Rochester is a city of great antiquity. There was a settlement of some importance here well before the Roman occupation of Britain in AD43. It was also the point where the ancient highway which later became part of the Roman Watling Street, forded the River Medway. The Romans almost certainly built the first bridge and fortified the town, which became known as Durobrivae – ‘The Stronghold by the Bridge’.
The first Christian church in Rochester was established in AD604 and Justus, a contemporary of St Augustine, was appointed its first Bishop. The Norman’s recognised Rochester’s strategic importance and a castle was built here soon after William’s Conquest of 1066. The city received its first charter, from King Richard I, in 1190.
Over the centuries, many of England’s Kings and Queens have visited Rochester. In 1540, King Henry VIII came to get a glimpse of the woman who was to be his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Queen Elizabeth I came to Rochester in 1573, staying at the Crown Inn (still standing at the bridge end of Rochester High Street, albeit much changed). She also stayed at the home of Richard Watts, Member of Parliament for Rochester and the founder of the Watts Charity that still runs today. Watts’ former home is still known as ‘Satis House’ in tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s comment when asked how she had enjoyed her stay.
James I visited the city three times in the early 17th Century. In 1625, Charles II passed through on his way to Dover with his future bride Princess Henrietta of France. In 1660, Charles stayed overnight at the home of Sir Francis Clerke, prior to his restoration to the throne. The house, known since then as ‘Restoration House’, was the inspiration for Miss Haversham’s house in Dickens’ Great Expectations. In 1688, James II was a semi prisoner at a house in the High Street before his final escape by boat to France (this house, known as ‘Abdication House’, currently houses a bank).
In1836, Princess later Queen Victoria took refuge from a storm and stayed overnight at the Bull Hotel with her mother the Duchess of Kent. Then in 1855, Victoria returned, accompanied by Prince Albert, to visit wounded Crimean War soldiers at Fort Pitt Military Hospital. King George VI visited the Short Brothers Airplane Works on Rochester Esplanade with his wife the future Queen Mother in 1938 and in more recent years, HM Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family have visited the city on a number of occasions including with Prince Philip in 1984 to view improvements to Rochester High Street.
Many other historical personalities have lived, visited and stayed in Rochester over the years. Samuel Pepys visited Rochester and Chatham in 1661 and again in 1667 to view the damage done by the Dutch Fleet following its attack on Chatham Dockyard. William Hogarth stayed at the Crown in 1732 and Dr Johnson visited in 1783.
The personality most often associated with Rochester is novelist Charles Dickens. He spent his early childhood in Chatham, where his father John was employed as Clerk to the Pay Office. The young Dickens and his father would go for long walks through the surrounding countryside and it was on these walks that Charles first saw and admired Gad’s Hill Place in nearby Higham. This house, about four miles from Rochester on the road to Gravesend, was to become Dickens’ home from 1859 until his death in 1870.
Rochester features in Dickens’ work more than any other town except London, either by its own name or a fictitious one – ‘Cloisterham’ in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ and ‘Dullborough’ in the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’. Many of the buildings mentioned in his novels can still be seen in the city today and are instantly recognisable from their descriptions.
Another notable Rochester resident was Dame Sybil Thorndike, the celebrated actress, who lived with her family in Minor Canon Row when her father was a canon at Rochester Cathedral.
The River Medway divides the County of Kent in two, separating the ‘Men of Kent’ on the East Bank from the ‘Kentish Men’ on the West. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the familiar Spritsail barges in their hundreds plied their trade on the river carrying various cargoes, including cement from the numerous works that lined the river. A number of these vessels are in private preservation and can on occasion be seen on the river.
Other world renowned companies to have been based in Rochester include the aforementioned Short Brothers who from 1914 to 1948 manufactured their famous flying boats on the Medway. On the opposite side of the river Aveling and Porter produced more steam rollers than all the other manufacturer’s in the world combined. They exported engines as far afield as India and South America. Indeed an Aveling and Porter engine was used to lay the roads in Central Park, New York.
Today, the ancient city is administered by Medway Council, a unitary authority created in 1998, encompassing Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham as well as a number of rural parishes.
Rochester, with its long and fascinating history, lies at the heart of the area in every sense of the word.