Burntwick Island, Smuggling Base in River Medway
Situated between the Isle of Grain and Upchurch on the River Medway is the desolate island of Burntwick, part of the Parish of Upchurch until the second part of the 19th century. It had originally become separated from the mainland due to erosion of land by the sea during the mid 18th century. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it became a base for smuggling and part of a quarantine base for ships with disease infected crews. Dead Man’s Island which is situated nearby became the main burial ground for deceased sailors from infected ships.
With a rise in customs duty smuggling became increasingly worthwhile and was rife on the Medway during the 1780s. Tea, spirits and owls were the main items smuggled out, usually by boat at night. Upchurch village folklore has suggested that a tunnel extended from the ‘The Crown’ public house to the river from where contraband was brought ashore. Hard evidence for this in contemporary documents is lacking so it remains village folklore, passed down the generations by word of mouth.
In the early 19th century Burntwick Island became a base for the North Kent Gang, an infamous group of smugglers who operated at different locations along the Kent coast. They were generally ignored until 1820 when a group of them were confronted by two blockade men while unloading contraband in Stangate Creek. In the resulting conflict one of the blockade men was seriously wounded then the culprits escaped. Believed to have about fifty members the North Kent Gang were involved in several incidents along the Kent coast. Eventually they were caught, three were executed at Penenden Heath near Maidstone and fifteen transported to Tasmania. In 1831 with the abolition of import duties smuggling effectively ended.
Later in 1845 a ship’s surgeon named Sidney Bernard who served on H.M.S Rollo just off the coast of Sierra Leone in West Africa became associated with the island. The crew of another ship, H.M.S Éclair, contracted yellow fever and some of them died. Bernard’s ship was sent by the Royal Navy to assist and Bernard was appointed assistant surgeon on H.M.S Eclair to treat the sailors. The ship returned to England but the naval authorities, worried that the disease might spread to the general population, ordered the captain to moor the ship in Stangate Creek just off the Ham Green peninsular. The cargo was then transferred to one of two hulks permanently moored there and a naval cutter guarded the infected ship to prevent anyone going ashore. Sidney Bernard continued treating the crew but was unable to save them until he also contracted the disease and died aged 27 on October 9th 1845. He was buried on the island and his grave remains there today, maintained by the Royal Navy.
During the 19th century the island became a dumping ground for refuse from London and even today the ground is covered with Victorian glass and crockery.
Sheep had grazed on Burntwick Island for years and during the 1840s a shepherd named James Woolley and his wife Sarah lived there in a solitary house. The remains of the house still exist there today. A track ran from Shoregate Lane at Ham Green out to the island and traces of it can still be seen. Later, In the 1860s, the famous ‘Great Eastern’ ship which laid the first cable line between England and the United States was temporarily moored nearby. After that, during the 1870s, a shepherd named Thomas Hoare and his housekeeper Emma Castleton lived there and tended farmer Richard Sands sheep but during the early 20th century the tide flooded the island making it unsuitable for grazing so from that time livestock only grazed on the mainland.
Burntwick Island eventually became the property of the Ministry of Defense. During the early years of the 20th century a battery was constructed there which included two 12 pounder guns, machine gun emplacements and three searchlights. A torpedo school later became established with a barracks building and ammunition depots with target practice taking place during World War Two. The island then fell into disuse and is now just a desolate haven for seabirds and is completely under water for several hours at high tide.
View over the River Medway towards Grain. Burntwick Island in the distance
Another similar island in the River Medway is called Dead Man's Island. This was were various quarantined sailors who died from infectious diseases were buried. BBC South East report on Deadman's Island was broadcast on 30 January 2017. This is nearer Sheppey than Burntwick Island but had a similar function and lots of burials.