Northfleet in the time of James Parker

From Edward Halsted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume III, “Northfleet”, 1797

“THE PARISH of Northfleet contains about three thousand acres, of which one hundred are wood; its situation, from its neighbourhood to the marshes, is accounted unhealthy, and was it not for the burning of such quantities of lime so close to it, it would be much more so (Note 1).”

“. . . the high road (which crosses the northern part of this parish the whole length of it) ascends the hill eastward to the uplands; at about three quarters of a mile distance is the village of Northfleet, below the entrance of which northward, on the bank of the Thames, is a hamlet called Northfleet Hythe, and between it and the road the seat called The Hive (Note 2), now Mr. Wadman's. A little distance from hence the high road, leaves its ancient course (which continued formerly strait on nearer the Thames, through the town of Gravesend to Rochester, till by the encroachment of the chalk pits it became dangerous, and was afterwards entirely dug away) and now turning more to the right, passes through the village of Northfleet . . . (Note 3)”

“The chalk pits above mentioned, which have already been slightly noticed in the description of Swanscombe, extend here close to the northern side of the village, about a quarter of a mile in width, to the shore of the Thames; the digging, making, and exporting the chalk and lime from them is of the greatest advantage to this county, and employs a great number of labouring people, for from hence and this neighbourhood not only London and the adjacent country, but even Holland and Flanders (Note 4), are supplied either with lime, or with chalk to make it; besides which, the rubbish of the chalk is bought, and fetched away by lighters and hoys, and carried to all the ports and creeks in the opposite county of Essex, and even to Suffolk and Norfolk, and sold there for the manure of the lands; thus this barren chalky soil contributes to make the strong clay lands of those counties rich and fertile, and this mixture of earth forms a composition, which out of two, otherwise barren extremes, make one prolific medium (Note 5).”

“The water mill, situated near the mouth of the fleet, close to the river Thames, was part of the ancient possessions of the see of Canterbury, and as part of them in Northfleet, were included in that great deed of exchange, made between archbishop Cranmer and king Henry VIII in the 29th of that prince's reign, by which they were granted to the king, his heirs, and successors for ever. It is now used for the making of a composition of stucco for buildings (Note 6).”


Note 1. The description is of a rural Northfleet, before it became the focal point of the cement industry. The marshy banks of the Thames historically had high death-rates from ague - malaria - at the time attributed to the marsh's "miasma" rather than mosquitos. Lime kilns were widely believed - probably correctly - to dispel the ague.

Note 2. "Hive" is the local dialect pronunciation of "hythe".

Note 3. The Roman Watling Street (modern A2) from London to Rochester had at this time degenerated into a narrow, muddy lane, the main road being the turnpike that ran to the north through Greenhithe and Gravesend. The turnpike entered the parish at Ebbsfleet Bridge and originally ran along The Shore, following the river bank to Gravesend. The south bank of the Thames along Northfleet reach was a steeply sloping chalk hill, and from the mid-16th century, the digging of chalk from the rising ground - for lime, but mainly for ballast, loaded at wharfs all along the river - resulted in continuous quarries from Ebbsfleet to Gravesend. The level of activity by the late 18th century made the road impassable, and the turnpike was diverted up the hill through Northfleet village and along what was by then called the "Overcliffe".

Note 4. The chalk trade was closely linked to the coal trade, and significant amounts were exported further afield, notably to Northern Germany, Denmark and even the Baltic.

Note 5. I have just noticed that, although Halsted does not credit it, the text in red is lifted more or less verbatim from Daniel Defoe's Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, Letter 2 (1724), showing the long-established nature of the industry. Defoe says the stretch of the Thames from Greenwich to Gravesend is unremarkable,

. . . the whole shore being low, and spread with marshes and unhealthy grounds, except with small intervals, where the land bends inward as at Erith, Greenwhich, North-Fleet, &c. in which places the chalk hills come close to the river, and from thence the city of London, the adjacent countries, and even Holland and Flanders, are supplied with lime, for their building, or chalk to make lime, and for other uses. Thus the barren soil of Kent, for such the chalky grounds are esteemed, make the Essex lands rich and fruitful, and the mixture of earth forms a composition, which out of two barren extremes, make one prolific medium; the strong clay of Essex and Suffolk is made fruitful by the soft meliorating melting chalk of Kent, which fattens and enriches it.

Note 6. The mill was tidal, making use of Ebbfleet tidal creek as a reservoir. It was taken over in 1798 by Parker and Wyatt to grind Roman Cement and later went on to make Portland cement as Robins plant.