The Historic Dockyard, Chatham’s new Heritage Lottery funded flagship feature, ‘Command Of The Oceans’, brings together a series of brand new galleries around the existing ‘Hearts of Oak’ exhibit. It’s a bright, bold move – one that threatens (finally) to reposition HMS Victory back at Chatham, no longer the sole preserve of Portsmouth, as well as bringing to light the story, and the very bones of another ship – the relatively unknown HMS Namur.
Exceptional, fluid curation starts with a multi-screen, scene-setting mini-documentary presented by Fiona Bruce (who features throughout the film presentations in these galleries) laying out the overview of the Dockyard’s place in international maritime history, a bit about Trafalgar for newcomers, and setting out the case for Chatham essentially being the cradle of Empire. Without the ships built here, there would have been no Command Of The Oceans for British trade, nor war victories. Quite simply, for good or ill, if not for Chatham, we would not have ruled the waves, nor the wider world – a state of affairs which still has global resonances today.
The real power of these galleries isn’t about the pomp and bombast of glorious ships. It’s about the people who made them. ‘Hearts of Oak’ has always been a lively and fascinating presentation of digital theatre – a promenade round sets suggestive of parts of the Dockyard in the very early nineteenth century, narrated by characters projected on to the walls. The basic premise holds that John North, a real-life shipwright, is persuading his grandson to become a wright instead of joining the navy, and we follow them round Mr Sepping’s yards (another real-life character) and through the Dockyard’s actual mighty Mould Loft (where all the ships, including Victory, were first drafted up and laid out, life-size, on paper, before being built), through each process necessary to build a warship. The thrum and clunk of workmen is ever present, reminding you that these ships were crafted by the hands of local men, who held their children tightly before releasing them to their destinies, to the River Medway and seas beyond, for generations.
Through ‘Hearts of Oak’, into the ‘People, Tool and Trades’ gallery, which takes a day, 31 March 1803, in the Dockyard as the basis for a wide-lens snapshot of the lives of its workers. Another Bruce film explains about a raft of worker roles and the architecture of the Dockyard. Children can have a go at being a rigger, mastmaker, caulker or sawyer on exhibits that come complete with dress-up stations and a helpful explanatory zoetrope per task (yes, really!) For grown-ups, one vast wall features an icon of every single worker in the Dockyard that day, behind digital tablets upon which each can be explored through their name, biography, trades, pay and the ships they worked on (a whopping 81 were docked there on that day alone). It’s a clever, fresh approach that works with a glance, as well as rewarding more focussed eyes deeply.
Beyond, the ‘Victory Gallery’ features a scale model of the ship built for the 1941 Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh film, ‘The Hamilton Woman’; a collection of cannons and a Roll of Honour of the Dockyard’s most significant ships. The adjoining ‘Supporting The Fleet’ gallery presents huge vitrines, each with a different focus: navigation, running rigging, food and drink, slops (clothing, not the other kind), maintaining the ship and fighting the ship. The scale of the blocks, tackle and rope-working fids in these cabinets, even as stand-alone artefacts, brings home the physical strength and hard work needed to keep these ships working, and during the most difficult conditions during weather and battle.
A large-screen cinema film sets the scene for the final gallery: a reflective showpiece and dusty jewel in the British Naval crown. Laid out like bones in an undercroft is ‘The Ship Under The Floor’. The remains of HMS Namur lie spotlit, as they were found, as floorboards for the Wheelwrights’ Shed, back in 1995. It took the best part of a decade to work out what they were and where they were from, and experts are still searching for the reasons why they ended up here.
The Namur has been called by those in the know ‘the ship that defines the course of British history’ – a ship which also bore witness to important social history – its occupants including anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano and Jane Austen’s Captain brother, Charles. Its timbers demand quiet and reverant reflection, not just upon their remains, but upon the lives of those who built her and served on her.
From a ship’s birth in ‘Hearts of Oak’, through the life of the Dockyard and the lives of its countless workers, to the final resting place of the Namur, ‘Command Of The Oceans’ is a world-class, start to finish exploration of one of the most important sites of maritime history in the world. It’s a hugely impressive endeavour, breathing new life into the Dockyard, the ghosts of which no doubt still have many more stories to reveal.
‘Command Of The Oceans’ is a permanent exhibition at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham. It is fully accessible, with signed and subtitled multimedia, and also features subtitling in French, German and Spanish. Admission is included in the entrance fee.
Top photo: Model of HMS Victory by Rikard Osterlund