Category Archives: History

The Dutch in the Medway, by PG Rogers

The Dutch burn English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 1667)(Jan van Leyden, 1669)

People are getting quite excited about Medway Council’s commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Raid on the Medway, which includes a series of events leading up to fireworks on the 17th June.

Perhaps the most excited group are Dutch yachties, who have long since booked up every space in local marinas and moorings. I expect the Medway’s creeks will be nearly as busy as the waterside that evening.

The battle itself was actually a huge humiliation for the English Navy and a daring, in some ways lucky, but carefully calculated success on the part of the Dutch United Provinces navies. There are some interesting short videos to watch on YouTube (one here and one here),  but if you really want to understand what happened at Sheerness, in Gillingham Reach and off Upnor Castle (and what is now Chatham Marina, Seaforth Publishing has just released PG Rogers’ classic work on the topic, The Dutch in the Medway.

Nab it quick, I say, while it remains on offer, for as well as explaining the background and aftermath, its chapters describing the action is as gripping as it is fascinating – even more so if you’re a North Kent sailor and know the Medway.

It’s really essential reading ahead of an event that will be a celebration for the Dutch (who call the battle ‘The Trip to Medway’). For the British it’s a bit more complicated – I’m expecting both a celebration of how our nations now get along well, but also a moment for commemoration and quiet thought about how such a national humiliation was allowed to happen. My take, which won’t surprise many who know me, is that we should never place too much trust in government decision making or propaganda.

The background was the second Anglo-Dutch war, which was sparked by continuing rivalry over trade and anger over the torture and the killing of nine British traders at the island of Amboyna by the Dutch.

In the period before the Medway, the second Anglo-Dutch war was generally thought in England to be coming to an end: there had been battles and now peace negotiations were taking place at  Breda.

But it was also a time when state finances were at a very low ebb, military procurement badly managed and payment very slow, Navy vessels unmanned, slow progress in building military defences, and a very small army, and a King who was apparently more interested in the fun of court life than the affairs of state. It was, you might think, just the right moment for a Dutch military intervention aimed at influencing the outcome of the Breda talks.

Intervene they did – and this is what Rogers describes so well.

With the help of various disillusioned English seamen and military officers, the Dutch sailed up the Thames, took Sheerness and then, aided by a handy NE breeze, sailed up the Medway for two fierce engagements in the narrow waters off Gillingham and Chatham involving cannon fire, fireships, the destruction of a defensive chain, and boardings of English ships defended by unarmed men – some of whom, not surprisingly, chose to escape rather than face certain defeat and very likely death in an unequal fight.

The second battle occurred three days later – but by this point the British defence had been strengthened, and the attackers were subjected to heavy cannon fire. The Dutch did not reach and destroy the Chatham shipyards, probably partly because the narrowness of the channel (making navigation difficult, perhaps particularly with a NE wind) and because a number of ships had been deliberately sunk to narrow the channel.

By this point a great deal of damage had been done to bthe English Navy’s vessels, its reputation and pride. Ships had been sunk or burned, and the big and symbolic Royal Charles (previously it had been the ship that brought Charles II to England) had been captured. There were attempts at propaganda belittling the Dutch victory, but it seems to have been difficult to hide the truth of a defeat so close to London.

And it wasn’t over yet – the Dutch continued to ply the Thames Estuary, preventing cargo ships from delivering good such as coal to London, and terrifying the folks of capital, who by now were half sure that the Army and Navy were in no state to protect them from the apparently fearless, well led and well informed Dutch, who had gained considerable respect.

It’s perhaps a minor point, but even the feat of  getting the half-rigged Royal Charles down the shallow Medway and safely back to Amsterdam was seen as a great achievement. Once there she was put on show as a prize, which naturally caused great anger in England.

My assessment is straightforward. The Dutch in the Medway is well worth reading, perhaps particularly at a time when we’re reconsidering our role as a trading nation and our relations with the rest of Europe.

Sheerness Dockyard Church wins lottery funding

Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust (SDPT) officials have won a £4.75m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant to rescue and re-purpose the Grade II* listed former Dockyard Church at Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey. (Photos © Matthew Andrews)

To be specific, the trust has received a round 1 pass from HLF for a heritage enterprise grant, which unlocks £500,000 of development funding, with a further £4.2m becoming available on the successful completion of the development phase. Over the coming months the Trust will be appointing a professional team and embarking on
£200,000 of urgent works (joint-funded by Historic England and Heritage Lottery Fund) to secure the fabric of the building.

The aim is to repurpose the Dockyard Church to include a new enterprise centre (including facilities and support for young people starting businesses) and a permanent display space for one of the great wonders of British naval history, a vast model of Sheerness Dockyard created in the early 19th century and measuring 40ft square when fully assembled.

SDPT chair William Palin said the grant represented a great moment for the Dockyard Church. ‘This is a building which just a few years ago appeared to be on the brink of collapse, with no future and no hope, standing as a melancholy reminder of the changing fortunes of this once proud naval Dockyard and community. Now it will become the focus of major investment to restore its dignity and give it a new future at the heart of the life in the region. At the end of the project, its monumental classical portico will once
again give entry to a building bustling with life.’

‘Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, 14 July-7 January

The NMM is hosting a major exhibition exploring the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew on their final expedition including 200 objects from the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) and the Inuit Heritage Trust alongside finds from expedition ship HMS Erebus, which was found in 2014.

I think it will be stunning.

The story of Franklin’s expedition is a tremendous one. The expedition set from the Thames on 19 May 1845 in two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to find the a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The expedition was last seen by European eyes in July 1845, in Baffin Bay. After two years passed in which nothing was heard of the men the first of a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them. In all, between 1847 and 1880, over thirty search expeditions were mounted.

Urged by Lady Jane Franklin, Parliament and the British press, the Admiralty dispatched expeditions both overland and by sea and in 1850 offered a substantial reward for news of the expedition or for assisting its crew.

Over the next 30 years, news and relics, such as tin cans, snow goggles and cutlery filtered back to Britain. They showed that the entire crew had died through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation, and theories about cannibalism and madness brought on by lead poisoning.
In 1859 a piece of paper, known as the Victory Point Note (on display as part of the exhibition) was found that bore the date of Sir John Franklin’s death – 11th June, 1847.

Forensic anthropologist Dr Owen Beattie’s expeditions from the early 1980s onwards found evidence of lead poisoning, probably caused by lead in the expdition’s tinned food. The submerged wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada in 2014 and then HMS Terror in 2016.

The exhibition includes the role of Inuit in uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition, including Inuit oral histories and Inuit artefacts, including some incorporating materials of European origin, which were traded from explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships, will also be on display.