Old Images of Queenborough, Kent

Old photo postcard of HMS Erin at Queenborough Swale Kent 1923

Glimpse history and old images of Queenborough, Kent, England

Historic Book

Extract from “Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts

Published in 1855

Pages 193-196


As there can be no place , however insignificant , where
men have congregated , and acted their various parts in
the drama of life , without its history ; so there can be
no history , however trivial , without its moral . We
need not , then , apologise for occupying the reader’s
attention with so poor a place as Our Borough . More
over , obscure though it be , it has been consecrated by
the footsteps , and immortalised by the pencil of genius .
The great pictorial moralist , satirist , and , we may say ,
historian of his era – he who held the mirror up to
nature , shewing vice her own features , scorn her
image , and the very age and body of the time its form
and pressure – did not disdain to draw its main and
only street ; and as it was then , so it is now at the
present day .

One hundred and twenty – three years
ago , on a fine May morning , Will Hogarth , Thornhill
his brother – in – law , Scott the landscape – painter , and
two other friends and boon – companions , started from
the Bedford Arms Tavern , in Covent Garden , ‘ to the
tune of Why should we quarrel for Riches ? ‘ The first
land they made was Billingsgate , where they ‘ dropped
anchor at the Darkhouse ; ‘ from whence , after Hogarth
had made a caricatura of the Duke of Puddledock , they
embarked for Gravesend . How , in the boat , with
straw for a bed and a tilt for a covering , they ate hung
beef , drank Hollands , smoked tobacco , and sung St
John – how they landed at Gravesend , got their wigs
powdered , and went to Rochester , where Hogarth and
Scott chalked out a hop – scotch , and played that juvenile
game under the very colonnade of the town – hall , to
the utter dismay and disgust of the parish – beadle
how they visited Sheerness , where Hogarth was
laughed at for sitting down to cut his toe – nails in
the garrison ‘ – we have nothing whatever to do with .
Besides , is it not all related and portrayed in the
facetious journal they brought back to amuse the
members of their club ? -which was subsequently
published , and to which we refer those of our readers
who are not too refined to enjoy a laugh at the coarse
frolics of our ancestors . But when they left Sheerness ,

as they journeyed to Queenborough , the subject – borough
of this paper , we are bound to follow them there , and
describe it in the words of Forrest , the historiographer
of the merry expedition .

The town is but one street ,
and answers the description I have heard of a Spanish
town – namely , there is no sign of any trade , nor
were many human creatures to be seen at our first
arrival .

They found , to their sorrow , ‘ that though
Queenborough was a market – town , yet they could not
procure ‘ one piece of fresh meat of any sort , nor
poultry , or fish . They , however , ‘ got a wooden chair ,

and placed Hogarth in it , in the street , where he made
a drawing , and gathered a great many men , women ,
and children , to see his performance . ‘

They visited
the church , and found nothing there worthy of notice .
But they had a conference with the grave – digger , who
informed them that the mayor was a custom – house
officer , and the parson a sad dog .

Hogarth’s party
would have had another laugh if they had known that
the mayor , when not engaged in official duties , followed
his humble occupation of a thatcher ; and if they had
known that the incumbent’s stipend was only L.52 per
annum , with a right of grazing worth about L.7 more ,
they might have said that the Queenborough people
could not expect a very merry dog for so little money .

John Taylor , the water – poet – who made a Penniless
Pilgrimage into Scotland in 1639 , and rode a – hunting
in the Highlands when Englishmen knew as little of
them as of Timbuctoo – also visited Queenborough , in
a very extraordinary manner . Having constructed a
boat of brown paper and bladders , Taylor , in company
with a congenial soul , a jolly vintner named Roger
Bird , sailed from London on a Saturday , and , after
many adventures and dangers , found themselves , to
their great joy , at daylight on the following Monday
morning , close to Queenborough , where they gladly
landed , and Taylor thus describes their reception in his
Praise of Hempseed :

The mayor of Queenborough , in love , affords
To entertain us , as we had been lords .
It is a yearly feast , kept by the mayor ,
And thousand people thither do repair ,
From towns and villages that’s near about ,
And ‘ twas our luck to come in all this rout .
l ‘ the street , bread , beer , and oysters is their meat ,
Which freely , friendly , shot – free , all do eat .
But Hodge and I were men of rank and note ,
We to the mayor gave our adventurous boat ,
The which ( to glorify that town of Kent )
He meant to hang up for a monument .
He to his house invited us to dine ,
Where he had cheer on cheer , and wine on wine ,
And drink and fill , and drink , and drink , and fill
With welcome upon welcome , welcome still .

