A strange sort of rabbit pie at Chatham Dockyard

Chatham Dockyard’s main gate. Wheelbarrow, anyone?

I suppose I shouldn’t be rude about the old Chatham Dockyard workers. They built the ships that helped win many a war.

And my grandfather spent his last working year there after the Gun Wharf shut, so I should show it some respect. However, the honesty of a small minority of its workers, it’s fair to say, was not 100 per cent and often became subject of folklore.

I’m sure you all know the story about the wheelbarrow and the tarpaulin. During a clampdown on thefts from the old naval base, every man was searched as he left after his shift.

For a week or so, one particular matey was pushing an old wheelbarrow covered with tarpaulin. Every night, the security guard at the main gate lifted the tarpaulin to see what was underneath. Every night, he found nothing.

Eventually, a large number of barrows and tarpaulins were discovered missing…

Now, however, I have been told an expression I hadn’t heard before — “a rabbit”, used to refer to buckshee work done in the firm’s time with company materials. The origins, my learned informant explained, goes back to Chatham Dockyard.

The site was overrun by rabbits and yardmen were encouraged to catch and kill as many as they could. Before they took them home, they would remove their innards as a first preparation for their conversion into rabbit pie.

A few of these lapine corpses, however, had another use … for hiding contraband. Many’s the adjustable wrench or pair or pliers that vanished from the yard in a rabbit’s guts.

I mourn the senseless destruction of the dockyard as the killer blow that knocked much of the soul from the Medway Towns. However, the base was no model place of work. Tales of skiving, huge poker games in secret places, and mass pilfering still abound. And euchre — a card game played exclusively, it seems, in dockyards.

What can you recall? All dockyard reminiscences — and jargon — will be received gratefully.

Rochester & Strood
Medway villages
Medway at war

2 thoughts on “A strange sort of rabbit pie at Chatham Dockyard”

  1. As a boy I worked in RNAD Lodge hill, left at closure of depot. I returned to the yard much later in life as a health physics monitor, in the nuclear complex, there until the dockyard closed.
    Much of the early system of refuelling and refitting of ‘nukes’was developed at Chatham, as in all learning process mistakes were made, some paid for by ex-workers many years after the yard closed. When you consider the dose rate of a classified worker then, compared with that allowed today, it was a whole new ball game, mostly ruled by the”suck-it-and-see” method. Much more could be said, but like all nuclear staff I am bound by the Official Secrets Act, even after all this time.

  2. See you’re looking for dockyard jargon etc. Well I think we are all aware of the term “rabbit” and its origins, as for euchre I played many a hand in the mess room at the nuclear towers, watched a fitter lose a whole weeks wages in one afternoon. The particular job I did was shift work, seven days a week, 24 hours a day reactor safety cover, spent most of our time in the mess room waiting to be detailed to a task.
    The submarines were always referred to as “boats” or “nukes” the reactor was known universally as the “pot” places of high radiation levels was a “hot spot” – elementary I suppose. Each part of the reactor system had a locally known name, i.e. MCP was the main coolant pumps, and so on.
    Life was fairly laid back ,sometimes even boring, you could always join the spear fishing club (throwing welding rods at imaginary fish)or go “walk about” grab a sheet of paper and wander around the yard looking important. My section wore white overalls: this and a film badge would almost guarantee no one would challenge you. Most people outside the nuclear complex considered us to be exponents of “the black arts”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.