Although the dockyard has long been closed and is now being redeveloped, into a business and residential community, its major buildings remain; so that, in addition to that more modern usage, the historical importance of the dockyard makes an important contribution to the tourist industry. In addition to Chatham being a naval town it also has military connections: several Army barracks were located here, together with 19th-century forts which provided a defensive shield for the dockyard. The town has important road links and the railway and bus stations are the main interchanges for the area. It is the administrative headquarters of Medway unitary authority, as well as its principal shopping centre.
It remained a small village on the banks of the river until, by the 16th century it was being used to harbour warships, because of its strategic location facing the Continent. It was officially established as a Royal Dockyard by Elizabeth I in 1568. Initially a refitting base, it became a shipbuilding yard; from then, until the late nineteenth century, further expansion of the yard took place. In its time, many thousands of men were employed at the dockyard, and many hundreds of vessels were launched there, including HMS Victory which was built there in the 1760s. After World War One many submarines were also built in Chatham Dockyard.
In addition to the dockyard itself, defensive fortifications were built to protect it from attack. Upnor Castle had been built in 1567, but had proved ineffectual. The Dutch Raid on the Medway in 1667, showed that more was required. The fortifications, which became more elaborate as the threat of invasion grew, were begun in 1756 as a complex across the neck of the peninsula formed by the bend in the River Medway, and included Fort Amherst. The threat of a land-based attack from the south during the 19th century led to the construction of even more forts.
The second phase of fort-building (1806-1819) included Fort Pitt (later used as a hospital and the site of the first Army Medical School). The 1859 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom ordered, inter alia, a third outer ring of forts: these included Fort Luton , Fort Bridgewood, and Fort Borstal. These fortifications all required military personnel to man them and Army barracks to house those men. These included Kitchener Barracks (c 1750-1780), the Royal Marine Barracks (c 1780). Brompton Artillery Barracks (1806) and Melville Barracks. H.M.S. Collingwood and H.M.S. Pembroke were both naval barracks.
As a result of the huge manpower required the small village of Chatham grew to accommodate it, as did many of the other nearby villages and towns. Trams, and later buses, linked those places to bring in the workforce .The area between the High Street and Luton village illustrates part of that growth, with its many streets of Victorian terraces.
The importance of Chatham dockyard gradually reduced as Britain's naval resources were reduced or move to other locations, and eventually, in 1984, it closed completely. The dockyard buildings remained, to become a historic site (operated by Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust), and now being considered as a World Heritage Site the site is being used for other purposes. Part of the St Mary's Island section is now used as a marina, and the remainder is being developed for housing, commercial and other uses..
The Medway Council has recently relocated its main administration building to Gun Wharf, the site of the earliest part of the Dockyard.
Chatham is situated where the lower part of the dip slope of the North Downs meets the River Medway which at this point is flowing in a south-north direction. This gives the right bank, where the town stands, considerable advantages from the point of view of river use. Compared with opposite bank, the river is fast-flowing and deep; the illustration (1), an early print of the settlement, is taken from the point where Fort Pitt now stands. The town lies below at river level, curving round to occupy a south-easterly trending valley (The Brook”), in which lies the High Street. Beyond the dockyard is marshy land, now called St Mary’s Island. The New Road crosses the scene below the vantage point of the illustration.
Illustration (2) is taken from the opposite side of the valley: the Pentagon Centre is to the right, with the building on the ridge left of centre, Fort Pitt. Rochester lies beyond that ridge; and Frindsbury is on the rising ground in the right distance.
The valley continues southeastwards as the Luton Valley, in which is the erstwhile village of that name; and Capstone Valley. The Darland Banks, the northern slopes of the valley above these valleys, are unimproved chalk grassland. The photograph (3), taken from the Banks and looking south, shows the village in the centre, with the rows of Victorian terraced housing, which unusually follow the contour lines. The opposite slopes are the ‘’Daisy Banks’’ and ‘’Coney Banks’’, along which some of the defensive forts were built (including Fort Luton, in the trees to the left)
Until the start of the 20th century, most of the south part of the borough was entirely rural, with a number of farms and large tracts of woodland. The beginning of what is now ‘’Walderslade’’ was when a speculative builder began to build the core of the village in Walderslade Bottoms. .
Chatham's position on the road network began with the building of the Roman road (Watling Street, which passed through the town. Turnpike trusts were established locally, so that the length from Chatham to Canterbury was turnpiked in 1730; and the Chatham to Maidstone road (nowA230) was also turnpiked before 1750. The High Street was bypassed in 1769, by the New Road (see illustration (1)) leading from the top of Star Hill Rochester, to the bottom of Chatham Hill at Luton Arches. This also became inadequate for the London Cross-channel traffic and the Medway Towns Bypass, the M2 motorway, was constructed to divert through traffic south of the Medway Towns.
