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Over the years, I have been lucky enough to see and handle literally thousands of chairs. I have bought chairs and developed chairs in factories all over the world, and after a while, it becomes an all-consuming obsession. Before I get on to Baumann, there are a few things I need to explain about chairs.
Firstly, like a cotton shirt or a ceramic plate chairs have been around for a very, very, long time, I’m not sure we know who produced the first one, but perhaps it was simply a favourite rock or tree stump, the fact is weary legs drove the creative minds to come up with somewhere to rest. The second aspect stems from the first, since time in memoriam designers, producers and users have been designing and developing different chairs. It astounds me how for such a simple piece of practical furniture, the world can keep coming up with different designs for what is essentially somewhere to rest.

The design of chairs has of course been driven by the designs and fashions of the day and each design period has had its own very recognisable shape, whether that be the Chippendale chair of the 18th Century or the balloon back chair of the Victorians. And lastly, again related to all the above, the advance of chair design has usually been fuelled by the discovery of a new material or production process. The Bauhaus were the first to really exploit tubular metal in chair production, Eames applied the new material plywood and then fiberglass and so on.
And the last intriguing fact is that a good chair is often produced in vast volumes, think about it, every bottom needs a chair but say a group sits around a table (Oooh, think hotels, conferences, schools and the cash register starts ringing) then by ratio you always need more chairs to tables. So, a commercial designer is driven by the greed of unending chair royalties and the ‘fame’ that comes with a successful new design.

The long and the short of it is simply that every designer worth his or her salt wants to create a famous chair, it is the pinnacle of success both egotistically and financially to nail that successful chair design and have it produced in volume. Chairs have by default pretty much-driven furniture design since furniture design mattered. So, I guess that’s why I am a bit obsessed with vintage seating, they are a very good marker for the various fashions in furniture design and tend to represent the major milestones along the way. Don’t worry; we are getting closer to the Baumann story.


The Origins of Steam Bending

One of the major chair milestones was the industrialisation of the manufacturing process made by Thonet in the 19th Century. As the industrial revolution boomed, the demand for well-priced industrially produced furniture skyrocketed.

The first person to spot that opportunity was Michael Thonet when in the 1850’s he pioneered the process for steam bending beech, which ultimately made chairs both easier and more economical to produce but also allowed unseen before creativity in chair design. Thonet and his bentwood process facilitated the creation of arguably the most famous chair of all time chair, Number 14 – better known as the coffee shop chair. It is said that over fifty million of these chairs have been produced to date, and it is to this day still very successfully produced in large volumes.

The steam bending technique allowed for the industrial production of a chair for the first time ever. The second milestone of the chair was the fact that it could be disassembled into a few components allowing economies of scale in production akin to the capitalist observations of economist Adam Smith. The chair could thus also be exported globally in smaller economic packaging.

In the nineties, I had the privilege of going to an original Thonet factory in Czech and was captivated by the process, long lengths of thick beech perhaps 4cm by 5cm were super-heated in pressurised steam chambers. When they were ready, they were pulled out and ‘bent’ by the biggest and strongest workers you can imagine, around steel moulds to ‘form’ the various components of a bentwood chair. I could not believe it at first, these are thick heavy bits of timber almost as floppy as spaghetti after a few hours in a steam chamber. Next time you sit on a bentwood chair look at the seat section, the ring that circles the ply seat is bent from a single piece of beech, into a circle thirty centimetres diameter.

I labour this story because it was in itself the single most important driver of chair design for the following sixty or seventy years. Thonet was so successful that he required factories throughout Europe, often in Eastern Europe where Beech was readily available, and he set up a vast network of shops selling and distributing his chairs throughout the world. It was an empire, built on the simple invention of steam bending.



And this is where Baumann was born. When some of the Thonet patents expired, the market was swamped with competitive upstart’s keen to take a slice of the pie created by Thonet. Thonet had many competitors, amongst others, Fischel, Ton, Luterma and of course Baumann. Baumann was founded in 1901, by Swiss man Emile Baumann, in Colombier Fontaine, France. Baumann started producing a simple child’s chair ‘charette’ but grew rapidly to be a large bentwood producer cleverly marketing its brand as ‘the chairs of France’.

