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Chatham Dockyard, 1815-1865: The Industrial Transformation

Author(s):MacDougall, Philip
Reviewer(s):Buxton, Ian

Published by EH.NET (October 2009)

Philip MacDougall, editor, Chatham Dockyard, 1815-1865: The Industrial Transformation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2009. xvii + 410 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6597-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ian Buxton, School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University.

The Navy Records Society has a long history of publishing documents relating to the Royal Navy. Most are papers of famous admirals or are on strategic topics; this may well be the first on infrastructure. This volume addresses the development of Chatham Dockyard from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to 1865. The latter date marked the start of its transformation from a straggling riverside location to a new dockyard with enclosed basins and larger drydocks.

Philip MacDougall, who has researched the dockyard extensively over many years, including his doctoral thesis, has selected a fascinating range of documents to show how the Admiralty and the dockyard struggled to cope with the problems of the day, albeit somewhat hesitantly. Post 1815, retrenchment was the order of the day, with increasing demands by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to cut back on the overgenerous provision dating from wartime days, and eventually pave the way for Chatham to become the first Royal Dockyard to build a warship in iron, the ironclad Achilles of 1863.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each with titles like ?Manufacturing and the Move to Steam Power? and ?Economics, Custom and the Workforce.? Each selection of papers is preceded by a three to five page summary setting the scene, which makes it easier to appreciate the story as told by the documents. Most are drawn from the National Archives ? such as Navy Board letters ? but some are from the National Maritime Museum ? for examples, newspaper reports and personal reminiscences.

With the advent of steam power and smaller peacetime budgets, the story is one of piecemeal adaptation to less labor intensive methods and improved management procedures. Examples of topics discussed are extensions to the existing drydocks and problems with dilatory contractors, mechanizing the sawing of timber making most sawyers redundant, improvement of ropemaking and petitions from the workmen for improved conditions. Revealed are unsatisfactory methods of accounting for both money and stores, with systems wide open to theft and fraud.

Many individual issues come to light, for example showing how the (London) Metropolitan Police became responsible for dockyard security in 1860, and how copper was recycled from old ships to make new sheathing for wooden hulls. They also show how iron and steel hull construction became the preserve of the (wooden) shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards, rather than the boilermakers, as in commercial yards. When ironsmiths from Thames shipyards were recruited to build Achilles, they went on strike, were dismissed, and the work given to the shipwrights who retrained for this new trade with the help of two strikebreakers.

In what seems unusual to us today ? conditioned to large central government bureaucracies ? the Royal Navy and the Dockyards were run by a handful of senior officers. The Commissioner (dockyard superintendent) dealt with most correspondence, usually responding to Navy Board letters within days. A list of Postholders is given in an appendix ranging from the First Lords of the Admiralty to Assistant Master Shipwrights. A Chief Engineer was appointed in 1846, more to oversee the dockyard plant than install or overhaul machinery in ships. The book includes a list of ships built with launch dates from 1815-65, but what would have been revealing is just how long some took from start to finish ? indeed major overhauls too. For those unfamiliar with the dockyard, a plan showing the layout during most of the period would have been useful.

It is possible to dip into individual topics, as well as read complete chapters more systematically. Overall the book gives an excellent insight into a neglected but worthwhile topic. It would probably be equally interesting to read a similar compilation on late nineteenth or early twentieth century dockyards.

Ian Buxton is a naval architect and Visiting Professor at the School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University. He is the author of Big Gun Monitors: Design, Construction and Operations, 1914-1945 (Seaforth Publishing (UK) and Naval Institute Press (US), 2008). Email:

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century