How Chatham’s shipwrights prepared for dangers on the high seas

Insights into the lives of Chatham Royal Dockyard’s most highly-paid artisans in the 17th and 18th centuries ­ its shipwrights ­ can be gleaned from transcriptions of their Wills, nearly one hundred of which can now be downloaded free of charge from the Kent Archaeological Society’s website.

The shipwrights earned up to two shillings per 12-hour day (equal to about £150 in today’s money) and were an elite workforce, wealthy enough to make provision for their families and dependents and leave generous bequests to others in need.

They had good reasons for such foresight. Not only did they work in hazardous conditions, they often sailed on dangerous voyages in the ships they built and repaired, so that they could complete unfinished work and carry out urgent repairs and maintenance on the high seas.

The Wills were registered with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and are an invaluable resource for family historians seeking their shipwright ancestors, and for researchers wishing to learn more about the lives of the men who helped Britannia rule the waves.

Until the Wills were transcribed and posted on-line by KAS volunteers they could be read only by visiting the National Archives at Kew or by subscribing to specialist websites.

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