Sir John Hawkins, a Devonian, became Treasurer and Controller of Elizabeth 1's Navy, acquiring houses and land in what was then Chatham Intra because in the 1580s and 90s most of the fleet anchored at Chatham. In his will Sir John gave some property to endow the Hospital and some to endow the Chatham Chest.
Sir John had brought himself to the notice of the Elizabethan court by his exploits against Spanish and Portuguese shipping and undeniably, by the wealth he accumulated from slave trading. The governors recognise the brutal nature of this activity and regret Sir John’s involvement profoundly. However, they feel that, while this stain on Sir John’s record can never be erased, equally his skills as a seaman and navigator and his contribution to the defence of the realm against the Spanish Armada and to subsequent English sea power through his reforms of naval organization and shipbuilding, brought lasting benefit. The naval veterans for whose welfare he set up his hospital acknowledge their debt to him.
The Chatham Chest was established in 1590 by Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake and Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham. This was a response to the many injured seamen left destitute due to injuries sustained during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604 and provided financial relief for injured or disabled seamen of the Royal Navy for over 224 years.
The Chatham Chest was not a charitable institution. It was intended “For the perpetual relief of such mariners, shipwrights and seafaring men’ hurt or maimed while in government service” Deductions were taken from seamen’s wages and deposited in the fund.
The criteria for payment from the Chest was a seaman had to have made compulsory contributions to the Chest funds and had to have been injured aboard a Royal Naval ship in service. The Chatham Chest provided a vital source of income for many thousands of injured seamen whom would have had no choice but to enter the workhouse without the Chest’s provision.
Although there are accounts of the Chatham Chest fund generally meeting its obligations to its beneficiaries, research also highlights scandals and mismanagement of the Chatham Chest by lower ranked and senior personnel. Throughout the Chest’s 224-year history evidence shows it supported thousands of men in times of hardship. It was also very successful in its land investments, which kept the Chest mostly solvent through many wars, which brought increased claims on its funds.
The chest is currently in the reception area of the visitor centre in the Chatham Historic Dockyard.
The Navy’s oldest hospital, it was founded in 1594 on the grant of a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I to Sir John Hawkins. Sir John had been Controller of the Navy, but he had become concerned about the destitution of many of the veterans who had fought in 1588, against the Spanish Armada. Therefore he established a fund “to provide accommodation for the relief of disabled and needy mariners and shipwrights in service of the realm”.
Sir John had estates along the southern waterfront of the Medway, in Chatham, from where he had a clear view of the fleet at anchor in Chatham Reach. He resolved to set aside parts of his Chatham property to found the hospital.
Recent research has revealed that a certain Henry Dawkins, Veteran of TRAFALGAR 1805 was admitted to the Hospital around the 1850s. The TRAFALGAR Roll identifies Dawkins as serving at the time of the battle aboard HMS Britannia, first rate 100 guns, as an ordinary seaman and his ships book number was 501.
It has also been established from records at the National Archives, that two veterans of the Battle of Copenhagen 1801 (of Nelson’s blind eye fame) were also admitted to the Hospital around the same time. Record period for these three admissions is 1855/1861.
A record from 1893/4 that shows Arthur George Dickens, Chief Bosun’s Mate of 29 King Street, The Brook, Chatham as having been admitted and that he was the first cousin of one Charles Dickens, Author.