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Secrets of the PIER

PUBLISHED: 17:31 28 May 2008 | UPDATED: 09:47 23 August 2010

Roger Bowen

Roger Bowen

THE river is such an important part of Gravesend s history, three generations of my family made a living on the Thames but the shipping industry is nothing compared to those days now. Roger Bowen, 81, from New Barn, remembers his family s fascinating c

'THE river is such an important part of Gravesend's history, three generations of my family made a living on the Thames but the shipping industry is nothing compared to those days now."

Roger Bowen, 81, from New Barn, remembers his family's fascinating career on the River Thames as history enthusiasts took advantage of a rare visit to the Royal Terrace Pier, Gravesend.

He was among scores who visited the pier, usually closed to the public, when it was opened for a guided tour last Wednesday.

was built in 1845 by J B Redman to replace a temporary pier that was built 10 years earlier. In its heyday hundreds of ships a day used it and its tiny, bustling offices as goods were transported around the world.

Mr Bowen worked with the Orient shipping company in Tilbury before moving to P&0 in the 1960s.

He said: "So much has changed over the years. When my family started working on the pier it was buzzing. The General Steam Navigation Company (GSNC) traded in all sorts of good and cargo it was a massive business. There were four major tugs companies, but a lot has changed over the years and there is no major British shipping line at the moment, just P&0 but that's cruising of course.

"The pier was the place to work, completely busy all the time. Today I have watched a few vessels pass, back when I worked here you would have seen over 40 in the same amount of time

"There was a café on the pier and people would even pay sixpence to sit on the bench and watch them pass.

"It was the main point of employment, pilots, tugs, watermen, dockers, shrimp boats. You name it we had it, but that is all pretty much consigned to history now."

A caricature of Mr Bowen's grandfather Charles Percy Bowen was even published in the Gravesend Reporter in 1935 when we revealed the prominent people in the river services.

During the visit this week people were given a chance to see the architect plans and a host of other historical information and walk around the pier itself.

The tour was conducted by Port of London (PLA) civil engineer Andrew Mckay who gave a short talk summing up key events in the pier's history.

Doug Kempster, a spokesperson for PLA who own the pier, said: "It's not something we can have open all the time but of course the people of Gravesham are entitled to come and look at the pier because it is a historical site and that's why we run open days like today."

It was given the title of 'Royal' due to the number of royal visitors it has received throughout its history. Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, Vicky, left for Prussia from the pier on the Victoria and Albert state yacht after her marriage to the Prince Frederick in 1858 and Princes Alexandria arrived there from Denmark to marry the Prince of Wales in 1863.

In the late 19th century the pier became a base for pilots and it is still in limited use today, although not open to the public.

Mr Bowen is one of 600 members who have joined the Special Container Active Retirement Association (SCARA).

He is writing a book, called British Box Business: A History of OCC which is due to be published on March 2009.

michael.adkins@archant.co.uk

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