The Royal Navy mastered the art of recycling long before it was fashionable. Parts of their worn-out wooden warships often enjoyed an afterlife as flooring or roof supports in naval dockyard buildings.
So when the floors of the Wheelwrights’ Shop at The Historic Dockyard Chatham were lifted for maintenance in 1995 the work was carefully scrutinised. Sure enough, ship parts were discovered, but to everyone’s surprise their presence went far beyond simple reuse. Hidden beneath seven layers of flooring were the remains of around a quarter of the frame of a Royal Navy ship from the age of sail. Hailed as ‘the single most important warship discovery in northern Europe since the Mary Rose’, the quantity of timbers crammed into the floor cavity cannot be explained as mere recycling. So why were they put there?
What lies beneath above The Wheelwrights’ Shop at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, built around 1786. Occupying ground sloping to both the north and west, maintaining a level floor in the building has always been a problem. The remains of the ship lay within the two bays closest to the camera. It is possible that they once extended into the third bay, but if so were probably destroyed when it was refloored earlier in the 20th century. left The ship beneath the floor: a quarter of the frame of a British warship of the age of sail was found concealed under seven layers of flooring in the Wheelwrights’ Shop at The Historic Dockyard Chatham. Here the massive ship components can be seen crammed into the floor cavity. There is far more timber than a new floor required, so why is it there?
Creating a level floor in the Wheelwrights’ Shop has been a challenge ever since it was constructed in around 1786. Occupying an awkward plot that slopes downhill to the north and west, towards the River Medway, the building also overlay a filled-in extension to one of the dockyard pickling ponds. This former pool, dug so that timbers below left A wad of oakum, a waterproofing agent made of rope fibres, goat hair, and pitch, hangs from one of the thick floorboards. This identifies it as part of the ship’s hull planking. below right The curving ship’s futtocks, which formed its ribs, were too small to span the space between the brick foundations of the Wheelwrights’ Shop. But, despite being functionally redundant to the new floor, they were carefully inserted between the longer deck beams. Note the scarf joint on the central deck beam, used to extend the length of timbers too short to span the hull on their own.
earmarked for use as ship masts could be seasoned in brine, left a platform of gradually settling earth. Excavation using small test pits established that the ship parts within the Wheelwrights’ Shop did not belong to its original phase. Instead they were part of a major refurbishment, dated by archive research to 1834. A key element of this upgrade was installing a robust new floor.
On the face of it, cannibalising ship timbers to create a level interior within the Wheelwrights’ Shop was a practical approach to recycling a decommissioned vessel. Huge oak beams were carefully inserted into the building’s
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