A Virtual Museum - Your Town, the Borough and its History

The Grand Theatre Harmer StreetAt the north end of Harmer Street on its eastern side there stood until 1955 a stucco covered building with an ionic portico that had been built in 1842 as ‘The Literary Institution’. The architects were Messrs Cobham and Wright, a local firm, and it cost £3000. It originally contained a reading room and lending library, a lounge and promenade, a billiards room and an assembly room for concerts, recitals, lectures and balls. Furnished with a very fine organ presented by Alderman Harmer, it was much patronised by visitors to the town until the 1840s - 1850s. It was also known as 'The Assembly Rooms'. As the fortunes of Gravesend as a holiday centre decreased, its fortunes, too, diminished, and for some seasons it was known as 'Kelner's Bazaar' after its proprietor. alderman-james-harmer-c1777-1853
In the 1890s, an extensive reconstruction took place. The broad gallery (which stretched along its northern side) was taken down, galleries at the west end constructed and the building reoriented to conform to the required shape of a theatre. It then first became ‘The Prince of Wales Theatre of Varieties’ in 1884 and ‘The Grand Theatre of Varieties’ in 1900. The coming of cinema to the town from 1910 onwards introduced competition that the Grand was unable to stand against. After being sold in 1927 it closed in 1933, although the bar remained open, and in 1952 the roof fell in. In 1955 it was rebuilt as a public house and, because of its former function, was given the name of ‘The Call Boy’.

A Tilt BoatFormerly a passenger Pier, erected in 1834 at the bottom of the High Street it is the oldest remaining cast iron pier in the world. Purchased by Gravesham Council in June 2000 it is one of the most important historic structures in Gravesend.

In most towns there is an area where history is more closely packed than anywhere else, and Gravesend is no exception. Most often it is the market place that can claim this distinction, but it is around the Town Pier Square in this waterside town that the events of the centuries are most clearly seen. If it were possible to bring upon the square, as upon a stage, with their attendant circumstances, all the important historical characters known to have embarked at this spot, what a varied and colourful assemblage it would be!

How many of the 'noble lordes, Knyghtes, squyers and oother about the noombre of cccc (400)' who accompanied the Count de la Roche in 1467 when he came from Burgundy to joust with the Queen's brother, landed at Gravesend is unknown, but the 'rich apparailde' ships that lay off the town must have provided a delightful sight for its citizens.

Of those known to have been ashore with a great retinue, Cardinal Wolsey, who had met the Emperor Charles V of Spain at Dover with a train of earls, knights, bishops, abbots and chaplains, with 100 gentlemen and 700 yeomen, came to Gravesend, where they embarked for Greenwich in 30 barges in 1522. Henry VIII, Wolsey's royal master, also landed in Gravesend from Erith in 1544 and, having dined here, rode to Faversham for an expedition in France that he afterwards abandoned.

Sebastian Cabot 'banketted' with others at the Christopher Inn (on the western side of Town Pier Square opposite The Three Daws) in 1556; maybe also Martin Frobisher, who had a Gravesend man, James Bere, as his navigator on his second and third voyages in search of a north west passage to China, and who with his crew 'received the Communion by the minister of Gravesend' aboard the Ayde in 1557. In May 1553, the first expedition of the Muscovy Company sailed from Gravesend under the command of Richard Chancellor, who was well received by Ivan the Terrible.

Later royal personages included King Christian of Denmark, brother of James I's queen, ships of whose fleets lay off Gravesend in 1606 while he was on a royal visit that he repeated in 1614. On that occasion he was accompanied by Prince Henry, James's short lived son; James 11, who as Duke of York occupied a house where now is the western part of the Clarendon hotel, and who, in flight in 1688, landed and passed through the town; Charles 1, both as prince and king, first incognito on a prospective matrimonial venture in Spain, and later with his bride, Queen Henrietta, in 1625; the Count Palatine of the Rhine, who landed at Gravesend in 1612, to espouse the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James 1 (the Winter King and Queen of Bohemia), whose grandson was George 1; and the Prince of Orange who, after his marriage to Princess Anne, daughter of George 11, stayed in Gravesend, weather bound, for three days in 1734. The last monarch to land at the Town Pier was H.M. Queen Elizabeth 11, in February 1953, when she visited the area affected by the flood of that year.

