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Thames Estuary

Elmley marshes.jpg
Across the Elmley Marshes to Minster, Sheppey
Location: 51°23’43"N, 0°49’19"E
Grid reference: TQ970695
Area: 36 square miles
Population: 37,852  (2001)

The Isle of Sheppey is an island off the northern coast of Kent in the Thames Estuary. It has an area of 36 square miles.

The name "Sheppey" is from the Old English "Sceapige", meaning "Sheep Island", a name which appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, recording the depredations of the Vikings here. The name "Sheep island" is appropriate as even today the extensive marshes which make up a considerable proportion of the island provide grazing for large flocks of sheep.

The island, like much of north Kent, comprises London Clay and is a plentiful source of fossils. Sheppey in fact comprises three main islands: Sheppey, the Isle of Harty and the Isle of Elmley (it has been known as the Isles of Sheppey, at least before the channels separating them silted up). The marshy nature of the land to the south of the island means that it is so crossed by channels and drains as to consist of a multitude of islands. The ground is mainly low-lying, but at The Mount near Minster rises to 250 feet above sea level.

Some Sheppey inhabitants like to call themselves Swampies, a term that began as, and for some people remains, an insult; for others it has become a term of endearment or a phrase for reinforcing identity. The family names "Shippee" and "Shippey," found predominantly in New England, derives from those whose ancestors were from the Isle of Sheppey.

The island's main towns are Sheerness, on the headland at the northwest of the island, and Minster, further east along the island's north coast.

The Swale

Main article: The Swale

Sheppey is separated from the mainland by a channel called the Swale. In common with the Wantsum Channel separating the Isle of Thanet from the mainland to the east, and Yantlet Creek at the Isle of Grain, it was used in ancient times to allow shipping to reach ports such as Chatham and London without encountering the bad weather from the North Sea.


Three ferries have operated between the mainland and the isle: one to the west, called the King's Ferry; one at Elmley; and another, giving access from Faversham, the Harty Ferry. All had long histories, particularly the Harty Ferry, but none operates today.

The Harty Ferry ceased operation at the start of the First World War, but the slipways at Harty and Elmley can still be seen today. That at Harty is below the Ferry House Inn (the landlord owns the ferry rights), while seeing the one at Elmley requires a walk of about a mile and a half from the RSPB car park.

Additionally the South Eastern Railway operated a connecting passenger ferry to Sheerness from Port Victoria railway terminus on the Grain Peninsula for some years. Several ferry services to Southend-on-Sea have also been tried but proved short-lived. An attempt to start a small hovercraft service between the Harty Ferry Inn and Oare Creek near Faversham in 1970 by the then landlord, Ben Fowler, failed after a few days.

A number of continental ferry services have operated from the Isle of Sheppey.

A large ferry terminal was built by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway at Queenborough Pier in 1876 and operated a nightly service to Flushing in the Netherlands, as well as a German mail service. These services ceased during the First World War but it was then used for military traffic. The port there was closed and dismantled in the 1930s. A passenger, car and lorry ferry (the Olau Line) operated to Flushing from Sheerness through the 1980s and 1990s, but there has been no ferry service of any kind in recent years.


The Kingsferry Bridge
The Sheppey Crossing

During the reign of King Edward I, according to the historian Charles Igglesden, a bridge connected Sheppey to the mainland at Elmley. It was called the Tremsethg Bridge but was lost in a tidal wave and never replaced.

In much more modern times, the Kingsferry Bridge (replacing the ferry) has been built. There have been four bridges, each having to be built to allow passage along the navigable waterway to the Swale:

  • 19 July 1860: The London, Chatham and Dover Railway built the first bridge to an Admiralty design. It had a central span raised between two towers. Trains and road traffic were able to use it, as with the next two bridges.
  • 6 November 1906: The South Eastern and Chatham Railway replaced the first bridge with one having a "rolling lift" design. It was originally worked by hand, but later by electricity.
  • October 1959: Kingsferry Bridge, a lifting bridge was installed, able to lift both the road and the railway line to allow ships to pass beneath.[1]
  • May 2006: The Sheppey Crossing was completed and opened on 3 July. This four-lane road bridge rises to a height of 115 feet above the Swale, and carries the A249 trunk road. Pedestrian, animal and bicycle traffic, as well as the railway, are still obliged to use the lifting bridge, which still provides the most direct link between the island and the Iwade/Lower Halstow area.


The complex of causewayed enclosures at Kingsborough Manor attests to the importance of the island's high ground during the neolithic while later prehistoric, Roman and mediæval occupation has been found by archaeologists in advance of development at Neat's Court and Leysdown Primary School.


