I will admit that it was probably at least 75% Lt Bush which took me to Sheerness on Sunday morning, after a Saturday spent on the Waverley on the Thames and Medway – plus about 20% historical interest and 5% plain liking for going to the ends of the earth.
But one thing that Saturday in particular pointed out to me, though, is that while it might be the ends of the earth, it’s not a remote or obscure place if you think in terms of the sea. This is a place at the mouth not only of the Medway but the Thames and the way to London – an army garrison as well as a naval port. It’s the closest land to the constantly changing fleet at the Nore, and part of a chain of naval establishments along the two rivers – in particular the bigger dockyard at Chatham, a few miles up the Medway, but with food stores coming down from Deptford.
It was the Nore that brought the yard to Sheerness, and its original purpose was to provide a base for refitting ships which were finding it too hard to get up the river to Chatham and tending to prefer to refit at sea, with all the stores having to be brought out by boat – although by the early 19th century smaller ships were being built there as well, with Chatham mainly building larger ships.
There’s nothing left now of the Sheerness of the Napoleonic Wars, because the site was rebuilt between 1815 and the 1820s – so that it was once a perfect example of a Georgian dockyard, as it had been built to a definite plan, rather than growing up over time. Sadly there’s not much left of the Georgian dockyard either, with a lot of buildings having been demolished since the navy gave up the site in 1960.
The main buildings left are the residential buildings, in particular Naval Terrace on the edge of the site, which was looking its best on a sunny autumn morning.
At one end of the row is the Dockyard Church, beautiful but sad, having been burnt out a while ago. There’s a campaign under way to restore it and turn it over to some kind of community use, and I hope it succeeds.
These houses are still inhabited, although privately rather than through any connection to the yard. They’re the kind of plain Georgian I like best, and I think they’re wonderful – but imposing as they are, these are the houses for the less important officers, three storeys high but only three windows wide.
One of them is for sale, or has been recently, so you can have a look inside as well!
Naval Terrace also still has its row of coach houses running along the bottoms of the gardens.
This map shows the layout of the houses – Naval Terrace on the edge with its gardens running back, and then the larger gardens of Dockyard Terrace running up to the grander houses, with the church and the separate Captain Superintendant’s House off to the side.
The dockyard is surrounded by a high wall, built in 1827 and still surviving.
The second terrace, Dockyard Terrace, still survives inside the wall and can just be seen over it. These houses are two storeys tall plus the attic level with windows, but are five windows wide and with grand porches and gardens – the houses for the more senior officers.
This page from Spitalfields Life called From Spitalfields to Sheerness is well worth reading, and has pictures taken inside the wall, including one of the avenue leading from Dockyard Terrace up to the church, as well as pictures of the dockyard in the 1820s.
Outside the wall is the original settlement of Sheerness, originally the Blue Houses which 18th century dockyard workers built and painted with blue naval paint, and now the area called Blue Town. It’s also fading away without the dockyard, but I liked this old sign as a reminder of the naval connections (and the one pub that still seemed to be open was called the Jolly Sailor).
After prowling round Blue Town, I went for a walk along the sea front, and discovered to my surprise that you could get along almost all the way to the garrison, giving a better view of the suriving buildings inside the walls.
Neither building is in particularly good condition, I think, having been used and abused by the current commercial port, but there are also plans to restore them and bring them back to residential use.
The dockyard and garrison were protected on the landward side by moats and earthworks, some of which still survive – these are parts of the moats just beyond the edge of the yard, but there is also a long moat running right along the edge of the town, a good bit further out.