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Faversham (/ˈfævərʃəm/) is a market town and civil parish in the Swale borough of Kent, England. The parish of Faversham (Feversham) grew up around an ancient sea port on Faversham Creek and was the birthplace of the explosives industry in England.

Faversham, established as a settlement before the Roman conquest was held in royal demesne in 811, and is further cited in a charter granted by Kenulf, the King of Mercia. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Favreshant. The town has regularly throughout its history obtained curious royal privileges and charters.

In 1148 Faversham Abbey was established in Faversham by King Stephen  who with his consort Matilda of Boulogne, and his son, Eustace, the Earl of Boulogne was buried there. During Stephen’s reign, Faversham was a very important settlement and even became the capital of England for a short period King John tried to give the church to Simon of Wells in 1201, but the church was owned by the monks of St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury, who appealed to Rome and kept Simon from receiving the church. Sir Thomas Culpeper was granted Faversham Abbey by Henry VIII of England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries about 1536. The abbey was demolished directly after the dissolution and much of its masonry taken to Calais to reinforce that town’s defences against French interests. In 1539, the ground upon which the abbey had stood, along with nearby land, passed to Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

Among the few surviving buildings of Faversham Abbey are the two Barns at Abbey Farm. The smaller (Minor) Barn dates from 1425 and the larger (Major) Barn dates from 1476. In the farmyard of which they form part there are other listed buildings, including Abbey Farmhouse, part of which dates from the 14th century, and a small building which is thought to have been the Abbot’s stable. Also surviving is the Abbey Guest House, on the east side of the Outer Gateway of the Abbey; now known as Arden’s House. This house, now a private residence in Abbey Street, was the location of the infamous murder of Thomas Arden in 1551. Globe House opposite is thought to have been the Abbey steward’s home. The Faversham Almshouses were founded and endowed by Thomas Mendfield in 1614 and exist to this day.

Kent is the centre of hop-growing in England and Faversham was home to three breweries – Fremlins, Whitbread and Shepherd Neame. Of these only the Shepherd Neame Brewery survives; founded in 1698 it claims to be the oldest brewery in Britain and continues to be family-owned. The years during the First World War saw an uncertain time for the breweries. In the first instance, the scarcity of labour soon became evident from 1915, as a number of employees turned to offers of higher wages elsewhere, including the local ammunitions works.

A shipyard was established in Faversham by James Pollock & Sons (Shipbuilders) in 1916 at the request of Lord Fisher, the First Lord of The Admiralty. Faversham already had a tradition of shipbuilding, and it soon became a major contributor to markets throughout the world. Vessels such as the Molliette and the Violette both constructed of concrete were the forerunners to over 1200 ships built and launched from Faversham between 1916 and 1969.

Abbey Street and the centre of the town include a remarkable collection of original medieval houses. Much of it was intended for demolition as recently as the 1960s, until the value of the buildings, now listed, was recognised and local people began a determined fight to restore and preserve the area. Faversham has a highly active archaeological society and a series of community archaeology projects are run every year. Most recently, evidence of the town’s medieval tannery was unearthed in back gardens of one street, and evidence from the Saxon period was uncovered during the Hunt the Saxons project in 2005.

Faversham was the cradle of the UK’s explosives industry: it was also to become one of its main centres. The first gunpowder plant was established in the 16th century, possibly at the instigation of Faversham Abbey. With their estates and endowments monasteries were keen to invest in promising technology.

The town was well-placed for the industry. It had a stream which could be dammed at intervals to provide power for watermills. On its outskirts were low-lying areas ideal for the culture of alder and willow to provide charcoal — one of the three key gunpowder ingredients. The stream fed into a tidal Creek where sulphur, another key ingredient, could be imported, and the finished product loaded for dispatch to Thames-side magazines. The port was also near the Continent where in warfare demand for the product was brisk.

