Charles G. Harper

The Kentish Coast

Published by Good Press, 2019
goodpress@okpublishing.info
EAN 4057664589163

Table of Contents


THE KENTISH COAST
CHAPTER I DEPTFORD AND PETER THE GREAT
CHAPTER II GREENWICH—THE ROYAL NAVAL HOSPITAL—THE “FUBBS YACHT”—THE GREENWICH WHITEBAIT DINNERS—WOOLWICH—THE “PRINCESS ALICE” DISASTER—LESNES ABBEY—ERITH—DARTFORD
CHAPTER III STONE—GREENHITHE—NORTHFLEET—HUGGENS’S COLLEGE—ROSHERVILLE—GRAVESEND—SHORNEMEAD—CLIFFE—COOLING—THE HUNDRED OF HOO—THE ISLE OF GRAIN—HOO ST. WERBURGH—UPNOR CASTLE—STROOD
CHAPTER IV ROCHESTER AND CHATHAM—BROMPTON—GILLINGHAM—GRANGE—OTTERHAM QUAY—LOWER HALSTOW—IWADE
CHAPTER V SHEPPEY
CHAPTER VI THE CAPTURE OF JAMES THE SECOND—FAVERSHAM
CHAPTER VII MILTON-NEXT-SITTINGBOURNE—SITTINGBOURNE OLD INNS—MURSTON—LUDDENHAM
CHAPTER VIII GOODNESTONE—GRAVENEY—SEASALTER—WHITSTABLE AND THE OYSTER FISHERY
CHAPTER IX HERNE BAY—RECULVER—WANTSUM—SARRE
CHAPTER X THANET’S CORNFIELDS—MONKTON—MINSTER-IN-THANET—BIRCHINGTON—QUEX PARK—WESTGATE—DANDELION.
CHAPTER XI MARGATE
CHAPTER XII KINGSGATE—THE NORTH FORELAND—BROADSTAIRS—ST. PETER’S
CHAPTER XIII RAMSGATE
CHAPTER XIV PEGWELL BAY—EBBSFLEET—THE LANDINGS OF HENGIST AND OF ST. AUGUSTINE—RICHBOROUGH
CHAPTER XV SANDWICH
CHAPTER XVI WORTH—UPPER DEAL—DEAL—THE GOODWIN SANDS
CHAPTER XVII THE DOWNS AND THE DEAL BOATMEN
CHAPTER XVIII WALMER CASTLE—KINGSDOWN—ST. MARGARET’S BAY
CHAPTER XIX DOVER—THE CASTLE AND ROMAN PHAROS—“QUEEN ELIZABETH’S POCKET-PISTOL”—THE WESTERN HEIGHTS
CHAPTER XX THE CHANNEL PASSAGE—THE NATIONAL HARBOUR AND ITS STRATEGIC PURPOSE—SWIMMING AND FLYING THE CHANNEL
CHAPTER XXI SHAKESPEARE’S CLIFF—SAMPHIRE—THE CHANNEL TUNNEL—COAL IN KENT—THE WARREN
CHAPTER XXII FOLKESTONE—THE OLD TOWN AND THE NEW—DICKENS AND “PAVILIONSTONE”—SANDGATE
CHAPTER XXIII SHORNCLIFFE CAMP—THE ROYAL MILITARY CANAL—HYTHE—ROMNEY MARSH—THE MARTELLO TOWERS—THE “HOLY MAID OF KENT”
CHAPTER XXIV NEW ROMNEY—SMUGGLING DAYS—BROOKLAND—FAIRFIELD—SMALLHYTHE
CHAPTER XXV LYDD—DUNGENESS—CAMBER-ON-SEA
INDEX

The Kentish Coast: Deptford to Faversham



THE KENTISH COAST

Table of Contents

CHAPTER I
DEPTFORD AND PETER THE GREAT

Table of Contents

The seaboard of Kent, and indeed the south coast of England in general, is no little-known margin of our shores. It is not in the least unspotted from the world, or solitary. It lies too near London for that, and began to be exploited more than a hundred and fifty years ago, when seaside holidays were first invented. The coast of Kent, socially speaking, touches both extremes. It is at once fashionable and exclusive, and is the holiday haunt of the Cockney: a statement that is not the paradox it at first sight appears to be, for the bracing qualities of its sea-air have always attracted all classes. We all ardently desire health, whether we are of those who romp on the sands of Margate or Ramsgate and eat shrimps in the tea-gardens of Pegwell Bay, or are numbered among those who are guests at the lordly Lord Warden, the Granville, or the Cliftonville.

Where does the coast of Kent begin? It begins at Deptford, that crowded London suburb which would doubtless be considerably astonished in contemplating itself as a seaside town, and in fact does not do so. Yet Deptford’s old naval history and ship-yard associations give it a salt-water flavour, and so we must needs say that the coast begins there. True, it is but the Thames whose murky waters lap the shore at Deptford; but the Thames here is the great commercial “London River,” as seamen call it, the port to which resorts a goodly proportion of the world’s shipping; and sea-going vessels crowd the fairway at all hours of day and night.

