Northfleet

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Northfleet is a town in the Borough of Gravesham in Kent, England. Its name is derived from being situated on the northern reach of what was once called the River Fleet (today known as the Ebbsfleet) there is a village at the other end of the river named Southfleet. It has been the site of a settlement on the shore of the River Thames adjacent to Gravesend since Roman times. It was known as Fleote by the Saxons c600 AD, Flyote c900 AD, Flete c1000 AD. It was recorded as Norfluet in the Domesday Book, and Northflet in 1201. By 1610 the name of Northfleet had become established. A battle took place during the civil war at the Stonebridge over the Ebbsfleet river. Northfleet became a town in 1874 with the Northfleet Urban District Council being established c1894. In 1974 it was forcibly mearged with the nextdoor Gravesend Borough Council. The first council offices were off the Hill, but the council then moved to Northfleet House (now a nursing home for the elderly). Northfleet House was once the home of Mr. Sturges a local landowner. Northfleet was in the lathe of Aylesford and the hundred of Toltingtrough.

Romans lived in the area now known as Springhead which they called Vagniacae. A Roman road divides the area which forms the basis of the A2 Watling Street.

In 1815 the first steamboat started plying between Gravesend and London: an event which was to bring much prosperity to the area. The number of visitors steadily increased, and in the course of the next ten years several new and rival steam packets were started.. With the regular service given by the steam packets, amenities for the entertainment of visitors began to spring up. One of those amenities was Rosherville Gardens.

The gardens were laid out in 1837 by George Jones in one of the disused chalk pits, covering an area of 17 acres (69,000 m²). Their full title was the ‘Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Institution’. They occupied an area in what was to become Rosherville New Town (see below).

Robert Hiscock, in his A History of Gravesend (Phillimore, 1976) describes them thus:

They were a place of surpassing beauty and a favourite resort of Londoners. Adorned with small Greek temples and statuary set in the cliffs, there were terraces, and archery lawn, Bijou theatre, and Baronial Hall for refreshments, and at one time a lake. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were fireworks displays and dancing. Famous bands such as the American Sousa were engaged during the season. Blondin, the trapeze artist, performed … In 1857 as many as 20,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles in one week. By 1880 the gardens had reached the peak of their popularity … in 1901 they were closed. During a brief revival 1903-1911, they were used in the making of early films.

A pier was built to carry these crowds ashore, and a railway station opened on the Gravesend West branch railway. It was one of the steamboats from Rosherville Gardens that was involved in a horrific accident in 1878. The Princess Alice passenger steamer, after leaving Rosherville pier, was in a collision with the collier Bywell Castle, from Woolwich. 640 people died from the collision, 240 being children. An inquest was held at Woolwich, but no conclusive reason was ever established as to the cause of the disaster at the Devils Elbow on the Thames.

Joseph Rosher gave his name to a building scheme which began with the building of new houses in 1830. A prospectus states that ‘ this spot will ultimate become to Gravesend what St Leonards is to Hastings and Broadstairs to Margate’. That grandiose scheme did not materialise in quite that way, but the area of Northfleet still bears that name.

On Friday, 16 August 1941 150 German aircraft flew through the Kent skies, to deal the worst blow to civilian life the county had experienced to that point in the war. With the formation splitting into groups to be variously challenged from Manston, Kenley, Hornchurch, Biggin Hill and Hawkinge airfields, a group of Dorniers made it to Northfleet a little after midday. It was reported that about 106 high explosive bombs ranging from 50-250 kilos were dropped over the town and its industrial complex. A total of 29 people were killed, and 27 injured with two schools badly damaged.

Northfleet Urban District Council was set up under the Local Government Act of 1894. Within its boundaries were the hamlets of Northfleet Green and Nash Street, as well as the now built-up Perry Street; and the later estates at Shears Green, Istead Rise and Downs Road. Northfleet was merged, inter alia, with Gravesend to become Gravesham District Council on 1 April 1974.

With its situation on a busy waterway such as the River Thames, at a point where higher land came close to the river, it was an obvious place for industry to be located. The river provided water supplies and the means whereby raw materials and products could be transported. The forests of the area provided timber for various aspects of most industries. It was an area famous for Gun Flint manufacturing as Flint is found in amongst the Chalk. Flint was also used as a local building material. Flint walls can still be found in the area. The Springhead/Ebbsfleet Valley area was used for the growing of Watercress much of which was supplied to the London market.