To these royal persons may be added Lady Deborah Moody (nee Dunch) who sailed from Gravesend for New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1643, where Dutch Director General Willer Kieft granted her a charter to found a new town called Gravesend, which included Coney Island and which she laid out on the first grid plan; Andrew Marvell the poet, accompanying Lord Carlisle on a diplomatic mission to Muscovy, in 1663; Pepys and John Evelyn in 1667; Hogarth, the painter, in 1732; and John Wesley, in 1734. A tablet formerly upon the Town Pier recorded the landing there in 1873 of August Strindberg, the Scandinavian playwright. The tablet is now in storage.

Gravesend Landing Place 1810The beginnings of this part of the Thames shore as a landing place lie beyond the reach of records. The first reference is to be found in the Domesday Book, that monumental inventory compiled under the authority of William the Conqueror, the date of which is given approximately as 1086 1089. Here is to be found:

Herbert, son of Ivo, holds Gravesham of the Bishop (the 'Bishop' was the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror, who had been disgraced and under arrest since 1082, but was still credited with his manors) there is one church and one hythe...

Ralph, son of Thorold, holds of the Bishop, in the hundred of Toltingtrow, Meletune (Milton) ... There is a church and 1 mill of 49 pence, and a hythe of 20 shillings, and 3 servants...

What were the duties of the servants (the word used in Domesday is 'servi') can only be conjectured. That there was at that time a cross river service to meet needs of the period can be taken as certain, and in all probability communication with London by river, later to be known as the 'Long Ferry' was already on a regularised footing. That a payment had to be made to the possessor of the manorial rights suggests that this was obtainable from the traffic charges made and the revenue earned by the transport service. From the amount set down as the value of the hythe 20 shillings some larger revenue than that arising from mere cross river traffic may be assumed, and the Long Ferry would be likely to provide the bulk of the sum required.

Mention of the Long Ferry compels a brief treatment of the privileges that were conferred upon Gravesend watermen to whom were granted the sole right of conveying passengers by water between Gravesend and London. A royal grant of 1401 to this did not so much originate the privilege as confirm one that was already existent.

We are informed that from time whereof the memory of man is not to the contrary, the Men of Gravesend ... have been accustomed, and were used, without any interruption, freely quietly and peaceably to carry in their own vessels whatsoever persons coming to the town aforesaid, and willing to go thence by water to our city of London ... that they in their own vessels, may for ever freely ship such persons coming to the said town of Gravesend and willing to go thence to our said city of London by water, etc.

It is interesting that the rights under this Charter were granted to 'the men of the town', not the Lord of the Manor and seems to show that they had some sort of corporate existence long before the Charter of Elizabeth, as is also evidenced by the Petition relating to the building of the first St. George's Church or Chapel.

The Thames between the city of London and Gravesend was for centuries the highway taken by travellers proceeding farther into Kent, the roads out of London to the south east being in bad condition and subjecting the traveller to robbery by highwaymen. Those intending to proceed farther into Kent before the coming of stage coaches did so by hiring horses from hackneymen; these, having made their journeys, returned to Gravesend and delivered up their steeds, which were all distinctly branded as a proof of ownership. The profession of 'hacqueneyeman' appears in local church registers.

The earliest mention of the landing place after that in Domesday is in 1286 when on 2 June a violent storm seriously damaged 'the causeway and landing place'; and in 1293 complaint was made to the Justice of the Assize of the dangerous condition of the 'bridge and chalk causeway leading to the water'. A decree was issued compelling the lord of the manor to repair the river moiety, and the men of Milton the land moiety. The term 'bridge and chalk causeway' suggests that the approach to the river was by a raised platform of timber and that the foundation was a built up base of chalk, square blocks of which material were employed as 'footings' of later buildings in the vicinity.

It is to be noted also that the reference is made in the decree to the fact that, owing to the bad state of the bridge many 'both of our country and strangers are liable to suffer losses'. From this may be gathered that trading vessels from other countries were even at that time accustomed to moor off the town, their seamen landing at the bridge.

