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Sheerness Clock Tower.jpg
Sheerness clock tower
Island: Sheppey
Grid reference: TQ919749
Location: 51°26’28"N, 0°45’38"E
Population: 11,654  (2001)
Post town: Sheerness
Postcode: ME12
Dialling code: 01795
Local Government
Council: Swale
Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Sheerness is a town on the Isle of Sheppey on the north coast of Kent. It is on the north-western corner of the island, standing beside the mouth of the River Medway. With a population of 13,000 it is the largest town on the island.

Sheerness began as a fort built in the 16th century to protect the River Medway from naval invasion. In 1665, plans were first laid by the Navy Board for a Royal Navy dockyard where warships might be provisioned and repaired, a site favoured by Samuel Pepys, then Clerk of the Acts of the navy, for shipbuilding over Chatham.[1] After the raid on the Medway in 1667, the older fortification was strengthened; in 1669 was established the Royal Navy dockyard the town, where warships were stocked and repaired until its closure in 1960.

Beginning with the construction of a pier and a promenade in the 19th century, Sheerness acquired the added attractions of a seaside resort. Industry retains its important place in the town and the port of Sheerness is one of the United Kingdom’s leading car- and fresh produce importers. The town is the site of one of Britain’s earliest co-operative societies and also of the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame.


The first structure in what is now Sheerness was a fort built by order of Henry VIII to prevent enemy ships from entering the River Medway and attacking the naval dockyard at Chatham. In 1666 work began to replace it with a stronger fort. However, before its completion, this second fort was destroyed during the 1667 Dutch raid on the Medway.[2] The Secretary of the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys, subsequently ordered the construction of a naval dockyard at Sheerness as an extension to that at Chatham,[3] where naval ships would be maintained and repaired. Low quality housing and the poor water supply near the dockyard led to a lack of workers and caused construction delays, and the first dry-dock was not completed until 1708. Using materials they were allowed to take from the yard, dockyard construction workers built the first houses in Sheerness. The grey-blue naval paint they used on the exteriors led to their homes becoming known as the Blue Houses, which gaves the area the name Blue Town, still used of this north-western area of Sheerness.[2]

From the completion of the dockyard until 1960 Sheerness was one of the bases of the Nore Command of the Royal Navy, which was responsible for protecting British waters in the North Sea. The command was named after the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, about 3 miles east of Sheerness.[4] In 1797, discontented sailors in the Royal Navy mutinied just off the coast of Sheerness.[5]

Sheerness beach with the chimney of the Grain power station in the distance

By 1801 the population of the Minster-in-Sheppey parish, which included both Sheerness and the neighbouring town of Minster, reached 5,561.[6] In 1816, one of the UK's first co-operative societies was started in Sheerness, chiefly to serve the dockyard workers and their families. The Sheerness Economical Society began as a co-operative bakery but expanded to produce and sell a range of goods. By the middle of the 20th century, the society had spread across the Isle of Sheppey and had been renamed the Sheerness and District Cooperative Society.

In the early 1820s a fire destroyed many buildings at the dockyard, including all the Blue Houses. New houses and a major redevelopment of the dockyard followed. On 5 September 1823, the rebuilt dockyard was formally opened by the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV). A high brick wall and a moat were built around the yard to serve as a defence measure and remained in place until the end of the 19th century. As the settlement expanded eastwards, away from the dockyard and the Blue Houses, the wider area became known as Sheerness,[2] taking its new name from the brightness or clearness of the water at the mouth of the River Medway.

Completed in 1860 and still standing today, the Sheerness Boat Store was the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame.[2] In 1863, mains water was installed in the town, and the Isle of Sheppey's first railway station opened at the dockyard. Towards the end of the 19th century, Sheerness achieved official town status and formed its own civil parish, separate from Minster-in-Sheppey.[2] The 1901 Census recorded the Sheerness parish as having 18,179 residents and 2,999 houses.[7]

The town's low rainfall and ample sunshine made it popular as a seaside resort, with tourists arriving by steamboat and train. The Sheppey Light Railway opened in 1901, connecting the new Sheerness East station with the rest of the island. However, by 1950, lack of demand led to the railway's closure. The Sheerness and District Tramways, which opened in 1903, only lasted until 1917.[8]

Terraced houses near the seafront

In 1944 the United States cargo ship Richard Montgomery ran aground and sank a mile off the coast of Sheerness, with 3,172 tons of explosives on board. Due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo have never been salvaged; if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. A 2004 report published in New Scientist warned that an explosion could occur if sea water penetrated the bombs.[9]

In March 1960 the Royal Navy ceased operating the Sheerness dockyard and the Medway Port Authority took over the site for commercial use. The dockyard closure led to thousands of job losses, and most of the nearby houses and shops in the Bluetown area were eventually abandoned and demolished.[3] By the 1961 census, the population of Sheerness had fallen to 13,691.[7] The dockyard closure also led to the decline of the Sheerness and District Cooperative Society, as many of its members were dockyard workers. At the time, the society was the island's main retailer, but it has since been reduced to a few shops and been merged with a larger society.[10] As of 2007, Bluetown is an industrial area, and Sheerness has become the largest port in the UK for motor imports.[2]


