Built for the Dockyard workers

 
sheerness8.jpg
 

The Dockyard Church

Until the eighteenth century the Navy did not usually provide dockyard or garrison chapels, relying on local churches to serve the needs of relatively small numbers of workers and residents. The new dockyards of the eighteenth century were considerably larger than before and the new workers' settlements that developed beside the yards were often at some distance from a parish church. The official concern to ensure that dock workers should have the opportunity to attend the established church (as they were, of course, nominally required to by law) was reinforced both by the dissolute reputation of dockyard settlements, and by the challenge of non-conformism. The need for dedicated dockyard chapels was also a result of the fact that Navy personnel (especially officers) were based only for short periods at a particular establishment, and were therefore unlikely to rent pews as required by parish churches.

Sheerness Dockyard was typical in that its location was remote from any existing settlement, the nearest parish church to the new dockyard being at Minster, four miles away, although there was a nonconformist chapel in Blue Town from as early as 1768. At the same time Sheerness was exceptional, the dockyard and garrison having their own chapel from early in its history.

The first "dockyard" chapel, dedicated to St Mary, stood over the Baroque gateway to de Gomme's citadel. It is not entirely clear whether it formed part of his original 1667 design. One source suggests that it was destroyed in the Dutch raid of that year, but a brief history of the dockyard chapels at Sheerness compiled by the then Chaplain, Rev. Hamlet Millet, in 1892, records that it was built it is supposed in about 1690. The earliest baptism registers for the dockyard chapel date from 1688.

Millet goes on to write that the original chapel was enlarged in 1718; "became insecure" in 1737 and was rebuilt on the same site in 1744. It "became again insecure" in 1805 due to faulty foundations and was demolished in 1815. A new chapel was built at the centre of the Dockyard and opened in 1814 but this too was taken down in 1820, "removed" to its present site outside the Dockyard walls and reopened in 1828. Little is known about the eighteenth century chapels at Sheerness, which seem largely to have escaped the attention of recent historians, and it is not known whether they set any architectural precedents for the later type.

The first chapel known to have been built by the Navy at public expense to serve a dockyard was St Anne’s, Portsmouth, in 1785. It is a simple, handsome, brick "preaching box", strongly reminiscent of a non- conformist chapel. It was probably designed by John Marquand, Surveyor to the Navy Board. Marquand's successor, Edward Holl, designed a new chapel, St Anne's, for Chatham Dockyard in 1805, completed in 1810, again on the preaching box model. It is almost identical to the first well- documented chapel at Sheerness, which Holl also designed, in 1810 (see Fig. 9). It had tiered galleries on fluted cast iron columns and a Venetian east window, comparable to what little is known of the original, pre-1881 interior of the present Church at Sheerness.

Figure 1: Holl's 1810 elevation for the Royal Dockyard Chapel, Sheerness (TNA)

The short-lived nature of Holl's Sheerness chapel (see Fig. 1, designed 1810, completed 1814, and demolished 1820) seems to reflect the confusion surrounding the redevelopment of the Dockyard as a result of administrative squabbles between the Admiralty and the Navy Board during the period 1806-1812. In 1810, presumably because the existing chapel was unfit for use, as described by Millet, the officers of Sheerness dockyard submitted a request to the Navy Board for a new chapel within the Yard. They noted that there were at that time at least three non- conformist places of worship in Blue Town, the "pernicious tenets" of which the Commissioner of the dockyard felt "the necessity of counteracting". The Commissioner's influence seems to have been sufficient to ensure that work started on the chapel c1812, before the redevelopment of the Yard. The chapel was completed by the end of 1814, despite the fact that Rennie had by then been commissioned to redesign the Yard as a whole. Evidently the work on the chapel took place during the hiatus between Rennie's appointment and the end of the war in 1815. Curiously, it seems that the crypt was used for general storage rather than in connection with the Church.

Figure 2: Holl's 1810 plan for Royal Dockyard Chapel, Sheerness (TNA)

The 1826 map of the dockyard as it was in 1813 shows a chapel with a very similar footprint to the present Church on a site roughly in the middle of the Yard as laid out by Rennie, adjacent to the small section of Blue Town to the west of the High Street that was cleared and incorporated in the new Yard. This is, presumably, the site at the centre of the dockyard to which Rev. Millet refers. The site was clearly in the way of Rennie's plans for the expansion and rationalisation of the facilities, as it stood in the industrial heart of the new Yard.

