Sheerness (pronounced /ˈʃɪərnɪs/) is a town located beside the mouth of the River Medway on the northwest corner of the Isle of Sheppey in north Kent, England. With a population of 12,000 it is the largest town on the island.
Sheerness began as a fort built in the 16th century to protect the River Medway from naval invasion. In 1665, plans were first laid by the Navy Board for a Royal Navy dockyard where warships might be provisioned and repaired, a site favoured by Samuel Pepys, then Clerk of the Acts of the navy, for shipbuilding over Chatham.
After the raid on the Medway in 1667, the older fortification was strengthened; in 1669 was established the Royal Navy dockyard in the town, where warships were stocked and repaired until its closure in 1960.
Beginning with the construction of a pier and a promenade in the 19th century, Sheerness acquired the added attractions of a seaside resort. Industry retains its important place in the town and the port of Sheerness is one of the United Kingdom's leading car and fresh produce importers. The town is the site of one of the UK's first co-operative societies and also of the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame.
The first structure in what is now Sheerness was a fort built by order of Henry VIII to prevent enemy ships from entering the River Medway and attacking the naval dockyard at Chatham. In 1666 work began to replace it with a stronger fort. However, before its completion, this second fort was destroyed during the 1667 Dutch raid on the Medway.
Dutch Raid on the River Medway
The Secretary of the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys, subsequently ordered the construction of a naval dockyard at Sheerness as an extension to that at Chatham, where naval ships would be maintained and repaired. Low quality housing and the poor water supply near the dockyard led to a lack of workers and caused construction delays, and the first dry-dock was not completed until 1708.
Blue Town Plaque
Using materials they were allowed to take from the yard, dockyard construction workers built the first houses in Sheerness. The grey-blue naval paint they used on the exteriors led to their homes becoming known as the Blue Houses. This was eventually corrupted to Blue Town, the modern name of northwest area of Sheerness.
From the completion of the dockyard until 1960 Sheerness was one of the bases of the Nore Command of the Royal Navy, which was responsible for protecting British waters in the North Sea. The command was named after the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary, about 3 miles (5 km) east of Sheerness. In 1797, discontented sailors in the Royal Navy mutinied just off the coast of Sheerness.
Sheerness beach with the chimney of the Grain power station in the distance
By 1801 the population of the Minster-in-Sheppey parish, which included both Sheerness and the neighbouring town of Minster, reached 5,561. In 1816, one of the UK's first co-operative societies was started in Sheerness, chiefly to serve the dockyard workers and their families. The Sheerness Economical Society began as a co-operative bakery but expanded to produce and sell a range of goods. By the middle of the 20th century, the society had spread across the Isle of Sheppey and had been renamed the Sheerness and District Cooperative Society.
In the early 1820s a fire destroyed many buildings at the dockyard, including all the Blue Houses. New houses and a major redevelopment of the dockyard followed. On 5 September 1823, the rebuilt dockyard was formally opened by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV). A high brick wall and a moat were constructed around the yard to serve as a defence measure and remained in place until the end of the 19th century. As the settlement expanded eastwards, away from the dockyard and the Blue Houses, the wider area became known as Sheerness, taking its new name from the brightness or clearness of the water at the mouth of the River Medway. Completed in 1860 and still standing today, the Sheerness Boat Store was the world's first multi-storey building with a rigid metal frame. In 1863, mains water was installed in the town, and the Isle of Sheppey's first railway station opened at the dockyard. Towards the end of the 19th century, Sheerness achieved official town status and formed its own civil parish, separate from Minster-in-Sheppey. The 1901 Census recorded the Sheerness parish as having 18,179 residents and 2,999 houses.
The town's low rainfall and ample sunshine made it popular as a seaside resort, with tourists arriving by steamboat and train. The Sheppey Light Railway opened in 1901, connecting the new Sheerness East station with the rest of the island. However, by 1950, lack of demand led to the railway's closure. The Sheerness tramway, which opened in 1903, only lasted until 1917.
Terraced houses near the seafront
In 1944 the United States cargo ship SS Richard Montgomery ran aground and sank 1 mile (1.6 km) off the coast of Sheerness, with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board. Due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo have never been salvaged; if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. A 2004 report published in New Scientist warned that an explosion could occur if sea water penetrated the bombs.
HMS London leaves Sheerness
In March 1960 the Royal Navy ceased operating the Sheerness dockyard and the Medway Port Authority took over the site for commercial use. The dockyard closure led to thousands of job losses, and most of the nearby houses and shops in the Bluetown area were eventually abandoned and demolished. By the 1961 census, the population of Sheerness had fallen to 13,691. The dockyard closure also led to the decline of the Sheerness and District Cooperative Society, as many of its members were dockyard workers. At the time, the society was the island's main retailer, but it has since been reduced to a few shops and been merged with a larger society. As of 2007, Bluetown is an industrial area, and Sheerness has become the largest port in the UK for motor imports.
Dr Richard Beeching (later Lord Beeching), the first chairman of the British Railways Board, was born in Sheerness in 1913. The programme of railway closures in the 1960s became known as the Beeching Axe.