At the same assize certain boatmen of Gravesend, Robert Gnoubal and Richard Dugil, were called to answer a charge that they had demanded double the fare allowed in the statute that was one halfpenny for conveying a passenger to London. They craved mercy and were placed under a bond of forty shillings. How serious a penalty this was Pocock (the 18th century printer and historian) points out by stating that a halfpenny in 1293 was the equivalent of a shilling in purchasing power 400 years later.

The upkeep of the landing place over the next 400 years probably devolved upon the holder of the manor of Gravesend and upon the inhabitants of the town, a manorial record in 1360 referring to '128 pieces of elm timber to make piles for the new wharf'. The term 'wharf' suggests a built up structure rather than the bridge or causeway of a century before.

When the town's Third Charter was granted in 1632 an annual sum of £6 14s 4d was fixed as payable to the Duke of Lennox as lord of the manor for the better maintenance of 'Gravesend and Milton Bridge'. This sum was paid until 1677 when it fell into abeyance for 15 years, at the end of which time the Corporation of the Borough put before the representative of the possessor of the manor that a sum of £115 13s 9d had been expended upon repairs to the bridge, whereupon the further payment of 'pontage' as it was called was excused and the Corporation became sole owners.

Little more is forthcoming regarding the structure of the quay until, through the medium of Pocock's reporting, we learn that 'about 1765 the Town Stairs or Landing Place at the waterside were built of wood and often out of repair ... To remedy this evil the Corporation in 1767 erected a spacious wharf with a crane &c to land goods, and made a substantial stone bridge or causeway ... on this wharf are many sheds or shops which the Corporation let out mostly to gardeners, for the speedy supplying of ships'. In 1828, the Corporation built a new stone landing place (builder Mr. McIntosh). The Lord Mayor of London opened it. Now that horses have all but disappeared from our streets, mention of the 'horse wash' referred to in Corporation accounts, may require some explanation. It was the custom at the end of a day's work for draught horses to be ridden down into the river in the summer, where they refreshed themselves by splashing around: at the side of the quay a sloping descent was provided for this purpose. Another payment under date 7 January 1636 was made to porters of 'two shillings for ducking of Goodwife Campion', this being carried out by strapping the unfortunate misdemeanant into a 'ducking stoole' and immersing her in the river.

The Steam Ferry Boat EdithThe Town Pier (which was closed in 1969 when the passenger ferry was transferred to West Street Pier and the car ferry discontinued) was built in 1834 (designed by Tierney Clark, engineer, builder William Wood, cost £8700) and opened by the Earl of Darnley. Its construction was vigorously opposed by watermen of the period whose living depended to a large extent upon landing passengers from the steam vessels plying between Gravesend and London, and damage was caused to the early work undertaken to prepare for the building of the pier. The first steamboat on the Long Ferry was the Margery built on the Clyde by Wm. Denny of Dumbarton, in 1815, and they soon replaced the tilt boats used on the ferry since the 17th century when they in turn replaced the traditional barge.

The pier was bought from the Corporation by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway in 1885 and became their Gravesend station. After a number of commercial uses, it has now been restored using public funds.

high-street-circa-1905.jpgThe earliest known mention of the High Street is in 1334 when property with houses thereon was conveyed to John Page, the younger, and Helen, his wife, of Gravesend. This was in the parish of Milton and was stated to be 'abutting upon High Street towards the west'. The High Street of that time was not a continuous line of houses as we see it today. Between what is now the site of the old Town Hall and the river there appears, according to a document of 1456, to have been only two houses on the Milton side of the street until the riverside was reached, with one or two tenements on the Town Quay. It is probable that a channel ran down the middle of the street and that down its course went the unwanted domestic rubbish, washed by rains or periodical swillings with well water. The Town's Second Charter of Incorporation, dated 1568, required every inhabitant 'to weekly cleanse before his door for the avoidance of evil odours' under a penalty of three shillings and fourpence.

