A young Charles Dickens lived in the right-hand house of the semi-detached pair at the left of this photograph
The Brook is not one of Chatham’s prettier streets. The multi-storey car park scars the skyline; other brutalist architecture puts the boot into this ancient thoroughfare, named after the stream that flowed through it. Its past has been pretty sordid; probably more squalid than its grimy 21st-century existence.
The Brook has a poetical name, but even when water flowed through, it was for a prosaic purpose — to power the watermill built near Luton Arches before the Norman Conquest.
The stream — known as Old Bourne, the River Bourne and the Brook — flowed down the valley from a springhead near Luton, and powered the mill before emptying into the Medway. On the higher ground to the north, leading up to St Mary’s Church, were a small group of cottages, and these constituted the main part of Chatham in the 16th century.
Soon, Chatham grew, as the dockyard became more established, and within a century the tree-fringed banks of the Bourne became a building site for a number of homes, constructed largely of “chips”, a slang term for wood removed from the dockyard. Several footbridges crossed the stream — by now known as the Brook — notably one at Fair Row, a narrow thoroughfare that until reconstruction in the 1970s, linked the road to Chatham High Street.
The watermill fell out of use by the early 18th century, so the stream became merely decorative; its downfall, however, had begun. Many steep, narrow roads were built on the eastern side of the Brook, including King Street and Slickett’s Hill, and during heavy rain much rubbish — and worse — was washed down into the river. Those who lived along its banks also used it to empty their chamber pots and dump dead animals.
Drink, sex, filth — just up Dickens’s alley
The Brook became a breeding place for disease and by 1800 — although small craft still navigated the pungent waterway — it had become little more than an open sewer, earning the new name, Town Ditch.
It became so rank than in 1824 sections of the ditch were bricked over to form an elementary sewer that emptied into the Medway near Gun Wharf. The Brook was rather mucky in another sense, too. This was the age of Britain as the greatest naval nation. Chatham was filled with sailors with two things on their mind: drink and sex. The Brook provided both.
The 1864 Ordnance Survey reveals that the Brook then had no fewer than nine pubs – from the Golden Lion on the northeastern corner of the higher ground, known then as Smithfield Bank, to the Bell, between Slickett’s Hill and the entrance to the High Street. Many were also doubled as brothels.
Among all this vice stood a Catholic church opposite Smithfield Bank, a Wesleyan chapel, and the Ebenezer chapel, next to Bonny’s Alley, and almost opposite the Bell. During 1821-22 a young Charles Dickens lived in a wooden home next to the Wesleyan Chapel — 18 St Mary’s Place — which was considered something of a come-down from the previous Dickens home in Ordnance Terrace. It is the right-hand house of the semi-detached pair at the left of this photograph.
Pipe drains were laid about 1870, making the Brook a little less noisome. But the area still remained a slum and by the 1930s it still had such a low reputation that policemen patrolled in pairs. It was an eyesore, but piecemeal demolition in the 1940s and 1950s did little to improve the overall picture, and the Brook continued to decay.
The 1955 edition of Kelly’s Directory says that the Baptist church still survived as a printing company’s warehouse. The wooden houses of St Mary’s Place had been swept away, but the Duke of Cambridge still lingered on at the corner of Fair Row. Another pub, the Three Cups, still plied its trade. Most of the cottages were empty, unfit for human habitation.
Today, most of the buildings have been built over — but one sort of architectural monstrosity has been replaced with another.
My thanks to the historian Richard Green. Much of this feature is based on his 1982 feature, Chatham’s Lost River, published in Bygone Kent.