The island of Sheppey: Introduction

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 6. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1798.

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Edward Hasted, 'The island of Sheppey: Introduction', The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 6, (Canterbury, 1798), pp. 207-216. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

Edward Hasted. "The island of Sheppey: Introduction", in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 6, (Canterbury, 1798) 207-216. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

Hasted, Edward. "The island of Sheppey: Introduction", The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 6, (Canterbury, 1798). 207-216. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,


Queenborough Castle.

THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY is separated from the rest of the county of Kent by a narrow arm of the sea, called the Swale. It is not certain by what name it was known to the Romans. Ptolemy, in his geography, mentions two islands in this part of Britain, which he calls Toliapis and Counus. He describes the former of these islands in lon. 23. lat. 54. 15. the latter in lon. 24. lat. 54. 30. though what space he allowed to a degree is uncertain, but undoubtedly it appears to be much less than we do. The former of them is supposed by most of our learned men, among whom are Camden and Batteley, (fn. 1) to be this island, though Lam barde, Leland, and some others, think the latter, merely from the etymology of the name.

It was called by the Saxons, SCEAPIGE or OVINIA, that is, the Island of Sheep, which name it took from the number of sheep continually feeding on it. Baxter, in his Glossary, under the word Malata, adds, "Vervecum Patria, or the Isle of Sheep, now named Shepey. This is corruptly called, by the book of Ravenna, Malaca, by the Britons Vervex." In Chron. de Mailros, anno 832, it is called Peseiga.

Its circumserence, including the little adjoining isles of Elmley and Harty, which lie at the south-east side of it, and include about two eighth parts of the whole of it, measures upwards of thirty miles. It is about eleven miles in length, and about eight at its greatest breadth.

The grounds of this island rise from the shores on the south, east, and west bounds of it towards its center; but on the north side, it seems, by the height of the cliffs, to have once extended much further. The cliffs are in length about six miles, and gradually decline at each end, the more elevated parts continuing about two-thirds as far as they extend, and they are, at the very highest of them about Minster, not less than thirty yards in perpendicular height above the beach or shore, and consisting of clay, and being constantly washed at their basis by the tides which beat against them, more especially when driven by strong easterly winds, they are continually wasting and falling down upon the shore, and so great is the loss of land at the highest parts, that sometimes near an acre has sunk down in one mass from that height upon the beach below, with the corn remaining entire on the surface of it, which has afterwards grown and increased to maturity, and been reaped in that state, with but a trisling loss to the owner of it.

The soil of the greatest part of the island is an exceeding stiff clay; by far the greatest part of it consists of upland pastures and marshes, the latter are much of them rich and fertile satting land, the former are covered with ant hills, very wet in winter, and in summer subject to burn and split open eight or nine feet in depth. The island, towards the north side, in the parishes of Minster and Eastchurch, is very sertile in corn, the inclosures of which are small, and surrounded with thick hedge-rows of elm, and the whole face of the country exceeding pleasant in fine weather, being interspersed with much small hill and dale, and frequent houses and cottages. The roads throughout the island are very good all the year, owing to the great plenty of the fine gravel of the beach pits in it, and the prospects are very pleasing and extensive on every side. There is hardly any coppice wood throughout the whole of it. Fresh water is very scarce and the greatest part of it brackish, tho' between Eastchurch and Minster there are a few springs, which, notwithstanding they rise near the sea, the waters of them are perfectly good and fresh. The air is very thick and much subject to noxious vapours, arising from the large quantity of marshes in and near it, and the badness of the water, which make it very unwholesome, insomuch, that few people of substance live in it, and in the low or marshy parts the inhabitants are very few indeed, and consist in general of lookers, bailiffs, and servants. The garrison and dock of Sheerness, and its environs, the reader will however of course except from this observation, where there are many gentlemen employed in the government service, who are of property and substance constantly resident.

The water which flows between this island and the main land is called the Swale, and the two extremities of it, the East and West Swale, it reaches about twelve miles in length, and is navigable for ships of two hundred tons burthen. This water seems formerly to have been accounted a part of the river Thames, and to have been the usual (as being the sasest) passage for the shipping between London and the North Foreland; accordingly Sandwich is frequently stiled by our antient historians Lundenwic, or the Thames Mouth, being the name given to it by the Saxons, and the town of Milton is said by them to stand on the south bank of the Thames. Leland in particular says, in his Itinerary, that town stands on an arm of the Tamise; and he speaks of the point against Quinborough entering into the mayne Tamys.

The usual passage to it is by a ferry, called King's Ferry, for carriages, horses, cattle, and passengers. The ferry-boat is moved forward by a long cable, of about one hundred and forty fathoms or more, which being fastened at each end across the Swale, serves to move it forward by hand. On the side opposite to the island there is a small house of stone, in the room of one formerly erected by one George Fox, who having staid a long while in the cold, waiting for the boat, and being much affected by it, built it to shelter others from the like inconvenience.

This ferry, before the making of the statute of highways, had been repaired and maintained, time out of mind, at the charge of all the inhabitants and landoccupiers within the whole island, by an assessment made at a court or law-day, holden yearly at Kingsborowe, within the island, in the king's name, only for the maintenance of this ferry.

