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

Windmill 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. 

Why 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. 

The 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.

References and further information:

"A Historical Walk Through Gravesend And Northfleet" published by Gravesend Historical Society.

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