Having grown up in north Kent, I always keep an eye out for archive material relating to shipping on the River Medway and the naval dockyard at Chatham. During cataloguing work earlier this year, I was drawn to some papers from the period when Admiral Sir Gerard H.U. Noel was commander-in-chief at the Nore station. They include an appeal for the extension of Chatham Dockyard; see the items numbered NOE/51/5/9 in the Archive Catalogue.
The subtext here is Noel’s distrust of the policies of Admiral of the Fleet Sir John A. Fisher, who as first sea lord reformed the Royal Navy in the early years of the twentieth century. Noel opposed the building of all-big-gun warships of the Dreadnought type, as the expense of the programme made it necessary to retire a large number of smaller vessels, reduce naval presence on foreign stations and make cutbacks in coastal defence. While Noel was on the China station in 1905, five battleships under his command, including the flagship HMS Glory (1899), were recalled as part of the redistribution of fleets. Noel’s technical expertise meant that his arguments had substance and although he mostly aired his views in private, he was in correspondence with senior officers who were more outspoken. These included Lord Charles W.D. Beresford and Hedworth Lambton (later Meux), two opponents from the group Fisher referred to as the ‘syndicate of discontent’.
With the new dockyard at Rosyth still at the planning stage, Noel was concerned that the only dry docks that could possibly accommodate the Dreadnought and Invincible classes were at Portsmouth Dockyard and Hebburn on the River Tyne (the Robert Stephenson & Co Ltd graving dock). In letters to the Admiralty sent in July 1907 and July 1908, Noel urged his superiors to consider his extension works for Chatham, roughly half the size and cost as the ambitious scheme proposed back in 1904.
NOE/51/5/9 includes a folded plan showing the new basin, dry docks and entrance locks proposed in 1904. The recently completed No. 9 Dock (at the left edge of the image) was an impressive 650 ft long, but the existing basin entrances could not give access to the new generation of large warships. In a cover letter sent to Noel in May 1907, Colonel Edward Raban, RE, Director of Works, explained that the Admiralty had entirely dropped this scheme in favour of Rosyth, owing to budget restrictions, difficulties in the required dredging works, and in navigating large warships along the Medway.
Had it been constructed, No. 4 Basin at Chatham would have made a dramatic and lasting impact on the local geography. It covered an area of 57 acres, incorporating twin entrance locks from the river and three dry docks, the largest of which was 800 ft long. Since the closure of Chatham Dockyard in 1984, most of this area of St. Mary’s Island has been covered by residential housing.
I haven’t found any record of a response to Noel’s proposals, but I expect that they were disregarded for the same reasons as those given when the earlier scheme was rejected. Noel had expressed a great deal of urgency, but the Admiralty seems to have muddled through, with the new facilities for large warships at Rosyth not being operational until 1916.
Noel’s opposition to Fisher’s reforms dominated the last years of his career. In 1909 he wrote to Reginald McKenna, first lord of the Admiralty, asking to be left out of consideration for the Order of the Bath (GCB), due to his position in being so out of sympathy with the recent administration of the navy. Events that transpired after Noel’s retirement, particularly the critical big-gun duel at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, make his conservative views, including his preference for battleships having secondary armament, seem rather quaint. However, it can be said that the issue of dock accommodation for ‘monster ships’ has never gone away. Currently, it is being illustrated by the dredging project necessary to provide a channel for the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers at Portsmouth Dockyard.
An overview of the papers presented to the National Maritime Museum by the descendants of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Gerard H.U. Noel (1845-1918) can be found under the reference NOE in the Archive Catalogue. The papers NOE/50-58 were acquired in 2013 and their important aspects are discussed in ‘A Difficult Person to Tackle’ by Admiral Richard Hill in ‘The Mariners Mirror’, Volume 98, Number 4, November 2012.
Papers on the extension of Chatham Dockyard proposed in 1904 can also be found under the reference ADM 214/4 at The National Archives.
Graham Thompson, Archives Assistant