Taylor does not tell us the trade or calling of this
hospitable mayor ; but as we have seen that , in Hogarth’s
time , the mayor was a thatcher , and as there is a
monument in the church – yard to a mayor – mariner , we
may conclude that he did not hold a very high social
position .

Even in this present century , a mayor who
died in 1829 , was not above performing the offices of
both judge and executioner , as his predecessors in the
mayoralty had done before him .

The general punish
ment for petty offences in Queenborough was a flogging ;

and the mayors , after passing sentence er officio , would
descend from the judgment – seat , and with their own
hands apply the lash .

Men – of – war’s – men from the
dockyard of Sheerness used to be very fond of larking
excursions in the neighbouring villages , but they
carefully avoided Queenborough . The summary juris
diction , the nervous arm , and formidable cart – whip of
the mayor , were worse than the court – martial , the cat
o ‘ – nine – tails , and the boatswain’s mate .

Long , indeed , before either Hogarth or Taylor visited
Queenborough , its mayor had been described in rather
contemptuous language . In the Academy of Compli
ments , published in 1614 , we find the following uncom
plimentary mention of that functionary , among a long
collection of doggrel truisms :

Pease – pottage is a Lenten dish ;
Pudding is neither flesh nor fish ;
Some cheese will choke a daw ;
The mayor of Queenborough is a clown ;
The lawyer wears a daggled gown ;
Wat Tyler and Jack Straw .

Queenborough is situated in a nook of the fertile
county of Kent , about three miles from Sheerness ,
where the island of Sheppey is divided from the main
land by the creek or channel termed the Swale . Its
original name was Middleton ; but , somehow or other
-for , as Napoleon said of Gibraltar , ‘ it opens nothing ,
shuts nothing , leads to nothing ‘ – Queen Philippa ,
consort of Edward III . , happening to land there , that
monarch , in honour of the event , gave it the name of
Queenborough .

Considering it an advantageous place
for commerce , Edward gave the town a charter , consti
tuting it a free and perpetual borough . The twenty
six houses then in the place were endowed with rich
pasture – lands , and the valuable oyster – fishery of the
Swale was given to the burgesses for ever .

The powers
granted to the mayor by this charter could be explained
only by a legal antiquary : suffice it to say , they were
about equal to those enjoyed by MacCallum More in
his castle of Inverary .

The English Justinian – as the third Edward has
been termed – thought , by granting these privileges , to
make Queenborough a great commercial port ; but he
was mistaken . As soon as they acquired these boons ,
the mayor and burgesses sat down to enjoy them , and
then commenced a petty squabbling as to who should
individually reap the greatest benefit from them . At
the same time , they carefully excluded foreigners – as
they denominated persons born out of the liberties
from any share .

Though from Edward , or at a sub
sequent period , Queenborough obtained the privilege
of sending two members to parliament , the town did
not improve . The petty squabbling continued till a
few years ago , when the last oyster was dredged up
out of the Swale , and the borough was L.17,000 in
debt , with a poor – rate of 9s . in the pound .

Some of the old court – books of the borough are
before us , and cause us to wonder as to the food eaten
by the inhabitants in the olden time . Did they lite
rally , as well as metaphorically speaking , live upon
oysters alone ? -for we find no crime so frequently
punished as that of being a common butcher , or ‘ a
common baker of human bread . ‘

Scolds , too , and
foreigners , met with no mercy . One John Clarke was
apprehended for being a Scotchman , as is supposed ; “
and on this mere suspicion , it is commanded that he
be kept in safe custody . ‘

But the mass of these records
are an endless course of litigation concerning the rights

of pasturage ; particularly something entitled ‘ surplus
pasturage , which , as none of the privileged seem to
know what it really meant , we may surely be excused
from attempting to explain .

Yet these were the pros
perous days of Queenborough : we must now come to
its decline and fall .

Under the date of 1799 , about forty years before the

borough , after long litigation in the higher courts , fell
into a hopeless state of insolvency , there appears in
the parish – books , by order of the corporation , the fol
lowing characteristic and ominous entry , which , as the
herald , and partially the cause , in all probability , of
the coming misfortunes , fully deserves a line to itself :
‘ No scooling to be paid . “

Forty shillings , only , was the yearly pittance doled to
the schoolmaster ; yet poor Queenborough , with its rich
pasturage and fishery , decreed ‘ no scooling to be paid . “

We should mention here , also , that the borough derived
considerable emolument from its privilege of returning
two members to parliament .