The Romans first began to dig chalk from the area, but the making of cement came later. The industry requires plentiful water supplies, and chalk as its main ingredient, both of which were to hand. When in 1796, James Parker set up kilns on Northfleet creek to make his Roman cement, it was the beginning of a large complex of cement works along this stretch of the river. The manufacture of Portland cement began in April 1846 when William Aspdin, son of Joseph Aspdin, its inventor, acquired Parker’s works and built new kilns.

Aspdin’s works became Robins & Co in 1853, sold on to the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers (APCM) in 1900, which was taken over by the Lafarge Group in 2001. By 1900, there were nine cement works operating on the Thames between Swanscombe and Gravesend. The last remaining cement plant in Northfleet will cease operation by end of 2008.

Now under water, one of the largest chalk pits originating from James Parker’s time, known locally as Sawyers Lake, can be found between the A226 and the North Kent Railway line. It is about 200 metres south of the access tunnel to the old (now demolished) LaFarge cement plant, that runs under the North Kent / Channel Tunnel rail-link railway lines.

Northfleet is the location of a large Bowaters (later Bowater-Scott and Kimberly-Clark) paper mill built in 1923 and makes all of the main – line Andrex toilet tissue.Britannia Refined Metals (now part of the Xstrata group) has a refinery producing lead and silver.

Northfleet was by 1800 the home of numerous shipyards which had produced many fine vessels, but the docks were in decline by 1843. One such yard was owned by Thomas Pitcher, a shipwright, laid out in 1788. A list of merchant vessels built at his yard included at least 25 ships for the East Indies and West Indies services, and about the same number for the Navy. In 1839 the company was in the hands of Pitcher’s sons William and Henry. The yard finally closed in 1860. There is a fine model of such a ship in St. Botolph’s Church.

Another large employee of labour in Northfleet was the cable works. Originally Henley’s, now AEI, they occupied the land originally once used by the Rosherville Gardens. The PLUTO pipeline used in WW2 was built here. AEI Cables closed in 2005 and Henley moved in 2006. The Henley works as of 2010 is completely demolished, and currently an entirely empty site.

With the opening in 2003 of the first section of the CTRL which, in part, utilised a long-closed branch railway between Longfield and Gravesend West stations, Section Two was begun. It leaves the first section at Pepper Hill and immediately turns north-westwards; passing under the River Thames downstream of the existing Dartford crossings & heading towards St Pancras station in north London where a new terminus has been built. There is an intermediate station at Stratford, east London. Another new station, Ebbsfleet International railway station, in the Ebbsfleet Valley near Northfleet, has been built. This also is being served by domestic trains running to or from Gravesend, Ashford or towns in east Kent. Eurostar began running over the more direct line in 2007, from which date they ceased to serve Waterloo Station.

However, a design flaw that exists in Ebbsfleet International Station is its lack of pedestrian connections to Northfleet, with both of the shortest routes being inordinately long and less than optimal. Northfleet’s local station and Ebbsfleet International Station’s domestic passenger entrance are only 250m or so apart, but the walk is disproportionately long, hindering the advantage of living in Northfleet over say nearby Gravesend, which is served by the high-speed service.

The ancient parish church of Northfleet(dating from the 14th century, but with work from earlier periods) is dedicated to St Botolph. Its tower was built in 1717, after the original had fallen. The church contains a C14th carved oak screen, which is thought to be the oldest in Kent. Rosherville St Mark’s Church is now part of the Team ministry with St. Botolph’s church. The other active church in Northfleet is All Saints, Perry Street which is Anglo Catholic. All Saints Perry Street is the largest Anglican parish in Gravesham Borough with a quarter of the Gravesham population living within its boundaries.

The Roman Catholic church, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and with its tower foreshadowing his Liverpool Cathedral, is built entirely of brown brick. It was constructed in 1914 on the site of a former Tram Depot.

Northfleet Urban Country Park sits on the eastern side of Northfleet, on Thames Way opposite the new police station, bounded by Springhead Road & Vale Road. The site is 10.5 hectares and provides a variety of wildlife habitats.

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