The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 6. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1798.
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THE VILLE OF SHEERNESS lies at the western part of the parish of Minster, at the north-west point of the Isle of Shepey. It was once esteemed as part of that parish, but it has been long since created a ville of itself, and is entirely Separate from it as to its civil ju risdiction, though as to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction it still continues part of it.
This part of the Island of Shepey, in the reign of king Charles I. was no more than a watry swamp or morass, on the point of which, after the restoration of king Charles II. there was mounted a small fort of twelve guns to defend the passage up the river Medway. In which situation it remained till the Dutch war broke out in that reign, when the general discourse of the whole kingdom turned on the importance of this place, and the erecting a royal fort on it, which might preserve the navy, and at the same time be a great security to the river.
The king took this charge upon himself, and in the beginning of the year 1667, made two journeys hither in the depth of winter, taking an engineer and some officers of the ordnance with him, and having seen the work begun, he left at it his chief engineer Sir Martin Beckman, whom he designed for governor of the fort, and committed the overlooking of the whole, that every expedition might be used, to one of the commissioners of the ordnance; notwithstanding which, very little or nothing had been done towards it, when the Dutch, that year, made their memorable attempt upon the royal navy in the river Medway, which was then in a most defenceless state, there being at that time, besides the twelve guns here as before mentioned, only four that could be used at Upnor, and scarce so many at Gillingham, for the defence of it.
There was a company or two of soldiers indeed here, under excellent officers, but the fortifications were so weak and unfinished, and all other provisions so entirely wanting, that though the best defence was made, yet the Dutch fleet no sooner appeared within distance, but with their cannon they beat the works flat, and drove the men from their ground, and then with their boats landed their men, as if they had resolved to fortify and keep it; after which, sailing up the river, they broke through every means made use of to oppose them, and having done considerable damage to the shipping, (a full account of which has already been given in a former part of this history (fn. 1) ) they fell down the river again without any further molestation, and having taken away all their men from Sheerness, they failed away for the coasts of Essex and Suffolk.
This bold attempt gave such an alarm to the nation, as well for the safety of the royal docks and magazines at Chatham, as for the navy itself, from the defenceless state of the river Medway, and the easy access of the enemy to it, that this fort of Sheerness was immediately afterwards increased to a regular fortification, and became a royal fort, having a line of large and heavy cannon mounted on it. Besides which, there were other smaller forts built on each side of the river, higher up, for the future defence of it. Great improvements have been made from time to time to the fort of Sheerness, and of late years elpecially, it has been greatly augmented and strengthened, insomuch that no fleet, however formidable, can in future attempt to pass it, without the hazard of being torn to pieces, and left any danger might in future happen to it, in 1782 an act passed for the more effectually securing of it.
The fort and garrison of Sheerness is under the command of a governor, a lieutenant governor, a fort-major, and other inferior officers. The present governor is general Francis Craig, the lieutenant-governor Sir James Malcolm. The salary of the former is 300l. per annum, and of the latter 182l. 10s.
Some years since the building of a fort here, a royal dock has been made adjoining to it, intended chiefly for the repairing of ships which may have met with any sudden accident, and for the building of smaller ships of war, such as 5th and 6th rates, small frigates, yachts, and such like vessels, though sometimes ships of a larger size have been built here, but this has not been often. This yard, in time of peace, is under the inspection of the commissioner of the navy residing at Chatham, who has a clerk of the cheque and a storekeeper resident here under him. But in time of war, from the great increase of business, an extra commissioner is always appointed, who constantly resides here; and the office of ordnance has a branch likewise established here.
The numbers of persons necessarily attendant both on the fort and dock-yard, has occasioned the building of a town of several streets in and near it, which is exceedingly populous, many of the buildings being crouded with several families together in one house; but the great scarcity of fresh water had always been most severely felt by the inhabitants of this place, this induced government in 1782 to try if it could not be procured by the sinking of a well here; their trial at the neighbouring one of Queenborough some years before, giving them hopes of equal success here, nor were they disappointed, for when the workmen under the direction of Sir T. Hyde Page, of the corps of engineers, had dug to about the depth of twenty feet, the augur dropt in, and the water instantly flew up, and quickly rose to two hundred and sixty-five feet, which was within sixty-three feet of the top of the well. From the first, the taste of the water was soft and pleasant, and though at first very thick, yet it soon became clear and fit for use, and still continues so, affording, jointly with that of Queenborough, a constant and plentiful supply, not for only the inhabitants, but for the shipping, and various departments of government here, the former before trusting mostly to their savings of rain water, and the latter, (the well at Queenborough not being fully sufficient for the supply of the shipping) having it fetched weekly, at a very heavy expence to government, in vessels from Chatham for that purpose.
The old ships of war stationed here are termed break-waters from their breaking the violence of the tides, the hulls are occupied by 60 or 70 families, and chimnies of brick are raised from the lower gun decks, which give them the odd appearance of a floating town.
There is a chapel erected here at the expence of government, for the use of the garrison, &c. but all christenings, marriages, burials, and other ecclesiastical rites, are performed at the mother church of Minster, which has the entire ecclesiastical jurisdiction over this ville. The chaplain is appointed by government to the cure of this chapel.
A market is held at Sheerness weekly on a Saturday.