Chatham (St. Mary)

CHATHAM (St. Mary), a borough, market-town, and parish, and the head of the Medway union, partly within the jurisdiction, and adjoining the city, of Rochester, but chiefly in the hundred of Chatham and Gillingham, N. division of the lathe of Aylesford, W. division of Kent, 8 miles (N. by E.) from Maidstone, and 30 (E. by S.) from London; containing 21,939 inhabitants. This place, anciently called Ceteham and Cettham, derives its name from the Saxon Cyte, a cottage, and Ham, a village; and, till it rose into importance as the seat of one of the principal naval arsenals in the kingdom, was only an inconsiderable village. At the Conquest, the lord of the manor espoused the cause of Harold, and for his loyalty to that prince was deprived of his possessions, which were conferred upon Crevecœur, who accompanied the Conqueror to England. The town is situated on the south-east bank of the river Medway, and on the north side of Chatham Hill; and, though extensive, is irregularly built, partly from the nature of the ground, which, in every direction, is very hilly, and partly from the large space occupied by its vast naval establishments. The dockyard for the royal navy was commenced in the reign of Elizabeth, when it occupied the site of the present ordnance wharf, and was protected by Upnor Castle, which that queen caused to be erected for its defence. In 1622, it was removed to its present situation, and greatly enlarged by Charles I., who erected capacious storehouses, and constructed new docks, to enable ships to float in with the tide. It was still further improved by Charles II., in whose reign the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter, having cast anchor at the Nore with fifty sail of the line, sent his vice-admiral, Van Ghent, with seventeen of his lightest vessels and eight fire-ships, to destroy the shipping in the river Medway: the vice-admiral attacked and took Sheerness, though gallantly defended by Sir Edward Spragge, blew up the fortifications, burnt the storehouses, &c., and, sailing up the Medway with six men of war and five fire-ships, came in front of Upnor Castle, at that time defended by Major Scot, whose warm reception of the assailant frustrated his attempt on Chatham.

The dockyard occupies an extensive area, nearly a mile in length, inclosed on the land side by a high wall, and defended by strong fortifications, principally of modern erection; the entrance is through a spacious gateway, flanked by two embattled towers. The houses of the superintendent and the principal officers are spacious and handsome buildings, and the various offices in the several departments of the yard are neat and commodiously arranged. The numerous storehouses, one of which is 660 feet in length, contain an immense quantity of every article necessary for the building and equipment of ships of the largest dimensions, all disposed with such order and exactness, that upon any emergency a first-rate man of war may be equipped for sea in a few days. The mast-house is 240 feet in length, and 120 feet wide; and the new rope-house 1110 in length, and 50 wide. At the north-eastern extremity of the dockyard are the saw-mills, erected on a very extensive scale, under the superintendence of Mr. Brunel, at an expense of nearly £57,000, and worked with powerful machinery propelled by steam. To the north of the mills is a canal, which, on entering the rising ground, passes under a tunnel 300 feet long, into an elliptic basin, from which the timber, having been floated from the river, is raised by machinery with extraordinary velocity. Connected with the steam-engine of the saw-mills are water-works, for the supply of the dockyard, the infantry and marine barracks, and Melville hospital. There are four wet-docks sufficiently capacious for first-rate men of war, two of which, lately constructed, are of stone; besides two others for smaller vessels. There are also six slips or launches, for building ships of the largest dimensions; and among the many fine vessels launched from this dockyard are some of the first-rate men of war in the royal navy. In time of war the number of artificers and labourers employed exceeds 3000. Within the walls is a neat brick chapel, erected in 1811, at an expense of £9000. The ordnance wharf occupies a narrow site of land between the church and the river, to the west of the dockyard, and is still called the Old Dock. A large building has been erected in the dockyard for the grinding of paint, and the rolling and smelting of lead by steam.

