THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY.
THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY is separated from the
rest of the county of Kent by a narrow arm of the sea,
called the Swale. It is not certain by what name it was
known to the Romans. Ptolemy, in his geography,
mentions two islands in this part of Britain, which he
calls Toliapis and Counus. He describes the former of
these islands in lon. 23. lat. 54. 15. the latter in lon.
24. lat. 54. 30. though what space he allowed to a degree is uncertain, but undoubtedly it appears to be
much less than we do. The former of them is supposed by most of our learned men, among whom are
Camden and Batteley, (fn. 1) to be this island, though Lam
barde, Leland, and some others, think the latter,
merely from the etymology of the name.
It was called by the Saxons, SCEAPIGE or OVINIA,
that is, the Island of Sheep, which name it took from
the number of sheep continually feeding on it. Baxter,
in his Glossary, under the word Malata, adds, "Vervecum Patria, or the Isle of Sheep, now named Shepey.
This is corruptly called, by the book of Ravenna,
Malaca, by the Britons Vervex." In Chron. de
Mailros, anno 832, it is called Peseiga.
Its circumserence, including the little adjoining isles
of Elmley and Harty, which lie at the south-east side
of it, and include about two eighth parts of the whole
of it, measures upwards of thirty miles. It is about
eleven miles in length, and about eight at its greatest
The grounds of this island rise from the shores on
the south, east, and west bounds of it towards its center; but on the north side, it seems, by the height of
the cliffs, to have once extended much further. The
cliffs are in length about six miles, and gradually decline at each end, the more elevated parts continuing
about two-thirds as far as they extend, and they are, at
the very highest of them about Minster, not less than
thirty yards in perpendicular height above the beach
or shore, and consisting of clay, and being constantly
washed at their basis by the tides which beat against
them, more especially when driven by strong easterly
winds, they are continually wasting and falling down
upon the shore, and so great is the loss of land at the
highest parts, that sometimes near an acre has sunk
down in one mass from that height upon the beach below, with the corn remaining entire on the surface of
it, which has afterwards grown and increased to maturity, and been reaped in that state, with but a trisling
loss to the owner of it.
The soil of the greatest part of the island is an exceeding stiff clay; by far the greatest part of it consists
of upland pastures and marshes, the latter are much of
them rich and fertile satting land, the former are covered with ant hills, very wet in winter, and in summer
subject to burn and split open eight or nine feet in
depth. The island, towards the north side, in the parishes of Minster and Eastchurch, is very sertile in corn,
the inclosures of which are small, and surrounded with
thick hedge-rows of elm, and the whole face of the
country exceeding pleasant in fine weather, being interspersed with much small hill and dale, and frequent
houses and cottages. The roads throughout the island
are very good all the year, owing to the great plenty
of the fine gravel of the beach pits in it, and the prospects are very pleasing and extensive on every side.
There is hardly any coppice wood throughout the
whole of it. Fresh water is very scarce and the greatest
part of it brackish, tho' between Eastchurch and Minster there are a few springs, which, notwithstanding they
rise near the sea, the waters of them are perfectly good
and fresh. The air is very thick and much subject to
noxious vapours, arising from the large quantity of
marshes in and near it, and the badness of the water,
which make it very unwholesome, insomuch, that few
people of substance live in it, and in the low or marshy
parts the inhabitants are very few indeed, and consist in
general of lookers, bailiffs, and servants. The garrison and dock of Sheerness, and its environs, the reader
will however of course except from this observation,
where there are many gentlemen employed in the government service, who are of property and substance
The water which flows between this island and the
main land is called the Swale, and the two extremities
of it, the East and West Swale, it reaches about twelve
miles in length, and is navigable for ships of two hundred tons burthen. This water seems formerly to have
been accounted a part of the river Thames, and to
have been the usual (as being the sasest) passage for
the shipping between London and the North Foreland; accordingly Sandwich is frequently stiled by our
antient historians Lundenwic, or the Thames Mouth,
being the name given to it by the Saxons, and the town
of Milton is said by them to stand on the south bank
of the Thames. Leland in particular says, in his Itinerary, that town stands on an arm of the Tamise; and
he speaks of the point against Quinborough entering
into the mayne Tamys.
The usual passage to it is by a ferry, called King's
Ferry, for carriages, horses, cattle, and passengers.
The ferry-boat is moved forward by a long cable, of
about one hundred and forty fathoms or more, which
being fastened at each end across the Swale, serves to
move it forward by hand. On the side opposite to the
island there is a small house of stone, in the room of
one formerly erected by one George Fox, who having
staid a long while in the cold, waiting for the boat, and
being much affected by it, built it to shelter others
from the like inconvenience.
This ferry, before the making of the statute of
highways, had been repaired and maintained, time out
of mind, at the charge of all the inhabitants and landoccupiers within the whole island, by an assessment
made at a court or law-day, holden yearly at Kingsborowe, within the island, in the king's name, only for
the maintenance of this ferry.
