Thursday, 2 April 2009

My 25 Gun Salute

To Chatham yesterday, to attend the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, including a 25 gun salute and a lunch in the Commissioner's House. The three big field guns rocked the town; 24 single shots and then the three together for the last. I think the gun captain's quivering closing salute might have been directed at Admiral Sir Ian Garnett and Margaret Beckett, but hell, I took it anyway.

In 1981, when I was a pre-pubertal strategic planner for the County Council, the Royal Navy announced it was going to pull out of Chatham Dockyard. I accidentally talked myself into doing an appraisal of the Georgian part of the yard - a historic and architectural gem. The timescale was just two weeks, and I worked into the nights - often in the local pub as the Social Secretary (then my girlfriend), fetched me pints from the bar. I met the deadline and in a very short space of time my report wound up on the desk of the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine. The report argued the case for gifting the historic dockyard to an independent trust or public authority as a living maritime museum.

The Government accepted this, and when the Navy finally pulled out in March 1984, the newly established Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, with a board of eminent trustees and what would prove a woefully inadequate endowment of £8 million, inherited the lot.

My employers offered the nascent Trust initial staffing and administrative support. The staffing support turned out to be me, and so the day after he returned from honeymoon a very nervous Brother Tobias found himself seconded as acting General Manager of a redundant dockyard - the same dockyard to which his father, at the outbreak of war, had reported for training as an engineer officer half a century earlier.

Our HQ was the Old Pay Office, where Charles Dickens' father had once worked. The two tall, Georgian windows of my office looked out past the flag mast of the Captain of the Dockyard's House along the elegant eighteenth century Officers' Terrace. To the left was the No. 2 dock where HMS Victory was built, and the vast structures of the covered slips.

Chairman of the newly formed Trust and my boss was the recently retired Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle. Also part of the team was Deb, a loyally protective former Wren; Ken, a draughtsman from the dockyard drawing office who became our visitor guide; and Joy, a lady cleaner who had been a dockyard employee. With her help I also secured the services of Ron as general handyman (there were uncharted and arcane services running around the yard, including AC and DC electrical supplies at different voltages, steam, sewerage, potable and non-potable water and gas; Ron's knowledge of these proved invaluable).

Between us, we had to look after 84 acres which included over 40 scheduled Ancient Monuments dating from 1697 onwards, dry docks, caissons, cranes, covered slips, pontoons, piers, a steam pumping station, a helicopter pad, mast ponds, stables; a church; a laundry; a working railway complete with a small shunting engine; and a variety of commercial tenants.

For a green local government officer used to the protective carapace of a multi-layered bureaucracy, it was a scary time. For the first time in my life I found myself empowered to take decisions on the hoof, without consultation. At any moment I might be negotiating rents, chasing round the yard after thieves, lying on a sinking pontoon in a three piece suit attaching markers, chugging around the yard driving a Lister diesel tug, or attending a Board meeting. The telephone seldom stopped ringing and it usually brought crises; Trinity House complaining that the lights on Thunderbolt Pier weren't working; a high tide threatening to float the caissons which sealed the dry docks (in 1954 one of these broke free, causing the submarine Talent to burst out into the river, killing several men); failure of a steam boiler bringing production to a halt; someone working on services in some underground chamber overcome by methane; the press demanding interviews...

In my few spare moments and armed with a set of master keys, I made it my business to explore every building, room, loft, tunnel and cavity, from Brunel's sawmill to the Dockyard Church; the Yarn and Tarring Houses; the Anchor Wharf Stores (the largest ever built by the Navy); the quarter mile long double Ropery; the Lead and Paint Mill; the Mast House and Mould Loft (where the lines of HMS Victory's timbers can still be seen marked on the floor); the Sail and Colour Loft; the Joiners' Shop, the Wheelwrights' Shop; the Galvanising Shop; the Smitheries where tools and forges rested amongst heaps of rusting cannons and ferns growing in the half-light; and the silent, secret, World War II and Cold War bunkers many feet underground, which housed eerily abandoned telephone exchanges and command centres. This had been a self-contained enclave capable of building, equipping and provisioning warships without external support. Day after day I trespassed amongst the ghosts and echoes of four centuries of maritime history.

The SS recalls me walking tense and silent around the garden each evening, clutching a glass of gin while I reviewed the events of the day and sorted out the priorities for the next. Aside from someone getting killed, my nightmare was waking to the news that the nation's last surviving timber-framed covered slip, like a vast, upturned ship, had burnt down - as its former neighbour had been. Every weekend I would return with a bunch of sweet-smelling roses for her, thoughtfully cut from the Admiral's Garden or the Officers' Terrace by our secretary and our cleaner.

A crisply courteous, near military culture quickly established itself (addressing the Chairman as 'Sir' came naturally from our respective naval or boarding school backgrounds). One day we were given a demonstration run in a paddle-steamer that wanted to operate from the yard. As I hovered as usual by the General's shoulder (no doubt irritatingly, but he was much too nice to say so), my hands clasped behind me like an obsequious aide-de-camp, the First Officer asked my background. When I told him I was on loan from the local council he raised his eyebrows and said, "Good Lord. I thought you were a naval officer'. I felt I had arrived.