Past Greenwich, Woolwich, and Erith the Thames goes in its gradually broadening course, and at length comes to Gravesend. Gravesend Reach is, and has always been, by general consensus of opinion, the Sea-gate of London, and therefore, without any manner of doubt, on the coast.

The length of the coast of Kent, reaching from Deptford, and tracking round Sheppey and up the Medway estuary to Rochester, and in and out of the queer places wherever the foreshore wends, I make to be about one hundred and thirty-eight miles. It is—the whole of it—extremely interesting, and in places grandly beautiful and in others quietly pretty; and also along some other stretches, scenically (but never historically) dull and drab. Below Gravesend, round the Isle of Grain, and round Sheppey and the Swale to Whitstable and Herne Bay, for instance, no one could perceive much of nobility actually in that coast-line of London clay and of low, muddy, or shingly foreshores. But where the chalk begins at Westgate, and the sea, ceasing from washing the clay and receiving the contaminations of the Thames and Medway, becomes more cleanly, the coast, grows by degrees more striking.

As for the history that lies in the landings and embarkations, all along the coast of Kent, why, there was never such another coast as these storied shores. The fame of them begins at Gravesend, to which those foreigners who did not by any chance land at Dover generally came in the dangerous old days of the road between Dover and London. At Faversham a king who sought secretly to leave his kingdom was detained; at Ebbsfleet landed the Saxons under Hengist and Horsa, and a hundred and fifty-seven years later came to that same spot a Christian missioner who came missionising very much against his own inclinations. At Deal, 1970 years ago—a tolerably long stretch of time—a great personage set the fashion in these numerous landings. I name Julius Cæsar, the noblest Roman of them all, who, as far as history tells us, was the first of any importance who ever burst into these unknown seas. Great personages have been doing the like ever since. The reason for this exceptional honour shown the Kentish coast, which has thus from the earliest times been the Front Door of England, is quite easily glimpsed on any sunny day anywhere between Deal and Folkestone, in the gleaming coast of France, which reminds us that most of those world-famous characters, in common with modern voyagers across the Channel, disliked the sea, and crossed by the “shortest route.”

For the rest, Dover has been the scene of comings and goings uncountable, and to attempt recounting them would be wearisome indeed. Charles the Second, who had lively experiences in a hunted embarkation from our shores, experienced a welcome change in 1660, being received on his “glorious restoration” by his loyal subjects on Dover beach, and in 1683 came ashore at what was at that time “Bartholomew’s Gate,” in Thanet, which, in honour of that act of kingly condescension, has ever since been called “Kingsgate.”

Kent, the Cantium, or country of the Cantii, mentioned by Julius Cæsar B.C. 54, and by other ancient writers, is thought to take its name from the peculiarity of its geographical position, jutting boldly out (or, in other words, “canted out”) in an easterly direction, beyond the estuary of the Thames. There is another view taken of the origin of the word, a view which derives it from caint, the “open country,” as distinguished from the woodland character of Sussex, the ancient “Andredswald”; but, against this, it does not seem to be sufficiently established that Kent ever was such an open country, while the evidence of maps shows us that it does indeed project most markedly.

The Kentish Coast, then, begins little more than two and a half miles below London Bridge, the county boundary between Surrey and Kent being placed at Earl’s Sluice, on the Grand Surrey Canal, in Deptford, just beyond the Surrey Commercial Docks. There, where the Royal Victualling Yard fronts the busy Thames, midway between Limehouse Reach and Greenwich Reach, begin the 138 miles of this strangely varied and exceptionally historic coast-line.

Undoubtedly the noblest and most fitting introduction is to proceed down river by steamer to Greenwich, for that way you perceive the greatness of the Port of London, and the majesty of the commercial and maritime interests of the capital; while to come “overland”—thus to dignify the approach by mean streets through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe—is an effect of squalor.

Deptford of to-day is an integral part of London. Not an ornamental part; indeed, no. Rather an industrial and wage-earning place. One does not “reside” at Deptford, and there are not a few who find it difficult even to live. It is thus not easy to associate it with that “Depeford” of which Chaucer writes in his “Canterbury Pilgrims,” in 1383: “Lo, Depeford, it is half-way prime.” The deep ford whence it obtained its name is—or rather was—on the Ravensbourne, or the Brome, as that stream has sometimes been called, at the Broadway, on the Dover Road; but the many changes that have taken place have of necessity abolished any possible likeness to the passage that existed in Chaucer’s day. In any case, the Deptford around the Broadway, the present bridge over the Ravensbourne, and the road on to Blackheath is not the real intimate Deptford. That is only to be found on the river side of Evelyn Street, and in the neighbourhood of Creek Road, where the Ravensbourne broadens out into Deptford Creek. Here is the real Deptford; more especially along the winding old street oddly—and with a curiously shipboard suggestion—named “Stowage,” and so to the old original church of Deptford, dedicated, as it should be in a waterside church, to St. Nicholas, the sailor’s patron.

