It is like most seaports, a long narrow, disagreeable, ill-built town, the houses in general occupied by those trades adapted to the commerce of the shipping and seafaring person, the Victualling Office, and the two breweries being the only tolerably built houses in it. – Hasted (1798).
THE FIRST FIRE
The year 1800 brought to Chatham a period of extraordinary fine weather. The summer months of May and June saw days of endless sunshine and hardly a drop of rain. Yet such weather could hardly have been welcomed. The effect on the central residential area would have been quite unbearable. In the many small, poorly built and ill-ventilated houses that made up the township of Chatham, the occupants suffered greatly. Once they closed the outside door behind them, they were immersed in the fetid and malodorous environment that such housing created. In the summer of 1800 it was made ten times worse by the unusually high temperatures.
Nor did the streets provide any form of respite. Lacking a heavy downpour, they were infrequently cleaned. In particular, the gutters and side walks were tainted with foul-smelling human effluent and other indescribable deposits. No surprisingly, the danger of disease wad rife. In that year, the burial registers recorded 442 deaths. This represented a death rate of approximately forty in every thousand and so made Chatham one of the unhealthiest towns in Kent. The average life expectancy of those living in the town was no more than 30 years.
This long spell of hot weather brought other concerns. Many of the houses built in central Chatham were of timber construction: as each day passed, the lack of rain endangered the combustible nature of the building material. The slightest accident, be it from an unattended candle or a misused tinder-box, might lead to an uncontrollable fire. Already, once in that year, the threat had become near-reality when, towards the end of May, a new iron foundry had caught fire. That the conflagration had not spread was due to the foundry being next to the victualling yard. Those employed within the naval establishment had reacted to the danger, rapidly bringing their engines to the scene. Although the foundry was entirely destroyed, the fire was prevented from spreading.
On the Last day of June, however, the town was not so fortunate. Shortly before Mid-day, a serious fire broke out in a small warehouse that stood behind the High Street and immediately adjacent to the river. The contents of the warehouse, a highly combustible combination of oakum, cordage and hemp, burst into flames, with the entire building soon engulfed. Everything seemed to favour the fire. The warehouse was of timber construction and newly coated with tar, while surrounding houses were also of timber and bone dry as a result of the recent hot weather. The fire broke out about an hour before the ebb tide, and it was virtually impossible for the arriving fire engines to draw water. Furthermore, a number of hoys, which were tied to a nearby quay, were unable to escape and were also caught in the conflagration.
Over the next three hours, nearly one hundred buildings on both the north and south sides of the High Street were completely destroyed by the fire. Over a hundred people were forced to flee the blaze, most of them taking to the adjoining fields and roads for safety. Here, also, were brought various items of furniture and other belongings, many of them snatched from the flames that were ready to engulf any precious belongings.
That the fire was eventually brought under control was once again due to the Navy's presence in the area. From the dockyard, Commissioner Hartwell dispatched all of the yard fire engines together with numerous butts of water. He also released the entire workforce, arming them with pikes that they might help in the pulling down of buildings for the creation of a firebreak. Similarly, fire engines and butts of water were dispatched from the much nearer victualling yard. All these joined a hard-pressed parish engine and those belonging to the Best Company Brewery. Troops from the Marine and Chatham barracks were also ordered to the scene, many of them helping in the task of removing furniture from houses threatened by the fire. They also formed a guard that prevented the less scrupulous from stealing these same items of property. Unfortunately, theft during a fire was quite common, those involved knows as 'fire priggers'.
Loss of life was mercifully small. Unfortunately, though, there were four victims. Among them was a servant to the influential Best family, William Bassett, who, despite entreaties and remonstrances, rushed back to his burning house to collect some money he had left. It was at this point that the house collapsed, and Bassett was buried under the ruins. Elsewhere, after the fire has subsided, a Mrs, Dunk and her babe in arms were killed by a chimney that fell from the roof of a fire-wrecked house.
The local community soon came to the aid of those who has suffered. While some had the fortune to be insured, the vast majority had nothing to fall back on. The fire had taken much of their wealth while leaving them homeless. From Chatham barracks, Major-General Hewett sent tents for those who had no other accommodation. These were pitched in a field adjoining New Road. Of particular significance was the holding of a public meeting some three days later. Here it was resolved that a committee should be established and a collection made 'for the immediate relief of the unfortunate sufferers'.
