The River Medway of the Iron Wealdlands - A Brief History Through Time

April 28, 2021
The Weald, its Waters, its Iron and Man. 

The great treasure of the Weald as seen by its human occupants was, for many hundreds of years, its iron ore deposits. Iron ore or Iron Stone (siderite) appears as bun-shaped nodules which measure approximately 5cm-25cm or, in tabular deposits up to 25cm thick in strata within the Wealdland Cretaceous clay and sandstone bands.

The Wealdlands being full of  streams, sands, clays and woodlands, not only yielded the iron ore, but the water to process it, the stone  to build kilns and the woodlands to provide charcoal fuel. In this, an ancient human industry, of iron ore smelting and working was born, which continued through the centuries.



Although in ancient times, the area of the High Weald was an uncultivated and very heavily wooded wilderness with areas of grasslands, heaths and scrub, the prehistoric evidence of the area suggests that following the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the Neolithic inhabitants had begun farming  which resulted in areas of the dense woodlands being cleared. The Neolithic Medway Stone Megaliths, particularly that of  Kit's Coty House, shows  us that the area, and no doubt the river, held great significance to the early people of the Wealdlands.

It may have been that small communities lived on the edge of the great forests of the High Weald and along the banks of the river in small clearings and that the area was used for centuries before records began, for  the seasonal movement and grazing  of livestock along well-worn  droveways during the summer months. The ancient  Ridgeway  on the high grounds of the Weald reveals to us that there was most definitely a  well-formed trackway which allowed people to travel across the Wealdlands and  it is this trackway, along with the River Medway,  that could be described as the Weald’s oldest ‘roads’. 

The Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age the development of the  domestication of animals and the production of grain along with the development of the smelting of copper with tin, gave rise to centralized settlements and to a highly creative period in Wealdland life.  

Although there is little evidence of funerary and sacred practices during this time, the discovery of Bronze Age hoards shows us that during this age it was customary to bury highly prized and valuable items in fired clay vessels, often in or near to water.

In England alone, over three hundred and fifty such hoards have been discovered and each offer an insight into the lives of the people of those areas in which they have been found. It is these objects from the continent coupled with the discovery of the world’s  oldest seafaring Bronze Age vessel, known today as The Dover Boat, that confirms that the Bronze Age peoples of the High Weald travelled and traded across Europe just as they travelled and traded along the Medway.

The Celts

The Celtic tribe that occupied the South-Eastern corner of Britain from the 2nd Century BC were known as the Cantii, later called the Cantiaci by the Romans. They were also, intriguingly  referred to as ‘The Clear Water People’. Their territory consisted of regions of what is now known as Sussex, Kent and lands South of the River Thames. To the West lived other Celtic tribes including the Regninses. 

It is believed that the territory of the Cantii had within it, four kingdoms but that each of these kingdoms lived in peace with one another and were also willing to form a united confederation in times of trouble. 

Trouble arrived in 54 BC when  Julius Caesar landed on the Southern shores of Cantii territory, with five legions of troops including two thousand  cavalry. 

After engaging the Celts in battle near modern day Canterbury, Caesar put his energies into building his first fortification. One of the  Celtic leaders, King Cassivellaunus, attacked the  Roman forces, causing them to break camp and  to move North of the Thames where battling then continued.  Meanwhile, the Cantii  attacked the newly built fort  at Deal and such was the furious and terrifying nature and force of the Celtic tribes, coupled with their willingness to work together as one united people, that Caesar quickly withdrew his legions from Britain and moved his interests of conquest to Gaul.

By 30 BC the Cantii had established a capital in what is today, Canterbury and also created another important settlement at Rochester where there was a natural, shallow crossing point over the River Medway.

The later Roman Road of Watling Street is most likely to have been built upon or next to the ancient Celtic trackway between these two ancient tribal centres with  Rochester later becoming  a strategic and vital stronghold.

