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Clocktower gravesend.jpg
Clock tower
Grid reference: TQ647740
Location: 51°26’29"N, 0°22’7"E
Population: 56,000  (2005)
Post town: Gravesend
Postcode: DA11, DA12
Dialling code: 01474
Local Government
Council: Gravesham

Gravesend is a town in northern Kent, on the south bank of the Thames, opposite Tilbury in Essex. It is the largest town of this stretch of the Thames bank and because of its geographical position Gravesend has always had an important role to play in the history and communications of south-eastern Britain.

The town retains today a strong link with the river. The opening of the Eurostar railway station at Ebbsfleet, the arrival of the High Speed service at Gravesend station itself and the fact that it lies within the "Thames Gateway", add to the town's importance.

A passenger ferry operates across the Thames to Tilbury in Essex.

Name of the town

The town was recorded as Gravesham in the Domesday Book in 1086 as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux: the 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".[1] Frank Carr[2] asserts that the name derives from the Saxon Gerevesend, the end of the authority of the Portreve, (originally Portgereve), the officer in charge of the town.

The Domesday spelling is the only historical record; all other spellings – in the later (c1100) Domesday Monarchorum and in Textus Roffensis the town is Gravesend/Gravesende. Gravesham has however been adopted for the 1974 Borough title.[3]

A common local belief is that the name of Gravesend was born when the bodies of those who died from the plague in London were buried in the town in attempts to put an end to it. Hence the name Graves-end. This is clearly not the case as the plague was in 1665 – a full 500 years after the name Gravesend/Gravesende appears in the written record.


Stone Age implements have been found in the area; as has the evidence of an Iron Age settlement at nearby Springhead. Extensive Roman remains have been found nearby, at Vagniacae (Springhead); and Gravesend lies immediately to the north of their road connecting London with the Kent coast – now called Watling Street. The Domesday Book recorded mills hythes and fisheries here.[4]

In the Fort Gardens is Milton Chantry, Gravesend's earliest existing building of the late 13th century. It was refounded about 1321 on the site of a hospital founded in 1189. At the time it was supported by lands in Essex.

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.

In 1380, during the Hundred Years' War, Gravesend was sacked and burned by a Castilian fleet.

In 1401, a Royal Grant was issued, allowing the men of the town to operate boats between London and the town; these became known as the Long Ferry. It became the preferred form of passage, because of the perils of the road journey.

On the river front is recorded the archaeological remains of a riverside fort built at the command of Henry VIII in 1543. At Fort Gardens is the New Tavern Fort built during the 1780s and later extensively rebuilt by General Gordon between 1865 and 1879: it is now a museum, partly open-air under the care of the Gravesend Local History Society.[5]

Pocahontas (1595–1617), famed in popular history, was the first American Indian to visit Britain. Her native name was Matoaka but it is by her nickname Pocohontas that she has become famous. The daughter of the American Indian chief Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas took the baptismal name Rebecca in the Virgnia colony and married a colonist, John Rolfe. John and Rebecca Rolfe and their infant son, Thomas, sailed to Britain, where Pocahontas was received at the court of King James in London by Queen Anne, and was feted as a celebrity. On their return voyage, seven months later, she was taken ill and died ashore in Gravesend at the age of 21. She was then buried under the chancel of St George's parish church.

Journeys by road to Gravesend were once quite hazardous, since the main London to Dover road crossed Blackheath, notorious for its highwaymen. Stagecoaches from London to Canterbury, Dover and Faversham used Gravesend as one of their "stages" as did those coming north from Tonbridge. In 1840 there were 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.

A Map of Gravesend from 1946

Although a great deal of the economy of the town continued to lie with the shipping trades, the other big employees were the cement and paper industries.

During the period 1932–1956 there was an airport to the east of the town. It began life as a civilian field, but during the Second World War it became a Royal Air Force fighter station, RAF Gravesend and the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. In 1956 the site was taken over by the town council; the large estate known as Riverview Park was built on its site.*[6] At 03:35 GMT on Sunday 5 February 1939, Alex Henshaw took off from Gravesend Airfield at the start of his epic record breaking flight to Cape Town and back. He completed the flight in 39 hours 36 minutes over the next four days. His record still stands.


