Kent Archaeological Review extract

John Rennie's Reconstruction of Sheerness Dockyard.
by Jean Taylor.

The harbour at Sheerness is situated on the north-west tip of the Isle of Sheppy. It has been called the "key to the Medway" (Banbury 1971, page 100) and and one of the keys to the Thames. As a coastal defence site the area dates from the time of Edward VI, but the Dockyard, a small fort of twelve guns, as an adjunct to that at Chatham, was opened in the reign of Charles II in 1665-66.

These defences were token and were unable to offer any resistance to the Dutch fleet, under de Ruyter, in 1667. Sheerness thus earned the distinction of being the last area of foreign occupied land in Britain. The effect of the Dutch invasion was to bring the defences of the Medway to public notice, and the Admiralty proposed to build a naval Dockyard at the mouth of the Medway.

Sheerness was not originally considered as a possible location for the Dockyard due to the marshy nature of the ground, but Sir William Winter finally decided on the present site in favour of Grain and Queenborough.

The dockyard in its early days was somewhat primitive, there being a notable lack of workshops and storehouses. In fact, old warships were hauled up in the mud and used largely as storehouses. The first vessel launched from the dockyard was a hoy named the 'Transporter' in 1667. At this time there were no protective dockyard walls, and breakwaters were constructed by the sinking of old warships, which, converted into houses with streets and shops, constituted what must have been the first main settlement at Sheerness.

In 1774 the Dockyard was extended by the inclusion of land in the direct- ion of Rats Bay, and docking accommodation was enlarged. The Dockyard then measured 500 yards by 500 yards approx. and consisted of two dry docks, two slipways and one tidal dock.

Between 1792 and 1810 the Dockyard accommodation at Sheerness was overtaxed, and as dock and slip facilities were limited, the rate of work was slow. As a result of this, in 1808 the proposal of reconstructing the Dockyard was mooted and John Rennie and Joseph Wideby surveyed the site. It was suggested that no repairs should be undertaken and a new yard built at Northfleet, but, due to lack of finances for this, Rennie was directed on January 13th, 1813 to prepare plans for a new yard at Sheerness.

The difficulties of overcoming the soft mud were tremendous, as Sir John Rennie (the engineer's son) recalls:

"The foundations were composed of nothing but soft mud and loose quicksands to an almost interminable depth, so that my father was obliged to invent an entirely new system of hollow walls faced with granite in front and brick behind. This system of walls, which was entirely new, by giving a greater superficial area of bearing surface with the same weight of materials, rendered them thoroughly secure".

The labour used in the Dockyard reconstruction consisted largely of illiterate English and French convicts. In order that the labourers should under- stand his orders, Rennie built a wooden model of the Dockyard, exact in every detail, to a scale of 1/60th (1 inch = 5 feet). The model has been constructed to such a degree of accuracy that all the piles, bollards and even the iron fences are shown, some of the latter being made of shaped metal railings 9/10th of an inch high by 1/20th of an inch wide.

To compare the detail of the model to the actual structure, one may take the example of the Great Basin entrance. The actual basin entrance is 63 feet wide (just over in the model), while the bottom is in the form of an inverted ellipse. The Aberdeen granite masonry is backed by brickwork (all shown on the model as bricks 5/20 inches apart, while the fathom markings are engraved in the appropriate places down the sides of the walls). The whole of the masonry and brickwork is founded on a platform of piling, sills and planking (all represented in the model -- the piles being 5 inches long by 1/5 inches square). For economic reasons, the masonry facing extends only to about 7 feet below the level of high water springs, because, as the water seldom falls below that level, it is not exposed to the alternate action of wet and dry.

On the west side of the Great Basin were built three dry docks, each with cast iron gates, the first of the kind to be used anywhere. These gates proved a great engineering triumph for Rennie as they were completely watertight. The model, too, shows the gates in detail (see figure 1), being slightly convex and virtually 6 9/10 inches square with a wooden platform approximately 4/5 inches wide across the top to represent the walkway. More detail regarding the actual Dockyard construction can be found in "Sir John Rennie's Treatise on Harbours", published in 1851.

