WELCOME TO GRAVESEND
In 1665 the bubonic plague spread like wildfire across London, killing around 100,000 people and leaving a dilemma of where to bury the dead. Many misguided historians believe that this is the origin of the name Gravesend, the bodies were said to be buried from BLACK HEATH all the way to GRAVES END but it’s a lie. The name GRAVESEND first appears in the Domesday Book 500 years earlier, in 1086, as Gravesham derived from Grafs-ham, which means a place at the end of the grove.
The area is steeped in history dating back to the stone age and the Romans built the main road from London to the Kentish coast running just to the north of the town. The Domesday Book mentions mills, ports and fisheries along the road and it has one of the oldest markets in the country dating back to its earliest charter in 1268.
New Tavern Fort
Due to the constant threat of invasion from the pesky French and Spanish, several forts were built along the Thames between 1865 and 1871, Shornemead on the South bank, Coalhouse Fort on the North and New Tavern Fort in Gravesend. The work was overseen by General Gordon who’s statue is here in the Leisure Gardens despite the fact that he thought they were pointless and poorly positioned. Just as well we never needed them.
There have been several ghostly sightings around the fort including one by James Balan, who in 1992 went down in the tunnel to get some wood and saw a Victorian soldier working away, he could see him very clearly and in great detail right down to the buttons on his uniform. James backed away quickly and fled.
This is the oldest building in Gravesend and was home to an order of monks from the 14th century, some of the inhabitants seem rather attached to the place, two figures in habits are sometimes seen walking along the corridors before disappearing through a wall
The River 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 first steamboat plied its trade between Gravesend and London in 1815, bringing with it a steadily increasing number of visitors. Gravesend soon became one of the first English resort towns and thrived from an early tourist trade.
On September 3rd 1878, the weather had been bright and the 700 or so passengers of the pleasure steamer Princess Alice were wending their way home to London after a day out catching the end of the summer sun and the fresh sea air of Sheerness.
The children were tired but happy after their day at the famous Rosherville Pleasure Gardens, Terrace Pier Gardens, Windmill Hill and Springhead Gardens, playing on the promenade at Sheerness or wandering around the popular resort of Gravesend. As the evening drew in, many families took the decision to retreat inside the saloon or to their cabins below, a move that sealed their fates
Alfred Thomas Merryman, a chef, had been asked at the last minute to work on the ship; the 30-year-old father of four from Bow was grateful for the extra cash and the rare opportunity to escape the dirty streets of London. At about 7:40pm, as the Princess Alice neared North Woolwich Pier, he was standing on the deck by the saloon door. Just as he was saying how “splendid” the voyage had been, he saw a huge coal-ship bearing down on the smaller vessel. The Bywell Castle ploughed straight into the starboard side of the Princess Alice, slicing her in two with a sickening crash.
“The panic on board was terrible, the women and children screaming and rushing to the bridge for safety,” said Merryman. “I at once rushed to the captain and asked what was to be done and he exclaimed: ‘We are sinking fast, do your best.’ “Those were the last words he said. At that moment, down she went.”
The ends of the ship rose into the air as the middle sank, sending people on deck hurtling into the watery chasm. Merryman and others on deck were pitched into the churning river, while the unfortunate passengers below deck were trapped. Tons of untreated sewage spewed from outlets near where the boats collided. The water bubbled with raw sewage, giving out a stench strong enough to leave even the hardiest boatman gagging. The men, women and children thrashing about in the water breathed in lungfuls of toxic waste.
Despite crew members of the Bywell Castle throwing down planks of wood and lifebuoys for people to cling to, the heavy Victorian clothes of those in the water dragged them down. For many, death was inevitable.
Deafened by the screams of his doomed fellow passengers, Merryman clung to a piece of wreckage to stay afloat. But when about 20 desperate people grabbed hold too, it sank. He started swimming – one of the lucky few who could – he lunged for a rope hanging over the side of the Bywell Castle and was hauled to safety along with four others.
Other survivors described being overwhelmed by an instinct for survival. One man told how he had to push drowning people off him to reach safety. Claude Hamilton Wiele said: “I found my brother swimming about, we made for the steamer. The water was full of people… we had great difficulty in avoiding them. A woman clutched me, but I got away, and I saw her go down like a stone.” Every man for himself obviously.
Around 130 people were pulled from the river alive – although several died shortly afterwards with complications from swallowing the putrid water.
About 650 lives were lost and for weeks bodies decayed in the polluted water or washed up on the riverbank all along the Thames. Boatmen hooked body after body out of the foul-smelling Thames, a grisly prize that earned them five shillings a body.
St George’s Church Gravesend
Pocahontas was a Native American woman born around 1595, the daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan, the ruler of the Powhatan tribe of Virginia.
