Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Dockyard church rises from the ashes

A neoclassical church that was a centrepiece of one of Britain’s finest naval dockyards has been restored to its Regency glory after it was gutted in a fire.

Sheerness Dockyard Church — which was deconsecrated before the 2001 blaze — will be used as a workspace and business incubator for local young people. The charity behind the transformation hopes the impressive architecture and a display showcasing a vast 19th-century model of the dockyard will also draw visitors from farther afield.

Will Palin, chairman of the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust, said: “Dockyard Church now stands as proof that even our most battered, desperate and seemingly hopeless heritage treasures can be brought back to life if there is a compelling vision — and the energy and ambition to carry the project through.”

The church, roofless and structurally unsafe, before its rescue by the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust. Photo: James Brittain

Sheerness, at the mouths of the Thames and Medway estuaries, occupies a strategic position and provided faster, more reliable access to the open sea than nearby Chatham. A Royal Dockyard there was first planned in the 1660s by naval officials including Samuel Pepys, the diarist. However, the site, on the Isle of Sheppey, was captured and occupied by the Dutch in the summer of 1667, interrupting construction.

It was after the dockyard’s expansion and a massive overhaul conceived during the Napoleonic Wars that the existing church was built to serve the garrison and workers.

Standing at the entrance of the new yard, it was a showpiece for the state-of-the-art 60-acre site, with innovative dry docks, basins and industrial buildings laid out by engineer John Rennie. The church was completed in 1828 to a design by George Ledwell Taylor, surveyor to the Admiralty and a distinguished architect.

The church stands next to a terrace of former officer’s houses and in front of other surviving buildings from John Rennie’s masterplan as well as the modern working port. Photo: Dirk Linder

Sheerness was primarily used for refitting and minor repairs, although there was some shipbuilding too. This included the construction of HMS Rattler (1843), one of the first British warships with screw propulsion — and the victor in a famous experimental tug-of-war against the paddle-driven HMS Alecto in 1845.

Survival of the church was touch and go. It was partially rebuilt, with an ornate Victorian interior and the removal of Taylor’s original parapets, following a fire in 1881 in which a man was killed. While the dockyard played a crucial role as a base and refitting station in both world wars, it was closed in 1960 after years of industrial decline. The church, in turn, shut its doors as a place of worship in the 1970s. It was later a sports club for a period, but was empty by the time of a second devastating fire 22 years ago.

The restored church interior preserves elements of the original building where possible and houses large sections of the 19th-century dockyard model. Photo: Dirk Linder

It has been restored in a £9.5 million project by the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust, funded by a £5.2 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and contributions from Historic England and many other supporters.

The project notably includes the restoration of a meticulous 19th-century wooden model of Rennie’s dockyard at a scale of 1:60. It is the first time large parts of the 40ft x 36ft model will go on public display. These include the church itself, an elegant adjacent terrace of officers’ houses and the six-storey Quadrangular Store. The latter — built to house just about everything the navy needed to maintain and provision its ships — was an early example of an iron-framed building and arguably the dockyard’s finest structure before its demolition in the 1970s.

An 1830 engraving of Sheerness dockyard depicts the basins of John Rennie’s landmark overhaul. Image: Alamy

Speaking at a launch event for the restored dockyard church, Palin, the preservation trust’s chairman, said: “It’s an amazing thing — a working model that shows Rennie’s dry docks and all the the underground piling substructures [necessary to build on the site’s mud and quicksands]. It was meant to show off to visitors to the dockyard how impressive and modern the development was.

“The dockyard was developed in one campaign from about 1811. It cost over £2 million — it was so expensive that there were two parliamentary investigations. It was largely completed by about 1828. When we finally got hold of the building, we looked at what we could do with it. We always wanted the model to play a part. So we were keen to make sure that when the building was finished, it would be open to the public and they could learn about the dockyard and see the model and other interpretation.

The return of the submarine HMS Unruly to Sheerness dockyard after patrols in the Aegean, August 1944. Photo: Imperial War Museum ©IWM A 25336

“We also had an idea early on that this project should help support young people starting their own businesses. So we teamed up with a couple of charities to develop that idea and received the initial startup grant from the lottery that helped us to establish the charity and get ourselves working.”

The restoration was designed by Hugh Broughton Architects in collaboration with conservation specialists Martin Ashley Architects. Explaining the design concept, architect Hugh Broughton said: “We came up with a simple approach, which was to restore the exterior back to its original 1828 form. That meant reinstating the parapets and so on, and then, on the inside, conserving as found. We were fortunate that there were still drawings of Ledwell Taylor’s 1828 design and — even more amazing — some original photographs from before the 1880s fire. So we have good records to work with.”

A restored cantilevered staircase is an example of the elegance of George Ledwell Taylor’s architecture. Photo: Dirk Linder

So while the exterior work turns back the clock — and required the complete dismantling and reconstruction of the clocktower — the interior consists of elements of the original building and 1880s refit along with discreet contemporary additions. Broughton describes details such as fragments of 19th-century decorative plasterwork conserved in situ and the ruins of a cantilevered staircase as “ghosts” of the old church. A second cantilevered staircase has been fully restored.

The new roof, supported by steel trusses and timber flitch beams, matches the profile of the original but includes four large circular skylights to bring in more natural light. It also spans from wall to wall because the 2001 fire put the original cast iron columns beyond structural use. The attractive fluted columns are nevertheless retained as features.

The upper floors provide open-plan workspace and are built at the level of the original tiered seating galleries, connected by lightweight steel link bridges. Broughton said: “Bizarrely for such a solid building, Ledwell Taylor’s architecture is incredibly light. The moment we took the scaffolding down inside — none of us had really seen the interior at that point — everyone was struck by the lightness, and you particularly get that up on the upper level.”

The preservation trust hopes its use as a business incubator and coworking space for young locals — as well as a community hub and visitor attraction — will help to tackle economic deprivation in the area. The workspace will be managed by Fruitbowl Media and members aged 16-30 will receive business support, including free workshops and advice, from the Kent Foundation.

It will open in mid-July. From then, the public will be able to visit during normal working hours to see the building and model and use the workspace café.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: “This is a truly extraordinary and much anticipated phoenix of a restoration project. One of the longest-standing entries on the Heritage at Risk Register will soon be welcoming the public back, thanks to the many skilled partners and craft workers who have worked so hard on the conservation.”

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