Faversham Creek

This page is based on a series of articles that the Faversham Historian Arthur Percival wrote for the local newspaper under the title PAST PICTURED. Posted latest chapter here; scroll down to previous. I was not able to reproduce the original photos that Arthur  used, so will add some as I find them.

History of Faversham Creek  Chapter 5

How a sluice installed at the head of the Creek in 1558 transformed its fortunes we learnt last week.   Its operation cleared the waterway of mud and silt, enabling the big vessels of the day to load and discharge cargoes close to the town centre rather than at Thorn Creek, a mile away to the north.

In the words of William Lambarde, writing just 12 years later, “this town flourisheth in wealth, for it hath not only the neighbourhood of one of the most fruitful parts of this shire (or rather, of the very garden of Kent) adjoining by land, but also a commodious Creek, that serveth to bring in and carry out by the water, whatsoever wanteth or aboundeth to the country about it.”

And so, thanks largely to its Creek, the town continued to prosper for the next 250 years and more.    Edward Hasted, the great Kent historian, gave the port a positive health-check.   “Constant attention has always been paid to the preservation and improvement of the navigation of this creek, by the corporation, who take the whole expense of it on themselves.”   The necessary funds they found by the imposition of ‘droits’ (tolls) on cargoes discharged at the various quays.   Their right to do so was challenged in 1764, but upheld in court.

Hasted went on to describe the port’s trade.    “The principal shipping trade is now carried on from this port by six hoys, which go alternately every week to London with corn, amounting in very plentiful years to 40,000 quarters of different sorts yearly.”

“Colliers likewise, of one hundred tons burthen, which supply not only the town but the neighbouring country with coals, and larger vessels, which import fir timber and iron from Polish Prussia, Norway, and Sweden, frequently resort hither, the principal proprietors and merchants concerned in them being inhabitants of this town.   Besides which, there are several fishing vessels, and others, employed in carrying wool, fruits, and other traffic to London and other parts.”   

There was also the oyster fishery.    It supported over 100 families in the town.    Faversham oysters were great favourites of the Dutch, who “have, time out of mind, kept up a constant traffic here for them, never dealing with any others, whilst they can purchase here those suitable for their consumption, at an equal price to those of the adjoining grounds, and generally laying out upwards of £3,000 [in today’s money £100,000] annually for them.”

However, “as these beds do not afford native oysters sufficient for the demands made for them, large quantities of small ones, called brood, are annually laid on these shores.   These are collected from different parts of the sea, even from the Land’s End in Cornwall to Scotland and France, in order to increase and fatten, and be meliorated of their saltness, by the constant flow of the fresh waters from the Thames and the Medway.”

So far, except at Standard Quay, Town Quay and Ordnance Wharf, the flood-prone banks of the Creek lay mostly undeveloped.   In 1812 the situation changed when Samuel Shepherd, of the brewing family, built a cement works at King’s Head Quay.   Seen here as it was about 115 years ago, this was one of the first of its kind in the UK.    It took advantage of the ‘Roman cement’ developed by James Parker in the 1780s and patented in 1796.   Part of Provender Walk now occupies the site.

This reproduced no original Roman product, but exploited the potential of the ‘septaria’ nodules found locally in the London Clay.   Containing both clay and chalk, these could be burnt and then ground to a fine powder which, when mixed with sand, made an excellent mortar.

King’s Head Quay, where part of Provender Walk now stands, took its name from an old pub which was demolished in 1849 when the works was updated.   Its name was transferred to a pub in Abbey Street, formerly known as The Mermaid and then The Smack.    This is now No 14, and Smack Alley, alongside it, takes its name from the pub’s old dedication.

History of Faversham Creek      Chapter 4

We continue the eventful story of Faversham Creek.   From last week’s column you’ll recall that when he died in 1533 successful local businessman Henry Hatch left the town money for (among other things) the installation of a sluice to flush the Creek of silt.    This was built at the north end of Stonebridge Pond in 1558, and its working enabled the big ships of the day to load and discharge cargoes in, or close to, the town centre, rather than a mile away, at Thorn Quay.

