Sheerness is a town located beside the mouth of the River Medway on the north-west corner of the Isle of Sheppey in north Kent, England. With a population of 13,000 it is the largest town on the island.
Sheerness began as a fort built in the 16th century to protect the River Medway from naval invasion. In 1665, plans were first laid by the Navy Board for a Royal Navy dockyard where warships might be provisioned and repaired, a site favoured by Samuel Pepys, then Clerk of the Acts of the navy, for shipbuilding over Chatham. After the raid on the Medway in 1667, the older fortification was strengthened; in 1669 a Royal Navy dockyard was established in the town, where warships were stocked and repaired until its closure in 1960.
Beginning with the construction of a pier and a promenade in the 19th century, Sheerness acquired the added attractions of a seaside resort. Industry retains its important place in the town and the Port of Sheerness is one of the United Kingdom's leading car and fresh produce importers. The town is the site of one of the UK's first co-operative societies and also of the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame.
Sheerness was originally a chapelry in the ancient parish of Minster in Sheppey in the Isle of Sheppey Liberty and Milton Hundred. Between 1894 and 1968 it was made an urban district. In 1968 it joined the municipal borough of Queenborough in Sheppey. Since 1974 the area is covered by the non-metropolitan Swale District.
The first structure in what is now Sheerness was a fort built by order of Henry VIII to prevent enemy ships from entering the River Medway and attacking the naval dockyard at Chatham. In 1666 work began to replace it with a stronger fort. However, before its completion, this second fort was destroyed during the 1667 Dutch raid on the Medway. The Secretary of the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys, subsequently ordered the construction of a naval dockyard at Sheerness as an extension to that at Chatham, where naval ships would be maintained and repaired. Low quality housing and the poor water supply near the dockyard led to a lack of workers and caused construction delays, and the first dry-dock was not completed until 1708. Using materials they were allowed to take from the yard, dockyard construction workers built the first houses in Sheerness. The grey-blue naval paint they used on the exteriors led to their homes becoming known as the Blue Houses. This was eventually corrupted to Blue Town, the modern name of the north-west area of Sheerness.
From the completion of the dockyard until 1960 Sheerness was one of the bases of the Nore Command of the Royal Navy, which was responsible for protecting British waters in the North Sea. The command was named after the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, about east of Sheerness. In 1797, discontented sailors in the Royal Navy mutinied just off the coast of Sheerness.
In the early 1820s a fire destroyed many buildings at the dockyard, including all the Blue Houses. New houses and a major redevelopment of the dockyard followed. On 5 September 1823, the rebuilt dockyard was formally opened by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV). A high brick wall and a moat were constructed around the yard to serve as a defence measure and remained in place until the end of the 19th century. As the settlement expanded eastwards, away from the dockyard and the Blue Houses, the wider area became known as Sheerness, taking its new name from the brightness or clearness of the water at the mouth of the River Medway. Completed in 1860 and still standing today, the Sheerness Boat Store was the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame. In 1863, mains water was installed in the town, and the Isle of Sheppey's first railway station opened at the dockyard. Towards the end of the 19th century, Sheerness achieved official town status and formed its own civil parish, separate from Minster-in-Sheppey. The 1901 Census recorded the Sheerness parish as having 18,179 residents and 2,999 houses.
The town's low rainfall and ample sunshine made it popular as a seaside resort, with tourists arriving by steamboat and train. The Sheppey Light Railway opened in 1901, connecting the new Sheerness East station with the rest of the island. However, by 1950, lack of demand led to the railway's closure. The Sheerness and District Tramways, which opened in 1903, only lasted until 1917.
In 1944 the United States cargo ship ran aground and sank off the coast of Sheerness, with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board. Due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo have never been salvaged; if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. A 2004 report published in New Scientist warned that an explosion could occur if sea water penetrated the bombs.
In March 1960 the Royal Navy ceased operating the Sheerness dockyard and the Medway Port Authority took over the site for commercial use. The dockyard closure led to thousands of job losses, and most of the nearby houses and shops in the Bluetown area were eventually abandoned and demolished. By the 1961 census, the population of Sheerness had fallen to 13,691. The dockyard closure also led to the decline of the Sheerness and District Cooperative Society, as many of its members were dockyard workers. At the time, the society was the island's main retailer, but it has since been reduced to a few shops and been merged with a larger society.
As of 2007, Bluetown is an industrial area, and Sheerness has become the largest port in the UK for motor imports. Following the closure of the Dockyard, several of its historic buildings were demolished (including the listed Admiralty House and quadrangular Great Store); others were left to decay. In the early 21st century a concerted effort was made to save the remaining buildings and several have now been restored to residential use. In July 2013 Swale Borough Council announced that a deal had been reached to secure restoration of Rennie and Taylor's Royal Dockyard Church (which had been gutted by a fire in 2001), with a view to it one day being used, among other things, for displaying the above-mentioned model of the Dockyard.
Most notable former residents of Sheerness and Blue Town include Sir Stanley Hooker, inventor of the VTOL engine; Dr Richard Beeching, reorganizer of the British rail network; Michael Crawford, actor; Rod Hull, entertainer.