It was at this time that the kings of the region  began to issue coins stamped with their names. A rare gold stater, which is an early coin that carries a mark of authority in the form of a picture or word, was found  in the River Medway. It is dated 1-10 AD and was issued by Dubnovellaunus who ruled the Cantii at that time. The coin  shows a prancing horse and underneath a  leaf type image above parallel  lines which could depict reeds on the waters of the Medway estuary.

The Roman Occupation and The Battle of the Medway

The Roman occupation of the Weald began with the Claudian invasion of AD 43. Although the precise route of the Roman advance from the coast has been debated, it is possible to believe that the army could have come  along the Ridgeway now known as the Pilgrim's Way, to Rochester. 

The crossing of the Medway at Rochester by the Roman forces was met by the Celtic tribe of the Catuvellauni whose territory covered modern day Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and  Southern Cambridgeshire. 

Togodumnus, the king of the Catuvellauni and his brother the chieftain, faced the highly equipped  might of the Roman invasion force consisting of four legions of 20,000 men under the command of Aulus Plautius. 

The ensuing resistance of the invasion became known as The Battle of the Medway  - the first officially recorded, major battle of the second Roman invasion of these lands.

Cassius Dio, a Roman historian, described how a detachment of  Roman auxiliariesswam across the river and attacked the Celtic c horses, surprising the Britons and causing panic. Using this initial advantage, (who would become a future Roman emperor) then crossed the river with a large force but was unable to overcome the extensive Celtic forces.

Unusually for the Romans, who were used to quick and decisive victories, the battle continued  into a  second day. Despite what must have been a spectacular opposition by the Celts, they were eventually overcome and withdrew to the River Thames, where Togodumnus was defeated, dying shortly afterward. His brother, Caratacus continued resisting the Romans until he was  eventually betrayed by a Northern tribe,  captured and  sent to Rome as a War Prize.

Evidence suggests that the river Medway was made navigable at least as far as Teston during the Roman occupation and this was primarily carried out so that Kentish Ragstone could be transported from  quarries downstream by ship. The first city walls of Londinium were constructed of this stone and Roman shipwrecks with  Ragstone  onboard have been found near Blackfriars Bridge in London and in the River Medway near East Farleigh. 

Roman Ragstone quarry sites have also been found at Allington, Dean Street, Teston and Boughton Monchelsea, with the remains of Roman villas found close by. There are also  ragstone bridges across the Medway at East Farleigh, Teston and Yalding and  there are numerous medieval churches across the Weald which include Ragstone in their construction,  indicating that the transportation of this stone up the river remained prolific for centuries.

The Romans also found  in the Weald, the very well-established local tradition of iron production. 

The Romans  observed  that once the raw ore was removed from the mine, it would be crushed and washed in the waters of the Wealdland streams where the less dense rock would wash away, leaving behind the iron oxide. This oxide would then be using the bmethod where the iron was heated up (to 1500 °C) by the use of burning charcoal  in round clay kilns furnaces.

With growing markets generated by the Roman expansion of London and the building of towns, villas and farms all along the Medway and beyond, the Romans encouraged this native industry and Roman records show that of the thirty three iron mines in  Roman Britain, most were situated  in the Weald.

After being smelted,  iron was sent by barges up the Medway where it was reheated, and formed into building implements, farming tools, weaponry and a vast array of other useful items and sent either locally or wherever else it was needed in the empire.

The Roman  'Classis Britannica'  which was an imperial supply organisation as well as a navy,  took a strategic role in Wealdland iron production . It managed several large smelting sites in the area including one site at Beauport Park, near Battle. It is believed that this iron works alone may have produced as much as 30,000 tonnes of iron over 150 years.

Saxon Invasion

In AD407, the last Roman legions left Britain. Within fifty years, the Saxons, who came from Lower Saxony in Germany and the Angles who were probably from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark, took advantage of the vacuum created by the Roman withdrawal and began to land their raiding parties in Sussex.

