Although Brompton is often now referred to as “Old Brompton”, as a settlement its history is little more than 300 years. The name Old Brompton came about in the mid-nineteenth century, with the arrival of the railways, and the growth of “New Brompton” around the “Gillingham and New Brompton” station.
In the last few decades of the nineteenth century the small settlement of New Brompton grew to dominate the older settlements of Brompton and Gillingham, eventually taking over the name of the latter.
Travelling back to Brompton 350 years would present a completely rural landscape of hedged sheep-fields, orchards and woodland with few, if any, buildings. Earlier than this it had probably remained a rural landscape since the Bronze Age, and before this a wilderness landscape. Prior to the Norman Conquest the story of Brompton is truly just the story of part of Chatham, but during the medieval period and beyond Gillingham begins to play a much larger part in the area’s history. Brompton’s development is also inexorably linked to the development of Chatham Dockyard and its defences.
Although in its strictest sense the village of Brompton is only a few streets, in general usage the name is often used to apply to all the land enclosed by Chatham Lines but outside the Dockyard, and now includes the twentieth century army housing built just outside the southern end of the fortifications on the Brompton side of the Great Lines and parts of St Mary’s Island. The development of the village of Brompton is closely linked to the development of the various barracks, fortifications and the Dockyard surrounding it.
Brompton reached its peak in terms of commercial importance in the mid-nineteenth century, gradually being eclipsed by New Brompton by the early twentieth century. Even as its importance declined it continued to grow in population, though limited in size by the surrounding Government installations. This led to an overcrowded and unhealthy settlement, and in the 1950s much of Old Brompton was torn down, its population re-housed in other parts of Medway, and a new ‘modern’ Brompton was built in its place.
Until the seventeenth century Brompton was farmland connected to the Medieval Manor of Westcourt. In 1697 a Woolwich entrepreneur named Thomas Rogers bought the Manor and laid out five streets. By 1699 the first houses were being built and just ten years later the settlement had grown to 100-200 houses.
Rogers built the settlement to supply housing close to the Dockyard for its workers. He seems to have intended Brompton to have grown much larger, but in 1709 the Government purchased much of Westcourt Manor and other nearby lands to build defences for the Dockyard. This severely limited the expansion of the new village.
In 1756 construction on the Lines began. The construction of Lines brought soldiers to man it, and these needed barracks. These were all built in or close to Brompton – Chatham Barracks (1758), The Marine Barracks (1779), The Gunners Barracks (1782) and finally Brompton Barracks (1804). This influx of soldiers boosted the population, and many businesses sprang up to cater for them. By 1798, barely 100 years after the first building was erected, Brompton had grown to a town of 400 properties.
A 1793 directory listed the principal tradesmen in Brompton: 3 doctors, 4 butchers, 4 bakers, 1 pastry cook, 12 victuallers (pubs), 3 Tailors, 1 linen draper (seller of fine fabrics and linens), 3 bricklayers, 1 house carpenter, 1 plumber & glazier, 1 blacksmith, 2 shoe sellers, 2 shoe makers, 12 grocers, 4 chandlers, 8 Navy clerks, 3 Navy pay clerks, 3 schools, 1 peruke maker, 2 perfumiers & hair dressers and a bookseller & stationer. This list shows that Brompton was well provided with a wide variety of commercial premises, making it a more important commercial centre than Gillingham at this time.
It was against this backdrop that the School of Military Engineering arrived in 1812, as Chatham Lines were expanded and altered for the last time.
For a fuller history of Brompton please read Ben Levick’s notes on ‘The History of Brompton’ (click here to download).