The Isle of Sheppey has a continuous history dating back to the Bronze Age, through to the Iron Age and then Romans until they left around 400 AD. There followed raids by Germanic tribes which changed to invasion then settlement.
Around 675 the Anglo Saxon queen, Seaxburga founded a monastery for seventy seven nuns and built Minster Abbey which served the Island until in 853, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry “Heathen men ravaged Sheppey” in a Danish raid where they plundered the Abbey and monastery. Then again in 893 “Three hundred and fifty sail of ships under Haesten (or Hoesten) arrived in Sheppey and spoiled it, like it did four years later.” “The Danes wrought great destruction to the Abbey, and expelled the Prioress and nuns, many of whom were put to the sword.” Haesten then built earth works at Minster, Eastchurch (Shurland) and Bynne.
Nothing of significance seems to have occurred to or at Bynne, later known as Queenborough, until about 1350 when the chapel of Holy Trinity was built. Then on Edward III’s orders the Queenborough Castle was built (1360 -1368). It is sited on ground overlooking the Swale so that it commanded the old shipping route from the cost into the Thames. The king gave the castle to his wife, Queen Phillippa – hence the name of Queenborough.
Edward III’s interest in Sheppey and Queenborough in particular, transformed the small inconsequential fishing hamlet into a flourishing medieval port. In 1366 Edward III declared Queenborough a free borough and granted it a charter making it self-governing. He also gave it staple which made it one of the few towns able to export wool. The town lost this privilege soon after Edward III’s death. The town also received admiralty juridical powers.
In 1532 Henry VIII was invited by Sir Thomas Cheyne to Sheppey and was sumptuously entertained at Queenborough Castle. This visit resulted in the Castle being extensively altered and renovated. Henry VIII as part of coastal defences built five blockhouses on the banks of the Thames in 1539-1540. One of these was on the clay and shingle ridge that formed the point of land at Sheerness. In 1545 with the French invasion fleet at Le Havre, a new battery was sent to Sheerness and Queenborough Castle’s fabric was strengthened and its armament renewed. More guns were also sited on the Isle of neighbouring Isle of Grain.
In 1563 Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I was entertained at Queenborough Castle by Sir Richard Constable and again after Sir Thomas Hobby was appointed Constable. A notable honour was granted to Queenborough when in 1571 it was granted a charter incorporating the privilege of sending two members to Parliament when the Corporation of the town had only 70 voters.
Queenborough was at the height of its prosperity in Elizabeth I’s reign when the town was a major shipping port of wool and included the manufacture of chemicals. In 1582 the Elizabeth I was again entertained at Queenborough Castle and a special grant was made to further strengthen the Castle.
Sir Francis Drake came to Queenborough to reduce the size of his crews and to pay them. The ships sailed from Queenborough for the West Country leaving a squadron to watch the invasion vessels cross the Channel. In 1588, under the command of Sir Francis Drake, Phillip II of Spain’s Amada was defeated and a captured Spanish treasure ship with 50,000 golden ducats was brought to Queenborough where her commander and crew were imprisoned in Queenborough Castle until 1591. One unfortunate seaman called Signor Jeronimo, who was not ransomed, died the same year and is buried at Minster Abbey.
The steeple of Queenborough Church was in a dangerous condition and in 1636 Charles I requested that other parishes contribute towards the cost of its repairs.
1642 was the start of eighteen years of turmoil and change in England caused by the Civil War, the “Commonwealth” under Oliver Cromwell’s control until his death. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
1648 Queenborough Castle was surveyed and condemned – it was sold for demolition two years later and Queenborough lost its most notable landmark.
The Dutch invaded us in 1667 first attacking and occupying Sheppey and then Charles II’s fleet that was laid up in the Medway. This was a disaster for the English and the Dutch did not leave the Thames estuary until the signing of the Treaty of Breda a month later. This was the worst defeat in the Royal Navy’s history. However, it seems Sheppey was never officially handed back until a ceremony in 1967, as part of the Queenborough Breille town Twinning arrangement. Queenborough is the only English town over which a foreign flag has flown.
The Dutch attack resulted in the defences of the Thames estuary and the Medway being strengthened including a fort on Sheerness Point and the development of a dockyard at Sheerness. However, at the end of the Anglo-Dutch Third war 1674 there were calls to close Sheerness yard to save money and the facilities at the yard remained sparse and it was not until 1738 that private houses were being built for the workers and community that supported the dockyard.
