Secret Rochester by Philip MacDougall
Another Chapter in the Secret History of the Rochester Medway Towns
Strange it must have been in December 1812, when a fleet of twenty-two warships gradually, over a period of a few days, slowly made its way up the River Medway to moor within view of Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester. I say strange, because none of those ships were flying British flags, as each flew aloft the ensign of the Imperial Russian navy. As with other episodes in the history of the Medway Towns that I have previously written about in Secret Chatham (2016), Secret Rochester (2019) and soon to be published Secret Gillingham book, this is another little-known local event, but one of great significance.
So why had the Emperor of all Russias, Tsar Alexander I, sent to Chatham such a powerful battle fleet? Quite simply, Napoleon was poised to march on St Petersburg, the Russian capital and the home of the Imperial fleet. To prevent that fleet being captured, it had been sent out of the country, guided by several ships of the British Royal Navy.
Imagine Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester at the time. Suddenly, in their midst was a massive force of 10,000 Russian seamen, of which only a few spoke English. While, maybe, only the officers were usually allowed to go ashore, entertained by some of the wealthy families in the area and given frequent banquets at the Guildhall in Rochester. They must have been a regular sight in their immaculate gold braided uniforms. In particular, local merchants especially profited by their arrival, frequently called on board the Russian ships to open a market for both men and officers. Not that problems didn’t occur. To feed 10,000 men, huge quantities of flour and meat were required, sometimes purchased locally by the Admiralty’s Victualling Board, with supplies for local residents occasionally falling short.
The nearest I have got to mentioning this fleet in the ‘Secret’ series is in writing about Dr William Burnett, a naval physician who was put in charge of caring for the sick and wounded of the Russian fleet. It was this that led me to find out more about that fleet and why it came to the Medway. One thing I certainly learnt from Burnett and the writings of other naval physicians: it was a fleet not in good health. Scurvy, typhus and smallpox were not uncommon, with extra hospital ships having to be laid on for the care of those in fever.
In having touched, occasionally, on the presence of that fleet in the Medway, and which returned to St Petersburg in May 1814, it has encouraged me to undertake further research into the background of that fleet. This is something I am currently doing, so expect more from me on this subject in the future. Incidentally, when Secret Gillingham is published, this will represent my sixteenth book on the Medway area and I love to get feedback from my readers.
Philip MacDougall's new book Secret Rochester is available for purchase now.