Between the Kent public house and the junction with Royal Pier Road was a parcel of land belonging to the Abbot of the Monastery of St. Mary Le Graces, Tower Hill, London. This was also part of the old manor of Parrock. The piece between the Kent and Bank Street was, in the early part of the 15th century, the site of Dame Anne's Hall. The other piece between Bank Street and Joe Coral's turf accountants was called Beelings (or Baldwin's Acre and the rest of the land on the north was called Stonehawe or Stonehall.

William Bourne (c.1535 1581), innkeeper, mathematician, gunner and mercer, well known for his writings on ordnance, inventions and navigation, owned messuages, tenements and gardens on the east side of the High Street.

By the late 18th century the street must have begun to assume something of the appearance it still had in the late 19th century, as Pocock, Gravesend's first historian writes: 'almost every tradesman had a sign and in the night when the wind blew strong, a concert of squeaking music filled your ears with sounds not the most pleasant'.

The demolition in 1928 of the New Prince of Orange (built in 1805 when the New Road was cut) which occupied the site of Burton's, the tailors, and of Bryant and Rackstraws, at one time the leading drapery and haberdashery store in the town, on the opposite corner (now Woolworths) in 1957 has completely altered the appearance of this corner. The High Street has doubled in width, as it was previously eight feet wide.

In 1963, the shoe shop at 43 High Street was demolished, and the late E.W. Tilley of the Gravesend Historical Society excavated the site from which it was apparent that a shoe shop had existed on the site for 150 years. From the contents of various rubbish pits, however, there was evidence that the site had been occupied continuously since the 13th century with slight slackening off in the 14th and 15th centuries, with extensive occupation beginning again in the 17th century.

Until Jury Street was cut in 1846 7 there was no outlet from the High Street other than pedestrian footways. A fire that occurred in the earlier year destroyed much of the property in the street and provided the opportunity to cut through into Princes Street. The name of the street commemorates the fact that a jury sat to assess the amount of damage and the cost of the change made.

To the north of Jury Street was The Catherine Wheel, which bore on its front the year of its erection, 1686. Half of this building remains and is now 56 High Street. The date stone is now in the local collection. The right hand pilaster of the former entablature can still be seen above the shop front.

high-street.jpgThe Common Market that the Charter required the Corporation to hold once a week was established between the new building and what is now known as Queen Street. At first an open space, in 1818 it was converted into two covered ways with stone columns supporting the roof, but with an uncovered centre area. The architect for this work was Charles Fowler, who was also responsible for Covent Garden and Hungerford Markets. The fish market was added on the site of the Shambles in 1829. This remained until the present market hall was built in 1897, when the columns were removed to the grounds of Milton Hall (see G M Arnold). The architect for the covered market was Edward J. Bennett and the builders Multon and Wallis. The mayor, John Russell, opened it on 18 December 1898.

Lower down the street on the east side is Bank Street, cut through in 1850 following another extensive fire, and so named from the bank that stood on its southern corner. Two early (1824) private banks were Messrs Brenchley Becket and Ride and Messrs Miller Twiss and Co. In 1823, Gravesend Vestry sustained a loss of £68 2s 11d on the failure of Messrs Hills and Sons.

Websites of interest:
www.urbanspace.com/gravesend_heritage_quarter.html - Gravesend Market

windmill-hill-circa-1825.jpgWindmill Hill is located on the highest ground near Gravesend town centre and provides an interesting vantage point from which to view the surrounding areas and the river activity.  Nestling at the foot of the hill on its northern side is Windmill Gardens where you will find ornamental gardens and a bowling green and tennis courts. Located near the entrance to the gardens is a memorial commemorating the dead of two world wars.
Those unfamiliar with the town of Gravesend, its situation and the contour of the district may not readily appreciate the reason for the choice of the summit of Windmill Hill as the starting point of this perambulation of the town. The Hill has little discoverable history earlier than the 16th century, and that very meagre, but its height above the surrounding country provides a vantage ground from which to view the district as a whole before visiting at closer quarters the buildings and streets possessing historical associations. When this survey was first contemplated around 1952 the view to the north from the Hill presented a homogeneity that the last 50 years have destroyed.

