Gravesend Town Pier
Since 1815, when
steam packets first appeared on the Thames, passengers had been carried between
Gravesend’s shores and the vessels on rowing boats, on hire from watermen.
Fifteen years later, support had gathered momentum for the provision of a pier
at the town, in which steam packets would berth directly alongside, eliminating
the need for the rowing boats – or, as they were called, ‘‘wherries’’.
Experience gained from a then recently opened jetty at London Bridge had brought
the advantages of piers to the fore – boats could dock regardless of tide, and
no interim ‘’ferry’’ service between land and steam packet was needed. On 30th
September 1830, a public meeting was held among the inhabitants of Gravesend to
consider the provision of a town pier, for which vessels could berth alongside.
This proposition was at first resisted on the premise that the watermen would
lose their income from transporting passengers between shore and steam packet.
As a result, the idea was put on hold. In the following year, one William
Pitcher constructed a landing jetty at Northfleet, a mile west of the Town Quay
at Gravesend. This reinforced the idea of pier provision: 40,000 people used it
between 30th July 1831 and the end of the year, despite the walking distance to
Gravesend. Passengers were also saved the expense of boat hire. This episode
alone caused concern for the Corporation of Gravesend, which feared that the
lack of a pier would drive away steam packet traffic to alternative ports. This
reopened the Town Pier debate, and on 3rd October 1831, it was decided to refer
the issue to the ‘’Long Ferry Committee’’, the body of which would later present
evidence to the Borough’s Court. The hearing took place on 2nd November 1831.
The watermen formed the ‘’United Gravesend & Milton Watermen’s Club’’ to protect their livelihood and resist the desired changes. Opposition to the pier was deemed as ill advised and, consequently, the Corporation of Gravesend submitted a Bill to Parliament in 1832 for its construction. The Bill was initially rejected, but the Corporation resubmitted it in a new Parliamentary session, for which it received Royal Assent on 28th June 1863. The progress of the Bill had been helped by the local press, which publicised the advantages a pier could bring to the town. A clause was attached, which stipulated that the watermen must be compensated – it latterly transpired that the watermen received a percentage of the pier tolls. At the time, there were 391 people registered as full-time watermen; this number increased to 454 when part-time watermen were accounted for.
The design of the Town Pier was produced by William Tiernwey Clark, and construction was subcontracted to Mr William Wood of Gravesend, at a cost of £8,700 (about £705,350 at 2008 prices). Whilst the 1863 Bill was being read by Parliament, a temporary jetty had been erected at the Town Quay. This was then closed and replaced by another temporary landing stage at West Street (later known for the LC&DR station of 1886), the latter of which opened on Monday 27th January 1834. The Town Pier was opened with much ceremony on 29th July 1834, which marked the closure of the interim affair at West Street. The ceremony, organised by the Corporation of Gravesend, was attended by nearly three hundred guests, which included representatives of the Corporation of the City of Rochester, the Earl of Darnley, the Clergy, the Commandment of Tilbury & Gravesend Forts, and a number of other military personnel. Celebrations began at the Town Hall, and then a parade marched on to the Town Pier, where steam packet ‘’Mercury’’ awaited. The Mayor of Gravesend embarked, with a complement of guests, and the boat embarked on a short trip down the Thames, in the company of steam packets ‘’Medway’’ and ‘’Star’’. On return to the pier, the Mayor and guests enjoyed a banquet underneath a canvas covering, lined with celebratory flags. The occasion was further marked by the ringing of church bells and, in the evening, a firework display. The first commercial ship to use the Town Pier was steam packet ‘’Comet’’, which picked passengers up at 07:00 the following day for a trip to London.