In time, Baumann had showrooms all over France, in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, but also in Algiers, Oran and Tunis. At its peak in the ’70s, it was producing nearly one million chairs a year. It was also well known as a family business with Emile’s sons Walter and Max working in the firm as it grew exponentially in the years after the war.

What Made Baumann So Successful?

In my view, there are several notable points that fuelled Baumann’s success.

Firstly, they produced some superb classic Bentwood chairs in the manner of Thonet; they were a large producer and supply for the almost endless demand from French cafes and restaurants for what was almost the ubiquitous chair of this period. Batches of these beautiful chairs still come up, often from restaurants where they have been used for years, yet they are still in immaculate condition.

One of the strengths of these chairs is they were very well designed for contract use, and the slight give in the underframe supports meant that rather than glue joint breaking over the years they had a little bit of inbuilt flexibility and if they did develop a bit of a wobble the chairs could be simply tightened up with a few basic tools. Literally hundreds of models existed, and alongside competition from Thonet, Fischel and Luterma (to name a few) these classic Baumann chairs invaded French culture from for most of the first half of the 20th Century.

At the same time, Baumann developed and sold a range of café dining tables, and the ones we love and seek out are the cast base versions from the twenties and thirties. The cast metal bases are heavy and beautifully made, and the classic Baumann shape is a swooping bell-shaped curved leg. Hard to find these days but worth hunting out.

And lastly, we get to what perhaps our article is all about, the golden period of Baumann in the late fifties and sixties. After the war, as the dust settled and a new modernist style emerged from Scandinavia, Baumann launched a series of absolutely stunning mid-century chairs, Scandinavian Mid Century in spirit but a classic French twist and a grace that few chair producers have matched to this day.

What Made Baumann Chairs The Understated Mid Century Icon?

The chairs were based around two basic constructions. The first was a simple round seat with slim tapered and protruding legs various back options. The most beautiful models from this period are the Mondor and the Dove. And the second was using laminated wood to create a curved seat and a curved back; this was by far the most successful for Baumann with many models using this construction, Fourmi, Mouette, Gentianne to name a few.

The laminated timber construction was not new, it was pioneered by Aalvar Allto for Artek and also used in England by Isokon. To produce the required shape, a male mould was created and then on to this several thicker layers of veneer (approximately 1.2mm) were layered, each layer being generously glued. Whilst still wet and flexible the ‘pile’ of veneers would be then pressed under vacuum pressure or press weight into (or onto) the mould and left to dry in that shape. When the glue dries, the veneers retain the moulded shape, and the shaped panels are then trimmed and finished and used in the chairs. Basically, the same construction as layered plywood but laid on a shaped, not flat, mould.

In this series of designs, Baumann used a formed laminated seat and back as a construction with subtle differences in design. The chairs were incredibly strong with the backs being beautifully bolt fixed to the bases (which also allowed them to be tightened as needed) and gracefully tapered legs fitted into strong subframes. I have been lucky to see hundreds of these chairs now, and the vast majority are in excellent structural shape despite often having served over fifty years’ service in restaurants or cafes.

In my view, these mid-century laminated chairs by Baumann are massively underrated, and I am not the only one to think that as demand has steadily risen and they are becoming increasingly hard to find. They are a beautiful design, well-proportioned and amazingly comfortable, beautifully made and made to last. I would stake a claim that they are one of the best mid-century chairs out there. Although they were principally designed for cafes and restaurants, they look amazing in a private setting and give a much more subtle twist to a classic mid-century dining setting than a stiff ‘matched’ table and chair combination. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Scandinavian teak, but it can have a slightly linear and precise look, and as it was often designed in ‘sets’ it can be a bit showroom matchy-matchy but mix in some Baumann chairs, and you add a different dimension, a more organic form and a more relaxed feel.



