The man who created Gravesend’s first printing press

PUBLISHED: 09:21 18 January 2013

A book by George Arnold reveals diary entries of Robert Pocock

A book by George Arnold reveals diary entries of Robert Pocock


One of Gravesend’s most influential residents didn’t have any recognition in the town until very recently – in fact many people may not have realised who the pub in Windmill Street was named after.

Historian Christoph Bull, Cllr Michael Wenban with Arber Husani manager of Robert Pocock pub, resident Nick Hitchens and historian Tony Larkin with Pocock's plaqueHistorian Christoph Bull, Cllr Michael Wenban with Arber Husani manager of Robert Pocock pub, resident Nick Hitchens and historian Tony Larkin with Pocock's plaque

A man of many diverging interests, Robert Pocock is described as a historian, a naturalist, a botanist and a printer.

He was born in Gravesend in 1760 and spent most of his life living in High Street, where he set up the first printing press in the town in 1786 and wrote what is believed to be the first local history book – the History of Gravesend and Milton – published in 1797.

His grave – an unmarked spot in St Michael’s Church in Wilmington – belies the influence he had on Gravesend and its residents, both past and present, but it also signifies a life with eccentricities that lost out to financial realities.

A painting of Robert Pocock by Douglas WaltersA painting of Robert Pocock by Douglas Walters

Pocock didn’t receive much formal education, but his tireless research in the Gravesend area led to him being considered by the community as one of the foremost authorities on local history and nature.

In a 1883 book on Pocock, George M Arnold wrote: “The toilsome search for a fossil, the active pursuit of any new butterfly, the unwearied scanning of the heavens, the discovery of a rare plant – these were his reactions.”

Fishermen would bring specimens to his home while farmers would ferry him birds or plants which he would supply names for and classify.

Pocock would make volumes comprising of thousands of varieties of dried and preserved plants which he laboriously noted with their scientific and common names, annotated with great care.

At the age of 26, Pocock decided to bring to Gravesend its first printing press and using this he published a series of children’s books called Reading Made Easy.

Spurred on by sharing knowledge with others, he wrote his Gravesend history book, the preface of which reads: “The history of the town and parishes of Gravesend Milton will be instructive, entertaining, and useful, not only to the resident inhabitants of the town and its environs, but likewise to every person occasionally visiting.”

Even more determined, he set up a library next to his printing press comprising his historical books and subscriptions of popular literary magazines.

However his enthusiasm wasn’t quite matched with the reception the library received.

Literacy levels weren’t high and when the sign daubed with “Library” was placed on his door, many people came in not to read the books but to find out what the word meant.

As much as he became a source of knowledge for Gravesend, his activities didn’t bring him much fortune and an argument with the council saw it break off any deals using Pocock’s printing press.

By the mid-1820s, the lingering poverty overcame him and he went bust, his house was taken and his books and collections sold off.

Homeless and destitute, he left his own town went to Dartford to live with one of his sons.

There he took up his research again, hoping to provide his neighbours with a full history of Dartford and Wilmington but Pocock died before completing it.

It wasn’t until 2010 that some local historians decided to mark his final resting place with a tribute.

A plaque was commissioned by Gravesham Heritage Association and is currently held within Wilmington pavilion.

Within the Gravesend pub named after Pocock a plaque has been mounted, while in the library is a portrait of Pocock commissioned in 1986 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Gravesend printing press.

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