Swinging the Lamp – An extract
Fonthill Media Ltd
208 (with 32 black & white and 75 colour photographs)
Chapter 3 – An island in the River
The sun shimmered on a surface that was barely ruffled by a late afternoon’s breeze. The tide was on the ebb. The marsh edges close by were acutely saline scented and the Skipper, in particular, deeply inhaled their distinctive headiness. He gazed in consummate wonder at the splashes of colour that pervaded. There was purple from sea lavender and yellow from clumps of purslane, where it still clung tenaciously to a marshland that was flooding more regularly as the sea rose relentlessly year by year.
Looking at him, the Mate had smiled. The Skipper seemed in another world, thoroughly alone in his thoughts. She, too, had been enjoying the quiet and solitude and had cast her gaze slowly across that flooded land. Her gaze had taken in the manmade fragments of ancient sea walls, which were seemingly floating upon a surface that mirrored the sky—mirage-like. She developed a special love for such sights, especially when the tide was just so, flooding the surface—fronds of plants waving in the flow, yet not obliterated. All was then beautiful.
It was a lazy sail. The light south-westerly airs had made for a trouble-free passage with plenty of time to gaze about. Time to contemplate on places not yet visited and for a return on other ‘nice’ days, to get close in, anchor, and go off in the dinghy to explore.
It had been like that since leaving Hoo Marina from where, after a couple of full days’ visiting Rochester and dealing with domestic needs, they were pleased to be underway again. As they cleared the marina’s concrete barge enclosures, the tide had been still, so they slipped through Hoo’s inner passage—the breeze just sufficient to break the flood’s resistance. From there they crossed Pinup Reach and went overland, sailing south of Nore Marsh Island, passing Horrid Hill and its old cement works wharf. Walkers and ‘birdies’ now inhabited that place—it was part of a rambling riverside country park. Their course had then taken them on past Mariner’s Farm, a lay-up facility for the river’s craft in winter, and then Motney, where the Skipper had gazed long at an old dock languishing on its northern nose before they’d slipped into Bartlett Creek. From there, they continued in a casual nature across the Upchurch Flats into Sharfleet.
‘What are you looking at?’ the Mate asked tentatively, as they finally sailed slowly into Stangate Creek. The Skipper had gazed astern a little, while nursing the boat across the tumbling outfalls as the ebb rushed out of Sharfleet and hit, head-long in deep, swirling gyrations, Stangate’s outflow. The boat had sheared about as it had ‘bumped’ the differing streams. The plate had clattered beneath their feet, until the Skipper had picked it up a few turns, its agitation silenced. Then the Skipper giggled.
‘What’s that about?’ the Mate asked grinning and ruffling his hair.
‘Oh, do you remember that time we’d slipped in here.’ He paused, which or what time was she to remember? There were so many to choose from. Catching her quizzical look he continued, ‘Oh, it was near to the evening and you said as I was about to start on about something, “Yes, yes, I’m sure, let’s just enjoy it,” and I stopped.’ The memory rekindled, a hurt look crossed the mate’s face.
The Skipper’s thoughts were on that past conversation, for his eyes had been roaming Burntwick’s abandoned and crumbling buildings, and, thinking beyond his remembered words, he said, ‘I want to visit those.’ He paused, he knew that a large two-roomed building had deteriorated greatly over the last decade. He then added, more as a thought, ‘Surely, it’ll collapse before long.’ When the Mate had stopped him in his tracks that other time, the Skipper had ‘warbled’ about Stangate’s long-discontinued quarantine station and Burntwick. He knew that Burntwick’s buildings had had nothing to do with that era, ‘Yet,’ he thought silently, ‘the island does have a sad connection.’ The truncated conversation was recorded in a chapter in The Jottings of a Thames Estuary Ditch-crawler, during a cruise around a little corner of Kent. (See CP 007)
‘Why not tomorrow?’ the Mate asked lightly, triumphantly breaking the Skipper’s spell—they’d planned a few days pottering. She’d quickly added, ‘You’ve wanted to do so, for some time,’ thinking, ‘the number of times you mention it,’ but added, ‘can I come too?’ The Skipper smiled and nodded, in pleased acquiescence; she too had a deep interest in history, especially social aspects.
