Faversham Creek (Middle Reach). Image: Derek Cox
The Changing Landscape
Faversham Creek and surrounding lands have been a living, working and historic area reaching back more than 200,000 years. It has brought Neanderthal man, Iron Age farmers, Roman villas and sea traders, Saxon settlers and town builders; Viking raiders and Norman Abbey builders, Flemish merchants, local entrepreneurs and seafarers, builders of mills, wharves and quays, as well as medieval, Tudor and Stuart Kings and Queens - they have all contributed to Faversham's unique history. The Creek and our maritime heritage have helped to shape Faversham into the town we know today.
Topographical Map with Annotations by Derek Cox (openstreetmap.org)
Within this estuary landscape and surrounding area, archaeological evidence has been discovered of prehistoric human activity, a late Iron Age farm, Roman villas and associated buildings, agricultural estates as well as a medieval shipbuilding yard, farm and a Royal Abbey where the King of England - King Stephen, Queen Matilda and their son were once buried.
Gough Map with annotations by Derek Cox (goughmap.org)
As the route gradually silted up and with ships becoming larger, navigation became difficult. By the 1600s, maritime charts of the Thames estuary were more accurate and ships sailed to the north of Thanet and Sheppey into London, although a hazardous route fraught with changing currents and moving sandbanks.
In the 1200s and continuing into the 1500s, landowners on the north Kent coast embarked on drainage work to reclaim marshland to provide grazing for livestock. In more recent times, embankments have been built to provide flood defences and the main channel up to Faversham more defined to enable larger vessels to manoeuvre further up the Creek. Faversham Creek and its tributaries including Oare Creek, once covering an area of more than 500 hectares, now cover less than 20 hectares - much as we see it today.
Middle and Upper Reaches
The building of the Royal Abbey brought prestige and prosperity to Faversham, but it also brought political and governance problems. Nonetheless, Faversham flourished and became a bustling centre of commerce and, for a time, its coastal trade was one of the largest in the country. Over the following centuries, the Creek saw a steady expansion of trade. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, manufacturing and industrial activity along both sides of the Creek started to develop and landscape of the middle and upper reaches of the Creek changed significantly.
As a meandering tidal estuary, Faversham Creek was difficult to navigate with the main channel giving passageway to a large medieval wharf and warehouses on Thorne peninsular known as ‘Thorne Quay’ (beyond the present day sewage works); the peninsular was almost an island on high tides. With the building of the Royal Abbey by King Stephen in the mid 1100s, and Thorne Quay renewed, Faversham became an important and bustling centre of trade and commerce and the town flourished. Merchant’s houses and warehouses were built along the spine of the Thorne peninsula (along what we know as Abbey Street). But by the early 1600s, Thorne Quay had fallen out of use with Standard Quay and Town Quay having become the town’s principal wharves. The Faversham fishing grounds of the Swale yielded plentiful quantities of fish for local consumption and for supplying fishmongers in London, but it was the selling of oysters, particularly to the Dutch, that was highly profitable. By the 16th century, the fisheries supported over 100 local families, but in the early 18th century the trade had declined through over-fishing.
To accommodate larger vessels closer to the town, various attempts were made to improve the Creek. In 1559, the first sluice-gate was completed upstream to help scour the Creek of silt so that vessels carrying up to 40 tonnes could berth at the town’s quays on normal tides. During the 16th to 18th centuries, there was considerable amount of trade with London. The wider hinterland of farms and orchards surrounding Faversham were central to the town's growth in commercial trade in agricultural commodities to the rapidly increasing population of London, particularly cereal crops and wool. Hops were grown for commercial brewing and this continues even today - Shepherd Neame being the oldest brewery in the country with its headquarters on Court Street where beer has been brewed continuously since 1573.
Such was the town's growing importance as a commercial port that by 1676, Faversham had become a fully-fledged Customs Port as a 'Head Port' with customs control of a large part of the north Kent coast. It had its own Custom House and teams of officials operating from Faversham. It administered two 'legal quays' in the town for the unloading of foreign merchandise - Standard Quay and Town Quay.
Steam powered tug boat 'Pioneer' in Faversham Creek circa 1910 (public domain)
The landscape of the middle and upper reaches of Faversham Creek started to see significant changes in the late 1700s. Boat and repair yards were expanding with many more sailing boats were being built for local traders. The first bridge across the Creek, together with a new sluice, was built by the Board of Ordnance - Faversham being the home and leading centre of gunpowder manufacture in the country. In 1812, a plant to process cement was built at King’s Head Quay (where part of Provender Walk now stands) by Samuel Shepherd of the local brewing family; it was one of the first of its kind in the country.
