From our Fellows: A night on HMS Cavalier

Suchi Chatterjee, our Curating for Change Fellow at Chatham Dockyard, describes a night on the destroyer HMS Cavalier as part of her work with the Disability Heritage Focus Group, and shares some insights from the group.

Suchi talking with another Fellow. She has short dark hair and is a wheelchair user.
Image: Museum of London

An important part of exploring disability history at Chatham Dockyard is working with D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people in the local area. At the Dockyard a Disability History Focus Group has been meeting monthly since last November to do just that. Each member of the group has a particular interest in an aspect of disability history linked to Chatham Dockyard. They have also been reflecting on their lives as disabled people who must traverse a complex line between what is activism and what is a lived experience.

HMS Cavalier, a large boat

As part of this agenda an overnight stay on the destroyer HMS Cavalier was arranged with the Dockyard. Launched in 1944, HMS Cavalier began her career escorting Arctic convoys and participated in major operations off the coast of Norway. At the end of WWII, HMS Cavalier joined the Pacific Fleet.

The group were impressed with the overnight stay and how they were looked after by Chatham Dockyard Heritage Trust staff. They felt safe, comfortable and had a great night in which they discussed a variety of topics related to disability history, access and equality in the workplace.

Here are some reflections from the group on their overnight stay, as well as the wider work they have been doing as part of the Disability History Focus Group.

A memorial to the past

Bramwell has been researching Chatham ships. He is interested in how ships looked and functioned in their heyday, and how they look now as a memorial to the past in a museum setting. He really enjoyed the experience though he found the silence at night disconcerting.He would have liked more information about the ship on board, such as QR codes or panels.

Exploring Admiral Nelson

Zara was very keen to find out more about Admiral Nelson and his disabilities, and is also trying to research a 1935 oil painting of James Alfie Merryweather: a man of short stature who had to do his work standing on a box. As part of her work with the group she has undertaken a podcast-style walking interview with a friend who has recently been diagnosed with COPD, in order to see how easy it is for her to access the dockyard with reduced lung capacity. She noted that access to Cavalier for wheelchairs was across uneven terrain, which could be a hazard for people with mobility impairments. She also felt there should be more information about Cavalier’s history to give insight into the ship and its former crew, as well as images for people with limited literacy.

The life of Billy Waters

Auriel attended the overnight stay with her partner. Auriel was very interested in the injuries the sailor (and later famous London street performer) Billy Waters sustained from his fall from the rigging of the HMS Ganymede. She enjoyed the overnight stay, but found the ship very noisy. Nonetheless, she was glad she did the visit as it took her completely out of her comfort zone. She enjoyed looking over the ship and being able to explore it, but wanted to know more and wished there was an audio description she could listen to whilst walking around the deck and inside the ship.

Learning about the Cavalier’s history

Jane, Peter and their son Jack are all members of the group. Jane and Peter have been researching Charles Austen and his link to HMS Namur and Billy Waters. Jane found a tour of the ship with a volunteer very informative in learning about the Cavalier’s history. They felt the Cavalier experience was a good way of showing people that the dockyard has a lot to offer for disabled people, with the added bonus of all the disability history intertwined into the fabric of the buildings, ships, experiences and people that they were finding out about as part of the Disability Heritage Focus Group.