Rochester, Kent

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Rochester Cathedral viewed from the west at Castle Gardens
Rochester is located in Kent
 Rochester shown within Kent
Population 27,000 (2001 Census)
OS grid reference TQ739684
Unitary authority Medway
Ceremonial county Kent
Region South East
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district ME1, ME2
Dialling code 01634
Police Kent
Fire Kent
Ambulance South East Coast
EU Parliament South East England
UK Parliament Rochester & Strood
List of places

Coordinates: 51°23′18″N 0°29′54″E / 51.3883°N 0.4982°E / 51.3883; 0.4982

Arms of diocese of Rochester

Rochester is a town and historical city in the unitary authority of Medway in South East England. It is at the lowest bridging point of the River Medway about 30 miles (50 km) from London.

Rochester was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby at Gads Hill Place, Higham, and who based many of his novels in the area. The Diocese of Rochester, the second oldest in England, is headquartered at Rochester Cathedral and was responsible for the founding of King's School in 604 AD, which is the second oldest continuously running school in the world. Rochester Castle, built by Gundulf of Rochester, has one of the best preserved keeps in either England or France, and during the First Barons' War (1215–1217) in King John's reign, baronial forces captured the castle from Archbishop Stephen Langton and held it against the king, who then besieged it.[1]

Together with neighbouring Chatham, Gillingham, Strood and a number of outlying villages, makes up the Medway Unitary Authority area. It was, until 1998,[2] under the control of Kent County Council and still constitutes part of the ceremonial county of Kent, under the latest Lieutenancies Act.[3]


Eastgate House, Rochester, Kent

Neolithic remains have been found in the vicinity of Rochester; over time it has been variously occupied by Celts, Romans, Jutes and/or Saxons. During the Celtic period it was one of the two administrative centres of the Cantiaci tribe. During the Roman conquest of Britain a decisive battle was fought at the Medway somewhere near Rochester. The first bridge was subsequently constructed early in the Roman period. During the later Roman period the settlement was walled in stone. King Ethelbert of Kent (560–616) established a legal system which has been preserved in the 12th century Textus Roffensis. In AD 604 the bishopric and cathedral were founded. During this period, from the recall of the legions until the Norman conquest, Rochester was sacked at least twice and besieged on another occasion.

The medieval period saw the building of the current cathedral (1080–1130, 1227 and 1343), the building of two castles and the establishment of a significant town. Rochester Castle saw action in the sieges of 1215 and 1264. The basic street plan was set out, constrained by the river, Watling Street, Rochester Priory and the castle.

Rochester has produced two martyrs: St John Fisher, executed by Henry VIII because he refused to sanction the divorce of Catherine of Aragon; and Nicholas Ridley, executed by Queen Mary as an English Reformation protestant.

The city was raided by the Dutch as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch, commanded by Admiral de Ruijter, broke through the chain at Upnor[4] and sailed to Rochester Bridge capturing and firing the English fleet.[5]

Rochester Castle from across the Medway (engraving, G.F. Sargent c. 1836)

The ancient City of Rochester merged with the borough of Chatham and part of the Strood Rural District in 1974 to form the Borough of Medway. It was later renamed Rochester-upon-Medway, and the city status transferred to the entire borough. In 1998 another merger with the rest of the Medway Towns created the Medway Unitary Authority. The outgoing council neglected to appoint ceremonial "Charter Trustees" to continue to represent the historic Rochester area, causing Rochester to lose its City status – an error not even noticed by the council for four years, until 2002.[6][7]

Military history[edit]

Rochester has for centuries been of great strategic importance through its position near the confluence of the Thames and the Medway. Its castle was built to guard the river crossing, and the Royal Dockyard at Chatham was the foundation of the Royal Navy's long period of supremacy. The town, as part of Medway, is surrounded by two circles of fortresses; the inner line built during the Napoleonic wars consists of Fort Clarence, Fort Pitt, Fort Amherst and Fort Gillingham. The outer line of Palmerston Forts was built during the 1860s in light of the report by the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom and consists of Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewood, Fort Luton, and the Twydall Redoubts, with 2 additional forts on islands in the Medway, Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet.

