Sittingbourne is an industrial town about eight miles (12.9 km) east of Gillingham in England, beside the Roman Watling Street off a creek in the Swale, a channel separating the Isle of Sheppey from mainland Kent. The town is growing rapidly due to a number of large residential developments, and its train line links to London Victoria and HS1 to St Pancras International, the journey taking about an hour from Sittingbourne railway station.
Sittingbourne owes its name to a modernised version of an observation on its location. The town's name came from the fact that there is a small stream or "bourne" running underground in part of the town. Hasted writing in the 1790s in his History of Kent states that:
There is evidence of settlement in the area before 2000 BC, with farming and trading Celtic tribes living inland to avoid attack, yet close enough to access the sea at Milton Creek. In AD 43 the Romans invaded Kent, and to make access quicker between London and Dover, built Watling Street, which passed straight through Sittingbourne. As a point where sea access met road access, the port of Milton Regis became the Roman administrative centre for the area, with some 20 villas so far discovered, but Sittingbourne remained a minor hamlet throughout Roman times. Most Roman finds in this area were due to the efforts of 19th century brick makers who used topsoil to make bricks, and uncovered the finds; and preserved thanks to banker George Payne, who preserved or bought materials and published his works in 1893 in Collectanca Cantiana.
Middle Age Hostelry
There was no entry for Sittingbourne in Domesday book in 1086, merely a note attached to Milton with a population of 309. However, after the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket in 1170, pilgrims began to travel to Canterbury Cathedral and Sittingbourne became a useful hostelry for many travellers. Sittingbourne is mentioned as a stopping point in The Canterbury Tales, with the Summoner in the Wife of Bath's Prologue says:
At this time, the 13th century Parish of St Michael church was constructed, and the High Street contained 13 pubs and hostels. The Lyon - now the Red Lion - played host to King Henry V of England on his way back from the Battle of Agincourt, and Henry VIII visited Sittingbourne in 1522 and 1532. In 1708 the Rose Inn was built, described by a noted traveller as one of the best in England, where Queen Victoria later stayed overnight.
Railway and industrial revolution
After the railway came in 1858, Sittingbourne became less a market trading and hostelry stop-off, and more a 19th-century centre of production to fuel the expansion of London, by producing bricks and paper from its clay substrata.
The First World War
The area around Sittingbourne was subject to constant air raids by Zeppelins and aeroplanes during the First World War. The Germans used the town as a reference point for bearings on the way to London.
The first visit by a German aeroplane happened on Christmas Day 1914. Guns at Sheerness fired at the lone invader but still one shell dropped into a field at Iwade. The next event was to occur on 16 January 1915 when another solitary pilot from a German aerodrome in Belgium bombed Sittingbourne. This aircraft, a Taube, was pursued by two local airmen, but managed to escape after dropping a couple of bombs.
About 100 air raid warnings were sounded in Sittingbourne during the First World War and anti-aircraft batteries were strengthened in 1917. The last big raid to pass over the town on Whit Sunday (19 May 1918), carried out by a number of Gothas, eliciting perhaps the most ferocious barrage from the ground defences the town had ever seen.
The local newspaper, the East Kent Gazette, reported:
The second Gotha was surrounded by British fighters shortly after, returning from a successful raid on London.
Donald John Dean VC OBE born and bred in Sittingbourne was awarded the Victoria Cross for deeds carried out in France in 1918 and is buried in the graveyard of Tunstall church.