The first South Saxons who came to prominence in West Sussex are believed to be those led by Aelle, who may have  landed on an island South of Selsey.

The Saxons fought off the  native Britons and drove them into the Wealden woodlands. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates events during their conquest of Sussex when the native Britons (whom the Anglo-Saxons called, Welsh) were ‘driven from the coastal towns into the recesses of the forest’.

Following the Anglo Saxon invasion, and over the following few centuries, Sussex was engaged in conflict with the kingdom of Wessex to its West. The land was ravaged  by fierce slaughter and devastation and its people were described by Bede as being forced into "a worse state of slavery".

After a period of rule by King Offa of Mercia,Sussex regained its independence but was then annexed by Wessex around AD827. It was finally fully absorbed into the Crown of Wessex in AD860.

From the 7th century to AD900, the Saxon Weald stretched from the marshes of Kent to the New Forest in Hampshire, being 120 miles long and 30 miles wide and consisted of worked fields  with many  small settlements. By  AD1200, many of the villages we see and know today, had been established.

Norman Conquest

Although there are few written histories and therefore little known  about how the people of the Weald lived  or their  relationship with the Medway  during Saxon  times, following the Norman Conquest, the Sussex Weald  is  mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is recorded there that there were iron works  located near East Grinstead and  that the Weald had the largest area of woodland and heath in England and that iron production remained a vital industry of the area.

The Normans, like the Romans before them,  made good use of the Wealdland iron and the skills of its people and there are also records that chronicle the transportation of Kentish Ragstone from the Isle of Grain down the Medway to build their stronghold and beacon of power, the Tower of London on the banks of The Thames. 

From 1200AD 

During these passing centuries, from their homesteads and villages, generation after generation of highly skilled craft workers  made the  High Weald one of the country’s wealthiest areas.

The Medway valley including what is now the Weir Wood Reservoir, has revealed archaeologic material that indicates massive iron production throughout this time period. There are many other sites across the Weald, including at  Gravetye, Mill Place, Brambletye and Standen, that also reveal  prolific extraction of iron ore in the area.

The industry grew steadily into the early Middle Ages,  the High Weald  continuing  to provide all those raw materials required for the iron workers that lived there. The river also continued to see increased water traffic as iron and iron products were shipped from the Wealdlands to the ever enlarging city of London.

The Middle Ages

During the Tudor  period there was a massive expansion in the production of iron brought about  by the introduction of  European blast furnaces. Although this technology allowed for ever increasing production rates, they also required greater extraction rates of iron ore and the need for  far more timber and water resources in order to feed the fires and  drive the bellows for the forges. 

The fast running streams in the steep valleys of Ashdown Forest were utilised to their full extent and it was here that Britain’s earliest known blast furnace at a  site near Buxted began operation at the end of 1490 with a second furnace, commissioned by Henry VII, opening at Newbrdge in 1496 - built expressly for the production of guncarriages, 

In time, even larger furnaces came to be built on the edge of Ashdown Forest. From then on,  the iron production in the forest grew  rapidly and the whole area was famed for its casting of cannons.. 

The wealth generated by the prolific metalworking production during the medieval period allowed for significant developments across the Weald with the formation of large estates surrounded by serving villages and farmlands. Between these communities, turnpike roads were constructed with all roads leading to London, the main destination for goods that were not sold locally.

Although roads were becoming more and more of an established way of moving people and  produce across the Weald, transportation of goods along the Medway remained vital and, with the introduction into Britain in the early 16th Century of  hop growing, the transportation from Kent of hops and later, the fruit from planted orchards  became a massive part of the local agricultural economy. 

By the mid fifteen hundreds, the massive expansion of the iron industry in the Weald and the demand for  raw materials was giving rise for concern. The forests had become greatly depleted and the amount of goods being moved was also  having serious effects on the landscape. In 1573 a Royal Commission made a firm statement that the foundries as well as the Navy were eating all the woodland in Sussex and also as making bad roads even worse with heavy traffic.

