In prehistoric times, the first people appeared in the Dartford area around 250,000 years ago: a tribe of prehistoric hunter-gatherers whose exemplar is called Swanscombe Man. Many other archaeological investigations have revealed a good picture of occupation of the district with important finds from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
When the Romans engineered the Dover to London road (afterwards named Watling Street), it was necessary to cross the River Darent by ford, giving the settlement its name. Roman villas were built along the Darent Valley, and at Noviomagus (Crayford), close by. The Saxons may have established the first settlement where Dartford now stands. Dartford manor is mentioned in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, after the Norman conquest. It was then owned by the king.
During the medieval period Dartford was an important waypoint for pilgrims and travellers en route to Canterbury and the Continent, and various religious orders established themselves in the area. In the 12th century the Knights Templar had possession of the manor of Dartford; the National Trust property at Sutton-at-Hone, to the south of the town, is a remaining piece of that history. In the 14th century, a priory was established here, and two groups of friars—the Dominicans and the Franciscans—built hospitals here for the care of the sick. At this time the town became a small but important market town.
Wat Tyler, of Peasants' Revolt fame, might well have been a local hero, although three other towns in Kent all claim likewise, and there are reasons to doubt the strength of Tyler's connection to Dartford, though the existence of a town centre public house named after him could give credence to Dartford's claim. Dartford, however, cannot claim a monopoly on public houses named after Tyler.
It is probable that Dartford was a key meeting point early in the Peasants' Revolt with a detachment of Essex rebels marching south to join Kentish rebels at Dartford before accompanying them to Rochester and Canterbury in the first week of June 1381. Although lacking a leader, Kentishmen had assembled at Dartford around 5 June through a sense of county solidarity at the mistreatment of Robert Belling, a man claimed as a serf by Sir Simon Burley. Burley had abused his royal court connections to invoke the arrest of Belling and, despite a compromise being proposed by bailiffs in Gravesend, continued to demand the impossible £300 of silver for Belling's release. Having left for Rochester and Canterbury on 5 June, the rebels passed back through Dartford, swollen in number, a week later on 12 June en route for London.
In the 15th century, two kings of England became part of the town's history. Henry V marched through Dartford in November 1415 with his troops prior to fighting the French at the Battle of Agincourt; in 1422 Henry's body was taken to Holy Trinity Church by Edmund Lacey, Bishop of Exeter, who conducted a funeral. In March 1452, Richard, Duke of York, camped at the Brent allegedly with ten thousand men, waiting for a confrontation with King Henry VI. The Duke surrendered to the king in Dartford. The place of the camp is marked today by York Road, Dartford.
The 16th century saw significant changes to the hitherto agrarian basis of the market in Dartford, as new industries began to take shape (see below). The priory was destroyed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and a new manor house was subsequently constructed by King Henry VIII.
Many Protestants were executed during the reigns of Queen Mary (1553–1554) and Philip and Mary (1554–1558), including Christopher Wade, a Dartford linen-weaver who was burnt at the stake on the Brent in 1555. The Martyrs' Memorial on East Hill commemorates Wade and other Kentish Martyrs. In 1576 Dartford Grammar School was founded, part of the Tudor emphasis on education for ordinary people.
The earliest industries were those connected with agriculture, such as the brewing of traditional beers and ales. Lime-burning and chalk-mining also had their place. Fulling was another: the cleansing of wool needed a great deal of water, which the river could provide. This led to other water-based industries, using hydropower to operate machinery.
Upon his return in 1578 from Frobisher Bay in the Canadian Arctic with a reputed cargo of gold-bearing ore, Sir Martin Frobisher had the refining done on Powder Mill Lane in Dartford. However, the ore proved valueless and was used for road surfacing. Sir John Spilman set up the first paper mill in England at Dartford in 1588 on a site near Powder Mill Lane, and soon some 600 employees worked there, providing an invaluable source of local employment. Iron-making on the Weald was in full operation at this time, and iron ingots were sent to Dartford, to England's first iron-slitting mill, set up by the Darent at Dartford Creek in 1595 by Godfrey Box, an immigrant from the Low Countries. In 1785, a blacksmith from Lowfield Street began to make engines, boilers and machinery. Some of that machinery was for the local gunpowder factory run by Miles Peter Andrews and the Pigou family. In 1785, the firm of J & E Hall was set up, specialising in heavy engineering, and later refrigerating equipment, and, by 1906, vehicle production.
