Chatham

Street Map

Chatham (/ˈtʃætəm/ CHAT-əm) is one of the Medway towns located within the Medway unitary authority, in North Kent, in South East England.

Although the Chatham Naval Dockyard, proposed as a World Heritage Site, has long been closed and is now being redeveloped into a business and residential community as well as a museum featuring the famous submarine, HMS Ocelot, major naval buildings remain as the focus for a flourishing tourist industry. Chatham also has military connections; several Army barracks were located here, together with 19th-century forts which provided a defensive shield for the dockyard. Brompton Barracks, located in the town, remains the headquarters of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

The town has important road links and the railway and bus stations are the main interchanges for the area. It is the administrative headquarters of Medway unitary authority, as well as its principal shopping centre.

The name Chatham was first recorded as Cetham in 880, its name coming from the British root ceto and the Old English ham thus meaning a forest settlement. The Domesday Book records the place as Ceteham.

Chatham stands on the A2 road along the line of the ancient Celtic route, which was paved by the Romans, and named Watling Street by the Anglo-Saxons. Among finds have been the remains of a Roman cemetery. After the Norman invasion the manor of Chatham, originally Saxon, was given by William the Conqueror to Earl Godwinson.

It long remained a small village on the banks of the river, but by the 16th century was being used to harbour warships, because of its strategic location facing the Continent. It was established as a Royal Dockyard by Queen Elizabeth I in 1568. Initially a refitting base, it became a shipbuilding yard; from then until the late 19th century, further expansion of the yard took place. In its time, many thousands of men were employed at the dockyard, and many hundreds of vessels were launched there, including HMS Victory which was built there in the 1760s. After World War I many submarines were also built in Chatham Dockyard.

In addition to the dockyard itself, defensive fortifications were built to protect it from attack. Upnor Castle had been built in 1567, but had proved ineffectual; the Dutch Raid on the Medway in 1667 showed that more was required. The fortifications, which became more elaborate as the threat of invasion grew, were begun in 1756 as a complex across the neck of the peninsula formed by the bend in the River Medway, and included Fort Amherst. The threat of a land-based attack from the south during the 19th century led to the construction of even more forts.

The second phase of fort-building (1806–1819) included Fort Pitt (later used as a hospital and the site of the first Army Medical School). The 1859 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom ordered, inter alia, a third outer ring of forts: these included Fort Luton,[4] Fort Bridgewood, and Fort Borstal.[5] These fortifications all required military personnel to man them and Army barracks to house those men. These included Kitchener Barracks (c 1750–1780), the Royal Marine Barracks (c 1780). Brompton Artillery Barracks (1806) and Melville Barracks. H.M.S. Collingwood and H.M.S. Pembroke were both naval barracks.

In response to the huge manpower needs, the village of Chatham and other nearby villages and towns grew commensurately. Trams, and later buses, linked those places to bring in the workforce. The area between the High Street and Luton village illustrates part of that growth, with its many streets of Victorian terraces.

The importance of Chatham dockyard gradually declined as Britain’s naval resources were reduced or moved to other locations, and eventually, in 1984, it was closed completely. The dockyard buildings were preserved as the historic site Chatham Historic Dockyard (operated by Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust), now under consideration as a World Heritage Site the site is being used for other purposes. Part of the St Mary’s Island section is now used as a marina, and the remainder is being developed for housing, commercial and other uses, branded as “Chatham Maritime”.

Chatham lost its independence as a borough under the Local Government Act 1972, by which, on 1 April 1974, it became part of the Borough of Medway, a non-metropolitan district of the county of Kent; under subsequent renaming the Borough became the Borough of Rochester-upon-Medway (1979); and, from 1982, the City of Rochester-upon-Medway. Under the most recent change, in 1998, and with the addition of the Borough of Gillingham, the Borough of Medway became a unitary authority area, administratively separate from Kent. It remains part of the county of Kent for ceremonial purposes.

Medway Council has recently relocated its main administration building to Gun Wharf, the site of the earliest part of the Dockyard. A former Lloyd’s office building.

Chatham is currently part of the parliamentary constituency of Chatham and Aylesford.

