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MARKET TOWNS OF KENT (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Chatham in 1836

CHATHAM, a market-town and parliamentary borough on the Medway, in the lathe of Aylesford, Kent. The town (including Brompton, which is a village connected with the dockyard and naval and military establishments, at a little distance from what is strictly the town of Chatham) is in the two parishes of Chatham and Gillingham, and joins Rochester on the east. Its distance from London by the Dover road, which varies but little from the direct distance, is about thirty miles E. by S. By the Reform Act, Chatham was created a parliamentary borough, with a boundary extending considerably on the S. and E. sides of the town, and it now returns one member. The population within the boundary was estimated at 19,000 ; the returns of 1831 give 16,485 as the population of the town.

From various discoveries made in erecting the fortifications which inclose the naval and military establishments at Chatham, it seems probable that the Romans had a burying ground here. A number of ancient graves and other excavations were opened, and Roman bricks, tiles, coins, and weapons were found. The name of the town is Saxon, and was written Ceteham or Caettham, which is supposed to signify ‘the village of cottages.’ It continued an insignificant place until the formation of the dockyard, since which time the town has sprung up. The parish of Chatham is very extensive ; a small part of it is within the liberties of the city of Rochester. The parish church was almost entirely rebuilt in 1788 ; in addition to it there is a church, erected in 1821 by the commissioners for building new churches, the patronage of which is held by the incumbent. The parish is in the diocese of Rochester.

The extensive naval and military establishments are at Brompton, a little distance from the town, and entirely separated from it by a line of fortifications. The dockyard was founded by Queen Elizabeth, previous to the invasion of the Armada, on the site of what is now termed the Ordnance Wharf, and occasionally the Old Dock. It was removed to its present situation in 1622, the demands of the navy requiring increased accommodation. Elizabeth erected Upnor Castle, on the opposite side of the Medway, for the purpose of defending the dockyard and shipping. But this fort proved ineffectual for protection from the attempt of the Dutch, under De Ruyter, who, in 1667, having taken Sheerness, dispatched his vice-admiral, Van Ghent, with seventeen sail of light ships, and eight fire ships, to destroy Chatham. He succeeded in breaking a chain stretched across the Medway, and, in spite of the fire from the castle, burnt and sunk some ships. Finding the country alarmed, he retired, carrying off a ship of war named the Royal Charles. It appears from Pepys's Diary, that this attempt of the Dutch created great alarm, and that the greatest confusion and imbecility prevailed at this time in the English councils. After the affair was over, the various parties connected with the admiralty strove, with characteristic meanness, to shift the blame on others. This event was the cause of stronger and additional fortifications being erected.

In the reign of Queen Anne two acts of parliament were passed for the extension of the dockyards and arsenals of Chatham, Portsmouth, &c. But nothing very important was effected at Chatham until after 1757, when, from that period down to 1805, according as alarm respecting French invasion prevailed, or as the rapidly increasing navy required, new buildings were erected, and the extensive area occupied by the different establishments was inclosed by a strong line of fortifications on the land side, and protected on the river side by strengthening Upnor Castle, by the erection of a martello tower called Gillingham Fort on the Chatham side, and other defences. Upnor Castle is at present merely a powder magazine.

The naval and military establishments consist of a dockyard, nearly a mile in length, which has four wet docks capable of receiving vessels of the largest class ; an extensive arsenal ; barracks on a large scale for artillery and engineers, infantry and royal marines ; a park of artillery ; magazines and store-houses ; besides a handsome dock-chapel, and a number of habitations for the civilians who are employed. The principal mast-house is 240 feet long by 120 wide. The rope-house is 1,128 feet in length, and 47½ wide, in which cables 101 fathoms in length and 25 inches in circumference are made. The machinery used in all the departments is of the very best kind. A duplicate of Brunel's block-making machine is kept here, ready for use in case the machine at Portsmouth should get out of order. The engineer barracks are built in a plain and simple style, and are extensive and convenient. There is a school for engineers, which was established in 1812, in which young officers and recruits of the engineer service are trained to a practical knowledge of their duties. Near the dockyard gate is a large naval hospital, which was erected at the suggestion of the present king (William IV) when lord high admiral.

At Rochester Bridge, the Medway, which discharges into the same estuary with the Thames, is a large tide river. The rise is eighteen feet at spring and twelve at neap tides at Chatham. Above Rochester the high lands approach each bank of the river, forming a kind of amphitheatre about Chatham and Rochester on the east side, and also on the west, closing on the river at Upnor Castle. Below Chatham dockyards the high lands decline, first on the right, and then on the left bank forming a flat, marshy country, to the spacious outlet of the Medway at Sheerness.

There is an establishment for convicts at Chatham, consisting of four ships, one being appropriated for juvenile offenders, and another used as an hospital. The prisoners are employed in different departments of the dockyard and arsenal.

The ‘Chest’ at Chatham was established in the reign of Elizabeth, and was originally a voluntary contribution from the monthly wages of seamen for the support of their maimed and superannuated brethren, but which soon settled into a compulsory payment. Several notices occur in Pepys's Diary of complaints of maladministration of this charity. On the recommendation of the Commissioners of Naval Inquiry, it was, by the 43 George III c.119, removed to Greenwich. The monthly payment from the wages of seamen is now abolished by the 4 William IV, c. 34, and the amount is charged annually on the consolidated fund.

An hospital for lepers was established at Chatham by bishop Gundulph, in the reign of William the Conqueror. It appears to have been incorporated. Its revenues, which were small, escaped confiscation at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, though attempts were afterwards made in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I to wrest them from the hospital. The building does not now exist, with the exception of a small chapel, but the revenues of the estate are in the hands of the dean of Rochester. On the north side of the High-street, or principal street of Chatham, there is an hospital for decayed mariners and shipwrights, which was founded by Sir John Hawkins in 1592, and incorporated by Elizabeth in 1594. It is a neat and convenient building ; the funds support ten pensioners. There are several minor charities.

The Education Returns of 1835 give nine daily schools, and ten Sunday schools as then existing at Chatham.