After six fraught months I handed over to my permanent successor, a recently retired naval commander. A week later the Queen paid a formal visit to the Dockyard. Watching in the crowd as he was introduced to her, it crossed my mind that it might have been me standing there. But I wouldn't have known what to say. And after all, it will always be my dockyard.


  1. haha my father's family originated from Chatham - they were navy people. I did do some family history once and always meant to go down there and look through some records but never got round to it.

    It's funny where we find ourselves sometimes. I have too, found myself in surprising roles or places where people have odd expectations of me or rather peculiar ideas as to why I am there.

  2. I know exactly where that is actually even though I'm not a Kent person. Why? Because Mr FF bought a sports car from the garage that is opposite the entrance.I wanted to go round it and explore but he was more interested in going for a test drive. No surprise there then.

    Fancy being taken for a naval officer though - what a compliment.

  3. Wow! Impressive. Must have been quite surreal being transported out of town planning so suddenly... and then back again.


  4. That sounds like such an exciting period - exploring all the nooks and crannies, are you sorry you left?

    Cause you'd have known what to say to the queen
    "hello Brenda - fancy a cuppa?'

  5. Given my thing about naval gentlemen, I'd have loved it. However, it must have been a daunting experience, but tremendous fun, in a kind of only-when-you-look-back-at-it way. I'd have loved to go exploring around there. Never been to Chatham, but think I have to now.

    Fascinating post

  6. Your proprietorial feelings towards this place come through loud and clear... and you are certainly entitled to them. It sounds a mad, terrifying but ultimately very rewarding time. I think it a shame you didn't get to meet the Queen... but I guess she can't have everything. ;-)

  7. What a lovely story BT. You are lucky to have had this experience! It sounds like something from Gormenghast!

  8. I feel a bit sad you had to hand it over just before the Queen paid her visit, I'm sure you would have curtseyed nicely and all would have been well. What an achievement though- it must be incredibly satisfying to look back on all that!

  9. "Day after day I trespassed amongst the ghosts and echoes of four centuries of maritime history."

    To say the least!
    What an amazing post (and life!)
    You are a treasure. i can live for days on the myriad images, names, smells and sights your describe.

    Very well done, sir!
    You dO have the bearing of a! ;-)
    Delightful in the extreme!
    Aloha Friend

  10. Quite a remarkable insight into your interesting past sir.
    The pride was very evident by way of your vowels.

    I actually took time to sit back with coffee on hand to enjoy this post to the max.

    You have every right to be proud.


  11. Indeed, what an achievement to have been responsible for something like this! I've never been there myself but I love all that industrial archeology stuff.

    If you were being taken for a navy man you could have played that up when the queen arrived - she married Philip for his naval uniform, after all ;-)

  12. What a fantastic piece of history for you and your family, they must all be very proud of you (even if you didn't get to meet ol' Betty Windsor).

  13. how exciting, sugar! i love the history and the effort to save it for future generations. my little town is has always been a port city. in fact, we were once known as the sovereign state of chatham! i'll have to post some river and dockside pictures for you. xoxo

  14. That was really evocative. In the past I have also had the opportunity to explore decommissioned docks and industrial units, and was always amazed at how they grab the imagination.

    It's a bit like being in a huge castle, only with more nooks and crannies.

    I particularly like crannies.

  15. This sounds like the perfect job, with some obvious difficulties but much to compensate. The thought of having all those keys and the license to explore old buildings of such significance is just so exciting. I must visit your dockyard one day. Very interesting post!

  16. This post stayed with me.
    I would have loved to have prowled those places with you.

    Had to come back to "hear" it again, Brother T.


  17. That was fascinating. I come from Chatham but have never been in the Dockyard since it closed down. My father and grandfathers were stationed there on HMS Pembroke at regular intervals during their naval service and both my parents worked there in the civil service(which is how they met). I spent one summer holiday working in naval stores there which was great fun - wandering all over the site going from one store to another and playing with the feral cats on the way.

    Thanks for the memories - I really must go there again.

  18. Oh Brother! What a gem of a life experience! I only wish I could've run around the dock and tasted that history. I'm sure the stress of it was unimaginable...but the reward is forever. Darn it that you didn't get to meet the Queen, but I'll bet she was informed of your prior you surely were in her thoughts...and that is a coup for you my friend!

  19. What a wonderful job to have had! It must have been fascinating going back.

  20. RB - Sea salt in your veins. The town is surprisingly worth a visit - not only the dockyard, but the chain of Napoleonic forts protecting it from the landward side, of which Fort Amherst is the most visitable.

    I hope you'll tell us about some of the unexpected roles you've found yourself in?

