Notes on Grays
In ancient times Grays was a wild place: a remarkable series of mammalian remains have been found in the area including those of the wild cat, spotted hyena, wolf, bear, bison, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and mammoth. Humans first colonised the area in the Palaeolithic era and a number of Bronze Age and Roman artefacts have been found, enough to suggest a sizeable settlement.
Medieval Grays grew up around the riverside, with the Church at the northenmost point of the village. The port of Grays was established by the 13th century when the wharf was owned by the de Gray family, the local manorial lords. By the 17th century there was a regular boat service into London, one on every Thames Estuary tide. Initially this involved using small boats to and from the wharf, transferring into larger boats mid-stream. In 1838 travellers could use the Gravesend river steamers by hailing them from a small boat but in 1841 a pier was built so that the steamers could pull up properly, and at this time there were services into London 5 times a day.
The port itself was busy, with a wide variety of goods passing through. Aside from the docks the area was mostly agrarian, although there were also chalk pits and lime kilns, and the blue clay deposits to the east of the town were suitable for bricklaying.
The River Thames, and riverside activities, continued to define Grays right up until the outbreak of the First World War, at which point Grays was the home of the largest fleet of sailing barges ever recorded, trading all around the English coast, and to Europe. Some even sailed to South America. Two other firms also had a fleet of sailing barges, and the Grays Chalk Quarry Co. had a fleet of stumpies. There was a ferry service across the Thames to Gravesend and Greenhithe. Two more wharfs had been built, one solely for the use of Seabrooke's brewery (although not all the beer was exported: in 1866 Grays had 9 pubs, one for every 120 residents) and the other, for training ships, where lads were taught all the skills needed to become a seafarer. There were boatbuilders and repair shops, engineers and lightermen, and many importers and exporters and factories dependent on using the river. In the 1920's the A13 was built and factories could now send their goods by land. Although Grays is still very much an industrial area, the river is nowhere near as important in transporting goods and the town wharf is redundant. Today all that remains is a small yacht club and marina. Most of the river frontage has been developed as housing.
A visitor to Grays in 1876 found 'nothing to be said for the beauty, and not much for the picturesqueness of the town. It is old, irregular, and, like all these small Thames ports, lazy-looking and dirty.' A visitor to the town centre could make a broadly similar claim today, although there are plans for redevelopment. But the riverside, with its clean lines, open spaces and the magnificent Thames winding through, is very pleasant indeed.