During the First World War the Short Brothers' aircraft manufacturing company developed the first plane to launch a torpedo, the Short Admiralty Type 184, at its seaplane factory on the River Medway not far from Rochester Castle. In the intervening period between the 20th century World Wars the company established a world-wide reputation as a constructor of flying boats with aircraft such as the Singapore, Empire 'C'-Class and Sunderland. During the Second World War, Shorts also designed and manufactured the first four-engined bomber, the Stirling.

The UK's decline in naval power and shipbuilding competitiveness led to the government decommissioning the RN Shipyard at Chatham in 1984, which led to the subsequent demise of much local marine industry. Rochester and its neighbouring communities were hit hard by this and have experienced a painful adjustment to a post-industrial economy, with much social deprivation and unemployment resulting. On the closure of Chatham Dockyard the area saw an unprecedented surge in unemployment to 15.9%. This dropped to 3.5% in 2004.


The Romano-British name for Rochester was Durobrivae, later Durobrivis c. 730 and Dorobrevis in 844. The two commonly cited origins of this name are that it either came from "stronghold by the bridge(s)",[8] or is the latinisation of the British word Dourbruf meaning "swiftstream".[9] Durobrivis was pronounced 'Robrivis. Bede copied down this name, c. 730, mistaking its meaning as Hrofi's fortified camp (OE Hrofes cæster). From this we get c. 730 Hrofæscæstre, 811 Hrofescester, 1086 Rovescester, 1610 Rochester.[8] The Latinised adjective 'Roffensis' refers to Rochester.[9]

Former City of Rochester[edit]

Rochester was recognised as a City from 1211 to 1998. On 1 April 1974, the City Council was abolished, being amalgamated into the Borough of Medway, a local government district in the county of Kent. However, under Letters Patent dated 2008 the former City Council area was granted the style of "City of Rochester" to "perpetuate the ancient name" and to recall "the long history and proud heritage of the said City".[10] The City of Rochester's ancient status was unique, as it had no formal council or Charter trustees nor a Mayor or Civic Leader. In 1979, the Borough of Medway was renamed as Rochester-upon-Medway, and in 1982 Letters Patent transferred the city status to the entire borough.[11] On 1 April 1998, the existing local government districts of Rochester-upon-Medway and Gillingham were abolished and became the new unitary authority of Medway. Since it was the local government district that officially held City status under the 1982 Letters Patent, when it was abolished, it also ceased to be a City. The other local government districts with city status that were abolished around this time (Bath and Hereford) had decided to appoint Charter Trustees to maintain the existence of the city and the mayoralty. However, Rochester-upon-Medway City Council neglected to do so. Medway Council apparently only became aware of this when, in 2002, it discovered that Rochester was not on the Lord Chancellor's Office's list of cities.[12][13] In 2010, it started to refer to the "City of Medway" in promotional material, but it was rebuked and instructed not to do so in future by the Advertising Standards Authority.[14]


Civic history and traditions[edit]

Rochester and its neighbours, Chatham and Gillingham, form a single large urban area known as the Medway Towns with a population of about 250,000. However Rochester has always governed land on the other side of the Medway in Strood. This was known as Strood Intra; before 1835 it was about 100 yards wide and stretched to Gun Lane. In the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act the boundaries were extended to include more of Strood and Frindsbury, and part of Chatham known as Chatham Intra. In 1974, Rochester City Council was abolished and superseded by Medway Borough Council, which also included the parishes of Cuxton, Halling and Cliffe, and the Hoo Peninsula. In 1979 the borough became Rochester-upon-Medway. The Mayor of Rochester was also Admiral of the Medway and this dignity was transferred to the Mayor of Medway when that unitary authority was created, along with the Admiralty Court for the River which constitutes a committee of the Council.[15]

The Guildhall, Rochester

Like many of the mediaeval towns of England, Rochester had municipal Freemen whose civic duties were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. However, the working Guild of Free Fishers and Dredgers continues and still have rights, duties and responsibilities on the Medway, between Sheerness and Hawkwood Stone.[16] This authority is effected through their attendance at the Admiralty Court comprising the jury of Freemen responsible for the conservancy of the river through current legislation. The Freedom can be obtained by serving a period of "servitude", i.e. apprenticeship before becoming a working Freeman. The annual ceremonial beating of the bounds on the River Medway takes place after the Admiralty Court, usually on the first Saturday of July.

