The Ancient Parish of Cliffe
The ancient parish of Cliffe is one of the largest parishes in Kent and now contains two villages: the ancient village of Cliffe and the more recent village of Cliffe Woods. Its northern boundary is that of the River Thames and to most casual visitors it appears to be a sleepy, ‘out-of-the-way’, small rural settlement of little importance.
However, the historical importance of Cliffe and Cliffe Woods is evident by it having the greatest number of inclusions in Kent’s ‘Historic Environment Records’ (HER): second only to Cranbrook.
As well as having a designated Conservation Area the Parish also contains: two Scheduled Monuments (Cliffe Fort & Curtis & Harvey Explosives Works), a Grade I listed building (St. Helen’s Church), a Grade II* listed building (the Old Rectory) and twenty-three Grade II listed buildings/monuments.
Cliffe is believed to be one of, if not the oldest settlement on the Hoo Peninsula, with evidence of settlements from the Mesolithic period continuing to the present day. Archaeological evidence verifies the importance of the area especially during both the Romano-British and the better documented Anglo-Saxon periods.
Today it lies in a largely undisturbed geographical landscape which contains important archaeological evidence. The reason for this lack of disturbance being due to the decline of the areas importance due to the waves of plagues from 1348 onwards, malaria, silting of the port and the disposal of the church lands and properties post the reformation.
However, the parish of Cliffe has a hidden history with one of the earliest writings on the history of Cliffe by William Lambarde, (A Perambulation of Kent, 1576) where he mentions that ‘Cliffe is a large town of great importance’ and this is repeated by Richard Kilburn in 1659. Up until the 10th century a ford made crossing the River Thames to Essex possible and, after sea levels rose, a ferry system replaced it. However, with rising sea levels and numerous storm surges, the low laying lands near the Thames became unusable and the process of land reclamation was put into operation. By 1779 Edward Hasted, in his work ‘The History and Topographical History of the County of Kent’ Cliffe was recorded as “once being a larger town than it is now” and continued to describe Cliffe as ‘daily growing into further ruin and poverty, the number of the inhabitants lessening yearly, and several of the houses, for want of them, lying in ruins’.
The 13th Century Parish Church of St. Helen’s (Grade I listed) is one of the largest parish churches in Kent and was a site of Christian worship since at least AD 774 when King Offa of Mercia granted land for the building of a church.
The great importance of Cliffe and its church can be seen by the Rectors of the church producing six Archbishops, eighteen Archdeacons, seven Bishops, four Deans, six Chancellors (four of which being either King’s or Lord’s) and twenty-six Canons. The living at Cliffe was described, in the 17th century, as ‘one of the prizes of the church’.
The Old Rectory, itself a Grade II* listed building, and is among the earliest examples of a stone built building in Kent. It is situated to the south of the village and dates from the early 14th century.
At the northern border of Cliffe Parish, where it meets the River Thames, stands Cliffe Fort (a Scheduled Monument). Cliffe Fort, built in the middle 19th Century, is one of 5 surviving Royal Commission Coastal Forts in the Thames and Medway and the building the planning of the construction of the fort was overseen by General Gordon.
To the northwest of the village of Cliffe, on the south bank of the Thames, is situated the extensive workings of the Curtis & Harvey Explosives Works which operated between 1892 – 1921 for the manufacture of nitro-glycerine, nitro-glycerine based products, cordite, blasting gelatine, the chlorate based explosive ‘Cheddite’ and gelatine dynamite.
Sited between the Thames and the village of Cliffe are the remains of four cement works: The Pottery (1854-1886), Nine Elms (1867-1900), Cliffe Quarry (1874-1921) and Alpha Cement Works (1912-1970).
As well as Cliffe Fort number of military remains can also be found particularly: Lower Hope Battery, in use from the 1890’s – WWII, extensive features of a form of a WWII anti-invasion defence known as the GHQ Stop line and aspects of a WWII Decoy airfield.
By the mid 1800’s the population of Cliffe had fallen to just a few hundred until the building of the cement factories and the later explosives works brought the population of Cliffe back to over 2,500 by 1880’s.
In the late 19th century Cliffe consisted of long rows of houses along Church Street, Reed Street and West Street. The primary economy in the area was agriculture; with an 1840 survey identifying windmills, oast houses and malt houses. From 1851 the economy diversified with the establishment of the cement works and the development of the Curtis’s and Harvey explosives works at Cliffe, leading to the local population trebling from 877 to 2,595 people between 1851 and 1891. This influx of employment created a great demand for workers’ housing, in-turn leading to the construction of a range of terraces which shaped a large part of the village with its distinctive use of local yellow stock brick construction throughout the village.
In comparison the newer village of Cliffe Woods began as ‘plot land’ development and was grandly called ‘Rochester Park Estate and Garden Suburb’. It emerged piecemeal from Mortimers Wood and Lady’s Close when a private speculator parcelled land and sold plots of land from mid 1914. It consisted of small sites of self-built bungalows and chalets. It had only tracks, rather than roads, and very few facilities: minimal water, electric and non-mains sewerage.
Development stalled until after the First World War and the initial layout was in place by the 1930s. It was ribbon-developed along the B2000.
In the early 1970's most of the land was acquired by Strood Rural District Council, the local council, and was further developed into what we see today.
Many thanks to the many individuals from Cliffe and Cliffe Woods, and the surrounding area, who have helped with putting this site together. Special thanks goes to Emma Thompson and Richard Penny of Southampton University for their help with research and especially to Peter Tann, of Kent Archaeological Society, who kindly approached the KAS Publications Committee for permission to reproduce their work.