Chatham was one of the three main Royal Navy dockyards in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Up until 1897 men waiting to be transferred to ships were kept in hulks moored on the River Medway. This was obviously far from ideal and in 1897 work began on purpose built barracks for personnel awaiting transfer to a ship. Completed in 1902, the barracks were designed by Colonel Henry Pilkington. Today we have a postcard depicting part of this barrack complex:
The barracks were known as HMS Pembroke and remained in use as one of the three big manning bases until after the Second World War. In 1957, the barracks and gunnery school were closed due to the local port divisions being replaced; however in 1959 the barracks re-opened as the Royal Naval Supply School, who trained staff in supply and secretarial work. When the Commander-in-Chief, The Nore, the regional operational commander appointment, was discontinued in March 1961, the barracks were being used as an accommodation centre for the re-fitting crews of the dockyard. The Drill Shed and Canteen were being used by the Dockyard. In 1970, all Naval establishments in Chatham were to be combined together and known as HM Navy Base, under one officer ‘Flag Officer, Medway and Port Admiral’. With the closure of the Dockyard and Naval Base in 1984 HMS Pembroke was also decommissioned; the barracks gates were finally closed on 31 March 1984.
One sailor who spent time at HMS Pembroke describes the barracks in the mid 1950s:
The Block at the eastern end housed the Barrack Guard and the Laundry and was… There were beds then but hooks and stowages remained and some of those in transit had to use hammocks. What I also remember is the outside lower walls of that block had a red paint/wash that permanently stained anything it came into contact with. My hammock bore witness to that for the rest of its life.
There were six large Blocks built that were given the names of admirals ‘Anson’, ‘Blake’, ‘Drake’, ‘Grenville’, ‘Hawke’ and ‘Nelson’. Dave Jefferson, there in 1957/8, tells me ‘Anson’ block housed seaman and ‘Grenville’ held electricians, including him, undergoing Part 2 training in the Electrical School which was housed behind the Main Gate Block. They were modernised and towards the end of the fifties some, as I recall, had four rows – front to back of block – of two-tier beds with wash rooms, including baths, and heads at each end of the block and stair wells in the centre as well as each end.
Michael Warr also spent time in the barracks of HMS Pembroke:
Chatham Barracks was more than the buildings we see. As I mentioned it was our depot from where we went to and from the ships in the Chatham Command . It was a place where we came across old shipmates and those back from foreign lands talking about places we had never been. “Old timers” had tattoos and wore light colour collars. In time it would be our turn to emulate them. We all went ashore in uniform. The best that Bernards could provide complete with white silk scarf and a tiddly bow. A pussers holdall was a must in place of the small issue attache case. Whatever, we wore had to look ‘pusser’ when running the gauntlet of the main gate. Gentlemen in white belts and gaiters were there to ensure that the leave party were turned out correct – Then of course we all had rabbitts. Perfume or Nylons for the girlfriend and maybe some ticklers for mother. Nothing more than the allotted allowance. The Naafi shop had lots of brass and copper trinkets made in the barracks. Tea caddy spoons with HMS Pembroke on the handle and framed pictures of Nelson. The run ‘up the line’ to the ‘smoke’ was easy Many long distance lorry drivers would always give “Jack” a lift. One of our ‘communicators’ had an ancient Rolls Royce into which we all piled for the run ashore. There were also some motor bikes and with luck you could be in the ‘smoke’ before the train got to Charing Cross. .
The drill shed was as stated a place where drilling could still be carried out in inclement weather. Divisions were often held in there too. It was a place where one laid out kit for inspection and where one commenced joining and drafting routines. There was also the “Anti-Gas Training Unit” A mobile unit stationed up at one end of the drill shed. On Navy Days, many static displays were put on show in the drill shed. I have a photograph of a communication group together – all in “Blues”, Cap tallies with the single “HMS” and no ship’s name.
On Divisions days a command was given for Roman Catholics to fall out. They doubled away behind the Drill Shed and had their own church service, or so I believe. On the order Roman Catholics fall in, they in turn had also finished and doubled back How did they find their rightful places amongst the other 1500 still on parade? Other than the R.C’s the remainder stood fast and enjoyed the Chaplains service. The highlight of divisions was of course the Royal Marine band. If it was incidental music we knew that someone, somewhere was doing the inspection. With luck they were down ‘the other end’.
Back to the blocks again. Between some of the blocks davits had been fitted complete with ship’s whaler or cutter. There the fundamentals of lowering and raising a ships boat were taught.
Ships damage control and the firing range were all at Sheerness an enjoyable day out down the Medway. There were many ships on the trot and destroyers and minesweepers were triple banked on both sides of the river. At one time I had a job carrying out radio modifications to these so called dead ships.
Although the barracks closed in 1984, they still exist and have a new life as part of a university campus and still look in fine condition: