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

The Hill circa 1895
The Hill circa 1895
The Hill has been regarded as the centre of Northfleet probably since the days when the first Saxon Church was built on this hill that is one hundred feet above sea level. At that time the ground sloped from The Hill area down to the Thames on the north and to the Ebbsfleet on the south but chalk excavation during the 19th century around The Hill has left the church and local shops and houses standing on an isolated pinnacle of chalk.

The Hill on the main road and many of the adjacent buildings stand precariously on the edge of 80 foot high cliffs, the access to the Hill being limited to the main roads, Granby Road, and a footbridge over the chalk pits to the south east corner of St. Botolph's church.

Until the early 19th century, in front of where the Catholic Church now stands stood the village pound and stocks. The pound was a square brick building with tiled roof, and to the south of the pound, facing the Leather Bottel public house, were the stocks where the parish Beadle administered punishment to those who had misbehaved, either at church or at the workhouse.

It was also on this spot in 1860 that a tollgate was erected by the Turnpike Commissioners as an additional gate to try to increase the income from the tolls for the road which had been falling since the opening of the railway. The toll gate house stood on the west side of The Hill about five yards to the south of the road leading to the back of St. Botolph's Church. The location of this toll gate annoyed the traders on the Hill who had to pay a toll every time they wished to go to London Road, Dover Road and Springhead Road, in which direction some of their best customers resided. The women residents also complained about this 'new fortress' erected at the turnpike gate, because the gap between the posts erected on the footpath at the tollgate was too narrow to pass through for women wearing crinolines. The gate was financially successful but only lasted until 1871'when the Turnpike Commissioners' Trust was wound up.

The Roman Catholic Church, which nowadays is the prominent feature as you approach The Hill from Gravesend was built in 1914 on the site of the old Northfleet horse drawn tram depot, which was closed in 1901, plus an adjoining plot of land given by Mr. Alfred Tolhurst. It had been originally planned to make a public appeal for the funds to build the church, but the children of the late Mr and Mrs A. Tolhurst provided the necessary money (about £8000) as a memorial to Mr A. Tolhurst. The architect was Sir Giles Scott, and the tower foreshadows that of his Liverpool cathedral; the local building contractor was J.B. Lingham. The opening ceremony was held on Tuesday 15 June 1915.

On the opposite side of the road leading down to the bottom of the cliff was a wooden staircase, erected in 1860 for the convenience of the newly formed 20th Kent (Northfleet) Volunteer Rifle Brigade to reach their 200 yard rifle range and drill ground. The firing practice always created an audience at the top of the cliffs.

On the corner of Church Road where the new block of flats now stand was no.4, The Hill, Penny, Son and Parker's grocer shop, which served the public from 1898 for over 50 years. Next door, nos. 5 and 6 are two brick built shops, called Alma Cottages, built about 1860 on the site of two old weather boarded houses, one of which had been used as a fancy bazaar and newsagents. Before it was demolished this had been the only place in Northfleet where newspapers could be bought or The Times loaned for one penny.

On the south east corner of the triangular area that was once the village green stands no.7, now a chemist's shop. This was a butcher's shop for over one hundred years, having its own slaughterhouse at the rear during the 19th and early 20th century. The old rails for hanging the meat can still be seen in the shop and on the wall outside. Mr Holker refurbished the building in 1791, when he replaced the wooden weather boarding frontage with brick.

The houses between the chemist and the lych gate are probably 19th century. In one house, now no. 10, lived William Skews, confectioner, and a Waterloo veteran who had lost an arm in that battle. He also had a stall in Gravesend market selling sweetmeats and he was the last remnant of the fair that had been held on The Hill every Easter Tuesday. On that day he would set his chair in the middle of The Hill and on the table in front of him would have varieties of sweets and a disc with numbers round and central pointer which when spun decided the quantity of sweets received. From 1886 until the present day, no. 10 has been an undertaker's, run by Richard Fisher until the First World War and since then by the Horlock family. Later the business was sold to Hythe of Sittingbourne although they retained the name of 'Horlocks T.S. & Son'. Later, the firm was bought by Mr Martin Bourne, previously a manager at Hythe's, and he too continued to use the Horlocks' name.


entrance to northfleet church
entrance to northfleet church
Outside the lych gate stood the Dove Inn, one of the ancient inns of Northfleet. It was burnt down in 1906 and finally demolished in 1907. At the rear of the inn stood several cottages in an area known as 'Dove Yard'.

