22 June 2023

Desperate ruin now an architectural wonder

By Jim Sales Account Executive

Sheerness Dockyard Church has risen from the ashes of a devastating fire to become “a beacon of hope” for the community. 

(All image credits to Ian West.) 


A derelict Grade II* historic church is to be taken off Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register following an “epic” project lasting nearly a decade.

Work on restoring the landmark Dockyard Church, in Sheerness, has been completed by the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust (SDPT), led by conservationist Will Palin, son of actor and presenter Sir Michael Palin. It was funded by a £5.3m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, significant funding from Historic England and numerous supporters, bringing the total to £9.5m.

The church was deconsecrated in the 1970s and gradually became derelict. There was no roof, the stained-glass windows were gone, and trees were growing inside. It was later hit by a devastating fire in 2001.

After nine years of planning and raising funds, SDPT chairman Mr Palin says the church is now “a vital new economic and cultural asset in this often-overlooked part of north Kent”.

The building, with its 25-metre reconstructed clock tower, once again dominates the skyline next to busy Sheerness Port, and was officially opened on 7 June . The ceremony was attended by the Lord Lieutenant of Kent, The Lady Colgrain, and the doors will open to the public on Saturday, 22 July.

Mr Palin said “this desperate ruin is now an architectural wonder – a symbol of decline to a beacon of hope.”

He continued: “The project involved the loving repair and conservation of every inch of the exterior. Cracked brickwork was knitted back together and stonework meticulously repaired by the finest craftsmen.

“The tower itself, unstable following the fire, had to be carefully dismantled and rebuilt. The majestic new roof, supported by new timber trusses, sits behind a stone balustrade – a faithful reproduction of the original Georgian design.

“Dockyard Church now stands as proof that even our most battered, desperate and seemingly hopeless heritage treasures can be brought back to life if there is a compelling vision – and the energy and ambition to carry the project through.”

“Over the years we brought together a brilliant group of trustees and a first-rate professional team with the skills, resourcefulness, and vision to achieve the seemingly impossible – but none of this would have been possible without the generosity of our funders to support a project of such scale and complexity.

“We would like to thank our many funders, led by the Heritage Fund, made possible by National Lottery players, and our design team (Hugh Broughton Architects and Martin Ashley Architects), project managers Glevum Consulting and, of course, our skilled contractor Coniston Ltd and sub-contractors – all of whom have made vital contributions to this special project.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund put in more than half of the funding and the Director of London & South for The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Stuart McLeod, said: “Sheerness Dockyard Church is one of the bigger projects we have supported. It is an inspirational rescue of a neglected building and by investing in skills development for young people, it will make a major difference to the local community and beyond. We anticipate Sheerness will benefit significantly from this transformational project and are delighted to be involved.

“We take a broad view of heritage and our working definition is “Something from the past that you value and want to pass on to future generations”. Some projects, like this, are just extra special. I have had the joy of being involved in early conversations, walking round in the rain when there was no roof and then it was difficult to appreciate the magnificence of the building. It is an extraordinary transformation and I love the finish of the interior – there is something about the way it acknowledges and respects the past while anticipating it has a new use and audience.”

“Five years ago, we gave the grant for the trust to deliver their vision of the rebirth and reimagination of Dockyard Church. For an investment on this scale, there needs to be a compelling vision and we were convinced by the scale of the vision.

“Thanks go to National Lottery players because without their generous contribution this would not be possible. We can’t all win big on the National Lottery but this has to be seen as a win for the people of Sheerness and Sheppey.

Historic England has also played a major part in the building’s rescue. Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive, Historic England, said: “Historic buildings can be a symbol of decay and neglect or ones of hope and revival and it is most exciting when they move from one to the other. This church epitomises that journey and thanks to initiatives such as Heritage Action Zones, heritage is now seen as an essential component in community revival, placemaking, well-being and levelling up.

“It is no longer a niche subject for people who are interested in heritage only, but something that can engage with society at large, with communities, as we can see with the re-use of this building; it inspires people and you cannot get that from an entirely new set of buildings.

“One of the longest-standing entries on Heritage England‘s “At Risk Register” will now be taken off and welcome back the public.

“After the 2001 fire, the church shell lay empty before Swale Borough Council used compulsory purchase powers to acquire the building in 2013. It was a brave move, supported by the then English Heritage. Historic England stepped in with funding to stabilise and secure the structure before the bigger solution arrived from the Heritage Fund in 2019 and that illustrates how bodies in the heritage sector can work together.”

History of Sheerness Dockyard Church

Dockyard Church was built in 1828 to serve the officers and workers of the new 53-acre Royal Naval Dockyard at Sheerness which replaced a smaller dockyard where Admiral Lord Nelson had been brought back to Britain in a barrel of rum after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Architect George Ledwell Taylor, surveyor to the Admiralty, worked to a masterplan by the great engineer John Rennie. Rennie had prepared the Dockyard site by driving in millions of timber piles into the marshy coastal ground and his dry docks and basins and mast house were the envy of the engineering world.

The church continued to be in use for a time after the closure of the Naval Dockyard in 1960 when more than 2,500 skilled workers lost their jobs and started the decline of the once-thriving island.

In 2015 ownership was formally transferred to the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust, founded in 2014.

About the Dockyard Model

The Admiral’s House, the Quadrangular store and the Dockyard Church and Naval Terrace are the first parts of the Dockyard Model to be put on display in the church, thanks to additional Art Fund support.

The model is one of the finest and largest architectural models ever made. Built by craftsmen and apprentices working at the dockyard, it was made to a scale of 1:60 and measures 40ft x 36ft, showing the buildings in great detail, even revealing the individual oak piles that were an essential part of the engineering works to support the buildings on the mud and quicksand.

The model was kept at Sheerness Dockyard, on display in the Boat Store, and saved from destruction at the eleventh hour by the Department of the Environment’s Ancient Monuments Branch in 1972.

Because of its size, parts of the model will be on display at the restored Dockyard Church in rotation.