Isle of Sheppey

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Isle of Sheppey
Elmley marshes.jpg
View towards Minster from Elmley Marshes
Isle of Sheppey is located in Kent
Isle of Sheppey
Isle of Sheppey
 Isle of Sheppey shown within Kent
Population 37,852 (2001 Census)
OS grid reference TQ970695
District Swale
Shire county Kent
Region South East
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district ME11/ME12
Dialling code 01795
Police Kent
Fire Kent
Ambulance South East Coast
EU Parliament South East England
UK Parliament Sittingbourne and Sheppey
List of places

Coordinates: 51°23′28″N 0°49′52″E / 51.391°N 0.831°E / 51.391; 0.831

Welcome sign

The Isle of Sheppey is an island off the northern coast of Kent, England in the Thames Estuary, some 46 miles (74 km) to the east of London. It has an area of 36 square miles (93 km2). The island forms part of the local government district of Swale. Sheppey is derived from the ancient Saxon "Sceapige", meaning isle of sheep, and even today the extensive marshes which make up a considerable proportion of the island provide grazing for large flocks of sheep. The island, like much of north Kent, comprises London Clay and is a plentiful source of fossils. The land mass referred to as Sheppey comprises three main islands: Sheppey, the Isle of Harty and the Isle of Elmley (it was once known as the Isles of Sheppey before the channels separating them silted up), but the marshy nature of the land to the south of the island means that it is so crossed by channels and drains as to consist of a multitude of islands. The ground is mainly low-lying, but at the Mount near Minster rises to 250 feet (76 metres) above sea level.

Some Sheppey inhabitants like to call themselves Swampies, a term that began as, and for some people remains, an insult; for others it has become a term of endearment or a phrase for reinforcing identity.

The Swale[edit]

Sheppey is separated from the mainland by a channel called the Swale. Like the Wantsum Channel separating the Isle of Thanet from the mainland to the east, and Yantlet Creek at the Isle of Grain, it was used in ancient times by shipping to and from ports such as Chatham and London to reduce exposure to bad weather in the Thames Estuary or North Sea.


Three ferries have operated between the mainland and the isle: one to the west, called the King's Ferry; one at Elmley; and another, giving access from Faversham, the Harty Ferry. All had long histories: particularly the last (see external link below). None operate today: the Harty Ferry ceased operation at the start of the First World War, but the slipways at Harty and Elmley can still be seen today. That at Harty is below the Ferry House Inn (the landlord owns the ferry rights), while seeing the one at Elmley requires a walk of about a mile and a half from the RSPB car park. Additionally the South Eastern Railway operated a connecting passenger ferry to Sheerness from Port Victoria railway terminus on the Grain Peninsula for some years. Several ferry services to Southend have also been tried but proved short-lived. An attempt to start a small hovercraft service between the Harty Ferry Inn and Oare Creek near Faversham in 1970 by the then landlord, Ben Fowler, failed after a few days.

A number of continental ferry services have operated from the Isle of Sheppey.

A large ferry terminal was built by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway at Queenborough Pier in 1876 and operated a nightly service to Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, as well as a German mail service. These services ceased during the First World War but it was then used for military traffic. The port there was closed and dismantled in the 1930s. A passenger, car and lorry ferry (the Olau Line) operated to Vlissingen from Sheerness through the 1980s and 1990s, but there has been no ferry service of any kind in recent years.


The Kingsferry Bridge
The Sheppey Crossing with the towers of the Kingsferry Bridge that is still used for rail and local motor traffic.

During the reign of Edward I, according to the historian Charles Igglesden, a bridge connected Sheppey to the mainland at Elmley. It was called the Tremsethg Bridge but was lost in a tidal wave and never replaced.

In much more modern times, the Kingsferry Bridge (replacing the ferry) has been built. There have been four bridges, each having to be built to allow passage along the navigable waterway to the Swale:

  • 19 July 1860: The London, Chatham and Dover Railway built the first bridge to an Admiralty design. It had a central span raised between two towers. Trains and road traffic were able to use it, as with the next two bridges.
  • 6 November 1906: The South Eastern and Chatham Railway replaced the first bridge with one having a "rolling lift" design. It was originally worked by hand, but later by electricity.
  • October 1959: Kingsferry Bridge, a lifting bridge was installed, able to lift both the road and the railway line to allow ships to pass beneath.[1]
  • May 2006: The Sheppey Crossing was completed and opened on 3 July. This four-lane road bridge rises to a height of 115 feet (35m) above the Swale, and carries the A249 trunk road. Pedestrian, animal and bicycle traffic, as well as the railway, are still obliged to use the lifting bridge, which still provides the most direct link between the island and the Iwade/Lower Halstow area.
  • 5 September 2013: Fog caused a 130 vehicle pile-up on the bridge and its northern approach. As of mid-September the initial cause is not clear, but motorists travelling too fast in fog turned the accident into the county's worst in 20 years.[2] Eight people were seriously hurt with another 30 hospitalised. Another 30 had minor injuries and up to 120 were classified as "walking wounded".[2]

Sheppey history[edit]

The complex of causewayed enclosures at Kingsborough Manor attests to the importance of the island's high ground during the neolithic while later prehistoric, Roman and medieval occupation has been found by archaeologists in advance of development at Neat's Court and St Clements CofE Primary School in Leysdown.[3]


In 855, Sheppey as part of the kingdom of Wessex, became the winter camp of an occupying Viking force.[citation needed]

Shurland Hall[edit]

Shurland Hall, near Eastchurch, is named after its first owners, the De Shurland family. In 1188 Adam de Shurland possessed a mill with more than 1,000 acres (4 km²) of mixed land, mostly marsh with a small meadow: he also let a number of cottages thereabouts.

A curious tale surrounds a 14th-century member of the family, Sir Robert de Shurland. According to legend, Sir Robert killed a monk and resolved to ask the king for a pardon. In 1327 he rode to where the king's ship was anchored, off the Isle of Sheppey, and gained forgiveness. Returning, he met a witch who said that de Shurland's horse, Grey Dolphin, which had borne him so bravely to the ship, would be the death of him. Sir Robert immediately killed the horse and cut off its head. A year later Sir Robert was walking along the shore when a shard of the horse's bone pierced his foot. Blood poisoning set in and Sir Robert died.

Sir Robert de Shurland also possessed the Manor of Ufton in the parish of Tunstall, Kent, in the reign of Edward I. After he attended the prince in Scotland, to the siege of Carlaverock, where he was knighted, and in 1300, he then obtained a charter of free warren for his manor of Ufton.[4]

Shurland died in 1327 leaving as his heir a daughter Margery who married William the son of Alexander Cheyne of Patrixborne, Kent. To William passed the manor of Shurland. It remained in possession of the Cheyne family until the sixteenth century when it was sold by Sir Henry Cheyne.

During the First World War troops were billeted at the Great Hall, and it suffered considerable damage as a result. There has been no record of anyone living in the hall since. It is a Grade II listed building and awaits reconstruction by English Heritage. Planning applications have been made to use part of the site for housing.

A grant of £300,000 was made by English Heritage in 2006 to restore the hall's facade.

Dutch occupation of 1667[edit]

Sheppey enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of few parts of what is now the United Kingdom to be (temporarily) lost to a foreign power since William the Conqueror's invasion in 1066. This was in June 1667, when a Dutch fleet sailing up the Thames Estuary for the Medway captured the fort at Sheerness. The fort at the time was incomplete and the garrison underfed and unpaid, so resistance to the heavily armed Dutch Navy (which, according to Samuel Pepys' diary, was also to a large extent manned by deserters from the English Royal Navy) was hardly enthusiastic. Pepys, then secretary of the Navy Board, described Sheerness as lost "after two or three hours' dispute". The Dutch quickly overran and occupied the whole island for several days before withdrawing. Prior to leaving, the Dutch took supplies, ammunition and guns, then burned everything that was combustible.[5][6]

Capture of James II[edit]

Three miles (5 km) across the Swale lies Whitstable. The Swale channel was the point of departure selected by James II, when departing in some haste "from the Protestant deliverance of the nation" by William of Orange in December, 1688.

A hoy having been chartered, the fugitive king landed at Elmley, only to be mobbed by local fishermen. They thought such a noble on such a humble vessel was the locally hated Jesuit Edward Petre and so took his money, watch and coronation ring. At length he was recognised by one of the assailants and the group took him in custody to Faversham, where he was detained.

Bluetown Heritage Centre[edit]

The town of Bluetown hosts the history and Heritage Centre for the Isle of Sheppy. The Heritage Centre contains memorabilia and artefacts pertinent to the Sheppey's history, including displays on aviation, maritime, war time activities, and island history andoffers guided walks of Sheppey Isle and Bluetown.

The present Heritage Centre is on the site of two earlier establishments. Originally called the "New Inn", in 1868 the site became "The Royal Oxford Music Hall". The following year the building, which is situated a few doors down from the Bluetown court house, became the Criterion Public House, with a music hall called the "palace of varieties" situated immediately to its rear. In 1879 the building was replaced with a brick structure.

On the 5th of June 1917 the Criterion was badly damaged by a German air raid. Shrapnel marks from the attack can still be seen in the dockyard wall opposite the building. After the air raid, the building was re-built in its present form retaining some of its original features. After a variety of other uses, the site became the Heritage Centre in January 2009. A special exhibition in 2014 commemorated the centenary of WWI.[7]

Maritime history[edit]

Sheerness is a commercial port and main town of the Isle of Sheppey and owes much to its origins, as a Royal Naval dockyard town. Samuel Pepys established the Royal Navy Dockyard in the 17th century. Henry VIII, requiring the River Medway as an anchorage for his navy, ordered that the mouth of the river should be protected by a small fort. Garrison Fort was built in 1545.

Sheerness was the focus of an attack by the Dutch Navy in June 1667, when 72 hostile ships compelled the little "sandspit fort" there to surrender and landed a force which for a short while occupied the town. Samuel Pepys at Gravesend remarked in his diary "we do plainly at this time hear the guns play" and in fear departed to Brampton in Huntingdonshire.

The dockyard served the Royal Navy until 1960 and has since developed into one of the largest and fastest expanding ports in the UK. The Port of Sheerness contains at least one Grade II listed building, the Old Boat House. Built in 1866, it is the first multi-storey iron framed industrial building recorded in the UK. Decorated with ornate ironwork, it features operating rails extending the length of the building, for the movement of stores, much like a modern crane.

The dockyard and port at Sheerness today are a significant feature of the Isle of Sheppey's economy, which includes the extensive export/import of motor vehicles, and a large steel works, with extensive railway fixtures. The island is, however, suffering from an economic recession and these industries are not as extensive as they once were.

The area immediately outside the dockyard was occupied by dockyard workers, who built wooden houses and decorated them with Admiralty blue paint illegally acquired from the dockyard. This area was, and still is, known as Blue Town, though it is now mostly occupied by the Sheerness Steel complex.

Beyond Blue Town, an outlying residential area overlooking the sea was chiefly designed for various government officials. This area became known as Mile Town because it is one mile (1.6 km) from Sheerness.

About 200 shipwrecks are recorded around the coast of Sheppey, the most famous being the SS Richard Montgomery, a liberty ship loaded with bombs and explosives that grounded on sandbanks during the Second World War. As of 2004 plans were discussed with a view to removing the threat from the Montgomery. These include encasing the ship in concrete or removing the bombs; no firm decision has been made.

New research commissioned by the Government in 2005–06 has suggested that the threat has passed and that constant surveillance should ensure the safety of the immediate community.

Natural history[edit]

Edward Jacob (1710–1788) purchased the little Manor of Nutts, Isle of Sheppey, in 1752. There, he pursued his hobby as a naturalist. He discovered much of interest to the antiquarian, naturalist, geologist and zoologist, although there was little prior knowledge. In 1777, Jacob published a book about his various fossil finds, including what he called "the remains of an elephant".[8]

The isle is noted as the northern-most place to have an established scorpion population. Euscorpius flavicaudis has been resident since the 1860s, believed to have been imported on a ship.[9] They have been found to be highly adaptable and hence have survived the relative cold by conserving energy and only acting for nutrition and reproduction.[10]

In 2008 palaeontologists published details of the fossil skull, found on the island, of a large flying bird from the Eocene period called Dasornis in the deposits of the London Clay.[11]

Local government[edit]

From 1894 to 1968, Sheppey comprised the Municipal Borough of Queenborough, Sheerness Urban District and Sheppey Rural District (consisting of the civil parishes of Eastchurch, Elmley, Harty, Leysdown-on-Sea, Minster in Sheppey and Warden). 1968 saw all these merged to form a single Municipal Borough of Queenborough-in-Sheppey, covering the entire island.[12] In 1974 the area was merged with districts on the mainland to form the Swale district.

Early aviation[edit]

The Aviation Memorial in Eastchurch

The isle has a long history of aviation development in England. It was home to Lord Brabazon's Royal Aero Club which formed in Leysdown in the early 1900s to popularise ballooning. The club took to the aeroplane with relish, and in July 1909 the Short Brothers established Shellbeach Aerodrome on nearby marshland to accommodate six Wright Flyers, moving a few kilometres the next year to Eastchurch where a new more appropriate aerodrome had been built for the club.

