St Mary's Island History Group


The Romans were the first people to use the Island. They constructed a road through the marshy swamp criss-crossed by tidal channels land, and established a ferry route from the Island to the Hoo Peninsula. The ferry was named 'Prince's Bridge' on early maps, it was used until the final years of the last century.


The three dockyard basins are sited on St Mary's Creek, which passed from the River Medway, near Gillingham to the River Medway (again) near Chatham. In 1575, the creek was blocked with stakes, as a defensive method against the Spanish forces.  In 1585, a chain was placed across the River Medway, secured on the island and linked with a Wheelhouse at Upnor Castle. It would have been raised in times of danger.  


In the 1600's, a fort was built at the mouth of the creek, since the creek was now a passageway to the thriving Dockyard. The fort had 54 guns of various calibres, but it has since been demolished. It was called Gillingham Fort. In 1663, Samuel Pepys mentions St.Mary's Creek twice in his famous diaries, while travelling towards the Dockyards.


During the Napoleonic Wars, St. Mary's Island was used as a burial ground for the French POW's who died on the prison hulks moored in the Medway. The bodies of the prisoners were exhumed, and then re-interred in the grounds of St George's Church, now the St George's Centre (within the grounds of the Universities at Medway).


In 1847, 19 Acres was purchased by the Crown to enlarge the dockyard. Then in 1854, another 185 acres were purchased. This meant the whole of the island was now in the hands of the Crown and the dockyard. Between 1854 and 1856, St Mary's Prison was built on the island. It had approximately 1,700 prisoners and staff of 232 (including 117 armed wardens). The prison was demolished in 1898.


In 1862, the dockyard was again re-modernised by engineer John Rennie the Younger. Most of the new work concentrated on St Mary's Island.  The spoil from the basins was spread acrost the island, filling the marshes.  Also machine shops and four graving docks (a form of dry dock) were built. Also a sea wall was built around the island, using convict labour. At one-time there were over a thousand prisoners working on the site.


A timber landing jetty was constructed beside the seawall, so that materials could be off loaded from ships. Blue Gault clay came from Burham and yellow sand from Aylesford. A 21 acre brickfield was also built on the northern end of the island for the docks. The brick earth came from the digging out of the basins. This was mixed with imported material. More than 23,000 bricks were made each week, and about 110 million bricks were manufactured overall.


Sixty-foot timber piles were driven into the marsh ground, to form the stable foundations of the basins. The excavated earth was then transported by tramways and spread over the island marshes. This subsequently raised the ground level to approx. six feet above the high water mark at spring tide of the River Medway. Portland Stone was shipped in and used to face the sides of the dry docks.


A very different place to the Island today and already the Group has begun to span those years with research and speakers. Remembering of course that we are all creating history at the same time.

First the Romans . . . . . .


The St Mary’s Island History Group was visited by Mr James Preston, former lecturer on History at the Mid Kent College, who spoke about “Working in the Medway 100 years ago.”


He described and explained about the many sites he had visited because of his interest in Industrial Archaeology and Kent.


He discussed the various types of industry based  in the County, which included the brickfields and Medway’s cement Industry.  


Also we saw pictures of the former Iron Ore works.  The first paper mill was built near East Peckham.  


There were also flour mills along by the River Bourne.


He finished on the aviation industry and talked about the  Short Brothers who were  a very prominent part of Rochester until 1948 when the company moved to Belfast.


Kent, Chatham, Dockyard

Industry a Century ago

What is history? On an Island like ours it can be from Romans to roads plus filimng spectaculars.


Our Group wants to engage with residents on what they feel is their history. We have photographs of the first side road being resurfaced after 14 years. That is and will be history.


Did you see the filming of the epic opening scenes of 'Les Miserables' in the riverside basin and do you have some photographs.


Everyone can contribute to recording and preserving history. Including you!


Contribute to our history