Faversham is a market town and civil parish in the Swale borough of Kent, England. It is roughly equidistant between Sittingbourne and Canterbury. The parish of Faversham (Feversham) includes an ancient sea port, and lies 48 miles (77 km) east of London, off the London-to-Dover A2 road, 18 miles (29 km) east north east of Maidstone and 9 miles (14 km) west of Canterbury.
Faversham, established as a settlement before the Roman conquest was held in royal demesne in 811, and is further cited in a charter granted by Kenulf, the King of Mercia. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Favreshant. The town has regularly throughout its history obtained curious royal privileges and charters.
In 1148 Faversham Abbey was established in Faversham by King Stephen who with his consort Matilda of Boulogne, and his son, Eustace, the Earl of Boulogne was buried there. During Stephen’s reign, Faversham was a very important settlement and even became the capital of England for a short period Sir Thomas Culpeper was granted Faversham Abbey by Henry VIII of England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries about 1536. The abbey was demolished directly after the dissolution and much of its masonry taken to Calais to reinforce that town’s defences against French interests. In 1539, the ground upon which the abbey had stood, along with nearby land, passed to Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School was built on the abbey site.
Although the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII the nearby St Mary of Charity, Faversham Parish Church remains. It has an unusual 18th-century flying spire, known as a crown or corona spire, which is visible for long distances. The interior was restored and transformed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, known for St Pancras Station, the Foreign Office and many college and cathedral buildings, in 1874. (His son, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designed the classic 1930s phone boxes and the Faversham Society has one in its collection at the Fleur de Lis heritage centre). Notable features of the church include the reputed tomb of King Stephen (the church is thus one of only a few churches outside London where an English king was interred), nationally important misericords in the quire, a rare medieval painted pillar and a recently installed altar dedicated to Saints Crispin and Crispinian. The church supports a strong choral tradition with a choir of adults and children who sing Anglican matins, evensong and communion.
The town is known as a harbour and market community and is also at the centre of the county’s brewing industry, being home to Britain’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame. The town formerly also housed Fremlins and Whitbread breweries. Abbey Street and the centre of the town include a remarkable collection of original medieval houses. Much of it was intended for demolition as recently as the 1960s, until the value of the buildings, now listed, was recognised and local people began a determined fight to restore and preserve the area.
The historic central area, especially the part-pedestrian parts between the station and the creek, attracts visitors, who can learn about the town’s history and features at the Fleur-de-Lis centre, which provides tourist information and houses a museum. There is still a regular market several days each week in the market square where the Guildhall stands. In the same part of the town there is an early and largely unchanged but functioning cinema and the modern Arden Theatre, named after Arden of Feversham, a domestic drama set in the town’s Abbey Street. Nearby streets, feature old pubs, almshouses, shops and a growing collection of art galleries and restaurants.
Old sail-powered Thames barges are repaired, rebuilt and moored along the Creekside and the work of local artists is revealed in open houses linked to the Canterbury Festival each autumn.
The years during the First World War saw an uncertain time for the breweries. In the first instance, the scarcity of labour soon became evident from 1915, as a number of employees turned to offers of higher wages elsewhere, including the local ammunitions works. The explosion at the gunpowder works (see below) and subsequent changes in the local economy have, however, meant that Shepherd Neame is now one of the area’s more promising industries despite a decline in consumption of traditional bitter beer. It now also makes Indian and other beers under licence and, in common with many other “gastro-pubs”, its largely Kentish pub franchise is as noted for its food as its owner’s beers, following trends in food consumption and drink-driving laws. It is both one of the most profitable breweries in Britain and also claims to be its oldest.
By contrast, the munition industry in the area is now extinct and the part of the Oare Marshes where the 1916 gunpowder explosion (see below) took place is now even more isolated and has been an important reserve for birds, attracting binocular-toting enthusiasts to view the many species of migrants. There is an interesting information centre (as well as other bird hides) near the site of the former Harty ferry over the Swale to the Isle of Sheppey.
