In 1771, a 12 year old boy arrived in Chatham, after a six hour coach journey from London. He had been dropped in the
capital by his father, after an equally long and uncomfortable ride from his home in Norfolk. The young Horatio Nelson
had read in his local newspaper, that his uncle was the commander of the Royal Navy ship ‘Raisonable’, based at
Chatham, and had decided that he would become a midshipman on the same vessel.
However, when he finally reached the Medway, he was confronted by all the hustle and bustle of a busy working
dockyard, with nobody there to greet him or show him to his uncle. He eventually established that the ship was
moored out on the river, and was lucky to find some kindly sailors to row him out to it, thus beginning one of the most
celebrated naval careers of all time.
Chatham Dockyard at that time was a major naval port, with 4 dry docks – the same number as the whole of France!
It was an important shipbuilding centre, as well as undertaking refits, and generally supplying and maintaining the fleet.
On the 23rd July 1759, 12 years before the arrival of the young Nelson, the keel was laid for a new warship. It would
take 2000 people 6 years to build. Its three gun decks would house over 100 cannons. The year of 1759 was known
as the Year of Victories, with British successes in Quiberon Bay, Quebec, and the 7 Years’ war. The new ship was
therefore named in honour of this – The Victory.
Chatham was capable of producing everything needed for the ship. The project would begin in the Mould Loft, where
patterns for the frames would be drawn onto the wooden floors. They would then be copied onto the full pattern of the
wood, and taken into the dry dock. After the keel was laid, the frames would then be erected, and the straights laid
across the hull, and the whole thing corked to make it watertight. All the timbers would first be seasoned on site, to
increase their strength and durability.
Once the hull itself is built, the masts would be soaked over the winter in the Mast Ponds. This allowed them to absorb
the water, thus sealing in the resins, and making them harder and more rigid. For a ship such as The Victory, some
20 miles of rope would be needed in all, and this would be made in the dockyards’ own Ropery. The sails and flags
would also be produced on site, in the Sail and Colour Loft. The flags which sent the famous signal ‘England Expects
Every Man To Do His Duty’ would have been sewn here.
She was finally floated out of her dock in 1765, and by the time of Trafalgar in 1805 was an old ship. Indeed in the late
1700’s, she had lain moored in the Medway for several years, in semi-retirement, until being refitted between 1800 and
Nelson’s naval career had seen a steady rise to prominence. In 1773, following a voyage to the West Indies, he joined
the Arctic Expedition, before going on to the East Indies. By 1777, he was a Lieutenant on the frigate ‘Lowestoft’ on its
journey to Jamaica, and two years later transferred to the ‘Hitchingbrook’. In 1780, aged just 21, he was placed in
command of the naval force, in the expedition against San Juan.
In 1784, whilst commanding the ‘Boreas’ in the West Indies, he enforced the Navigation Act, against America. During
this time he married the widow Mrs Frances Nisbet, and in 1787 retired to his Norfolk home for 5 years.
When the French Revolution began in 1792, he took command of the Agamemnon, sailing to the Mediterranean. He
was known to have referred to this as his favourite ship. Whilst in Naples, he met the wife of the British Ambasador,
In 1794 he lost his right eye, during the battle of Calvi, but undeterred continued the campaign against the French and
Spanish. Two years later he defeated the Spanish at Cape St Vincent, and was promoted to Rear Admiral.
He suffered further injury, when he was sent to capture a richly laden Spanish ship, but losing his right arm during the
battle. In 1798, while commanding ‘The Vanguard’, he was once again victorious, defeating the French at the Battle of
the Nile. He was hailed a hero, and on returning to Naples also won the heart of Emma Hamilton, who became his
mistress. He resigned his command, was made a Baron, given a £2,000 a year pension, (a massive amount in those
days), and retired to England, leaving his wife for Emma, who bore him a daughter.
However, just 3 years later he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and went back to sea, claiming victory at the Battle of
Copenhagen. On the resumption of war, he was made Commander of the Mediterranean, and in 1805 won his greatest
victory against the French and Spanish fleets, at Trafalgar.
He directed the battle from ‘The Victory’, and amongst his fleet, four were built in Chatham, and many others refitted or
supplied from the Kent port. Nelson’s innovative tactics were applauded, as he broke the line and raked a French ship,
killing over 400 enemy sailors. He then got locked with the ‘Redoubtable’, and one of the snipers shot down hitting
Nelson. The bullet went through his shoulder and into his spine. He was taken to a lower deck, where he died four
His body was placed head first into a barrel of brandy, to preserve it for the journey home. There is a popular myth that
sailors bored through into the barrel, drinking the brandy they called ‘Nelson’s Blood’! He was landed at Sheerness
Docks, and then taken to Greenwich on board the ‘Chatham’ – the vessel owned by the commissioner of Chatham
Visitors to the dockyard today can still see much of what Nelson would have known. There is a plaque commemorating
the place where ‘The Victory’ was built, and a large model of her, which was used in the 1938 film ‘That Hamilton
Around the 80 acre site are some 50 scheduled ancient monuments – historical buildings from the dockyards long
history. You enter alongside the Mast Ponds, where masts for many ships would have been hardened. The Earl of
Sandwich started the Timber Seasoning Sheds, where the oak timbers would be treated before being used in the ships
construction, and these can still be seen today… testament that the treatment really does prolong the life of the
timber. The Sail and Colour Lofts, where the sails and flags would have been sewn are also still here.
The Mould Loft, on who’s floor the framework for ‘The Victory’ would have been drawn out, is now appropriately home to
a new exhibition called ‘The Road to Trafalgar’, depicting the story of Chatham’s part in the great victory. Nearby is the
site where the Smithy’s would have made the giant anchor’s. The immense size and weight of these anchor’s (around
700cwt) meant they could only be made in the spring or autumn. It was too hot for the smithy’s in the summer, and
too cold for the iron in the winter. The smithy’s were paid a good wage… plus 8 pints of beer a day!
The Ropery is an amazing sight, and can be visited still today. It is ¼ mile long, and when it was built in 1720, was the
longest building in Europe.
Nelson would also have checked his watch against the clock tower, and have been familiar with the impressive
Admiralty buildings, which today houses offices, and the Commisioner’s House, that still stands as one of the most
impressive pieces of naval architecture in the country.
But most of all he would have known the River Medway, which flows majestically past Chatham Dockyard today, just
as it did when he first arrived as a 12 year old boy, over 200 years ago. Any visitor to the dockyard today will be left
in no doubt, that the success 200 years ago at Trafalgar, was in no small way also Chatham’s Victory.