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Brunel Sawmills, Chatham Dockyard

A Scheduled Monument in River, Medway

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Latitude: 51.3956 / 51°23'44"N

Longitude: 0.5311 / 0°31'51"E

OS Eastings: 576176.97992

OS Northings: 169327.917707

OS Grid: TQ761693

Mapcode National: GBR PPP.H2H

Mapcode Global: VHJLV.553Y

Entry Name: Brunel Sawmills, Chatham Dockyard

Scheduled Date: 19 September 1969

Last Amended: 22 April 2005

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1021286

English Heritage Legacy ID: 22782

County: Medway

Electoral Ward/Division: River

Built-Up Area: Gillingham

Traditional County: Kent

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Kent

Church of England Parish: Gillingham St Mark

Church of England Diocese: Rochester


The monument includes the Brunel Sawmills, a Grade I Listed building situated
on the eastern edge of Chatham Dockyard. The sawmills were constructed in
1812-14 to a design by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and feature a
series of steam-powered sawmills housed in a central single-storey building,
with a two-storey block containing offices at each end. The west block,
which was later extended to the north, also housed the steam engine, and has
a tall brick chimney at its southern end; the roofs of both blocks take the
form of iron water tanks which served the boiler. The sawmills went out of
use after the decline in the demand for timber for shipbuilding in the late
19th century, and the building was partly reused as the dockyard laundry and
store. Extensions to the north and south west sides of the west block are
believed to date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In order to
accommodate the sawmills, the dockyard was extended to the east with a new
surrounding wall constructed; the line of the former 18th century dockyard
wall falling within the scheduled area.
Brunel's design for the sawmills included the construction of a canal for
floating timber to the sawmills from the South Mast Pond, 150m to the north
west. The South Mast Pond is scheduled separately. The canal was built
between 1812 and 1814, extending from the South Mast Pond towards the
sawmills situated on a hill to the south east. Adjacent to the South Mast
Pond it took the form of an open channel, now infilled, and was then carried
under the road; for the most part, however, it was contained in an
underground brick-lined tunnel cut into the side of the hill, terminating in
a vertical brick-lined shaft of elliptical plan through which the timber was
finally raised. The machinery which lifted the timber was powered by the
same steam engine that powered the sawmills. From the shaft the timber was
carried to a storage area (the stackyard) north of the sawmills on an
overhead railway, also by steam power. The remains of most of this machinery
is no longer evident, although parts may survive inside the infilled shaft.
The full extent of the tunnel is included in the scheduling.
The central sawmills building is a brick-built structure with cast iron
columns and beams. It is of square plan, measuring approximately 29 sq m,
with openings on the north and south sides which are now closed and partly
glazed. The sawmills machinery was contained in this central structure,
where pairs of vertical iron frames extended from basement to ground floor
level, where they supported a series of reciprocating saw-frames. The
machinery was connected to the steam engine at basement level. The first
24-horsepower steam engine was replaced in the 1820s by a 36-horsepower
engine, and some of the machinery was replaced after a fire in 1854. While
the steam engine and much of the machinery was removed when the sawmills went
out of use, the large vertical frames still survive.
Other features associated with the use of the building as a sawmills include
a series of wooden offices at gallery level within the central building, and,
adjacent to the south west of the building, a rectangular raised yard with a
vaulted basement beneath. At the eastern end of the yard is a series of
small outbuildings beneath a ramp running from the shaft area to the north.
These features are believed to be associated with the transport and storage
of timber at the site and with the operation of the water system which
powered the machinery.
In the 20th century the tunnel connecting the sawmills with the South Mast
Pond was adapted for use as a civil defence communications centre, first
during World War II and subsequently in the early Cold War period. While the
open canal at the north end of the tunnel and the shaft at the south end were
infilled, the bottom of the tunnel was partly filled with loose material and
covered with a concrete floor. The whole of the upper part of the tunnel,
and part of the lower level, were fitted with a series of brick-walled
chambers, separated by alternating interval entrances, rising to ground level
via a series of staircases, now blocked. In the southern part of the tunnel,
staircases led downwards to a control room at the lower level. Some internal
fittings associated with the communications centre survive, including blast
doors, desks, wall charts and telephonic equipment.
All modern surfacing, fencing, kerbs and street furniture, and the modern
brick wall on the south west side of the raised yard south of the sawmill are
excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is
included. The 20th century entrances to the tunnel, associated with its use
as a communications centre, are however, included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Before the introduction of sawmills, all timber at the royal naval dockyards
was cut by hand. Timber was delivered to the yard as logs and sawn into
planks at specially constructed sawpits, in which two sawyers, one in the pit
(the pitman) and one outside it (the topman), cut the timber with a
two-handed saw. Sawpits were usually rectangular and brick-lined, often
grouped together in single-storey, open-sided wooden sheds (sawhouses). They
were sometimes incorporated into the ground floor of larger structures, such
as storehouses, where they were also open-sided. Before the development of
iron warships in the 19th century, all naval dockyards needed high numbers of
sawpits and sawyers to provide sufficient quantities of wood for
shipbuilding. In 1787 there were 100 sawyers at Chatham Dockyard, which at
that time was the principal shipbuilding yard of the Royal Navy.
Marc Brunel was responsible for designing, at Chatham, the first of a new
generation of sawmills. Brunel calculated that approximately two-thirds of
timber was suitable for machine sawing, so that, although some sawpits would
still be required, significant labour costs could be saved if machine sawing
could be conducted on a sufficiently large scale. His design for the
sawmills incorporated sawing machines made of iron, in which a single
saw-frame could have up to seven vertical saw-blades attached to it. The
combination of the sawmills building with a system for transporting timber to
it by water ensured that the timber arrived cleaner than if dragged over
ground, as had been the practice until then, resulting in greater effciency
in the sawing process.
The Sawmills at Chatham Dockyard is one of the oldest extant sawmills in the
country and represents a unique design. Despite a variety of continued uses
for nearly 200 years, there has been relatively little alteration to the
sawmills building and many early features survive, including the vertical
iron saw-frames. The tunnel and shaft system designed for the transport of
timber from the South Mast Pond is unique and survives in remarkably good
condition. Infilling of the shaft will have preserved buried features, while
the adaptation of the tunnel during the 20th century as a civil defence
communications centre has resulted in the rare preservation of structures and
artefacts from that period. The monument thus preserves standing and buried
remains representing over 300 years of military and industrial history.

Source: Historic England

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