Baumann’s Heyday – 60’s and Beyond

In the sixties and seventies Baumann flourished, producing close to a million chairs a year, they exhibited at all the major furniture design fairs and continued to develop new innovative designs through the seventies and eighties. Sadly, the curtains closed on Baumann in 2003, perhaps a combination of import competition from Asia which saw huge swathes of production moved East and simply perhaps because they failed to keep pace with the rapid evolution of product trends.

Baumann is definitely one of our favourite iconic makers, and we will continue to dig into its history and share what we find. We recently bought an original 1930’s catalogue and would love to find one from the fifties if anyone reading this can help. We try to keep a decent stock of Baumann chairs and tables and love the fact that we give them a gentle clean and tighten the joints before finding new homes for these beautiful chairs.

They are getting harder to find as most of our sourcing comes from restaurants and cafes and batches of forty or so chairs are drying up. My advice is snap them up whilst you can and hang on to them, they will undoubtedly appreciate over the coming years, and besides, you will know you are sitting on some of the most beautiful chairs ever produced.

Click here to see our current range of vintage Baumann chairs. You can also contact us on +44 (0) 1256 760 044 or email

If you have been following our journey at Merchant & Found, you will know we have always been big fans of the work of British designer James Leonard. What has surprised us is just quite how little is known about him, what he designed and his legacy. A quick Google will throw up very little with the only decent article being by Peter Wyeth for Mid Century Magazine. Curiosity got the better of us so we contacted the delightful Mid Century magazine editor Tabitha Teuma, who very kindly put us in touch with Peter. We dropped an email to Peter and was delighted to receive a charming reply and a subsequent telephone call was arranged.

A few days later Peter and I managed to catch up on the phone and he teased me with a few stories about the elusive Mr Leonard so I felt a lunch date to progress our conversation was the best option. I was basically hoping that free food and alcohol would allow me to ply as much as I could out of Peter. A week or so later we finally met for lunch and shared what we knew about JL. It turns out that Peter is a bit of an amateur sleuth and the only active member of the JL fanclub, although I think he realised that I was about to sign up as the second (at this stage honorary) member. To cut a long story short we both have a passion for design and architecture and are both great fans of the JL story. We have agreed to further our research and somehow do justice to a man whom we consider was not just a great designer but a very important part of the development of British furniture in the post war ‘modernist’ era. We haven’t quite put a plan together but we have agreed to further our research, to put a timeline together, possibly champion an exhibition? But most importantly to gather together as many facts as we can and celebrate the work of the elusive James Leonard.

So to start with, here is a very brief synopsis of some of the facts, mostly plagiarised from Peter’s article for Mid Century Magazine but with the addition of a few extra snippets along the way. We have evidence from the London picture archive that the Educational Supply Association had offices in a rather grand building on Grays Inn Road in 1879. From what we can gather it was essentially a business set up to supply schools with a range of equipment from desks, stacking school tables and other furniture through to books and equipment. It was undoubtedly started around the time that the law changed at the end of the 19th century to make school education compulsory and a whole new burgeoning market opened. We know ESA produced much of their range and had a factory in Stevenage which specialised in wood furniture production, we have an aerial photograph from 1928 (Courtesy of Britain from Above).

ESA was run by a larger than life character Jonny Appleton. In 1946 having just demobbed from the RAF and at the age of 42 James Leonard joins ESA as a designer and courts JA with his passion for modernist design and opens his eyes to the Scandinavian modernist design movement. The two of them head off on a whirl wind trip of the leading players of the time in Scandinavia, Artek etc and following JA’s design epiphany JL starts work on a new modernist collection for ESA. At this time there was much support for the use of new materials and ‘industrial production’ using some of the learnings from war production and JL champions the use of cast Aluminium and moulded plywood as key materials. One of JL’s first major designs for ESA was undoubtedly the X200 Aluminium nesting Chair, designed with a stunning refined aluminium frame that could only be produced by pressure casting of Aluminium and not sand casting, JA was at this stage hooked so at vast investment (£50,000) the right equipment was purchased in the US and JL’s aluminium framed chair was born.

