The Maritime Landscape
Changing economic conditions and the wholesale rise in import duties to help pay for continental wars led to a boom in smuggling, or ‘free trade’ as the people involved termed it, during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Thames estuary provided an ideal landscape for the smuggling gangs to operate in,comprising remote and empty marshlands. The few revenue officers covering the coast were heavily outnumbered and often chose discretion over valor –the whole of the Hoo Peninsula was covered by two riding officers. The government’s response in 1817 was to set up the Coast Blockade Service, a unit of the Royal Navy tasked with eradicating smuggling. The Coast Blockade was disbanded in 1831, and its duties were taken over by HM Coastguard, created in 1822 as a further anti-smuggling force, with rescue duties a very definite secondary priority.
The Coastguardsmen were originally housed in a watch vessel situated immediately outside the western sea-wall, and identified as such on the Tithe map (small rectangle immediately west of sea-wall, labelled as Swallow). These quarters were squalid, with men often living on board with their families, and a two-year posting would guarantee a move to a good shore station. The vessel is identified on the maps as the Swallow – this may be a former revenue cutter of the same name, originally built in Cowes by John Gely and commanded by Capt. John Sayers as the ‘flagship’ of the east coast district. This vessel was transferred to the Admiralty in 1816 (a common practice with watch vessels), where it is listed as having dimensions of 70 feet length, beam of 23 feet and draught of 9 feet, with space for a crew of 458 – these dimensions are broadly correct for the vessel as indicated on the maps. The conditions onboard are likely to have been unhealthy – an 1850 discharge certificate issued by the Melville Hospital for Seamen and Marines, Chatham, in respect of Commissioned Boatman Daniel Collins of HMCG Cliffe Creek refers to treatment for haemoptysis, an affliction of the lungs often associated with bronchitis and pneumonia.
The Swallow was still on station in 1860, but had been removed by 1897 and replaced by a purpose-built terrace of houses to the north know as the coastguard cottages by 1909, corresponding with the Admiralty decision to replace watch vessels with shore facilities in 1902. The new station was demolished after 1996.
Other relics of vessels, or parts of vessels, have also been located along the foreshore: one of these, a cargo vessel called the Alexander, appears to have been wrecked in 1828 – the quoted NGR locates it below the current sea-wall near the southern end of the Reserve. While this may reflect a wreck pre-dating the sea-wall when Cliffe Creek was more extensive, the NGR is also quoted as the location for the wrecks of the Industry in 1866 and the Queen Mab in 1869 – it may therefore be an error. Other named vessels comprise the William and Hannah, a spritsail barge, in 1877); the Hans Egede, a Danish schooner and former Arctic supply vessel that was beached after losing a tow c.1957 the Coombdale, a spritsail barge built in 1887; the Marianna, another spritsail barge built in 1859; and the Little George. There are also the remains of other unidentified boats and barges on the foreshore and in Cliffe Creek. A more enigmatic record from within the Reserve comprises a collection of timbers examined in the 1960s and again by divers in the 1980s, and variously interpreted as a prehistoric structure, post-medieval ship timbers or the remains of a jetty. The HER also records the presence of a beacon marking the southern end of a measured nautical mile, although nothing now exists on the site.
There are also extensive remains along the foreshore and in Cliffe Creek of a variety of wooden structures, often only partially visible as isolated elements protruding from the mud, and mostly identified and recorded by Wessex Archaeology during their foreshore survey in 2005. Four of these sites lie within the south-western edge of Cliffe Pools Reserve, where the boundary crosses the sea-wall to run along the edge of the Creek. The majority lie on the foreshore on both sides of Cliffe Creek. Rather more substantial are the remains of a jetty, a wharf, two piers and a stone quay, all in the vicinity of Cliffe Fort and all probably associated with military or industrial usage.