At first sight, Gravesend is an improbable choice as a topic for a paper. The place, generally now known only as the headquarters pilot station of the Port of London Authority, appears neither in the index to the Encyclopaedia Judaica nor in that to our own Transactions. A point of arrival for many immigrants and a centre for crimping during the Napoleonic wars, Gravesend had much in common with the Medway towns, the principal productions of which (or so it seemed to Mr Pickwick) were 'soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers and dockyard men'. 'The humbler sort of Jews', wrote a Chatham authority recalling conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century, 'dealt in civil habiliments shed by recruits when they assumed the military or naval uniforms; and the richer . . . purchase the furniture of officers leaving the garrison, to sell to officers joining; as well as . . . lending money to the impecunious. Some were outfitters, some jewellers.'1 Those resident at Gravesend evidently formed a continuous proportion of the majority that worshipped at Chatham, and if few of them can be said to have distinguished themselves, the descendant of at least one early family occupies a curious niche in Australian Jewish history.2 Edward Davis, born at Gravesend in or about 1814, spent a misguided youth until being sentenced in 1832 to seven years' transportation. It is a matter of regrettable report that having escaped four times from detention in the neighbourhood of Sydney, he emerged as the only known Jewish bushranger on the mainland there.
Leaving Davis to one side, what was it that put his native place on the map? The answer may be given by the following lines, published in 1843:
Gravesend - rough, unpolished, little known
Till modern times, but as a fishing town . . .
Of little worth, in its primeval state
Was Gravesend thought, till enterprise of late
Hath proved its value, shewn on every side
Health's harbingers, that on the Zephyrs ride . . .
Facilities for pleasure, health and ease
In every shape and form, for all degrees
Are now profuse, for buildings neat abound
And comforts seem to court in smiles around.
By two puissant elements combined,
Economy with travelled ease is joined.
And thus Gravesend hath gained an envied fame,
Through the propelling properties of steam.3
The first steamboat to ply between Gravesend and London ran in 1815. By 1824 the town was said to be 'rising as a popular summer resort'.4 Gravesend tourism was founded on the fact that Thames paddle steamers were far more capacious and much cheaper than any other form of medium-distance transport. In the same year that the verses quoted above appeared, Gravesend accounted for 60 per cent of all steamer passenger traffic out of London.5 Such popularity, of course, had certain consequences. The Tuggs's steamboat trip, readers of Sketches by Boz may remember, was to Margate - Gravesend, even towards the end of the 1830s, was considered 'low' by some. The population multiplied to such an extent that by 1851 the town was the fifth-largest