Command of the Oceans opens at Historic Dockyard

A hidden chapter of British Naval history has been revealed for the first time in a new £9m ‘Command of the Oceans’ at The Historic Dockyard Chatham.

‘Command of the Oceans’, a new permanent display at The Historic Dockyard Chatham – the most complete dockyard from the ‘Age of Sail’ to survive anywhere in the world – opens to the public on 27 May 2016.

The £9m project has been made possible with support from a £4.8m grant from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), as well as the generous support of Homes & Communities Agency (HCA), and individuals, Trusts and Foundations.

‘Command of the Oceans’ will be the starting point for telling the story of the Dockyard’s role in British naval supremacy from the 16th century when Sir Francis Drake learned his skills at Chatham, through its golden period of the ‘Age of Sail’ from 1700 – 1820 when the Dockyard’s shipwrights designed and built ships that transformed the British Navy into the most powerful sea force in the world.

‘Command of the Oceans’ is built around the 260-year old skeleton of the Namur, preserved where she was discovered and still lies. The Namur was one of the Royal Navy’s most significant warships of the Age of Sail – and symbolises how indispensable Chatham was to Britain and the Royal Navy during the 18th century and beyond.

The Namur was discovered by chance in 1995. Routine conservation work on the Dockyard’s Wheelwrights’ Shop led to an astonishing discovery: The timbers of the 18th century warship had lain hidden and undisturbed under the floor for over two centuries. Over the past twenty years the Namur’s timbers have been carefully preserved and the stories of this influential ship researched and brought together for the first time.

The giant 245 timbers still bear their ‘Race Marks’, special cuts made with a race knife that enable historians to track when each timber was sourced by the Navy. They also bear the personal makers’ marks of the Shipwrights that made each timber and of those who were part of the quality assurance process that approved each part for use in the ship. Each timber also has a ‘Position Mark’ that gives the precise location of each timber in the ship – enabling all the timbers to have been fitted together like a giant 3D puzzle.

The Namur and other exhibits in ‘Command of The Oceans’ demonstrate the speed and ingenuity with which Chatham’s Shipwrights adapted to changing battle tactics and the design of foreign fleets. The Invincible, a French warship captured by the British in 1747, was used by Chatham’s Shipwrights to create a new generation of warships for the Royal Navy: The 74-gun ship of the line. These 74-gun ships, based on the Invincible’s design, formed the core of Nelson’s fleet that won the Battle of Trafalgar and finally secured command of the oceans for Britain. Objects from the Invincible go on display for the first time. These objects together with the compelling testimony from Olaudah Equiano on his life as a ‘Powder Monkey’, provide a unique insight into life on an 18th century warship.

The galleries are set in restored historic buildings, incorporating new architecture delivered by Baynes & Mitchell architects and exhibition interpretive designers, Land Design Studios.