From the church, Deptford Green leads to the waterside, and adjoining is “Hughes’ Fields.” Pleasantly rural although these names sound, candour compels the admission that they are, in fact, streets, with no suggestion of grass or meadows about them. The church of St. Nicholas dates from about 1697, and is a red-brick building in the curious taste of that time; retaining, however, its old stone fifteenth-century tower. Flourishing plane-trees render the churchyard in summer not unpleasing, but the stranger is apt to see with a shudder the grisly stone gate-piers, surmounted by great sculptured skulls decoratively laurelled, as though Death were indeed the conqueror and the hereafter merely a vain thought. You might travel far, and yet find nothing so truly pagan.

DEPTFORD GREEN: ST. NICHOLAS’ CHURCH AND CHURCH-HOUSE.

Yet in this church is gathered much of Deptford’s olden story, and in it are the memorials of captains and constructors of the Navy in times when Deptford was much more of a dockyard and seaport than a stirring quarter of London: monuments dating from before the days of Charles the Second and Pepys. Here you shall find that of Peter Pett, master shipwright in the King’s yard, who died in 1652. The Latin epitaph upon this master craftsman quaintly describes him as “a thoroughly just man, and the Noah of his generation.” It further goes on to say that “he walked with God and brought to light an invention even greater than that recorded of his prototype (for it was an ark by which our mastery of the sea and our rights were saved from shipwreck). He was called away from the tempests of this world, God being his pilot, and his soul resting in the bosom of his Saviour as in an ark of glory.” This seventeenth-century Noah and inventive saviour of his country was the designer of the new frigate type of ship, the Dreadnought of its day.

Here also is the monument of Captain George Shelvocke, who thrice circumnavigated the globe, and died in 1742. The north side of the church facing Deptford Green, which as already remarked is not any longer a green, and cannot have been for some two hundred years or more, forms a striking picture, for a group of red-brick eighteenth-century buildings, built on to it, is obviously associated with the church itself, although of absolutely domestic character.

The great days of Deptford began in the reign of Henry the Eighth, with the rise of the Royal Navy. It had been described as “a mean fishing village” until the “King’s Yard,” as the dockyard was named, was established in 1513—the first of our naval dockyards. There the earliest ships of the Navy took the water; vessels with the strange, and long since impossible, names of Jesus, Holy Ghost, John Baptist, Great Nicholas, and the like: sacred names whose use in such a connection would in our own days offend the ear with a sense of blasphemy. The naming of ships in that manner went out of fashion with the Reformation, and thereafter no English Holy Trinity set forth to deal out death and destruction upon the high seas. It was left to the Spaniards to couple holiness with conflict and slaughter, and for such awful names as Madre de Dios, Sanctissima Trinidad, and Espiritu Sancto to be associated with warfare.

The breach with Rome brought an entirely new order of names into the Royal Navy of England, of which that of the Mary Rose was for a time typical. But the domestic prettiness of love in a bower pictured by such as this presently gave place to others, of the robustious, defiant kind, such as the Revenge. It is true that there was even another order, of which Sir Richard Hawkins’s Repentance was representative. It marked the full swing of the religious feelings of Englishmen from the idolatries of Rome to that sinners’ sense of abasement under conviction of sin which was a feature of Protestantism and the Puritan wave of thought.

It was in the year of the Armada that the Repentance took the water at Deptford. One would dearly like to know exactly why Hawkins gave his ship that name. Was he wrestling with the spirit, or had he in his mind some conceit of bringing repentance home to the Spaniards? The Elizabethan age was an age of ingenious conceits, and this may well have been one of them. But the name did not commend itself to Elizabeth when she was rowed from her palace of Greenwich to see the new ship, lying off Deptford beautiful in paint and gilding, and she renamed it the Dainty. Perhaps the great Queen considered Repentance to be a singularly ill-chosen name for a ship about to sail on a filibustering, piratical expedition. It is curious to consider that the expedition was a disastrous failure, and that a cynic dispensation of affairs thus mocked the original choice of a name; just as it did that of Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge, three years later, when the fight went against the English, and Grenville was killed and the Spaniards had their own revenge for much.

Seven years before her visit to Sir Richard Hawkins’s ship, Elizabeth had made a notable journey to Deptford, when she went aboard Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, in which he had returned from circumnavigating the world, dined there, and knighted him after dinner.

Of all those ancient days and brave doings nothing remains. The dockyard, although from time to time enlarged, and actually in existence until 1869, is now but a memory, and the site of it is occupied by the Foreign Cattle Market. It was the smallest of all the dockyards, only thirty acres in extent; but it was the introduction of ironclad ships, and the greater depth of water required that led to its end, after a temporary closing between 1810 and 1844. The last vessel launched was H.M.S. Druid, in 1869.

When the average person thinks of Deptford, historically, it is not to Queen Elizabeth’s visits his mind reverts, nor even to Mr. Secretary to the Admiralty Pepys, but rather to John Evelyn, to Sayes Court, and Peter the Great. John Evelyn, later of Wotton, settled at Deptford in 1651, at the mansion of Sayes Court, which had been originally the manor-house of West Greenwich. Here he made gardens and planted trees, the chief delight of his life. “I planted all the out-limites of the gardens and long walks with holly,” he says, in March 1683.

