Building H.M.S. Achilles by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Chatham Dockyard," chapter twenty-four in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

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Passage Realised

Crossing the river [Medway] and landing at the Stairs, where a drift of chips and weed had been trying to land before me and had not succeeded, but had got into a corner instead, I found the very street posts to be cannon, and the architectural ornaments to be shells. And so I came to the Yard, which was shut up tight and strong with great folded gates, like an enormous patent safe. These gates devouring me, I became digested into the Yard; and it had, at first, a clean-swept holiday air, as if it had given over work until next war-time. Though indeed a quantity of hemp for rope was tumbling out of store-houses, even there, which would hardly be lying like so much hay on the white stones if the Yard were as placid as it pretended.

Ding, Clash, Dong, BANG, Boom, Rattle, Clash, BANG, Clink, BANG, Dong, BANG, Clatter, BANG BANG BANG! What on earth is this! This is, or soon will be, the Achilles, iron armour-plated ship. Twelve hundred men are working at her now; twelve hundred men working on stages over her sides, over her bows, over her stern, under her keel, between her decks, down in her hold, within her and without, crawling and creeping into the finest curves of her lines wherever it is possible for men to twist. Twelve hundred hammerers, measurers, caulkers, armourers, forgers, smiths, shipwrights; twelve hundred dingers, clashers, dongers, rattlers, clinkers, bangers bangers bangers! Yet all this stupendous uproar around the rising Achilles is as nothing to the reverberations with which the perfected Achilles shall resound upon the dreadful day when the full work is in hand for which this is but note of preparation — the day when the scuppers that are now fitting like great, dry, thirsty conduit-pipes, shall run red. All these busy figures between decks, dimly seen bending at their work in smoke and fire, are as nothing to the figures that shall do work here of another kind in smoke and fire, that day. These steam-worked engines alongside, helping the ship by travelling to and fro, and wafting tons of iron plates about, as though they were so many leaves of trees, would be rent limb from limb if they stood by her for a minute then. To think that this Achilles, monstrous compound of iron tank and oaken chest, can ever swim or roll! To think that any force of wind and wave could ever break her! To think that wherever I see a glowing red-hot iron point thrust out of her side from within — as I do now, there, and there, and there! — and two watching men on a stage without, with bared arms and sledge-hammers, strike at it fiercely, and repeat their blows until it is black and flat, I see a rivet being driven home, of which there are many in every iron plate, and thousands upon thousands in the ship! To think that the difficulty I experience in appreciating the ship's size when I am on board, arises from her being a series of iron tanks and oaken chests, so that internally she is ever finishing and ever beginning, and half of her might be smashed, and yet the remaining half suffice and be sound. Then, to go over the side again and down among the ooze and wet to the bottom of the dock, in the depths of the subterranean forest of dog-shores and stays that hold her up, and to see the immense mass bulging out against the upper light, and tapering down towards me, is, with great pains and much clambering, to arrive at an impossibility of realising that this is a ship at all, and to become possessed by the fancy that it is an enormous immovable edifice set up in an ancient amphitheatre (say, that at Verona), and almost filling it! Yet what would even these things be, without the tributary workshops and the mechanical powers for piercing the iron plates — four inches and a half thick — for rivets, shaping them under hydraulic pressure to the finest tapering turns of the ship's lines, and paring them away, with knives shaped like the beaks of strong and cruel birds, to the nicest requirements of the design! These machines of tremendous force, so easily directed by one attentive face and presiding hand, seem to me to have in them something of the retiring character of the Yard. 'Obedient monster, please to bite this mass of iron through and through, at equal distances, where these regular chalk-marks are, all round.' Monster looks at its work, and lifting its ponderous head, replies, "I don't particularly want to do it; but if it must be done —!" The solid metal wriggles out, hot from the monster's crunching tooth, and it is done. 'Dutiful monster, observe this other mass of iron. It is required to be pared away, according to this delicately lessening and arbitrary line, which please to look at." Monster (who has been in a reverie) brings down its blunt head, and, much in the manner of Doctor Johnson, closely looks along the line — very closely, being somewhat near-sighted. "I don't particularly want to do it; but if it must be done —!" Monster takes another near-sighted look, takes aim, and the tortured piece writhes off, and falls, a hot, tight-twisted snake, among the ashes. The making of the rivets is merely a pretty round game, played by a man and a boy, who put red-hot barley sugar in a Pope Joan board, and immediately rivets fall out of window; but the tone of the great machines is the tone of the great Yard and the great country: "We don't particularly want to do it; but if it must be done —!"

