The name Sheppey derives from the name by which the Saxons knew it: Sheep Island. The Island, some 9 miles (16km) long and half as wide nestles up against the north Kent coast from which it is separated by a narrow channel called the Swale. Archaeological evidence reveals that Sheppey was occupied in prehistoric times. It was also inhabited during the Romano-British era and, subsequently, by the Saxons. In AD 674, Sexburga, a widowed Queen of Kent, established a nunnery at Minster, one of the highest points on the Island. This nunnery, which suffered from two devastating raids by the Vikings in the ninth century, was finally closed in 1536 by Henry VIII when he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries.
The first town on Sheppey was at Queenborough which was built when Edward II established a castle there in the 1360s. He named the town after his wife, Queen Phillipa. The castle survived until 1649 when it was demolished by orders of Parliament. Queenborough was afterwards doomed to remain for many years an impoverished backwater relying on its oyster fisheries for survival.
Sheppey as a whole, however, was about to witness a new dawn. In 1665, with England in the midst of a series of wars with the Dutch, a landing party of military and naval officials arrived by ship at the north-western tip of the Island where stood a bleak point of uninhabited headland called Sheer Ness. Their mission was to marl out land for the erection of a small dockyard that would serve as an advance base for the large royal naval dockyard up the Thames and Medway, and also for the erection of a fort which, being situated close to the mouth of the River Medway, would give protection to the river from a surprise attack by an enemy fleet upon the English fleet at its anchorages off Chatham and Gillingham.
Work on two projects was put in hand but, before the fort was completed in 1667 a Dutch squadron sailed in and, having easily overrun Sheerness proceeded to sail up and decimate the fleet at Chatham before returning to Holland in triumph. After this humiliation a much more powerful fort was constructed at Sheerness to protect both its adjacent dockyard and the Medway.
Initially the men were required to man the new dockyard at Sheerness were housed in hulks; old ships drawn up onto the mud flats off the dockyard. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century available accommodation was added to by a small collection of simple houses thrown up by the dockyard men beyond the fort and dockyard. Growing rapidly, this small community became known as Blue Town, allegedly named after the colour of paint purloined from naval stores to paint houses. When Blue Town, crammed in by surrounding government-owned land, reached its maximum population capacity, new communities began to form to its east, such as Mile Town (so called because it was a mile from the dockyard entrance) – which today forms the centre of the modern town Sheerness – and, later, Marine Town.
As Britain’s maritime importance grew so too did the importance of Sheerness Dockyard which in the early part of the nineteenth century underwent a massive rebuilding and enlargement. In 1823 the major part of the reconstruction work was completed and the new dockyard was formally reopened by the Duke of Clarence (afterwards King William IV).
At this time the major form of access to Sheppey was via a ferry across the Swale at King’s Ferry. In 1860 a railway branch line was built to Sheerness, which necessitated the construction of a bridge across the Swale at King’s Ferry. The bridge was built to take both road and rail traffic and the old ferry became redundant. The bridge was required to have a central lifting span so that river traffic could still use the Swale.
The eastern half of Sheppey had always been rather remote and inaccessible, but this changed in 1901 when a small railway line was constructed from Queenborough right across the width of the Island to the little hamlet of Leysdown. Thus connected by a rail network to London, Leysdown soon became a popular holiday destination for the lower income inhabitants of the capital, providing reasonably priced accommodation in the form of camp sites for tents or with chalets. The Sheppey Light Railway continued until 1950 when it was closed due to the rapidly growing competition from motorised road traffic.
The original bridge across the Swale was modernised in 1904 by having its old manually lifted span replaced by a power operated ‘hinge’ type. A brand new bridge and access roads was opened in 1960 and this is now supplemented by a new road bridge.
The closure of the royal naval dockyard at Sheerness in 1960 was a major economic blow to Sheppey, being the Island’s major employer. Today the former dockyard site has been converted to become a commercial port, and a large steelworks built on the former army owned land.