Then, most of the roofs were grey Welsh slate covering houses built between 1830 and 1860 in a fairly regular pattern of through roads with houses of three or four storeys, usually with basements, and smaller houses in between. The clearance of the area between Windmill Street and Parrock Street and the erection of large blocks of flats with the multi storey car park and municipal buildings completely altered the view, and the enormous chimneys of the power stations and cement works have provided a new dominant feature in the landscape, although the Northfleet Power Station and two of these chimneys have gone since 1976.

Looking north, one is conscious of the important part played by the River Thames in England's history. With the closure of the London docks, the traffic on the river has diminished, but the presence of shipping and container ships in Gravesend Reach still provides a reminder of the link that has so long existed between the Thames and the continent of Europe, as well as the remotest seaports of the world. There can have been fewer grander maritime sights than to witness from the summit of the Hill in the mid years of the 19th century the stately towers of square sail of the numerous clippers making their way up the river with cargoes of tea, grain, wood, or spice, having been blown across the oceans of the world: a scene now occasionally enacted when the tall ships come up to the Pool of London.

The flat Essex shore, rising a mile or so back to a ridge upon which modern dwellings and blocks of flats have been built, provides a background for the scene: slightly more to the left, Tilbury docks (opened in 1886 and since enlarged and now a container port) remind us of the many processes entailed in a maritime nation's economy. The liners with their regular sailings for mail and passengers to Australia and elsewhere have now gone. Only cruise ships and pleasure liners now use the landing stage at Tilbury. The docks were opened in 1886 and the Orient Pacific transferred their sailings to Australia here from Liverpool on 15 January 1887, their first liner, then the biggest to come up the Thames, being the R.M.S. Ormuz (6387 tons). The last was the Himalaya (28000 tons), the line moving to Southampton on 10 September 1969.

On the Essex shore can be seen 'The World's End' with what was formerly the causeway for the cross ferry in front and to the right of Tilbury Fort with its Carolean Water Gate built in 1682. The first defences here were provided during the reign of Henry VIII when a blockhouse was erected by the side of the river. The present bastioned fort (which is in the care of the Department of the Environment) was built between 1670 and 1683, according to a design by Sir Bernard de Gomme. To the east stands the Tilbury power station, built in the 1950s and considerably extended thereafter. 

windmill-hill-circa-1825.jpgWhy did Gravesend come to be the outer port of the firmly established city of London? Was it not that, in very early days, when the river spread at high tide over the marshes east and west of Gravesend, the chalk spur reaching out to the tideway itself provided the first hard landing ground upon which incoming sailors could find firm foothold? In addition to this, the landing place was exactly a tide away from London, so that whether the wind were fair or foul, quick passage and a safe anchorage were available, with shelter under the lee of the Kent and Essex shores. The hythe that existed at the foot of the present High Street in the 11th century was even at that date a landing place with a few centuries' history behind it. Travellers to the New World in Tudor and later times frequently spent their last night in England at Gravesend at one of the local inns. The great East India Company, founded in the 16th century, provisioned their ships at Gravesend and had their own camp for their soldiers and sailors and their own hospitals here.

If one turns towards the south, one sees today a large built up area, much of it roofed with clay tiles, although some mostly older houses with slate, spreading into the countryside, where 90 years ago one looked upon wheat fields, orchards and arable lands devoted to market garden produce. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, Windmill Hill lay to the south of the town, and Singlewell and Chalk were isolated villages.

The Hill rises to about 169 feet above high tide level and consists of an outlier or capping of Thanet Sands in the middle of surrounding chalk six hundred or so feet deep. It owes its present name to the windmills built upon its summit at various times from the 14th century onwards. It was previously known as Ruggen, Rogge, Rounden or Rouge Hill. Until the end of the 18th century it was rough, untilled ground, and the earlier name may have been a spelling of 'rough'. Beacons giving warnings of the approach of invading forces were erected on the Hill in 1377 and again in 1588, and one was standing there in readiness for use in 1719, according to Dr Harris's History of Kent. A new beacon was erected in 1988 in connection with the Armada anniversary celebrations.

Whether the Hill was used in Roman or Saxon times as a look out is unknown. No evidence in the shape of pottery, coins or domestic articles has ever been found. The important Roman town of Vagniacae was some two miles away to the south west at Springhead, although evidence of Roman occupation has been found near the riverside.