In 855, Sheppey was occupied by Vikings, serving as their winter camp before they began raiding in the spring.[2]

Shurland Hall

Shurland Hall, near Eastchurch, is named after its first owners, the De Shurland family. In 1188 Adam de Shurland possessed a mill with more than 1,000 acres of mixed land, mostly marsh with a small meadow: he also let a number of cottages thereabouts.

A curious tale surrounds a 14th century member of the family, Sir Robert de Shurland. According to legend, Sir Robert killed a monk and resolved to ask the king for a pardon. In 1327 he rode to where the king's ship was anchored, off the Isle of Sheppey, and gained forgiveness. Returning, he met a witch who said that de Shurland's horse, Grey Dolphin, which had borne him so bravely to the ship, would be the death of him. Sir Robert immediately killed the horse and cut off its head. A year later Sir Robert was walking along the shore when a shard of the horse's bone pierced his foot. Blood poisoning set in and Sir Robert died. (The same tale in essence is found in ancient Norse literature, in the take of Örvar-Oddr and that of Oleg / Helgi of Novgorod.)

King Henry VIII visited the hall; about this time it became the family home of William Cheney (1453–87), whose son Thomas was a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

During the First World War troops were billeted at the Great Hall, and it suffered considerable damage as a result. There has been no record of anyone living in the hall since. It is a Grade II listed building and awaits reconstruction by English Heritage. Planning applications have been made to use part of the site for housing.

Dutch occupation of 1667

Sheppey enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only part of mainland Britain to be lost to a foreign power since William the Conqueror's invasion in 1066. This was in June 1667, when a Dutch fleet sailing up the Thames Estuary for the Medway captured the fort at Sheerness. The fort at the time was incomplete and the garrison underfed and unpaid, so resistance to the heavily armed Dutch Navy was hardly enthusiastic. Samuel Pepys, then secretary of the Navy Board, described Sheerness as lost "after two or three hours' dispute". The Dutch quickly overran and occupied the whole island for several days before withdrawing. Before leaving, the Dutch took supplies, ammunition and guns, then burned everything that was combustible.[3][4]

Capture of James II

Three miles across the Swale lies Whitstable. The Swale channel was the point of departure selected by James II, when departing in some haste from the Protestant deliverance of the nation by William of Orange in December, 1688.

A hoy having been chartered, the fugitive king landed at Elmley, only to be mobbed by local fishermen. They thought such a noble on such a humble vessel was the locally hated Jesuit Edward Petre and so took his money, watch and coronation ring. At length he was recognised by one of the assailants and the group took him in custody to Faversham, where he was detained.

Maritime history

Sheerness is a commercial port and main town of the Isle of Sheppey and owes much to its origins, as a Royal Naval dockyard town. Henry VIII, requiring the River Medway as an anchorage for his navy, ordered that the mouth of the river should be protected by a small fort. Garrison Fort was built in 1545. Samuel Pepys established the Royal Navy Dockyard in the 17th century.

Sheerness was the focus of an attack by the Dutch Navy in June 1667, when 72 hostile ships compelled the little "sandspit fort" there to surrender and landed a force which for a short while occupied the town. Samuel Pepys at Gravesend remarked in his diary "we do plainly at this time hear the guns play" and departed to Brampton, Huntingdonshire.

The dockyard served the Royal Navy until 1960 and has since developed into one of the largest and fastest expanding ports in the UK. The Port of Sheerness contains at least one Grade II listed building, the Old Boat House. Built in 1866, it is the first multi-storey iron framed industrial building recorded in the UK. Decorated with ornate ironwork, it features operating rails extending the length of the building, for the movement of stores, much like a modern crane.

The dockyard and port at Sheerness today are a significant feature of the Isle of Sheppey's economy, which includes the extensive export/import of motor vehicles, and a large steel works, with extensive railway fixtures. The island is, however, suffering from an economic recession and these industries are not as extensive as they once were.

The area immediately outside the dockyard was occupied by dockyard workers, who built wooden houses and decorated them with Admiralty blue paint illegally acquired from the dockyard. This area was, and still is, known as Blue Town, though it is now mostly occupied by the Sheerness Steel complex.

Beyond Blue Town, an outlying residential area overlooking the sea was chiefly designed for various government officials. This area became known as Mile Town because it is one mile from Sheerness.