It was one of those strange, surreal moments, but that same evening the Skipper learnt more from a fellow ditch-crawling friend, that the island held the remains of a doctor who had died on a vessel held in quarantine in Stangate Creek during the mid-1800s. The chap wasn’t sure of the actual date, but a general location of his lonely grave was given. The Skipper already knew a little of that case, but nothing concrete. The meeting had occurred while he’d been pottering in his tender and they’d met briefly, once before. Then, as in the latter, the chap had had his youngest son sailing with him. The lad was around ten years old, then, and he’d eyed the dinghy covetously while asking seriously sensible questions. Strangely, a month later, the Skipper had received a message from the boat’s owner with a picture of the lad’s new dinghy, ‘It has to go with us,’ the chap had said, ‘it’s your fault!’
After his evening dinghy sail, the Skipper returned to his own boat as the breeze dwindled to nothing more than soft zephyrs. While he tidied the sail, the Mate enquired, ‘Who were you talking to?’
‘Oh, it’s the chap we met in Sharfleet a couple of seasons ago, the one who gave me that piece of samian ware.’ For good measure he added, ‘Lovely boat, well, she’s a Leigh bawley actually … the Doris.’ She was a fine vessel built in 1909 by Cann of Harwich.
The island, Burntwick Island, or as it had also been known in bygone times, Sharfleet Marsh, sat in Saltpan Reach in the River Medway. It was bounded to the north and west by the mother river. To the east was Stangate Creek and along its torturous fringes to the south ran Sharfleet Creek (once known as Shalfleet, perhaps because shellfish were once farmed there). The island’s history and uses has been the subject of much conjecture and discussion for many years. Over the last two hundred years it had been a sheep farm, a defensive position for the protection of the river’s up-stream military establishments, and, finally, a reserve for bird life. Long before that it had been part of a land, which included huge areas long washed away or dug for cement and brick making, which had even earlier been part of a Roman pottery and, probably, salt making. The Roman pottery made in those parts had, historically, been termed ‘Upchurch ware’ and was largely known to have been mainly household items, beakers, jars, necked and open bowls, and flasks. The pottery was black or grey and was unique to that part of Kent. Conjecture hung over the samian ware shards and pots found in the locality. The Skipper had visited the British Museum and information attached to samian examples said it had been imported. Evidence of ritualistic burials of dogs had been discovered, too; strangely, the Skipper read little, if any, evidence had been discovered of similar Roman rituals anywhere else in Britain and conjecture surrounded the meaning, ranging between godly powers over seafarers to agricultural rituals.
So, the following day—a quiet morning full of sunshine with a soft breeze—they dropped anchor in the shallows close to the island’s old hard. Boots and knapsack were soon in the dinghy and the Skipper rowed the short distance ashore. Their friend had also departed his mooring some while after them and they watched as the Doris passed by under full canvas in an effort to catch the warm morning’s light zephyrs.
Reaching the hard, the dinghy was left tethered on a long line, its anchor pushed firmly into the mud some distance shoreward. The hard, for its age, the Skipper noted, was in a remarkable condition. He’d varying recollections of his first visits as a boy back in the 1960s with his father. At the top, he assisted the mate—the hard appeared to run out of steam, so they picked their way to the heavily wasted saltings’ edge. It was an edge much receded over recent years following collapse of the outer stone-faced low wall.
The island had for a considerable time been the home, a refuge even, for many sea birds. It was a place where they could raise their young in undisturbed safety; in many respects this was now their land. The visit being made was long after hatching time.
Ascending the marsh, the Mate asked, ‘Where did your friend say the grave is?’ as she’d gazed over a bleak expanse of tangled purslane hiding many minor rills and gullies that ran, hither and thither, upon what had once been verdant grazing land. The Skipper, looking across the expanse, had grimaced and pointed in a direction away to the south-west. They then traipsed back and forth. Many rills had cut them off as they criss-crossed about. Finally, the Skipper had to admit that they would not find the solitary grave that day.