He was extremely proud of his holly-hedges:

“Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind than an impregnable hedge of about four hundred feet in length, nine feet high and five in diameter, at any time of the year glittering with its armed and varnished leaves? The taller standards at orderly distances, blushing with their natural coral: it mocks the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts, or hedge-breakers—Et ilium nemo impune lacessit.

No one, he thought, could insult a holly-hedge with impunity.

In 1665 he found Deptford a very desirable place of retreat from the Great Plague of London. Later he let Sayes Court to Admiral Benbow, who in January 1698 sublet it for three months to the “Czar of Muscovy,” Peter the Great, who was as earnest then in planning a navy for Russia as the German Emperor of our own times in building a fleet for Germany. But the Czar himself worked as a shipwright in the dockyard and filled Sayes Court with a semi-savage household. His reputed chief amusement, that of continually wheeling a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s cherished hedges, is perhaps the most vivid item of information about Peter the Great in the average Englishman’s mind: something of an injustice to the memory of that constructive autocrat, whose greatness was not built upon such eccentricities.

The generally received account of the Czar’s way with the hedges is that he trundled wheelbarrows through them; but it would appear that he was seated in the barrow, and that some one else did the wheeling.

Three months of “his Zarrish Majestie” and suite sufficed to very nearly wreck Sayes Court and its gardens. Benbow and Evelyn claimed compensation from the Treasury for the damage, and the Treasury, considering that the Czar was the guest of William the Third in this country, admitted the liability and deputed Sir Christopher Wren to make a return. The document is still in existence. Among other items of dilapidations by that riotous tartaric company are:

  £ s. d.
New floore to a Bogg House 0 10 0
300 Squares in the Windows 0 15 0
All the floores dammag’d by Grease & Inck 2  0 0
For 3 wheelbarrows broke & Lost 1  0 0

The total amount awarded by Treasury warrant of June 21st, 1698, was £350 9s. 6d., of which £162 7s. went to Evelyn.

Sayes Court was almost wholly demolished in 1728, and the remainder converted into a workhouse. A plot of ground of fourteen acres, a portion of the old gardens, was secured in 1877 by Mr. W. J. Evelyn of Wotton, and converted into a public recreation ground. The Evelyns still own considerable property here, and although Court and gardens be gone, the historic sense is strong, and Evelyn Street, Czar Street, and Sayes Court Street, neighbour thoroughfares named after the Armada, Blake, and Wellington, and curiously contrast with the unimaginative “Mary Anne Buildings.” It is, however, only right to say that the streets that remind one of those historic people and that old mansion are as squalid as the buildings that honour Mary Anne.

Across the bridge that spans Deptford Creek, amid the surroundings of canals and wharves, you come into Greenwich. The Frenchman of the story illustrating the vagaries of English pronunciation, uncertain whether he wanted “Greenwich or Woolwich, he didn’t know which,” and pronouncing the place and names as spelled, was to be excused: how could he know it was “Grinnidge” and “Woolidge”? And how many Englishmen can speak the name of Rennes properly after the French use?


CHAPTER II
GREENWICH—THE ROYAL NAVAL HOSPITAL—THE “FUBBS YACHT”—THE GREENWICH WHITEBAIT DINNERS—WOOLWICH—THE “PRINCESS ALICE” DISASTER—LESNES ABBEY—ERITH—DARTFORD

Table of Contents

To fully appreciate the majestic appearance of Greenwich, you must view it from the river. Indeed, none of these waterside places from Deptford all the way to Gravesend, show to advantage on shore. Their historic associations and original scenic beauties are too overwhelmed with recent squalid developments. But from the busy Thames, Greenwich has a grandeur that is not easily to be expressed. This is due, of course, chiefly to the architectural interest of Greenwich Hospital, whose stately water-front is in part the work of Sir Christopher Wren. It began as a Royal Palace, arising on the site of the ancient palace of Placentia built here by Henry the Sixth, who also enclosed the park. In that vanished palace Henry the Eighth was born, and there died Edward the Sixth. Queen Mary in 1516, and Elizabeth in 1533 were born at Placentia, and from its terrace Elizabeth watched the sails of her adventurous seamen setting forth to realms that Cæsar never knew. When Charles the Second found himself firmly established, he began to build himself a new and gorgeous palace on the site of Placentia, which had suffered much in the time of Cromwell. The beginnings of it alarmed Pepys, who was afraid it would cost a very great deal of money; but it was never finished as a royal residence, and was incomplete in 1692 when Queen Mary selected it as a home for wounded sailors returned from the battle of La Hogue. She died in 1694, and William the Third continued his wife’s scheme. The buildings were completed and opened as a hospital in 1705.