In front of St. Botolph’s lych gate you are faced by a triangular car park that was once the village green with at its north west corner a well. It is believed that the three annual fairs were not held on this green until around the late 18th century when the fairs were diminishing in size and importance, but in two fields on the periphery of the Hill that were known as 'The Hill Market Field' and 'Little Market Field'. The mediaeval fair was more than sideshows and amusements, though these were included; it was a market on a large scale, and was beneficial to the Lord of the Manor who exacted dues from the traders. In 1201 archbishop Hubert gave King John four palfreys in return for the privilege of holding a ten days fair at Northfleet, and the Royal Charter for a fair to be held in May is still extant. The two other fairs were one on Easter Tuesday and another on St. Botolph's Day (17 June). The May or Whitsuntide fair continued to be held until the end of the 18th century. As late as 1803, we read in the Rev. S.H. Cook's History of Northfleet and its Parish Church (1942), 'these fairs though of no great note are still kept up', and, as recorded above, William Skews maintained the tradition of the Easter Tuesday Fair well into the Victorian period.

On the village green had stood the cage or lock up afterwards moved nearer to the Leather Bottel plus a weighbridge, a wooden erection on which vehicles and cattle were driven, their weight taken and toll exacted. It was removed when the toll gate was introduced and the weighbridge afterwards stood in the backyard of no.33 The Hill for several years.

In the late 19th century the 'green' was paved over, and in 1923, a War Memorial constructed from Portland Stone was erected to commemorate the 259 Northfleet servicemen who died during the First World War. It was originally situated in the middle of the open area at The Hill, close to the London Road, surrounded by lawn and flowerbeds in an iron railed enclosure. The memorial has now been relocated in between the lych gate and the Veterans’ Club.

On the north side of the 'green', where the Northfleet Veterans Club now stands, stood a row of 17th century terrace cottages that were demolished in 1958. On the corner, the Coach and Horses, said to date from 1572, and the shop adjoining, were apparently part of a timber framed house.

There was a custom of nailing a hot cross bun to a beam each Good Friday in the Coach and Horses and varnishing it. Hot cross buns were traditionally made from the residue of the dough used for making the Host for Easter Sunday and given to people unable to take the sacrament. They were said to partake of the Divine Nature and to be imperishable (in fact probably because of the spices used) and were hung up as good luck charms for the ensuing year. This Northfleet custom was seen to be a possible relic of this pre Reformation custom, as the building dates from the early 1400s. The home made buns competition where the winner receives a free pint of beer a week for one year and has the honour of nailing his or her hot cross bun to the beam has recently stopped.

Behind the Coach and Horses public house Northfleet's first purpose built fire station was built in 1910. It was 25 years earlier that the Northfleet Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed. In 1941, like all other units, Northfleet Fire Brigade was incorporated into the National Fire Service.

On the northern side of the entrance to the car park stood the second council offices in Northfleet. The local Urban Sanitary Authority that came to be known by the term 'Local Board' built them in 1884. The 'Local Board' continued until 1894, when the Local Government Act of 1894 provided that all the urban sanitary authorities should be reconstituted 'Urban District Councils'. In 1920 Northfleet Urban District Council moved to Northfleet House in Council Avenue (now St. Peter's Nursing Home). Thomas Sturge, descended from an old West of England Quaker family, lived there until his death in 1866. The Sturge family played an important part in abolishing slavery. Thomas's father was Deputy Chairman of the Anti Slavery Society. In 1929, the Co operative Society who had purchased the property, extended the frontage of the old council offices closer to the road (evidence of this can still be seen in the brickwork) and moved their business to this building from their old shop in Dover Road. Above the shop was a hall that was used for social events such as weddings and dances.

