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Things to do in Chatham, Kent

Closeup of Naval Destroyer in Chatham Dockyard
Naval Destroyer in Dockyard ©Shutterstock /Chris Jenner

Chatham is a large town to the south west of Gillingham in Kent. It is on the banks of the River Medway and is rich in naval dockyard history.

Although the dockyard has long since closed, the area has been redeveloped as a residential and business community with the naval buildings providing some interesting attractions in this historic area.

HMS Gannet sailing ship in Chatham Dockyard
HMS Gannet ©Shutterstock /Chris Jenner

Chatham was recorded in ancient documents as Cetham, in 880AD. It is on an ancient Celtic route which is now the A2.

It was adopted by the Romans, paved and called Watling Street. Historic finds around Chatham include a Roman cemetery.

Chatham remained a small village until the 16th century when its interesting location close to the continent led to it being chosen to accommodate the Royal Dockyard.

In its heyday it employed thousands of men, building and refitting such ships as HMS Victory. Records go back to 1646 and cover thousands of historic ships.

Of course, such an important centre had to be defended and several forts were built in the area including Upnor Castle, Fort Amherst, Fort Pitt, Fort Luton and Fort Borstal among others.

In response to the demand for labour, Chatham grew enormously to accommodate the workers with trams and buses transporting them from far and wide.

Crane in Chatham Dockyard
Crane in Chatham Dockyard ©Shutterstock /Chris Jenner

After World War I Chatham Dockyard began to build submarines but gradually Britain's navy moved elsewhere and demand for ships declined. Quietly Chatham Dockyard began to die and was finally closed in 1984.

Recognising the significance of the Historic Dockyard, the buildings are a World Heritage Site although the surrounding area has been redeveloped.

One interesting piece of history is the ornate President's desk which sits in the Oval Office of the White House. It was made at Chatham Dockyard from wood from the British Arctic Ship Resolute and was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Present Day Chatham

Chatham expanded from a market town of 16,000 in 1831 to 48,800 by 1961. Latest figures show it has a population of over 70,000, despite high unemployment in the area with the closure of the dockyard.

Houses and Apartments by the Quayside in Chatham
Quayside Development ©Shutterstock /Soundsnaps

The High Street shows the sudden demand for worker's housing as hundreds of terraced houses were built in the Victorian era.

The Town Hall was built in 1900 and is now used as an art centre and theatre in the town centre.

The slang term "chav", used for a youngster, came from Chatham and was derived from the abbreviated term of "Chatham Average".

River Medway at Chatham in Kent
River Medway ©Shutterstock /Raj Krish

Famous Chatham residents include Charles Dickens, artist Tracy Emin, designer Zandra Rhodes and footballer Chris Smalling.

Things to do in Chatham

Chatham Historic Dockyard is a maritime museum full of artifacts and vessels including masts and rigging from the Cutty Sark while the hull is being restored elsewhere.

It includes three historic warships, a Victorian ropery, a recreation of an 18th century shipyard around the construction of HMS Valiant, a RNLI Lifeboat Museum, a slipway and a gallery of paintings and model ships.

Upnor Castle built in Elizabethan Times to protect ships in Chatham Dockyard
Upnor Castle ©Shutterstock /Paul J Martin

The magnificent Chatham Naval Memorial commemorates those members of the Royal Navy who lost their lives during the two world wars.

Other non-nautical attractions around Chatham are Hever Castle, once the home of Anne Boleyn and historic Cobham Hall.

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