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

Canal Basin in the 1950sThe Canal Basin was originally at the western end of the Thames and Medway Canal built in the early 1800s and opened on 14 October 1824.  Its lock gates gave entry to the River Thames.  The Canal was seven miles long, saving a coastal journey of 46 miles. However, owing to tolls charged and tidal difficulties, it soon became something of a white elephant and was taken over by the South Eastern Railway in 1845. Part of the Canal was later filled in leaving the Basin isolated and now used as a mooring for pleasure craft.

At the western end of the Canal, there stood until 1942 a small cottage, the roof of which was an upturned hull of a boat, with a window in one side. This is held by some to have been the inspiration that led Dickens to invent the house of Peggoty in David Copperfield. Peggoty's house, however, is described as being constructed of a vessel in an upright position. boat-house-thames-medway-canal.jpg

For many years there stood at a point near the north west corner of the present canal basin what was known as the Round Tree. This was regarded as marking the seaward limit of the Port of London, beyond which the duty on coal entering the port was not chargeable. This was a convenient, rather than an exact landmark, as the eastward end of the parish of Milton is some distance farther east. The tree was damaged by gun practice from the fort towards the end of the 18th century, and early in the 19th century was mischievously set on fire, sailors from a collier lying in the Canal Basin extinguishing the flames. Its end came when it was blown down during a violent storm, with strong winds from the south  south west on the night of 5 August 1825.

After the destruction of the tree, an obelisk was set up in its place in 1826 and when excavations were made for its foundation bricks were found similar to those used in the Gravesend blockhouse, from which it seemed that this was the site of the Milton blockhouse. Excavation on the spot by a small group of the Gravesend Historical Society in February 1973 confirmed the existence of these foundations. From early maps earthworks are known to have existed here. The use of this stone as a landmark being no longer needed, it was taken down and lay for many years on the edge of the Canal Basin. In 1892, it was re erected at the entrance to the Gordon Memorial Gardens, but with no mention of its former function.


Links to relevant websites:

Gravesend’s Oldest Building

milton chantry .jpgIf walls could talk what a wonderful story they would tell. The origins of Milton Chantry are said to go back to a leper hospital founded on the site in 1189. Aymer de Valance endowed land on the north side of the Thames in Essex to help maintain the hospital, build a chapel and support two chaplains in 1321. The purpose of the chantry chapel was to say prayers for the souls of the dead. The priests also said prayers for the souls of Aymer De Valance and his family. During the reign of Henry VIII such chapels were dissolved along with many larger monastic sites up and down the country. The lands and possessions were forfeited to the crown, and Henry VIII gave the chapel and the lands to Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The Chantry became a tavern in 1697 and a small hamlet grew up around it. We have a description of the tavern in 1776 notes a large dining room, and a neat bowling green and garden. In 1778, action was being taken to improve the military defences of the Thames, and Captain Thomas Hyde Page proposed the building of a new fort. In 1781, building work began on New Tavern Fort and the garden walls, bowling green, orchard and various structures attached to the inn were demolished. chantry window.jpg

The Chantry was remodelled into a barracks and the walls faced with brick. Records from the early 1800s speak of a vermin-infested room with leaking roof occupied by 20 soldiers (married and single men), wives and children. So conditions were not good in the early days. The diet of the soldiers consisted of three meals per day made from three quarters of a pound (0.33kgs) of mutton or beef, a pint (0.6ltr) of soup, two and a quarter pounds of bread (100kgs). They were also allowed a pint (0.6ltr) of tea and 1.5 pints (0.9ltr) of coffee. The women cooked this food and supplemented it with fresh foodstuffs grown in the garrison’s garden.

The fort continued in use until 1918 and the chapel now stands in a public park created in 1932. The Chantry is Gravesend’s Heritage Centre with displays and artefacts telling the story of the town and revealing the architectural puzzles left by the buildings many changes of use. The centre us owned and managed by Gravesham Borough Council and operated by Thames Defence Heritage

Visitor Information 2013

Opening Times
Weekends only April - September 12noon - 5pm


headphones sml.jpgFree audio tour available from Reception

 This brand new tour will take you back in time - to discover the fascinating history of Gravesend’s oldest building. With this audio guide you will learn about the building’s various features through different periods in time. The voices you will hear, and the images on your screen, will help you to picture the Chantry, and the lives that were lived here over the centuries.

Fort Gardens, Commercial Place, Gravesend, Kent DA12 2BH

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Useful websites



The Building 

Capt. Long John Silver, as he preferred to be known, lived in The Look Out, a small house in Royal Pier Road, Gravesend. It had its interior fitted out like a ship wherein the worlds largest collectioin of merchant ship's figureheads and nautical treasures were stored.
There are several accounts of what it was like in The Lookout. We are fortunate to have some black and white photographs of the interior which can be seen here.

the-lookout the-lookout

Sidney Silver Cumbers

capt-long-johnBritain in the nineteenth century had its fair share of unique characters, among them was Sidney Silver Cumbers (also known as Capt. Long John Silver) now perhaps remembered only by mariners and enthusiasts of nautical history. He was among other things a collector of figureheads and nautical artifacts.

When only ten years of age he lost an eye through an accident with a toy gun. Any stolid boy would have been sadly affected by such loss. Team games for him ceased to exist and even ordinary boyish companionships were largely denied him through the inherent collousness of the young male. as a result he became self sufficient, being driven more and more into himself as the full extent of his disability came home to him.

The lonely little lad found an absorbing hobby in the stream of shipping entering and leaving the Thames Estuary. He had begun to spot and study house flags and ship silhouettes and to read the shipping papers. Being denied a sea career he entered the family business and lived in london. This famous Thames-sider was a successful London business man who lived normally in a conventional flat and dressed in a conventional city style. At weekends and on other occassions he came down to the Look-Out at Gravesend and kept an almost open house for all interestedi n the sea:he wore a yachting cap and a black patch over his glass eye.



The unique collection of figureheads, eighty- four in all ,represented four centuries of the craftsmanship of carving and formed the largest private collection in existance. The rarest of them is that called the Golden Cherubs dated 1663 and reputed to have been carved by Grindling Gibbons. This lovely figurehead once adorned the bows of the piratical frigate owned by John Jacobs.


The Lookout Timeline

1931   Mr Sidney Silver Cumber comes to Gravesend.
1932   He starts his collection at The Lookout.
1936   The Lookout occupies annex of the Royal Clarendon Hotel
1951   Certain exhibits selected for showing at the Festival of Britain.
1953   The Duke of edinburgh thanks Mr Sidney Silver Cumbers (alias Capt. Long John Silver) for his generous gift to the Cutty Sark of the figureheads and other nautical artefacts.
1953   Some 150 people attend farewell party at the Lookout to celebrate 21 years of its being.
1959   Mr Sidney Silver Cumbers died just before his 84th birthday.
windmill-etching Following the French fashion for salt water bathing, people came to Gravesend to bathe in the river. Bathing machines were introduced in 1796 and the Clifton Baths were built.

Visitors flocked to the town on the new paddle steamers. Elegant gardens were laid out at Rosherville and opened to the public in 1839. Windmill Hill offered a glorious view out over the river. On the Gordon Promenade visitors enjoyed donkey rides and teas of local shrimps with watercress and bread.

In the 1840s the town attracted more than a million visitors in a season. Then, as the railway extended along the coast to Margate in the 1860s, trippers began to prefer the seaside and fewer visitors came to Gravesend.

Clifton Baths Gravesend Beach