The first factories were small, near the town, and alongside the stream, between the London-Dover road (now A2) and the head of the creek. By the early 18th century these had coalesced into a single plant, later to be known as the Home Works, as it was the town’s first. In 1759 the British government nationalised the works, upgrading all the machinery. From this phase dates the Chart Gunpowder Mill, the oldest of its kind in the world. This was rescued from the jaws of the bulldozer, and then restored, by the Faversham Society in 1966. It is open to the public on weekends and Bank Holiday afternoons between April and the end of October.

A second factory was started by Huguenot asylum-seekers, towards the end of the 17th century, and became known as the Oare Works. It became a leading supplier to the East India Company. The third and last gunpowder factory to open was the Marsh Works, built by the British government 1 km northwest of the town to augment output at its Home Works and opened in 1787. This also had access to the sea via Oare Creek.

All three gunpowder factories closed in 1934. ICI, then the owners, sensed that war might break out with Germany, and realised that Faversham would then become vulnerable to air attacks or possibly invasion. They transferred production, together with key staff and machinery, to Ardeer in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Guncotton, the first “high explosive”, more useful for its destructive powers, was invented by Dr Christian Schonbein, of the University of Basel, in 1846. It was first manufactured, under licence from him, at Faversham’s Marsh Works in 1847. The manufacturing process was not fully understood and on 11 a.m. 14 July 1847 a serious explosion killed 21 people (18 staff), only 10 of whose bodies could be identified. Discretion being the better part of valour, the factory owners shut the plant. Guncotton was not made again in Faversham till 1873, when the Cotton Powder Company, independent of the gunpowder factories, opened a factory on a remote new site. Near Uplees, about 2.5 miles (4 km) northwest of the town centre but still within the parish, this was alongside the Swale, the deep-water channel that divides mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. Deliveries of raw materials — cotton waste and sulphuric and nitric acids — could readily be made, and the product readily dispatched by water.

The factory rapidly expanded, producing new high explosives as they were formulated. Adjoining it, on the west, in 1913 an associate venture, the Explosives Loading Company, built a plant to fill bombs and shells. Both plants were high-tech, with a power station, hydraulic mains, and internal telephone and tramway systems. Together they occupied an area of 500 acres (2 km²) — almost as large as the City of London.

When the First World War started in 1914, the two factories were requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed guards were mounted. Production facilities were further expanded and many new staff recruited from Faversham and elsewhere in east Kent. Road access for the workers was poor, so the Admiralty built a metre-gauge railway to transport them from a terminus at Davington, near the Home Works, to Uplees.

On Sunday 2 April 1916, a store of TNT and ammonium nitrate (used to “stretch” the TNT) exploded. More than 100 staff were killed in this explosion and in other “sympathetic” ones that followed. It was a Sunday, so no women were at work (see below).

The owners of both Swale-side factories closed permanently in 1919. The Davington Light Railway track was lifted, and its three steam locomotives found new homes in South America, where at least one is thought to survive. The station sites at Davington and Uplees have been obliterated by development, but the route of the trackbed at Oare can be traced, and the tunnel under the road at Oare still exists.

However, in 1924 a new venture, the Mining Explosives Company, opened a factory on the east side of Faversham Creek, not far from the site of Faversham Abbey — hence its Abbey Works name. Its Mexico telegraphic address led to it being known as “The Mexico” by local people. After a fatal accident in 1939 the proprietors decided to abandon the manufacture of high explosives and instead make an explosive-substitute based on a large reusable steel cartridge filled with carbon dioxide. The premises still needed to be licensed under the 1875 Explosives Act, as gunpowder was used in the initiator. Under the name Long Airdox, production continues today. Unusually, the company is owned by its main customers. Its appearance is still that of a traditional high explosive factories, with small buildings widely spaced for safety. It has one of the UK’s few surviving manumotive railways.

At 2.20pm on Sunday 2 April 1916, a huge explosion ripped through the gunpowder mill at Uplees, near Faversham, when 200 tons of TNT ignited. The blast killed 105 people and many were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery.

