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Rochester is a town and former city in Kent, England.

Rochester is home to Rochester Cathedral.

The town is located within the unitary authority area of Medway and is at the lowest bridging point of the River Medway about 30 miles (48 km) from London. The town is known for its cathedral and castle, and for an epic siege in 1215. Rochester, together with neighbouring Chatham, Gillingham, Strood and a number of outlying villages, makes up the Medway unitary authority area.

The Romano-British name for Rochester was Durobrivae, later Durobrivis c.730 and Dorobrevis in 844.

The commonly cited origins of this are:

  • ‘stronghold by the bridge’ or ‘stronghold by the bridges’.
  • A Latinisation of the British word ‘Dourbruf’ meaning swiftstream.

See the main History of Rochester, Kent for more details on the toponymy.

Durobrivis was pronounced ‘Robrivis. Bede copied down this name, c730, mistaking its meaning as Hrofi’s fortified camp (OE Hrofes cæster). From this we get c730 Hrofæscæstre, 811 Hrofescester, 1086 Rovescester, 1610 Rochester.

The Latinised adjective ‘Roffensis’ refers to Rochester.

Neolithic remains have been found in the vicinity of Rochester. Immediately prior to the Roman invasion it was one of the two administrative centres of the Cantiaci tribe. During the Roman invasion a fierce battle was fought over the river crossing. The first bridge was subsequently constructed early in the Roman period. During the later Roman period the settlement was walled in stone.

Rochester was variously occupied by Celts, Jutes and/or Saxons. King Ethelbert of Kent (560-616) established a legal system which has been preserved in the 12th century Textus Roffensis. In AD 604 The bishopric and cathedral were established. during this length period from the recall of the legions until the Norman conquest, Rochester was sacked at least twice and besieged on another occasion. Such activity attests to the importance of the settlement and its bridges.

The medieval period saw the building of the current cathedral (1080-1130, 1227 and 1343), the building of two castles and the establishment of a significant town. The castle saw action in the sieges of 1215 and 1264. The basic street plan was established, constrained by the river, Watling street, the castle and the priory.

Rochester has produced two Martyrs, St. John Fisher executed by Henry VIII because he refused to sanction the divorce of Catherine of Aragon and Nicholas Ridley executed by Queen Mary as a Protestant martyr.

The city was raided by the Dutch as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch under de Ruijter broke through the chain at Upnor and sailed to Rochester Bridge capturing and firing the English fleet. Trophies from the raid are in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Guildhall was built in in 1687.

In 1701 Sir Joseph Williamson left a bequest to establish the Mathematical School. Unlike earlier schools (such as King’s) it was not tied to a religious establishment but was open for practical instruction. In the following century Thomas Avelingstarted a small business in 1850 producing and repairing agricultural plant. In 1861 this became the firm of Aveling & Porter, which was to become the largest manufacturer of agricultural machines and steam rollers in the country.

The ancient City of Rochester merged with the borough of Chatham and part of the Strood Rural District in 1974 to form the Borough of Medway. It was later renamed Rochester-upon-Medway, and the city status transferred to the entire borough. In 1998 another merger with the rest of the Medway Towns created the Medway unitary authority. The outgoing council neglected to appoint ceremonial “Charter Trustees” to continue to represent the historic Rochester area, causing Rochester to lose its city status – an error not even noticed by the council for four years, until 2002.

Rochester has for centuries been of great strategic importance through its position near the confluence of the Thames and the Medway. Its castle was built to guard the river crossing, and the Royal Dockyard at Chatham was the foundation of the Royal Navy’s long period of supremacy. The town, as part of Medway, is surrounded by two circles of fortresses; the inner line built during the Napoleonic wars consists of Fort Clarence, Fort Pitt, Fort Amherst and Fort Gillingham. The outer line of “Palmerston” forts was built during the 1860s in light of the report by The Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom and consists of Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewood, Fort Luton, and the Twydall Redoubts, with 2 additional forts on islands in the Medway, Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet.

During the First World War the Short Brothers’ aircraft company manufactured the first plane to launch a torpedo, the Short Admiralty Type 184, at its seaplane factory on the River Medway not far from Rochester Castle. In the inter-war period the company established a world-wide reputation as a constructor of flying boats with aircraft such as the Singapore, Empire ‘C’-Class and Sunderland. During the Second World War, Shorts also designed and manufactured the first four-engined bomber, the Stirling.

The decline in naval power and in shipbuilding in general led to the government abandoning the shipyard at Chatham in 1984, and the subsequent demise of much of the marine industry. Rochester and its neighbouring communities were hit hard by this and have experienced a painful adjustment to a post-industrial economy, with much social deprivation and unemployment resulting. On the closure of Chatham Dockyard the area saw an unprecedented surge in unemployment to 15.9%. This dropped to 3.5% in 2004.

