of the North Kent Marshes – An extract
L-13 Light Industrial Workshop
206 (with 91 illustrations)
Chapter 3 – Shade House
The marshlands on the south bank of the Thames have been subject to successive schemes of embankment and drainage since the early medieval period. Walls were built across the mouths of the creeks which drained the salts and fleets, so distinctive of the area, were created. Charters dating from the eighth century mention a freshwater marsh called Scaga, which has been identified by antiquarian Dr Gordon Ward as being the area bounded by Salt Fleet to the west, Egypt Bay to the north, Decoy Fleet to the east and Hope Fleet to the south – the area occupied by Shade House.
Between Cliffe Creek in the west and the Yantlet in the east, the Thames shoreline at low tide became a wide bank of mud – soft and treacherous – which prevented easy access to the shore from the river, except at high tide. Compared with the vast areas of salting and the many navigable creeks and channels on the Essex side of the river and similar conditions in the Medway estuary and the Swale, there was little to attact smugglers other than the proximity of London.
Outside of the seawall areas of salting at Higham, Cliffe, Egypt and St Mary’s Bays and Dagnam allow easier access and evidence of the landing of smuggled goods in this area is centred on these places. The Ship and Lobster pub at Gravesend, the churches at Chalk and Hingham, Shade House, the Lobster Inn at Allhallows and the Hogarth Inn at Grain, are the most commonly mentioned smugglers* haunts along the south bank of the Thames – each conveniently located near the saltings.
Shade stands bleak and isolated, a brick built box with a parapet roof, now shorn of its attendant barn and out-buildings, unoccupied for a half a century, though modernized in the nineteen-seventies as a weekend retreat, but recently vandalised. A constant landmark for shepherds, fowlers and birders, Shade maintains an air of mystery and forebodding, brooding on its shady past.
There is litle hard evidence of Shade’s role in the wicked trade, other than its perfect positioning to service landings in Egypt Bay. It is said to have been built for that purpose, with its windows facing landward for early warning of approaching strangers. Some say that only part of the original building remains – the river ward side having been demolished or collapsed. The Comport family of Decoy Farm were once the owners and they have been credited with being the backers and organisers of local freetraders.
Peristant rumours name Shade House as a one-time inn, which is not as outrageous a suggestion as it may seem. The Lobster Smack on Canvey Island and the Shipwright’s Arms at Hollow Shore are obvious examples of licensed premises which in years past derived a major part of their trade from bargemen, fishermen and other boatmen between tides or anchored overnight. There was also a pub called The Anchor and Hope about a mile from Cliffe at Lower Hope Point, which seems to have been dependent on a few soldiers manning the adjacent battery along with a few itinerant mariners. It is possible that Shade was operated as a ‘beer shop’ mush like the Britannia. To Shade’s advantage, the sale of beer gave an excuse for boats to be visiting Egypt Bay and their crews wandering the marshes at night. This activity may have provoked the preventative service into mooring a watch vessel, HMS Kite, at Egypt Bay to join those at Cliffe Creek and at the Yantlet. Another explanation is that Shade House was unsighted from nearby churches and other vantage points and the vessel was intended to maintain a twenty-four hour watch on the house.
Each watch vessel had a four man crew in permanent residence with their wives and families. The men patrolled the immediate area around their vessel in rowed galleys. HMS Kite sat in Egypt Bay within a few hundred yards of Shade and is the probable source of claims, along with Dickens’ Great Expectations, that there was once a prison hulk in the bay. The nearest hulks to Egypt Bay were those moored at Woolwich and Sheerness. The bay was too far away from the servies required to maintain a prison ship, particularly military barracks which provided security, to be a practical mooring. Many prisoners on the hulks were sentenced to hard labour and the prison ships were moored close to the sites at which their labour was required.
Shade could be sighted from the Norrard, but as that woodland was a known hiding place for contraband on its journey inland, it would not have been a safe place for Excisemen to linger. However, a well known incidence of the Norrard being used for smuggling, is that of Edward Roots of Chtham and his friends who landed smuggled tea and fabric at Holy Haven (Holehaven Creek) west of Canvey Island in 1726. They brought their cargo across the Thames and up into the Norrard, where things began to go wrong for them. Some goods were stolen from their hiding place place and more seems to have been ‘traded’ with customs officers who ‘stumbled’ upon the smugglers. Though this trip was ill fated – almost certainly because of a traitor in the company – Roots was successful enough in his activities to have been able to replace his vessel, the Mermaid, when she was confiscated as a punishment for his smuggling.
From 1851 through to 1901, shepherd William Wellard and his family were listed in the census as being resident at Shade. William’s son Dusty recalled that his father was paid by the smuggling fratenity to drive his sheep through the marsh gate, to hide the passage of their caravans of contraband goods. Before moving to Shade, William Wellard lived at Old Egypt Cottage, another dwelling as remote as Shade which occupied a position east of Egypt Bay towards St Mary’s Bay.
*See ‘Smuggling in the British Isles’ by Richard Platt for further information.
Published in an edition of 500 copies, of the North Kent Marshes is a collection of fully illustrated essays and recollections, concerning life on the marshes throughout history. It is currently available from the Fleur de lis Heritage Centre’s bookshop in Faversham. See the centre’s website for details of opening hours.