    Fancy - You must be one of those loyal, wind-blown spouses who suffer (or perhaps revel in) belting around the countryside in a scarf. Does he still have the car, I wonder.

    Queen Mab - Surreal is the word. I was ill-prepared at the beginning...and full of redundant skills at the end. But I wouldn't have missed it.

    Lulu - The return seemed like a relief at first. With time and other pressures (Ebbsfleet springs to mind) I did have regrets, and often wonder how it might have been if I'd stayed.

    My mother once danced with the Duke, but lost her voice!

    Madame DeF - a 'when-you-look-back-at-it way' is exactly right. You should have a look round when you have the chance. Besides Fort Amherst nearby, there is Upnor Castle on the other bank, and of course Rochester Castle and Cathedral.

    Steve - You absolutely have it right; I do feel proprietorial about the place. Perhaps such places, like old houses, inspire that sort of loyalty. (I enjoyed your closing remark!)

    Helen - I like the Gormenghast analogy. I should ask you to illustrate it!

    Daisy - I would have felt horribly self-conscious, although my curtsey has been much-complimented. It has stayed with me more than what was really just a career hiccup might be expected to.

    Cloudia - You would have loved seeing the dockyard before it finally closed - the deafening clatter of the hand-operated machines in the hemp Spinning Room was straight out of a Dickensian cotton mill, while the Ropery was still producing the Navy's ropes (at least one of the machines in use dated back to the C18th).

    Jimmy - Thank you, Sir. Although any pride belongs to that gem of a yard, and not to my very brief and ineffective time there.

    Gadjo - A uniform does something for a chap, doesn't it? And for a woman too, now I come to think of it. Unfortunately if I'd met her I'd have been wearing the uniform of a local gov. officer - crumpled suit, tie spotted with correction fluid, a stapled seam on my trousers and a row of biros in the breast pocket. I doubt even David Blunkett would have married me.

    Amanda - Thanks. I know I bore them if we visit the place!

    Savannah - That sounds splendidly Confederate! Yes, please do post some pictures.

    Jules - You've shared that experience. There's something about the silence of such places. A feeling that one is an interloper in time, and that at any moment a hooter will sound and all will be work and bustle again.

    Sarah - You should (and you a local girl)! There is a lot to see now.

    Cloudia - I'm privileged! I think that's the sailor in you, luring you back to the familiar reek of tar and hemp (nothing like the reek of hemp!!)

    Completely - You worked in the yard and experienced it at it's vibrant best! You must have spent time on the endless floors of the Anchor Wharf Stores. I had to do appraisals of the 'modern' yard and HMS Pembroke too. The Wardroom, parade ground and those great accommodation blocks have their own grandeur.

    Sweet Cheeks - Thank you - you're right in that I wouldn't have missed it...and I couldn't have had a pleasanter or more supportive boss.

    Justme - It was a fun thing to have done. Going back is revisiting a house and not quite approving of the changes people have made, even though they are improvements.

  21. Cool. Really cool. What a thing to have done. Must head across there in the summer

  22. What a fascinating life you have led, Brother Tobias. And good for you to have seized the reins to thoroughly!

  23. NB - It is worth a visit - they've several ships now (Gannet, Ocelot, Cavalier), and some of the small and un-trumpeted details (like the graffiti carved into the brickwork at the far end of the Ropery) allow one a sense of discovery.

    Pearl - How you find time to visit amazes me; whenever I come over to yours 40 plus people have got there first! But you are always a welcome visitor.

  24. Fabby. Today I was mistaken for a Wren. Imagine! And as for Margaret Beckett; Dennis Thatcher once mistook her for Ken Dodd.

  25. What a fascinating interlude in your life. Thanks for telling us about it.

  26. Hi
    Its interesting the direction we all go. a pity we dont get a dozen lives! Having said that i had eight jobs in ten years after leaving school. Interesting blog, will be back.raneleuc

  27. Mrs P - Were you dressing up? The Dennis Thatcher/Margaret Beckett anecdote totally cracked me up.

    Katherine - Thank you, and welcome. It's about the only fascinating interlude (repeatable one anyway), so it's all downhill from here on.

    Ken - I've been visiting yours, and see what you mean! Still chuckling at your news excepts (especially the pink lights), and will be back.

  28. I read this with great interest; my (late) Dad, Noel Percival, was manager of the flag loft when it went private and was taken on by Zephyr of Northamptonshire. I remember the winters of 1986 and 1987 when snow closed my school in Aylesford and Dad took me to work with him. The Wooden Walls exhibition was being constructed, I think, but there was virtually no tourism and you could roam around at will, which was paradise for me. Most of all I remember vividly the smell of age, endeavour and history in those wonderful old buildings. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Hi Tom. I remember your father very well; always a friendly and courteous person to work with, even when the steam heating had failed and his staff were shivering. Even in our most disorganised times, the Flag Loft was so well run that it was always an asset, never a problem. I am sorry you have lost him, but glad you had those times to explore the yard.