The History of Chatham
Chatham’s history has been inexorably entwined with the Royal Navy since 1547 when King Henry VIII rented a storehouse on Jyllingham Water. Twenty years later the anchorage that had formed there was named Chatham after a nearby village and the gradual process of development there gathered pace. ‘Ceteham’ is noted in the Domesday Book of 1080 and a Celtic trackway passed through what is known to have been a settlement in the forest, near to the estuary of the River Medway . Ceto is an ancient British word meaning ‘forest’ and ‘ham’ a common old English word for settlement or hamlet. The Romans used the route of the Celtic track as the basis for their paved road, later called Walting Street. Parts of this now make up the A2. Various interesting archeological finds in the area include a Roman cemetery. The Saxon manor at Chatham was handed to Earl Godwinson after the Norman Conquest .
By 1570 a mast pond, storehouses and a forge had been built to support the growing maritime presence there. Such was the town’s importance by 1580 that Queen Elizabeth chose to entertain foreign dignitaries there. The Tudor queen had previously established Chatham as a Royal Dockyard in 1568. Chatham’s development as a Royal Dockyard continued at pace and shipbuilding grew rapidly there, as did the wharfage and the growth of the defensive facilities needed to protect it all from various enemies of England. A Dutch raid in 1667 tested the earlier defences and they proved woefully inadequate, despite the construction of Upnor Castle in 1567. From 1756 the increasing threat of powerful invasion forces from the Continent prompted the development of far stauncher defences centred on the peninsular at the bend of the Medway. A string of fortifications included larger facilities such as Fort Amherst .
As fears of attack overland from the south increased, the military responded by fortifying that route too. It is a clear illustration of the historic and strategic importance of the dockyard at Chatham that such expenditure was undertaken to protect it. The dockyard employed thousands of men, as well as being home to the many soldiers and sailors who were either billeted in the area or on ship docking there. Chatham thrived on all the activity and the money that it all brings. The fort building projects continued, providing valuable employment for local men and great business opportunities for local merchants. Fort Pitt was built between 1809 and 1819 in another concentrated phase of fort building. Later Fort Pitt was to serve as a hospital and the location of the Army’s first medical school. Yet more fort building was ordered in 1859, this resulted in the construction of Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewood and Fort Luton. The famous flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson , the HMS Victory, was built at Chatham in the 1760s. The massive military presence in the area resulted in huge development to house everyone, as well as creating rapid expansion in Chatham and the surrounding area. Large barrack complexes were built included Kitchener Barracks (c 1750-1780), the Royal Marine Barracks (c 1780), Brompton Artillery Barracks (1806) and Melville Barracks. In addition to these were H.M.S. Collingwood and H.M.S. Pembroke, both naval barracks. Rochester and Gillingham both benefitted so much from all the economic and military activity that the three towns soon fused into one large conurbation that has come to be known as the Medway Towns. Grand Georgian buildings and swathes of Victorian terraces mark some of the town’s phases of expansion. Large suburban sprawls of corporation and private housing built between the World Wars and since them grew up around the old town centre.
The dockyard which had been the pillar of Chatham’s rise was to decline in the late 20th century. Such was the decline that it closed completely in 1984, the loss of the Historic Royal Dockyard was a huge blow to Chatham. Aggressive efforts by local and national government, and the enterprise of local business, helped the region to recover and bounce back vigorously.