THE SECOND FIRE
It is only a short walk down the High Street before the area which was devastated by the fire is reached. Past the blackened remains of the destroyed properties, a large brick building is soon approached. This is Chatham House, erected by James Best in 1742 as a family dwelling. The construction of the house in this situation, on the edge of the family-owned brewery, reflected the owners' need to be permanently available to manage the expanding business.
Although Chatham House survived the fire (it was only slightly damaged), a second horrendous fire was responsible for its complete destruction. On 3 March 1820, a fire in a High Street bakehouse rapidly spread to a number of surrounding buildings. In all, a total of 34 dwellings and 13 warehouses, all located between Heavyside Lane and Manor Road, were entirely destroyed. In contrast to the earlier fire, a number of those who gave the appearance of helping to save property turned out to be fire priggers. One of them Lamont Wilson, a soldier from Chatham Barracks, was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment as a result of entering Chatham House and removing for his own purposes a razor case and looking glass. Several other individuals, similarly charged, found their names reported in a subsequent edition of the Kentish Gazette.
Following the fire of 1820, a committee of relief was again established, which gave consideration to the needs of those who had suffered. On this occasion, the committee consisted of 32 notables belonging to the parish. Included in this number was a certain John Dickens, a pay clerk in the dockyard. He had first moved to Chatham in 1817, having been transferred to the dockyard from Somerset House. His family moved into a recently built three-storey building that stood in Ordnance Terrace, with splendid views across the town of Chatham and towards the open land that made up the Lines.
In all, John Dickens had eight children, the second of whom was named Charles. This frail youngster was to grow into the nation's most famous novelist. Furthermore, it was the young boy's brief stay in the parish of Chatham that was to provide the future writer with a number of ideas that he packed into those novels. Of childhood games, for instance, such as those played in the cornfields (now the railway station) that stood opposite the family house, Charles Dickens later recalled:
Here, in the haymaking time had I been delivered from the dungeons of Seringapatam, an immense pile [of haycock], by my own countrymen, the victorious British (boy next door and his two cousins) and had been recognised with ecstasy by my affianced one (Miss Green), who had come all the way from England (second house in the terrace) to ransom me and marry me.
Other memories which Dickens took from Chatham, a town described by his friend and biographer, John Forster, as 'the birthplace pf his fancy', were the dingy and overcrowded streets, various horrific tales from the workhouse (including that of a boy who asked for more) and a general view of life in the dockyard. Great Expectations is a good example of the use to which he put some of these memories. Although not written until 1861, by which time Dickens had returned to the area after a long period of absence, there can be little doubt that the song 'Old Clem' had stuck in his mind since childhood visits to his father's dockyard office. It was, in fact a song once sung by the yard anchor smiths:
There was a song that Joe used to hum fragments at the forge, of which the burden was Old Clem. this was not a very ceremonious way of rendering a homage to a patron saint; but I believe Old Clem stood in that relation towards smiths. It was a song that imitated the measure of beating upon iron, and was a mere lyrical excuse for the introduction of Old Clem's respected name.
Thus, you were to hammer boys round - Old Clem!
With a thump and a sound - Old Clem!
Beat it out, beat it out - Old Clem!
With a clink for the stout - Old Clem!
Blow the fire, blow the fire - Old Clem!
Roaring drier, soaring higher Old Clem!
It is likely that Magwitch, the celebrated convict, also originated from these early dockyard days, for, as young Charles Dickens wandered freely around the yard, he would have come across a number of convicted felons whose sentence of hard labour had brought them to Chatham for the purpose of building a new dry dock.
The Dickens family were to live in Ordnance Terrace for about four years. In 1821, they were forced to find cheaper accommodation when John Dickens entered a period of financial crisis. In fact, he was quite incapable of handling money and would eventually be incarcerated in a debtors' prison. For this reason, John Dickens is usually regarded as the man upon whom the reckless spendthrift Wilkins Micawber was later to be modelled.
The second Chatham home of the Dickens family was 18 St Mary's Place. No longer in existence, having been demolished in 1943, it was a small cottage situated in the Brook. This was the poorest area in the whole of Chatham, the quality of life made worse by the existence nearby of a fetid stream (always referred to as the brook) which took most of the town's effluent.
Shortly after moving to St Mary's Place, Charles Dickens' father was recalled to the Navy Office in London, resulting in the future novelist to eventually bidding farewell to his boyhood home.