In May 2001 a fire broke out at Dockyard Church, Sheerness. The Grade II*-listed building, dating from 1828, was empty at the time. It had last been used for worship in the 1970s, briefly outliving the closure of the Naval base in 1960. The fire destroyed everything but the shell of the building and the decorative iron columns in the nave. The square tower, which had acted like a chimney as the fire ripped through the structure, somehow survived, and for 20 years its blackened form with its broken weathervane provided a painful reminder of the declining fortunes of Sheppey’s built heritage.
The ruined church was subsequently acquired by a developer who put forward ambitious proposals for conversion into apartments, with more houses to be built in the church gardens. The project stalled and in 2013 the church was bought by the local authority, Swale, via a Compulsory Purchase Order, eventually passing (via the Spitalfields Trust) to a new charity, The Sheerness Dockyard Trust which had been formed by a group of heritage specialists and local residents with a mission to revive the Church and other historic buildings in and around the former dockyard. The Trust immediately set to work developing plans for the rescue, repair and reuse of the church.
After a heroic fundraising campaign boosted by a transformative grant of nearly £5m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, restoration work began in November 2020. The Trust had appointed the same architectural team – Hugh Broughton Architects and Martin Ashley Architects – behind the multi-award- winning restoration project atthe Painted Hall, Greenwich and the principle at Sheerness was to execute a loving restoration of the exterior with a light, simple contemporary approach to the interior, preserving the surviving architectural features ‘as found’. The brief was to produce a building which could house an enterprise centre with public access to the ground floor where there would be a display of elements of the great Dockyard Model and a cafe.
The works involved the meticulous knitting together of the shattered fabric of the fire-damaged building – led by a hugely experienced team of specialist craftsmen under the main contractor Coniston Ltd. Brickwork was repaired and repointed, new stone-pieced in to cracked pilasters and columns and the 1828 cornice profile was run in situ using traditional methods, The tower, deemed unsafe, was carefully dismantled and reconstructed, and a series of spectacular timber beams were hoisted into place over the main body of the building, providing support for a innovative new roof structure – with its four circular skylights. The leaded windows were faithfully recreated and the external landscape was restored, complete with iron railings. Inside, a lightweight mezzanine structure was inserted in place of the missing galleries linked by a bridge at the west end of the nave. This area now houses the co-working space, with meeting rooms, cafe and Dockyard Model display below.
The works at the Church completed in June this year, with the miraculous transformation finally visible to all after the official opening on 17 July. Outwardly, the Church has regained its monumental, late-Georgian, Greek-revival splendour. The cathedral-like interior has an ethereal quality, spacious, calm and flooded with light from the banks of windows and the roof lights above. The views stretch as far as Southend in Essex. The building is now IslandWorks, operated by Kent-based company Fruitbowl Media on a lease from the Dockyard Trust.
Fruitbowl already have successful co-working operations in prestigious locations across Kent. IslandWorks offers co-working for anyone, a startup incubator and business mentoring for young people between 16 and 30, an event and meeting room hire (home of the Sheppey Business Network – a support organisation for all local buildings) and a cafe. The church is currently open from 10 – 5pm Monday – Saturday. More information can be found at IslandWorks.com and sdpt.org.uk
We encourage all readers of Faversham Life to visit and gaze in wonder at the glorious phoenix which has risen from the ashes. And why not start co-working at Island Works? You couldn’t find a more spectacular office.