The Romano-British name for Rochester was Durobrivae, later Durobrivis c.730 and Dorobrevis in 844. The two ommonly cited origins of this name are that it either came from “stronghold by the bridge(s)”, or is the Latinisation of the British word “Dourbruf” meaning swiftstream. Durobrivis was pronounced ‘Robrivis. Bede copied down this name, c. 730, mistaking its meaning as Hrofi’s fortified camp (OE Hrofes cæster). From this we get c. 730 Hrofæscæstre, 811 Hrofescester, 1086 Rovescester, 1610 Rochester. The Latinised adjective ‘Roffensis’ refers to Rochester.

Rochester and its neighbours, Chatham and Gillingham, form a single large urban area known as the Medway Towns with a population of about 250,000. However Rochester has always governed land on the other side of the Medway in Strood. This was known as Strood Intra; before 1835 it was about 100 yards wide and stretched to Gun Lane. In the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act the boundaries were extended to include more of Strood and Frindsbury, and part of Chatham known as Chatham Intra. In 1974, Rochester City Council was abolished and superseded by Medway Borough Council, which also included the parishes of Cuxton, Halling and Cliffe, and the Hoo Peninsula. In 1979 the borough became Rochester-upon-Medway. The Mayor of Rochester was also Admiral of the Medway and this dignity was transferred to the Mayor of Medway when that unitary authority was created, along with the Admiralty Court for the river which is constituted as a committee of the council.

Like many of the mediaeval towns of England, Rochester had municipal Freemen whose civic duties were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. However, the working guild of Free Fishers and Dredgers continued and still have rights, duties and responsibilities on the Medway, between Sheerness and Hawkwood Stone. This authority is effected through their attendance at the Admiralty Court as the jury of Freemen responsible for the conservancy of the river through current legislation. The freedom is passed through “servitude”, i.e. apprenticeship, to a working freeman. The annual ceremonial beating of the bounds on the river takes place after the court, usually on the first Saturday of July.

Rochester obtained city status in 1211, but this was lost due to an administrative error when Rochester was absorbed by the Medway unitary authority. Subsequently, the Medway unitary authority has applied for city status for Medway as a whole, rather than for Rochester. Medway applied unsuccessfully for city status in 2000 and 2002 and is applying again for the Queen’s Jubilee Year in 2012 but is competing with a number of other towns for the honour. The City of Rochester Society has argued that the application for city status should be under the name of “Rochester-upon-Medway” rather than “Medway”, as city status has only ever been given to places rather than notional government districts, and the Green Party has also campaigned for the application for city status to be for Rochester rather than Medway.

Watling Street passes through the town, and to the south the River Medway is bridged by the M2 motorway and High Speed 1.

There may have been a church in Eastgate dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, but there is only a passing Saxon reference to it.

There were three medieval parishes: St Nicholas’, St Margaret’s and St Clement’s. St Clement’s was in Horsewash Lane and when the last vicar died in 1538 the parish was amalgamated with St Nicholas’. The remains of the building were finally eradicated by the building of the railway in the 1850s. St Nicholas’ Church was built in 1421 alongside the cathedral to serve the people of Rochester. The cathedral was part of the Benedictine monastery of St Andrew and hence not a parish church.

After the Reformation the cathedral was refounded as the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary and did not remain as a parish church. In the 19th century the parish of St Peter’s was created to serve the burgeoning city with the new church being consecrated in 1859. Following demographic shifts, St Peter’s and St Margaret’s were recombined into a joint parish in 1953 and in 1971 the parish of St Nicholas with St Clement was absorbed into it. The combined parish is now the “Parish of St Peter with St Margaret”, centred on the new (1973) Parish Centre in the Delce (St Peter’s) with St Margaret’s being retained as a Chapel of Ease. Old St Peter’s was demolished in 1974, St Nicholas’ Church has been converted into the diocesan offices but remains consecrated. Continued expansion south has led to the formation of a further more recent parish of St Justus (1956) covering the Tideway

The town is home to a number of important historic buildings, the most prominent of which are the Guildhall, the Corn Exchange, Restoration House, Eastgate House, Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral. Many of the buildings in the town centre date from the 18th century or as early as the 14th century. The chapel of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital dates from the hospital’s founding in 1078.

Thomas Aveling started a small business in 1850 producing and repairing agricultural plant. In 1861 this became the firm of Aveling and Porter, which was to become the largest manufacturer of agricultural machines and steam rollers in the country.

The town was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby at Gads Hill Place, Higham, and who based many of his novels in the area. Descriptions of the town appear in Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and lightly fictionalised as Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Restoration house located on Crow Lane was the house on which Charles Dickens based Miss Havisham’s (from Great Expectations) house, Satis House. This link is celebrated in Rochester’s Dickens Festival each June in the Summer Dickens Festival and December with the Dickensian Christmas Festival. The 16th-century red-brick Eastgate House once housed the town’s museum. In the 1980s the museum was moved further west to the Guildhall so that Eastgate House could become the Charles Dickens Centre.