Hatch would have been delighted with the outcome of his foresight and generosity.   The town prospered as never before.    Wrote William Lambarde in 1570:   “This town flourisheth in wealth, for it hath not only the neighbourhood of one of the most fruitful parts  of this shire (or rather, of the very garden of Kent) adjoining by land, but also a commodious Creek, that serveth to bring in and carry out by the water, whatsoever wanteth or aboundeth to the country about it.”

The fruits of Faversham’s late 16th century wealth we can still see today.    Old houses were rebuilt, sometime on a grand scale – think of 1 Market Place (Purple Peach), 25 Court Street, 19 Abbey Street, and 81-83 Abbey Street (one house now split in two).    As one journalist recently put it, the port had become the ‘larder of London’ at a time when the metropolis was rapidly expanding.   For at least a century the city imported more wheat from Faversham than from any other port.    Doubtless also its breweries had a big appetite for local hops.

While the harbours of some other members of the Cinque Ports Confederation silted up, Faversham remained open to traffic.   England had always been renowned abroad for the fine quality of its wool, and by the 1680s the Creek was second only to Newcastle upon Tyne for the export of this product.

As a British Empire began to be built up there was an increasing demand for gunpowder.   This was met by expansion of the Home Works, first of the town’s three factories.    From its original nucleus around Chart Mills it spread upstream as far as the old Maison Dieu corn mill, and downstream as far as Stonebridge Pond.   In 1705 the Borough Council transferred the working of the sluice at the Pond’s north end to the factory operator on condition that he widened it.    In due course a dedicated Ordnance Wharf was built.   Long disused for its original purpose, it now stands vacant, and its future is under discussion.

At the head of the Creek basin, it’s seen in this week’s photograph as it was in about 1890, when it was occupied by a shipwright and block- and mast-maker.  

Increasing powder cargoes were exported via the Creek, though not all legitimately.    “Large quantities are being smuggled out of Faversham without coquet or security under pretence of His Majesty’s goods, but what it is or where it goes we are unable to give any account,” grumbled local Customs officers in 1673.    

Smuggling in fact was a major local industry.   The town was “notorious” for it, reported Britain’s first great investigative journalist, Daniel Defoe, in 1724.   In the “arts of that wicked trade the people hereabouts are arrived at such a proficiency that they are grown monstrous rich,” he went on.

Fifty years later local surgeon and historian Edward Jacob attempted to redeem Faversham’s tarnished reputation.    No-one who knew “the site and course of our Creek, which runs not less than three miles within land, would need to be convinced of the ridiculousness of the repeated assertion of this town’s being notorious for smuggling. …   There is not one vessel belonging to it that is known to be employed in that iniquitous trade, or even suspected of it.”  

This was carrying loyalty to his adopted town a bit too far.    There are such things as blind eyes and deaf ears.   Why else would no less than three coastguard stations later be set up along the local coastline?

History of Faversham Creek      Chapter 3

 From last week’s column you’ll remember that there was a port (Cilling) somewhere in the Faversham area in 699; that Faversham itself was a town, and a Royal one at that, by 811; that it may have been a founder-member of the Confederation of Cinque Ports in the 10th century; and that without its port it would never have emerged as a town.

How far upstream was the Creek navigable in the early middle ages, soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066?   This is the next question to which an answer is needed if we’re to understand how it influenced the town’s development.     Unfortunately it’s a vexed one.  

Nowadays there are two sluices to control water levels.    One is under the Creek Bridge, the other at the head of the Creek.    The purpose of the one under the Creek Bridge is twofold.    First, at high tide it enables water to be retained in the Basin above it so that this can be released at low tide to clear silt from the Creek bed.   Second, at high tide when the Bridge is swung open, it enables sea-going vessels to reach the Basin and berth there.

In fact this sluice has not been operated for many years and as a result mud and silt have built up in the main reaches of the Creek below it.    Thanks to efforts by the Creek Consortium, the sluice gates have recently been repaired by the navigation owners, Medway Ports.   This business is owned by Peel Holdings, whose HQ is in Manchester.   Among its many other interests are the Manchester Ship Canal, the Trafford Centre in Manchester, the Ports of Liverpool and Sheerness, Liverpool John Lennon Airport and three other provincial airports.

