At the heart of Chatham, a babbling brook… and sewer

The Brook is not one of Chatham’s prettier streets. The multi-storey car park scars the skyline; other brutalist architecture puts the boot into this ancient thoroughfare, named after the stream that flowed through it. Its past has been pretty sordid; probably more squalid than its grimy 21st-century existence.

The Brook has a poetical name, but even when water flowed through, it was for a prosaic purpose — to power the watermill built near Luton Arches before the Norman Conquest.

The stream — known as Old Bourne, the River Bourne and the Brook — flowed down the valley from a springhead near Luton, and powered the mill before emptying into the Medway. On the higher ground to the north, leading up to St Mary’s Church, were a small group of cottages, and these constituted the main part of Chatham in the 16th century.

Soon, Chatham grew, as the dockyard became more established, and within a century the tree-fringed banks of the Bourne became a building site for a number of homes, constructed largely of “chips”, a slang term for wood removed from the dockyard. Several footbridges crossed the stream — by now known as the Brook — notably one at Fair Row, a narrow thoroughfare that until reconstruction in the 1970s, linked the road to Chatham High Street.

The watermill fell out of use by the early 18th century, so the stream became merely decorative; its downfall, however, had begun. Many steep, narrow roads were built on the eastern side of the Brook, including  King Street and Slickett’s Hill, and during heavy rain much rubbish — and worse — was washed down into the river. Those who lived along its banks also used it to empty their chamber pots and dump dead animals.

Drink, sex, filth — just up Dickens’s alley

The Brook became a breeding place for disease and by 1800 — although small craft still navigated the pungent waterway — it had become little more than an open sewer, earning the new name, Town Ditch.

It became so rank than in 1824 sections of the ditch were bricked over to form an elementary sewer that emptied into the Medway near Gun Wharf. The Brook was rather mucky in another sense, too. This was the age of Britain as the greatest naval nation. Chatham was filled with sailors with two things on their mind: drink and sex. The Brook provided both.

The 1864 Ordnance Survey reveals that the Brook then had no fewer than nine pubs – from the Golden Lion on the northeastern corner of the higher ground, known then as Smithfield Bank, to the Bell, between Slickett’s Hill and the entrance to the High Street. Many were also doubled as brothels.

Charles Dickens lived next to the Wesleyan Chapel in 1821-22

Among all this vice stood a Catholic church opposite Smithfield Bank, a Wesleyan chapel, and the Ebenezer chapel, next to Bonny’s Alley, and almost opposite the Bell. During 1821-22 a young Charles Dickens lived in a wooden home next to the Wesleyan Chapel — 18 St Mary’s Place — which was considered something of a come-down from the previous Dickens home in Ordnance Terrace. It is the right-hand house of the semi-detached pair at the left of this photograph.

Pipe drains were laid about 1870, making the Brook a little less noisome. But the area still remained a slum and by the 1930s it still had such a low reputation that policemen patrolled in pairs. It was an eyesore, but piecemeal demolition in the 1940s and 1950s did little to improve the overall picture, and the Brook continued to decay.

The 1955 edition of Kelly’s Directory says that the Baptist church still survived as a printing company’s warehouse. The wooden houses of St Mary’s Place had been swept away, but the Duke of Cambridge still lingered on at the corner of Fair Row. Another pub, the Three Cups, still plied its trade. Most of the cottages were empty, unfit for human habitation.

Today, most of the buildings have been built over — but one sort of architectural monstrosity has been replaced with another.

My thanks to the historian Richard Green. Much of this feature is based on his 1982 feature, Chatham’s Lost River, published in Bygone Kent.

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11 Responses to At the heart of Chatham, a babbling brook… and sewer

  1. Y Feist says:

    In my youth 1940s I recall being told of a jeweller in the Brook, Chatham, to whom I was related. Could there have been one called Keelers, or Feist?

    Can anyone help? Would love to hear.

    Many thanks

    • Helen Ferris says:

      Hi Y Feist
      You are sort of right, my great Grandfather Henry Keeler managed a Pawn brokers in the Brook in the 1940s (i think) , your relation Eliza Fiest married his brother William in 1905.

