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 Eurostar railway station at Ebbsfleet, the arrival of the High Speed train service at Gravesend station itself and the town's position in the Thames Gateway, added to the town's importance.
Stone Age implements have been found in the area, 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 their 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 elected in that year, although the first town hall was in place by 1573: it was replaced in 1764. 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 continued in use as the Magistrates' Courts. In 2004 it was disused, and its future is under discussion.
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 archaeological remains of a riverside fort built at the command of Henry VIII in 1543. 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.