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MARKET TOWNS OF KENT (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Rochester in 1841

ROCHESTER, an ancient city in the county of Kent, situated on the south or right bank of the Medway, immediately adjacent to the parliamentary borough of Chatham, with which it forms one continuous town : it is 29 miles from the General Post-office, London, by the road through Dartford and Gravesend ; and nearly the same distance a direct line.

Rochester probably existed antecedently to the Roman invasion, at any rate antecedently to the conquest of the southern part of the island under Claudius, and its ancient name, which is of Celtic origin, denotes that it was at a passage over the river.

During the independence of the Saxon kingdom of Kent it was of importance both as the seat of a bishopric established about 604, and as a place of strength situated at the passage of the Medway. It was destroyed by Ethelred, king of Mercia, in 676, and by the Danes in the time of Ethelwulf, in 839 : it was besieged by the same enemies (in 885), but relieved by Alfred, who drove the invaders to their ships. In the time of Ethelred II (986) it was besieged, but in vain, by that king, who had a quarrel with the bishop : and was sacked (998 or 999) by the Danes.

After the Conquest, William the Conqueror either built or more probably repaired and strengthened a castle here, and placed it under the command of his brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux. In the reign of William Rufus this castle was besieged and taken by the king, against whom Odo had rebelled. In the reign of Henry I (1130), and again in that of Stephen (1137), and a third time in that of Henry II (1177 or 1179), the city was nearly destroyed by fire. In the civil war of John, the castle was taken by that prince from the insurgent barons (1215), and re-taken next year by the Dauphin Louis. In 1264 the town was taken, and the castle besieged and reduced to extremity by the confederate barons under Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, but he was obliged to raise the siege and march against the king.

In the rising of the commons under Wat Tyler, the castle was assailed, with what success is not clear. Edward IV was the last king who paid any attention to the repair of the castle. James II embarked at Rochester when he fled to France after his abdication, in 1688.

The town stands chiefly on a low narrow tract which borders the Medway, and is backed by the chalk hills which rise from the river with a rather steep ascent. It consists of several streets irregularly laid out ; the principal street leads from the bridge at the west end of the town into Chatham on the east side.

On the western side of the Medway are Strood and Frindsbury, considerable portions of which two parishes have been added to the town both for parliamentary and municipal purposes. A part of Strood and also a small part of Chatham were previously in the city of Rochester. The streets are paved, and lighted with gas, and the houses commonly of respectable appearance. The environs are extremely pleasant, and in the outskirts of the town are a few handsome villas, and rows of neat modern houses built on the higher ground which rises from the low margin of the river.

The cathedral is situated on the south side of the High-street within the ancient Priory gate. It consists of a nave with side aisles, a choir (the floor of which is raised ten steps above the floor of the nave), a principal transept, at the junction of the nave and choir, and a smaller transept at the east end of the choir. At the intersection of the principal transept is a central tower erected in 1825 ; at the western end of the church there appear to have been originally four low towers, two on each side the doorway and two at the extremities ; of these only two now remain, which are of different style. On the north side of the choir, between the two transepts, but nearer to the principal one, is a low square tower, now in ruins, called Gundulph’s tower.

The dimensions of the building are as follows : length of the nave 150 feet ; breadth with side aisles 66 feet ; length of the choir 156 feet ; making the total length of the church 306 feet ; length of the principal transept 122 feet ; of the smaller transept 90 feet ; area of Gundulph’s tower, inside, 24 feet square ; walls of Gundulph’s tower 6 feet thick. Extent of the west front of the cathedral 81 feet. The chapter-house is in ruins ; a mean building, erected in the place of it, serves for chapter-house and library. The nave is part of the structure of Bishop Gundulph, who rebuilt the cathedral near the close of the eleventh century.

The west front is a fine specimen of enriched Norman architecture ; but the great west window is an insertion of perpendicular character, as are most of the other windows of the nave. The nave has Norman piers and arches, except in the part nearest the choir where the arches are early English. The roof of the nave is now flat ; but there are indications that it was intended at first to be vaulted. On the south side of the church are some other Norman portions, which appear to have been the cloisters, and some other of the usual monastic adjuncts.

Most of the eastern part of the church is of plain early English architecture, of good composition, without much ornament : the details of the doors and of some other portions are very good : the roof of the choir and of both transepts is vaulted and groined, except in one part, which was never finished. The pillars of the choir are of Petworth marble. The crypt is very spacious, extending under the buildings of the choir ; its character is early English scarcely differing, in one part, from Norman.

The are a few ancient monuments, singular rather than beautiful and much mutilated. The old altar-piece a painting by West of the Angels appearing to the Shepherds, is now in Chatham church. There are several chapels, in one of which the bishop holds his consistory court. The architecture and masonry of Gundulph’s tower give reason to think that it is improperly ascribed to him. The interior of the cathedral, has lately (1841) been repaired, and in many places restored to its original beauty, by the present dean and chapter, who have exhibited equal taste and liberality in the improvements which they have suggested or sanctioned. Arches and windows for a long time filled up have been opened especially in the north transept, which now forms a valuable study for the architect and antiquary, as a specimen of early English, not excelled, if equalled, by any in the kingdom.

There are two parish churches in Rochester, St. Margaret and St. Nicholas ; they are not remarkable for their architecture, but each has a very ancient stone font, and St Margaret’s contains several ancient monuments. Within the city is a commodious Wesleyan chapel, and a meeting house belonging to the Society of Friends.