Prior to the year 1760, the defence of the arsenal was entrusted principally to guard-ships in the river, to forts on its banks, especially at Sheerness, to Upnor Castle, built by Queen Elizabeth, and to a small fort below Gillingham, erected by Charles I.; but in 1758, an act of parliament was passed for the erection of such works as might be requisite for more perfect security, under the provisions of which act the extensive fortifications, called the Lines, were constructed. These works commence above the ordnance wharf, on the bank of the Medway, and are continued round an area one mile in extent from south to north, and half a mile from west to east (including the church of Chatham, the village of Brompton, which is principally inhabited by the artificers in the yard and the barracks, magazines, &c.), to beyond the northern extremity of the dockyard, where they again meet the river. The fortifications were enlarged during the American war, and strengthened by the erection of a strong redoubt on the summit of an eminence commanding the river; and in 1782, an act was procured for their further improvement, under which considerable additions have been made to the Lines, which now constitute, next to those of Portsmouth, the most complete and regular fortification in the kingdom. Forts Pitt and Clarence, two redoubts flanking the southern extremity of the Lines, are situated on the heights overlooking the town, and command the upper part of the river; since the conclusion of the war, the former has been used as an hospital for invalids, and the latter as an asylum for lunatics. The lower or marine barracks, adjoining the upper extremity of the dockyard, consist of a uniform range of brick building, inclosing a spacious quadrangle: the upper barracks are also neatly built of brick, and are extensive and commodious. The new artillery barracks, in Brompton, built in 1804, are a fine range, forming three sides of a quadrangle, and containing apartments for the officers, lodgings for 1200 men, and requisite stabling; the open side of the quadrangle commands a good view of the Medway in the foreground, and of the Thames in the distance. The artillery hospital, a neat building, erected in 1809, contains wards for one hundred patients.

The town was much improved under the provisions of an act passed in 1772, for paving and lighting it; but the streets are still narrow and inconvenient for carriages. A philosophical and literary institution was established in 1827, the members of which have spacious premises; and a mechanics' institute was opened in 1837. There are two subscription libraries, one the United Service library, and the other the Marine library; and a horticultural society has been formed for Rochester, Chatham, and the vicinity. Races are held in August, on the extensive plain without the Lines. There is ready communication with Gravesend by means of the Rochester and Gravesend railway, which commences at Strood, on the left bank of the Medway. The market is on Saturday: fairs, for three days each, were held on May 15th and Sept. 19th, but they have fallen into disuse. Chatham is partly within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, and partly included in the limits of the city of Rochester. By the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, it was constituted a borough, with the privilege of sending a member to parliament: the right of election is vested in the £10 householders of a district comprising 1670 acres; the returning officer is appointed by the sheriff for the county.

The parish, exclusively of the ground whereon the town is built, comprises 3960 acres, of which the surface is in general broken, and the soil a thin chalky earth; there are tracts of woodland in different parts, covering 1051 acres. The living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £961; patrons and appropriators, the Dean and Chapter of Rochester. The parochial church is a neat plain structure of brick. The original edifice having been destroyed by fire, at the commencement of the fourteenth century, a new one was built under the sanction of a bull from the pope, who granted an indulgence of one year and forty days to all who should contribute to the work. In 1635 it was repaired and enlarged, and the steeple was rebuilt by the commissioners of the royal navy: in 1788, the body of the church was taken down, and rebuilt of brick upon a larger scale; and the churchyard being found too small, the Board of Ordnance subsequently gave three acres of ground, at a short distance from the church, for a cemetery, which was consecrated in 1828. St. John's church, of the Doric order, with a tower, and containing 1624 sittings, of which 1090 are free, was completed in 1821, at an expense of nearly £15,000, by grant of the Parliamentary Commissioners: the living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Incumbent of Chatham, who also presents to the perpetual curacy of Christ Church. The living of the dockyard chapel is a perpetual curacy, in the patronage of the Lords of the Admiralty. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians; also a Jews' synagogue. "The Rochester and Chatham Commercial and Mathematical School" was instituted in 1827; the building, which was opened on Oct. 1st, 1828, is situated on the Chatham and Maidstone road, and cost £1600. Melville or Marine hospital is a handsome range adjacent to the dockyard, begun in 1827, and finished in the following year, at an expense of £70,000, for the use of the whole naval department; it is built of brick and stuccoed. St. Bartholomew's Hospital was originally founded in 1078, by Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester, as a lazarhouse: the estate has been invested in the Dean of Rochester, who is governor and patron; the institution consists of five persons, namely, the patron or master, and four brethren, two in holy orders, the other two being the town-clerk of Rochester and another layman. An hospital for decayed mariners and shipwrights was founded by Sir John Hawkins, in 1592; it consists of twelve dwellings. A fund, commonly called "the Chest," for the relief of sailors who have been disabled in the service, was established by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, Knts., in 1588, when, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the seamen of the royal navy agreed to contribute a portion of their pay for the relief of their distressed brethren: this chest was removed to the royal hospital at Greenwich in 1802. The Medway poor law union, of which Chatham is the head, contains a population of 36,590. Numerous Roman remains were discovered in forming the fortifications. Chatham gave the title of Earl to the family of Pitt, now extinct.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.