The foundation stone of the Dockyard was laid by Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, on August 18th 1814, but Rennie was not to see his work completed; he died in October 1821 having finished the northern half of his project which included the construction of the sea wall, the Great Basin, three large dry docks, mast ponds and locks. His son, later to become Sir John Rennie, continued the undertaking which was opened on 5th September 1823 by the Duke of Clarence.

Since then, the Dockyard has witnessed many alterations including its closure in 1957 as a result of post-war rationalisation, and its sale in 1960 to an industrial consortium, who have turned part of it into an industrial estate, and part into a modern deep-water harbour, with a ferry terminal. To make way for these developments, many of Rennie's buildings have had to be removed, but one fortunately is not left completely without some record of this feat of engineering skill as the model still remains.

Earlier this century, the model was set up on the floor of the sail loft, together with the following notice drawn up by Mr H M Setchill, Civil Engineer of the Dockyard, in 1909:

"This is the original working model by which the work of re-construction of Sheerness Dockyard in the year 1813-1823 was actually carried out.

"The foundation for almost the whole of this Dockyard is made by piling, as shewn on the model, the subsoil being running silt. The work was commenced in the latter part of the year 1813, the first pile being driven on the 23rd December for the first division of the coffer-dam of the river wall, which was finished on the 18th of August, 1814.

"On this date the first stone of the river wall was laid by the Lord Viscount Melville, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. "On the 5th of September, 1823, the whole of the works were completed and opened for the public service by the Duke of Clarence, afterwards King William IV.

"The engineering works cost 1,616,757. They were designed by John Rennie and carried out under his supervision until he died on the 16th October, 1821. The work was then completed by his son, John Rennie who was afterwards knighted in 1831, on completion of London Bridge from his father's designs.

"The architectural works cost 969,326. These were designed by Mr E Holl, Civil Architect to the Admiralty.

"Before these works were completed, Mr Holl died, and was succeeded by Mr George Taylor, who did not alter Mr Holl's designs, but superintended their being carried into effect.

"The total cost of the works was 2,586,083. Additions have been made to this model showing changes which have been made and new works constructed at various dates".

PHOTO: Wooden model of Sheerness 
Dockyard built by John

Figure 1 Wooden model of Sheerness Dockyard built by John Rennie. The model is 50 feet square with a scale of 1 inch to 5 feet.

However, for the last four years, the model has been dismantled and has been moved from heap to heap in the Medway Port's Authority offices. It was decided earlier this year to dispose of this 'white elephant' unless a home could be found for it. Various museums and official bodies were approached, but the model's great size, (it is 50 feet square) precluded any offers of re- housing.

Fortunately an appeal by the author to the Department of the Environment brought the Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Mr J G Coad, together with an architect, to Sheerness, with the result that the DOE have offered to restore and rehouse the model, either in the National Maritime Museum or as part of a special historical display on the Royal Dockyards at Portsmouth.

From 1976 onwards, one will therefore be able to see the model of "the work (that) was worthy of the Romans at the height of their power". (Anon).

The author is indebted to the hard work and untiring efforts of a small group of people in helping to preserve this unique model. I should especially like to thank Mr Les Howard of the MPA at Sheerness, Mr F Gardiner of the DoE and Mr A Norris for the valuable time they donated in this pursuit.


  • Banbury P "Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway".
  • David and Charles. Newton Abbot. 1971.
  • Rennie J "Autobiography of Sir John Rennie FRS". E & FN Spon 1875. London.
  • Rennie J "Treatise on Harbours ...". Wale. London. 1851.
  • Sheerness Times & Guardian, Oct.10 1958, "Dockyard Thro' the Ages"
  • Woodthorpe T J "Sheerness Dockyard ... Some features in its past: Sheerness Times. November 24th, 1932.
  • Woodthorpe TJ "A History of the Isle of Sheppey, Rent." Smiths, Sheerness, 1951.
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