History Of Sittingbourne, Kent
In the Middle Ages, Sittingbourne was a stopping place for Christian pilgrims to Canterbury and offered a thriving market. Today, paper manufacture and fruit preserving and packing are the main industries. A settlement existed in the area as far back as 1086 when Norman records cite a village pond. Sittingbourne has over its long history developed significant links with the history of the river barge, still in evidence today. At the centre of the town's paved high street is the sculpture of a bronze bargeman.
The Dolphin shipyard was formerly the barge yard of cement works and brickmakers C. : Burley, and is located on a tidal inlet running from Sittingbourne to the Swale.
North Kent is geologically rich in chalk, which is not found in many other places in Europe in such abundance. This naturally led cement manufacturers to settle in the area, and the modern industry still flourishes locally today. Barges were needed to move many other raw materials and finished goods into the Thames and to London and beyond; Sittingbourne was ideally suited for this purpose and a flourishing barge-building industry developed at Milton Creek and elsewhere along the coast. The earliest known barge was built in the area by John Huggens in 1803.
These industries flourished during the 19th century when, as a result of the industrial revolution, Sittingbourne developed into a port from which Kent produce was transported to the London markets. Paper mills and brickfields were fed by barges that brought in sand, mud and household waste such as cinders for brick making, and took away the bricks once made.
During this era over 500 types of barges are believed to have been built, but after World War II, these activities began to fall into a decline, so that only the Burley yard continued with the repair of barges until about 1965. This lack of activity led the creek to become silted and derelict, but the 200-year-old wooden sail loft and forge was later converted to the Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum by a local enthusiast.Shipbuilding
One prominent local shipwright was the son of Alfred White who owned a yard at Sittingbourne, and had a barge yard at Blackwall in London during the 1880s where he built Swimhead barges for Goldsmith of Grays in Essex. Alfred Marconi White took over the Conyer yard from John Bird in 1890 after serving his apprenticeship at the Blackwall yard. Conyer, a hamlet of the village of Teynham, once inhabited by the Romans, is found at the head of a small creek between Sittingbourne and Faversham.
The shipwright John Bird (born 1832) is reputed to be the first of the barge builders to settle at Conyer and records exist for a sailing barge built there in 1866, the year he began his work at the yard. The White family prided themselves in the construction of the fastest barges available locally. Alfred Marconi at his Conyer yard, near brickfields, built many different types of barge. Some continued to exist as house barges well into the 1960s. The last of the many sailing barges was built at the Conyer yard was in 1914, but repair works continued well into the 1930s, with several barge yachts built in the 1920s. Visitors to Sittingbourne can still enjoy the Dolphin Yard Sailing Barge Museum.
Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway
To the west of the Dolphin yard is the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway, which originally served as transport for the paper making industry.
A mill was opened in 1877 by the News Chronicle owner Edward Lloyd, between Sittingbourne and the Milton creek, where the raw materials such as china clay, coal and pulping timber for the paper were easily imported by barges that also took away the finished product. A wharf was built and a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway added to carry these materials to and from the creek.
The waters below the wharves at Sittingbourne were prone to rapid silting, and with the expansion of the paper mill a new dock was developed four miles from Sittingbourne at Ridham, taking advantage of the deep waters of the Swale.
Kemsley Mill led to the foundation of a company village which was built about 1924, and by the 1960s 13 locomotives were in regular use on the line, one diesel and one battery electric and 400 wagons, with about 14 miles of track. The railway was after the Second World War used to carry passengers to and from the docks and mill, with carriages provided for the mill workers of Kemsley.
In 1965 it was decided that the railway was uneconomic, with the significant progress made in the use of the car, and so lorries were more commonly used for transporting produce. Consequently by 1969 the Bowater Light Railway, much loved as it was by the firm, and to the lasting credit of that company, with assistance from the late Capt Peter Manisty RN handed it over to the Locomotive Club of Great Britain to be preserved and to operate this unique little railway for the benefit of SKLR members and the public.
It has since become a significant feature in the town's tourist industry and is well worth a visit. One of the things that sets the SKLR apart from many other preserved railways is that it operates the original stock, along the original route, and is not a reconstruction.
Air Raids during the Great War
The area around Sittingbourne was subject to constant air raids by Zeppelins and aeroplanes during the Great War. The Germans used the town as a reference point to get their bearings on the way to London.
The first visit by a German aeroplane happened on Christmas Day 1914. Guns at Sheerness fired at the lone invader but still one shell dropped into a field at Iwade. The next event was to occur on 16 January 1915 when another solitary pilot from a German aerodrome in Belgium visited Sittingbourne. This aircraft was a Taube but was being pursued by two local airmen, and having a superior build of aircraft, managed to get away after having dropped a couple of bombs.
About 100 air raid warnings were sounded at Sittingbourne during the Great War. Anti-aircraft batteries were strengthened locally in 1917. The last big raid to pass over the town on Whit Sunday (May 19, 1918), carried out by a number of German Gothas, eliciting perhaps the most ferocious barrage from the ground defences the town had ever seen.
The local newspaper read:
The second Gotha was surrounded by British fighters shortly after, returning from a successful raid on London.