Maritime contained HMS Pembroke – the shore-based training establishment built in the early 1900s – and a number of notable individual buildings, but also many unremarkable Victorian and 20th Century additions, plus large open areas on St Mary’s Island which had been used as sports facilities by the Navy.

Whilst there was some early use of existing buildings, such as HMS Pembroke, and development such as the Compass Centre, one of the main constraints was the limited road access into the site. This was alleviated by the construction of the Medway Tunnel and Northern Relief Road in the late 1990’s. English Partnerships also carried out extensive work on flood defences, remediation, and the installation of new services, in order to make it possible to attract new development to the Estate.

In 1999 English Partnerships gave way to South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), who have subsequently been replaced by the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) now known as Homes England who continue to develop Chatham Maritime.

During the early 1990’s, English Partnerships started to address the issue of legacy – how would the residual public domain and common infrastructure be looked after in a way which would ensure the future of the Chatham Maritime Estate?

English Partnerships wanted to create an arrangement that would give effective long-term management, be financially sound, and responsive to local interests.

The solution was to create a charity that would take over and maintain the public domain and infrastructure.

This route had significant advantages over alternative solutions:

  • The Trust is solely for the management and maintenance of the Chatham Maritime Estate and the immediate and surrounding community, and so not diverted by external matters
  • As a charitable trust, it doesn’t have shareholders who require dividends
  • The Trust has representation of local interests on its Board, ensuring that the future control of the Estate will reflect the wishes of its occupiers, investors, and other stakeholders
  • Finance for future maintenance of the Estate is secure within the Trust, and cannot be spent on other, external, projects
  • As a charity, the Trust enjoys tax advantages for its investments

This charitable solution was a completely original approach. There was no known precedent to copy, so much of the work on forming the Trust broke new ground.

Chatham Maritime Trust was launched on 1st April 1997, acquiring an initial tranche of completed infrastructure, and an endowment fund.

The originality of this solution, and the success in its implementation, was recognised in 2007 when Chatham Maritime Trust won the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Award for Property Management Strategy & Delivery in the Public Sector.

By the time the Chatham Maritime Estate is fully developed, the Trust will be responsible for the flood defences, the Victorian dock basins, the bridge, various public parks and play areas, extensive landscaping, some ancient monuments and public art, and selected unadopted estate roads.

Until development is complete, some ownership remains with the HCA and individual house builders, giving a sometimes intricate jigsaw of land ownership.

St Mary' Island History Group logoSt. Mary’s Island History Group is an active association looking at the history of St. Mary’s Island.  The History Group was formed in April 2013 by individuals living on St. Mary’s Island to research and document the history of the Island and surrounding areas.  

The Group have provided Island walks at the Food & Drink Festival which were very well received.  Their latest project is looking at the last 20 years of St. Mary’s Island capturing the history of those years and Islander’s experiences – the opening of St. Mary’s Island School, the first wedding and a range of visiting vessels as well as development of the various sectors which have now become homes for new residents.  With this project the group hope to engage residents in creating a sense of pride in the unique community in which they live.

The group meets every two months and meeting dates for early 2019 are:  Monday 14th January and Monday 11th March.  Over a 4-year period the group has retained a membership of about 30 people and keeps in touch with members via their newsletter and website.

All meetings start at 7.30 pm in St. Mary’s Island Community Centre and usually include a guest speaker.  The guest speaker at the meeting on the 14th January will be David Burton who will be taking Members and visitors on a journey along the River Medway with his personal collection of old photographs.  David has family connections to the River Medway and also the Navy dating back to the 17th century.

Annual membership is £10 which entitles you to attend all meetings.  For £2 visitors are welcome.  The group has retained the annual subscription rate at £10 but is now asking £1 per person for all refreshments to enable them to balance the books so to speak.  A membership form can be downloaded from their website.

The group will be starting some new projects soon, one will feature the building of the basins and another a new information board for the walkway caisson area.  Following on from the discovery of some 19th Century photographs of the Dockyard extension the group will be bringing more news over the coming months.  They are keen to attract more volunteers and members for the committee and research group so if you are interested why not go along to one of their meetings.

The Group welcomes photographs or documents about the Island’s history (during or post Dockyard era) that they could copy so if you have anything that could be of interest get in touch.  Any suggestions for research or exhibition themes are welcome .  One subject that is on the horizon are the fire fighting and damage control schools that were situated on the Island for may years and had displays that featured at Navy Days.

The group is sill hunting for two ships noted as burnt at the eastern end of St. Mary’s Creek during the Dutch raid some 350 years ago.  HMS Charles V and HMS Mathias are both 4th rate with about 50 guns so the search is now on with Royal Navy records.  There is a hint that one or both could have been captured from the Dutch and renamed.

The Group has booklets on the Dutch Raid, The Medway Hulks, 20 Years of St. Mary’s Island exhibition and their 1914 to 2014 exhibition.  They also produced a limited number of booklets featuring the illustrations from St. Mary’s Island 1914 to 2014 exhibition.  If you would like to buy one of these publications then you can make contact via their website plus they are also available at their meetings.

To read their latest newsletter and for more information about the group and their activities visit

The Battle of Medway

The Battle of Medway (Tocht naar Chatham) was a daring assault on the English which changed the course of our naval history.

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