Northfleet Manor House
Northfleet Manor House
At Granby Place (nos. 1 and 2 High Street) stood Northfleet Manor House. It was enclosed by a high red brick wall with a drive and entrance gates facing the high road. Its date of origin is uncertain; the earliest so far confirmed recorded date is a map from 1726. William Crakelt, the curate, resided and ran a boarding school there for some time, prior to his death in 1812, when Robert Hewetson took over. In 1819, the Manor House became Northfleet's workhouse, which it remained until Northfleet became one of the 15 parishes which formed North Aylesford Union in 1835, and the workhouse was removed to Strood. The North Aylesford Union was divided into two divisions for administration purposes and Northfleet became the administration district for one of those divisions; Mr Henry Heath of Orme House was elected Chairman. About 1860, a further attempt to run a boarding school here was tried by the Reverend E Davis but as it failed to make a profit, he then established a private asylum for the 'mentally deficient'. What seems now an odd occupation for a curate is explained by his very low salary, which he was obliged to augment. The garden of the Manor House was incorporated into the churchyard in the 1880s and it was about this time that the Manor House disappeared. The site was finally cleared in 1909.

On the third side of the triangular 'green', the east side of the main road, stands another of the old coaching inns the Queen's Head, previously The Crown (1636 1718), which had extensive grounds and a bowling green at the rear. About the year 1830, a fire broke out in the house which nearly destroyed it. The building was renovated and it appears that it was about this time that the bowling green disappeared and the cliffs were cut away for the chalk. The Queen's Head was rebuilt again in 1909.

Grocers Shop of James Fox
Grocers Shop of James Fox
In the 1880s the Honeycombe family ran the post and telegraph office at nos. 36. 37 and 38 The Hill until 1890, when Richard Fox took over the business. The Fox family ran the sub post office until at least the Second World War. Nos. 34 and 35, built on the site of the old Queen's Head gardens are where James Fox ran a successful grocery business from the 1880s until 1923. On the 1838 map the brick houses are shown set back from the road but by 1890 an extension was added onto the front and used as the shop while the rear was the living quarters.

The oldest house now standing is no. 31, a private house called 'The Heritage'. It is believed to be the remaining part of a much larger house dating from c. 1500 its earliest history is not very clear but it was the White Hart and then the Plough Inn. (1715 1830). In front of the inn stood a signpost and horse trough and, to the rear, before the cliff was excavated, there were stables and a passageway leading towards the Leather Bottel.

At the start of the Victorian era there lived on the site of no.30 another of Northfleet's old personalities, Isaac Bocking, known as 'Old Isaac', an eccentric character who adopted the name Bocking from the village in Essex where he originated. This man was a shoemaker and over his door he put up the following verse on a board for the enlightenment of the public:

Isaac Bocking lives here who will not refuse
To make or mend both boots and shoes.
His leather is good, his prices just
For ready money, but no trust.

After the death of this worthy man the premises were pulled down and Mr Eric Wiseman erected the present house and shop on the site that for several years was used as a butcher's shop by him.

The Vicarage Northfleet
The Vicarage Northfleet
There were three known forges in Northfleet, Newby's High Street, Leving's Old Perry Street and 29 The Hill, which is believed to have been the oldest. Thomas Grey was the smith at this forge from the 1880s until 1929. His 15 year old son was tragically killed while assisting at the preparations of the vault for the Reverend Southgate's burial in 1885. Charles Dyke purchased the business in 1929 and it remained in use until 1946.

The forge was next to an inn named the Marquis of Granby that was situated at the top of Granby Road. It was built in 1885 and continued until 1925; the building was demolished when the new Labour Board Offices were built on the same site in the 1950s.

References and further information:

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


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