The village of Higham, situated between Gravesend and Rochester, is split into two parts known as Upper and Lower Higham. Lower Higham is the original Saxon village which centred around St Mary’s Church. In the 1800’s the village expanded towards Gravesend and the population doubled. The new part of the village became known us Upper Higham. With more and more people populating Upper Higham, the importance of St Mary’s Church waned and a new church, St John’s, was built in 1862 to supplement the original church. Higham now has a population of about 4,000 people.

In 1148, King Stephen commissioned the land for the nunnery to be built at Lilliechurch, near Higham. At the time the King’s daughter, Princess Mary, was Abbess of the Abbey at Rennes, Brittany and needed an English base for her community of nuns. The nuns of Brittany soon made the permanent move to Lilliechurch and Princess Mary became the nunnery’s first prioress. It is thought that the first priory was built in Lilliechurch near Higham but the site was later moved into Higham itself, opposite St Mary’s Church.

For many years, the priory prospered. The nuns were granted permission to run a market for the locals and they successfully maintained the Higham Ferry Service.

After hundreds of years of success, Higham priory began to deteriorate and nuns became notorious for their lack of virtue. Following many scandalous rumours, the Bishop of Rochester visited the priory in 1513 and began an enquiry. By this time, there were only 4 nuns within the priory and two of them had become pregnant by the vicar of Higham, Edward Steropher. Several witnesses were called upon, all confirming that both Elizabeth Penny and Godliva Lawrence had given birth within the Priory. Following this outcome, the priory was finally closed down in 1521.

Like the priory, there have been many buildings with great historical significance in Higham, such as Manors, Little and Great Oakley, the Hermitage Hospital (which burnt down in 1938) and The Knowle. Gads Hill place is perhaps the most significant building in Higham. Now used as a school, Gads Hill place was built in 1780 for the former Major of Rochester, Thomas Stephens. Even before the house was built, the surrounding area, known as Gads Hill had already built up an interesting past.

Gads Hill was first made famous in 1558 when William Shakespeare wrote a ballad entitled ‘The Robbers of Gads Hill’. At this time, highway robbery was at the height of its popularity. Gads Hill was an ideal spot for ‘highwaymen’. The area was sheltered by trees and the travellers had to slow down on the hill, creating an opportunity for robbers to steal their possessions. This ‘highwayman’ theme was continued in Henry IV in which Shakespeare’s well known character, John Falstaff, conspires to rob a rich pilgrim on Gads Hill. The Sir John Falstaff Pub in Higham, built in the 17th Century, still stands in memory of the play.

This literary connection pleased the most famous resident of Gads Hill, Charles Dickens. On March 14th 1856, Charles Dickens bought the house for £1,790. He had dreamed of owning it since he was a young boy, living in nearby Chatham.

Dickens allowed the previous occupier the Reverend Joseph Hindle to continue living there until June 1857 when the Dickens family moved in. He quickly became a valuable member of the village and held cricket matches in his meadow and an annual sports day.

In 1864, actor and friend of Dickens, Charles Fetcher, gave Dickens a two-storey Chalet as a Christmas present. It was assembled on the land near his house and he later built a tunnel between the house and the chalet. This chalet was where Dickens wrote some of his most famous novels and where he later died of a stroke. He passed away while working on what was to be his last novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ When he died, Dickens left all of his staff at Gads Hill something in his will. The Chalet is now on show at the ‘Dickens Centre’ in Rochester High Street.

By Lisa Peake

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