I do not think there was ever a Greenwich Pensioner who liked living in Greenwich Hospital. That they ever reasoned out all the causes of their dissatisfaction is not to be supposed, but it must be quite obvious that residence amid these stately colonnades of Wren’s design, and in these monumental buildings of such prodigious scale, was not a little like living in a mausoleum. Then there was the feeling of being a mere part of a system and subject to a certain degree of control which, together with an embarrassing public curiosity, must have made burdensome the life of any Greenwich Pensioner of independent mind. They are nowadays much happier in living with friends and relations; and probably suffer less from rheumatism than they did amid these draughty waterside colonnades, pleasant enough in summer, but where the bitter blasts of winter can be really murderous. The views of an old Greenwich Pensioner on Wren’s stately architecture would be interesting, but probably not at all flattering to the memory of that great master. They would not be worth listening to on the score of ideas about architectural style, but as criticisms of the Hospital as a dwelling-house they would be very much to the point.

GREENWICH HOSPITAL.

In course of time, somewhere about 1870, the Greenwich Pensioners plucked up courage sufficient to express their dislike of the place; and at last prevailed upon those Pharaohs, the Governors of the institution, to let them go from the House of Bondage and Draughts, so to speak, and to betake themselves and their pensions wheresoever it pleased them to live.

The Royal Naval College now partly occupies these great ranges of buildings; and other portions, are, of course, well known as a museum, in which the Nelson relics and a curious collection of ship-models are to be seen.

There are, in one way and another, a good many recollections of Charles the Second at Greenwich. One of them is found in the name of the “Old Fubbs Yacht” inn, which stands in Brewhouse Lane, hard by the “Ship.” “The Fubbs Yacht” is nowadays more in the nature of an obscure public-house than an inn, but the back of it looks upon the river, and passengers by steamer to and from Greenwich Pier may easily see the odd and not beautiful name. No one, however, is in the least likely to associate it with Charles the Second; but the sign derives directly from his royal yacht, Fubbs, which succeeded his first yacht, the Cleveland, just as his favourite, the Duchess of Cleveland, was succeeded by Louise de Kérouaille, whom he created Duchess of Portsmouth, and whom he nicknamed “Fubbs” because of her “plump and pleasing person.” Singularly enough, these are exactly the words in which the vicar describes Mrs. Partlet, the pew-opener, in the comic opera, The Sorcerer.

THE “OLD FUBBS YACHT” GREENWICH.

But you will hear nothing of this history at the inn itself, where the vague idea prevails that “Old Fubb” was a sportsman, who, at some time unspecified, sailed racing yachts. The situation of the house is now of the grimiest, with a busy coal-wharf on either side, but it is sung by a modern poet—not Tennyson, nor Alfred Austin, nor Kipling, but by one J. G. Hamer, who writes thus, in the advertising way:

“There’s an ancient house near the subway,
‘Fubb’s Yacht,’ kept by William Pring,
In the old royal borough of Greenwich,
Where the bells of St. Alphage ring.
“Do you want a good sixpenny dinner,
From twelve o’clock till two,
You’ll get what you want at the ‘Old Fubb’s Yacht,’
From steak-pie to Irish stew.
“A jolly good tea for fourpence,
You can have at this well-known spot,
And enjoy yourself by the silvery Thames,
At the cosy and smart ‘Fubb’s Yacht.’ ”

Together with much more to the same effect. I fear no contradiction when I say that Tennyson never wrote anything like this.

Beyond the stately Hospital, along a humble waterside street where the riverside “Yacht” and “Three Crowns” inns hang out their signs, the inquisitive stranger will find the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, sometimes called Norfolk College, an alms-house for a number of old men, founded together with another at Clun in Shropshire, and one for women at Castle Rising in Norfolk, by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, in 1814. It is a quaint, white-painted group of buildings, enclosing a little cobble-stoned courtyard with a central garden and a fine large lawn at the back. In the chapel, otherwise uninteresting, is the monument of the founder; removed in 1696, together with his body, from the then ruined and roofless church of St. Mary at Dover Castle, where he had been Constable. His life-sized, white marble kneeling figure, with the Garter on his left leg, looks stately and dignified in the chancel. It is indeed among the best works of that notable sculptor, Nicholas Stone. Other portions of the monument, in fragments at the west end of the building, show signs of having at some time been long exposed to the weather. The figures are rather speculative, and may be either a galaxy of Virtues and Graces, or wife and children.

Trinity Hospital is overhung and pitifully dwarfed by the great electric power-house of the London County Council’s electric tramways, whose chimneys rise to a height of nearly 300 feet. They are typical of the great change that has come over Greenwich in modern times, tending towards degrading it to a mere indistinguishable part of London. Fortunately, it possesses too many beautiful natural features to become ever quite that.

But no longer is Greenwich dignified by the ministerial whitebait dinners that were once held at the “Ship.” These once famous entertainments that generally marked the close of the parliamentary summer session originated in a casual way, about 1798, when the commissioners of Dagenham Breach invited Pitt to be a guest at their annual fish dinner at Dagenham. The occasion was successful enough to be repeated, and the scene was eventually changed to a tavern, sometimes at Blackwall and sometimes at Greenwich. By this time the annual feast had developed into a Tory ministerial event, and proved so useful in the strengthening of party ties that the Whigs, when in office, adopted the custom.