The weather might have contributed to the origins of the fire that followed on the morning of Sunday 2 April 1916. The previous month had been wet but had ended with a short dry spell so that by that Sunday the weather was “glorious” … but provided perfect conditions for heat-generated combustion.

The munitions factory was in a remote spot in the middle of the open marshes of north Kent, next to the Thames coastline, which explains why the great explosion at about noon on 2 April was heard across the Thames estuary as far away as Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Southend-on-Sea, where domestic windows were blown out and two large plate-glass shop windows shattered.

The East Kent Gazette of Sittingbourne reported the explosion on 29 April. Although recognising the need for some censorship, it referred to the reply given in Parliament to the question as “mystifying and ambiguous” and called for the fullest precautions to be implemented to “prevent another calamity of the kind” occurring again.

Although not the first such disaster of this kind to have happened at Faversham’s historic munitions works, the April 1916 blast is recorded as “the worst ever in the history of the UK explosives industry”, and yet the full picture is still somewhat confused. The reason for the fire is uncertain and considering the quantity of explosive chemical stored at the works — with one report indicating that a further 3,000 tons remained in nearby sheds unaffected — it is remarkable, and a tribute to those who struggled against the fire that so much of the nation’s munitions were prevented from contributing further to the catastrophe.

The Secretary of State for War, Earl Kitchener, had in 1914 written to the management of the CPC, and it is presumed the ELC, instructing the workforce on “the importance of the government work upon which they (were) engaged”. “I should like all engaged by your company to know that it is fully recognised that they, in carrying out the great work of supplying munitions of war, are doing their duty for their King and Country, equally with those who have joined the Army for active service in the field,” Kitchener said.

The Marsh Works then became a site for mineral extraction, as it remains today, and almost all its buildings were destroyed. Except for Chart Mill, Stonebridge Pond, and a few other buildings, most of the Home Works site was redeveloped for housing in the 1960s. The Oare Works is now a country park, known as Oare Gunpowder Works.

A charter was granted to the Mayor, Jurats and Freemen of the Town of Faversham in 1546, and regranted 1685; the town council was established under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The parliamentary constituency of Faversham was created for the 1885 general election and replaced by the new constituencies of Sittingbourne and Sheppey and Faversham and Mid Kent at the 1997 general election. The town has been represented by a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party other than between 1945-1970. Since 2001, the constituency’s MP has been Hugh Robertson of the Conservatives.

Faversham is within the Swale local government district. The town contains the four electoral wards of Abbey, Davington Priory, St Ann’s and Watling. These wards have seven of the forty seven seats on the Swale Borough Council. As of the 2007 Local Elections, all seven of those seats were held by the Conservatives.

The town has absorbed several former civil parishes such as Buckland-by-Faversham and Faversham Without. The latter was founded in 1894 to the west of the town, but reduced to a series of exclaves by 1961 as new parishes were carved out of it such as Graveney, Luddenham, Oare and Sheldwich.

Faversham is roughly equidistant between Sittingbourne and Canterbury. It lies 48 miles (77 km) east of London, off the London-to-Dover A2 road, 18 miles (29 km) east north east of Maidstone and 9 miles (14 km) west of Canterbury. The parish holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK. 38.5C (101.3F) was recorded at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust on 10 August 2003. Nearby villages include Oare across Oare Creek to the north, Luddenham, Mockbeggar and Ospringe.

The historic central area, especially the part-pedestrian parts between the station and the creek, attracts visitors, who can learn about the town’s history and features at the Fleur-de-Lis centre, which provides tourist information and houses a museum. There is still a regular market several days each week in the market square where the Guildhall stands. Nearby streets feature old pubs, almshouses, shops and a growing collection of art galleries and restaurants.