The first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in May 1607. That winter, Pocahontas’ brother kidnapped Captain John Smith, placed his head on two stones and prepared to smash his skull in and kill him until Pocahontas rushed to Smith’s side and placed her head on his, preventing the attack. Chief Powhatan released him.
Pocahontas was an important Powhatan emissary. She brought the hungry settlers food and helped negotiate the release of Powhatan prisoners. But relations were very strained. By 1609, drought, starvation and disease had ravaged the colonists and they became increasingly dependent on the Powhatan to survive. Desperate and dying, they threatened to burn Powhatan towns for food. Chief Powhatan suggested a barter with Captain Smith but negotiations collapsed, the chief planned an ambush and Smith’s execution but Pocahontas warned Smith and saved his life again. Soon after, Smith was injured and returned to England; Pocahontas was told that he had died.
Pocahontas married an Indian named Kocoum in 1610 and managed to avoid the English until 1613 when she was lured by the English and kidnapped. Chief Powhatan was told that they wouldn’t return Pocahontas unless he released English prisoners, returned stolen weapons and sent the colonists food. Her father only sent half the ransom and left her imprisoned. While in captivity she learned to speak English, converted to Christianity and was given the name “Rebecca.” She met tobacco planter John Rolfe, dumped her first husband and married Rolfe in April 1614.
In 1616, Sir Thomas Dale sailed to England to rally financial support for the Virginia Company and to prove they had met their goal of converting Native Americans to Christianity, so Rolfe, Pocahontas, their infant son Thomas accompanied Dale on the trip to London where Pocahontas was revered as a princess and referred to as “Lady Rebecca Wolfe.” She attended plays and balls and was even presented to the royal family. Much to her surprise, she also encountered the not so dead Captain Smith.
In March 1617, Pocahontas and family set sail for home but they hadn’t even left the Thames when she became gravely ill and was taken ashore at Gravesend. It may have been tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery or smallpox; but some believe she was poisoned.
She is buried in the parish churchyard of St George’s where her ghost is said to wander. The exact location of her grave was lost when the parish records were destroyed by the fire that consumed much of Gravesend in 1727, destroying 110 houses and the parish church which was later rebuilt.
THE HERITAGE QUARTER
At an undisclosed location in Gravesend, a terrified family are convinced a demon is stalking their home – after capturing a string of spooky goings-on on camera.
Husband and wife Robert and Pauline along with son Barry, have lived in the house in Gravesend, for ten years. They say Barry, 33, is the focus of the paranormal activity and fear his bedroom could be a portal to the other side.
The phenomena, which first began six years ago, has seen friends and neighbours become too terrified to visit and prompted Robert to install CCTV cameras which have recorded a string of incidents including a mug moving on its own and rubber gloves flying off a kitchen worktop. Other clips show a chair rotating and doors opening and closing.
Barry describes the unwanted house guest as a black shape that follows him around. He said: “I have seen a shadow in the house but it tries to hide from me whenever I see it. One time when I was going down the stairs, I felt this presence behind me and turned around and saw it. It’s definitely not my shadow but I can’t make out what it is as it’s like a black mass. I kept waking up at 3.47am and I heard a bang and when we checked downstairs, pictures had been thrown around. There was something making me feel scared. It wasn’t just in my head. There was definitely something in my room. It kept trying to wake me up. The way it moves is odd. I felt dread for the first time. When we caught the cup move on CCTV, I thought it could have been water that it slid on, but I checked and the surface was bone dry.
Pauline, 52, said: “I believe it is a monk that’s haunting our house. I know what I saw – it was not a figment of my imagination. Barry’s bedroom could be a portal. It’s following my son.”
Robert, 54, revealed he once managed to photograph an apparition on the stairs. “It’s a really freaky place to live. Friends and neighbours say they are scared to come around, particularly after dark. When anyone does come around, they shout ‘bye’ to the ghost too and sometimes the doors slam after they do. We have talked about getting someone in to fight it but we won’t just in case the ghost is my mum and dad.”
Windmill Hill view point towards Meopham
Windmill Hill was a popular spot for Victorian visitors to the town because of the Camera obscura installed in the old mill and for its tea gardens and other amusements. The hill was the site of a warning beacon in 1377, which was instituted by Richard II, and still in use 200 years later at the time of the Spanish Armada.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the first windmill was placed on top of the highest point in Gravesend. One mill burnt down in 1763, was replaced the following year and that one was demolished in 1894. The last surviving windmill was destroyed by fire during Mafeking Night celebrations in 1900.
During World War I A German airship passed over Windmill Hill and dropped bombs on it. Today there are three markers indicating where these bombs struck.
