Much of Gravesend and Northfleet’s history lies in their strategic location beside the River Thames and on the route between London and the Channel ports.
Gravesend has long been at the forefront of the defence of the capital and in 1381, despite the erection of a series of beacons, a combined French and Spanish force sailed up river as far as Gravesend, burnt the town and carried off many of the inhabitants into slavery. Those who escaped were in such poverty that King Richard II was moved to help them. He therefore granted to the watermen of Gravesend and their successors the sole right to ferry passengers to London. This right which was confirmed by later monarchs was the beginning of the long ferry and gave great impetus to the growth of Gravesend as a maritime centre and port.
Gravesend’s defensive role was strengthened in Tudor times when the Spanish and French invasion threat was ever present, by the construction of block houses at Gravesend and Tilbury, as well as others further down the river. Other defences were later added, such as New Tavern Fort in the 1780s.
Friendly visitors were (and still are) however, always warmly welcomed. Many travellers would pass through the district on their way by road to or from Dover making the trip between London and Gravesend by ferry. Despite the hazards of bad weather and overloaded boats the journey by water was safer and more comfortable than the coach route from London where highwaymen roamed the heaths. Early in the 17th Century public coaches, referred to as “Tide Coaches,” were introduced to meet the boats. These were among the first stagecoaches in the country. Many of the early voyages of discovery started off from Northfleet and Gravesend, which was the port of embarkation for many of the colonial settlers.
As was usually the case in most seaports, inns and places of refreshment abounded. In the first half of the 19th Century, with the coming of the steamboats and the construction of the piers at Northfleet and Gravesend thousands of day-trippers poured in from London. This was Gravesend and Northfleet’s “Golden Age”. Business boomed and bathing establishments and pleasure grounds opened up, the most famous of these being Rosherville Gardens, which rivalled the Vauxhall Gardens in London and attracted thousands of visitors. Windmill Hill too became a popular attraction. Even as late as the 1860s records indicate that within a 1700 metre stretch of the Gravesend riverside there were no less than 11 taverns or hotels, with a further 13 in High Street and the alleyways behind. There was also a high concentration of coffee houses, dining rooms and tea rooms in this area. When the railways came the trippers preferred to go further afield in search of their fun, particularly after the sewers of London brought pollution to the rivers and made “sea bathing” impossible. In the wake of the trippers, in the mid to late 19th Century, came the first commuters, London businessmen who were responsible for building many of the fine houses in the area. The railway also opened up the hinterland and attracted industry to this now thriving and rapidly developing area, which had deep-water berthing facilities and was in close proximity to the new Tilbury Docks, which opened in 1886.
Today, the thirteen conservation areas add character and richness of building design to Gravesend and Northfleet. Some of them contribute very special qualities to Gravesend town centre and others are desirable and attractive areas in which to live.