Gravesend is a town in northwest Kent, England, on the south bank of the Thames, opposite Tilbury in Essex. It is the administrative town of the Borough of Gravesham and, because of its geographical position, has always had an important role in the history and communications of this part of England. It still retains a strong link with the river. The opening of the international railway station immediately west of the town at Ebbsfleet Valley, the arrival of High Speed train services to and from Gravesend railway station itself, and the town's position in the Thames Gateway, have all added to the town's importance.
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 area since the 1900s, as has the evidence of an Iron Age settlement at nearby Springhead. Extensive Roman remains have been found nearby, at Vagniacae (Springhead); and Gravesend lies immediately to the north of the Roman road connecting London with the east Kent coast – now called Watling Street. Domesday Book recorded mills, hythes, and fisheries here.
In the Fort Gardens is Milton Chantry, Gravesend's earliest extant building, dating from the late 13th century. It was refounded about 1321 on the site of a hospital founded in 1189. At the time it was supported by lands in Essex.
Gravesend has one of the oldest surviving markets in the country, its earliest charter dating from 1268. Town status was granted to the two parishes of Gravesend and Milton; the Charter of Incorporation was received in that year. The first Mayor of Gravesend was also elected in that year, although the first town hall was not built until 1573: it was replaced in 1764 and a new frontage was built in 1836. Although its use as a town hall came to an end in 1968, when the new Civic Centre was opened, it remained in use as the Magistrates' Courts. In 2004 it became disused but, following a full refurbishment paid for with lottery money and grants from Kent County Council and Gravesham Borough Council, the Old Town Hall is now a thriving venue that is used for weddings and private functions as well as community and public events.
In 1380, during the Hundred Years' War, Gravesend was sacked and burned by a Castilian fleet.
In 1401, a Royal Grant was issued, 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 the road journey (see below).
On the river front are the remains of a riverside fort built at the command of Henry VIII in 1543.
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship in London bound for Virginia; the ship had only sailed as far as Gravesend when Pocahontas became gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died in John Rolfe's arms at the age of twenty-two. It is not known what caused her death. Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617, in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. The site of her grave is thought to be underneath the church's chancel, though since that church was destroyed in a fire in 1727 her exact gravesite is unknown.
At Fort Gardens is the New Tavern Fort built during the 1780s and extensively rebuilt by General Gordon between 1865 and 1879: it is now a museum, partly open-air, under the care of the Gravesend Local History Society.
Journeys by road to Gravesend were once 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 in the New Road: the New Prince of Orange and the Lord Nelson. Stagecoaches had been plying the route for at least two centuries: Samuel Pepys records having stopped off at Gravesend in 1650.
From 1932 to 1956, an airport was located to the east of the town. It began as a civilian field, but during World War II it became a Royal Air Force fighter station, RAF Gravesend, and the town was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. In 1956 the site was taken over by the town council; the large 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.