The site of Gravesend is at a point where the high land – the lowest point of the dip slope of the North Downs – reaches the river bank. To the east are the low-lying marshy areas of the Shorne Marshes; to the west, beyond Northfleet, the Swanscombe Marshes. The settlement which grew up was therefore the only good landing place; it was also sheltered by the prominent height of what is now called Windmill Hill. Although Windmill Hill dominates the town, Gravesend's highest point is actually Marling Cross to the south adjacent to the A2.

From its origins as a landing place and first port of call for shipping Gravesend gradually extended. southwards and eastwards. The well-off people from London were coming to the town during the summer months; at first by boat, and then by railway. More extensive building began after First World War; this increased after Second World War, when many of the estates around the town were built.[7]

Those built-up areas include Painters Ash, adjacent to the A2 main road; King's Farm (most of King's Farm estate was built in the 1930s); and Christianfields housing estates. The latter is in process of being completely rebuilt. part of the southern built-up area of the town, was originally two separate rural parishes.


Gravesend today is a busy commercial town. It serves a large area as a shopping centre: there are several of the multiples here, and a good range of local shops. It has a market hall open six days a week; and a newly established farmers' market. There are still those employed on the river as crews on the tugboats. Gravesend "watermen" were often in a family trade; and the town is the headquarters of the Port of London Authority Port Control Centre (formerly known as "Thames Navigation Service"), supplying both river and sea pilots. Today radar plays an important part in the movement of shipping on the river.

Its position in the "Thames Gateway" is an important asset: there are many commuters away from the town, but local enterprises employ as many people.[8]

Sights of the town

Gravesend Town Pier

The refurbished Town Pier

The Pier is the world's oldest surviving cast iron pier, built in 1834[9] it is a unique structure with the first known iron cylinders used for its foundation. The pier was completely refurbished in 2004 and now has upon it a bar and restaurant. There is access for the public to the pier head when the premises are open. A pontoon is to be placed from the Pier into the Thames this year so that craft can make a landing at the town.

Clock tower

The town's clock tower was built at the top of Harmer street. The foundation stone was laid on 6 September 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.[10] Built with Portland and Dumfries stone, backed with hard stock brickwork, the design of the structure was based on St Stephen's tower, the Westminster tower that houses Big Ben. The centre of the clock itself is measured at 50 feet (15 m) above the ground and the face is 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) in diameter.

Pocahontas statue

The statue of Pocahontas in St George's churchyard

An American sculptor, William Ordway Partridge, had created a life-size statue of Lady Rebecca Rolfe, better known to history as Pocahontas. It was unveiled in Jamestown, Virginia in 1922. Queen Elizabeth II viewed this statue in 1957 and again on 4 May 2007, while visiting Jamestown on the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first successful English colonial settlement in America. On 5 October 1958 an exact replica of the Pocahontas statue by Partridge was dedicated as a memorial to the princess at St George's Church here. The Governor of Virginia presented the statue as a gift to the British people; this gesture was prompted by The Queen's visit to America the previous year.

Windmill Hill

Main article: Windmill Hill, Kent

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 Queen Elizabeth I that the first windmill was placed on top the highest point in Gravesend, 179 feet 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.

During First World War A German airship passed over Windmill Hill and dropped bombs on it. Today there are three markers indicating where these bombs struck.

Gravesend and the Thames

The 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 Port Control Centre (formerly known as Thames Navigation Service), supplying both river and sea pilots. Today radar plays an important part in the movement of shipping on the river.

A dingy and unmodernised Gravesend was the backdrop to the 1952 thriller The Long Memory starring Sir John Mills. In the film, Mills lives in poverty on a derelict fishing boat stranded in the mud.

Gravesend also has one of the oldest regattas in Britain, showing its strong links to the river. Although the origins of the regatta are shrouded in mystery it dates back to at least Tudor times. The races are traditionally done with Gravesend Skiffs, 21-foot-long oak-built clinker-built boats.

The Thames Navigation Service was first thought up between 1950 and 1952 by Captain Peter de Neumann, GM, when he was Commander of HMRC Vigilant (HM Customs & Excise), whose base was in Gravesend Reach. [It is possible that "Vigilant Way" in Gravesend is named for her.] This idea followed on from considering such incidents as the accidental ramming of HMS Truculent by the Divina in 1950, the collision with the Nore Forts by Baalbek, and the disastrous flooding of Canvey, Foulness and the East Coast in 1953. In these and other situations, rescue and intelligence gathering were severely hampered by a lack of centralised command and control, and lack of detailed "picture". de Neumann resigned his command after returning Vigilant from the Spithead Review and joined the PLA, immediately suggesting in a report to them, submitted in 1953, that a feasibility study of such a system be commenced. He then oversaw its development and ultimate installation at Gravesend.