Between 1693 and 1698 four fighting ships were built at Sheerness – one was the 24 gun Queenborough.
The Mayor of Queenborough was fined in 1700 by the court for taking oysters contrary to the regulations. Queenborough’s oysters were much sought after and important to the local economy.
1720 Queenborough Castle’s original well was cleaned and deepened so that it would again provide water.
1724 Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) in his “A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain” described Queenborough as “…miserable, dirty decayed, poor, pitiful fishing town.”
1729 Queenborough lost the privilege of its freemen being able to vote in the parliamentary elections; instead, it was confined to the mayor, jurats and burgesses.
1732 The William Hogarth, the famous Painter, Engraver, and Philosopher visited, stayed and painted in Queenborough where it is recorded that he paid 1 shilling and 6 pence for lobsters.
Hogarth at Queenborough High Street
Hogarth Painting in Queenborough High Street
The Swale froze over in 1776.
The present Queenborough Guild hall built in 1793 and replaced the original one that stood in the middle of the High Street.
Nelson joined the Royal Navy in 1771 and passed his examination for lieutenant at Sheerness in 1777. He took command of Agamemmon in the Medway in 1793 and the Vanguard at Sheerness in 1799. In 1801 he was in Sheerness to take command of the anti-invasion forces against France. During his life, Lord Nelson would have been very familiar with Queenborough. Lady Hamilton and he are said to have resided in Queenborough.
Nelson’s body was brought by the Victory to Sheerness and transferred to the Sheerness’s yacht to be taken up the Thames to Gravesend.
During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307) according to the historian Charles Igglesden, a bridge connected Sheppey to the mainland and was known as the Tremsethg Bridge. It was lost due to a tidal wave and never replaced. So getting to and form the Isle of Sheppey was by ferry or sailing boat and in 1809 meetings were held about a plan to bridge the Swale however the Kengsferry Bridge was not built until 1860. It was a railway crossing for the new Sittingbourne-Sheerness Railway; the bridge was opened to road traffic in 1862.
Fishing had always been key to Queenborough’s economy. The town was a place known for its lawlessness, smuggling and corruption; in 1820 the town’s mayor and officers passed a byelaw taking control of the oyster fishery and usurping the centuries-old rights of fishermen of the borough. However, in 1827 a fisherman, Edward Skey refused to comply and won a court verdict where the jury returned a verdict that the bylaw was unreasonable. The officers then closed the fishery to force the fishermen to accept their control. The Reform Bill of 1832 disenfranchised the borough, along with other “otten boroughs” taking away parliamentary seats from boroughs with very small populations.
Queenborough High Street
View of Queenborough High Street about 1830 looking down towards the Swale
There were four branch lines in Queenborough that connected to the Sittingbourne-Sheerness railway linking various wharfs and the Queenborough Pier built in 1875. This linked the railway to the new steamship service to Flushing that ran from 1876 to 1927 (with interruptions during WW1). The pier was closed for repairs after fires in 1882 and 1900. It was finally decommissioned in 1955 as a danger to shipping having first been used by the Admiralty in WW2 as a base for minesweepers. The Admiralty vacated the Pier in 1948.
From about 1850 Queenborough’s fortunes started to rise with new industries in addition to the copperas works that had been going on for some 300 years in Queenborough with the oldest known record of chemical factory in Britain in 1579 describing copperas production in the town. In 1882 a company that was later to be known as Fisons Ltd. purchased an old chemical and copperas factory that was producing sulphuric acid. By 1887 the company was producing a range of organic manures, super phosphate, sulphate of ammonia, bone glue, tallow and degelatinised bone. In the 1860’s two cement works were in operation and in 1897 the Chalk Wharf was built for the cement company.
Industry continued to grow with a sanitary ware factory opening in 1908 and a year later the Queenborough Wharf Company started bringing in coal then in 1910 a glass factory started producing bottles. Two notable events for Queenborough in WW2 were its waters being chosen as an assembly point for the Dunkirk “little ships” and the part Queenborough played with H.M.S. Wildfire III being an important base for the Royal Naval Patrol Service – its Minesweepers.
The best place to find out more about the history of Queenborough is at Queenborough’s Museum in the Guild Hall in the High Street.
Queenborough Guild Hall
Guild Hall – High Street
“A Chronology of the Isle of Sheppey” by W.H. Studt (Kent County Council)