The munition industry in the area is now extinct and the town is now known as a harbour and market community; old sail-powered Thames barges are repaired, rebuilt and moored along the creekside. Shepherd Neame remains a significant regional brewer despite a decline in consumption of traditional bitter beer, producing around 230,000 barrels a year. It now also makes Indian and other beers under licence and its largely Kentish pub estate is as noted for its food as its owner’s beers.

The industry of employment of residents was 19% retail, 14% manufacturing, 11% real estate, 10% health & social work, 10% education, 9% construction, 7% transport & communications, 5% public administration, 4% hotels & restaurants, 4% finance, 2% agriculture and 5% other community, social or personal services. Compared to national figures, the town had a relatively high number of workers in agriculture and construction and a relatively low number in finance, public administration and hotels & restaurants.

Arden of Feversham is a play about the murder of Thomas Arden written in 1592, possibly by William Shakespeare. It gives its name to the modern Arden Theatre in the town, and inspired the 1966 opera Arden Must Die (Arden muss sterben) by Alexander Goehr. The work of local artists is revealed in open houses linked to the Canterbury Festival each autumn. There is an early and largely unchanged but functioning cinema. The town has close links with MUSEA (Music School of Eastern Africa) in Kenya, and the parish church hosts fundraising concerts for MUSEA each year.

The Maison Dieu (‘House of God’) is a hospital, monastery, hostel, retirement home and Royal lodge commissioned by Henry III in 1234 and now in the care of English Heritage. Located beside what is now the A2 road, it is now managed by the Faversham Society as a museum of Roman artefacts from the surrounding area.

The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, two miles to the south, has over 2,040 varieties of apple, 502 of pear, 350 of plum, 322 of cherry and smaller collections of bush fruits, nuts and grapes, all grown in 150 acres (61 ha) of orchards. Formerly a government research station, it is now run by a charity that organises annual events celebrating Kent’s agricultural heritage, its biodiversity and local products such as Kentish cider which is made from dessert apples rather than cider apples. The 9-inch Faversham miniature railway runs through the orchards.

In November 2011 it was discovered that the town owns an original version of Magna Carta, potentially worth about £20 M, rather than a copy worth only £10,000.

The Oare Gunpowder Works, scene of the 1916 gunpowder explosion (see above), is now a country park and nature reserve open to the public free of charge all year round. The Oare Marshes are an important reserve for birds, attracting binocular-toting enthusiasts to view the many species of migrants. There is an interesting information centre (as well as other bird hides) near the site of the former Harty ferry over the Swale to the Isle of Sheppey. Remains of the process houses and other mill leats have been carefully conserved. From the visitor centre, signed trails radiate in various directions. An early 20th century electric-powered gunpowder mill which was transferred to Ardeer (in Ayrshire, Scotland) in 1934 has been repatriated to the country park and is on display. The 18th-century works bell has also been repatriated and is on display at Faversham’s Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre.

Faversham Stone Chapel is the ruined Church of Our Lady of Elwarton, an Ancient Monument managed by The Faversham Society. Its origins date back to the Roman era when it was used for pagan purposes. In AD 601 Pope Gregory directed St Augustine not to destroy pagan buildings, but to adapt them for Christian use; this is an example of a building that was converted. It was reported to be in disrepair by 1511 and seems to have been abandoned by 1600.

Faversham lies on Watling Street, the historically important route from London to Canterbury and the Channel ports. This was an ancient trackway which the Romans later paved and identified as Iter III on the Antonine Itinerary. The Anglo-Saxons named it Wæcelinga Stræt which developed into Watling Street, now the A2 road. In turn the A2 was supplanted by the M2 motorway and the more southerly M20 motorway through Ashford.

Trains travel from Faversham railway station to London, terminating at either Victoria or St. Pancras International. In the other direction, trains travel either to Dover Priory (via Canterbury East) or to Ramsgate (via Margate). Since 13 December 2009 Southeastern Highspeed links Faversham to High Speed 1, Ebbsfleet International, and London’s Stratford International and London St Pancras stations.

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