Report - - Marc Brunel Sawmill Tunnels & Communications Bunker, Chatham Dockyard - Nov 2016 | Underground Sites | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Report - Marc Brunel Sawmill Tunnels & Communications Bunker, Chatham Dockyard - Nov 2016


Flaxenation of the G!!!
Regular User
Marc Brunels Sawmill - An Engineering Monument.

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.

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.

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.

The Explore

This had been something on the list for as many years as I could remember and I had spoken about it to a few local explorers over the years. To Be honest we didnt really know the state of play with the dockyard and was always informed that we wouldnt even get close to the sawmill. I spoke to @wicker man and mentioned the place and the history and it was something I definately wanted to take a look at. A week later he has some plans and a rough idea of where we can try to get in. We went for a reccy and before we knew it we were past security and in the grounds of the dockyard beside an old entrance and as luck would have it, it didnt take us long to work out a way in. Inside the tunnels were mint and the lower level which houses the communications bunker was a typical example of how sexual medways underground millitary history can be. I had only seen a single collection of photos from the place from around 10 years ago but they were poor quality and were wit a permision visit.

I held off posting the place but it soon had the usual idiots visiting and went downhill and got facebooked but has now been sealed and preserved as work continues with the development of the dockyard buildings.

I give you the Sawmill tunnels of Chatham Dockyard :thumb











A Predisposed Tourist
Regular User
Nicely lit as per mate :thumb Had heard about the place but dont remember seeing any recent pics of the place so its nice to see them on here


Flaxenation of the G!!!
Regular User
Saw this plastered all over Facebook around Christmas time, I wondered what it was! Looks great, your phoros are superb.
Thanks mate, yeah exactly that. One person in those groups gets wind of something and it's all whored around and visited in the masses. Oh how we love Facebook haha