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Steampunk Days Out-Chatham Historic Dockyard

In this the second “Steampunk Day Out” we go to the location billed as your BIG DAY OUT: The Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Chatham is an interesting city from a Steampunk point of view. Not only is the Historic Dockyard available but also the Royal Engineers Museum and Fort Amherst (more on the first in another post) can provide interesting ways to spend several hours.
I came to Chatham on Brit Rail from London. The ride was quick and easy, with no transfers. It took less than an hour of effortless comfort to get there. The train station is located a good long walk from the Dockyard. The route takes you past the city center and a very large shopping center. The city center offers a number of shops including the ever useful 99 Pence store (I stopped and got snacks). The walk also passes Fort Amherst, which looked very interesting and at which I hoped to stop when returning to the train station. That plan was put to rest by the extent of the Dockyard’s exhibits and attractions.
Again we’ll start with the basic details. Adult admission is 15.50, which entitles unlimited visits for an entire year. This price includes the entire site and all ships (except the Paddle Steamer, see more on that below) and galleries. There are a few special events during the year that require a separate admission. See the dockyard’s website http://www.thedockyard.co.uk/Home for additional information on these events. The museum has a huge FREE car park.
Even though I spent all day there I did not see everything on the site. There are three historic vessels and seven galleries, as well as a shop and a nice café. In addition the existence of the World Ship Society bookstore came as a dangerous surprise to my credit card. It was a good thing I had brought an empty rucksack with me.
Of the three ships I boarded two but was only able to really examine HMS Gannet, a partially restored Victorian gunboat. HMS Cavalier, a WW2 destroyer was overrun with a school group which made getting around difficult, and caused me to curtail my visit. I wisely boarded Gannet early before the school groups arrived. She had an interesting life as an active Royal Navy vessel and then served on as a boys’ school for many years. She is being restored to her 1887 condition, when she sailed the Red Sea putting down the slave trade in those waters. She was originally built between 1877 and 1879 as one of the Osprey class screw and sail powered composite gunboats. She was originally armed with 7 inch Armstrong breechloaders and 64 pdr RMLs. The Armstrongs were replaced with 5 inch breechloaders. There are both 5 inch and 64 pdr guns on the ship now. The 64 pdrs are replicas. The barrels look good but the carriage sides seem far too light weight. They give a good impression of what that type of gun looked like. In addition a pair of nice replica 1 inch Nordenfeldt guns are on the ship’s fo’c’s’le.
The docents are very knowledgeable. Their discussion of the role of a Victorian Gunboat and her Captain as representatives of the Imperial government was described in depth. The need for a large Captain’s cabin, in which he could impress local rulers or negotiate regional understandings was brought out. Although much of the vessel has not been restored Gannet is one of a kind, the last of her kind. Standing on her decks allows a person a good idea of the type of vessel that served the British Empire so well for so long. Gannet and her sisters put the “Gunboat” in Gunboat diplomacy.
As I said HMS Cavalier is a WW2 destroyer. She was built in 1944 and served until 1972. Although not period to Steampunk she is still a lovely warship. One set of weapons aboard her that at least look like something the Victorians might have dreamed up are her Squid Anti Submarine Warfare weapons. Designed to fire salvoes of large depth bombs at underwater targets these three tubed weapons may look crude but were state of the art when first mounted.
I did not have time or inclination to explore the submarine HMS Ocelot.
I did look through most of the galleries at the dockyard. The first I saw was the Victorian Ropery. This was an excellent living history display, perhaps history is the wrong word, since the ropery still makes rope on a commercial scale for use. The interpreter was playing the role of one of the female employees who made rope in the late Victorian. After she summarily dealt with a number of disruptive children she proved extremely interesting and knowledgeable. The tour of the building starts on the lower level and the initial lecture and demonstrations give no hint of the space waiting above. The rope walk itself is immense, both wide and hugely long. Numerous ropes were in various stages of production. The Victorian era technology is still in full use and produces both traditional fiber rope as well as more modern materials for commercial sale. It is amazing to think that this system, many hundreds of years old in this building which is, itself well over 100 years old, is still an ideal method for the production of something so useful as rope is great (especially for the Luddite in me)
Right next to the ropery is the World Ship Society bookstore. Luckily for me they don’t send books from the shop via the post. The WSS publishes a large number of interesting titles on both merchant and naval vessels. They also have a very large selection of used books as well. I spent about 45 minutes in the shop and picked up a half dozen useful volumes. I highly recommend dropping in to the shop, even though the dockyard itself has so much to offer.