There was probably a bridge at Rochester at a very early period, but there is no distinct mention of it till the time of Henry I, when it appears to have been of wood, with ten arches or spaces between the piers, and a total length of about 431 feet. The frequent damage sustained by this wooden bridge and its continual need of repair led to the erection of the present one (a little above the site of the more ancient structure), which was completed in the reign of Richard II. It is a stone bridge of eleven arches, 560 feet long, with a stone parapet and balustrade’s. The conservators of the bridge are an incorporated body under the title of the ‘Wardens and Commonalty of the new Bridge of Rochester,’ and have considerable funds appropriated to the repair of the bridge. The approach to Rochester from the London side of the bridge is very striking.

The castle is on the bank of the Medway, just above the bridge. The outer walls were 20 feet high above the ground, and 7 feet thick, strengthened with towers, square and round, and defended by a ditch on every side except the west side, where it was washed by the Medway. These walls enclosed a quadrangular area nearly 300 feet square and are, with their towers, now in ruins.

In the south-eastern angle of the court was the keep, a massive building yet standing, about 70 feet square on the outside, and rising about 104 feet from the ground, with a tower at each angle rising 12 feet above the rest of the building ; three of these towers are square, that at the south-east angle is round.

On the north side near the north-eastern angle is another tower, through which was the entrance ; it joins the keep, and rise’s about two-thirds of its height. This smaller tower covers half the breadth of the northern side of the keep, and projects from it about 18 or 20 feet. The roof and floors have been destroyed : there were originally three stories besides the vaulted basements : each story was divided into two apartments by a partition wall rising to the top of the keep, with open arches or doorways on each floor and having a well 2 feet 9 inches in diameter curiously built into it, to which well there was access from each floor. The walls of the castle are of great thickness, built of Kentish ragstone, cemented with a grouting or mortar equal to the stone itself in hardness. The coigns are of Caen stone. The architecture is Norman, except perhaps the round tower at the south-eastern angle, which was rebuilt in the place of the original square one destroyed when King John besieged and took the castle. The four towers at the angle’s rose one story above the keep, and, as well as the keep itself and the entrance tower, were surmounted with a platform with parapet and embrasures.

The other public buildings are, a commodious town hall with a market-house beneath, and a small gaol adjacent, a clock-house, built by Sir Cloudesley Shovel on the site of a former town-hall ; a neat theatre ; and the bridge chamber or record-room, opposite the east end of the bridge. There are some remains of the city walls ; and part of the fortifications of Chatham, especially Fort Pitt, are within the city.

Strood and Frindsbury, considerable portions of which have been added to Rochester both by the Boundary and Municipal Reform Acts, are on the north-west side of the Medway ; Strood on the London road, and Frindsbury a little to the north-east. Strood consists of one principal street of irregularly built houses ; the place has improved considerably of late years ; it has a neat church. Frindsbury consists chiefly of one long street. The church is on an eminence commanding a very fine prospect. There is a Methodist meeting-house. Upnor Castle on the Medway is in Frindsbury parish : it consists of an oblong central building, with a round tower at each end, and is surrounded by a moat ; it was used during the late war as a powder-magazine.

The population of the borough, as enlarged by the above acts, was as follows, according to the census of l83l :-
Rochester old borough: St. Margaret's 5,025 ; St. Nicholas 3,050 ; Cathedral precincts 138 ; Strood intra 1,173 ; Chatham intra 505 (total population 9891) ; in addition, Strood extra and Frindsbury, giving a combined total of 12,058.

There are no manufacture’s in Rochester. Trading vessels come up to the bridge, where they discharge their cargoes, chiefly coals, which are conveyed up the river in small craft. The oyster fishery is carried on with great activity under the direction of the corporation, who have jurisdiction over the fisheries in the creeks and branches of the Medway. Considerable quantities of oysters are sent to London or exported to Holland ; a considerable quantity of shrimps also are sent to London. There are two weekly markets, one, lately established, on Tuesday for corn, and one on Friday for provisions ; and there is a monthly cattle-market. The fairs are almost disused. A canal was cut some years ago from the Medway to the Thames at Gravesend Reach, but the undertaking has not been profitable. This canal is carried through the chalk hills by a tunnel two miles and one furlong in length, which commences near Rochester bridge.

The corporation of Rochester, under the Municipal Reform Act, consists of six aldermen and eighteen councillors the city is divided into three wards. The corporation have exclusive jurisdiction over all offence’s committed within the city and liberties. There are no quarter-sessions ; but petty sessions are held twice a week ; and there is a court of requests having jurisdiction over several neighbouring parishes. Some other courts connected with the corporate jurisdiction are held. Rochester has returned members to parliament since the reign of Edward I. The number of voters on the register for 1834-5 was 967; for l835-6, 1,002.

The livings of St. Nicholas and St. Margaret are vicarage’s of the value of £389 and £136 respectively ; there are glebe-houses to both. Strood is a perpetual curacy, of the clear yearly value of £238, and Frindsbury a vicarage, of the clear yearly value of £449. They are all in the diocese and archdeaconry of Rochester.

There were in the city of Rochester and in the parishes of Frindsbury and Strood, in 1833, forty schools, in which 1,219 children, viz. 567 boys and 574 girls, and 78 of sex not specified, were receiving daily instruction ; and five Sunday schools, with 761 scholars, viz. 369 boys and 392 girls. One of these schools is a proprietary school and another, called the King’s School, is governed by the dean and chapter. An endowed mathematical free-school was established in 1701. Among the schools enumerated were two large national schools. There is an almshouse and dormitory for poor travellers in the town, where they receive entertainment and a night’s lodging.