The Eastchurch airfield played a significant role in the history of British aviation from 1909 when Frank McClean acquired Stonepits Farm, on the marshes across from Leysdown, converting the land into an airfield for members of the Aero Club of Great Britain.

The Short brothers, Horace, Eustace and Oswald, built aircraft at Battersea to be tested at the site; later Moore-Brabazon, Professor Huntington, Charles S. Rolls and Cecil Grace all visited and used the flying club's services. Wilbur Wright and his brother Orville came to the Isle of Sheppey to visit the new flying grounds of the Aero Club. In 1909, Moore-Brabazon made the first live cargo flight by fixed-wing aircraft, by tying a waste-paper basket to a wing strut of his Shorts-built Wright aircraft. Then, using it as a "cargo hold", he airlifted one small pig.

The Eastchurch airfield was also the site, in July 1911, of the competition for the Gordon Bennett Cup for powered air racing, attended by flyers from all over the world, and won that year by the American pilot C. T. Weymann.

A stained glass window in the south side of All Saints' Church, Eastchurch (built in 1432), was dedicated to Rolls and Grace, who were killed in July and December 1910 respectively.

In July 2009, Eastchurch celebrated 100 years of aviation history associated with the island. SkySheppey brought together a number of associations and joined with many visitors to recognise the importance of British aviation history that started at Eastchurch.

Sheppey today[edit]

The beach between Leysdown and Shell Ness.

The largest town on the island is Sheerness. Other villages include Minster, which has a pebble beach, and Leysdown-on-Sea, which has a coarse sandy one. The whole north coast is dotted with caravan parks and holiday homes; there is also a naturist beach beyond Leysdown, towards Shellness. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages a reserve at Elmley Marshes, a small part of the National Nature Reserve managed by Elmley Conservation Trust.

An aerial view of Eastchurch village, a caravan site, the three prisons and the North Sea

There are three prisons on the island, all located to the south of the village of Eastchurch: HMP Elmley, HMP Standford Hill and HMP Swaleside. The total inmate population is in the region of 2,800.

In the 2001 census, the island had a resident population of 37,852, many of whom commute to the mainland via the Sheerness-Sittingbourne rail link and the new Sheppey Crossing Bridge.

Secondary education[edit]

Secondary education on the island is provided by Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey. The school moved into new buildings in February 2013 and is split between two sites: East and West. The academy is split horizontally into five mini-schools.

Sport and leisure[edit]

The island has a non-league football club, Sheppey & Sheerness United F.C., which plays at Holm Park.

Local radio[edit]

Bridge Radio "BRFM 95.6 FM" broadcasts 24 hours a day from studios on the Minster Cliffs on the Isle of Sheppey. BRFM has been broadcasting since 2006 and is the UK's longest running community radio station[13] Sheppey FM also broadcasts from Sheerness as an Internet Radio Station.


On 21 September 2008, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that an airport off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey would be a viable alternative to creating a new third runway at Heathrow.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Information on the bridge from Railways of the Southern Region Geoffrey Body (PSL Field Guide 1884)
  2. ^ a b "Sheppey Crossing reopens after dozens of vehicles in massive pile-up in thick fog", KentOnline (KM Group), 5 September 2013, retrieved 11 September 2013 
  3. ^ "Roman and Stone Age remains find at dig in Warden Bay on the Isle of Sheppey", KentOnline (KM Group), 25 November 2009, retrieved 15 March 2014 
  4. ^ Hasted, Edward (1798). "Parishes". The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (Institute of Historical Research) 6: 80–98. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  5. ^[dead link]
  6. ^ "Sheerness". Fortified Places. Retrieved 2012-09-10. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Ian Ellis. "Today in Science History". Retrieved 2012-09-10. 
  9. ^ Rein, Jan Ove (2000). "Euscorpius flavicaudis". The Scorpion Files. Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Retrieved 2008-06-13. 
  10. ^ "Science: scorpions in a cold climate" (16 May 1992) New Scientist Issue. 1821, retrieved 17 September 2010
  11. ^ "Mother Of A Goose! Giant Ocean-going Geese With Bony-teeth Once Roamed Across SE England". 2008-09-27. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4983.2008.00798.x. Retrieved 2012-09-10. 
  12. ^ "Queenborough in Sheppey MB through time | Census tables with data for the Local Government District". Retrieved 2012-09-10. 
  13. ^ "BRFM". BRFM. Retrieved 2012-09-10. 
  14. ^ "BBC News". BBC News. 2008-09-21. Retrieved 2012-09-10. 

External links[edit]

Next island upstream River Thames Next island downstream
Two Tree Island  Isle of Sheppey Nore