Here’s a question for you. True or false? The Dutch Navy once sailed into British waters and destroyed a good part of the British Navy, captured the English flagship and occupied a British town.
Well, yes it is true. During the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War, in the summer of 1667, the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Ruyter sailed from the Channel and up the River Medway in Kent. They burned the fleet, captured Sheerness and captured two British vessels. The Dutch success came as a result of their daring combined with British mistakes, laxity and the downright treason of a couple of Medway pilots who guided the Dutch. In Netherlands this event is known as the Battle of the Medway. Here we downgrade it to the Chatham Raid! Dutch pupils learn about the event in school and many visit Chatham to see where it took place. Where you will not find any mention of this event, nor indeed any other naval or maritime history is on the National Curriculum. I know, of course, that the curriculum in English schools is fairly wide ranging and should teachers wish, maritime history can be slotted in to one of the areas of study. However, as a nation of islanders, we British are generally not well-informed about our maritime past. Throughout our history we have sailed; we have fished, we have defended our home and been the aggressor abroad, we have explored and raced and taken the ferry to our holidays or a new life somewhere else. One of our iconic landmarks can only be seen from the sea – from land the White Cliffs of Dover are yellow and grey but viewed from the deck of a ship in the channel, they are most definitely white!
Thankfully we do have many great maritime museums and collections. From Chatham Historic Dockyard (where I first learned about the Chatham Raid when I became Collections Manager there) to the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide to anyone of the RNLI Heritage Trust museums around our coast there are as many museums as there are types of maritime experience and life. There is also a fleet of historic vessels from HMS Belfast and SS Great Britain to the less well-known and glamorous but no less important workhorses of the sea such as Advance – formerly the Victualling Inshore Craft 24 or the Steam Drifter, Lydia Eva. And you don’t want to get me started on Lighthouses or inland waterways… These museums do more than preserve stories of a past way of life, they keep alive trades, skills and traditions. So next time you’re at the coast, make a point of checking out your local maritime museum.
I think it would be fitting to end where we began, back in Chatham. In the 1990s, the Dockyard Trust discovered buried under the floor of an old workshop, what appeared to be the complete skeleton of an 18th century ship. The mystery of why the ship was buried instead of timbers being reused or destroyed as was usual, we may never know but we do finally know that the ship was the Namur, an important naval vessel on which anti-slavery pioneer Olaudah Equiano once served. The Dockyard Trust is raising funds for a conservation project on the Namur. If you want to help or find out more about another bit of our naval history you might not know, have a look here www.chdt.org.uk