To enforce which an act passed in the 18th year of queen Elizabeth, and another afterwards in the 28th year of that reign, with still further powers, that from that time for ever, between the feasts of Easter and Pentecost, any three justices of the peace, dwelling within eight miles of the town of Milton, should assets all lands and grounds lying without the island, and within four miles of the ferry, towards the repair and amendment of the usual highway leading from that town to it (which was in such decay that neither man nor beast could then pass it without great danger, and the parish through which it lay was not able to repair it) so that it exceeded not the usual proportion of one penny for each acre of fresh, or ten acres of salt marsh, the money to be employed in repairing such road, with power of distress in such manner and form as was limited to the Ferry-warden by the former statute, &c.

At the law-day before-mentioned, a ferry-warden, two ferrymen, and a constable are yearly chosen, who appoint a ferry-keeper, and with the homage make rules and orders for the good government of the ferry.

By these means and the rents belonging to it, the ferry has from time to time been maintained, as well as the highways through the marshes, together with the sea wall and wharf, and the ferry-keeper's house, and two large passage-boats and a skiff, with a cable to tow the boat from side to side. The passage is costfree for all travellers, except on four days yearly, Palm Monday, Whit-Monday, St. James's day, and Michaelmas day, and on Sundays, and every night in the year after eight o'clock.

The ferry-keeper has a privilege to dredge for oysters, exclusive of all others, within the compass of the ferry-loop, which extends one tow's length, that is, sixty fathoms, on each side of the cable. Some years ago, he was disturbed in the enjoyment of it, by some of the Queenborough dredgers, who being called to account in law for the trespass, paid the charges, and submitted without coming to a trial.

For the space of more than eighty years after the last-mentioned act of parliament, there was little resort to this ferry, except from the private business of the inhabitants of the island; but since the building of a fort, and fixing a garrison at Sheerness, and the establishing of a dock-yard, a branch of the ordnance, and other appendages necessary to them, the traffic to and from the island has greatly increased, and with it the expence of maintaining this ferry, and the roads leading to it, of which there are three principal ones, the first to the south-eastward to the town of Milton, the second strait forward towards the south through Iwade and Bobbing into the great Dover road at Key-street, and the third towards the south-west through Halstow and Upchurch towards Gillingham and Chatham.

There are two other ferries, of less account, to and from this island, one in the island of Elmley, and the other in that of Harty; but these are only for footpassengers and cattle.

There have been several commissions granted from time to time to different persons to view and repair the banks and sea walls of this island, the earliest of which is in the 27th year of king Edward III. in the 12th year of which the king directed his writs to the bishop of Rochester, Roger de Northwode, the prior of Rochester, the abbot of Boxley, Thomas de Cobham, Stephen de Cobham, Philip de Pympe, Stephen de Ashburie, Humphry de Northwode, and Ralph de Savage, all landholders of this island, in which it is recited, among other matters, that, intelligence having been received that this island would soon be invaded by the enemies' fleets, he therefore commanded them to have ready their men-at-arms and archers, according to the quantity of lands and tenements, which each of them possessed in it, together with the men of the island, and others, landholders in it, for the safety of it against the impending danger. (fn. 2) And afterwards, in the 46th year of that reign, writs of the like nature were directed to Richard at Lees, chivalier, John Normaud, chivalier, and Richard Cheyne.

King Richard II. in his 1st year, directed his writs to the sheriffs of Kent and Essex, commanding them to erect beacons on the most conspicuous places near the coasts of the two counties, opposite to each other, that by the firing of them, notice might be given of any sudden attempt of the enemy. In consequence of which, there were many of them erected, and one in particular here in Shepey, and at Showbery, in Essex, opposite to it.

The Isle of Shepey had formerly a court of Hustings belonging to it, wherein were heard all causes and pleadings, the laws, customs, rights, and franchises of this island, or whatever in any shape belonged or related to it.

The cliffs on the northern side of this island being composed of clay, and constantly washed at their basis by the tides, are continually wasting and falling down upon the shore, as has already been taken notice of. These cliffs belong to the three manors of Minster, Shurland, and Warden, the owners of which let them out to the different proprietors of the copperas works, who employ the neighbouring poor to collect the pyrites or copperas-stones upon the beach, which they deposit there in heaps, until a sufficient quantity is procured to load a vessel with to carry it away.

These cliffs produce besides, in their bowels, so great a variety and quantity of sossils, both native and extraneous, as are hardly to be paralleled, in a like space of ground, any where; these, the clay being continually washed away by the tides, are left exposed on the beach, and are usually picked up by the copperas gatherers who fell them to the curious; but those found here have been so much impregnated with pyritical matter, that after some time the salts thereof shoot, and entirely destroy them.

The late Mr. Jacob, of Faversham, well known to the learned as a curious antiquarian and naturalist, printed at the end of his Plantæ Favershamienses, a concise view of the sossil bodies of this island, collected by him during the course of thirty years, and among the Philosophical Transactions, vol. 50, pt. i. p. 396, is an account of some sossil fruits and other bodies found by him in this island in 1757.

