Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust embarked on a strategy of “preservation through re-use” to maintain the dockyard and restore its ships and buildings

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Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust embarked on a strategy of “preservation through re-use” to maintain the dockyard and restore its ships and buildings © Historic England

The Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent

Winner of the Best Major Regeneration of a Historic Building or Place award, sponsored by Selectaglaze, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

For almost four centuries, the Royal Dockyard at Chatham on the Medway River made naval ships. Its closure marked the end of an important era in Britain’s naval history and left a gaping chasm for the communities whose lives had revolved around the dockyard for generations. For the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, the question was how to regenerate an 80-acre site with deep resonance to local people and huge significance for the nation.

A living history

The Royal Navy first started to use the River Medway in 1547, with the first warship launched from a small dockyard at Chatham in 1586. As shipbuilding evolved from wooden sail through iron and steam to destroyers and nuclear submarines, the dockyard played a crucial role in the defence of Britain in every war including the Falklands dispute.

Nelson’s HMS Victory and HMS Temeraire were among ships launched from the dockyard. By the 19th century the site had been expanded to cover 400 acres and at its peak employed 10,000 workers. Its closure brought a massive loss of jobs that scarred entire communities. Now, the entrepreneurial strategy of the Chatham Historic Dockyard trust has made the dockyard a thriving multi-purpose site for future generation, and a major attraction in the Southeast.

The core challenge for a site of such sheer size and complexity was making it self-sustaining, says Paul Barnard, of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which embarked on a strategy of “preservation through re-use” to maintain the dockyard and restore its ships and some 100 dilapidated buildings, including 47 Scheduled Monuments.

A successful strategy

That strategy has paid off as the dockyard is now able to meet its core annual operating costs from self-generated income following significant grant investment over several decades. “That is what we are proudest of,” he says, “it was a huge undertaking to find constructive re-uses for all these buildings so that an 80-acre site can sustain itself. To have taken a site of this size and made it self-sustaining is a really rare thing.”

The dockyard now houses one of the largest living museums in the Southeast of England, notching up some 170,000 visits a year. Among other attractions, visitors can explore three warships, learn about the tradition of rope-making, and see the biggest collection of lifeboats in the UK, including one dating from 1897.

In addition to the museum, more than 100 homes and a large number of businesses, including the University of Kent, are housed on the site. Throughout every aspect of this extraordinary regeneration the trust has been guided by three main principles, says Barnard: sympathetic preservation of the buildings, ships and collections; educating audiences about the Royal Dockyard; providing inspirational and enjoyable experiences to all who use the site whether visitors, businesses, students or tenants.

Two projects illustrate the trust’s innovative approach to repurposing the dockyard. A £13m partnership with the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum has brought the No 1 Smithery building into reuse, providing a home for more than 3,000 ship models, as well as a range exhibition galleries. Meanwhile, the renovation of the Fitted Rigging House brought the last underused building into reuse, providing 3,500m2 to tenants and unlocking the financial sustainability of the trust on a revenue basis.

Why this category?

The regeneration of the Chatham dockyard has raised the bar in terms of architectural approach to preservation and reuse, where contemporary style enhances the value of historic buildings and settings. This achievement is reflected in the shortlisting of the site for the Stirling Prize, as well as winning 2 RICS SE awards, among others.

The ambition behind the regeneration is perhaps best seen in a project that reflects the sensitive approach to the historic fabric of the dockyard, says Paul Barnard. The Command of the Oceans project was triggered by the accidental discovery in 1995 of the huge structural timbers of the Namur (1756) beneath three layers of flooring during renovations of the 1780 Wheelwrights Shop.

Command of the Oceans tells the story of innovation and craftsmanship behind the dockyard in its Age of Sail Galleries. The building housing the galleries makes use of the ship remains to fuse stunning modern architecture seamlessly with the dockyard’s historic fabric.

The galleries display two archaeologically important maritime discoveries; the timbers of the Namur (1756), intriguingly laid to rest beneath the floor, and a treasure trove of archaeological finds from the Invincible (1758). Visitors can also immerse themselves in the experience of life during the age of sail and explore a larger than life model of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

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