The key period of design was 1947/1948, and proof of this exists with publication of the designs in Domus in 1948 and the British Design Annual, two years before the ‘innovative’ so called compass leg design of Prouve, that’s a whole other story…
We believe that over 1 million chairs were produced in a 15/20 year period and a whole range of aluminium and plywood furniture was developed for what must have been a very successful phase of ESA’s development. At some stage the brand name ‘Esavian’ was created, a mix of ESA and ‘Avian’, It was created as a brand to sell products within ESA and we have good evidence of JL products branded Esavian but at some stage ‘Esavian’ became a brand in itself and started to develop screens, initially for school partitions, which grew into sliding doors which grew into huge sliding/folding doors for aircraft hangers, the aircraft door opportunity really launching in 1971 when Nigel Jewers joined ESA with a considerable knowledge of the larger sliding door market and in 1987 Jewers acquired the Esavian door business from ESA. To this day Esavian doors is still part of the Jewson stable.

James Leonard appears to have worked at ESA until his retirement in 1982 and sadly ESA closed its doors on 11th February 1987. (Source DL Hanick JL’s assistant from 1951). So there you have it,  a rather fast and sketchy history of ESA and James Leonard, but take this brief journal entry as just the start. Our mission is to pull together a far more comprehensive story, to fill in the blanks and champion the elusive Mr Leonard. If you have anything to add, or indeed want to join our rather small (but it has doubled in size) fan club then please let us know.

With thanks to Peter for his help and input, the story will continue.


Traditional manual beam operated precision scales are sadly disappearing from daily use as electronic scales take over. Precision balance scales are commonly found in laboratories where they are kept in protected environments avoiding dust and any form of damage. Precision balance scales are simply used to maintain the accuracy of other scales, the precision scales being the ‘mother’ test standard. Each scale operates within a weight range so for example a scale 10g – 100g, 100g – 500g and so on, testing and maintaining the accuracy of the weights used on the other scales. The Precision balance scales have a master set of weights which are very carefully handled with gloves as use, damage, even the natural oils in the technicians fingers can alter the weight. The master weights are firstly used to check their own accuracy and then used to measure the accuracy of other weights used in daily operations in a laboratory environment.

This large collection of scales came from the VEF factory in Latvia. The VEF factory was founded in 1919 and produced a variety of electrical componentry and most famously the worlds smallest Minox camera. After WWII VEF grew substantially to be the largest factory in Latvia producing over two thirds of the telephones used in the Soviet Union.

The scales date from the 1950’s and are sold principally as decorative items. The larger scales have amazing cast metal assemblies and are thus quite heavy. Most of the scales work but they need to be set on a fairly level surface where they then need to be levelled precisely using the adjustable feet and various other internal levels. When perfectly level the beams can be balanced and adjusted and the scales will balance.

A stunning piece of practical history from the VEF factory.




A few weeks ago we heard about Crowle brickworks, a derelict brickworks outside Scunthorpe that was being demolished. The brickworks had been producing bricks since the late 19th Century although it sadly stopped production in the 1970’s.

Crowle Brickworks was established around 1880 by George Robinson (a local entrepreneur), adjacent to his brewery to the North of the railway and canal. As with any brickworks the value of the works rests in the availability of good local clay which Crowle had in abundance and it was brought to the works by a small tramway which was initially operated by horses. The works had a large brick kiln and were mechanised with power being provided by a fixed bed steam locomotive that ran a series of large pulley and web belts throughout the site.
In 1895 George Robinson was declared bankrupt, and it was not until 1906 that creditors of George Robinson sold both Tetley Hall and the Brickworks at auction and the works went on to a further chapter under new owners. At the time of the auction, the brickworks was described thus; The Crowle Brick and Tile Works, consisting of engine house, machinery shed, drying sheds, kilns and other buildings together with a boiler, 17 horse power engine, 2 newly erected brick making machines, belting, pulleys, hauling gear and other fixed plant and machinery, and also the valuable bed of clay used in connection with the works.