  2. Peter Greening says:

    Hello
    I cannot answer your specific question but I grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Queen Street, just off of the Brook. My sister’s best friend at the time was a girl by the name of Kathy Feist who also had a brother Terry Feist. They lived in King Street which is the next road along from Queen Street. I don’t know what their father’s occupation was but I doubt that it was jeweller since the houses in King Street and Queen Street were council houses and none of the people were particularly well off. I don’t know if any of this helps but if you have any questions I will try to help if I can.
    Best Regards
    Peter Greening

  3. Peter Forrester says:

    Hi, My Grandfather ne Ernest William Douse was about aged 11 in 1901 and was living with his mother Martha ne Douse & Stepfather Frederick Jolly at a boarding house at 167 The Brook – The Bell Inn Chatham . There was a Henry Jolly living at 185 whom I assume was related? I know that Henry was running a brothel and as 167 was a boarding house as well as an Inn, was no doubt no better in this respect? The 1901 Census shows them living there at 167.
    Martha also had had a sister Mary and connections with Yeovil in Wiltshire. She may have come to stay at the Bell Inn from time to time.

    I am curious if anyone can add anything further to this history for my family tree. I had not expected such a facinating aspect to my family history!

    • Peter Forrester says:

      Hi, Again!

      I have made some progress since the previous entry and located the Birth Certificate of my Grandfather Ernest William Jolley ne: Douse, who was born in the Union, Medway Workhouse wher his mother was living and latterly lived at the Bell Inn, after his mother Martha Douse (b1872), married one Frederick Jolley in 1893. The Proprietor of the Bell Inn as also shown living there in the 1901 Census. The spelling of Jolly/Jolley seems to be interchangeably used.
      I am still trying to obtain the records of this period and of Martha’s Sister whom I have very little information but she did live in the Medway or Sheppey area for part of her younger life when she was in service.

      If anyone can throw further light or point me in the right direction on the information about the Douse/Jolley family it would be appreciated.

      Peter Forrester

  4. Tony Ward says:

    Hi
    I remember the Jolly family living in Cross Street (not so far from the Brook) in the 1940s. The one my age was Peter. He would be about 77 now

  5. Ken Johnson says:

    Hi I have recently been given a photo of an old pub, the sort of thing you see hanging on new pub walls, but there was no mention of where it was but after a bit of research I found this site and it seems to be the Bell in question as the name F. Jolley is written on the front wall. There are people standing outside, maybe some of the relatives? Anyway at least I know where the old pub was.

    • Peter Forrester says:

      Hi Ken Johnson,
      I would be very interested in a scanned copy please of the picture that you found of the Bell Inn as I have been unsuccessful in my research in the Medway Archives & Family History to locate one. (morcamation.mc@virgin.net). Please feel free to contact me.
      My research into the Joll(e)y & Douse (Dowse) family has revealed some very interesting history and particularly of my Great Grandmother Martha Dowse (Douse) (spelling used interchangeably on documents). Joyce Forrester Ne.Dowse (my Mother), is still alive at 98! (24.11.16).

      Martha, Frederick Jolley’s wife was born in Devizes Wiltshire in 1871 and had a twin Sister Mary Ann Dowse who lived in Edmonton, NE London in domestic service. Martha moved to Chatham around 1887/8, probably pregnant and lived shortly thereafter at The Union Workhouse where she gave birth to my Grandfather – Ernest William Dowse in 1888, whom subsequently Frederick Jolley adopted upon his marriage to Martha in 1893.
      Frederick Jolley died in 1935 at 70 and Martha Jolley lived until she was 79 and died in 1950. I have copy Certificates if anyone requires them.

  6. dave tutt says:

    One of my distant relatives used to work in one of the side streets that disappeared under the Pentagon. He was a stonemason working on headstones and was named Willmott which, given the name of the square in the Pentagon would seem somewhat an unlikely coincidence!

    I also remember there being an article in the Evening Post about the sewers under the Brook where can be seen the remaining inlet of water from what was the original Brook. This goes back to the 70s or 80s, I guess, so the chances of finding the records and pictures from then are remote!

    Similarly I am curious as to the state of what are known as Chatham caves behind Pembrook House at the far end of the High Street and how they link into the tunnel system that starts just the other side of Luton Arches. Anyone any thoughts or information on this and likewise anyone any idea if there are plans to see what it looks like down there?

    Regards

    Dave

  7. Terence Biddiss says:

    I lived the first years of my life at 22 Fair Row in Chatham. Whilst I have a couple of images of Fair Row, I would like to know if anyone has any that they could share with me. I am particularly interested in a pub called The Sir Colin Campbell (which was apparently at no.24 Fair Row). This pub was not there when I was there between 1953 and 1958. I thank you for reading this.

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