Sheerness has had four windmills:

  • The Little Mill, a smock mill that was standing before 1813 and burnt down on 7 February 1862;
  • The Hundred Acre Mill, a small tower mill which was last worked in 1872 and demolished in 1878 leaving a base which remains today;
  • The Great Mill, a smock mill, the building of which was started in 1813 and completed in 1816, which was demolished in 1924 leaving the base, upon which a replica mill body is being built to serve as flats.[11]
  • A windmill about which little is known. It is said to have been a vertical axle windmill designed by Stephen Hooper.[12]

On 23 January 2008 a fire started in the tower of the Great Mill.[13] The fire was later declared not to have been a case of arson though local police have since confirmed that the fire was arson-related.


Sheerness beach

Sheerness stands in the northwest corner of the Isle of Sheppey. To the north, sandy beaches run along the coast of the Thames Estuary. To the west, the outlet of the River Medway flows into the Estuary. An area of wetlands known as The Lappel lies between the river and the south-western part of town. Marshland lies to the south and the east. The main rock type of the Isle of Sheppey is London Clay, which covers most of North Kent.[14] Along with most of the Kent coast, the uninhabited coastal areas of the island have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, due to their wildlife and geological features.[15]

The main commercial and leisure areas of the town are located around the north coast, where there is easy access to the pleasure beach. The industrial areas are in the west, beside the wetlands and the River Medway. The Bluetown industrial area and the Port of Sheerness are in the north-western part of the town. The residential districts of Mile Town and Marine Town are in the central and the eastern areas respectively.


Sheerness steel mill

The Port of Sheerness is a significant feature of the Isle of Sheppey's economy. Covering more than 370 acres, it is one of the largest foreign car importers in the United Kingdom, and it handles thousands of tons of fruits and meat from all over the world. Inexpensive land and good infrastructure, including a rail network that branches off the main passenger line, have attracted industries to the port area, including producers of pharmaceuticals, steel, sausages and garden gnomes.[16] The major employers are HBC Engineering Solutions, Sheerness Steel, Regis Furniture and The Bond Group.[17] The steel mill was established in 1972, designed to recycle scrap steel into rods and coils. It has survived a number of closure threats and changes of ownership, although it went into administration in January 2012. Since 2003 it has been operated by Thamesteel.[18]

The seafront is popular with tourists, and as of 2007 Sheerness' recently refurbished town centre had more than 200 shops.[19]


  • Newspaper: The Sheerness Times Guardian
  • Radio: BRFM 95.6FM is Community Radio

Big Society

Beachfields Park provided a green oasis between the town of Sheerness and the sea, until this area was systematically encroached upon by development. The change was the origin of the Tales of Beachfields Park project, which aims to reveal and publicise the Park's heritage and to preserve it for future generations. Past and present pupils of local schools and the Local History Society, the Sheerness Society, and The Sheerness Times Guardian were all actively involved in the project.


  1. The diaries of Samuel Pepys (17th century)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 "History". Sheppey Access. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "1958: Historic Sheerness docks to close". BBC. 1958-02-20. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  4. "The Nore". The Columbia Encyclopedia. 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  5. "Mutiny". The Columbia Encyclopedia. 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  6. "A vision of Minster in Sheppey AP/CP". Retrieved 2007-07-22. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Relationships / unit history of Sheerness". Retrieved 2007-07-22. 
  8. "Chronology of Sheerness in the lifetime of the Sheerness Heritage Centre". Archived from the original on 2007-02-13. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  9. Evening Standard: Time Bomb Ready to Blow, 18 August 2004
  10. "The first co-op". 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  11. William Coles Finch (1933). Watermills and Windmills. London: C W Daniel Company. pp. 275–77. 
  12. Farries, K G, and Mason, M T (1966). The Windmills of Surrey and Inner London. London: Charles Skilton Ltd.. pp. 51. 
  13. "Fire rips through town's windmill". BBC News Online. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2008-04-22. 
  14. Woodward, Horrace B (1904). Stanford's Geological Atlas. 
  15. "Nature On The Map". Natural England. Retrieved 2007-04-30. 
  16. "An Introduction to the Isle of Sheppey". Sheppey Access. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  17. "Sheerness". Swale Borough Council. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  18. Thamesteel website
  19. "Sheerness Town Centre". Swale Borough Council. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Sheerness)

Books and resources

  • Tales Of Beachfields Park, (2003), Winner of the 2003 Historical Association Young Historian Primary School Award for Local History
  • Sheerness and the mutiny at the Nore, (1997), ISBN 0-9530665-0-9
  • Branch lines around Sheerness, (1993), ISBN 1-873793-16-2