To enforce which an act passed in the 18th year of
queen Elizabeth, and another afterwards in the 28th
year of that reign, with still further powers, that from
that time for ever, between the feasts of Easter and
Pentecost, any three justices of the peace, dwelling
within eight miles of the town of Milton, should assets
all lands and grounds lying without the island, and
within four miles of the ferry, towards the repair and
amendment of the usual highway leading from that
town to it (which was in such decay that neither man
nor beast could then pass it without great danger, and
the parish through which it lay was not able to repair
it) so that it exceeded not the usual proportion of one
penny for each acre of fresh, or ten acres of salt marsh,
the money to be employed in repairing such road, with
power of distress in such manner and form as was limited to the Ferry-warden by the former statute, &c.
At the law-day before-mentioned, a ferry-warden,
two ferrymen, and a constable are yearly chosen, who
appoint a ferry-keeper, and with the homage make
rules and orders for the good government of the ferry.
By these means and the rents belonging to it, the
ferry has from time to time been maintained, as well
as the highways through the marshes, together with
the sea wall and wharf, and the ferry-keeper's house,
and two large passage-boats and a skiff, with a cable to
tow the boat from side to side. The passage is costfree for all travellers, except on four days yearly, Palm
Monday, Whit-Monday, St. James's day, and Michaelmas day, and on Sundays, and every night in the
year after eight o'clock.
The ferry-keeper has a privilege to dredge for oysters, exclusive of all others, within the compass of the
ferry-loop, which extends one tow's length, that is,
sixty fathoms, on each side of the cable. Some years
ago, he was disturbed in the enjoyment of it, by some
of the Queenborough dredgers, who being called to
account in law for the trespass, paid the charges, and
submitted without coming to a trial.
For the space of more than eighty years after the
last-mentioned act of parliament, there was little resort
to this ferry, except from the private business of the
inhabitants of the island; but since the building of a
fort, and fixing a garrison at Sheerness, and the establishing of a dock-yard, a branch of the ordnance, and
other appendages necessary to them, the traffic to and
from the island has greatly increased, and with it the
expence of maintaining this ferry, and the roads leading to it, of which there are three principal ones, the
first to the south-eastward to the town of Milton, the
second strait forward towards the south through Iwade
and Bobbing into the great Dover road at Key-street,
and the third towards the south-west through Halstow
and Upchurch towards Gillingham and Chatham.
There are two other ferries, of less account, to and
from this island, one in the island of Elmley, and the
other in that of Harty; but these are only for footpassengers and cattle.
There have been several commissions granted from
time to time to different persons to view and repair the
banks and sea walls of this island, the earliest of which
is in the 27th year of king Edward III. in the 12th
year of which the king directed his writs to the bishop
of Rochester, Roger de Northwode, the prior of Rochester, the abbot of Boxley, Thomas de Cobham,
Stephen de Cobham, Philip de Pympe, Stephen de
Ashburie, Humphry de Northwode, and Ralph de Savage, all landholders of this island, in which it is recited, among other matters, that, intelligence having been received that this island would soon be invaded by the enemies' fleets, he therefore commanded
them to have ready their men-at-arms and archers, according to the quantity of lands and tenements, which
each of them possessed in it, together with the men of
the island, and others, landholders in it, for the safety
of it against the impending danger. (fn. 2) And afterwards,
in the 46th year of that reign, writs of the like nature
were directed to Richard at Lees, chivalier, John Normaud, chivalier, and Richard Cheyne.
King Richard II. in his 1st year, directed his writs
to the sheriffs of Kent and Essex, commanding them
to erect beacons on the most conspicuous places near
the coasts of the two counties, opposite to each other,
that by the firing of them, notice might be given of any
sudden attempt of the enemy. In consequence of
which, there were many of them erected, and one in
particular here in Shepey, and at Showbery, in Essex,
opposite to it.
The Isle of Shepey had formerly a court of Hustings
belonging to it, wherein were heard all causes and
pleadings, the laws, customs, rights, and franchises of
this island, or whatever in any shape belonged or related to it.
The cliffs on the northern side of this island being
composed of clay, and constantly washed at their basis
by the tides, are continually wasting and falling down
upon the shore, as has already been taken notice of.
These cliffs belong to the three manors of Minster,
Shurland, and Warden, the owners of which let them
out to the different proprietors of the copperas works,
who employ the neighbouring poor to collect the pyrites or copperas-stones upon the beach, which they
deposit there in heaps, until a sufficient quantity is procured to load a vessel with to carry it away.