About 200 shipwrecks are recorded around the coast of Sheppey, the most famous being the SS Richard Montgomery, a liberty ship loaded with bombs and explosives that grounded on sandbanks during the Second World War. As of 2004 plans were discussed with a view to removing the threat from the Montgomery. These include encasing the ship in concrete or removing the bombs; no firm decision has been made. New research commissioned by the Government in 2005–06 has suggested that the threat has passed and that constant surveillance should ensure the safety of the immediate community.

Natural history

Edward Jacob (1710–1788) purchased the little Manor of Nutts, Isle of Sheppey, in 1752. There, he pursued his hobby as a naturalist. He discovered much of interest to the antiquarian, naturalist, geologist and zoologist, although there was little prior knowledge. In 1777, Jacob published a book about his various fossil finds, including what he called "the remains of an elephant".[5]

The isle is noted as the northern-most place to have an established scorpion population. Euscorpius flavicaudis has been resident since the 1860s, believed to have been imported on a ship.[6] They have been found to be highly adaptable and hence have survived the relative cold by conserving energy.[7]

In 2008 palaeontologists published details of the fossil skull, found on the island, of a large flying bird from the Eocene period called Dasornis[8] in the deposits of the London Clay.

Early aviation

The Aviation Memorial in Eastchurch

The isle has a long history of aviation development in England. It was home to Lord Brabazon's Royal Aero Club which formed in Leysdown in the early 1900s to popularise ballooning. The club took to the aeroplane with relish, and in July 1909 the Short Brothers established Shellbeach Aerodrome on nearby marshland to accommodate six Wright Flyers, moving a few miles the next year to Eastchurch where a new more appropriate aerodrome had been built for the club.

The Eastchurch airfield played a significant role in the history of British aviation from 1909 when Frank McClean acquired Stonepits Farm, on the marshes across from Leysdown, converting the land into an airfield for members of the Aero Club of Great Britain.

The Short brothers, Horace, Eustace and Oswald, built aircraft at Battersea to be tested at the site; later Moore-Brabazon, Professor Huntington, Charles S Rolls and Cecil Grace all visited and used the flying club's services. Wilbur and Orville Wright themselves came to the Isle of Sheppey to visit the new flying grounds of the Aero Club. In 1909, Moore-Brabazon made the first live cargo flight by fixed-wing aircraft, by tying a waste-paper basket to a wing strut of his Shorts-built Wright aircraft. Then, using it as a "cargo hold", he airlifted one small pig.

The Eastchurch airfield was also the site, in July 1911, of the competition for the Gordon Bennett Cup]] for powered air racing, attended by flyers from all over the world, and won that year by the American pilot C T Weymann.

A stained glass window in the south side of All Saints' Church, Eastchurch (built in 1432), was dedicated to Rolls and Grace, who were killed in July and December 1910 respectively.

In July 2009, Eastchurch celebrated 100 years of aviation history associated with the island. SkySheppey brought together a number of associations and joined with many visitors to recognise the importance of British aviation history that started at Eastchurch.

Sheppey today

The beach between Leysdown and Shell Ness.

The largest town on the island is Sheerness. Other villages include Minster, which has a pebble beach, and Leysdown-on-Sea, which has a coarse sandy one. The whole north coast is dotted with caravan parks and holiday homes; there is also a naturist beach beyond Leysdown, towards Shellness. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages a reserve at Elmley Marshes, a small part of the National Nature Reserve managed by Elmley Conservation Trust.

There are three prisons on the island, all located to the south of the village of Eastchurch: HMP Elmley, HMP Standford Hill and HMP Swaleside. The total inmate population is in the region of 2,200.

Local radio

Bridge Radio "BRFM" 95.6 broadcasts 24 hours a day to Sheppey only (under its strict licensing conditions) from studios on the Minster Cliffs on the Isle of Sheppey.[9]


On 21 September 2008, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that an airport off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey would be a viable alternative to creating a new third runway at Heathrow.[10]


  1. Information on the bridge from Railways of the Southern Region Geoffrey Body (PSL Field Guide 1884)
  2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  (855 Chronicle) (A) Her hæþne men ærest on Sceapige ofer winter sætun
  5. Today in Science History
  6. Rein, Jan Ove (2000). "Euscorpius flavicaudis". The Scorpion Files. Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Retrieved 2008-06-13. 
  7. Science: scorpions in a cold climate New Scientist 1821 16 May 1992 retrieved 17 September 2010
  8. Mother Of A Goose! Giant Ocean-going Geese With Bony-teeth Once Roamed Across SE England
  9. BRFM
  10. BBC News

Outside links