We were told that there was some pigeon holes on site, would we be interested? You have never seen us move so fast. Trucks packed up, boxes of all the right tools, gloves and dust masks. The yard was left untouched for over 50 years and the pigeon holes were housed in this very plain Victorian building which had sadly lost its original slate Victorian roof although it still retained the wonderful cast iron support structure. The shed was the ‘engineering shed’ primarily used to store mechanical components used to maintain the steam engine and steam tramway. The pigeon holes were stuffed full of rare steam engine parts that were scooped up by a collector. Our photos don’t do the find justice, there was over 60 metres of pure Victorian pigeon holes, untouched and in extraordinary original condition. On some planks of pine the original sawmill black dye stamps were clearly visible, the pigeon holes were made from the finest imported straight, knot free CANADIAN pine. George Robinson, a man of expensive taste.

A rare and exciting find.



We were recently contacted about the clearance of an old textile Mill, H.Green & Co, North West of Leeds, the Mill had stopped working as a textile mill many years ago and most recently was refurbishing electronic components. Housed in a wonderful Victorian brick building close to the River Aire the Mill was in Cononley West Yorkshire. In the 19th Century textile production was a huge industry in the region, enabled by good access to canals for transport and rivers for the water for textile production.

Apart from the building not much remained of the Victorian textile Mill history but hidden at the back of one of the workshops we found a very dusty collection of the original mill equipment, workbenches, storage boxes, trestles and trolleys. Heavy Victorian working equipment. Given their age (mid to late 19th Century) everything was in pretty good condition so we have simply given everything a gentle clean to bring out the original colour. The mill workbenches benches are the ‘piece de resistance’, weighing nearly 100kg, they have solid cast iron legs and heavily used original pine worktops. Perfect as the real deal console table or even as a rather heavy duty potting table. There was a number of gorgeous pine boxes, solidly made and with the standard wire reinforcement. The box maker, WM Bannister & Co Ltd Cowling Nr. Keighley (just a few miles down the canal) was clearly stamped alongside the Mills branding, totally original. The larger boxes were used for storage in the workshop and the smaller more rugged ones are heavy duty shipping containers for machine parts. We recovered one complete box which still has its original bolted lid, a heavy rugged box used for shipping. We got hold of two pairs of stunning large trestles most likely used for access platforms around the machinery and two great trolleys.

A wonderful find and a lost slice of North England’s rich manufacturing history.



Its hard to know where to start, this unique Fondation is one of the true gems in the world:

Saint – Paul de Vence is a bit touristy but still lovely. Have lunch (or stay) at the La Colombe d’Or and don’t forget Miro’s chapel nearby (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence

The Maeght family started when bought a property in Saint-Paul de Vence in the early 1950s and named it “Mas Bernard” after their son, who died in 1953 aged only 11.  The early death of their son had a profound effect on the family and along with friends, Georges Braque, and other artists, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght created the Fondation. In 1964,  Catalonian architect Josep Lluis Sert designed the building and along with the the artists  Giacometti, Miro and Braque, they designed the gardens and art for the landscape. The family were responsible for printing many of the great artworks of the time and still operate the Maeght business which in itself is a treasure trove in central Paris, totally off the radar but chock full of extraordinary art, history, catalogue overruns… just amazing, and all for sale.

Works by Calder, Miro, Giacometti… and on and on….

They also host regular terrific exhibitions.

Go and enjoy a wonderful rare treasure.

Little old naive me loved the simplicity of the Field Notes books but I had no idea of their history. I was exploring their site the other day when I stumbled across their archive. Co founder Aaron Draplin tells the story better than I ever could so please follow the link at the end of this journal entry and explore. The history of Field Notes is very special and what I really admire is Aarons passion and vision to recognise the greatness in these little books he found whilst rummaging around at flea markets and to take that wealth of history and make it relevant. Perhaps Aaron’s archive is one of the only remaining reference points? I love glimpsing in the past to see a different way of life, a slower pace and a medium that was somehow socially and commercially accepted as a way of selling and advertising agricultural goods and yet also practically helping farmers with a practical note book. Hats off to Aaron and team.

Field Notes Archive


I live quite close to Booklands and have driven at a Mercedes World track event, but I’m sorry to say I had never visited this iconic track, It’s a gem. Cross the cast iron bridge and you enter through a pretty basic timber chalet. Brooklands is an intimate and very low key venue run and staffed by enthusiasts. It’s a hotch potch of some incredible history and I mean that in a good way, as you wander you will see:

A small but personal collection of early Formula One memorabilia.