The extant and fourth Dockyard Church at Sheerness was designed by George Ledwell Taylor (1788-1873), civil architect to the Navy Board between 1824-37, in succession to Edward Holl. The chapel was part of the second (northern) phase of Rennie's development, and a set of drawings of the chapel signed by Taylor and dated 1826 are preserved in the National Archives. Taylor's church is evidently a different building on a new site, with a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico and prominent tower, in contrast to Holl's modest brick box and cupola, but Taylor's drawings are somewhat enigmatic and they have been interpreted to mean that his design was an enlargement of Holl's chapel rather than a wholly new building. Whilst this hypothesis can now be discounted, there is a close relationship between the two designs. The possibility exists that Taylor may have incorporated fabric from Holl's building in his own, as hinted at by the tantalising use of the phrase "removed to its present site" in Millet's account, although this could well refer merely to the use rather than the fabric.

Figure 3: West elevation, G L Taylor, 1826 (TNA)

George Ledwell Taylor was articled to James Burton and subsequently JT Parkinson, for whom he worked on the development of Montague and Bryanston Squares for the Portman Estate. He travelled widely in Europe and published books on both classical and medieval architecture. For the Navy Board, as well as his work at Sheerness, he undertook major work at Chatham and Woolwich and he designed the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard at Gosport. His interests and industry were considerable and ranged from the antiquarian to the most up-to-date aspects of engineering, including the use of concrete. After losing his post for the Navy Board (as a result of reorganisation) he laid out much of Hyde Park Square, Chester Place and Gloucester Square in London, was appointed District Surveyor for Westminster and became involved in railway projects. His most memorable architectural work, if not his most practical, is the 170-foot tall Gothick folly of Hadlow Castle, Kent (1835-6). By contrast, in the same year, he also designed the plain and only superficially Gothic Holy Trinity Church in Sheerness town.

Taylor designed a second chapel for the Navy Board at Pembroke Dock (Garrison Chapel, 1830-32). It is within the main dockyard and forms part of a semi-formal group with the officers' houses, as at Sheerness. Curiously, Holl had also made designs for a chapel at Pembroke, in 1820, which would have stood outside the dockyard, facing the town, like Sheerness Dockyard Church. The Pembroke chapel is notably plain; stuccoed with spare limestone dressings, and having in place of the grand entrance portico at Sheerness and a central three-bay projection, with the simplest of pilasters, pediment and mouldings. 

We know very little of the thinking behind Taylor's work for the Navy. His eccentric and self-aggrandising autobiography is chiefly a record of his travels and especially his explorations of classical Greek and Roman monuments, and of the esteem in which he believed himself to be held among the great and the good. He describes his work as Navy Board architect in a tone that suggests he regarded his post as a slightly tiresome necessity. He writes that he "found the [Holl's] arrangements for the Sheerness works satisfactory and had no reason to alter [them]". He says little of his own work, although he notes that the foundations of the Admirals' House were formed of concrete. His Dockyard Church repeats the key features of Marquand's and Holl's simple preaching boxes, but Taylor developed the pattern to reflect his own academic neo-classical taste, expressed equally in the grandiose portico at Sheerness and the spare front of the chapel at Pembroke Dock.

On plan, the Dockyard Church is situated at northern end of the Yard's central streetof which the present Church Road is the surviving fragment), the formal and ceremonial axis of the Yard, alongside which were its principal architectural (as opposed to engineering) elements, the Commissioner's house and office and the officers' residences. The west (liturgical east) end of the Church is relatively plain, although this effect is exaggerated by the loss of the original entablature. The Venetian window, which is the focal point of the interior has no more than a plainly moulded architrave externally. However, although the dockyard is invisible from outside behind the blind Piranesian mass of the Dockyard wall, and the Church and the adjacent terrace of officers' houses at Naval Terrace are outside the Dockyard proper, the Church forms an impressive termination to the view from inside the Yard. The Church and houses within and outside the wall form one of the significant and impressive architectural ensembles of their date in England.

Figure 4: Dockyard Church from the west (2011)

Early plans of the Dockyard suggest that the line of partly extant railings enclosing the forecourts of Naval Terrace, the Church and running north- west along Garrison Road to meet the dockyard wall was the boundary of Rennie's development. The Admiralty owned a strip outside this boundary sufficient to accommodate an access road, but between this and the defensive lines, the ground seems to have been undeveloped. The wall and gateway between the Church and the dockyard proper seem to have been part of the original plan, although the wall here is less substantial than those on the north and south sides of the Yard.