In 1581 a law was passed to prevent the setting up of any new iron works in some parts of Sussex as well as preserving  trees within twelve miles of the  South coast in order to protect the interests of the ship building industry.

The new regulations concerning the felling of the Wealdland forests also had its effect upon the Sussex glass industry of the time. As the production of glass also required large amounts of timber, by 1612, an industry that had thrived for over three hundred years finally came to an end, where upon glass production moved to the midlands where coal had become utilized as an alternative fuel source.

Civil War

Although there were sieges at both at Arundel and Chichester  as well as a skirmish at Haywards Heath, the Wealdlands suffered relatively little disruption during the Civil War and  iron production continued.  On the whole, producers distanced themselves from their buyers, supplying just bar-iron to traders both along the Medway and by other routes. Some ironworks did openly declare their alliances and ironworks in St Leonard’s Forest were destroyed by Parliamentarian forces in the 1640’s.

During these times over 14,000 Wealden Guns were cast overall, many of which can be seen on display today in museums and fortified sites including at the Tower of London.

The Pre Victorian Era

Hop and fruit growing continued to expand rapidly  and in 1823, a William Cobbett travelled from Maidstone to Mereworth along a road that would become the A26, and was so impressed by what he saw, that he recorded  his journey for posterity. 

He wrote, 

From Maidstone to Mereworth, is about seven miles, and these are the finest seven miles that I have ever seen in England or anywhere else. The Medway is to your left, with its meadows about a mile wide. You cross the Medway, in coming out of Maidstone, and it goes and finds its way down to Rochester, through a break in the chalk ridge. From Maidstone to Merryworth, I should think that there were hop gardens on one half of the way on both sides of the road. Then looking across the Medway, you see hop gardens and orchards two miles deep, on the side of a gently rising ground: and this continues with you all the way from Maidstone to Merryworth. The orchards form a great feature of the country; and the plantations of ashes and of chestnuts that I mentioned before, add greatly to the beauty. 

(There is a 1797 Ordnance Survey map showing part of Cobbett’s route from Maidstone to Mereworth along the Medway Valley) 

Post 1800’s and the Age of Industry

The iron ore industry of the Weald began to decline as charcoal furnaces were replaced by those that used  coal, causing  production sites to move to the areas of coal mining. Also, by this time, there had been massive deforestation caused by the demand of the furnaces – the forests that had given the Weald its name, were disappearing. By the end of the 18th century, the iron ore industry had all but vanished from the Weald and the last furnace at Ashburnham closed in 1813.

River trade however, especially at Maidstone, continued to be prolific and a charter allowed the levy of tolls for wharfage, anchorage and groundage on all ships coming to the town. 

Navigation of the river for all the water traffic remained difficult however as many of the banks were by this time, broken and irregular. Also, the absence of any locks meant that all movements of shipping were governed purely by the tides. 

An Act of Parliament eventually allowed for the river to be to deepened and for the  construction  of locks and towpaths. This greatly supported  the transport of timber, corn, hay, wool and other products to and from the upper reaches of the Medway which were made navigable as far as Tonbridge and Forest Row. 

These improvements meant that the  Medway continued to be  a bustling avenue of trade, with sixty very active working barges along her waterway.

In 1892 a new navigation company was formed to further improve river conditions  but, due to the invention of the steam locomotive, by 1910, it had fallen into receivership. 

The following rapid decline of transportation along the river due to the railways gave rise to concerns that the Medway would become derelict  and this gave rise to the creation of the Medway Conservancy Board. Through their work, navigation between Maidstone and Tonbridge was re-opened in 1915. Other areas of trading, especially at the high reaches of the river, however, were lost, and after centuries of business and bustle, the river became quietened once more

The 20th Century

By the mid 1970’s, responsibility for the navigation of the Medway had been  transferred to the Southern Water Authority. Although commercial traffic had ceased by this time, the river had remained popular for pleasure boating, fishing and other recreational pursuits. 

