St George’s Centre, Chatham, and a Medway and Swale boat users’ conference

The St George’s Centre next to Chatham Dockyard is well worth a visit. Built in 1903 and previously a church known as St George’s Chapel, it has some nice arts-and-craft touches, but most of all it is a house of memorials that continue to make it sacred, even though the building has been deconsecrated.

Some very proud Naval ship names are commemorated here, as the plaques and glass included in my gallery shows, as well as a number of poignant memorials to individuals lost to their families – some remembered by brass plaques, others by a photocopied newspaper cutting in a small frame.

I was struck by two in particular. The first was the memorial to the sailors who lost their lives aboard when HMS Bulwark exploded at her moorings on the Medway in November 1914, apparently taking HMS Princess Irene with her. Here’s what the Wikipedia has to say about the terrible event:

‘A powerful internal explosion ripped Bulwark apart at 07:50 on 26 November 1914 while she was moored at Number 17 buoy in Kethole Reach, 4 nmi (4.6 mi; 7.4 km) west of Sheerness in the estuary of the River Medway. Out of her complement of 750, no officers and only 14 sailors survived, two of whom subsequently died of their injuries in hospital. Most of the survivors were seriously injured.

‘The only men to survive the explosion comparatively unscathed were those who had been in Number 1 mess-deck amidships, who were blown out of an open hatch. One of these men, Able Seaman Stephen Marshall, described feeling the sensation of “a colossal draught”, being drawn “irresistibly upwards”, and, as he rose in the air, clearly seeing the ship’s masts shaking violently.’

Mariners on the Medway still have avoid these wrecks today.

The second monument I noticed is behind the old chapel, and commemorates the lives of Napoleonic era French prisoners of war who died in captivity at Chatham. They were first buried on nearby marshes, but when erosion began to reveal the bodies they were reburied on St Mary’s Island in the Medway, and a memorial built by convict labour was placed there.

When in 1904 the Royal Navy planned to expand the Naval Base to cover St Mary’s Island, the 521 bodies were again reburied at St George’s Church, and that’s how this impressive monument arrived on its mound behind the church.

– My reason – and opportunity – to visit the St George’s Centre was the Medway and Swale Boating Association conference, which was also a regional RYA conference.

It was an interesting day, and no doubt it had everyone in the room thinking about the sailing season to come. The RYA’s people left me with a strong sense that our freedom to go boating is constantly under threat, often from well intentioned but ineffective or wrongheaded rules, and that persuading government departments and harbour masters is a great part of the organisation’s work.

Naturally, I will continue with my long-standing membership, despite some reservations about the way the organisation seems to present sailing as an activity exclusively for people with expensive new, modern plastic boats. (I think the perception that boating is necessarily expensive tends to discourage the public from taking it up.)

On the subject of regulations, it seems that the Swale will be covered by a conservation zone, but that the thrust of the conservation will be to maintain the area as it is – which hopefully is good news and will not overly restrict local sailing.

Representatives of Peel Ports discussed the levels of traffic to Medway and Swale ports, which has still not fully recovered from the big slump that followed the 2008/9 bank crisis, although it does look as if there will be more shipping traffic on the Swale during the coming year.

However, on the close-to-my-heart question of the ever-increasing amount of mud in Oare Creek, the Peel Ports folks were sympathetic but non-committal.

East Coast Pilot author Dick Holness, who also keeps his boat on Oare Creek and gave the conference an excellent presentation on local navigation matters, argued that Oare Creek is a largely man-made feature that is now on the way to returning to its original state as a stream running through Oare Marsh. I think he’s right.

He added that the 330-boat community on the Creek must surely be contributing significantly to the local economy, and argued, rather wistfully, that it would probably take only half an hour for a dredger to open up and straighten out the increasingly awkward U-bend at the junction between Faversham and Oare Creek.

I’ve posted a photo of the u-bend below – imagine navigating that in anything bigger than a rowing boat, if you will…

Dick also passed on the good news about the new large pontoon and new all-tide landing at Queenborough. I hope to be a visitor myself soon.

Author, weblogger and cruising sailor Nick Ardley (see his much fuller account of the conference here) took us on a fascinating but quickish canter round some of the still visible remains of old industries around the Medway and the Swale.

Some of it was familiar, some less so: the biggest surprise was perhaps the information that the now peaceful and remote island of Elmley once had a cement works, and a population of 200…

Nick’s presentation made me wonder whether there would be mileage in a local boat user’s wiki where local sailors and others could register and share information about local historical sites, nature and wildlife, what can be seen, access and so on.

For example, I’d love to know where Parker, the hanged leader of the Nore mutiny was initially buried, before his wife stole his body  and carried it to London for a decent church burial.

So how about it MSBA? Could something like that be a goer?

In the meantime, this Sheppey history site is rather good.


The Oare Creek u-bend


2 thoughts on “St George’s Centre, Chatham, and a Medway and Swale boat users’ conference”

    1. The Medway Queen folks haven’t replied to my message via their website, I’m afraid. I’m beginning to suspect that like many organisations there’s no-one watching their inbox. Gavin

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