‘Oh well, perhaps my friend can be a little more precise for me, err, us, I mean. I’ll contact him,’ he mumbled to the mate, apologetically, as his mind had moved onto other things.
‘Is that it then?’ the Mate then asked in a voice that rang of, ‘it’s time to go.’ The Skipper had observed her surreptitious glance at her watch.
‘No!’ and pointing, added, ‘I want to mooch around these two buildings, too, while we’re here.’ The Skipper had grinned as he’d pointed and set off. There were other remnants a little further away.
The Mate trundled after him, wading carefully through the plant growth in his wake. The buildings were the urinals, set a little south of the main building, which had been the barrack house. Both were built with the typical yellow Kent stock brick, once produced by the millions in the area, and they probably came locally from Lower Halstow, in view across the saltings.
The first the Skipper visited was the urinal block, the smaller building closer to where they’d been looking for the grave. It was found to be sectioned off into two areas. There was a single walled-off unit to one end and at the other there was a double unit, ‘for Officers and Men, perhaps?’ the Skipper murmured, a little sarcastically. It had the appearance of a typical modern convenience, missing its bits, doors, and roof. The building was, surprisingly, in a generally good state of repair. Looking at it, standing from a northern footing, it looked lonely and incongruous in its bed of cord grass fronds with nothing in sight until one’s eyes rested on Lower Halstow 5 kilometres away.
The Skipper had mused at why this building was set so far to the south of the barrack building. Close by there was the deep rill they’d looked at earlier and it seemed likely that it was probably one of the island’s old drainage dykes, thus regularly draining and flushing waste into the adjacent creek. He chuckled, often the paraphernalia of old drains could be seen sitting on the edge of these ‘lost’ islands of marsh. ‘Hmm, there’s one along Greenborough’s marsh edge,’ he murmured. Glancing across the waving cord grass and yellow flowered purslane, with its silvery green almost furry leaves, stirring gently in the barely perceptible breeze, mans effluent polluting here seemed incongruous! The Skipper later found that the ditch had been the remains of the battery’s southern protective water filled ditch, into which the sea had broken through.
Moving away northwards, they trundled over to the larger building together. The Mate had then parked herself on some firm footing, leaving the Skipper to make his more detailed inspection inside.
The barrack block (or cook house, as the Skipper later learnt it was also known as) was found to be in a more precarious state. Some roof timbers hung on—just. When the Skipper had been a boy, it was still clad with corrugated steel sheet. The walls had deep cracks running away from the window openings, and the window arches were on the move. ‘The heave of the tide has been at work,’ the Skipper thought—he was alone. He’d often seen this place with spring tides leaving only scraps of old sea walls and those buildings standing proud. It was always a surreal sight.
Inside the building, which had two rooms, the fire grates could still be seen sitting ready for use, had mud not covered the floors of the two rooms. Odd small patches of a plaster wall covering were evident, too, in the larger of the two rooms—the southern room, with its end wall showing the greatest danger of impending collapse. (See CP 008)
Around the outside of the building the scattered remnants of iron window frames poked from the cord grass and purslane. Here and there were shattered sections of guttering. The Skipper had not disturbed any of this. He also glanced at the wasted sea wall. It had collapsed completely and the edge of the original inner side, part of a parade ground, he later learnt, was clearly at the mercy of the ever-rising tide. The Skipper saw that it would not be long before the edge reached the building itself. At the northern end of the building a set of steps that had once gone up to the sea wall top sat toppled amongst rough sea grass. Parts of the island had once been quite high in terms of spring tide levels and even with the rise in sea level over the decades, odd areas remained above the inundation point. The inner marsh surface had risen at least 1 metre since flooding, he then thought. Months later, the Skipper learnt that the buildings were 110 years old.
Eventually the Skipper had been awoken from his wonderings by a call from the Mate. It had drifted into his consciousness as he saw her gesticulating while he wandered into view round a corner of the building.
Although he’d acknowledged, a repeated ‘you ready yet?’ was heard.
The Skipper had finished taking photographs so he looked towards the Mate, waved, and called, ‘I’m coming!’ Reaching her, he grinned boyishly and said, looking down the hard, ‘I think it’s time we went.’