(The Creek Bridge is due to be replaced soon by KCC, with another opening bridge, possibly a bascule type; the Gates will also be replaced) Arthurs words replaced with the current situation.

The second sluice, at the head of the Creek, cannot be seen, as it is at the north end of Stonebridge Pond, whose water level it is used to regulate.    It is the present-day counterpart of the first sluice installed in 1558.    The purpose of this, like the one under the Creek Bridge, was to build up a head of water at high tide so that the this could be be used to flush the Creek of silt.    Illustrated is an 1822 plan of Stonebridge Pond, when it formed part of the Home Gunpowder Works.   The road running ‘south-north’ on the left is West Street.

The Pond sluice took the place of a tide mill (Flood Mill) and the funds for it came from the bequest of Henry Hatch. Two years before his death in 1533 he’d said “I mean to bestow such cost upon the Haven and Creek that a ship with two tops [masts] may come up to the Crane [meaning probably Standard Quay]”.    He was a successful merchant and businessman from Sundridge, near Westerham, and, as he had no children, had decided that as he’d made his fortune in the town he’d leave it most of the money and property he’d amassed.    

His point was that in his day the Creek was so badly silted that big vessels could only get up as far as Thorn Quay, below the present sewage works.    For the rest of their mile-long journey to or from the town, cargoes had to be moved, inconveniently, in carts or shallow-draught lighters.

The existence of a tide mill at the head of the Creek means that originally Stonebridge Pond and perhaps the lowest reaches of the Westbrook, which feeds it, were tidal and so perhaps, before it was built, navigable by small shallow-draught vessels.    Contours suggest that, if it was, such vessels may have been able to reach the lower end of Tanners Street, near which the town’s first Guildhall was standing in the early 16th century.   But this is speculation and more research is needed.

History of Faversham Creek    Chapter 2

We focussed last week on the geological origins of Faversham and Oare Creeks and the pattern of well-watered valleys which once fed them.    Now a look at their early history, about which in truth not a lot is really known.

Geographers tend to describe creeks and inlets like these as ‘rias’, from a Galician word meaning valleys drowned by the sea.   “The branching creeks near Faversham have been produced by marine drowning of an essentially ‘dry valley’ topography,” says the offcial account of The Geology of the Country around Faversham.

There are many parallels in southern England, among them Chichester Harbour, Poole Harbour, the creeks around Shalfleet in the Isle of Wight, and the estuaries of the rivers Exe, Dart, and Fal (think of maps or aerial photographs of places like Topsham, Dartmouth and Falmouth).

In other words the Creeks only became navigable after tidal salt water swept up them from the Thames Estuary.     Otherwise they would have remained shallow mini-rivers.   So far, so good.    However when historic times are reached there is a complication, the implications of which still need to be worked out, and understood.

Archaeological and other research strongly suggests that when the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded, and annexed, Kent in AD 43 local sea levels were much lower than they are today – by as much as 15 feet.    This would mean that neither Creek would have been navigable, except at very high tides by shallow-draught vessels.

And yet several local Roman villa (farmstead) sites are close either to the Creeks or nearby inlets; and it seems likely that they were located where they were to be near navigable waters, so that products could be ‘exported’ to London and elsewhere.    It tends to be assumed, for example, that the villa excavated near Abbey Farm in 1964 was located where it was because it was close to Faversham Creek.

It has also been suggested that the artificial mound known as Nagden Bump (seen here in the background before it was levelled in 1953) was raised as a foundation for a Roman lighthouse.    Here are puzzles to which knowledgeable readers may know the answers.

What is for sure is that in 699 somewhere in or close to Faversham was a place called Cilling (probably pronounced Chilling) and that, if not a home of royalty, it had close royal associations, since Wihtred, King of Kent, issued an important charter there in that year.   More importantly – for Faversham Creek – it was later, in 814, described as a port.

On the basis of available documentary evidence, no scholar has yet managed to pinpoint it, but suggestions have been made that it lay by Ewell Fleet, about 600 yards north of Ewell, on the Graveney Road, or was simply a locality in Faversham itself – where at Kings Field there was a major burial ground whose name suggests that had royal associations.

