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.
The 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:
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 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.