The Greenwich ministerial whitebait dinners, held either at the “Ship,” the “Crown and Sceptre,” or the “Trafalgar,” were formerly accompanied by something of what, in less exalted circles, we should style the showy “beanfeast” element; for the Royal and Admiralty barges, gay with bunting, conveyed the guests to the scene of jollity, and back. Only the concertinas were lacking. The function was first broken during the Gladstonian administration of 1868–74. In that last year, with the triumph of the Conservatives, Disraeli revived it, but the excursion was made by steamer instead of by barge. And so it continued, through the next Liberal term of office, until 1883, when it was again discontinued; to be revived on only one occasion since, in 1894, during the short-lived administration of Lord Rosebery.

Not only Ministers of the Crown resorted to Greenwich for whitebait dinners: they were long popular with Londoners in general; but now that the swiftest of communication with London is obtainable, this most easily perishable of fish is just as readily to be had there, and Greenwich has suffered in consequence. Whitebait, supposed by some to be a distinct species of fish, and declared by others to be merely the small fry of herring, are caught between Blackwall and Greenwich, said to be the only waters in which they are found.

All the way from Greenwich to Woolwich, a matter of three miles, run the electric trams; the river going in a bold loop almost due north, along Blackwall Reach. A fine, broad, new road runs across the dreary flats to the Blackwall Tunnel; and all along these once solitary levels great modern factories are springing up. The explorer will not get much joy of going that way; nor indeed will he find much by going ahead into Woolwich, for the mean things that fringe about the skirts of a great city are abundantly evident.

Woolwich looks imposing from the river, with its crowded houses backed by the wooded heights of Charlton and Shooter’s Hill, but it is disappointing on close acquaintance. Its streets, of the narrowest, described to the present writer by a contemptuous attendant at the Free Ferry as “not wide enough to wheel a bassinette,” are old without being either ancient or picturesque, and although they own such attractive names as “Nile” and “Nelson” Streets, “Bellwater Gate,” and “Market Hill,” are grim and repellent. The parish church, in midst of these unlovely surroundings, is exactly in keeping: a grim, eighteenth-century affair of dull stock brick, like a factory. Many of the crowded tombstones around it were removed in 1894. Among them was one to a certain Emmanuel Skipper, who died in 1842, whose epitaph concluded:

“As I am now, so will you be,
Therefore, prepare to follow me.”

To which some one, apparently a stone-worker engaged in the churchyard, added in very neat lettering:

“To follow you I’m not intent,
Till first I know which way you went.”

North Woolwich, whose name will be found by the diligent student of maps, on the opposite shore, is not, as might reasonably be supposed from its situation, in Essex, but is a portion of the county of Kent. There are, of course, many instances throughout England of detached portions of shires and counties islanded in others, but perhaps none so oddly arbitrary as this, where a broad river separates the two portions. Rarely ever do we find an altogether satisfactory explanation of these peculiarities. In the present instance it is held to be owing to the ancient local manorial possessions of Count Haimo, Sheriff of Kent in the reign of William the Conqueror, lying on either side of the Thames, and that, therefore, the smaller portion of his holding was included in that county in which his greater interests lay. It is an ingenious, if not altogether convincing theory.

Woolwich is associated with one of the most terrible shipwrecks of modern times. A good many years have passed since the wreck of the pleasure-steamer Princess Alice thrilled London, but there are many yet living who remember the occasion. The Princess Alice plied frequently in the summer between London and Gravesend, and was generally crowded. She was exceptionally well filled on that fatal day, September 3rd, 1878. More than eight hundred people were aboard. London trippers are proverbially jolly, and those who in those days made holiday at Gravesend and Rosherville were folk of exuberant spirits. Music and dancing occupied the attention of the holiday folk on the return voyage, and all went well until after passing Gallions Reach and rounding Tripcock’s Tree Point. Night had fallen upon the broad and busy river, and coming swiftly down-stream appeared the lights of a large screw-steamer, the Bywell Castle collier. The captains of both vessels were taken by surprise, and both lost their presence of mind, with the result that the Bywell Castle struck the Princess Alice immediately forward of her engine-room, and cut her in two. In less than four minutes the Princess Alice had sunk, and 670 persons were drowned. Some few, with the exercise of much agility, jumped aboard the collier at the moment of the collision, but many were women and children, and many more were in the saloon, and were caught there, as in a trap.

It was finally decided in litigation that the Princess Alice was alone to blame for the disaster. Some of the drowned were buried in Woolwich Cemetery, where a monument stands, erected by a “national sixpenny subscription” contributed by over 23,000 subscribers. Around it are long lines of small stones, marking where the dead lie. The inscription on the monument gives figures considerably at variance from those given in books of reference. It states: “It was computed that seven hundred men, women, and children were on board. Of these about 550 were drowned. One hundred and twenty were buried near this place.”

