Those of us attending St Botolph’s School in the latter part of the 1940s were particularly familiar with The Hill, always rightly regarded as the old centre of Northfleet undoubtedly because of the Church that had been first erected there as far back as Saxon times. As I grew older I realized that originally the area around the Church would have fallen gently towards the Thames on one side and the Ebbsfleet on the other but of course I did not realise that as a child, neither did I understand that it was the concentrated excavation of chalk during the nineteenth century that left The Hill I knew standing cut off, stranded on a summit like a man-made industrial mountain peak. I thought things had always been as I knew them to be even though my grandmother spoke from time to time of the green fields present in her own grandmother’s time. But then she also spoke a lot of nonsense as I well knew and little heed was generally paid to her comments.
Old Maudie who lived in one of the now long gone cottages on The Hill and whose full name we never knew was once heard in conversation with Mr Will Clarke who had come to the school to teach us in about 1947, telling him the history of the place. He had been a Japanese POW and therefore was the kind of man who would be interested. She maintained that until the 1830s there was a pound and stocks where the Catholic Church then stood and still does. Originally these sites of medieval punishment had been on the Village Green in front of St Botolph’s lych gate. The pound was a small building made of the new-fangled bricks with a tiled roof and the stocks were somewhat closer to The Leather Bottel pub which was where the Parish Beadle doled out suitable punishments to those who deserved it. Old Maudie said that foul mouthed women were often put in the stocks and passers- by threw unmentionable objects at them. My friend Molly said that although people were said to throw eggs at those they disapproved of, it definitely wouldn’t be eggs because they were too expensive. We decided it was probably stones although Siddy Ribbins suggested dog turds. I wondered if my grandmother would have been considered foul mouthed enough to qualify for the stocks but didn’t like to ask anybody’s opinion. We learned that you also headed for the stocks if you misbehaved in Church although none of us could imagine what that misbehaviour might entail. Giving trouble in the Workhouse also might see you end up there if you weren’t careful . None of us in Mr Clarke’s class were sure if the Workhouse was still in existence. It was David Reynolds whose father had something important to do with Northfleet Station who finally asked him the question and we were told that the Workhouse in nearby Gravesend had been closed for almost fifty years and was now St James’s Hospital. However, at one time Northfleet had boasted its very own Workhouse nearby at Granby Place, and probably built in about 1700. Originally a Mr Crakelt lived there and ran a boarding school for a while. Later a Mr Hewetson took the building over and by 1820 it had become the Northfleet Workhouse, its very own, which it remained for about twenty years. The building had disappeared completely by the late 1880s and the grounds had been incorporated into the churchyard.
We learned that in 1860 a tollgate was erected adjacent to the Leather Bottel and this had come about because of the railway. David Reynolds nodded and we felt that his family was more important than ever. The Turnpike Commissioners after long discussion decided that an additional gate was needed in an effort to boost funds which had been decreasing since the advent of the train service. The gate house was almost directly on the site of the Catholic Church and the siting itself infuriated local shopkeepers who were forced to pay a toll every time they ventured onto either Dover, London or Springhead roads. It only lasted a decade and was finally closed in 1871 when the office of the Turnpike Commissioners was itself disbanded. Local women heaved a sigh of relief because even those who could easily afford the toll were more than vexed by the fact that the gate was too narrow to easily accommodate their crinoline skirts.
These days the Roman Catholic Church stands out as a prominent feature on the local landscape. It was erected in 1914 on the site of the tram depot with a Mr Alfred Tolhurst providing the considerable sum of eight thousand pounds needed. Although I went to the church regularly once my father returned from the war, I always saw it as a grim and gloomy place and much preferred the welcoming warmth of Anglican St Botolph’s. Sometimes Molly and I went into the place simply to dare each other to touch the cold and dark statues without exhibiting fear. Once, accompanied by Kathleen McCarthy we were astonished to see her do so without a qualm and decided that being possessed of red hair was an advantage where courage was concerned.
Just beyond Mr Tolhurst’s forbidding religious structure was Penny, Son and Parker’s grocery, a place frequented by us all on a regular basis, a place where we queued patiently at least twice weekly to buy sugar to be weighed out into cones and broken biscuits and bacon. On one momentous occasion Molly and I dancing together along Springhead Road, she as Doris Day and me as Ginger Rogers found that the one pound note that had been at the bottom of the shopping basket when we set out had now disappeared. In total panic we searched each side of Springhead Road twice before returning to 31 York Road in terror to report the loss. And Molly’s long suffering mother with a shake of her head and a tear in her eye searched her purse and along the mantelpiece for replacement coins. We returned to Penny, Son and Parker’s in a more sober fashion, Molly clutching the coins in her right hand. It was shortly after this episode that the shop that had been serving the public for five decades, closed its doors for ever.