But continual silting up, landslips and sharp bends made the Creek increasing difficult to navigate as commerce and maritime trade increased. Although several schemes were proposed, it was not until the early 1840s that navigation was partly improved by deepening parts of the Creek and digging a ‘new cut’ to straighten the stretch from Foreman's Hard (downstream from Iron Wharf) towards Ordnance Wharf at the head of the Creek in the upper basin - giving the channel we are familiar with today. By this time, Faversham Creek, and to a lesser extent Oare Creek, were increasingly being used for building wooden boats and barges and for shipping locally manufactured goods produced at several nearby sites including, importantly, gunpowder, explosives and bricks.
With improvements to the Creek for navigation, larger vessels could reach closer to the town and with it, brought more development along the middle and upper reaches. The building of the iconic 'Oyster Bay House' started around 1843, originally as a warehouse to store hops before being transported to the Hop Exchange in London and, later, it was owned by the United Fertiliser Company. Despite its name, the warehouse has no connection with oysters; it may have been a gesture to the ancient oyster grounds of the Swale.
Recognising the need to improve the movement of vessels in the Creek and to reduce congestion, in 1843, the 'Commissioners of the Faversham Navigation' hired a steam powered, wooden paddle tug Hercules to experiment with towing vessels in and out of the Creek. Following successful trials, a second hand steam tug Venus was purchased in 1844, but she was found to lack manoeuvrability and in 1862, replaced by a more powerful vessel Ajax. In turn, she was replaced by Pioneer (seen in the image above).
The coming of the railway to Faversham and the opening of the branch line down to the Creek in 1860 to land north of Standard Quay, brought new opportunities and trade. For the next few decades, the Creek boomed and handled more and more maritime traffic, but the early 1900s saw a steady decline as rail and later road transport took over. But the Creek's location, natural features and availability of skilful people made it a good site for constructing and launching steel vessels and, in 1918, a new shipyard was founded by James Pollock & Sons on the west bank of the Creek, opposite Standard Quay. The Company was experienced with the design of specialised steam and diesel vessels, especially for the Admiralty, and for a long time, the town's largest employer. Nearly 1,100 steel vessels were built from small boats to 500 tonne motor coasters, and many exported to clients overseas. With out-of-date manufacturing methods and competition from larger as well as foreign shipyards, orders declined and the company closed in 1970. A few tugs, fishing boats and please craft were built by Southern Shipbuilders who took over a part of the Pollocks yard, but they subsequently closed in 1978.
The closure of James Pollock, Sons & Co Ltd marked the end of an important era for the Creek and for the town. And no longer the sideways launching of vessels into the Creek ... events enjoyed by many. Whilst some boat building and repair continues, much of the Creek's industrial landscape has gone, but a few buildings remain and can still be appreciated.
The Creek Today
The landscape of the Creek continues to alter. Gone is the hustle, bustle and noise of industry. Gone are the manufacturing plants, the shipbuilding yards, and the people travelling to work on bicycles. Now, much of the Creek is given over to housing and threats of further development, but Faversham's maritime connections have not entirely faded into history.
Whilst most of the lower reaches of the Creek remain relatively unspoilt with wind swept nature reserves and sites of scientific interest, this will change soon with the building of Europe's largest solar power plant on land on the eastern tip of the Creek around Cleeve Hill. And as more housing encroaches on the fringes of the Creek and more steps taken to reduce flooding to the town, the character of the Creek will evolve in different ways. Attempts are being made to cherish, develop and promote the Creek as a community resource and a working waterway by such organisations as the 'Faversham Creek Trust', 'The Faversham Society' and the 'Faversham & Oare Creeks Heritage Harbour Group'. The Purifier Building (part of the old gasworks) is being used to foster traditional boatbuilding expertise and other local businesses are professionally supporting boatyard skills and trades.
With the Creek continuing to silt up, it is difficult for some of the old working vessels such as Thames sailing barges to navigate up to the head of the Creek to take part in nautical festivals as they have in the past. Perhaps the opening of the promised new swing bridge and automated sluice gates to give access to the upper basin will bring life back to the Creek, but it is unclear when this will happen. But not all sailing craft have left. Iron Wharf Boatyard is home to the historic Mirosa, a tradition Thames sailing barge, and other barges including Repertor and Greta are owned locally. And Hollowshore and Oare Creek are also home to traditional boats and modern pleasure craft. And Faversham maintains a small fishing fleet Louise and Angel Benita which can be seen out in the Swale off Harty Ferry; their catch is sold locally through 'Hollowshore Fisheries' who own the vessels.
And other vessels in the Creek have direct Faversham connections ... but that is another story which Derek is starting to write about through a series of books about the 'Boats, Barges and Coastal Craft of Faversham' and illustrated with his new paintings.
Image: Smudge 9000 (flickr.com)