The Mate had just looked at him, staring hard; it was a look that spoke volumes, yet nothing was said, so the Skipper had taken her hand, gently, to lead her away. Then she asked, ‘When were these buildings built then?’
‘Ah, she’s inquisitive,’ the Skipper had thought, but said, ‘I haven’t a clue, but it was before the Second World War.’ He sucked his cheeks before adding, ‘I’ve read that they were WW2 buildings. My father always said “WW1 boy” to me.’ The Mate grinned knowing there was some research for the Skipper to do later.
As they worked their way carefully down the debris-covered hard, slippery with wrack, the Mate said, ‘You should really look into this place’s history.’ She paused before adding, ‘I bet it’s interesting.’ History was a subject the Mate had studied when training to be a school teacher—that was many years before, but the subject had continued to interest her. (See CP 025)
A day or so later the Skipper and Mate had to fetch across the lower Thames to their home berth—the summer holiday was over. Many tides would flood that land before their next visit was made.
In the meantime, the little knowledge the Skipper had garnered from his fellow ditch-crawler aboard Doris that enchanting evening in Stangate was used as a basis for investigations—he’d a name and to the Mate it had seemed to possess him. It tantalised and whetted his appetite, and his curiosity had grown. He went to work and he’d teased away at layers of conjecture.
From various reports the Skipper had learnt that following the passing of the first Quarantine Act (1710) the process remained ‘haphazard and arbitrary’, so a clause was inserted in the Levant Trade Act of 1752 requiring vessels to call at set ports around Europe when incoming from areas of pestilence and there appeared to have been a quarantine station in Stangate Creek from 1741. It had originally been for the airing of cargoes on hulks to ensure clearance of any pestilence; however, no medical attention to crews was given. ‘The crews must have been fit and probably free from any diseases,’ the Skipper murmured, disbelieving himself. The system had been monitored by officers of customs and quarantine. Whole ships had also been submerged out in the Nore, to free them of disease, too, ‘Strange to think, all they needed was dry air,’ the Skipper thought. He had released a deep, ‘Ah,’ upon reading about the inception of the yellow flag for incoming ships liable to quarantine in an order in council of around 1788. The flag had to be flown by day and a light at the masthead by night—it was still a requirement.
By 1800 the Stangate Creek Quarantine Station had had a land base built for attending to the needs of seamen. It had been set up, briefly, on Chetney Hill, an island of sorts at the southern foot of the creek. The island was surrounded by vast tracts of marshy land within the parish of Iwade. It had long been attached to the mainland by a causeway, however, the land was found to be unsuitable. It was damp and full of ague. ‘Wow! How unsurprising!’ the Skipper guffawed, it was a common problem for all low-lying coastal land in those times.
The discoveries went on; upon the passing of Parliamentary Act for Public Health, dated 9 November 1896, the enforcement of quarantine regulations was transferred to Port Health Authorities. That change had then altered the way vessels were quarantined. Ships could and continued to be quarantined, but it was, and continues to be, in a humane fashion; those who were not affected were monitored and allowed to leave, and the sick were removed (to a hospital).
‘A ship can still be held in port for as long as a port health authority stipulates,’ the Skipper murmured, grinning while remembering the furore over the ‘grounding’ of a cruise vessel at Harwich in 2010, ‘Or was it 2009,’ he thought, laughing—the media went ballistic. Those recent events seemed too regular, ‘Poor personal hygiene, mainly,’ he mouthed, but when a ship load of the upwardly mobile retired classes was ‘messed’ with, their complaint to the more pictorial of the press brigades was vitriolic indeed.
Later that day, the Skipper had talked to the Mate about the Chetney Island exploit. He filled her in before adding, ‘It’s said that some £170,000 was spent on a number of buildings, but those buildings were very quickly condemned and the materials were sold off for a paltry £15,000.’ Pausing briefly, he added, ‘Doesn’t sound a lot, but they were huge amounts then.’ Then he muttered, ‘It was such a waste, it still goes on.’
The Mate had asked what happened, ‘Where did it go?’