From the ropery I made contact with the staff of the dockyard. They were extremely friendly and accommodating. With their permission I was able to re-board Gannet to take some close-up pictures of here machineguns which were in an off limits area on the fo’c’s’le. It is always a pleasure to meet with museum staffers that love what they do and where they work. The staff at the Dockyard has a clear appreciation for their mission and the resources under their care.
One of the most wonderful parts of the dockyard is the collection of ships from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. These models are an amazing cross section of the best of the model-maker’s art. As a wargamer I can only drool in envy at the mere thought of putting such amazing models on the game table. Of course a 1/48 scale model of a 1890 battleship would require a HUGE table just for that model. The amazing detail on the builder’s models is simply stunning. Since these models were used as sales tools amongst other things they are exact replicas down to the most minute fittings. The boat storage is complete and correct. Even the coppering punts are there. The gun mounts are highly detailed, searchlights, range finders, navigational instruments are all presents. The brightwork is highly polished and the wooden decks look like the crews have just finished with them. One of the most interesting models was a smaller one of the ship built specifically to bring an obelisk back from Egypt. I found the model and the story of the ship to be interesting (and it is certainly Victorian). By coincidence I found a book on Cleopatra’s Needles and how they came to Paris, New York and London. When a museum exhibit has the power to interest a viewer to seek additional information that exhibit has done its job to the fullest extent!
There is a museum dedicated to the Royal Dockyard and the ships it built there. The history dates from the Armada to the Falklands War. The exhibits are excellent and of the same quality as the rest of the site.
Further along there is a child play area that has a number of small dockyard locomotives. The emphasis here was on the play area, but the locomotives were in great shape, and some were in the midst of repair work. This gave a good opportunity to see some of the normally hidden inner workings of these devices.
The Dockyard bills its covered dock as The Big Space and this is another part of the site that lives up to the hype. A wooden roof over a space large enough to build a Napoleonic era three deck ship of the line would be impressive all by itself. Take that space and fill it with steam engines, lifeboats, a train, the large exhibits from the Royal Engineers Museum and a host of other very very cool items and you really have something! The space might look familiar to folks, since it was used in Sherlock Holmes for the fight scene with the giant French guy that results in the loss of a battleship. The construction of the roof alone is worth a very detailed examination. Beware of the pigeons though, they are legion.
There is an additional vessel associated with the Dockyard the Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle www.pskc.freeserve.co.uk. She is a working steam paddle steamer and for an additional fee you can travel down the Medway. She was not steaming the day I was there.
There are a couple of other museums on site, including The Kent Police Museum and the The Royal Navy Auxiliary Service Museum.
To top things off I had a very nice fish and chips at the Wheelwright’s Restaurant. I liked the heavy wooden tables and the rest of the décor. I generally find that museums in the UK take on-site catering to an entirely different place than do ones in the USA.( I still have very bad feelings about having no choice but a McDonalds at the otherwise stunning Udvar Hazy aviation museum). This was no exception. The meal added to the experience rather than being a place to get the kids a burger so they won’t complain.
I whimped out and took a bus back to the train station and headed back into London. It required all day to even cover the parts of the dockyard I did see. I completely skipped the submarine and the Wooden Walls exhibits and spent a bare minimum amount of time on HMS Cavalier and still was there basically on site from open to close.
This is another site I can fully endorse for anyone interested in Steampunk or Maritime history. Plan for a full day