Many thousands will have happy memories of Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham whilst a few will just have memories! Some memories may return as you look at the history of HMS PEMBROKE from 1903 to the final departure of the Royal Navy in 1984 and their university role in the 21st century.
(All RN Chatham and Sheerness pages are now within this section of the website)
2012 Jan (See Guestbook) 'Ralph Waldie joined as a J/A/Steward 1959. Great site, brought back heaps of Memories I will never forget HMS Pembroke, what a magic place, first day of arrival was to say the least daunting. As we all descended from the truck two sailors passed and just laughed, they had just been demobbed. One week later, we had to wrap our civvies up in a brown paper parcel and send them home, the penny dropped!
RNB Main Gate c.1905 and 1955
CHATS! Anyone who belonged to the Chatham depot will, I am quite sure, feel lucky to have been part of a very special division of the Royal Navy. We can, I hope, also be forgiven for believing that the universe was centred upon the great barracks and dockyard tucked away almost as far as you could get up the River Medway in the county of Kent.
First a couple of lines on my time there. Together with a number of other wide-eyed Boy seamen, my introduction to HMS Pembroke came with my arrival from 'GANGES' on the 23rd of March 1955. Each of us had with us our new found and now constant companions the kit bag and hammock. Often bigger than their owner they, together with a respirator (gas mask), had to be hauled around the Drill Shed as we fulfilled our 'Joining Routine' before going off to our allocated Block. Does anyone know how much a full kit issue of those days actually weighed?
Within a month my 'Bag' was again packed and I was in a 'Tilly' off to the Dockyard to join HMS OBDURATE the destroyer in which I had had my 'sea-day' from Shotley. During my later between-ship returns I seemed to have done almost everything there was to be done within RNB from skirmishing the parade to rigging courts martial, from Barrack Guard to a week in the Sick Bay. On the other side of the coin I missed getting a draft to a 'Suez' bound ship and I slept through a 'sub-miss'. The former, a crisis that broke the then Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, and the latter, a false alarm but quite worrying all the same for me when I unearthed myself from beneath the blankets one morning to find a normally full block bereft of human life. It was always a good place to come back to and especially so on one black day in April 1964 (see ECHO pages)
Vaguely familiar? The same barracks just different users in 2007. Clockwise: Central Ave, Wardroom, Drillshed recently completely refurbished & now housing the University Library (said to be the biggest in Europe), South Ave near the Tunnels entrance looking E and W, Drillshed & Parade Ground. (Much more including your memories on Page 2)
A short history of HMS PEMBROKE.
It seems hard to believe but is nevertheless true that RNB Chatham was not built until the turn of the last century and before it was completed we had our first submarine 'HOLLAND 1' at sea and the RN was rising to the challenge of providing 'field guns' in the Boer War.
Building commenced in May 1897 by Holloway Brothers of London on the site that had previously been a prison. It was to be a long haul to completion at the end of 1902 and official occupation by around 5000 RN personnel on the 1st of May 1903. The cost of building was £425.000. Yes, that's right under half a million pounds. I don't know what you thought but on my arrival there half a century later I thought it was palatial and an absolute bargain!
Prior to 1903 accommodation had been in three hulks one of which was HMS PEMBROKE and that name was transferred to the new barracks. The hulks had lain in the newly built basins since 1885 and prior to that in the River. Within a couple of years of occupying RNB changes were afoot and a house was built for the Commodore and then C in C Nore moved his flag from Sheerness to Chatham. Last to be built was St George's Church.
The Block at the eastern end housed the Barrack Guard and the Laundry and was, at least in parts little changed in 1955 from the original pictured below. There were beds then but hooks and stowages remained and some of those in transit had to use hammocks. What I also remember is the outside lower walls of that block had a red paint/wash that permanently stained anything it came into contact with. My hammock bore witness to that for the rest of its life.
On the 28th of June 1955 HMS Pembroke received the Freedom of Gillingham.
Wm. Fairweather, ON 299031, DOB 1883, Entry RN 1901 (Pic from his great-grandson Bill Fairweather in USA)
There were six large Blocks built that were given the names of admirals 'Anson', 'Blake', 'Drake', 'Grenville', 'Hawke' and 'Nelson'. Dave Jefferson, there in 1957/8, tells me 'Anson' block housed seaman and 'Grenville' held electricians, including him, undergoing Part 2 training in the Electrical School which was housed behind the Main Gate Block. They were modernised and towards the end of the fifties some, as I recall, had four rows - front to back of block - of two-tier beds with wash rooms, including baths, and heads at each end of the block and stair wells in the centre as well as each end. It was not something you took photo's of really but, luckily, Ron Lawrence on detachment from the RAF for MHQ duties did and sent them in. (see Pembroke Page 2)
The start of years of uncertainty began in the mid-fifties with the announcement that centralised drafting was to replace that of Local Port Divisions (eg. Chatham, Portsmouth, Devonport, etc. etc.) The Central Drafting Office (HMS CENTURION) set itself up in a superb old country house (Lythe Hill House) in Haslemere, Surrey and opened for business in 1957 in the charge of a Commodore.