Figure 5: Site plan, probably by G L Taylor (TNA)

It is not entirely clear why the Church was placed outside the Yard, rather than inside it as was the case with earlier chapels at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, but it is significant that the Church also faces outwards. The location may be no more than a matter of function or security (since the Church served both the garrison and the civilian workers) or a desire to separate the Church from the industrial grime of the Yard, but it makes a public architectural statement that would have been impossible had it been within, or faced towards the Yard. The plan of 1828 (Fig. 5) on which Naval Terrace is shown by a dotted line and annotated "should more Officers' Houses be hereafter required they may be placed as shewn..." is evidence that while the houses were not necessarily planned from the outset, the Church was always intended to provide a visual termination to the axis of the dockyard. This setting has no clear precedent. The architecturally similar Royal Dockyard Church at Chatham (Holl 1811) is within the dockyard, but it entirely lacks the formal relationship with other buildings nearby. The Pembroke chapel has a formal relationship with the Officers’ houses that bears some comparison with Sheerness, but the chapel is invisible from outside the dockyard.

Figure 6: Section, G L Taylor, 1826, with 1884 pencil over-drawing (TNA)

The drawings (Figs. 3, 6, 7) at the National Archives show Taylor's east (liturgical west) elevation much as built, but the plans are annotated in such a way that might suggest that the building was an enlargement of an earlier one, and have, as noted above, been thus interpreted. One drawing (Fig. 7) is entitled "design for the chapel at.... Sheerness increasing the length 15 ft..." and the note in the bottom left hand corner "the red tint shows the additional work". In fact, since there can now be no doubt that the present Church is on a different site from Holl's 1810 chapel, the red ink must show either an alteration from an earlier design rather than an earlier building, or illustrate the extent to which the new Church was larger than that designed by Holl. It differs from the completed building in one significant respect, namely that pilasters were omitted from the long elevations other than to define the end bays.

Figure 7: Plan, G L Taylor, 1826 (TNA)

Taylor and Holl's designs are very alike: the plan is almost identical, the only substantive difference being the reversal of the direction of the twin staircases. It is only in his exterior that Taylor departs markedly from the earlier model; the portico transforming a modest dockyard chapel into an explicitly public building. The gallery seems to have had the same form in both designs and it is possible that the fluted cast iron columns that supported it were reused; they are now lost and this must remain a conjecture. It seem likely too, that the three-decker pulpit with its curved stair, shown in both Holl's and Taylor's drawings, was one and the same.

 

Figure 8: Naval Terrace and the Dockyard Church c1870

A further detail underlines the possibility that Taylor adapted Holl's design, and also suggests that construction may have actually begun before Taylor's plans were finalised in 1826. The apparently blind recesses to the east ends of the north and south elevations (behind the stairs) has actually been blocked. Its brick is identical to that of the remainder of the Church but it is not coursed with the adjacent walls, suggesting that initially, it was intended that the stairs should follow Holl's arrangment. The interior, like Chatham, had an exceptionally wide clear span, and its sense of space would have been emphasised by the way in which the gallery seating continued through the tower arch. The surviving interior of the Chapel at Chatham provides a good model for how that at Sheerness must have looked.

Figure 9: Interior of Royal Dockyard Chapel, Chatham, Edward Holl, architect, 1811.

A serious fire broke out on 26 November 1881, probably as a result of sparks from the heating system setting the roof alight. Drawings prepared following the fire show the "cockle" (a small furnace) in a basement to the south-west corner of the Church, beneath the vestry. One man died and four were severely injured. The interior was gutted and the roof destroyed. However, it was reported that "with the exception of the parapet of the south front which was thrown over by the falling roof and some of the masonry of the colonnade and tower, which has been damaged by the heat, the walls are uninjured, and quite able to carry a new roof". A prolonged discussion about the merits of rebuilding the chapel took place between the Commissioner at Sheerness and the Lords of the Admiralty, who took some convincing that the cost was justified, perhaps partly because a new church, St Paul's, had been built in Terminus Road, Blue Town, in 1873. Finally, after the Commissioner had, inter alia, supplied the names of all those who worshipped at the Dockyard Church, the decision was taken to repair it, and Mr Bernays, (probably Edwin Arthur Bernays, c1822-1887), Civil Engineer to HM Dockyards at Woolwich and Chatham, was appointed to supervise the works, which he estimated to cost £5,000.