A great collection of early bicylces right through to the present day.

A superb selection of early vintage motorcycles.

A selection of memorabilia and wonderful classic cars related to the history of Brooklands.

Then as you wander the “paddock” you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a graveyard for planes, the centrepiece of which stands Concorde, sitting proudly on the tarmac. I didn’t count them but there must be a dozen planes most of which you can go on and the volunteers positively encouraged us to sit in the cockpits and soak it all in. Most of the planes actually flew in on the old runway that was at the heart of Brooklands and now stand a little sadly landlocked by the river and various buildings. Scattered around the planes are various flight paraphernalia and equipment, moulds for aircraft panels, embarkation stairs, engines, fuel tankers and so on.

Then there is the London Bus Museum, as good as any bus museum. A wonderful collection beautifully maintained and with a “polished” graphic history of buses from the early days until today.

Tucked at the back of all of this and not really an active part of the “tour” is what I really came to see, the track. It’s there but you sort of have to discover it for yourself and I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to walk on it, but I did. It’s simple superb. Quite eerie, it’s much larger than I thought and the banked turns slope up fifty or sixty feet towards the horizon. The angle of the banking is steep, so steep that its hard to climb to the top of the lip without proper shoes and some care.

The concrete surface is cracked and decayed, roots and moss break up the concrete in patches and at the top trees have started to invade the edges. But despite this (or perhaps because of it) you can’t help but be transported back to the tracks heyday and feel the ghosts of so many races and racers throttle past. Although it’s sad to see the track in disrepair, it’s actually lovely that you can feel it as it was, you can almost still see the tyre marks and smell the fumes. Its not been restored, repolished or repainted, it is what it is, the original track. In a way its a disgrace that the most important track in the history of motorsport is in this condition but I actually like it. What distresses me is the fact that this site has been developed, with out of town shops, business parks and Mercedes World.

Britain leads the way with motor racing (humour me whilst I focus in this but of course aviation was an incredible part of Brooklands as well), If it was my decision I would clear the site of any modern buildings and return Brooklands to what it was, a track. Restore it very carefully so that it is complete but leave the potholes and cracks and perhaps just trim a few trees, but don’t take away the ghosts and the atmosphere, keep the ramshackle planes and the history that is there and celebrate it with dignity rather than as it is now the second class citizen to commerce.

On my way out I ventured into the last building a wonderful original hanger, clad with corrugated iron and peeling paint. Inside I was speechless, the building is literally packed with an extraordinary collection of amazing aircraft from the early days of flight through to a Hawker Harrier. Everywhere you turn there is something to look at, memorabilia, engines, uniforms, and so on. Wow.

It’s hard to describe but what a wonderful place Brookland’s is. As a museum it has so far escaped “The” makeover and long may that continue. Where else can children climb on an early McLaren car and actually get inside, walk through Concorde, see the history of the bus and so much more. All carefully enclosed by a snaking behometh of a ghost which is the Brooklands track. Congratulations to all the volunteers and the Trust for their enthusiasm and love, visit soon.


I first came across these posters at the Salone de Mobile on the kitchen stand of Alpes Inox, great kitchens but even better posters.

I took a picture and managed to trace them (ok, not that difficult but I hadn’t seen them before!). They are from a turbulent time in 1960’s French political history with student uprisings and general strikes starting in May 1968. I love the raw simplicity. I have seen some wonderful Vietnamese political posters and also Russian ones, I will dig out some images and share them at some stage. I have also taken photographs of political graffiti in Vietnam which I will try to find in my loft, pre the convenience of our digital age.

The French posters were produced by Atelier Populaire and the designers remained anonymous. For more information refer to Johan Kugelberg’s book, Beauty Is In The Street.

At Merchant and found we love finding amazing vintage posters. Why not take a look at the range of vintage posters we have available for your home or cafe. 



