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The road from Gravesend to Rochester runs beside the Thames and offers a fine view of the Hoo Peninsula, at Higham the Falstaff inn takes its name from a scene set on this road in the play Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Origin of the name 'Gravesend'
The town is recorded as Gravesham in the Domesday Book in 1086 as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and called 'Gravesham': a name probably derived from "graaf-ham": the home of the Reeve, or Bailiff, of the Lord of the Manor. Another theory suggests that the name Gravesham may be a corruption of the words grafs-ham - a place 'at the end of the grove'. Myth has it that Gravesend got its name because, during the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the 1600s, the town was the place where victims were no longer buried on land - they were buried at sea (the town sits next to the Thames Estuary). This myth can probably be discounted!
Gravesend has one of the oldest surviving markets in the country, its earliest charter dating from 1268. Town status was granted to the two parishes of Gravesend and Milton, the Charter of Incorporation being received in that year. The first Mayor of Gravesend was elected in that year, although the first Town Hall was in place by 1573: it was replaced in 1764. A new frontage was built in 1836. Although its use as a Town Hall came to an end in 1968, when the new Civic Centre was opened, it continued in use as the Magistrates Courts. At present (2004) it is disused, and discussions are being held with a view to its future.
On the river front is recorded the archaeological remains of a riverside fort built at the command of Henry VIII in 1543.
Gravesend is associated with General Gordon (1833-1885), who lived in the town during the construction of the Thames forts. For six years he devoted himself to the welfare of the towns 'poor boys', establishing a Sunday school and providing food and clothes for them from his Army wage. In command of the Royal Engineers from 1865-71, he was responsible for the forts that guard the Thames downstream from Gravesend, New Tavern Fort in the town, Shornemead Fort on the south bank, and Coalhouse Fort on the north.
Gravesend clock tower, Harmer Street
The town’s clock tower was built at the top of Harmer street. The foundation stone was laid on September the 6th, 1887. The memorial stone states that the clock tower was erected by public subscription (£700 was raised toward its construction) and it was dedicated to Queen Victoria, to commemorate the 50th year of her long reign. Built with Portland and Dumfries stone, backed with hard stock brickwork, the design of the structure was based on the Westminster tower that houses Big Ben. The centre of the clock itself is measured at 50 foot above the ground and the face is 5ft 6 inches in diameter.
St Georges church.
St Georges church, just opposite the pier, survives as restored 1731 in the Georgian style of the period, after having previously burnt down in august 1727 when a great fire consumed much of Gravesend destroying about 110 houses and the parish church, services being transferred to the town hall until the church was rebuilt. The parish records were lost in the fire so that the site of the burial of the native American princess Pocahontas have also been lost.
Pocahontas was to become the first Native American to visit England, and so Europe. The daughter of Powhatan, chief of the Powhatan confederacy of Indian tribes, she came into contact in 1607 with a group of English settlers at Jamestown, in Virginia. A legend was born when she famously saved the pioneer Captain John Smith from the immediate threat of death from an Indian raiding party which descended upon the hapless settlers, by shielding the Captain from the tomahawk blows of his captors by throwing herself upon him.
What is certainly true is that, after John Smith had returned to England she was made a hostage by the English settlers to attempt a procurement of good behaviour from the Powhatan tribes, and that his daughter was falsely informed that Smith had died. She later sailed with Rolfe to England, with their infant son, Thomas, where she was received at the court in London by Queen Anne, and, something of a celebrity, was 'taken up by society'.
It is reported she met up with John Smith in London and that the shock broke her heart. She later died on board a vessel at Gravesend in March 1617, before her homeward journey, and is buried in the parish churchyard of St Georges, although the exact location of her grave is unknown.
The River Thames
Shipping on the river
The River Thames has long been an important feature in Gravesend life and may well have been the deciding factor for the first settlement here. One of the town's first distinctions was in being given the sole right to transport passengers to and from London by water in the late 14th century. The ‘Tilt Boat’ was a familiar sight on the river,.. The first steamboat plied its trade between Gravesend and London in the early 19th century, bringing with it a steadily increasing number of visitors to The Terrace Pier Gardens, Windmill Hill, Springhead Gardens and Rosherville Gardens. Gravesend soon became one of the first English resort towns and thrived from an early tourist trade.
Gravesend ‘watermen’ were often in a family trade; and the town is the headquarters of the Port of London Authority Thames Navigation Service, supplying both river and sea pilots. Today radar plays an important part in the movement of shipping on the river.
Until the building of Tilbury Docks on the opposite side of the river, between 1882-6, Gravesend was the first port of entry. Thousands of emigrants, as well as large numbers of troops, embarked from here. Tilbury Docks have had much expansion since with the closure of all the London Docks. The entrance to the Docks is somewhat awkward, situated as it is on the sharp bend of the river, and often need tugboat assistance, as do the larger ships moored at Tilbury landing stages. There have been many tug companies based at Gravesend: among them the Sun Company; the Alexandra Towing Company and, today, the Smith Howard Towing Company.