‘After the Chetney debacle, the quarantine station was returned to its former afloat only location confined within Stangate Creek.’ Adding, ‘The station was enforced by the Royal Navy from time to time too.’
The Skipper had thought, briefly, of blurring her hazy knowledge with the fact that, until recently, some evidence of the station’s foundations were still evident, but said nothing, knowing that it was a real person, a doctor, she was really interested in. But he kept her waiting.
He’d learnt that remnants of the quarantine station’s foundations were, apparently, still viewable sixty or seventy years ago. The hill that made up the island was a grass-covered mound used for grazing. Geographically, it was an anomaly in what had once been an expanse of marsh regularly flooded during spring tides with deep creeks running to the West Swale. There was thought to have been a passage through from the Swale in Roman times. However, Stangate Creek had continued to be the areas designated Quarantine Station to around 1896. During his research, the Skipper found no references to Burntwick Island being used at all.
‘What about your doctor?’ the Mate finally mumbled, becoming a little agitated at the Skipper’s constant slippage into his many peripherals.
‘Oh yes,’ the Skipper said, while deciding not to further muddy the waters, ‘We were looking in the wrong place.’ He’d since found that the good doctor was buried in the opposite direction to where they’d been looking during the preceding summer, but close by—the fault was his alone.
‘Who was he then?’
The Skipper had much more to learn though, so he had to say, ‘Sorry. The good doctor … I still need to look into him.’
Time moved on. One evening, while sitting reading, the Mate looked up and asked, ‘You found out about your doctor yet?’
‘Well, yes, I have actually,’ the Skipper had quipped, triumphantly, adding more reverently, ‘He was a surgeon, actually.’ He then dashed away to collect a bundle of papers and a file—so he could explain.
The good doctor had joined a ship, HMS Eclair, which was returning from serving as an anti-slavery guard vessel during 1845. The ship was on the way home to Portsmouth from Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she’d been on anti-slavery duty. On the way back to Portsmouth the captain had docked in the Cape Verde Islands with sickness aboard. ‘They’d got yellow fever,’ the Skipper exclaimed. The Mate’s eyebrows had risen, and rose further when he said, ‘and a third of the ship’s company died … were wiped out.’ Then the ship’s surgeon had died on the way to Madeira, where the ship docked again. The fever was rife within the vessel and a naval surgeon based on the island offered his services—the risks to himself must have been known. ‘That was our doctor, Sidney Bernard.’
Upon arrival at Portsmouth, the ship was immediately redirected to the Medway quarantine station. Five further personnel died, including that stand-in surgeon, Sidney Barnard. ‘Strange as it may seem,’ the Skipper voiced, ‘had all the crew and officers been landed, they would have all survived,’ pausing he added, ‘it was fresh clean air they needed, clear of the ship’s internal warmth and moistness, where the dreaded mosquito, the disease’s carrier, thrived.’ Worst of all, with better understanding, yellow fever was and is not a contagion. But the authorities were not fully aware of that then.
The Skipper went on to relate what he’d learnt of the burial. For some obscure reason, Sidney Bernard was buried on Burntwick Island. The poor man’s family lived in the Dublin area and it wouldn’t, then, have been possible to transport the body easily. The island hadn’t been used for burials, like Deadman’s Island along Salt Pan Reach to the east. Whether or not the other men were also buried on the island appeared not to be known—though the parish records of Upchurch might, possibly, have record of the facts.
Sidney Bernard died on 9 October 1845 at the very young age of twenty-seven. For reasons unknown he became a national hero in his death. The public wanted answers from their government. Ironically, the Skipper had read, from 1846 the number of quarantine stations were gradually reduced until all were disbanded under the 1896 Act mentioned earlier. ‘So,’ the Skipper had finally uttered, ‘the truth of the situation was patently known to the slow-witted authorities of Bernard’s time!’
‘Interesting,’ the Mate said, adding, ‘we must find him.’ The Skipper nodded.
Nick Ardley was born in 1955 and brought up on a Thames spritsail barge. His working life was spent as an engineer officer with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Now retired, he writes avidly about his love of exploring the coastlines of Essex and north Kent by boat.
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