Rochester first obtained City status in 1211, but this was lost due to an administrative error by the then Labour-run council when Rochester was absorbed by the Medway Unitary Authority.[6] Subsequently, the Medway Unitary Authority has applied for City status for Medway as a whole, rather than merely for Rochester. Medway applied unsuccessfully for City status in 2000 and 2002 and bid again unsuccessfully in the Queen's Jubilee Year of 2012.[17] The City of Rochester Society has argued that the application for City status should be under the name of "Rochester-upon-Medway" rather than "Medway",[18] as City status has only ever been given to places rather than notional government districts,[19] and the Green Party has also subscribed to the view that the application for City status should be for Rochester rather than Medway.[20]

Watling Street passes through the historic town, and to the south the River Medway it is bridged by the M2 motorway and the High Speed 1 railway line.

Ecclesiastical parishes[edit]

For parishes in the wider Rochester area see Strood and Frindsbury.

There may have been a church in Eastgate dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, but there is only a passing Saxon reference to it.

There were three medieval parishes: St Nicholas', St Margaret's and St Clement's. St Clement's was in Horsewash Lane and when the last vicar died in 1538 it was joined with St Nicholas' parish. The remains of the building were finally eradicated by the building of the railway in the 1850s. St Nicholas' Church was built in 1421 alongside the cathedral to serve the people of Rochester. The cathedral was part of the Benedictine monastery of St Andrew and hence not a parish church.

After the Reformation the cathedral was refounded as the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary and so did not remain as a parish church.[21] In the 19th century the parish of St Peter's was created to serve the burgeoning city with the new church being consecrated in 1859. Following demographic shifts, St Peter's and St Margaret's were recombined into a joint parish in 1953 with the parish of St Nicholas with St Clement being absorbed in 1971.[22] The combined parish is now the "Parish of St Peter with St Margaret", centred on the new (1973) Parish Centre in the Delce (St Peter's) with St Margaret's remaining as a chapel-of-ease. Old St Peter's was demolished in 1974, St Nicholas' Church has been converted into the diocesan offices but remains consecrated. Continued expansion south has led to the formation of a further more recent parish of St Justus (1956) covering The Tideway estate and surrounding area.[23]


Rochester is home to numerous important historic buildings, the most prominent of which are the Guildhall, the Corn Exchange, Restoration House, Eastgate House, Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral. Many of the buildings in the town centre date from as early as the 14th century up to the 18th century. The chapel of St. Bartholomew's Hospital dates from the hospital's foundation in 1078.


Rochester High Street

Thomas Aveling started a small business in 1850 producing and repairing agricultural plant. In 1861 this became the firm of Aveling and Porter, which was to become the largest manufacturer of agricultural machines and steam rollers in the country.[24]

The historic centre of Rochester has a significant number of attractive shops.


Charles Dickens[edit]

The historic city was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens, who lived within the diocese at nearby Gads Hill Place, Higham, many of his novels being based on the area. Descriptions of the town appear in Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and (lightly fictionalised as "Cloisterham") in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Elements of two houses in Rochester, Satis House and Restoration House, are used for Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations, Satis House.[25]

The association with Dickens is the theme for Rochester's two Dickens festivals held annually in June and December.[26][26] The 16th-century red-brick Eastgate House once housed the City Museum. In the 1980s the museum was moved further west to the Guildhall enabling Eastgate House to become the Charles Dickens Centre.

In the same decade the High Street was redecorated with Victorian-style street lights and hanging flower-baskets to give it a more welcoming atmosphere.

The Dickens Centre was ultimately unprofitable and shut in November 2004; Medway Council's cabinet agreed proposals for the restoration and development of Eastgate House as a major cultural and tourist facility, and for the project to be recognised as a key cultural regeneration project on 7 November 2006.[27]

Sweeps Festival[edit]

Since 1980 the town has seen the revival of the historic Rochester Jack-in-the-Green May Day dancing chimney sweeps tradition, which had died out in the early 1900s. Though not unique to Rochester (similar sweeps' gatherings were held across southern England, notably in Bristol, Deptford, Whitstable and Hastings), the Rochester revival was directly inspired by Dickens' description of the celebration in Sketches by Boz.

