The Brunel sawmill is a sort of hidden gem in the dock , it was the first steam sawmill in the world so the first of its kind but sadly is not open to the public as part of Chatham Historic Dockyard . It can be seen up on the left as you walk up towards the visitor entrance.
The Brunel Sawmill is the most intact sawmill in the world that was built during the golden age of sail
Prior to 1812 all timber was cut by hand and with over 2000 oak trees required to build an average wooden sailing ship that was a great deal of wood to cut with what was just a giant hand saw operated by 2 men . At its peak over 300 men were employed just to cut timber.
Work was commenced on the new state of the art steam powered sawmill in 1812 during the Napoleonic wars when there was a huge demand from the Admiralty for ships to fight the French . Marc Brunel designed the mills but the man responsible for the actual build was a Mr Ellicombe and made use mainly of the yards own workforce . As it was built at a level of 35 feet above the river level a canal was built from the main ponds . The canal ran open for about 250 feet before entering a 300ft tunnel ending at a storage basin next to the sawmill. There was also a steam railway system which connected the mill to the area where the finished planks were stored. The plans for the time also show a water well within the sawmill but it’s unclear if this was used as a supply for the steam engines , for drinking water or existed prior to the mill and was built over ?
Ironically Marc Isambard Brunel the engineer who designed it was French himself but as a royalist he had to flee France and claimed political asylum in England. It was his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel who also ironically ended the age of the wooden ship with the design of the worlds first screw propelled steamship the HMS Great Britain which was constructed using wrought iron. If you wish to read more about Marc Brunel then read about his life in This book from Amazon.
It’s is still in use today by the North Kent Joinery so it still echoes to the sound of saws and men cutting wood.