The Medway Towns’ fortunes have always risen when peace shattered into fragments.
From Chatham Dockyard through the Gun Wharf and Shorts Brothers to BAE Systems, our lot has always been to provide and service the machinery of death.
Medway’s links with war can be seen throughout the towns and one of the most intriguing connects Lower Upnor with the Crimean War. The war began as a quarrel between Russian Orthodox monks and French Catholics over who had precedence at the holy places in Jerusalem and Nazareth, but was used as an excuse by the Britain to maintain naval supremacy in the Mediterranean over Russia.
Tsar Nicholas I moved troops into Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Rumania) to back up Russian claims. Louis Napoleon III, Emperor of France, became Britain’s ally and both countries sent expeditionary forces to the Balkans.
The Royal Navy dispatched numerous merchant ships that transported thousands of troops to fight. One of them was the Arethusa (named after a nymph in Greek mythology who became lover to a river god), which began life as a 50-gun frigate launched from Pembroke in June, 1849.
The 2,216-ton Arethusa became the last British warship to see action under sail alone during the Crimean. She sustained much damage at the battles of Sebastopol and Odessa, and was towed to Malta for repairs. She returned to Chatham in 1860 to be lengthened and have engines fitted.
In May, 1874, she was taken up river to Greenhithe, to be used as a training ship. The charitable society originally known as the National Refuge for Homeless and Destitute Children, (now Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa) founded by William Williams, with Lord Shaftesbury as its president, were using her alongside a smaller frigate, the Chichester. Boys with an average age of 14 lived aboard, where they lived a basic existence for two years as they were trained in seamanship, with a view to entering the Royal Navy or Merchant service.
The old Arethusa was replaced in October, 1932. The Peking, built in 1911 for the German company Laeisz, was steel-hulled and — considerably larger than her predecessor — much more suitable. But because she was one of the largest sailing vessels afloat, she needed a new berth. One was found for her at Lower Upnor, opposite Chatham Dockyard.
A new boat – and the end of a naval era
The new Arethusa training school was opened officially by Prince George, the Duke of Kent, on 25 July, 1933.
The original Arethusa was broken up at Charlton in 1934. The water nymph figurehead had been afloat for 85 years and was taken to Upnor and given a seafront seat of honour — no doubt to keep a watchful eye on the boys as they trained.
The outbreak of the Second World War forced the closure of the ship in 1940; but the establishment, much reduced, moved to Salcombe, Devon. The Arethusa was requisitioned by the Admiralty, removed to Chatham and used for naval accommodation. It was during this time that she had her rig reduced.
Arethusa was returned to the society after the war where it continued its work in giving disadvantaged boys sea training aboard, but now they had use of a pier and various buildings, which had been built nearby during the war.
A new captain who arrived in 1969 was a qualified teacher and the ship became more school orientated.
But the river scene was to change in 1974. The Arethusa was sold then donated to the South Street Museum in New York, where it took 12 years to restore her to her former glory as the Peking.
The beautiful ship that attracted many visitors to a quiet stretch of the Medway now continues to attract tourists at South Street Seaport Museum in New York. Howeverm, she is in need of repairs and some reports suggest she will return to the city of her birth, Hamburg, for renovation.
Since her departure, two small ketches called Arethusa have given youngsters the experience of yacht racing. The venture centre at Lower Upnor carries on the good work, attracting more than 6,000 children a year. Until recently, they were watched over by the figurehead but she, like the Peking, has been suffering from old age and is being repaired.