The infamous history Burntwick Island, as told by Rainham History

These days, it’s a low lying, marshy island Medway well known for its masses of noisy circling birds, but I had no idea it had so much history – or was was so ‘infamous’. I guess many small yacht and dinghy may not know either.

But thankfully the Rainham History website has come to our aid – check out the Burntwick Island story and more including this piece about Blower’s Wharf , this one about the HMS Princess Irene Disaster of May 1915 (caused by a faulty mine, it caused 350 or so deaths), and this one about Otterham Quay.

But back to Burntwick. It turns out the island was only cut off by the sea through erosion some time in the mid 18th century – and then became as great place for ships in quarantine – and smuggling and smugglers, who were also at times known as ‘owlers’.

In the early 19th century it became a base for the North Kent Gang,  of who were discovered by two government officials unloading contraband in Stangate Creek in 1820 and a fight followed. Eventually three of the gang were executed and fifteen transported to Tasmania.

A grave maintained on the island by the Royal Navy is that of assistant ship’s Sidney Bernard died from yellow fever from the crew of a quarantied ship.

Later shepherd appropriately named shepherd James Woolley and his wife lived on the island, and the remains of their house is said to exist there today. Later it became a rubbish dump, and still later it was the site of gun emplacements and a forces training centre.

PSWeblogger and across-the-estuary local sailor Nick Ardley has some points (and corrections) to make in the comments below. There’s more about Burntwick Island in his book  Swinging the Lamp.

And he kindly sent over this photo of Sidney Bernard’s grave as it appears today. Thanks Nick!

Sunset over Burntwick Island


8 thoughts on “The infamous history Burntwick Island, as told by Rainham History”

  1. The ‘farm’ sat in the bight to the west of the derelict jetty. Part of the western (inner) sea wall that protected the compound appears to exist, but of the farm house nothing has survived – it would be on the mud flats now. A Wessex Archaeological survey found nothing either…

    The grave of RN Surgeon Sydney Barnard (From Dublin) is NOT maintained by the navy or anyone else for that matter. It sits almost buried in sea purslane and cord grass at the edge of a deepening rill.

    There are several pages about this chap with comment from the RN tropical diseases librarian, plus a 1950s picture of grave and recent pencil sketch of railing tops in my book, Swinging the Lamp: Thames Estuary Tidal Tales.

    The island itself was not used as a quarantine station, this was Stangate Creek. A shore station was built on Chetney Hill, but due to the area being full of mosquitoes it was a failure – worse than being cooped in a ship where the little critters bred in the bilges. What the sailors needed was simple, clean fresh dry air…

    The 1895-15 boom defence bits and bobs are interesting too. Anyway, I’m not going to relate all of what’s in the book…

      1. Hi Gavin, yes, as far as I know landing is free of any rights, however, I avoid landing during the nesting season. Dog owning sailors land at the old landing place too.
        There are a number of people who are aware of the graves exact location. Having been to it and sketched and photographed it, we (Wife and me) said a prayer and departed.
        I believe it should be left in peace. Its location is likely to be ‘opened’ to the world at some point for a rill is developing beside it as the saltings continue to mature as time goes by…
        I’ll send you a picture!

    1. Hi Nick, I think I may have metamorphosed into the RN tropical diseases librarian (not quite my job title) but I think you contacted me many years ago. Good to know you’re still out there, if it is you!

  2. The last Briton known to have been killed by malaria after contracting the disease in this country died on Sheppey in 1952. Dr Ralph Harbach, of the Natural History Museum in London, said “This is how the man died in 1952. Soldiers coming home from foreign countries were bringing malaria into Britain. The mosquitoes were passing it on to others from them.”

    Some huge mosquitoes emerge from Stonebridge pond during the season.

  3. I’ve camped on Burntwick several times and have lots of photos. It’s beautiful place, I’ve lots of photos – pm me if you’d like to see a few 🙂

  4. Island ownership – Deadmans Island is owned by Natural England and apparently requires permission to land. It is leased to two people – see BBC Southeast prog 30 Jan 2017. (No one told me before I landed …!) The barge remains, due to erosion, are no longer effectively on any part of the island. See:

    But as far as I am aware Burntwick is owned by Medway Ports … I don’t suppose some mysterious person can see you from Liverpool.

    I’m sure a wandering sailor would be forgiven…

    1. I landed here on Saturday, 3 years after this chatter. I was waiting out a storm and waiting for the tide to allow me back into Lower Halstow Creek. I was reported to the coastguard as someone likely in need of help, (the wind was blowing up to a steady 28kts), VTS sent the river police to check me over, it happened to be the first day out of the E.U. and the river police didn’t look friendly, were all carrying machine guns and didn’t want to get muddy so they settled to shouting at me from their boat mid creek. They took my name and date of birth, but gave up before asking an address, they didn’t advise me that I’d done anything wrong.

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