From those humble beginnings in the 18th century was to come the industrial base on which the growth and prosperity of Dartford were founded. In 1840 the mustard factory of Saunders & Harrison was described as being "perhaps the largest in the kingdom". Dartford Paper Mills were built in 1862, when excise duty on paper was abolished. Between 1844 and 1939 the fabric printing works of Augustus Applegath were in being in Bullace Lane: again a firm using the waters of the river. RAF Joyce Green, at Long Reach, near Dartford was one of the first Royal Flying Corp airfields, It was established in 1911 by Vickers Limited (the aircraft and weapons manufacturer, who used it as an airfield and testing ground. It was superseded by Biggin Hill, and closed in 1919. The demand created by World War I meant that output at the local Vickers factory multiplied, with a positive effect on the local economy. Burroughs-Wellcome chemical works (later incorporated into GlaxoSmithKline) made Dartford a centre for the pharmaceutical industry. During the war, many Belgian refugees arrived in the town. Since the town was unable to accommodate them all, many people were housed with volunteers. There has been a large power station at Littlebrook on the Thames, to the north of the town, since 1939. The current station, which features one of the tallest chimneys in the UK, dates from about 1978.
The Mazda motor manufacturer has its UK head office at the large Thames-side Crossways Business Park. Thomas Walter Jennings created the iconic Vox musical brand, with original products such as the AC15 and AC30 amplifiers originating in Dartford. In early 2006, the since-closed South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) purchased the former Unwins (an off-licence chain that went into administration in 2005) depot on the edge of the town. The warehouse was demolished and a business centre, The Base, built in its place. The Base will be managed by Basepoint Centres and funded by the non-departmental public body, HCA.
The former GlaxoSmithKline manufacturing site in Mill Pond Road was bought by an off-shore property trust in April 2010. Essential Land has ambitious plans to construct 1,050 homes, in addition to offices, shops and restaurants. The first phase of the £150 million development could be complete as early as 2014.
Dartford lies within the area known as the London Basin. The low-lying marsh to the north of the town consists of London Clay, and the alluvium brought down by the two rivers—the Darent and the Cray—whose confluence is in this area. The higher land on which the town stands, and through which the narrow Darent valley runs, consists of chalk surmounted by the Blackheath Beds of sand and gravel.
As a human settlement, Dartford became established as a river crossing-point with the coming of the Romans; and as a focal point between two routes: that from west to east being part of the main route connecting London with the Continent; and the southerly route following the Darent valley. As a result, the town's main road pattern makes the shape of letter 'T'. The Dartford Marshes to the north, and the proximity of Crayford in the London Borough of Bexley to the west, mean that the town's growth is to the south and east. Wilmington is to all intents and purposes part of the town to the south; whilst the almost continuous Thames Gateway development means that there is little to show the town boundary in an easterly direction.
Within the town boundaries there are several distinct areas: the town centre around the parish church and along the High Street; the Joyce Green area; Temple Hill estate constructed in 1927; the Brent; Fleet Downs; as well as two important areas of open space and several industrial estates. The open spaces are Central Park alongside the river; and Dartford Heath (see below).
Like most of the United Kingdom, Dartford has an oceanic climate.
This area to the south-west of Dartford covers some 314 acres (127 ha) of open space. Historically it has always been of importance: prehistoric barrows and Bronze Age artefacts having been discovered here. The first recorded local cricket match took place here in 1723; and the Society of Royal Kentish Bowman were briefly established here between 1785 and 1802. The nearby area is still known as Bowmans.
The Heath is an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It contains three ponds (Donkey Pond, Woodland Pond and North Pond) and a variety of habitats: including acid grassland, broadleaved semi-natural woodland, heather and gorse, as well as other plant life. It is common land and therefore escaped being enclosed during the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. Dartford Heath is used as a local recreation area (particularly for cyclists) and dog walking area, but suffers from being close to the local recycling centre which sometimes leaves windblown rubbish along proximal roads. picture.
Dartford Heath is often mistakenly believed to be the original source for the name of the Dartford warbler; however the bird was first described in writing in 1776, after it was seen on Bexley Heath, near the town of Dartford.
In 1801 Dartford’s population was c.2400.
