Documents exist from 1567 (just 55 years after Columbus discovered America) showing that the fleet was moored in "Jillingham Water" (during the reign of Henry VIII), and in 1550 those ships moored off Plymouth were ordered to the Medway for strategic reasons. Samuel Pepys was a frequent visitor to the yard, and Sir Francis Drake and Lord Nelson both learned their skills here.
Originally the dockyard was very small, and probably located next to St Mary's Church. Over time it grew to cover an enormous area - most of it was eventually in Gillingham. The Historic Dockyard attraction covers 80 acres now, but that's only a small part of what was the whole site. The areas covered by Chatham Docks, the University of Greenwich, the University of Kent at Medway, the old Lloyd's of Chatham building (formerly the site of the Royal Marine Barracks, now Medway Council offices), Chatham Riverside (down to the old library) and even Medway Police Station were originally parts of the Dockyard. The green area on the map below shows just how big this area is. The Historic Dockyard area is in red.
Chatham Dockyard was closed in 1984, having produced and repaired ships almost constantly for over 430 years. At its peak, it employed thousands of people from shipwrights and carpenters, through to flag and rope makers. It was the biggest employer in the area and since its closure, the Medway towns have become even more "dormitory towns", with a large proportion of their population working in London.
The Historic Dockyard have tours around their site now, which show you the history of the dockyard, and are very interesting. You should allow a whole day (possibly two) for your visit, and bear in mind that there is a lot of walking involved.
Amongst other things, you can learn about the huge number of ships that were built here, and the people who built them, and the amazing variety of associated trades and professions the dockyard also supported. Most of the people whose families have lived in the area for a reasonable length of time have some connection with the dockyard. My grandfather was a welder there, one of my great-grandfathers was a Royal Marine based at Chatham, and later worked as a Royal Marines Military Policeman guarding the base. Several others have been Royal Marines or Royal Navy Seamen based there, and one of my great-grandmothers worked in the colour loft making flags.
Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, was built at Chatham. Nelson apparently lived in Brompton (between Gillingham and Chatham) at the time. There is a body of opinion which says that HMS Victory should be brought back from Portsmouth to Chatham. There is another body of opinion which isn't too confident that the ship would survive the journey!
The ship was just a prison hulk on the Medway when Nelson saw it and took a fancy to it. After refitting at Chatham it became his flagship.
As an aside, although much of the wood for the Victory and other ships was imported, a lot of it was produced in England, and a lot was grown in Kent.
The dockyard has featured in many films, such as "Carry On Sailor", where it was a Dockyard, and "Let Him Have It", where it featured as the prison where Derek Bentley was held on remand. It was also the location for the 1980s TV series "C.A.T.S. Eyes", where its acting abilities sometimes exceeded those of some of the stars! Fred Dibnah (steeplejack) has marvelled on television at the woodwork in the huge covered slipways which are, as he said, marvellous works of engineering.
More recently it has been used for scenes in "The Mummy", "Children of Men" and "Amazing Grace". IMDB.com has a list of films made in the dockyard here.
During the Napoleonic wars, tens of thousands of French prisoners of war were held in the UK, with many of them at Chatham. Many of them never made it back home, and are buried in what was the dockyard church.
As well as the obvious job losses in the Yard itself, coincidentally a lot of local pubs closed soon after the Dockyard closed! I'm told it was possible to start at the end of Rochester High Street, near the Bridge, have half a pint in each pub through Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham High Streets, and not remember whether you actually reached Gillingham. Nowadays you could follow the same route and barely be merry by the end of it.
As well as the Historic Dockyard site, Chatham Docks are now a commercial docks and Marina. The land between the two sites, Chatham Maritime, where there are a number of basins and sheds has been changed quite a lot.
Of course, there's the Dickens World attraction, which opened during 2007. I've not been there myself yet, by my elder son has been there and says it's good.
St Mary's Island is being redeveloped too, with a new village and a school having already been built on it, and more on the way.
There is now a tunnel from Chatham Dockyard to Strood, so you can drive all along the Saxon Shore Way without having to get caught up in the traffic in Chatham. There's a very interesting article on Medway Council's site about the tunnel, although some civil engineers I've spoken to insist it's not a "real" tunnel as they just cast the pieces in concrete and sank them onto the river bed. It seems if there's no serious digging, it's just not good enough!
View a street map here. Switching on the aerial photographs will show the ropery on the left of the picture (the VERY long building).
Chatham Historic Dockyard's official web site is here.
All photographs copyright 2000 - 2007 Jason Ross