In the 18th century Britain was at war with France.French privateers were active in the Thames estuary and English ships carrying stores between naval and military establishments on the the Thames and Medway were vulnerable to attack.
The authorities considered building a Canal between Gravesend and Strood which would give safe passage to Ships and Barges from Deptford and Woolwich Dockyards supplying ordnance to English Men-of-war lying at Chatham.it would also cut the long journey around the Isle of Grain from 47 miles to 7.
However,the project was never started due to the ground being boggy marshland and too big an obstacle to build a Canal on.
20 years later,Ralph Dodd,a civil engineer in the Coal Mining industry appeared on the scene.He had two ambitions,one to construct a tunnel under the Thames to link Gravesend and Tilbury and the other to dig a Canal across the marshes to the River Medway.Work started on his Tunnel under the Thames,but lack of money and flooding meant it had to be abandoned.
Dodd managed to convince a number of local interests to invest in the Company of Proprietors of the Thames and Medway Canal.Work started on the Canal.From the Gravesend basin, the Canal began with a straight section aligned with New Tavern Fort, Gravesend.
By 1801 it ran six and a half kilometres (four miles) to Higham. A new engineer, Ralph Walker, arrived and announced that the whole canal would cost significantly more than the revised estimate. Work halted, and by 1804 Dodd had probably left the project. Over the next few years, Walker suggested two new routes for the Higham to Strood stretch, for which Acts of Parliament were obtained and money raised. His second route was decided on but required a tunnel through the chalk hills
In 1819 work commenced on a 2¼ mile tunnel between Higham and Strood.After 5 years of digging the tunnel,on October 14th,1824 the Canal was officially opened,costing seven times the original estimate.
By this time the Napoleonic wars were long over and the military need had greatly diminished.The canal was 13 m (43 ft) wide and carried the Thames sailing barges common on both rivers. It was intended that the canal would be used for the transport of hops and other locally grown produce, but it was not a commercial success. It had locks at each end to protect the water level from tidal change, but the canal walls leaked and the water level dropped between every spring tide. A steam-driven pumping station was built to rectify this. Complaints then came from barge-owners that the tunnel was slow to use.
In 1830 the tunnel was shut for two months while an open-air passing place was dug in the middle. This 100 yard long cutting divided the tunnel into a separate Higham tunnel and Strood tunnel.
The Higham entrance to the Tunnel today,seen from Higham Station.
The Higham and Strood tunnel is 3.5 km (2.25 miles) long, and was the second longest canal tunnel built in the UK.
The tunnel was dug through the chalk using only hand tools and was considered an engineering wonder of its time.The tunnel was so perfectly straight, that a person placed at one end, may discern a small light entering at the other extremity.On the opening of the tunnel, a small steam passage boat was employed for the conveyance of passengers from Gravesend to Rochester, and vice versa, but as it was found to injure the towing-path of the tunnel, as well as the banks of the canal, it was discontinued. Foot passengers, however, still passed to and fro, though some caution was necessary, in order to avoid coming into contact with the horses towing the barges.
Unfortunatly the Canal wasn't a success and it failed to make a profit.
Coming of the Railway
By 1845 Railways were the popular means of transport and a track was laid alongside some of the Canal.In the tunnel a single track of railway was laid using trestles erected in the water to hold the rails.A year later the line was bought by the South Eastern Rail Company and it completely filled in the waterway in the tunnel making it a two track rail only tunnel.
Strood Docks owed their existance to the Canal,and although they were no longer connected to the rest of the Canal to Gravesend,the Docks were bought by the railway company,which installed sidings,cattle pens,stables,cranes and goods sheds.Trade in Timber and Cement also passed through the Docks.Victoria Wharf shown here burnt down in 1916.The Docks finally closed in 1963 and filled in,in 1987.
Along the Canal there were several Bridge Houses and Swing Bridges.
This is the remains of the deteriorated Bridge at Strood,crossing the old lock.
Restored Swing Bridge over the Canal near Milton Ranges.
Another Bridge over the Canal.
This Obelisk is by the canal at Lower Higham and the inscription reads:
"This boundary stone marking the line of jurisdiction of the cities of Rochester and London on the Medway and Thames Canal was erected AD1820. The Worshipful John Gibbs Mayor of the city of Rochester."
The Canal from Gravesend to Lower Higham was navigable as late as the 1930's,Thames Sailing Barges were towed from the Gravesend Basin to what was then British Uralite,and to Dung Wharf at Lower Higham,so called because of the cargo of "Dung" brought from the London Streets to enrich the surrounding Kent fields,but in 1934 the Canal was officially abandoned.
In WWII some of Londons bomb rubble was bought to in-fill parts of the Canal and the outer Lock gate between the Canal Basin and River Thames was damaged by enemy action.
Many thanks to John Vaughan for this Magazine clipping.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the lock leading from the basin into the canal and the canal from this point to Mark Lane, were filled in. A timber yard was built over the in-
Today only parts of the Canal have water in and other parts are overgrown or empty. However,the Gravesend Canal Basin still remains and is still used.
The Canal near Lower Higham.
Canal Basin at Gravesend.
Lock at Gravesend.
Lock Gate,where the Canal meets the River Thames.
The Thames and Medway Canal Association