Hasted , the historian of
Kent , writing in the last century , says : ‘ Queenborough
consists of one principal wide street , containing about
150 houses . The principal source of wealth to it is
the election for members of parliament , which secures
to some of the chief inhabitants many lucrative places
in the Ordnance and other branches of government . “

In fact , it may be said that for many years the Board
of Ordnance nominated the members for the borough .
Whatever the original constitution of the borough
may have been , the entire control of the property and
expenditure of the corporation ultimately fell into the
hands of seven persons – the mayor , four jurats , and
two bailiffs , who elected each other as they thought
proper .

The mayor was elected by these persons
writing the name of their choice on a piece of paper ,
which was folded up and given into the hands of the
town – clerk , whose office had become almost hereditary .
The town – clerk then went home , and opening the
papers , announced the result of the election by sending
the serjeant – at – mace with a goose to the house of the
person who had the majority of votes ! We are quoting
from parliamentary blue – books , and , consequently ,
trust our readers will not think we are presuming to
jest with them .

The mayors were generally re – elected
for considerable periods . One held office as long as
twenty years ; and as he was ex officio returning – officer
for the borough , this practice was decidedly illegal .

The burgesses had no voice in the management of the
corporation affairs ; and , being almost all employed in
the oyster – fishery , termed themselves free – dredgers
though , in fact , they were little better than the serfs
of the select seven , who formed the governing body .

The principal advantage of the oyster – fishery con
sisted in the possession of the Swale as a rearing and
feeding ground for these popular shell – fish .

spring , a quantity of the spat , or young brood , was
purchased by the corporation , and deposited in the
Swale , where , in the course of a few years , they grew
to be marketable oysters of a peculiarly excellent
flavour .

A successional course of beds , of different
aged oysters , were thus kept up , and a regular spring
supply of spat was absolutely necessary to carry out
the system .

The free – dredgers were employed in
depositing the spat and dredging up the oysters .
corporation sold the oysters , and allowed the dredgers
a participation in the profits , in the shape of wages ,
varying in amount according to the prices obtainable
at market , the favourable or adverse state of the
weather , and the many other casualties ever attendant
on a somewhat precarious speculation .

The machinery
of an irresponsible municipal corporation is little
adapted to carry on a purely commercial undertaking .
As no fund , even in the most prosperous seasons , was
ever reserved for contingencies , and the yearly feast
described by Taylor , and the seven annual dinners
given by the mayor to the corporation magnates , were
attended with considerable expense , it may readily be
supposed that in some springs there was not sufficient

money in hand to stock the beds .

Money , then , ha
to be borrowed , on the security of the ensuing winter
fishing . This was a system very easy to begin , bu
very difficult to leave off ; and so the corporation foun
it .

From occasionally borrowing small sums at firs
they at length were compelled , about 1815 , to borrow
from five to ten thousand pounds every spring , for the
purpose of replenishing the oyster – beds ; and from th
legal expenses in preparing the bonds , and other causes
they seldom paid less than ten per cent . for the use a
the money .

The free – dredgers , having a very high idea of thei
rights and privileges , never condescended to perform
any other kind of labour ; and , as their families increase
in number , while the oysters decreased , the yearl
interest payable for stocking the beds became a very
heavy tax upon their earnings .

In short , they fell
into poverty ; and as poverty begets discontent , they
became rebellious to the select seven . The mayor , too
at this period , an active and energetic man , having
great faith in the efficacy of the cart – whip and loaded
pistols , inflamed rather than allayed the increasing
discontent .

Two parties were formed in the borough
the party of the governing body , and that of the free
dredgers . The only two public – houses in the place
were the head – quarters of each . No dredger would
enter or taste the beer of the corporation – house ; while
mo corporation – man would enter or taste the beer of the
tredgers – house .

Though it was absolutely necessary .
or the success of the fishery , that certain rules and
by – laws should be observed , the dredgers resisted the
regulations of the governing body , committing acts for
the mere purposes of annoyance ; while the select seven

treated the dredgers in a most oppressive manner

When the dredgers locked up the select seven for
whole day in the town – hall – when a dredger challenged
the mayor to a bout at fisticuffs – the governing body ,
instead of preferring indictments at the quarter – ses
sions , moved for criminal informations at the court of
King’s Bench , merely to distress and intimidate their
opponents .

The little money the dredgers had saved
was soon expended in law – expenses ; and then the
governing body , after expending some thousands of
pounds of the corporation – money in law – costs , made
still more stringent by – laws , which debarred the most
obnoxious of the dredgers from any employment at the
fishery .