Faversham has a rigorous approach to exploring its past — it has a highly active archaeological society and a series of community archaeology projects are run every year. Most recently, evidence of the town’s medieval tannery was unearthed in back gardens of one street, and evidence from the Saxon period was uncovered during the Hunt the Saxons project in 2005.
Faversham was the cradle of the UK’s explosives industry: it was also to become one of its main centres. The first gunpowder plant was established in the 16th century, possibly at the instigation of Faversham Abbey. With their estates and endowments monasteries were keen to invest in promising technology.
The town was well-placed for the industry. It had a stream which could be dammed at intervals to provide power for watermills. On its outskirts were low-lying areas ideal for the culture of alder and willow to provide charcoal — one of the three key gunpowder ingredients. The stream fed into a tidal Creek where sulfur, another key ingredient, could be imported, and the finished product loaded for dispatch to Thames-side magazines. The port was also near the Continent where in warfare demand for the product was brisk.
The first factories were small, near the town, and alongside the stream, between the London-Dover road (now A2) and the head of the creek. By the early 18th century these had coalesced into a single plant, later to be known as the Home Works, as it was the town’s first. In 1759 the British government nationalised the works, upgrading all the machinery. From this phase dates the Chart Gunpowder Mill, the oldest of its kind in the world. This was rescued from the jaws of the bulldozer, and then restored, by the Faversham Society in 1966. (It is now open to the public on weekend and bank holiday afternoons from April till the end of October.)
A second factory was started by Huguenot asylum-seekers, towards the end of the 17th century, and became known as the Oare Works. It became a leading supplier to the East India Company. The third and last gunpowder factory to open was the Marsh Works, built by the British government 1 km northwest of the town to augment output at its Home Works and opened in 1787. This also had access to the sea via Oare Creek.
All three gunpowder factories closed in 1934. ICI, then the owners, sensed that war might break out with Germany, and realised that Faversham would then become vulnerable to air attacks or possibly invasion. They transferred production, together with key staff and machinery, to Ardeer in Ayrshire, Scotland.
Guncotton, the first “high explosive”, more useful for its destructive powers, was invented by Dr Christian Schonbein, of the University of Basel, in 1846. It was first manufactured, under licence from him, at Faversham’s Marsh Works in 1847. The manufacturing process was not fully understood and on 11 a.m. 14 July 1847 a serious explosion killed 21 people (18 staff), only 10 of whose bodies could be identified. Discretion being the better part of valour, the factory owners shut the plant. Guncotton was not made again in Faversham till 1873, when the Cotton Powder Company, independent of the gunpowder factories, opened a factory on a remote new site. Near Uplees, about 2.5 miles (4 km) northwest of the town centre but still within the parish, this was alongside the Swale, the deep-water channel that divides mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. Deliveries of raw materials — cotton waste and sulphuric and nitric acids — could readily be made, and the product readily dispatched by water.
The factory rapidly expanded, producing new high explosives as they were formulated. Adjoining it, on the west, in 1913 an associate venture, the Explosives Loading Company, built a plant to fill bombs and shells. Both plants were high-tech, with a power station, hydraulic mains, and internal telephone and tramway systems. Together they occupied an area of 500 acres (2 km²) — almost as large as the City of London.
When the First World War started in 1914, the two factories were requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed guards were mounted. Production facilities were further expanded and many new staff recruited from Faversham and elsewhere in east Kent. Road access for the workers was poor, so the Admiralty built a metre-gauge railway to transport them from a terminus at Davington, near the Home Works, to Uplees.
On Sunday 2 April 1916, a store of TNT and ammonium nitrate (used to “stretch” the TNT) exploded. More than 100 staff were killed in this explosion and in other “sympathetic” ones that followed. It was a Sunday, so no women were at work (see below).
The owners of both Swale-side factories closed permanently in 1919. The Davington light railway track was lifted, and its three steam locomotives found new homes in South America, where at least one is thought to survive.