Our good friends Mark and Laurence first invited us to this great event, The Rambert School of Ballet & Contemporary Dance, Student Choreographic Showcase. The Rambert has an international reputation and they have an intimate campus tucked away in St Margaret’s. A couple of times a year the students hold a dance showcase and it makes for a very special evening. The dance flooor is tiny and the audience cannot be more than 100 people most of whom are either students, friends or family. We have been twice and been just overawed by the performances. The dancing is superb, and the choreography flips from cutting edge contemporary through to classical ballet. You sit within a few feet of the performances and the intimate but charged atmosphere is truly special. A must see as often as you can.

Contact the Rambert to find out more.



I was recently at the Museum of Childhood (V&A) in East London and discovered Warli folk art for the first time. I grew up in Australia and love Aboriginal art and the very beautiful Tapa cloth art of New Guinea or  New Zealand Maori’s, and Warli art has the same feel. The Marli people live in India on the coastal borders of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The art is very simple based on repetitive symbols used to depict everyday community life, people are represented by two joined triangles. Just beautiful.

The Historic Dockyard – Chatham


England is a treasure trove of history which I thought I knew fairly well, but for some reason The Dockyards at Chatham had not been on my radar, that is not until recently. Tucked away strategically on the Thames Estuary the approach to The Dockyards is a bit disappointing. Passing through suburban sprawl and various drab out of town shops and hotels, gradually the landscape changes. Industrial dock buildings appear in front of you, you sneak a glimpse of tall ships and Georgian buildings and you start to feel you are entering a very large commercial dockyard.

As we entered and parked the car, it all seemed a bit quiet. We couldn’t quite get a feel for what we were about to explore and what to expect. It seemed to have the feel of part attraction, part docks and part a working community. It had that “docks” feel as if we were about to load the car and head of on a Channel ferry.

The Dockyard is a massive five-acre site and you need a full day or more to do it justice. Armed with our trusty guide map and still not knowing where to start we plunged in and headed straight for the obvious big ships and started on the HMS Gannett. HMS Gannet, an Osprey/Doterel class sloop, was ordered by the Admiralty and laid down in Sheerness Royal Dockyard in 1876. HMS Gannet was commissioned as an operational unit of the Royal Navy for the first time on the 17th April 1879. The Gannet is one of the last surviving sloop rigged boats also powered by coal fired steam engines, I suppose an early version of dual fuel. She bridged the gap in Naval history between a full wind powered sailing vessel and the eventual move to mechanically powered vessels. She represents the huge strategic change between the glorious (not at war time) age of sail and the sudden rush to mechanical powered steel warships which still prowl the high seas today, much the same as the move from propeller powered flight to jet propulsion.

The Gannet has a wonderful genuine feel even though she has lost her engines and boilers. She is a ship with personality; she has been beautifully restored and sits like a proud old lady keeping watch over the yard. Take note of her last few amazing years of her service, in 1913 she was anchored in the river Hamble, and became a dormitory ship for the training ship Mercury. She took hundreds of disadvantaged young boys who faced a bleak an uncertain future and she trained them to join the Royal Navy. The venture began in 1885 and was backed and organised as a charitable venture by Charles Hoare, (of the banking dynasty). Over the years the training was increasingly managed by Charles Hoare’s mistress Beatrice Holme-Sumner. I’m not sure of the whole gossip here, but eventually (in 1998) Beatrice married Charles Fry (the famous England Cricketer), who eventually became the ships Superintendent, what a juicy tale.

Next stop was HM Submarine Ocelot, if you haven’t been on board a working submarine this is an essential visit. I’m not the best with enclosed spaces and as you wait to board there is a rather small mock-hatch demonstrating how tight the real hatches are to squeeze through down below. The demonstration hatches didn’t help how I felt, but within seconds of boarding any reservations I had were completely put to the back of my mind, the experience was all immersive.

HM Submarine Ocelot was the last warship built for the Royal Navy at Chatham Dockyard. An ‘O’ Class diesel electric submarine, she was launched in 1962 and saw service with Royal Navy throughout the height of the Cold War until she left service in 1991. A normal sized crew would consist of 69 submariners, although she could carry a maximum of 80.