The village of Meopham off yonder in the darkness, is reputedly one of the most haunted villages in Kent with tales of ghouls and ghosts trawling the streets. The best known is that of a young woman dressed in orange silk who is said to haunt Steeles Lane. The apparition is that of Mademoiselle Pinard, the mistress of a soldier from the Napoleonic War. During the allied occupation of Paris, a young soldier in the Kent regiment seduced the innocent young Parisienne with the promise of marriage. Head over heels in love, she followed her beau to England where she arrived on his doorstep, but he turned his back on her. Distraught and penniless, Mademoiselle Pinard put on the dress that she had bought for their wedding and hanged herself in Steeles Lane. Her ghost lurks there still, standing quietly by the side of the road on the spot where she died.
Another Steels Lane resident had an eerie experience one dark winter night 20 years ago while walking his dog. “While I was going down the bridal path I heard a rumbling noise and I turned around and saw an old American cart with big iron wheels coming towards me. There was a driver sitting on the back seat wearing a leather jerkin. “I stepped out of the way but just as the cart passed me it disappeared”
The Cricketers Pub near Meopham is said to be haunted by a former land lady, the current publicans have boarded up the cellar to try to stop the spooky goings on.
Mr. Jack Edmeades, a Kent footballer, recently became the licensee of the Miller’s Cottage, an ancient tavern standing on Windmill Hill which has the reputation of being haunted.
Centuries ago the Miller’s Cottage was the home of the miller who worked in the neighbouring windmill. History has it that he met an untimely death in the mill, and that since it was pulled down years ago his ghost stalks the Miller’s Cottage. Previous licensees say that strange noises have been heard in the building in the dead of night.
A former mayor of Gravesend, says that when he slept in the front bedroom he frequently heard a noise similar to water dripping on the floor. “Drip-drip-drip, it went on monotonously, When I turned the light on, it stopped.”
The Miller’s Cottage contains numerous nooks and crannies, and one room has seven doors leading to it. The miller’s ancient grindstone is used as a doorstop. Mr. Edmeades’ customers are already telling him of the weird happenings that have taken place in the Miller’s Cottage.
The Clock Tower
This was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887The following year, fear and panic stalked the streets of London’s East End for three months.
The ‘terror’ started on Friday 31st August when the body of Mary Ann Nicholls was found in Bucks Row. Her face was bruised and her throat had been slashed and nearly severed. Her stomach had been hacked open and slashed several times. She was the first of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims.
On the 8th September the second victim was found. Annie Chapman, a 47 year old prostitute. Her body was found in a passageway behind 29 Hanbury Street. Her head was almost severed and her stomach torn open and pulled apart. Sections of skin from the stomach lay on her left shoulder and on the right shoulder, a mass of intestines. Part of the vagina and bladder had been carved out and taken away.
On 28th September a letter was received at the Central News Agency signed ‘Jack the Ripper’, threatening more murders. The name appeared in the newspapers and was used ever afterwards. Whitechapel was now in uproar – riots broke out as hysterical crowds attacked anyone carrying a black bag as a rumour had spread that the ‘Ripper’ carried his knives in such a bag.
The 30th September was a grim day. The ‘Ripper’ carried out two murders within minutes of each other.
Prostitute Elizabeth Stride was found first, at 1am, behind 40 Berner Street with blood still pouring from her throat and it seemed that the ‘Ripper’ had been disturbed at his grisly business.
At 1.45am. the body of Catherine Eddowes was found just a few minutes walk away in an alley between Mitre Square and Duke Street. Her body had been ripped open and her throat slashed. Both eyelids had been cut and part of her nose and right ear were cut off. The uterus and left kidney were removed and entrails thrown over the right shoulder.
The horror of the double murder gripped London. Rumours now began to circulate – the ‘Ripper’ was a mad doctor, a Polish lunatic, a Russian Czarist or an insane midwife !
Another letter was received by the CNA in which the ‘Ripper’ said he was sorry he had not been able to send the ears to the police as he had promised! Catherine Eddowes’ left ear had been only partially severed.
On the 9th November the ‘Ripper’ struck again. Mary Kelly was the youngest of the women murdered: she was just 25 and an attractive girl. She was found in her room at Millers Court. What was left of her was lying on the bed, her throat had been cut, her nose and breasts cut off and dumped on a table. Her entrails were draped over a picture frame. The body had been skinned and gutted and her heart lay on the table.
Mary was the last of the ‘Rippers’ victims. His reign of terror ended as suddenly as it had begun. He was never caught but for over a hundred years, various names have been suggested as the killer of these women including one that links him to Queen Victoria herself.
Prince Albert Victor, the Queen’s young grandson was at the centre of these rumours, he is remembered today as a decent, if not particularly bright, young man. But his short life was marked by scandal. Rumours of homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, came to a head in 1889 when police closed down a male brothel and discovered one of the clients had connections to the Prince. In spite of whispers that the Prince himself had visited the brothel, nothing was ever proven. But Albert had contracted syphilis from a prostitute during a trip to the West Indies, a horrible disease which eventually attacks the brain, it sent him quite insane. One theory suggests that he decided to take revenge on the prostitutes of London carrying out the string of vicious killings as Jack the Ripper.