After a seven years ‘ continuous course of law
proceedings between the dredgers and the governing
body , it may easily be supposed that the lawyers had
prospered much better than the oyster – beds .

Such was the condition of affairs , and a severe winter
had reduced the oppressed and contumacious dredgers
to the most abject poverty , when they suddenly found
a benevolent , yet not altogether disinterested friend .
This gentleman established a soup – kitchen for their
relief , supplied the women with petticoats and blankets ,
and the men with Guernsey – shirts . Beer once more
was drawn and drank at the dredgers ‘ pot – house ;
tobacco , latterly an unattainable luxury , was chewed
and smoked ; and , more mysterious still , smack – loads
of dredgers were spirited away to London , where they
were feasted with rare viands and rich wines , and
introduced to men learned in the law , to whom they
related their rights and their wrongs .

evidently was in the wind ; but the select seven rested
in fancied security , little aware of the storm that
was brewing .

At last , a free – dredger brought an
action at law against the governing body , to try
their right of making the obnoxious by – laws . The
dredger who brought this action , though previ
pusly in poverty , engaged , at three – hundred – guinea
briefs , the serjeants most skilled in municipal law ;
and the Great Fishery Case , as the Kentish people
termed it , came on at Maidstone assizes .

than a hundred dredgers appeared as witnesses on
their side ; but , being interested parties , their evidence

could not be received .

The governing body , however ,
disfranchised their officers , so that they could give
evidence , recompensing the disfranchised with a pen
sion of a shilling a day for life , and enfranchising them
again immediately after the trial .

This was most
certainly a twofold act of injustice , as it tended to
corrupt the witnesses , and was an undue application of
the corporation funds . Even the mayor was not above
taking a pension of a shilling a day for life ; and so
often was he disfranchised and enfranchised , in a short
period , for the purpose of giving evidence , that he was
five times elected to the mayoralty in one year !

select body did not gain much by the disfranchising
move , the counsel on both sides depending more on
old charters and other documents , than vied voce
evidence .

The trial lasted three days ; then the jury
were locked up ; and on the fourth gave their verdict ,
declaring the title of the corporation to the fishery to
be affirmed , but their by – laws to be unreasonable .

The free – dredgers , accepting this as a verdict in
their favour , returned in triumph to Queenborough .

The next day , with colours flying , and amidst the
firing of guns and an unlimited consumption of beer ,
they manned their boats , proceeded to the fishing
ground , caught some oysters , and eating them on the
spot , thus , as they considered , took possession of and
proved their lawful rights .

Where the money came
from to carry on this expensive trial on the dredgers ‘
side , and to supply so many barrels of beer and pounds
of tobacco , was a mystery soon to be solved . The
money spent by the corporation on the action , of
course came out of the fast – diminishing oyster – beds .

Shortly after the trial , a dissolution of parliament
took place , and who was so fit to represent the free
dredgers as the benevolent gentleman who had so
nobly befriended them ! Accordingly , a deputation
waited on him ; was favourably received ; and , for the
first time during many years , the Ordnance interest in
the borough met with opposition .

The governing body
were astounded ; the number of voters were about 300 ,
while the free – dredgers numbered 155 ; besides , many
of the burgesses , who would have voted in the Ordnance
interest , were snugly installed in its employment , and ,
consequently , being servants of the government , were
ineligible as voters .

The select seven , however , were not inactive . Bur
gesses were made and unmade , and recourse was had
to every electioneering trick that could be put in
practice .

At last the day of election came . The
nominees of the Ordnance Board were proposed and
seconded by the mayor and corporation ; the benevolent
gentleman by two free – dredgers , who also were dissent
ing preachers . The voters came to the poll but slowly .

To the dismay of the benevolent gentleman and his
agent , the free – dredgers were nowhere to be seen : they
had rolled off some of the barrels of beer gratuitously
supplied on such occasions , and having taken posses
sion of an empty store – house , were deliberating , with
closed doors , as to which of the candidates they should
vote for .

Here was gratitude ; but , as one of the
deliberators told us , ‘ every man has a right to do the
best for himself .

The agent of the Ordnance interest
first discovered where the dredgers had retired . He
went , knocked at the door , was admitted , and offered
certain reasons for their voting on his side ; their reply
was : ‘ We are no scholars , sir . The agent of the bene
volent gentleman next discovered where they were ,
and he also advanced sundry reasons ; which , being
considered valid , the dredgers marched up to the poll
in a body , and the Ordnance interest received its first
blow in Queenborough .