As you journey through the submarine the atmosphere is amazing, it’s as if you are part of the crew and you wouldn’t be surprised if the alarm sounded and you started to dive or take action stations. The authenticity is extraordinary, nothing has been restored, and everything is as it was the day the submarine came out of the water. Every knob, dial, pipe, sign, hatch or bunk is just totally original, worn, and used, you can just feel (and smell) the hustle and bustle of the submariners living aboard. It felt tight with our group of 15; I cannot imagine how it felt (or smelt) with 69 crew submerged for months at a time.

The same applies to the HMS Cavalier, HMS Cavalier was the Royal Navy’s last operational Second World War destroyer and is now preserved at Chatham as a memorial to the 142 British destroyers and over 11,000 seamen lost at sea during the war.

Built in 1944 at Samuel White’s Isle of Wight yard, HMS Cavalier served during the war in the Arctic and the Western Approaches before joining the British Pacific Fleet as the war came to a close. Refitted and modernised in 1957 she continued to play an active role as part of the Royal Navy’s Far East and Home fleets until she found a home at Chatham in 1972.

So many historical landmarks have (for all the right reasons?) been over-restored, or sanitised for health and safety, or worst still stripped of authenticity and covered in modern signage to facilitate tours. Not so at Chatham, the joy of The Dockyards is that they still have this exceptional authenticity, you can use your own imagination and create your own experience.

There is just so much to see at Chatham, but for me the highlight was without question the Rope works, It is quite simply the most exceptional historical experience possible. Rope has been continually made on this site since 1618 and is still commercially produced there to this day. The Rope works building is a quarter of a mile long (based on the length of rope required for anchor rope for sailing ships of the 18th Century) , and breathtakingly original, I can’t do justice to the whole process and history of making a rope at Chatham, so go and see it yourself and appreciate the critical history this building played as you walk on the floorboards in the footsteps of Nelson. How many miles of rope have been produced here? The Royal Navy was supplied with Chatham ropes for over four years, without these ropes we wouldn’t have been an Imperial power and we wouldn’t be England. Together the buildings of the Ropery form one of the finest integrated groups of 18th Century manufacturing buildings in Britain.

The Dockyards are also literally crammed with listed buildings (100 listed buildings of which 47 are Scheduled Ancient Monuments) all in good serviceable condition, but not restored. In 1984 after four centuries as a hard working RN Dockyard, the site ceased its military life and started its journey to where it sits today as a charitable trust, I just prey that in the years to come as the site develops it does not lose this extraordinary atmosphere. Generally as a nation we are brilliant at balancing preservation with the commercial demands of running an historic site to raise revenue, but we still do occasionally get it wrong.

The history is humbling, there is just too much to describe and too much to see. The Dockyards are also home to a thriving community of small commercial enterprises, from design studios and creative spaces through to offices and galleries. People live and work here, it may not be a fully working dockyard but it still is a working site and this is the critical key ingredient in making The Dockyards a success. The Dockyards still has over 100 commercial tenants and mixed with the general housing the residents make full use of the wonderful buildings and adds their own sense of community. This is no static lifeless old-fashioned museum; there is life, energy purpose and charm. It shouts that it is proud of its heritage and recognises that this must be retained as a national treasure in perpetuity. But go now, before the site changes, there are plans afoot and hopefully the atmosphere won’t change, but go now.

We eventually left as dusk was settling in and the rain started to drizzle. The lady at the exit was waiting patiently for us, jangling the keys, ready to lock up behind us. But she didn’t rush or chase us out instead she wanted to chat, to ask us what we had enjoyed and to tell us about the new discovery centre being planned. This happened to me once before at Temple Newsom outside Leeds, we were the last ones admitted and we ended up walking out with the caretaker helping him lock up and shutting down the house as we made our exit. These are what I call “stolen moments” where the boundary between “visitor” and “resident” gets blurred and someone somewhere winds the clock back hundreds of years so that you in fact become, for a very precious moment, a small but wonderful part of the very fabric of the building. Go now and enjoy The Dockyards at Chatham, it is a hidden Gem, absolutely world class.