Chatham is the hub of the Medway Towns. This fact means that the existing road system has always proved inadequate for the amount of traffic it has to handle, and various schemes have been tried to alleviate the congestion. The High Street itself is traffic-free, so all traffic has to skirt around it. The basic west-east routes are The Brook to the north and New Road to the south, but the additional problems caused by the situation of the Pentagon Bus Station ("The Pentagon") means that conflicting traffic flows are the result. In the 1980s the Chatham town centre was remodelled and an inner ring road - a one-way system - was constructed. This was completed with the construction of the Sir John Hawkins Flyover opened in 1989 carrying the south to north traffic over the High Street.
Chatham railway station, opened in 1858, serves both the North Kent and the Chatham Main Lines, and is the interchange between the two lines. It lies in the valley between the Fort Pitt and the Chatham Tunnels. There are four trains an hour to London Victoria, and two trains an hour to London Charing Charing Cross. The former services run to Dover and Ramsgate; the latter terminate at Gillingham.
Part of the industrial railway in what is now Chatham Historic Dockyard is still in operation, run by the North Kent Industrial Locomotive Society.
St Michael's is a Roman Catholic Church, that was built in 1863. There is a Unitarian Chapel built in 1861.
Chatham is reputed to be the home of the first Baptist chapel in north Kent, the Zion Baptist Chapel in Clover Street. The first known pastor was Edward Morecock who settled there in the 1660s. During Cromwell's time Morecock had been a sea-captain and had been injured in battle. His knowledge of the River Medway is reputed to have preserved him from persecution in the reign of King Charles II. There was a second Baptist chapel founded about 1700. The Ebenezer Chapel dates back to 1662.
Chatham Memorial Synagogue was built by Simon Magnus in 1867 on the Chatham end of Rochester High Street in Rochester.
Chatham is served by the following Primary Schools.
Secondary Education, outside the Catholic Sector, is selective. Many pupils attend schools in neighbouring towns.
The town's Association Football club, Chatham Town F.C., plays in the Isthmian League Division One South. Lordswood F.C. play in the Kent League. The defunct Chatham Excelsior F.C. were one of the early pioneers of football in Southern England. Football league side Gillingham F.C. are seen to represent Medway as a whole.
Kite Flying, especially power kiting has seen a resurgence in recent months, with the Great Lines becoming a popular area.
It is claimed by some, that Chatham is the birthplace of "chav" subculture. The "Chav Culture" in Chatham and around the Medway Towns, included the wearing of gold jewellery, shell-suits and earrings. This was first evident from a website about "Chatham Girls" (immortalized in a song by Mark Taylor), which received a huge amount of media interest. The website was so popular it was pulled by Geocities for exceeding its bandwidth.
On a cultural level Chatham also gave birth to several movements in literature, art and music. In the period from 1977 until 1982 the Medway Delta Sound emerged. A term coined as a joke by Chatham born writer. painter and musician Billy Childish after Russ Wilkins Medway based record label, Empire Records used the term "from the Medway Delta". Several of these bands gained international recognition e.g. The Milkshakes, The Prisoners (see also James Taylor Quartet), The Dagger Men, The Dentists, Christopher Broderick and The Singing Loins. In recent years other artists have appeared such as Pete Molinari. The Medway Poets were formed in 1977 and disbanded in 1982 having performed at major literary festivals and on TV and Radio. They became a major influence to writers in the Medway Towns. From the core of this group the anti conceptual/pro painting movements of Stuckism and Remodernism came into being.
Recent Medway artists of note include Kid Harpoon and Underground Heroes.
Charles Dickens lived in the town as a boy, both in 'The Brook, Chatham' and in Ordnance Terrace before Chatham railway station was built just opposite. He subsequently described it as the happiest period of his childhood, and eventually returned to the area in adulthood when he bought a house in nearby Gad's Hill. Medway features in his novels.
Twice BDO World Championship Darts Finalist Dave Whitcombe was born in Chatham and continues to live in Sittingbourne.
The composer Percy Whitlock (1903-1946); the painter and killer Richard Dadd (1819-1887); and, in more modern times, the artist/poet/musician Billy Childish and poet/painter/storyteller and mythographer Bill Lewis lived in Chatham. The poet/screenwriter/film maker and writer Alan Denman , was a lecturer at the Kent Institute of Art & Design (KIAD) at Fort Pitt in Rochester. The Brit artist Tracey Emin and designer Zandra Rhodes were KIAD students. KIAD is now part of the University College for the Creative Arts (UCCA). Emin also lived at Castle Road, Rochester and in Chatham. The author and screenwriter Stel Pavlou also attended Chatham Grammar School for Boys, as did boyband-singer Lee Ryan.
Former captain of League of Ireland team Bohemian FC Kevin Hunt was also born in Chatham. In his time at Bohemians he won two league titles, including a FAI Cup double in the 2000/01 season and collecting the League's Player of the Year Award in 2003.