I suppose I shouldn’t be rude about the old Chatham Dockyard workers. They built the ships that helped win many a war.
And my grandfather spent his last working year there after the Gun Wharf shut, so I should show it some respect. However, the honesty of a small minority of its workers, it’s fair to say, was not 100 per cent and often became subject of folklore.
I’m sure you all know the story about the wheelbarrow and the tarpaulin. During a clampdown on thefts from the old naval base, every man was searched as he left after his shift.
For a week or so, one particular matey was pushing an old wheelbarrow covered with tarpaulin. Every night, the security guard at the main gate lifted the tarpaulin to see what was underneath. Every night, he found nothing.
Eventually, a large number of barrows and tarpaulins were discovered missing…
Now, however, I have been told an expression I hadn’t heard before — “a rabbit”, used to refer to buckshee work done in the firm’s time with company materials. The origins, my learned informant explained, goes back to Chatham Dockyard.
The site was overrun by rabbits and yardmen were encouraged to catch and kill as many as they could. Before they took them home, they would remove their innards as a first preparation for their conversion into rabbit pie.
A few of these lapine corpses, however, had another use … for hiding contraband. Many’s the adjustable wrench or pair or pliers that vanished from the yard in a rabbit’s guts.
I mourn the senseless destruction of the dockyard as the killer blow that knocked much of the soul from the Medway Towns. However, the base was no model place of work. Tales of skiving, huge poker games in secret places, and mass pilfering still abound. And euchre — a card game played exclusively, it seems, in dockyards.
What can you recall? All dockyard reminiscences — and jargon — will be received gratefully.