These cliffs produce besides, in their bowels, so great
a variety and quantity of sossils, both native and extraneous, as are hardly to be paralleled, in a like space of
ground, any where; these, the clay being continually
washed away by the tides, are left exposed on the beach,
and are usually picked up by the copperas gatherers
who fell them to the curious; but those found here
have been so much impregnated with pyritical matter,
that after some time the salts thereof shoot, and entirely
The late Mr. Jacob, of Faversham, well known to
the learned as a curious antiquarian and naturalist,
printed at the end of his Plantæ Favershamienses, a
concise view of the sossil bodies of this island, collected
by him during the course of thirty years, and among
the Philosophical Transactions, vol. 50, pt. i. p. 396,
is an account of some sossil fruits and other bodies
found by him in this island in 1757.
The curious investigator of natural history, who travels into this island, will undoubtedly receive a further
pleasure in the observations he will continually be induced to make on the variety of curious plants, which
he will find growing over the whole face of it, but
they are so very numerous as to well excuse the insertion of them here. Mr. Jacob has published a catalogue of such as he has observed in the long course of
Our antient herbalift Gerarde, mentions likewise in his
Herbal several found by him here. Besides which, both
Ray and Hudson make mention of several rare species
of fucus, confervæ, coralliæ, ulvæ, potamogiton, ruppiæ,
maritima, bupleurum, frankenia, and some others, found
in and about this island, which it would take up too
much room to describe particularly in this place. (fn. 3)
Dr. Plot observes, that there are very few rats or
moles in the Island of Shepey, which, he says, is owing
to the earth being full of copperas-stones, which are
poisonous to them, and that this accounts for the number of mice in it, which are generally found in greater
numbers where there are no rats.
The Bargander, or chenalopex, is frequently observed in it.
THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY, from its situation, was in
antient times much exposed to the invasions of those
nations which insested this kingdom. The Saxons indeed made the Isle of Thanet their principal resort;
but the Danes in general made this island their landingplace, and frequently staid whole winters in it, so that
it became their accustomed rendezous whilst in this
kingdom, and consequently it felt continued scenes of
misery and plunder.
Though the Danes had insested and harassed the
coasts of Britain for some years before the accession of
Egbert to the English monarchy, yet these parts of it
remained free from their piracies till the year 832,
when landing in this island, and having no design of
making conquests, they accomplished their purpose of
plundering it, as well as the neighbouring country, and
then returned again to their ships.
In the year 849, the Danes are said again to have
wintered here, as they did again in 851, during the
reign of king Athelstan, (fn. 4) after having again invaded
In 854, they again wintered here; after which
there is no further notice taken by our antient historians of their visiting it, which most probably they did
from time to time, whenever they made their incursions into these parts, and that it shared in the general
devastation made of this county by these piratical plunderers, till the year 1016, when king Edmund having
encountered Canute, with the Danish army, at Otford,
and gaining a victory over it, pursued them as far as
Aylesford, in their retreat to this island, where they
collected the scattered remains of their army.
Godwin, earl of Kent, being at variance with king
Edward the Consessor, came into these parts in the
year 1052, and having burnt the neighbouring town of
Milton, afterwards ravaged many of the king's estates
throughout the county, and among others several in
In the lower or southern part of this island there are
many large barrows, or tumuli, which the inhabitants
call coterels, and are supposed to be the graves of several of the Danish leaders, who were slain during their
invasions of this kingdom. Offa, king of Mercia, one
of the most powerful princes of the Saxon heptarchy,
who died in 796, is thought by some to have died in
this island on his return from Rome, where he had been
on a pilgrimage, though he was buried at Bedford.
ELIZABETH, the widow of Francis Lennard, lord
Dacre, who died in 1662, sister and coheir of Paul,
viscount Banning, was by letters patent, in 1680, created Countess of Shepey, for her life. She died in 1686.
Thomas Lennard, lord Dacre, her eldest son, had been
in 1673, created Earl of Suffex.
Henry, youngest son of Robert Sidney, earl of Leicester, was in 1689. anno 1 William and Mary, created Baron of Milton and Viscount Sidney of the Isle of
Shepey, and in 1694, Earl of Romney. He died unmarried in 1704, and was buried in St. James's church,
Westminster; upon which his titles became extinct.
John de Shepey, LL. D. a native of this island, was
first a prebendary, and then dean of the cathedral
church of Lincoln, and dying in 1412, was buried
there. He was a man of much note in the reigns of
both king Edward III. and king Richard II. being
employed by both those princes in their most weighty
affairs both at home and abroad.
THE ISLAND OF SHEPEY is almost all of it within
the hundred of Middleton, alias Milton, a very small
part of it only in the parish of Eastchurch being within
the hundred of Tenham, and the Island of Harty, which
is within the hundred of Faversham, as will be further
IT CONTAINS WITHIN ITS BOUNDS THE PARISHES OF
1. MINSTER, with the ville of Sheerness.
6. ELMLEY, and its isle; and
7. HARTY, and its isle.
The churches of which parishes are all within the hundred
of Milton, excepting the church of HARTY, which is within
the hundred of Faversham. That part of the hundred of Milton within the Island of Shepey, is within the jurisdiction of
one constable, appointed for it at the court-leet held for the manor and hundred of Milton, and is stiled in it the liberty of