RememberedColonel Gordon came to Gravesham on the 1st September 1865, aged 32, by which time he had already acquired a reputation for extraordinary achievement by bringing an end to the Civil War in China (accorded to the title “Chinese Gordon”), for which he was awarded the CB by Queen Victoria. He was quick to establish himself, soon becoming Commandant of The Thames Forts with the mission to reconstruct and update the Thames defences which the Government believed necessary to counter a possible invasion by the French.
Life in Milton, Gravesend, did not begin auspiciously for Gordon however with the death of his father, brother-in law and nephew within the space of two months. In letters to friends he wrote of his discontentment with the town, yet he hoped to reconcile himself both to the town and to the work that needed to be done there.
Gordon starts his involvement with the communityWhilst repairs were carried out to his beloved “Fort House”, in New Tavern Fort, he resided at Mrs Lord'sin Harmer Street. She was to become a great friend and fellow worker for the poor and trained poor girls for trades in domestic service whilst helping to run a night school for poor boys. Formerly Milton Church Rectory, Fort House was built in the 17th Century. The War Department had bought the house, the old St Mary's Milton chantry and extensive grounds in 1797.
By the 19th Century Gravesend and the surrounding area was a popular Spa Town for holiday makers, with obvious prosperity contrasting with great poverty. Gordon started to call at the Poor House, quietly helping the poor and needy. With help from his housekeeper, Mrs Sarah Mackley, Gordon changed two rooms at Fort House into classrooms with the second room doubling at times as an almshouse. Later Gordon continued with his charity work by renting a small house in East Terrace for older children to gain a chance of higher education.
Gordon’s help extends to the poor, the sick and the needyIn 1867 Gordon met William and Octavia Freese who gave him a greater insight into the range of social problems faced by the town. They worked with Gordon at the “Gravesend Ragged School” and introduced him to the work of the soup kitchens that were relied upon, especially in winter, when no outside work could be found and poverty and despair were at their worst.
Gordon also remained committed to his own schools at Fort House and East Terrace as well as teaching at St Andrew’s mission on the waterfront. He also became a regular visitor to the local workhouse where he would supply the poor with food, tea and tobacco. He also visited the sick and lonely in the local infirmary and the poor in their homes, often in appalling conditions.
A Church manGordon prided himself on working with churches of all denominations despite the traditional rivalry that existed between the groups. This rivalry came to a head over the real founder of local soup kitchens, Henry Berkowitz, who was a Rabbiand ran Tivoli House Academy and Synagogue at Windmill Street. Gordon was to defend him and his wife, Rosetta, against personal attacks by other church leaders. Eventually Gordon managed to persuade all denominations to work together for the needs of the poor. His attitude can be summed up by his remark that “The church is like the British Army, in it is One, only different regiments.” Gordon and Mr Berkowitz went on to found the Mendicity Society, with Gordon becoming Chairman. It was a great success in helping approximately 6,000 cases of need, only in the end to fail through lack of public support..
Gordon on the riverNot deterred by the disappointment of the Mendicity Society, Gordon involved himself further in the welfare of the local poor, this time in Northfleet, working amongst the rivermen and boys on the river. He witnessed the poverty and almost slave-like conditions of those working in the Lime, Chalk and particularly Cement works of the area. In 1869 Gordon’s great friends, the Freese’s, moved from Gravesend but pleaded with him to take their place on The Ragged School Committee. Although not a committee man (always feeling that it was work and not words that solved problems) Gordon agreed and was to serve on the committee until his departure from the town in 1871.
Gordon leaves GravesendGordon left Gravesend as quietly as he came in September 1871. It was not until late October, when the local paper recorded his absence with a simple tribute, that his departure became widely known. He was to be sorely missed. Only after his death 26th January 1885 at Khartoum, did it come to light that Gordon had never forgotten the poor and needy he had met during what he personally regarded as the happiest days of his life. Payments and pensions were still being sent to families in and around Gravesend, some honoured by the Gordon family right through to the start of the 20th Century.
Gordon donated three of his Chinese flags to the Ragged School in 1873 via his eldest sister, Miss Mary Augusta Gordon who after her brother’s death, donated three more. His youngest sister, Helen Andrew Moffit continued to support Gravesend’s soup kitchen until her death in 1932. Today, when his engineering and military leadership and sacrifice are remembered his charity work is often forgotten. “Gordon of Gravesend” was not only a great soldier and administrator, but also a great Christian gentleman and benefactor. For the latter, if for nothing else, he should be “Remembered”.
On Gordon’s death at Khartoum on January 26th, Gravesend council decided to create the largest evermemorial to the Borough’s friend and benefactor. In August 1885 they leased land east of the Promenade, followed in 1886 by the Recreation Ground. In 1891 G.M Arnold, the mayor, donated the Gordon Gardens and commissioned a statue of the General which was unveiled in 1893. In 1910 the council bought all of the leased land from the War Department creating the Gordon Promenade Recreation Grounds. Twenty years later they added to the tribute by buying the Fort Gardens and House, St Mary’s Milton Chantry and Gordon’s office in Commercial Place so completing the Grand Gordon Memorial.
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