The festival has since grown from a small gathering of local Morris dance sides to one of the largest in the world.[28]

The current festival begins with the awakening of the Jack-in-the-Green ceremony,[29] and continues in Rochester High Street over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

There are numerous other festivals in Rochester apart from the Sweeps Festival. A summer Dickens Festival takes place in early June and a Christmas one in early December. The Medway Fuse Festival usually has performances in Rochester and the latest festival to take shape is the Rochester Literature Festival, the brainchild of three local writers.


A new library was built alongside the Adult Education Centre, Eastgate. This enabled the registry office to move from Maidstone Road, Chatham to the Corn Exchange in Rochester High Street (where the library was housed). As mentioned in a report presented to Medway Council's community services overview and scrutiny committee on 28 March 2006, the new library opened in late summer (2006).[30]

Media and culture[edit]

The actress Dame Sybil Thorndike lived in Minor Canon Row adjacent to the cathedral; her father was a Canon of Rochester Cathedral, and she was educated at Rochester Grammar School for Girls. A local doctors' practice,[31] local dental practice[32] and a hall at Rochester Grammar School are all named after her.[33]

Rochester is the setting of the controversial 1965 Peter Watkins television film The War Game, which depicts the town's destruction by a nuclear missile.[34] The opening sequence was shot in Chatham Town Hall, but the credits particularly thank the people of Dover, Gravesend and Tonbridge.

The 1959 James Bond Goldfinger describes Bond driving along the A2 through the Medway Towns from Strood to Chatham. Of interest is the mention of "inevitable traffic jams" on the Strood side of Rochester Bridge, the novel being written some years prior to the construction of the M2 motorway Medway bypass.

Rochester Corn Exchange

The model and actress Kelly Brook went to Delce Junior School in Rochester and later Thomas Aveling School (formerly Warren Wood Girls School).[35]

The Prisoners, a rock band from 1980 to 1986, were formed in Rochester. They are part of what is known as the "Medway scene".

The University for the Creative Arts, formerly the Kent Institute of Art & Design, is on the Rochester-Chatham boundary.

The 2011 adventure film Ironclad (dir. Jonathan English) is based upon the 1215 siege of Rochester Castle. There are however a few areas where the plot differs from accepted historical narrative.

The singer and songwriter Tara McDonald now lives in Rochester, signed to Mercury/Universal records France after working with David Guetta featuring on his hit single "Delirious" top 10 track all over Europe, "My My My" with Armand van Helden & "Feel The Vibe" with Axwell. She is releasing her debut album "I Like This Beat" in 2014.


There is a small amateur theatre called 'Medway Little Theatre' on St Margaret's Banks next to Rochester High Street near the railway station.[36] The Medway Little Theatre had a creative alliance with the Medway Theatre Club that was managed by Marion Martin at St Luke's Methodist Church on City Way in Rochester throughout 1985 and until 1988. Drama and theatre studies development were well established in Rochester because of the dedication of the Medway Theatre Club.


Local newspapers for Rochester include the Medway Messenger, published by the KM Group, and free newspapers such as Medway Extra (KM Group) and Yourmedway (KOS Media).

In 2011 Medway News and Medway Standard by Kent Regional News and Media were discontinued.


The local commercial radio station for Rochester is KMFM Medway, owned by the KM Group. Medway is also served by community radio station Radio Sunlight. The area can also receive the county wide stations BBC Radio Kent, Heart and Gold, as well as many radio stations in Essex and Greater London.


Football is popular in Rochester, with many teams competing in Saturday and Sunday leagues. The local football club is Rochester United F.C., though not as well known as the nearby Gillingham F.C: Rochester F.C. was an old football club but has been defunct for many decades. Rugby is also played; Medway R.F.C. play their matches at Priestfields and Old Williamsonians is associated with Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School.[37]

Cricket is also popular in the town, with many teams playing in the Kent Cricket League. Holcombe Hockey Club is one of the largest in the country, and are based at Holcombe Park. The men's and women's 1st XI are part of the England Hockey League.[38] Speedway was staged on a track adjacent to City Way that opened in 1932. Proposals for a revival in the early 1970s did not materialise and the Rochester Bombers became the Romford Bombers.[39]


In 1701 Sir Joseph Williamson left a bequest to establish the Mathematical School. Unlike earlier educational foundations (such as The King's School) it was not tied to a religious establishment but was open for practical instruction.