This melancholy spot is situated on the one-time pleasant hill-side above Plumstead, between Woolwich and Abbey Wood; close to where Bostal Woods still look down from their craggy heights upon the wide-spreading marshes of Plumstead and Erith. This was once an exceedingly delightful escarpment, densely clothed with noble woods and vigorous undergrowth, stretching away to Erith, but the suburban expansion of London is spoiling it. Cemeteries—the abodes of the dead—and little mean streets of houses, scar the once rustic hill-sides, and along the road that goes to Erith, down in the levels, the electric trams run swiftly. But the place-names are still fragrant: Abbey Wood, Picardy, Belmont, and Belvedere; and indeed the great Abbey Wood is still very much more than a name.

Here is Lesnes Abbey Farm, whose 260 acres comprises 200 acres of woodland. The lands, now and for long past the property of Christ’s College, are of much romantic and antiquarian interest, for here was situated the Abbey of Westwood, or Lesnes, founded in 1178 for Augustinian Canons by Richard de Lucy, Lord Chief Justiciar of England, and at one time protector of the realm. The founder died within a year, and was buried in his abbey church. For 347 years the Abbey of Lesnes continued in existence, and was then suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey, in 1525, and its revenues seized for the purposes of his educational endowments. The Abbey ruins and lands passed in succession to a number of owners.

So long ago as 1752 the buildings had become a mere heap of rubbish, with little remaining above ground, and that greatly overgrown with trees. Excavations were then made and numerous monuments were discovered, but they appear to have been all covered up again; and not until 1910 was the site again explored. Work was then undertaken by the Woolwich Antiquarian Society, and some highly interesting remains have been unearthed. There, close by the modern farmhouse, deep down in pits dug in the accumulated soil, you see the bases of pillars of the Lady Chapel and the Chapter House, with floors of encaustic tiles; and there, too, are five Purbeck or Bethersden marble coffin-lids of the abbots and brethren of this vanished Abbey. One, bearing a shepherd’s crook, is that of Abbot Elyas, while another, on which the word “medicina” may be clearly traced, is obviously that of a brother who acted as doctor. A museum of relics has been established in a room of the farmhouse. Chief among these was the life-size, cross-legged effigy of a knight in chain-mail, supposed to represent one of the De Lucy family, about 1301; the shield on his arm bearing the “flower-de-luce.” The colours and gilding are still perfect. This interesting relic has now been removed to the South Kensington Museum.

The name of Belvedere is curiously un-English, but the village is sufficiently British, with a very ordinary “Belvedere” railway station. The origin of the place takes us back to early in the eighteenth century, when a mansion of that name was built on the wooded hill-top, in a pleasant park whence the estuary of the Thames and its crowded shipping could be seen. Hence “Belvedere,” a word deriving from the Italian, bello vedere, a pleasant view. Look-out towers commanding fine prospects, and known as “belvederes,” or sometimes as “follies,” are familiar objects all over the country, in ancestral parks. This mansion of Belvedere was rebuilt in a “classic” style, in red brick, about 1764, by Lord Eardley. A still wider view is obtained from a prospect-tower in the grounds. The park was greatly cut up for building purposes in 1859, and the village of Belvedere then sprang up. The mansion itself was purchased for £12,000 and opened in 1867 as a home for old sailors: the Royal Alfred Institution for Aged Merchant Seamen.

Any expectation of beauty in the village, or wretched forlorn settlement, of Belvedere that fringes the road to Erith would be doomed to disappointment, and Erith, which succeeds it, is simply beastly: there is no other fitting word for the place nowadays. “Aer-hythe,” whence the place-name is said to derive, is considered to mean the “old port,” and a picturesquely dilapidated old place it remained until recent years, with a quaintly ramshackle old wooden jetty projecting into the Thames, and a curious wood-and-glass house at the head of it. Coal was leisurely landed here, in a way that was, by comparison with the present methods, altogether amateurish. Nowadays the street of Erith is mean and squalid, and filthy coal-yards and busy power-houses, together with a network of railway-lines, occupy the shore. Modern industrial conditions have rendered Erith a place eminently desirable to leave unvisited. Nor do the marshes and low-lying fields beyond it, towards the mouth of the river Darent, reward the explorer, whose only course is now to turn inland and so come, past the hamlet of Perry Street, through Crayford and along the Dover Road, into Dartford town.

Dartford does not greatly concern us here, because, for one thing, it is not upon the coast, and, for another, it belongs to quite a different subject, the Dover Road; and in a book on that highway I have described the town at some length.

It is a matter of some two miles from the town, more or less beside the river Darent, across the low-lying and sometimes marshy meadows, to the Thames-side. You pass the scattered hamlet of Joyce’s Green and evidences of gunpowder works; and, nearing the Thames, there opens before you a view of Long Reach, with the smallpox hospital-ships, and on the Essex shore the very striking picture of Purfleet, a busy little place, nestling at the foot of its bold, chalky hill. A place very little, yet very busy and grimy when you come closely into touch with it, is “Portflete”—thus to style it by its older name.