Then, in 1958, rumours were rife that Chatham Barracks was to be closed. I was in the cruiser BERMUDA at Malta when those rumours changed to fact and I read confirmation in the Daily Mirror (see Page 2). You can be sure everyone whose official number bore the prefix port letter 'C', as well as many others who had been 'guest's' in RNB Chatham during their careers, went into deep mourning. Can you imagine! Those in the Central Drafting Office had set themselves up as country squires in deepest Surrey and we were now going to be evicted from our 'home'. Much discussion ensued in the many 'Chatham' ships around the world and the 'lawyers' on the RA's trains to the four corners of Kent, Essex and 'The Smoke' were in full voice. It is safe to assume we were not happy and the mumblings, rumblings and wringings-out continued until the next announcement came.
Chatham's Gunnery School closed and together with the adjacent hutted East Camp was refurbished then re-opened as the RN Supply School on 1 April 1959 when the function was moved from HMS CERES at Wetherby in Yorkshire.
Next, on the 4th of March 1960 the Civil Lord of the Admiralty told the house "The Royal Naval Barracks of Chatham will be retained for the Navy to accommodate men from ships being refitted…." He went on "However the function of a holding depot would end..". In summary that meant we at least stood a chance of returning to our 'home' even if we had lost our 'Chatham' identity and could not - at least officially - any longer call it RNB. It was better than the total closure proposed a year earlier.
On the 31st of March 1961, the Commanding Officer rank at HMS PEMBROKE was downgraded from Commodore to Captain as the departing CO Commodore L W L Argles DSC was succeded by Captain H S Spittle who was also the Captain of the Supply School. A time of change certainly but not the end that had been widely predicted. Other changes included the transfer of the Drill Shed, Commodore's Block, Canteen and a section of the Parade Ground to the DOCKYARD. At a stroke the 'Chatham Depot' became extinct.
It has to be remembered, of course, that Chatham Barracks and Dockyard were the hub of a much larger naval command area that extended from Flamborough Head in the north through the Dover Straits to Beachy Head. Collectively known as Nore Command it was in the charge of an Admiral Commander in Chief who had his Maritime Headquarters and residence, Admiralty House, adjacent to RNB and in earlier times at Sheerness. Facing Europe the command - in its various forms - had for four centuries been crucial in defending London and the country against invaders from Europe. Now, in the latter half of the twentieth century it was to be disbanded and shared between the existing Scotland & Northern Ireland and Portsmouth Commands. The name adopted by a great naval command was about to revert to its original 'owner' an area of Thames Estuary near the mouth of the River Medway off Sheerness. The new senior officer post for all the other downgraded RN facilities and functions at Chatham would, it was also announced, carry the dual title of Flag Officer, Medway and Port Admiral Chatham. (See Chatham Dockyard pages)
The changes were made but there still seemed to be as many sailors about as before and we still got our Draft Chits from the same place the only difference was that they were originated elsewhere. The Dockyard also remained full though there was a discernible reduction in the Reserve ships as more and more went to breakers. However there was at the same time a major new development in progress up at the No. 1 Basin end. (See Dockyard pages). Day to day routine changed little though as we came and went to ships and establishments around the UK and the world. On the civilian staff side there were job losses in the barracks and dockyard that brought anguish to many particularly as it followed so (Pic Medway iced up 1963) closely the closure of Sheerness Dockyard and all the other RN Units on Sheppey in 1960. (See Sheerness page)
The next major upheaval came twenty years on, in June 1981, when Sir John Nott's Defence Review was published. This time it really did sound the death knell for the Royal Navy in the Medway Towns. Both the barracks and dockyard were to be closed thus severing the centuries old link with Chatham and the Medway and it was all to happen by the end of March 1984. It was a nuisance and inconvenience for the, by now, reducing number of sailors who had to go elsewhere but a final and devastating blow for the civilians who worked there. For many of them this was the second or third time they had faced the same worries since 1960 but this time there seemed little likelihood of a reprieve.
When the Falklands War erupted the following year (1982) there was a breeze of hope and optimism (not necessarily in that order) that perhaps total closure might be averted but after a minor surge in activity the run down quickened again towards its goal. One of the early major events came in September 1983 when the RN Supply School closed with the function moving to HMS RALEIGH at Torpoint in Devon. Now both PEMBROKE and Dockyard looked increasingly forlorn and empty of people and ships.