In 1989, the Water Act invested responsibility for the Navigation in the National Rivers Authority and a  restoration and maintenance programme was developed to ensure that the River Medway could continue to be enjoyed by boat owners, anglers, ramblers and the general public. 

The Present and The Future

Today, The Medway continues to be a river much enjoyed by visitors and boating enthusiasts and her waters continue to provide drinking water for the towns of  the High Weald, for local industries and for agricultural production.

In our brief journey through the history of human interaction with the Medway and the landscape through which she flows, we have seen how, after the Neolithic period, humans used the bounties of these lands as a resource in order to gain personal and national power through the taking and utilization of her natural treasures. 

As we move forward into the future, we have the opportunity to reclaim and re-create a more ancient and more wholesome, living relationship with the  Wealdlands and the great river that flows through them. One in which instead of taking, we seek to give. One in which instead of causing harm, we offer protection and one in which instead of being oblivious to her great and diverse Nature, we seek to listen and to learn and in so doing,  rediscover our own True Nature that allows us to realise and to truly feel, the interconnectedness and sacredness of All life.   

Together as Friends of the River Medway  we can support each other in making individual changes in how we treat our precious water – in our domestic home use and in our wider  community.

We can challenge local industry by comprehensively and scientifically exposing their use  and discharge into the waterways of highly dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.

We can encourage local agriculture to move to alternative forms of fertilisers and away from harmful  pesticides that at present run into the river water.

And we can seek to change existing laws that allow local water authorities to pump raw sewage into the river, by creating new laws that will protect the river from all such harmful and careless activity and polluters.

We can also return to celebrating and reconnecting to the river as did our ancestors, not just in the creation of art, song and literature but  also in the bringing forward of the myriad of gifts that live within us all.

As we look ahead, let us then, utilize a different treasure of these 

In this, Friends of The River Medway invite all those who seek to reach out, connect and grow a new community of loving care and respect for the waters of these Wealdlands so that we can forge a new way of being in relationship with this wondrous river.

So that we can all, in this our heart-led work, develop our individual and community courage and  vitality and re-grow  the respect for ourselves, as we regrow respect for the Earth and all life upon her, together.

Written by J Julia

Sources Used:

River Medway Maidstone River Park 

WIRG Experimental  Bloomery

Wealden History Of Early Iron Making Industry Of The Weald 

Library:  Sussex Archaeological Collections  Vol 143  


Pre History  

History of Rochester  

The Historical Legend of Brampton & Samuel Pepys 

General history   The Weald 

The History, Genealogy & Topography of the Weald of Kent , Surrey & Sussex    

The Weald  Town, History, Bibliography & Topography 

The Iron Story

Sussex Archaeology Collections  

Exploring The Past In West Sussex 

BBC The Medway Megaliths 

The River Medway 

Explore The Medway 

Military & Maritime 

History & Heritage   Visit Medway 

Lost In Combat     Artifacts From The Bronze Age 

Text Pages 2004v5 

Hope In The Medway 

The Wealden Iron Industry 

Iron At Weir Wood 

History Of The River Medway 

Pre History Timeline

Age Of Iron   The Sussex Archaeological Society   

Experimental Bloomery 

The Wealden Iron Industry – A Brief History 

Iron Industry Archaeology

Iron Working

The Iron Story 

Wealden Iron Masters & Cannons 

Wealden Iron 

The Sussex Weald

History Of Sussex

Industries: Glass  British History Online 

The Enigmatic coins Of The Celtic Tribes Of Britain  

Kingdoms Of British Celts 

The Kent Archaeological Review Autumn 1973

Key Archaeological Finds Across Kent

River Medway 

Bronze Age    Kent Archaeological Society

The Bronze Age Boat – A History of Kent and It’s Place In The Weald

Dover Museum & Bronze Age Exhibition

Dig Ventures

The Sussex Archaeological Society

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