We have asked the old free-
dredger above referred to , wherein consisted the supe
riority between the reasons of the Ordnance agent
and those of the agent of his benevolent friend ; but
his only reply was a wink and a grin , and that subsi
dence into stolid taciturnity so often met with among

people of his class . We have been told , however , that
the reasons advanced by the Ordnance agent were
merely pieces of paper , on which certain words and
figures were impressed , but which the free – dredgers ,
not being able to read , could not clearly understand ;
whereas the reasons proffered by the more astute agent
of the benevolent gentleman were round , yellow pieces
of metal , whose validity were easily comprehensible to
the most illiterate .

As soon as the benevolent gentle
man found himself in parliament , he brought in a bill
to regulate the fishery , which the select seven spent a
considerable sum in opposing .

But another dissolu
tion took place ; another election followed , with a simi
lar result ; and then the besom of destruction , in the
shape of the Reform Bill , swept Queenborough into
schedule A , where , it is to be hoped , it will remain
until it becomes the great commercial entrepôt Edward
III . designed it to be .

In 1829 , the mayor , who had ruled during the
troubled period from 1815 , died . This person invariably
wore two watches , that he might never be mistaken in
the correct time ; he also , for the last seven years of
his life , always carried a pair of loaded pistols , which
he openly exhibited , avowing his intention to shoot
any one who dared to molest him .

Every person in
Queenborough not too young , too old , or too feeble ,
attended his funeral . As the clergyman was reading
the impressive burial – service of the English Churchi ,
when he came to the solemn words , ‘ Earth to earth ,
ashes to ashes , dust to dust , ‘ and the clerk , as is
customary , was throwing a handful of earth into the
grave , a shower of half – pence was flung in upon the
coffin by part of the assembled crowd . To the inquiring
look of the astounded clergyman , they cried out that
the coppers were to pay the deceased mayor’s passage
to a place unmentionable to ears polite .

That night
the free – dredgers illuminated their houses , and smashed
the windows of those who did not ; while those who
did not illuminate , retorted by smashing the windows
of those who did .

This riot – a practical commentary
on the text , ‘ No scooling to be paid ‘ – was another
rare catch for the lawyers from the oyster – beds of
Queenborough .

In 1830 , the corporation were L.20,000 in debt ,
L.11,000 of which were law – expenses . They paid off
the whole of this debt , but were unable to stock the
oyster – beds that year .

The following year , however ,
the beds were stocked ; and in the five years from 1833
to 1838 , the fishery yielded a gross revenue of L.58,000 .

But the corporation and free – dredgers had so long
enjoyed the expensive luxury of going to law , that it
would seem as if they could not exist without it . In
short , the lawyers were destined to swallow up the
oysters , shells and all .

In 1838 , the corporation
stocked the beds for the last time ; and two years
afterwards – being L.12,000 in debt , and nobody inclined
to lend them any more – they prepared for the impend
ing insolvency by raising and selling the last remain
ing oysters ; so , when the sheriff of Kent appeared
upon the scene , there was nothing for him to seize and
sell but the paraphernalia of the corporation – their
books , mace , and cart – whip . The latter , so long the
terror of mischievous sailors , and other evildoers , now
lies , like a warrior taking his rest , on the library – shelf
of a Kentish antiquary .

The creditors , then , had no other resource than to
petition the legislature for its interference ; and ,
accordingly , a commissioner was appointed to inquire
into the affairs of the corporation . The commissioner
found that the debt , with interest , amounted to nearly
L.17,000 ; and the result of his report was , that parlia
ment , in 1844 , passed an act , vesting the property and
privileges of the borough in the hands of trustees ,
until its debts should be paid .

This act at once
restored peace to the conflicting parties in Queen
borough , for they unanimously united to embarrass and

thwart the trustees as much as possible .

The oyster
fishery was gone ; but still there remained the time
honoured bone of contention , ‘ surplus pasturage , to
go to law about . So the debt is still L.17,000 , the
trustees being compelled to expend L.4000 in law – costs ,
contending with the litigious people , whose mismanaged
property they are endeavouring to improve .

But as , by
an act of last year’s parliament , Queenborough Common
has fallen into the possession of the Inclosure Com
missioners , it is probable that the question of ‘ surplus
pasturage ‘ has at last been set to rest for ever .

conclusion , we need scarcely observe , that , like Sam
Weller’s friend , the Chancery prisoner in the Fleet ,
who was ruined by having an estate left to him , so
Queenborough was prevented from rising in the world ,
and ultimately brought to utter ruin , through having
been granted privileges .

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