The man who has had an influential role in the transformation of Chatham Dockyard from dilapidated former naval base to thriving museum and one of the top visitor attractions in the county has decided to call it a day.
After 36 years’ service, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust’s director of Heritage, Visitor Experience and Learning, Richard Holdsworth MBE, will retire from his role this summer.
Richard entered the museum profession in 1978 with Merseyside County Museums (now National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside). From 1979-85 he was a Museum Officer at the Imperial War Museum, before joining Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust as its first curator in 1985.
In his current position, Richard is responsible for the operation of The Historic Dockyard Chatham as a museum and visitor attraction, a role that encompasses the trust’s extensive collections, galleries, formal learning programmes and the front-of-house teams who work to make everyone’s visit to the dockyard memorable.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, Richard has taken the dockyard through periods of great change. By adopting a ‘preservation through re-use strategy’ the 80-acre post-industrial former naval base has been transformed into a flourishing mixed-use heritage estate with a multi award-winning museum at its heart.
Soon after Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was formed, trustees decided historic warships were required to interpret the historic dockyard story. Richard was actively involved in the acquisition of all three of the Trust’s present ships – HMS Gannet in 1987, HM Submarine Ocelot in 1992 and HMS Cavalier in 1999. Richard visited Ocelot, the last in the line of more than 400 warships built at Chatham for the Royal Navy, when she was lying in Portsmouth Harbour (he is pictured aboard it below). His first experience onboard a submarine involved access by the only means possible, a rope ladder, and viewing the interior spaces by torchlight. Richard led the welcome committee when Ocelot arrived at Chatham and worked with former dockyard workers on the challenging and slow process of bringing her to rest without power, light, hydraulics, or compressed air.
More recent projects have included the award-winning and runner-up for the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture, “Command of the Oceans,” telling the story of the dockyard during the Age of Sail, and “No.1 Smithery” – an “at risk” 19th Century Scheduled Ancient Monument now converted into a state-of-the-art building and exhibition space, bringing together collections of Royal Museums Greenwich and Imperial War Museums. The former also involved a surprise archaeological find beneath five layers of floor of the timbers of Namur, a second-rate ship of the line built in 1756 at Chatham.
In recognition of his services to heritage in Kent Richard was appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2009. Richard is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.
Commenting on his decision to retire, Richard says: “On 1 April I will have worked for the dockyard for 36 years – an awful lot longer than I imagined possible when I joined as the trust’s first curator back in 1985. During that time, I have had the privilege to be involved in the transformation of the dockyard from empty, semi derelict, post military industrial site to the vibrant place it is today – or will soon return to following Covid – and have worked alongside a succession of truly great trustees and colleagues. I plan to retire at the end of June this year, by then I will have completed a staggering 43 years in the world of museums and heritage and think the time is right to let someone else have all the fun!”
Richard’s announcement forms part of a managed succession programme for the trust which in recent months has seen Richard Morsley appointed as chief executive and Paul Barnard as chief operating officer.
Morsley says: “I have had the pleasure of working with Richard over the past 18 months and have valued and respected his wise counsel, incredible knowledge, experience and passion for the dockyard and the wider heritage sector. The contribution he has made to the trust over 36 years is immeasurable. The transformation of the dockyard is in large part due to the work that he has led and contributed to over the years. While Richard’s retirement marks a watershed moment for the trust, I am pleased to say it won’t be goodbye as we will continue working with him post-retirement as curator emeritus.”