Sheerness Dockyard Church restoration brings heritage-led renewal to the Isle of Sheppey

Sheerness Dockyard Church, on the Isle of Sheppey, is to be rescued after it was nearly destroyed by fire in 2001, and transformed into a new centre to support young people to build new businesses and develop entrepreneurial skills and financial independence.

Allchurches Trust is delighted to be providing £102,000 in match-funding to secure a major grant of £4.2 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which will enable the Sheerness Dockyard Trust’s pioneering project to go ahead.

Jeremy Noles, grants officer for Allchurches Trust, said: “This unique project will bring Sheppey’s nationally significant naval church back from the brink and breathe new life into the local economy.

“It gives young people in Sheerness new opportunities to build a bright future for themselves and their town. We’re delighted to have been able to support the Dockyard Church’s restoration and look forward to seeing its new future.”

Sheerness is the largest town on the Isle of Sheppey (population 43,000), and was originally a fort, built in 1665 to protect the River Medway and the larger navy dockyards on the River Thames. By 1669, under Samuel Pepys’ management, the more fortified Royal Navy Dockyard was built on the site to clean, stock and repair English warships. The dockyards were the heart of Sheerness until the Admiralty closed them in 1960.

In 1823, the old docks were replaced with a much larger complex comprising a dockyard, dry docks, the imposing Dockyard Church and additional buildings. It was the envy of the engineering world due to its state of the art design and successful siting on the marshy wetlands; a masterful feat by engineer, John Rennie, and architect, George Ledwell Taylor.

Industry and manufacturing has remained an important part of the Isle of Sheppey’s identity and economic wellbeing since the docks’ closure brought hardship and 2,400 men directly lost their jobs in 1960. Recovery, still centred on industry, has been slow, with steel manufacturing prominent until 2006. The Sheerness port is now one of the UK’s largest importers of cars and fresh produce from Europe.

But reliance on a single or few industries in isolated areas and in changing times can be hard; and the Isle of Sheppey has not had it easy over the past 50 years, despite its significance in terms of environmental and historical richness, its proximity to both London and Europe, and its warm climate and lack of rain.

There are many areas of high need and deprivation on the island, and unemployment, lack of educational attainment and opportunity is a serious issue. But organisations like the Sheerness Dockyards Trust are ensuring that young people, in particular, are in a position to play a significant role in developing a new economy and sense of community for the future. They are leading that process with renewal of the remarkable heritage that has shaped and forged the island and its identity for centuries.

With a new bridge link to the mainland, improved communications access, and investment into both the place and its people, the community has begun to realise its potential to develop small and micro-businesses in sectors such as higher value tourism, resort and marina development, heritage tourism and ecotourism, and creative and biological/botanical businesses.

The Sheerness Dockyard Church will be rescued and preserved as a nationally significant, Grade II* church building and transformed into a community space that also symbolises the regeneration of pride and hope in a rich and unique community. The greatly admired and highly detailed ‘Dockyard Model’ (built to a scale of 1:60 by craftsmen and apprentices working in the dockyards, and measuring 40ft long by 36ft wide) will be permanently displayed, with historical interpretation, in the centre of the building (sections at a time, due to its immense size).

And, in conjunction with the Kent Youth Support Trust (KYST), the Dockyard Church will become home to a business incubation and support programme, working with young people aged 18-30 in Sheerness to achieve financial independence through entrepreneurship, along with economic growth, renewal and a new future for their community.

The building will provide affordable premises for young business owners to work from for three year periods, alongside advice, mentoring and support and with on-site facilities. KYST is already working with a number of young people to start their own businesses in preparation to move into the Dockyard Church on its completion.

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Photo Credits: ©James Brittain