By 811, when it’s first mentioned as ‘Fefres ham’, the town must have been well-established, because it’s described as such (‘oppidum’ in Latin).    What’s more, it’s described in Latin as ‘regis’ (owned by the King), so the case for its identity with, or at least close affinity to, Cilling perhaps becomes stronger.

In its position alongside its Creek it must have been a port, and there are indications that, though a ‘limb’ (associate) of Dover, it was an original member of the Confederation of Cinque Ports when this was formed in the 10th century.    By 1086 it also boasted a market – the oldest in the present county of Kent.

It’s clear in fact that Faversham would never have emerged as a town without its port.   The Creek was its major asset, over-riding the disadvantage that the town’s site lay north of the Roman Watling Street (A2).   The more so, too, because after Roman times the roads were in poor shape, as they remained for hundreds of years, and most freight and passenger transport was by water.

History of Faversham Creek    Chapter 1

24 years isn’t a long time – or is it?   In 1987 in its ‘Nutshell Guide’ series the Faversham Society published a booklet on Faversham Creek.    This took the form of, first, a brief history (11 pages), and then a trail from the Creek head at Flood Lane and the foot of Brent Hill to Nagden (14 pages).

Already, in 2011, the trail is now hopelessly out-of-date.    Most of the features it highlights between the Creek head and Standard Quay have either vanished or seen dramatic changes of use.   They’re consigned to history.    Anyone who is new to the area will never have seen most of them, and be amazed that they ever existed.    “You mean to say there used to be an animal feed mill, and before that a cement  works, where I live?” and so on.   

How come?   Well, before that question’s answered, something about how the Creek comes to be here, and what part it has played in the area’s long history.

Take a look at the local 1”-scale sheets of the British Geological Survey, in particular those for the Faversham, Canterbury and Maidstone areas.    They’re on sale at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre.    Colourful affairs, they show very clearly (particularly the Canterbury one) slender green ‘fingers’ stretching rather like tree roots up the dip slope of the North Downs.    ‘Dendritic’ is the term the experts use for this very distinctive pattern.

These green fingers mark where the underlying chalk comes close to the surface , and signify valleys.    Every reader will probably be familiar with these – they are well-loved features of the local landscape, and outstandingly beautiful.

The Faversham Creek valley runs through Water Lane and Lorenden Park in Ospringe, and its tributaries to the top of the North Downs at Otterden, Stalisfield, and Throwley.   Just to the west is the Oare Creek valley, better known as Syndale (‘wide valley’) or the Newnham Valley, as far as Doddington, and then also reaching the top of the North Downs at Frinsted and Otterden.    Seen here is the village of Newnham, in the main valley, with a tributary valley coming down from Otterden.

The further south you go, the narrower the valleys mostly get, so the lanes which cross them are often very steep.   From the tops of some of them they are striking distant views northwards.    The countryside, thankfully, is all unspoiled.

How come, in turn, these valleys exist?    They’re now dry, but surely they must have been formed by running water?   Yes, indeed.   In the Ice Age permafrost never extended south of the Thames Estuary, but it was still very cold, and snow capped the top of the North Downs for most of the time.    When it melted it had to find its way to the sea, and in doing so it created these valleys.

But the underlying chalk is permeable and the water could simply have drained down into it?   Yes, but the ground often remained frozen, and then the water could only drain off over it.   The streams brought down with them flint and gravel deposits, and long after they had dried up, from the 20th century till today, these have been exploited for use in road metalling and construction work.

These streams dried up many millennia ago, but towards the north end of their courses springs provided residual water sources for the two Creeks, which were also swept by tidal waters.    Though in each case springs may once have risen higher up their courses, Oare Creek came to be fed by springs along Bysing Wood Road and Faversham Creek by ones rising just beyond Lorenden Park.    Because of ever-increasing demand on the aquifer, the latter (‘the source of the Nile’ jokingly) finally dried up about 40 years ago, and the only permanent springs left to feed Faversham Creek with fresh water rise in the stream bed outside Chart Gunpowder Mills and at the SW corner of Stonebridge Pond.