However, in 1924 a new venture, the Mining Explosives Company, opened a factory on the east side of Faversham Creek, not far from the site of Faversham Abbey — hence its Abbey Works name. Its Mexico telegraphic address led to it being known as “The Mexico” by local people. After a fatal accident in 1939 the proprietors decided to abandon the manufacture of high explosives and instead make an explosive-substitute based on a large reusable steel cartridge filled with carbon dioxide. The premises still needed to be licensed under the 1875 Explosives Act, as gunpowder was used in the initiator. Under the name Long Airdox, production continues today. Unusually, the company is owned by its main customers. Its appearance is still that of a traditional high explosive factories, with small buildings widely spaced for safety. It has one of the UK’s few surviving manumotive railways.
At 2.20pm on Sunday 2 April 1916, a huge explosion ripped through the gunpowder mill at Uplees, near Faversham, when 200 tons of TNT ignited. The blast killed 105 people and many were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery.
The weather might have contributed to the origins of the fire that followed on the morning of Sunday 2 April 1916. The previous month had been wet but had ended with a short dry spell so that by that Sunday the weather was “glorious” … but provided perfect conditions for heat-generated combustion.
The munitions factory was in a remote spot in the middle of the open marshes of north Kent, next to the Thames coastline, which explains why the great explosion at about noon on 2 April was heard across the Thames estuary as far away as Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Southend-on-Sea, where domestic windows were blown out and two large plate-glass shop windows shattered.
The East Kent Gazette of Sittingbourne reported the explosion on 29 April. Although recognising the need for some censorship, it referred to the reply given in Parliament to the question as “mystifying and ambiguous” and called for the fullest precautions to be implemented to “prevent another calamity of the kind” occurring again.
Although not the first such disaster of this kind to have happened at Faversham’s historic munitions works, the April 1916 blast is recorded as “the worst ever in the history of the UK explosives industry”, and yet the full picture is still somewhat confused. The reason for the fire is uncertain and considering the quantity of explosive chemical stored at the works — with one report indicating that a further 3,000 tons remained in nearby sheds unaffected — it is remarkable, and a tribute to those who struggled against the fire that so much of the nation’s munitions were prevented from contributing further to the catastrophe.
The Secretary of State for War, Earl Kitchener, had in 1914 written to the management of the CPC, and it is presumed the ELC, instructing the workforce on “the importance of the government work upon which they (were) engaged”. “I should like all engaged by your company to know that it is fully recognised that they, in carrying out the great work of supplying munitions of war, are doing their duty for their King and Country, equally with those who have joined the Army for active service in the field,” Kitchener said.
The Marsh Works then became a site for mineral extraction, as it remains today, and almost all its buildings were destroyed. Except for Chart Mill, Stonebridge Pond, and a few other buildings, most of the Home Works site was redeveloped for housing in the 1960s.
The Oare Works is now a country park, open to the public free of charge all year round. Remains of process houses have been carefully conserved. From a visitor centre, signed trails radiate in various directions. An early 20th century electric-powered gunpowder mill which was transferred to Ardeer in 1934 has been repatriated and is on display. The 18th-century works bell has also been repatriated and is on display at Faversham’s Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre. With their streams, watermills and forest trees planted to minimise blast damage in the event of an accident, all traditional gunpowder factories were places of beauty, even during their working lives, and this one is no exception.
The Arms of Faversham Town Council is based on the Royal Arms of England, alluding to the town’s regal history.
Faversham holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK. 38.5C (101.3F) was recorded at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust on 10 August 2003.
A shipyard was established in Faversham by James Pollock & Sons (Shipbuilders) in 1916 at the request of Lord Fisher, the First Lord of The Admiralty. Faversham already had a tradition of shipbuilding, and it soon became a major contributor to markets throughout the world. Vessels such as the Molliette and the Violette both constructed of concrete were the forerunners to over 1200 ships built and launched from Faversham between 1916 and 1969.