Town Pier was 26¼-miles downstream from London Bridge, and the breadth of water here was 800-yards at high tide. The first design proposals outlined a pier extending 157-feet out from the quay, with a walkway of 10-feet in width. This was later revised to a pier of 127-feet length, but with an enlarged walkway of 40-foot width. Construction was cast-iron throughout, and the pier decking was suspended upon arches of 40-foot span and 6-foot rise. The arches were supported underneath by cast iron columns, set in foundations of Bramley Fall stone and brickwork. At its seaward end, the pier featured an attractive perpendicular section – commonly known as a ‘’T-head’’ – which stretched for 76-feet east to west, and had a walkway of 30-feet width. The ‘’T-head’’ decking was supported upon a framework of diagonal construction, this of which was suspended upon eighteen columns. Below each column, a trio of 14-foot-long 15-inch-wide cast-iron piles were sunk into the riverbed, on top of which laid an iron plate. Emerging from below the ‘’T-head’’ were two flights of steps, and the entire pier was supported upon twenty-six columns of 2-foot 9-inch diameter and 18-foot height. The pier was complemented with an open parapet, and the ‘’T-head’’ comprised two roof sections, each supported upon six columns. Upon each roof was a turret: the western turret housed a clock, whilst that on the eastern side of the pier was host to a bell. The bell would be rung to signal steam packets to depart. Between 1835 and 1842, a total of 3,241,621 passengers used the pier. Over the same period, watermen were paid a combined £12,845, 5S, 5d (about £935,000 at 2008 prices).
Tunnels and a Railway Link
A tunnel under the Thames between Tilbury and Gravesend had been mooted at the end of the 18th Century, and plans devised by engineer Ralph Dodd. The same man also intended tunnelling under the River Tyne between North and South Shields. Only the Gravesend scheme received Parliamentary approval, and construction work began, although was abandoned by 1800. By the mid-19th Century, Gravesend Town Pier’s importance as a hub for steam packet services to London was beginning to decline. The South Eastern Railway’s North Kent Line had opened between the capital and Strood on 30th July 1849, providing a quicker journey from Gravesend compared with the river vessels. The latter, however, continued to be enjoyed by leisure travellers. Nevertheless, the Town Pier was to have renewed importance as a landing stage. The advent of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, upon the northern bank of the Thames, brought a new type of traffic. The LT&SR arrived at Tilbury Fort in April 1854, from their City terminus Fenchurch Street, and a railway ferry service initiated in the same month to Gravesend Town Pier. The LT&SR aimed to win London to Gravesend traffic from the SER’s North Kent Line by offering a very competitive combined rail and ferry service from Fenchurch Street, in terms of both journey time and cost. Such optimism also led to the LT&SR renewing the prospect of a tunnel under the Thames here, to provide a direct rail link between Fenchurch Street and Gravesend. Published in 1881, these plans were later abandoned, for it was deemed that the company’s limited resources would be better spent battling the rival Great Eastern Railway. The ferry service was therefore perpetuated, and the Town Pier became railway owned in 1885. The pier’s ownership transferred to the LT&SR’s successor, the Midland Railway (MR), in 1912. Development of the north bank of the Thames began to take off, starting with the official opening of Tilbury Docks on 17th April 1886. This saw much shipping traffic – both freight and passenger – transfer to the other side of the water from the North Kent ports of Queenborough, on Sheppey, and Port Victoria, on Grain. Rail improvements came to Tilbury in 1930, under London, Midland & Scottish Railway auspices (of which the MR had become part of in 1923). A new landing stage to serve the ferry, and a rebuilt terminus station, were formally commissioned on 16th May.
The coming of the railway had been important in securing the longevity of the Town Pier, and it remained in railway use for more than a century. It finally ceased to serve the Tilbury Ferry under British Railways ownership, in 1969. The ferry was transferred to an alternate landing stage between the Town Pier and the closed Gravesend West railway terminus, along West Street.
12th September 2004
In June 2000, Gravesham Council purchased the dilapidated Town Pier from private hands and embarked
upon a restoration scheme. Partly funded by Kent County Council, English Heritage, English Partnerships,
the Heritage Lottery Fund, and The Manifold Trust, restoration was deemed complete in 2002, but the
council still had aspirations to fit the Town Pier out with a restaurant and bar. The completed pier is
seen above, the framework yet to be fitted out with commercial outlets. © David Glasspool
7th August 2007
The restored Town Pier is seen on 7th August 2007, from aboard the Tilbury Ferry. Compared with the previous
picture, the framework has now been in-filled, although scaffolding still remains on the Thames -facing elevation
of the pier. On the right we see the clock tower and, on the left, the bell tower. © David Glasspool
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