The Church was rebuilt by 1885, with an altered roof form. No drawings of the rebuilding scheme have been found, but the copies of Taylor's drawings preserved in the National Archives have been worked over in pencil, and the new roof, for example, has been roughly sketched over the original design. Originally the Church had wall-head parapets in the form of a substantial entablature with a moulded cornice below the blocking course. The new roof was pitched and hipped but in place of the parapets it extended to form broad eaves at each side. As a result, the east (liturgical west) end elevation was re-formed as a gable with the tower rising from its apex, behind the portico. The top few courses of the external walls were reconstructed to carry over-sailing eaves. The 1828 chimneys survived to the west (liturgical east) end- the scars of the original parapet and the later eaves may be seen. The low stone parapet to the tower was replaced with a simple iron railing.

The changes gave the Church a slightly Italianate cast, which sits uneasily with the correct neo-classical portico. One possible reason for the change is pragmatic; the original parapet gutters may not have drained satisfactorily, or been prone to blockage. It may have simply been a stylistic choice, but it was more likely an economy. The estimated budget of £5,000 was relatively modest, and the replacement of the high quality stonework of the original parapet entablature with a crude plaster moulding and bracketed eaves would have represented a considerable saving. The replacement of the tower parapet with iron railings is also strongly suggestive of frugality.

The interior was recreated broadly to Taylor's plan, but the original gallery structure, supported by slender cast iron columns, was replaced by the substantial full-height cast iron-frame that survives today, which also supported the new roof. At lower level the frame is formed of H-section columns, designed to be boxed in, with exposed slender fluted Corinthian columns from gallery level to the roof. The gallery was also reduced in size. It had originally extended the full length of each side of the Church, over the vestries, and across the east (entrance) end where the gallery seats were formed on a continuous rake, up to the external wall. The 1884 gallery was on the two sides of the Church only, stopping two bays from the west (liturgical east) end, and forming a full width "chancel". New doors had to be formed immediately facing the head of each staircase to give access to the first floor of the tower.

The chancel arch was inserted, and the vestries that flank the sanctuary slightly enlarged towards the centre to line up with the new gallery structure. The westernmost window of the south elevation seems to have been cut down to form a doorway into the vestry at this time. An organ (now in Maidstone Prison) was installed above the north-west vestry. The central pulpit, if it had survived this long, was replaced with a smaller one in the usual Victorian position on the liturgical north (but here, south) side of the nave. A new heating system was installed, of which the pipework and floor grilles survive in places. Air vents were formed in each window cill. The Church was elaborately redecorated in the typical style of the 1880s. The changes reflect the ecclesiastical fashion of the later 19th century, in contrast to the low church habits of the 1820s. Thus, whilst the exterior was simply repaired or rebuilt, the opportunity was taken to bring the interior liturgically up-to-date.

Figure 10: Interior of the Church c1900

The lobby, with its twin cantilevered stone staircases, was relatively less damaged by the fire and its original architectural form is evident. The extant plasterwork is largely in lime, with substantial patches of late-19th century repair. As with the rest of the interior, the stairs at Holl's Chatham Dockyard chapel suggest how Sheerness must originally have appeared, and offer guidance for their restoration.

Figure 11: Stairs and gallery door at Royal Dockyard Chapel Chatham, Edward Holl architect, 1811

After the decision to close the Dockyard was made c1958, the Admiralty proposed to dispose of the Church separately from the remainder of the Yard. Ironically, the new St Paul's Church in Blue Town had become dangerous and the Diocese of Canterbury agreed to lease the Dockyard Church for fifty years at a peppercorn rent, as a replacement. It may be that at this point the Dockyard Church became known as St Paul's Dockyard Church, but the arrangement did not last, if indeed the sale was actually completed. The Church does not seem to have been used as the parish church of Blue Town, and it is understood to have closed for worship c1962. Blue Town parish was united with what was by then the town of Sheerness-on-Sea, to become the parish church of Holy Trinity with St. Paul, Sheerness. The altar and some panelling from the Church were moved to Holy Trinity. At some point the monuments were taken into the care of the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, where they remain.

Title to the Church seems to have reverted to the owners of the dockyard, and planning permission was granted in February 1983 for the change of use of the former Church to a sports and entertainment centre for the Medway Ports Authority Sports and Social Club. The Church was used as a sports centre for some time with squash courts being formed out of its principal space. This use ceased c1990s, and Medway Ports disposed of the building to a private individual for conversion to a residence.

The Church was again gutted by fire in 2001 when the roof and the interior, including the galleries and internal finishes, were lost and the stonework and brick structure were damaged. This is the condition in which it survives at the time of writing (2015).

Figure 12: Interior of Church, looking west, 2011