In the early 19th century, Windmill Hill became the playground of London residents, who spent summer holidays in Gravesend or made day trips by steamer, engaging in donkey rides and the fun fair activities of the period, mounting the old mill. This was erected in 1764, the previous one having been burnt down in 1763, when the sail became loose in a gale. There is a record of 'A new windmill by John Young, millwright and carpenter in 1373' The last millers, Alexander Deakin and John Fiveash, were moved to Perry Street. In the 19th century, a camera obscura was erected on top of the mill and it was used as a means whereby a better view might be had of still farther horizons. A gallery at the height of 20 feet above the ground provided a look out for visitors. A proposal to erect a tower as a memorial to the Battle of Alma in 1855 did not proceed, although architects' plans were prepared. Refreshment houses, the Tivoli, the Belle Vue on top of the Hill, the Miller's Cottage and The Windmill in Shrubbery Road, and other licensed houses carried on a thriving trade. With the decay of Gravesend as a holiday resort, the mill became derelict and was finally pulled down in 1894. The last remnant of the town's heyday, the Belle Vue, (then closed) was destroyed by fire during the boisterous celebrations of Mafeking Night in 1900, the firemen's hoses being cut when they attempted to save it, The Tivoli hotel, on Windmill Street, became an academy for Jewish youths and a synagogue in 1856, and remained in this use until the outbreak of war in 1914, when the school was removed elsewhere. Later, it has been employed as a social club and as an auctioneer's saleroom, and as a bingo club. 

war-memorial-windmill-gardens.jpgThe Hill was purchased in 1843 by the Gravesend Corporation, and in 1889 the lower slopes were acquired also. This enabled the foot of the Hill to be terraced and turned into pleasure and sports grounds. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Joseph Cockerdale Dinsdale Bart, opened them in May 1902 and also opened the Promenade extension. The War Memorial was dedicated on 11 June 1922 and unveiled by General Lord Horne, architect EW. Doyle Jones. The war memorial was damaged by enemy aircraft during the 1939 45 war and re erected afterwards. Here a service of remembrance is held each year on the Sunday nearest to 11 November. The small granite stones on the Hill mark the site of the first bombs dropped on the town from a German Zeppelin, L.2.38, on 31 May 1915, when numbers 99 and 100 Windmill Street and houses in Brandon Street were also damaged.

West of Windmill Gardens is the Veterans Club, erected and opened in 1954 as a social meeting place and games centre for men above 60 years of age. It occupies the site of the Maze, later Ashenden's early nurseries. The thoroughfare in which it is situated, Clarence Place, was known earlier as Lacey Terrace at the east end, from the name of the builder of many of its houses, Edward Lacey, who was Mayor of Gravesend in 1850.

In Clarence Place there was erected in 1873 Milton Congregational Church (architect John Sulmar of London). It maintained a useful ministry until 1955, and, after closing, was used as a warehouse. In 1968, it became a Sikh temple for the local community. A new temple is being built in Khalsa Avenue on the old Barracks site.

clifton-baths-front.jpgIn 1796, bathing machines were first used on the foreshore, with the Clifton Baths at the rear. In 1837 the baths were rebuilt in pseudo oriental architecture. They provided swimming facilities; separate for each sex, with hot and tepid baths for the languid.

Nearby, the New Thames Yacht Club (a breakaway from the Royal Thames Yacht Club), formerly Pallister's Hotel, and the Union Yacht Club (with which the New Thames amalgamated) was the centre of considerable yachting activities.  King Edward VII when Prince of Wales and Kaiser Wilhelm 11 were frequent visitors during the Gravesend Yacht weeks.

clifton-hotel-thames-yacht-club.jpgThe Royal Yacht Britannia, built by D.W. Henderson on the Clyde in 1893, was brought round to the Thames and was first raced at Gravesend in April of that year. Seats were provided for visitors in front of the baths where, to quote a chronicler of 1864, 'the convalescent may enjoy an animated view of the river and the scenery of the opposite coast'. At that time this was open marshland, as Tilbury Docks were not constructed until 1886. The New Thames Yacht Club was wound up in the early 1900s and Charles Arkel of Chatham was the last Commodore.