The curious investigator of natural history, who travels into this island, will undoubtedly receive a further pleasure in the observations he will continually be induced to make on the variety of curious plants, which he will find growing over the whole face of it, but they are so very numerous as to well excuse the insertion of them here. Mr. Jacob has published a catalogue of such as he has observed in the long course of his searches.

Our antient herbalift Gerarde, mentions likewise in his Herbal several found by him here. Besides which, both Ray and Hudson make mention of several rare species of fucus, confervæ, coralliæ, ulvæ, potamogiton, ruppiæ, maritima, bupleurum, frankenia, and some others, found in and about this island, which it would take up too much room to describe particularly in this place. (fn. 3)

Dr. Plot observes, that there are very few rats or moles in the Island of Shepey, which, he says, is owing to the earth being full of copperas-stones, which are poisonous to them, and that this accounts for the number of mice in it, which are generally found in greater numbers where there are no rats.

The Bargander, or chenalopex, is frequently observed in it.

THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY, from its situation, was in antient times much exposed to the invasions of those nations which insested this kingdom. The Saxons indeed made the Isle of Thanet their principal resort; but the Danes in general made this island their landingplace, and frequently staid whole winters in it, so that it became their accustomed rendezous whilst in this kingdom, and consequently it felt continued scenes of misery and plunder.

Though the Danes had insested and harassed the coasts of Britain for some years before the accession of Egbert to the English monarchy, yet these parts of it remained free from their piracies till the year 832, when landing in this island, and having no design of making conquests, they accomplished their purpose of plundering it, as well as the neighbouring country, and then returned again to their ships.

In the year 849, the Danes are said again to have wintered here, as they did again in 851, during the reign of king Athelstan, (fn. 4) after having again invaded this country.

In 854, they again wintered here; after which there is no further notice taken by our antient historians of their visiting it, which most probably they did from time to time, whenever they made their incursions into these parts, and that it shared in the general devastation made of this county by these piratical plunderers, till the year 1016, when king Edmund having encountered Canute, with the Danish army, at Otford, and gaining a victory over it, pursued them as far as Aylesford, in their retreat to this island, where they collected the scattered remains of their army.

Godwin, earl of Kent, being at variance with king Edward the Consessor, came into these parts in the year 1052, and having burnt the neighbouring town of Milton, afterwards ravaged many of the king's estates throughout the county, and among others several in this island.

In the lower or southern part of this island there are many large barrows, or tumuli, which the inhabitants call coterels, and are supposed to be the graves of several of the Danish leaders, who were slain during their invasions of this kingdom. Offa, king of Mercia, one of the most powerful princes of the Saxon heptarchy, who died in 796, is thought by some to have died in this island on his return from Rome, where he had been on a pilgrimage, though he was buried at Bedford.

ELIZABETH, the widow of Francis Lennard, lord Dacre, who died in 1662, sister and coheir of Paul, viscount Banning, was by letters patent, in 1680, created Countess of Shepey, for her life. She died in 1686. Thomas Lennard, lord Dacre, her eldest son, had been in 1673, created Earl of Suffex.

Henry, youngest son of Robert Sidney, earl of Leicester, was in 1689. anno 1 William and Mary, created Baron of Milton and Viscount Sidney of the Isle of Shepey, and in 1694, Earl of Romney. He died unmarried in 1704, and was buried in St. James's church, Westminster; upon which his titles became extinct.

John de Shepey, LL. D. a native of this island, was first a prebendary, and then dean of the cathedral church of Lincoln, and dying in 1412, was buried there. He was a man of much note in the reigns of both king Edward III. and king Richard II. being employed by both those princes in their most weighty affairs both at home and abroad.

THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY is almost all of it within the hundred of Middleton, alias Milton, a very small part of it only in the parish of Eastchurch being within the hundred of Tenham, and the Island of Harty, which is within the hundred of Faversham, as will be further mentioned hereafter.


1. MINSTER, with the ville of Sheerness.
6. ELMLEY, and its isle; and
7. HARTY, and its isle.

The churches of which parishes are all within the hundred of Milton, excepting the church of HARTY, which is within the hundred of Faversham. That part of the hundred of Milton within the Island of Shepey, is within the jurisdiction of one constable, appointed for it at the court-leet held for the manor and hundred of Milton, and is stiled in it the liberty of Shepey.


  • 1. Camd. Brit. p. 233. Battely Antiq. Rhutup. p. 41.
  • 2. Claus ejus an. p.3, m. 33. Rym. Fæd. vol. v. p. 85.
  • 3. See Johnson's Gerarde's Herbal, p. 45, 280, 367, 411, 413, 523, 560, 562, 622, 838. Ran Synopsis, p. 136, 174, 188, 189, 286, 316, 329, 337, 351. Hudsoni flora Anglica, p. 134, 196, 266, 326, 431, 570.
  • 4. Flor. of Worcester, p. 582, and Asser, Ann. p. 155, say, this was the first time that the Danes wintered here. Simon Dunelm, col. 120.