Some of Dartford's most prominent industries suffered extreme decline in the 20th century, causing redundancies and unemployment. Brewing, paper-making, flour milling and the manufacture of cement were the main industries to suffer extinction or significant decline. Nearby Swanscombe Cement Works (now redeveloped into Bluewater shopping centre) was closed by Blue Circle in 1990. This industry had brought great prosperity to the companies involved in cement manufacture, but left a legacy locally of despoiled derelict land and pollution. In 1990 Dartford contained some 1,700 acres (6.9 km2) of spoiled land resulting from extractive industries. Cement-dust pollution from local cement works was a regular subject of complaint in the local press throughout the 20th century.
Since the closure of Dartford's major employers: Seagers' Engineering Works, J & E Hall International, Vickers, the reduction and subsequent closure of Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), and the redevelopment of nearby Bexleyheath as a shopping town in the 1970s (and the more recent development of the Bluewater Shopping Centre), Dartford has lost a significant number of its rising Generation X demographic to more economically viable jobs, towns and cities. Dartford is still home to major brands such as Sainsbury's, W.H. Smiths, and Boots. With the opening of the major Bluewater regional shopping centre just outside the town, the high street has seen a growth in cheaper brands such as Primark and Wilkinson taking over empty premises. However the oldest independent business still trading in Dartford, the butchers Richardson & Sons established in 1908, still remains trading and in its original shop on Lowfield Street; however, this is threatened by the Lowfield centre superstore development (see below).
In 2007 Dartford saw an increase in the number of visible household brands in its environs as B&Q, M&S Simply Food, TK Maxx and Asda Living opened new outlet stores in the town centre. Before this Safeway had taken part in the development of Dartford's second shopping centre, The Orchards, located next to the Orchard Theatre. The Safeway's site was eventually taken over by Waitrose but this closed in March 2014 and a new Aldi store opened in June 2015. The historical and once bustling main High Street and adjacent shopping centre, The Priory, continue to fall into a decline, and the large department store previously occupied by the Co-operative has now been demolished, having been bought by Dartford Borough Council. The problems with obtaining planning permission for the Lowfield centre superstore development and associated residential units have been compounded by the recession. This has created further delay in resolving the dereliction of the town. There was very slow progress with the Lowfield street Tesco development and on 8 January 2015 it was finally announced that the Tesco plans were to be abandoned.
Dartford has two major buildings concerned with performance art. The Orchard Theatre, located in the town centre, is a fully professional theatre, providing audiences with a large range of drama, dance, music and entertainment. The Mick Jagger Centre (built in the grounds of Dartford Grammar School) in Shepherds Lane was completed in 2000 and provides facilities for community arts across a wide region. The local museum in Market Street is housed in the same building as the library.
Central Park is a formal park in the town centre. It is used for various community events. It comprises 26 acres (110,000 m2) of land.
Dartford F.C. play at Princes Park Stadium and compete in the National League South. Also based in Dartford is Kent County Football League club Fleetdown United.
Dartford is also home to Dartford and White Oak Triathlon Club. Formed in 1988, it is one of the oldest British Triathlon Federation clubs in the UK. The club trains at The Bridge Estate, Dartford.
There are, or have been, many hospital buildings in Dartford, the majority of which have been closed since the opening of Darent Valley Hospital. One of the best-known, Stone House Hospital, in Cotton Lane to the east of the town, was opened on 16 April 1866 as the "City of London Lunatic Asylum". It was, and still is, a large castellated structure built in spacious grounds. It remained under the direct administration of the City of London until 1948, when it was transferred to the National Health Service (NHS). It remains one of the largest and most visible structures in Dartford, and was until recently operated by the NHS to manage regional health care delivery, and was also home to a nursing school, Livingstone Hospital, on East Hill. The main buildings of this facility are now closed, and have been turned into luxury flats.
The route of a Celtic ancient trackway which the Romans later paved and identified as Iter III on the Antonine Itinerary, later to be called Watling Street, and which the current A2 roughly follows, passed close to the town. After the Romans left Britain, it fell out of use, as the town itself developed and traffic went into the town itself, the name Watling Street transferring to the new route. The introduction of stagecoach services increased the amount of traffic through the town, so that by the 18th century it had become necessary to control the upkeep of such a heavily used road. Turnpike Trusts were set up by Act of Parliament. Dartford was served by two: that for Watling Street; and the road south to Sevenoaks, both brought into being between 1750 and 1780.