The Hundred Acre Mill
Sheerness has had four windmills. They were the Little Mill, a smock mill that was standing before 1813 and burnt down on 7 February 1862; The Hundred Acre Mill, a small tower mill which was last worked in 1872 and demolished in 1878 leaving a base which remains today; The Great Mill, a smock mill, the building of which was started in 1813 and completed in 1816, which was demolished in 1924 leaving the base, upon which a replica mill body is being built to serve as flats. On 23 January 2008 a fire started in the mill tower. The fire was later declared not to have been a case of arson; Sheerness and Kent police have since confirmed that the fire was Arson related. Little is known of the fourth windmill, said to have been a vertical axle windmill designed by Stephen Hooper
Sheerness is located at 51°26′28″N 0°45′39″E / 51.44111°N 0.76083°E / 51.44111; 0.76083 (51.441, 0.7605), in the northwest corner of the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent.
Map showing Sheerness in the NorthWest of Sheppey opposite the Isle of Grain
To the north, sandy beaches run along the coast of the Thames Estuary.
River Thames Lower Section
To the west, the outlet of the River Medway flows into the Estuary. An area of wetlands known as The Lappel lies between the river and the southwestern part of town.
Marshland lies to the south and the east. The main rock type of the Isle of Sheppey is London Clay, which covers most of North Kent. Along with most of the Kent coast, the uninhabited coastal areas of the island have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, due to their wildlife and geological features.
The nearest towns to Sheerness are Minster, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east, and Queenborough, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south. The villages of Minster-on-Sea and Halfway Houses are 1 mile (1.6 km) to the southeast, and the village of Grain is 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west, across the River Medway.
The main commercial and leisure areas of the town are located around the north coast, where there is easy access to the pleasure beach. The industrial areas are in the west, beside the wetlands and the River Medway.
Port of Sheerness
The Bluetown industrial area and the Port of Sheerness are in the northwestern part of the town. The residential districts of Mile Town and Marine Town are in the central and the eastern areas respectively.
The mean annual temperature in Sheerness is 10 °C (50 °F). The average annual maximum temperature is 14 °C (57 °F), and the average annual minimum temperature is 6 °C (43 °F). The warmest time of the year is July and August, when maximum temperatures average 21 °C (70 °F). The coolest time of the year is January and February, when minimum temperatures average 2 °C (36 °F).
The average annual rainfall in Sheerness is 28 inches (711 mm). The average annual duration of sunshine is 1,700 hours; the months May to August have the most hours of sunshine. On average, there are fewer than six days of lying snow per year, and 16 days with thunder per year.
Sheerness steel mill
The Port of Sheerness is a significant feature of the Isle of Sheppey's economy. Covering more than 1.5 million square meters, it is one of the largest foreign car importers in the UK, and it handles thousands of tonnes of fruits and meat products from all over the world. Inexpensive land and good infrastructure, including a rail network that branches off the main passenger line, have attracted industries to the port area, including producers of pharmaceuticals, steel, sausages and garden gnomes. The major employers are HBC Engineering Solutions, Sheerness Steel, Regis Furniture and The Bond Group.
The steel mill was established in 1972, designed to recycle scrap steel into rods and coils. It has survived a number of closure threats and changes of ownership. Since 2003 it has been operated by Thamesteel.
London Stone on the Yantil
Sheerness Ferry Terminal
The seafront is popular with tourists, and as of 2007 Sheerness' recently refurbished town centre had more than 200 shops.
As of the 2001 UK census, 35.8% of residents aged 16–74 were employed full-time, 11.6% part-time, 5.8% self-employed and 6.2% unemployed, while 1.5% were students with jobs, 3.4% students without jobs, 11.9% retired, 10.6% looking after home or family, 8.5% permanently sick or disabled and 4.8% economically inactive for other reasons. The unemployment rate of 6.2% was high compared to the national rate of 3.4% and was the highest rate throughout the Swale district. Five percent of Sheerness residents aged 16–74 had a higher education qualification compared to 20% nationally.
Employment by industry was 22% manufacturing; 18% retail; 10% construction; 10% transport and communications; 9% real estate; 8% health and social work; 6% public administration; 5% education; 5% hotels and restaurants; 1% finance; 1% agriculture; 1% energy and water supply; and 4% other community, social or personal services. Compared to national figures, Sheerness had a relatively high percentage of workers in manufacturing, transport and communications, and a relatively low percentage in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, education, health, social work and finance
Garrison point seen from the Isle of Grain
Sheerness' sand and shingle beach was awarded a European Blue Flag for cleanliness and safety. Flower gardens decorate the seafront, and a sea wall forms a promenade along the coast. The Sheppey Leisure Complex located near the beach contains a swimming pool and badminton, squash and tennis courts.
Sports clubs include Sheerness Town Bowls Club, Sheerness East Cricket Club, Beachfields Skatepark, Sheerness East Table Tennis Club, Catamaran Yacht Club, and Sheerness Swimming Club and Lifeguard Corps. Sheerness Golf Club was founded in 1906, and has an 18-hole course just to the southeast of town. Sheerness East Football Club, established in 1932, play in the Kent County League Premier Division. Sports can be played for free at the town's recreation grounds at Beachfields Park, Festival Playing Field, and Seager Road Sports Ground.
Sheerness has a library and clubs for photography, music, singing, dancing and writing. There are two local newspapers: the Sheerness Times Guardian, which provides news related only to the town, and the Sheppey Gazette, which provides news on the wider Sheppey area. Kent Messenger Group owns the Sheerness Times. Guardian and Northcliffe Media owns the Sheppey Gazette. BRFM 95.6 FM provides radio coverage for the island.
Sheerness' town centre is home to the largest freestanding cast iron clock tower in Kent. It is 36 feet (11 m) tall and was built in 1902 at a cost of around £360 to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII. In 2002, the clock tower was restored to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.