Though there was little enjoyment for those present to be contributing to the ending of four centuries of naval presence in the Medway someone had to do it. One of them was Mark Huby, seen here with the 'Chatham Chest' when it made a brief return to Chatham from the National Maritime Museum in 1983. Mark, on FO Medway staff, played a significant role in the Dockyard closing ceremony before going on to to do the same in PEMBROKE at the navy's ultimate departure from Chatham. (More from Mark in both Pembroke Page 2 & Chatham Dockyard pages)
One of the early losses came in May 1983 when Chatham's Royal Marine Band moved to Fleet HQ at Northolt but they did return for the closing ceremonies.
By 1045 on Friday the 3rd of June 1983 almost everyone in HMS Pembroke was in No.1s and fallen in on the hallowed and much trodden Parade Ground in the company of a large group of local Mayors, Churchmen and other dignitaries awaiting the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command. In this first significant event in the closure process Admiral Sir David Cassidi GCB ADC took the Salute at the final Ceremonial Divisions. It was an event that made everyone realise it really was the beginning of the end though the pomp and pride was as apparent as ever as the Band of HM Royal Marines C-in-C Fleet (Director Capt E P Whealing LRAM ACRM LTCL RM) struck up.
Three weeks or so later the more observant would have noticed the just-refitted frigate HMS HERMIONE leave the Yard (More on Dockyard page) signalling the end of Chatham Dockyard's work as she went. Despite that there were still some who had the time and dedication to take part in one last sponsored 300 mile charity walk in the name of HMS Pembroke to Pembroke in the far west of Wales. In doing so Leading Wren Lorna Wright with her shipmates raised the magnificent sum of £1500 which was presented to the Secretary of King George's Fund for Sailors, Lieutenant Commander Maurice Board, on the 8th of July.
Exactly one month after that, on the 8th of August, local dignitaries were welcomed back to HMS Pembroke this time to the Barrack's St George's Church. There they joined in its last Divine Service and perhaps gave thought to the many who had, through two world wars as well as more peaceful times, sought spiritual help and solace within its walls. Subsequently a number of the memorial artefacts were passed to relatives or moved to other naval establishments but many remain in what is now a Medway Council run arts/exhibition venue.
The last Commanding Officer of HMS PEMBROKE, Captain Paddy Sheehan, ended his command when he was formally hauled out through the Main Gate by officers and ratings on the 29th of October 1983. The Barracks then fell into the care of the 'Closure Party' who, led by Commander R Wilson, continued to fly the White Ensign as they worked through to its final demise as a naval establishment.
In November all members of the 'Closure Party' moved into the Wardroom building as fleets of lorries continued removing the last vestiges of the paraphernalia that had been an essential part of day-to-day life for the RN at Chatham. Christmas 1983 and the arrival of 1984 caused only a momentary interruption as PEMBROKE became bleaker and bleaker and then came the Last Post!
Best suits with badges-gold glinting was the scene on the 18th of February 1984 as the Closure Party gathered at the mast outside the Wardroom in the presence of local mayors and others. Here Commander Wilson said ".... its a very very sad day for the navy .... this is the place where people like Drake and Nelson learnt their seamanship" then the Last Post was played by a RM Bugler as the White Ensign was lowered for the very last time.
With that part of the ceremony complete they then left the Barracks - some in a dray and some marching - to muster outside the gates where Commander Wilson in his formal farewell speech emphasised that...."Chatham had the reputation of being the friendliest and most efficient of all the navy's ports of call" and that "....the red bricks of HMS Pembroke had been a comforting sight for servicemen and their families during all the conflicts of the last 80 years...". He then ceremonially locked the gates to formally bring to an end the Royal Navy's presence on and around the Medway (Pics. Flag & Dray Chatham News. 'The Royal Marine' pictured in 2007)
Back in 1903 sailors marched from the hulks in the dockyard into the newly built barracks and now, in 1984, the last sailors left in a brewer's dray. An irony really as drays or rather their cargoes had undoubtedly been the cause of many matelots forfeiting pay &/or leave because of the demon drink.
Guess what! Mark Huby ends by saying ".....after the ceremony the whole Closure Party were marched to the top of the hill (Dock Rd) to 'The Royal Marine' where we were lashed up to a few good tots before changing into 'civvies' and making our way to our next drafts".
As they came out of the 'Royal Marine' its front door framed more history than they probably realised - Dockyard Main Gate (c.1720), Dockyard Muster Bell (c.1810) and on the far right Rochester Castle Keep (c.1130) - which somehow puts the Royal Navy's tenure at Chatham into perspective you might think.
Use button below for HMS Pembroke next page
or scroll up to Index
1st Edn published 8/2000 Counter on closing 5/7/07 = 12687