In the same decade the High Street was redecorated with Victorian-style street lights and hanging flower baskets to give it a more welcoming atmosphere.

The Dickens Centre was ultimately unprofitable and shut in November 2004. Medway Council’s Cabinet agreed proposals for the restoration and development of Eastgate House as a major cultural and tourist facility, and for the project to be recognised as a key cultural regeneration project on 7 November 2006.

Since 1980 the town has seen the revival of the historic Rochester Jack-in-the-Green May Day dancing chimney sweeps tradition, which died out in the early 1900s. Whilst not unique to Rochester (similar sweeps gatherings were held right across southern England, notably in Bristol, Deptford, Whitstable and Hastings), the Rochester revival was directly inspired by Dickens’ description of the celebration in Sketches by Boz.

The festival has since grown from a small gathering of local Morris dance sides to one of the largest in the world.

The current festival begins with the awakening of the Jack-in-the-Green ceremony, atop Blue Bell Hill at sunrise on 1 May and continues in Rochester High Street over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

There are numerous other festivals in Rochester apart from the Sweeps Festival. A summer Dickens Festival takes place in early June and a Christmas one in early December. The Medway Fuse Festival usually has performances in Rochester and the latest festival to take shape is the Rochester Literature Festival, the offspring of three local writers.

A new library was built alongside the Adult Education Centre, Eastgate. This enabled the registry office to move from Maidstone Road, Chatham to the Corn Exchange in Rochester High Street (where the library was housed). As mentioned in a report presented to Medway Council’s community services overview and scrutiny committee on 28 March 2006, the new library opened in late summer (2006).

The actress Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike lived in Minor Cannon’s row adjacent to the cathedral. Her father was a canon of Rochester Cathedral. She was educated at the Rochester Grammar School for Girls. A local doctors’ practice, local dental practice and a hall at the Rochester Grammar School are all named after her.

Rochester is the setting of the controversial 1965 Peter Watkins television film The War Game, which depicts the town’s destruction by a nuclear missile. The opening sequence was shot in Chatham Town Hall, but the credits particularly thank the people of Dover, Gravesend and Tonbridge.

The 1959 James Bond Goldfinger describes Bond driving along the A2 through the Medway Towns from Strood to Chatham. Of interest is the mention of “inevitable traffic jams” on the Strood side of Rochester Bridge, the novel being written some years prior to the construction of the M2 motorway Medway bypass.

The model and actress Kelly Brook went to Delce Junior School in Rochester and later Thomas Aveling School (formerly Warren Wood Girls School) in Rochester.

The Prisoners, a rock band from 1980 to 1986, were formed in Rochester. They are part of what is known as the “Medway scene”.

The University for the Creative Arts, formerly the Kent Institute of Art & Design, is on the Rochester-Chatham border.

The 2011 adventure film Ironclad (dir. Jonathan English) is based upon the 1215 siege of Rochester Castle. There are however a few areas where the plot differs from accepted historical narrative.

There is a small amateur theatre called ‘Medway Little Theatre’ located on St Margaret’s Banks next to Rochester High Street near Rochester Railway Station. The Medway Little Theatre had a creative alliance with the Medway Theatre Club that was managed by Marion Martin at St Luke’s Methodist Church on City Way in Rochester throughout 1985 and until 1988. Drama and theatre studies development were well established in Rochester because of the dedication of the Medway Theatre Club.

Local newspapers for Rochester include the Medway Messenger, published by the KM Group. The area also has free newspapers in the Medway Extra (KM Group) and yourmedway (KOS Media).

Rochester Airport began in September 1933 when Rochester City Council purchased some land as the site for a municipal airport. One month later the aircraft manufacturers Short Brothers leased the land for test flying. By 1934-5 Short Brothers had taken over the site, and moved in some of their personnel from the existing seaplane works. The inaugural flight into Rochester was from Gravesend, John Parker flying the Short Brothers Short Scion G-ACJI.

In 1979 the lease reverted to the council. After giving thorough consideration to closing the airport, GEC (then comprising Marconi and instrument makers Elliot Automation) decided to take over management of the airport. It maintained two grass runways while releasing some land for light industrial expansion.

Rochester is on the A2, which crosses the Medway at Rochester Bridge – the route roughly follows the ancient trackway known as Watling Street, which was used by Celts, Romans and Ango-Saxons. Through road traffic is diverted onto the nearby M2 motorway.

Rochester railway station is on the Chatham Main Line. The majority of services are provided by Southeastern, with a handful of peak services to and from Bedford operated by First Capital Connect.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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