For a full list of schools serving Rochester, visit: List of schools in Medway.

Rochester Airport[edit]

Rochester Airport began in September 1933 when Rochester City Council purchased some land as the site for a municipal airport. One month later the aircraft manufacturers Short Brothers leased the land for test flying. By 1934–5 Short Brothers had taken over the site, and moved in some of their personnel from the existing seaplane works. The inaugural flight into Rochester was from Gravesend, John Parker flying the Short Brothers Short Scion G-ACJI.

In 1979 the lease reverted to the City Council. After giving thorough consideration to closing the airport, GEC (then comprising Marconi and instrument makers Elliot Automation) decided to take over management of the airport. It maintained two grass runways while releasing some land for light industrial expansion.


Rochester Station: the railway passes above ground level over a viaduct.

Rochester is on the A2, which crosses the Medway at Rochester Bridge – the route roughly follows the ancient trackway known as Watling Street, which was used by Celts, Romans and Ango-Saxons. Through road traffic is diverted onto the nearby M2 motorway.

Bus serves are operated by Arriva Southern Counties, which took over the locally-owned Maidstone and District bus company in the 1990s. Other local bus companies including Nu-Venture provide certain services, some under contract to the local council.

Rochester railway station is on the Chatham Main Line. All services are provided by Southeastern.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "English Heritage Rochester Castle". Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  2. ^ "Medway Council – Local history: Medway in the 20th century 1901 – 2000". 2009. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  3. ^ "Lieutenancies Act 1997". 2012. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ *The Dutch Raid, published by the City of Rochester Society 1998.
  6. ^ a b "Error costs Rochester city status". BBC News. 16 May 2002. Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  7. ^ "Town seeks to regain city status". BBC News. 17 July 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  8. ^ a b The Place names of Kent. Judith Glover. 1976 Batsford. 1982 Meresborough Books. ISBN 0-905270-61-4
  9. ^ a b Kelly's Directory of Rochester 1951.
  10. ^ The London Gazette: no. 46243. p. 3651. 21 March 1974. Retrieved 30 May 2008. Letters Patent dated 18 March 1974, text also available from Medway Council archives website
  11. ^ The London Gazette: no. 48875. p. 1173. 28 January 1982. Retrieved 30 May 2008. Publishing Letters Patent dated 25 January 1982, text also available from Medway Council archives website
  12. ^ "Error costs Rochester city status", BBC News, 16 May 2002.
  13. ^ Medway Council – Regeneration and Community Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Report on Rochester City Status, 4 March 2003.
  14. ^ "Adjudication on Medway Council". Advertising Standards Authority. 16 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2012. 
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Medway Council in Kent makes bid for 2012 city status". BBC News. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Medway Messenger article, October 2010
  20. ^ Watkins, Alan (10 June 2010). "Green Party campaign for City of Rochester, not Medway". Medway Messsenger (Rochester). Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  21. ^ "Weddings". Rochester Cathedral. Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  22. ^ "St Margaret's Parish". Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  23. ^ "Rochester Diocese". Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  24. ^ *Discovering Traction Engines, – Harold Bonnett – Shire Publications (1975) – ISBN 0-85263-318-1
  25. ^ Judith Bastide (1 Apr 2013). Follow These Writers. Author House. p. 97. 
  26. ^ a b Historic uk – heritage of britain accommodation guide (6 June 2010). "Destinations UK – Rochester, Kent, England". Historic UK. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ "Dame Sybil Thorndike Practice". Retrieved 30 October 2011. 
  32. ^ "Thorndike Dental Practice". Retrieved 30 October 2011. 
  33. ^
  34. ^ "War Game, The". 31 July 1985. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  35. ^
  36. ^ "Medway Little Theatre". 
  37. ^
  38. ^ "EHL league tables". Retrieved 18 March 2013. 
  39. ^

External links[edit]