Landmarks

Gravesend Town Pier

Gravesend has the world’s oldest surviving cast iron pier, built in 1834. It is a unique structure having the first known iron cylinders used in its construction. The pier was completely refurbished in 2004 and now features a bar and restaurant; with public access to the pier head when the premises are open. A recent £2 million investment in a pontoon is now in place at the pier head onto the Thames, which provides for small and medium-sized craft to land at Gravesend. On 17 September 2012, the Gravesend – Tilbury Ferry, relocated to the Town Pier, from its previous terminal in nearby West Street.

Royal Terrace Pier

Built in 1844 and originally named Terrace Pier, the prefix “Royal” was added in honour of Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who arrived at the Gravesend on her way to marry Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1865. River pilots have been based at this pier since the late 19th century. Today, Royal Terrace Pier is in constant 24-hour use, keeping vigilant as part of the Port of London Authority main operations centre; thus, its public access is available only occasionally during the year.

This pier’s initial construction was funded by the Gravesend Freehold Investment Company, at a cost of £9,000. It is ‘T’ shaped, with a pontoon at its pier head. Like the Town Pier, Royal Terrace Pier is also a Grade II listed structure.

Gravesend Clock Tower, Harmer Street

Situated at the top of Harmer Street, its foundation stone was laid on 6 September 1887. The memorial stone records that the clock tower was erected by public subscription (£700 was raised toward its construction) and dedicated to Queen Victoria, to commemorate the 50th year of her reign. Built of Portland and Dumfries stone and backed by London stock brick, the design of the structure is based on the design of the Elizabeth Tower in the Palace of Westminster, which houses Big Ben. The centre of the clock itself is measured at 50 feet (15 m) above ground and the face measures 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) in diameter.

Pocahontas Statue

An American sculptor, William Ordway Partridge, created a life-size statue of the 17th-century Native American princess Pocahontas, which was unveiled at 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 foundation, it being the first successful English colonial settlement in America.

On 5 October 1958, an exact replica of the statue by Partridge was dedicated as a memorial to the 17th-century Native American princess at St George’s Parish Church. The Governor of Virginia presented the statue as a gift to the British people in 1958, a gesture prompted by The Queen’s visit to the USA in the previous year.

Windmill Hill

Windmill Hill, named after its former windmills, offers extensive views across the Thames and was a popular spot for Victorian visitors to the town because of the camera obscura installed at 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 King 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 in 1988, the 300th anniversary of the Armada.

It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that the first windmill was placed at the highest point in Gravesend, 179 ft (55 m) overlooking 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 is reported as having been destroyed by fire during Mafeking Night celebrations in 1900.

During World War I an Imperial German Navy airship passed over Windmill Hill, dropping bombs on it; today there are three markers indicating where these bombs struck.

Gravesend and the River Thames

MV “Armia Krajowa”, a Panamax vessel, being docked by Gravesend tugboats to discharge coal at Tilbury

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

A dinghy at an unmodernised Gravesend was the backdrop to the 1952 thriller The Long Memory starring Sir John Mills. In the film, Mills plays a character living in poverty on a derelict fishing boat stranded in the mud flats.

Gravesend also has one of England’s oldest regattas retained from its strong maritime links with the Thames. Although the origins of the regatta are unknown it dates back at least to Tudor times. The races are traditionally competed by Gravesend Skiffs, 21-foot-long (6.4 m) oak-built clinker-built boats.

St Andrew’s Art Centre & Gallery, sits between Bawley bay and Anchor Cove, both being the embarkation point for British colonists sailing to New Zealand and Australia, in the early 19th century.

The Thames Navigation Service was first thought up between 1950 and 1952 by Cdr Peter de Neumann GM RN, when he was captain of HMRC Vigilant (HM Customs & Excise) based at 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.

Until the building of Tilbury Docks on the opposite side of the river, between 1882 and 1886, Gravesend was the Thames’ 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 Indiamen traditionally stopped here at a point known as Long Reach to lighten their loads before sailing up the Thames to moorings at Blackwall.

For some years after 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 Essex. Before the Dartford Crossing came into being there was a vehicle ferry at Gravesend too.

There is a RNLI lifeboat station based at Royal Terrace Pier which has become one of the busiest in the country.

Thames and Medway Canal

Gravesend Canal Basin

The Thames and Medway Canal was opened for barge traffic in 1824. It ran from Gravesend on the Thames to Frindsbury near Stroodon 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 yds long, the second longest canal tunnel ever built in the UK. 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 Gravesend Canal Basin is used for the mooring of 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.