Tugs docking the Armia Krajowa at Tilbury Power Station

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 expanded considerably 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. East Indiaman traditionally stopped here at a point known as Long Reach to lighten their loads before sailing up the Thames to moorings at Blackwall.[11]

Passengers alighting from the Tilbury ferry

For some years after the war steamer excursions were run on the MV Royal Daffodil down the Thames from Gravesend to France, but they ceased in 1966. Cruises are now operated by the Lower Thames and Medway Passenger Boat Company up the river to Greenwich. 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.

There is an RNLI lifeboat station at Gravesend established at Royal Terrace Pier which has become one of the busiest in the country. See:

Thames and Medway Canal

The canal basin

The Thames and Medway Canal was opened for barge traffic in 1824. It ran from Gravesend on the Thames to Frindsbury near Strood on the Medway. Although seven miles long it had only two locks, each 94 ft by 22 ft in size, one at each end. Its most notable feature was the tunnel near Strood which was 3,946 yards long; the second longest canal tunnel ever built in the United Kingdom.

The great cost of the tunnel meant that the canal was not a commercial success. After only 20 years most of the canal was closed and the canal's tunnel was converted to railway use. Initially canal and railway shared the tunnel, with the single track built on timber supports, but by 1847 canal use was abandoned and a double track laid.

Today the canal basin at the Gravesend end of the Canal is used for pleasure craft. Gravesend Sailing Club which was founded so that working men could participate in the sport while still having to earn a living is based here. The lock has been dredged and restoration and strengthening works have been carried out to the basin walls as part of regeneration of the area.


  • Football: Ebbsfleet United FC play in Northfleet; controversially they changed their name from "Gravesend and Northfleet FC" in June 2007
  • Rugby
    • Gravesend RFC
    • Old Gravesendians
  • Rowing: 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.
  • Cycling: Cylcopark, to the south of Gravesend.


The Gravesend Historical Society meets regularly and produces a biannual magazine on its activities.[12]

  • Charles Dickens lived in Gadshill Place, not far from Gravesend. Gravesend and its environs are mentioned in at least two of his novels:
    • In David Copperfield Mr Peggotty, Ham and the Micawbers say their goodbyes and sail away from Gravesend to begin a new life in Australia.
    • In Great Expectations, Pip, with accomplices, rows Magwitch from London downriver in expectation of waylaying a regular steamer (whilst under way in the Lower Hope, off Gravesend) bound for Hamburg.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley briefly mentions the town, during Victor's travels through the United Kingdom with Clerval
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad also mentions Gravesend (the only place-names used in the book are Gravesend, London and the Thames, all in the opening paragraphs only).
  • Film:
    • "The Long Memory" (1952) starring John Mills, was filmed in and around Gravesend. It features many squalid streets running down towards the river that even then were being progressively cleared for redevelopment. It is also possible to hear in the background steam engines working out of the Gravesend West Line West Street terminus. Except for the skeletal remains of the pier all evidence of this station has now disappeared.
    • Robin Hood (2010, Ridley Scott): Robin and his companions intend to return to England from France by boat to Gravesend.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Gravesend)


  1. Paul Theroux's report that "the town bore the name of Gravesend because east of it, the dead had to be buried at sea", is unsupported (Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea 1983:`19).
  2. Frank G.G. Carr (1931, 5th edition 1989 p34). Sailing Barges. Terence Dalton Ltd, Suffolk, UK. 
  3. Hiscock, Robert H (1976). 'A History of Gravesend. London: Phillimore & Co Ltd. 
  4. The Book of Gravesham, Sydney Harker 1979 ISBN o-86023-091-0
  5. The New Tavern Fort 18 January 2012
  6. Pictures and info of Gravesend from the past and present. The new pictures were taken from as near as possible the same vantage point as in the old ones. (2009-05-05). Retrieved on 2012-01-28.
  7. Harker ibid
  8. Notes on Town Centre Management
  9. Gravesend Town Pier. Retrieved on 2012-01-28.
  10. Gravesend Clock Tower
  11. The East India Docks: Historical development', Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. 1994. Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  12. Gravesham Historical Society website. Retrieved on 2012-01-28.