CHAPTER III
STONE—GREENHITHE—NORTHFLEET—HUGGENS’S COLLEGE—ROSHERVILLE—GRAVESEND—SHORNEMEAD—CLIFFE—COOLING—THE HUNDRED OF HOO—THE ISLE OF GRAIN—HOO ST. WERBURGH—UPNOR CASTLE—STROOD

Table of Contents

Rising steeply out of Dartford, we come by the Dover Road, the ancient Watling Street, up to the lofty plateau of Dartford Brent; here taking the left-hand fork where the road branches. To the right goes the Watling Street, the Roman road, our left-hand route conducting gradually past Stone to the waterside at Greenhithe. Industrial England is prominent on the way, greatly to the disadvantage of the older England of romance. The thoughtful man asks himself, on passing the huge City of London Lunatic Asylum at Stone, and coming into a region of chalk-pits and cement-works, whither we are tending.

Here, where the hill-sides are being cut away for sake of the chalk, and where lofty chimneys send forth clouds of smoke, stands the lovely Early English church of Stone, built, it is thought, by the designers and craftsmen who created Westminster Abbey. The clustered shafts of the nave-arcade, and the general decoration of the interior, bear a marked resemblance. The exceptional elaboration of this parish church is due to the offerings of pilgrims on their way to and from the shrine of St. William of Perth at Rochester. The church stood beside the road, and thus came in for the pilgrims’ alms. The modern pilgrim will only note that this church, begun on this beautiful and costly scale, was completed on a minor note. This is due to a falling-off of those wayfarers’ gifts.

Greenhithe sits beside the river, in a queer little byway. From it sailed away into the northern ice and an obscure death, Sir John Franklin and his crews of the Arctic expedition, on board the Erebus and Terror, 1845. Many an one must, since then, have reflected upon the peculiarly ominous names of those ships.

Greenhithe is just a quaint, waterside street of houses running parallel with the Thames, with shops of a kind which give you the impression that they are kept by people who never expect to sell anything, and that they, in fact, never do sell anything; that they would resent the very suggestion of a sale, and are a kind of shop-keeping anchorites, who keep shop in fulfilment of vows to deny purchasers the satisfaction of making purchases. Though, I honestly declare, I have never seen any article in Greenhithe shop-windows in the least desirable by any reasonable person. Almost the oldest house in this queerest of queer streets is one which bears the initials and date:

E.
I. M
1693

I believe it must have been only a little later than this period when some of the goods exposed to view in these windows were added to stock.

INGRESS ABBEY.

In the broad reach off Greenhithe and Northfleet are anchored the training-ships Arethusa, Warspite, and Worcester; and at the eastward end of this street, which leads to nowhere in particular, you come suddenly upon the handsome mansion of Ingress Abbey, built about 1834 by Alderman Harmer, then proprietor of the Weekly Dispatch. It was built from the stones of old London Bridge, which had been pulled down two years earlier. Sweetly pretty, almost noble, must the Alderman’s lordly mansion have looked, in its lovely waterside park, rich in noble trees. So, indeed, it does even yet, although the house has been long empty, and although it and the park are about to be abolished for the building of a huge wall-paper manufactory. The entire neighbourhood, in fact, is being thoroughly commercialised, and rendered a fuming, striving horror of machinery and belching factory-chimneys. Enterprising people have even plans for factory-building on that projecting spit of desolation between Greenhithe and Northfleet, known as Swanscombe marshes; while as for Northfleet, that old-time village has become a sprawling place of much squalor.

The chief feature of the long street is the rather striking group formed by the dwellings and the chapel of Huggens’s College, in grounds secluded behind a lofty wall. In the years 1844–7 the amiable John Huggens, a city merchant, founded and endowed this college, as almshouses for the benefit of gentlemen reduced to poor circumstances; and here forty of these collegians, with their wives and one woman relative, reside and enjoy an annuity of £52 apiece, and live, like all pensioners, to the most preposterous and incredible ages, much to the disgust of those in the waiting list. Over the archway leading into the grounds is a statue of the admirable Huggens, seated and habited in a tightly buttoned-up frock-coat. He seems to be seeking inspiration in the skies, and holds a roll of papers in his right hand, while the left appears to be groping in something that resembles a coal-scuttle. The street at this corner is quaintly named—in allusion to Huggens, no doubt—“Samaritan Grove.”

Here we are again on the Dover Road, with modern developments of electric tramways leading on through Rosherville to Gravesend. Let us, as soon as may be, turn off to the left from the dust and the traffic, and seek the waterside at Rosherville Pier. The famous gardens created in the great chalk-pit by the enterprising Jeremiah Rosher, 1830–35, were for many years the scene of Cockney jollity and the wildest of high-jinks; all thought very daring by the early Victorians who indulged in them. “Rosherville, Where to Spend a Happy Day”: that was the legend. You made excursion by steamer from London and indulged in tea and shrimps—“s’rimps” in the Cockney tongue, you comprehend—taken in earwiggy arbours in gardens decorated with plaster statues; and possibly took part in some dancing, later on, under the illuminated trees. These things, considered awfully wild then, we look back upon with disgust for their mingled slowness and vulgarity.