Gravesend is an ancient town in northwest Kent, England, situated 21 miles (35 km) east south-east of Charing Cross (central London) on the south bank of the Thames estuary and opposite Tilbury in Essex. Located in the diocese of Rochester, it is the administrative centre of the Borough of Gravesham.
Its geographical situation has given Gravesend strategic importance throughout the maritime and communications history of south east England. A Thames Gateway commuter town, it retains strong links with the River Thames, not least through the Port of London Authority Pilot Station and has witnessed rejuvenation since the advent of High Speed train services via Gravesend railway station.
Gravesend is part of and is the principal town of the Borough of Gravesham. The borough was formed on 1 April 1974, under the Local Government Act 1972, by the merger of the Municipal Borough of Gravesend and Northfleet Urban District. Gravesend was incorporated as a Municipal Borough in 1835 under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and Northfleet was constituted an Urban District in 1894 under the Local Government Act 1894. Gravesend absorbed Milton-next-Gravesend in 1914, Denton (Gravesend), Chalk and part of Northfleet, including Claphall, Singlewell and King's Farm in 1935.
Stone Age implements have been found in the locality since the 1900s, as has evidence of an Iron Age settlement at nearby Springhead. Extensive Roman remains have been found at nearby Vagniacae; and Gravesend lies immediately to the north of the Roman road connecting London with the Kent coast – now called Watling Street. Domesday Book recorded mills, , and fisheries here.
Milton Chantry is Gravesend's oldest surviving building and dates from the early 14th century. It was refounded as a chapel in 1320/21 on the original site of a former leper hospital originally founded in 1189.
Gravesend has one of the oldest surviving markets in the country. Its earliest charter dates from 1268, with town status being granted to the two parishes of Gravesend and Milton by King Henry III in its Charter of Incorporation of that year. The first Mayor of Gravesend was elected in 1268, although the first Town Hall was not built until 1573, being replaced in 1764 with a new frontage added in 1836. Although it ceased to be a town hall in 1968 when the new Gravesend Civic Centre (Woodville Halls) was opened, it remains in use as Magistrates' Courts, and in 2004, following a full refurbishment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and grants from Kent County Council and Gravesham Borough Council, the Old Town Hall now thrives as a venue for weddings and private functions as well as community and public events.
In 1401, a further Royal Charter was granted, allowing the men of the town to operate boats between London and the town; these became known as the "Long Ferry". It became the preferred form of passage, because of the perils of road travel (see below).
On 21 March 1617, John Rolfe and Rebecca (aka Princess Pocahontas) with their two-year-old son, Thomas, boarded a ship in London bound for the Commonwealth of Virginia; the ship had only sailed as far as Gravesend before Princess Pocahontas (alias Rebecca Rolfe) fell fatally ill, and she died when her body was taken ashore. It is not known what caused her death. Her funeral and burial took place on 21 March 1617 at the parish church of St George, Gravesend. The site of her grave is believed to be underneath the present church's chancel, though since the previous church was destroyed by fire in 1727 her exact resting place is unknown. Thomas Rolfe survived, but was placed under the supervision of Sir Lewis Stukley at Plymouth, before being adopted by his uncle, Henry Rolfe, squire of Heacham, whilst John Rolfe and his late wife's assistant Tomocomo reached America under the captaincy of Sir Samuel Argall's ship.
At Fort Gardens is the New Tavern Fort, built during the 1780s and extensively rebuilt by Major-General Charles Gordon between 1865 and 1879: it is now Chantry Heritage Centre, partly open-air, under the care of Gravesend Local History Society.
Journeys by road to Gravesend were historically quite hazardous, since the main London-Dover road crossed Blackheath, notorious for its highwaymen. Stagecoaches from London to Canterbury, Dover and Faversham used Gravesend as one of their "stages" as did those coming north from Tonbridge. In 1840 there were 17 coaches picking up and setting down passengers and changing horses each way per day. There were two coaching inns on what is now Old Road East: the Prince of Orange and the Lord Nelson. Post coaches had been plying the route for at least two centuries: Samuel Pepys records having stopped off at Gravesend in 1650 en route to the Royal Dockyards at Chatham.
Although a great deal of the town's economy continued to be connected with maritime trade, since the 19th century other major employers have been the cement and paper industries.
From 1932 to 1956, an airport was located to the east of the town. It began as a civilian airfield, but during World War II it became a Royal Air Force fighter station, RAF Gravesend, and so Gravesend was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. In 1956 the site was taken over by Gravesend Town Council; a large housing estate known as Riverview Park was built on its site. At 03:35 GMT on Sunday 5 February 1939, Alex Henshaw took off from Gravesend Airport at the start of his record-breaking flight to Cape Town and back. He completed the flight in 39 hours 36 minutes over the next four days; his record still stands.