How such a prodigious mass as the Achilles can ever be held by such comparatively little anchors as those intended for her and lying near her here, is a mystery of seamanship which I will refer to the wise boy. For my own part, I should as soon have thought of tethering an elephant to a tent-peg, or the larger hippopotamus in the Zoological Gardens to my shirt-pin. Yonder in the river, alongside a hulk, lie two of this ship's hollow iron masts. They are large enough for the eye, I find, and so are all her other appliances. I wonder why only her anchors look small. [117-118 ]


Even as a child, Charles Dickens knew the Chatham dockyard in Kent, near Rochester, intimately, for his father, John, worked here as a clerk in the Naval Pay Office from 1817 until 1822, when he was transferred to London. In later life, the novelist acquired Gadshill estate nearby, and his fifth, son Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (1847-72), served as a midshipman aboard H. M. S. Orlando, which had to be extensively repaired in the Chatham dockyard in 1863. The H. M. S. Achilles, although but one in a line of great warships such as the Victory, Revenge<, and Temeraire which the Royal Navy built at Chatham beginning with Henry VIII's acquisition of the Medway facility in 1547, was the first of ten iron-hulled ships to be built for the Royal Navy in its own dockyard, a new technology that would spawn the dreadnoughts and the Titanic. With its obvious interest in this new technology, the All the Year Round article published in August 1863 would seem to be more closely associated with the applied science articles that Dickens with Richard Hengest Horne and others published in Household Words in the previous decade than with the the more philosophical and introspective pensees that would become The Uncommercial Traveller — indeed, just such an essay by Horne and Dickens, "One Man in a Dockyard" appeared in Dickens's earlier weekly journal on 6 September 1851. Although it was not launched on the Medway until 23-24 December 1863, the Achilles, appropriately named after the swift and relentless Myrmidon of Homer's Iliad who chases down the Trojan hero Hector while both are in full armour, was reported under construction in the "Military and Naval Intelligence" columns of The Times on 25 August 1863:

Advantage has been taken at Chatham of the recent fine weather to lay the main and upper deck planking of the Achilles. . . . The mechanics have been employed overtime for about a fortnight in order that the entire deck might be completed before any change of weather sets in. The iron plating of all the decks is 5-16ths of an inch in thickness, with iron ties 5/8[ths of an inch] thick. [p. 10, col. f; as cited by Slater and Drew, p. 288]

Likely based on the artist's careful observation of the dockyard construction of an iron-hulled vessel in the late 1870s, Dalziel's detailed and convincing rendering of the construction of the iron ship Achilles reveals his technical brilliance as a draughtsman. Despite the woodenness of his some of his figures, his urban backdrops are always engaging for their own sake, suggesting that he viewed contemporary London with the eye of an architect and engineer as well as of an artist. Here he adopts a long perspective so that the reader has an unrestricted view of the entire operation, much as Charles and Sydney Dickens must have done in the summer of 1863 when, visiting the H. M. S. Orlando in the dry dock, they must have inspected the construction of the Achilles on a number of occasions as they walked from and back to Gad's Hill Place, Dickens's chief residence from 1860 until his death in 1870.

Dalziel's technically satisfying realisation of the onomatopoeic passage features an imaginative touch: his name spelled out on the gangplank (right foreground). Two two vertical spares suggests that the ship is beginning to rise, while the insistent horizontals of the deck planing reiterate the low horizon and the far bank of the Medway. The workers are not the legion described by Dickens — Twelve hundred hammerers, measurers, caulkers, armourers, forgers, smiths, shipwrights; twelve hundred dingers, clashers, dongers, rattlers, clinkers, bangers bangers bangers — but Edward Dalziel has fully integrated their dozen figures within the skeleton of the vessel, implying that, small as they seem, their technical expertise and diligence (their vigorous action implied by the numerous "er" constructions in Dickens's description of their various functions) are wholly necessary to the vessel's growth, more so than the sheer force of the steam-driven construction engine to the extreme left.


Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Lynch, Tony. Dickens's England: An A-Z Tour of the Real and Imagined Locations. London: Batsford, 2012.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.

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Last modified 19 February 2013