Once there had been old weatherboard cottages at 5 and 6 The Hill but they were demolished in the middle of the nineteenth century and replaced by two purpose built brick shops, one of which was a newsagents. My mother said that she remembered it being a Fancy Bazaar years before but I had no idea what a Fancy Bazaar might be. As well as newspapers and comics you could buy sherbert dabs and liquorice wood and acid drops in this particular establishment and Cut-Out Doll Books which were expensive at one and sixpence each but which I longed to own. Mrs Bassant, our neighbour said that years ago you didn’t need to buy your daily newspaper if you took The Times because you could borrow it for a penny and take it back when you’d finished reading it. When I asked her how long you could have the loan of it for she didn’t know but I thought it a very odd arrangement because news very soon became out of date even back in those days.
On the south east corner of the area that was once the Village Green and is now a car park, was a butcher’s shop that had been there for more than a hundred years and boasted its own slaughter house. The building had first been owned by one Mr Holker who did a great deal of upgrading and made improvements in 1790 and replaced the old fashioned weather boarding with smart new bricks. Old Maudie made mention that there had at one time been talk of the slaughter house harbouring a number of murdered bodies that turned out to be untrue when the suspected victims turned up again after months and said they’d simply been visiting relatives in Sheffield. Nevertheless Molly and I still shivered theatrically whenever we passed the place, especially as the old hooks and rails for hanging carcasses were still in evidence. These days it is a pharmacy and last time I was there I could not help but notice the implements remain still.
There were a number of cottages facing The Green on the south side and Mr Clarke said that Billy Skews, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo had lived at No 10. He had lost an arm in the battle and for many years had a stall in Gravesend Market selling confectionery. He also sold his wares at the Easter Fair held on The Hill each year. When I was a child, however, No 10 was an undertaker’s and apparently still is. There had been more than one annual fair in the old days and originally they were so busy they had been held in nearby fields big enough to accommodate the many amusements and sideshows. The busiest fair was usually that held on St Botolph’s day in mid-June and attracted visitors from far and wide. By the time Billy was selling his sweetmeats such fairs were already diminishing in popularity. In many ways this was again the responsibility of the Railway, transporting people as it did so effortlessly to the delights of places further afield like Southend and Margate. And there of course were the more technically advanced attractions of Dodgem Cars and Ferris Wheels courtesy of Dreamworld and The Kursaal. You could quite understand why the families of Kent were no longer as enthralled with the idea of home- made confectionery and bearded ladies. Personally, however, I was not particularly fond of the more up to the minute seaside funfairs and nursed a deep fear and suspicion of the technology involved in lifting paying customers far from the ground and flinging them around in garishly decorated pseudo-vehicles. I would have infinitely preferred a decorous saunter through a field of Two Headed Babies and Three Armed Ladies. This was not something I shared with my peers as I had no desire to be jeered at or bullied by neighbourhood children and classmates. Any child between the ages of five and fourteen will know how preferable it is to have to same likes, dislikes and desires as those around you.
On the opposite side of The Green there was once an Inn called The Dove, apparently one of the most ancient in Northfleet but it had been burnt down in 1906. Behind the Inn was a huddle of old cottages in Dove Yard still standing in the 1940s. Just to the right, The Coach and Horses, dating from 1572 still stands and I have a memory or two of under- age drinking of gin and tonic there as a teenager. Adjoining it were a number of 17th century cottages that were apparently demolished in the late 1950s. In one of them lived a woman most of us had decided was a witch and I recently learned was actually the mother of Ron Hull, local poet who wrote so eloquently of the area. Directly behind the pub was the site of Northfleet’s very first purpose built fire station. Originally it was a Volunteer Service but at the beginning of the second world war had become incorporated into the National Fire Service.
On the final side of The Green triangle the Queen’s Head pub stood and was run when I was a child by the McCarthys parents of the red haired daughter called Kathleen and were said to be well off. The place had previously been called The Crown and at the time had extensive grounds to the rear of the building including a bowling green. After a disastrous fire in 1830 the building had to be renovated completely and the bowling green disappeared in the incessantly urgent quest for chalk. The Post Office stood adjacent to the pub and there was still a sub post office there when I was a teenager. Next door had once been a grocery store but when I was growing up had become a second hand book shop, run largely I believe as a hobby as it only seemed to open sporadically.
At the turn of the 20th century The Green was at last paved over and after the first World War a Memorial was erected from Portland Stone to commemorate those local servicemen who lost their lives during the conflict. Today the monument has become hemmed in on every side by vehicles that nudge each other for space and the area has changed completely. St Botolph’s school disappeared some years ago and on my last visit a temporary garden centre had situated itself in the Infants’ Playground . The Church lych gate still stands defiantly, harbouring the memory of those mothers of the 1940s who sheltered there on rainy afternoons whilst waiting to collect their five and six year olds from the clutches of Miss Honour who was young and pretty with long blonde hair and Mrs Johnson who was short and dumpy and always wore a flowered smock to protect her twin set.
I am reliably informed that there is now a new St Botolph’s School nearby but as yet I have not investigated it, so wedded am I to the idea that there can really only be one – the one on The Hill, or as Ron Hull describes it `Northfleet Village Green’.