Also on the river front is a fine example of a cast iron pier, a unique structure with the first known iron cylinders used for its foundation. From here the steamboat services had begun from London in 1815. The pier has recently been completely refurbished (2004), and awaits commercial use.
The river still plays a vital part in the life of the community today, providing an important link for industry and jobs to the benefit of many people. The cross-river passenger ferry to Tilbury provides a long-established route to and from the neighbouring County of Essex. Before the Dartford Crossing came into being there was a vehicle ferry here as well.
Rowing matches have been taking place on the river Thames at Gravesend since from at least the year of 1698, and the first organized Regatta was in 1715. The first Borough Regatta began in 1882, setting the pattern for an annual event on the Thames that is carried on to this day. The popularity of the early events have recently begun to return, thanks to much Borough Council publicity.
The journey by road was more hazardous, since the main Dover road crossed the notorious Blackheath, with its highwaymen. Stagecoaches plying between London to Canterbury, Dover and Faversham used Gravesend as one their ’stages’ as did those coming from the south from Tonbridge. In 1840 there were no fewer than 17 coaches picking up and setting down passengers and changing horses each way per day. There were two coaching inns in the New Road: the New Prince of Orange and the Lord Nelson. Stagecoaches had been plying the route for at least two centuries: Samuel Pepys records having stopped off at Gravesend in 1650.
The first railway connection came after the London & Greenwich Railway (sanctioned in 1833, opened in 1836) extended its line through Woolwich and Dartford to Gravesend in the Summer of 1849. In 1844 a railway to the east of the town had been opened by using the Higham tunnel of the Thames and Medway Canal; this was bought by the erstwhile London & Greenwich, by now the South Eastern Railway - in 1847, thus providing through services between London and the Medway Towns by that route. Gravesend now stands on the new Eurostar main line, and when the connection is opened to St Pancras station in London in 2006 there will be a railway station at Ebbsfleet, to the west of the town.
Thames and Medway Canal.
The Thames and Medway Canal was opened for barge traffic in the year 1824; by 1846 it had proved too difficult a route for navigation between the Thames and Medway and was left to silt up until the tunnel was rescued to provide a route for the railway. The reasons for this change of use generally because the canal had suffered from the problems caused by the differing tides between the two rivers to such an extent that a steam engine had to be used often in pumping water into the Higham tunnel to compensate for low tides. A steam tug was also used in assisting with the pulling of the barges through the tunnel.
Today the Canal Basin at the Gravesend end of the Canal is used for pleasure craft: the lock is still in use. At the present time (December 2004) it is being dredged and restoration and strengthening works will be carried out to the basin walls as part of regeneration of the area.
The Gravesend Hospital was opened in 1854, following the donation of a site by the Earl of Darnley in 1853; it had its origin on 2 December 1850, as a dispensary on the Milton road 'to assist the really destitute poor of Gravesend and Milton and vicinities ... unable to pay for medical aid'. By 1893 4699 such people had benefited by its presence.
In 2004 the original building is being demolished to make way for a new local health centre. Details are here
Windmill Hill named for its erstwhile windmills, offers extensive views across the Thames, and was a popular spot for Victorian visitors to the town, because of the Camera Obscura installed in the old mill and for its tea gardens and other amusements. The hill was the site of a beacon in 1377, which was instituted by Richard II, and still in use 200 years later at the time of the Spanish Armada, although the hill was then known as 'Rouge Hill'. A modern beacon was erected and lit during 1988, the 300th anniversary.
It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that the first windmill was placed on top the highest point in Gravesend, 179 ft above the high water mark of the river. One mill burnt down in 1763, but was replaced the following year and that too demolished in 1894. The last surviving windmill was destroyed by fire during Mafeking Night celebrations in 1900.
Other notes of interest
During the time General Gordon was in Gravesend (1865-71) the composer Rimsky-Korsakov was an officer in the Russian navy and was posted to Gravesend, where he wrote part of his first symphony, said to be the first ever such style of composition attempted by a Russian composer.
On land by the river, close to Northfleet, at what became the property of the imperial paper mills their was once a pond which had the curious tendency of draining when the river was at full tide and filling again when the tide subsided. This strange behaviour was explained by the submerging of the springs that fed the pond with the tidal waters, when the tides receded the springs were once again able to drain into the pond.
In August 2003, it held the record as the place to have recorded the highest temperature since records began in the United Kingdom, with a reading of 38.1 Celsius (100.6F). This record high was surpassed in 2004, however, by another recording station. One explanation for the phenomenon was the large amount of earthworks in connection with the Channel Tunnel works, which had exposed a great deal of the local sandy soil, which reflected more sunshine!
During the 70s and early 80s, the town was the home of a very successful youth marching band, the "Gravesham Corps of Drums" (latterly the "Gravesham Corps") who's biggest sucess was to finish 3rd in the British Championships in 1981.
Gravesend, since 1801 has grown from being a small riverside settlement to become a major town. in 1831 was 5079. which by 1921 had risen to 31,137.
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