A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain by Daniel Dafoe – An extract
Rochester to Faversham via the Isle of Sheppey
It is about sixteen or eighteen miles from Rochester Bridge to Sheerness Fort by water on the river Medway, of this it is about fourteen miles to Black-Stakes, the channel is so deep all the way, the banks soft, and the reaches of the river so short, that in a word, ’tis the safest and best harbour in the world; and we saw two ships of eighty guns, each riding a float at low water within musquet-shot of Rochester Bridge. The ships ride as in a mill-pond, or a wet-dock, except that being moor’d at the chains, they swing up and down with the tide; but as there is room enough, so they are moor’d in such manner, that they cannot swing foul of one another; ’tis as safe (I say) as in a wet-dock, nor did I ever hear of any accident that befel any of the king’s ships here, I mean by storms and weather; except in that dreadful tempest in 1703, when one ship, (viz.) the Royal Catherine was driven on shoar, and receiving some damage sunk, and the ship also being old, could not be weigh’d again; but this was such a storm as never was known before, and ’tis hoped the like may never be known again.
There are two castles on the shore of this river, the one at Upnore, where there is a good platform of guns, and which guards two reaches of the river, and is supposed to defend all the ships which ride above, between that and the bridge; also on the other shore is Gillingham Castle, form’d for the same purpose, and well furnish’d with guns which command the river, besides which there is a fort or platform of guns at a place call’d the swamp and another at Cockham Wood. But all these are added, or at least additions made to them, since the time that the Dutch made that memorable attempt upon the royal navy in this river (viz.) on the 22d of June, in the year 1667; for at that time all was left unguarded, and as it were, secure; there were but four guns that could be used at Upnore, and scarce so many at Gillingham, the carriages being rotten and broke; and in a word, every thing concurring to invite the enemy. There were about twelve guns at the Isle of Shepey, where since, Sheerness Fort is built; but the Dutch soon beat them from those guns, and made the place too hot for them, dismounting also most of the guns, after which they went boldly up to Black-Stakes with their whole squadron; and after that seven of their biggest men of war went up as high as Upnore, where they did what mischief they could, and went away again, carrying off the Royal Charles , a first rate ship of 100 guns, and burning the London , and several others, besides the damaging most of the ships which were within their reach; and all things consider’d, it was a victory, that they went away without ruining all the rest of the navy that was in that river.
But as this is a dull story in it self, so it is none of my present business farther than to introduce what follows; namely, That this allarm gave England such a sense of the consequence of the river Medway, and of the docks and yards at London, and of the danger the royal navy lay exposed to there, that all these doors which were open then, are lock’d up and sufficiently barr’d since that time; and ’tis not now in the power of any nation under heaven, no, tho’ they should be masters at sea, unless they were masters at land too at the same time, to give us such another affront; for besides all the castles, lines of guns, and platforms on each side the river Medway, as we go up, as above; there is now a royal fort built at the point of the Isle of Shepey, call’d Sheerness, which guards that entrance into the river: This is a regular, and so compleat a fortification, and has such a line of heavy cannon commanding the mouth of the river, that no man of war, or fleet of men of war, would attempt to pass by as the Dutch did; or at least cou’d not effect it without hazard of being torn to pieces by those batteries.
Sheerness is not only a fortress, but a kind of town, with several streets in it, and inhabitants of several sorts; but chiefly such whose business obliges them to reside here: The officers of the ordnance have here apartments, and an office, they being often oblig’d to be here many days together; especially in time of war, when the rendezvous of the fleet is at the Nore, to see to the furnishing every ship with military stores as need requires, and to cheque the officers of the ships in their demands of those stores, and the like.
Here is also a yard for building ships, with a dock; the reason of which, is to repair any ship speedily that may meet with any accident, either riding at the Nore, or in any service at sea near the river. But then ’tis to be observ’d, that those are but fifth and sixth rate ships, small frigats, yatches, and such vessels; at biggest, nothing above a fourth rate can come in here. The Sheerness galley, as I am told, was built here, and had her name on that occasion. This yard is a late thing also, and built many years since the fort.
This fort commands only the entrance into the Medway, or that branch of the Medway, properly, which they call West-Swale: The East-Swale, not navigable by ships of force, goes in by the town of Queenborough, passes east, makes the Isle of Shepey, parting it on the south side, and opens to the sea, near Feversham, and Swale-Cliff, and is therefore of small consequence. As for the expression of a certain author, that Sheerness divides the mouth of the two rivers, Thames and Medway, ’tis not said for want of ignorance, and cannot be true in fact; the mouth of the Medway opening into the Thames, and the mouth of the Thames, not being within twenty miles of it, (viz.) from the Nase and North-Foreland.
At the south-west point of the Isle of Shepey, where the East-Swale parts from the West, and passes on, as above, stands a town memorable for nothing, but that which is rather a dishonour to our country than otherwise: Namely, Queenborough, a miserable, dirty, decay’d, poor, pitiful, fishing town; yet vested with corporation priviledges, has a mayor, aldermen, &c. and his worship the mayor has his mace carry’d before him to church, and attended in as much state and ceremony as the mayor of a town twenty times as good: I remember when I was there, Mr. Mayor was a butcher, and brought us a shoulder of mutton to our inn himself in person, which we bespoke for our dinner, and afterwards he sat down and drank a bottle of wine with us.
But that which is still worse, and which I meant in what I said before, is, that this town sends two burgesses to Parliament, as many as the borough of Southwark, or the city of westminster: Tho’ it may be presumed all the inhabitants are not possessed of estates answerable to the rent of one good house in either of those places I last mentioned: The chief business of this town, as I could understand, consists in ale-houses, and oyster-catchers.
Here we took boat, and went up the East-Swale to a town, which lies, as it were hid, in the country, and among the creeks; for ’tis out of the way, and almost out of sight, as well by water as by land, I mean Milton; it lyes up so many creeks and windings of the water, that nobody sees it by water, but they who go on purpose out of the way to it; and as to the road, it lyes also about a mile on the left-hand of the great road, as we pass thro’ Sittingbourn, so that no body sees it on that side neither, unless they go on purpose out of the road to it; and yet it is a large town, has a considerable market, and especially for corn, and fruit and provisions, which they send to London by water.
From hence following the coast, and the great road together, for they are still within view of one another, we come to Feversham, a large populous, and as some say, a rich town: Tho’ here is no particular remarkable trade, either for manufacture or navigation; the principal business we found among them, was fishing for oysters, which the Dutch fetch hence in such extraordinary quantities, that when I was there, we found twelve large Dutch hoys and doggers lying there to load oysters; and some times, as they told us, there are many more: This is greatly to the advantage of the place, as it employs abundance of men and boats in drudging for the oysters, which they catch in great plenty, in the mouth of the East-Swale; which, as I said above, enters in this part of the country into the sea, and opens very wide.
Extract from – ‘A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies’ by Daniel Defoe (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927), orignally published in three volumes, between 1724 and 1727. During his life, Defoe was a merchant, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy. He remains best known for his novels ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Moll Flanders’.