From 1925 the A2 main road took traffic away from Dartford town centre via the Princes Road bypass. Today the original main road through the town is the A226. The erstwhile turnpike road south to Sevenoaks is now the A225). A newer by-pass is the A206, which skirts the town to the north. Its prime purpose is to carry traffic from the riverside industrial developments on to the Dartford Crossing from both west and east. Dartford is perhaps most well known for the latter, the main mode of crossing the River Thames to the east of London, where the southbound A282 (part of the London Orbital) crosses the river via the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge toll bridge, opened in 1991. The northbound carriageway crosses via the twin bore Dartford Tunnel. The first tunnel was opened in 1963, its twin in 1980.
Dartford railway station is a busy junction serving three routes. The first railway from London to reach Dartford was the North Kent Line via Woolwich in 1849, connecting at Gravesend with the line through to the Medway Towns. Later two more lines were built, the Dartford Loop Line through Sidcup, which opened in 1866, and the Bexleyheath Line, which opened in 1895. All the lines were electrified on 6 June 1926.
Dartford is served by three Transport for London bus services as well as many Arriva Kent and Go Coach routes linking Dartford with areas including Bexleyheath, Crayford, Erith, Gravesend, Greenhithe, Orpington, Sevenoaks, Sidcup, Swanley, Welling and Woolwich.
Fastrack express bus system connects the Kent Thameside area, and was completed by early 2008.
Dartford has several secondary schools, which largely operate within the county council-run grammar school system:Dartford Grammar School
Dartford Grammar School for Girls
Wilmington Grammar School for Boys
Wilmington Grammar School for Girls
Dartford Science & Technology College
Further Education is provided by:North West Kent College
The Parish Church, Holy Trinity, is situated on the western bank of the River Darent, from where a hermit would conduct travellers across the ford. The church was originally a 9th-century Saxon structure, but gained later Norman additions. In the 13th century a royal wedding was celebrated there; thus today the choristers are entitled to wear scarlet cassocks. Also on display within the church is a brass plaque commemorating the work of Richard Trevithick, the pioneer of steam propulsion, who lived, worked and died in the town.
The graveyard is situated in St Edmund's Pleasance on the summit of East Hill (the place where Richard Trevithick is buried), which gave rise to a traditional and derogatory rhyme of Dartford's people: "Dirty Dartford, filthy people, bury their dead above the steeple." The church actually has no steeple; it has a tower featuring a ring of eight bells.
The following are from or have lived in Dartford (or other connection if specified):Malcolm Allison (1927–2010), football player and manager
Andrea Arnold (born 1961), Oscar and BAFTA winning film director
George Barton (1808–1864), Sussex cricketer
Martina Bergman-Österberg (1849–1915), physical education pioneer and founder of Dartford College
Peter Blake (born 1932), pop artist
Dave Charnley (1935–2012), undefeated British Lightweight Champion boxer (1957–63)
Ron Cooper (1932–2012), bicycle frame builder
Mackenzie Crook (born 1971), actor
Graham Dilley (1959–2011), Kent and England cricketer
Peter Glaze (1917-1983), Comedian
Len Goodman (born 1944), dancer and reality TV judge (Strictly Come Dancing)
Ivor Gurney (1890–1937), composer and poet
Paul Hartnoll (born 1968) and Phil Hartnoll (born 1964), electronic musicians and members of the band Orbital
Henry Havelock (1795–1857), military general
Jimmy Havoc (born 1984), professional wrestler
Barry Hawkins (born 1979), professional snooker player
Terry Hollands (born 1979), Britain's Strongest Man (2007)
Henry Ambrose Hunt (1866–1946), meteorologist
Mick Jagger (born 1943), vocalist and songwriter, The Rolling Stones
Diane Keen (born 1946), actress
Sidney Keyes (1922–1943), war poet
John Latham (1743–1837), ornithologist
Phil May (born 1944), vocalist, The Pretty Things
Matt Morgan (born 1977), comedy writer
Aaron Morris (born 1991), comedian and TV presenter
Topsy Ojo (born 1985), London Irish and England rugby union full-back, attended Dartford Grammar School
Min Patel (born 1970), Kent and England cricketer
Keith Richards (born 1943), guitarist and songwriter, The Rolling Stones
Steve Rider (born 1950), TV sports presenter
Paul Samson (1953–2002), rock guitarist
Alfred Sturge (1816–1901), pastor and missionary
Dick Taylor (born 1943), guitarist, The Pretty Things
Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), Prime Minister who unsuccessfully ran to be MP of Dartford in 1950 and 1951
Pete Tong (born 1960), house DJ
Richard Trevithick (1771–1833), inventor and mining engineer
Malcolm Wakeford, musician and composer
William James Erasmus Wilson (1809–1884), surgeon