Chatham is situated where the lower part of the dip slope of the North Downs meets the River Medway which at this point is flowing in a south-north direction. This gives the right bank, where the town stands, considerable advantages from the point of view of river use. Compared with opposite bank, the river is fast-flowing and deep; the illustration (1), an early print of the settlement, is taken from the point where Fort Pitt now stands. The town lies below at river level, curving round to occupy a south-easterly trending valley (The Brook”), in which lies the High Street. Beyond the dockyard was marshy land, now called St Mary’s Island, and has several new developments of housing estates. The New Road crosses the scene below the vantage point of the illustration.

The valley continues southeastwards as the Luton Valley, in which is the erstwhile village of that name; and Capstone Valley. The Darland Banks, the northern slopes of the valley above these valleys, are unimproved chalk grassland. The photograph (3), taken from the Banks and looking south, shows the village in the centre, with the rows of Victorian terraced housing, which unusually follow the contour lines. The opposite slopes are the ‘’Daisy Banks’’ and ‘’Coney Banks’’, along which some of the defensive forts were built (including Fort Luton, in the trees to the left)

Until the start of the 20th century, most of the south part of the borough was entirely rural, with a number of farms and large tracts of woodland. The beginning of what is now Walderslade was when a speculative builder began to build the core of the village in Walderslade Bottoms.

Chatham became a market town in its own right in the 19th century, and a municipal borough in 1890. By 1831 its population had reached more than 16,000. By 1961 it had reached 48,800.

The Chatham Naval Memorial commemorates the 18,500 officers, ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy who were lost or buried at sea in the two World Wars. It stands on the Great Lines between Chatham and Gillingham. Chatham Town Hall was built in 1900; it stands in The Brook, and is of a unique architectural design. With the town being part of Medway conurbation, it took on a new role as an arts centre. In 1996, it became the Brook Theatre. The Pentagon Centre which incorporates Chatham Bus Station, stands in the town centre.

The Medway, apart from Chatham Dockyard, has always had an important role in communication: historically it provided a means for the transport of goods to and from the interior of Kent. Stone, timber and iron from the Weald for shipbuilding and agricultural produce were among the cargoes. Sun Pier in Chatham was one of many such along the river. By 1740, barges of forty tons could navigate as far upstream as Tonbridge. Today its use is confined to tourist traffic; apart from the marina, there are many yacht moorings on the river itself.

Chatham’s position on the road network began with the building of the Roman road (Watling Street, which passed through the town. Turnpike trusts were established locally, so that the length from Chatham to Canterbury was turnpiked in 1730; and the Chatham to Maidstone road (now the A230) was also turnpiked before 1750. The High Street was bypassed in 1769, by the New Road (see illustration (1)) leading from the top of Star Hill Rochester, to the bottom of Chatham Hill at Luton Arches. This also became inadequate for the London cross-channel traffic and the Medway Towns Bypass, the M2 motorway, was constructed to divert through traffic south of the Medway Towns.

Chatham is the hub of the Medway Towns. This fact means that the existing road system has always proved inadequate for the amount of traffic it has to handle, and various schemes have been tried to alleviate the congestion. The High Street itself is traffic-free, so all traffic has to skirt around it. The basic west-east routes are The Brook to the north and New Road to the south, but the additional problems caused by the situation of the Pentagon Bus Station meant that conflicting traffic flows were the result. In the 1980s the Chatham town centre was remodelled and an inner ring road – a one-way system – was constructed. This was completed with the construction of the Sir John Hawkins Flyover opened in 1989 carrying the south to north traffic over the High Street.

In September 2006, the one-way system was abandoned and two-way traffic reintroduced on most of the ring-road system. Further work on the road system commenced early in 2009, and as of early 2010, the demolition of the Sir John Hawkins Flyover has been completed. It is to be replaced by a street-level, buses only, road coupled with repositioning of the bus station.

Chatham railway station, opened in 1858, serves both the North Kent and the Chatham Main Lines, and is the interchange between the two lines. It lies in the valley between the Fort Pitt and the Chatham Tunnels. There are four trains an hour to London Victoria, and two trains an hour to London Charing Cross. The former services run to Dover and Ramsgate; the latter terminate at Gillingham.

Part of the industrial railway in what is now Chatham Historic Dockyard is still in operation, run by the North Kent Industrial Locomotive Society.

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