The town's name came from the fact that there is a small stream or "bourne" running underground in part of the town. As such it came to be known as the town that was "Sitting-on-the-Bourne."
"Hasted writing in the 1790s in his History of Kent states that "Sittingbourne was anciently written Sedingbourne, in Saxon, Saedingburga, i.e. the hamlet by the bourne or small stream."
The Oxford Dictionary of English Place names quotes Sittingbourne as written Sidingeburn in the year 1200. It goes on to say that this probably means "Stream of the dwellers on the slope" derived from the Old English side+inga+burna. Side meaning hillside; inga meaning belonging to or associated with, and burna meaning stream.
Canon Scott Robertson in his paper written in 1878 entitled "On the Names of Lands and Houses in and around Sittingbourne, their antiquity and origin" says that "Sittingbourne was commonly written as Sedyngburne in the middle ages." He argues that the first part of the name refers to the name of the clan or tribe of Soedingas who settled here. The second part simply means a brook. It has to be said, however, that the evidence for a Belgic tribe named Soedingas in this area is very slim.
In the "Old Dover Road", it is suggested that Sittingbourne simply means Seething burn or brook. One thing is certain. There was a stream which flowed across the High St. close to the junction with Bell Road. Dr. Scott Robertson says "Persons now living still remember the stream at the east end of the street, through which the Dover and Canterbury coaches used to splash and many still recollect stepping stones just east of the churchyard." Crown Quay Lane was in those days known as The Water Lane. The stream is still there but now underground.
There was another stream at the west end of the town which flowed into Milton Creek and if pilgrims did sit down on the higher ground it seems most likely it was to dry their feet."
In the Middle Ages, Sittingbourne was a popular place for pilgrims to Canterbury and offered a thriving market. A settlement existed in the area as far back as 1086 when Norman records a village pond.
Sittingbourne became a popular resting place for distinguished travellers as well as pilgrims, especially those visiting mainland Europe via the port of Dover. King Henry V of England stopped at the Red Lion Inn, formerly The Lyon, on his way back from the Battle of Agincourt, and Henry VIII visited Sittingbourne in 1522 and 1532, and reportedly ate at the Red Lion as well. It is also reported that Queen Victoria stayed at the Rose Inn, which is now the town's high street Woolworths store, but a Red Rose engraved above the store front reminds visitors of its history.
Sittingbourne has, over its long history, developed significant links with the history of the river barge, still evident today. At the centre of the town's paved high street is the sculpture of a bronze bargeman. The Dolphin shipyard was formerly the barge yard of cement works and brickmakers C Burley, and is on a tidal inlet running from Sittingbourne to the Swale.
Today, paper manufacture at Kemsley Paper Mill and fruit preserving and packing are the main industries. During the 20th century, Sittingbourne Paper Mill was the largest producer of newsprint in the world, supplying the demands of Fleet Street. Sittingbourne Paper Mill closed in 2007.
These industries flourished during the 19th century when, as a result of the industrial revolution, Sittingbourne developed into a port from which Kent produce was transported to the London markets. Paper mills and brickfields were fed by barges that brought in sand, mud and household waste such as cinders for brick making, and took away the bricks once made.
During this era over 500 types of barges are believed to have been built, but after World War II, these activities began to fall into a decline, so that only the Burley yard continued with the repair of barges until about 1965. This lack of activity led the creek to become silted and derelict, but the 200-year-old wooden sail loft and forge was later converted to the Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum by a local enthusiast.
The shipwright John Bird (born 1832) is reputed to be the first of the barge builders to settle at Conyer and records exist for a sailing barge built there in 1866, the year he began his work at the yard. The White family prided themselves in the construction of the fastest barges available locally. Alfred Marconi at his Conyer yard, near brickfields, built many different types of barge. Some continued to exist as house barges well into the 1960s. The last of the many sailing barges was built at the Conyer yard in 1914, but repair works continued well into the 1930s, with several barge yachts built in the 1920s.
A mill was opened in 1877 by the News Chronicle owner Edward Lloyd, between Sittingbourne and the Milton creek, where the raw materials such as china clay, coal and pulping timber for the paper were easily imported by barges that also took away the finished product. A wharf was built and a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway added to carry these materials to and from the creek.
In 1906 the first steam locomotive, Premier, came into service, followed by Leader the same year and in 1908 a third loco, Excelsior. All were Brazil-class 0-4-2 tank locomotives.
The waters below the wharves at Sittingbourne were prone to rapid silting, and with the expansion of the paper mill a new dock was developed four miles from Sittingbourne at Ridham, taking advantage of the Swale's deep waters.
Kemsley Mill led to the foundation of a company village which was built about 1924, and by the 1960s 13 locomotives were in regular use on the line, one diesel and one battery electric and 400 wagons, with about 14 miles of track. The railway was after the Second World War used to carry passengers to and from the docks and mill, with carriages provided for the mill workers of Kemsley.
In 1965 it was decided that the railway was uneconomic, with the significant progress made in the use of the car, and so lorries were more commonly used for transporting produce. Consequently by 1969 the Bowater Light Railway, much loved as it was by the firm (and with assistance of Capt Peter Manisty) handed it over to the Locomotive Club of Great Britain to be preserved and operated as the Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway. It has since become a significant feature in the town's tourist industry. The railway also provides the only method of transport to the annual Sittingbourne Beer Festival.
The first visit by a German aeroplane happened on Christmas Day 1914. Guns at Sheerness fired at the lone invader but still one shell dropped into a field at Iwade. The next event was to occur on 16 January 1915 when another solitary pilot from a German aerodrome in Belgium bombed Sittingbourne. This aircraft, a Taube, was pursued by two local airmen, but managed to escape after dropping a couple of bombs.
About 100 air raid warnings were sounded in Sittingbourne during the First World War and anti-aircraft batteries were strengthened in 1917. The last big raid to pass over the town on Whit Sunday (19 May 1918), carried out by a number of Gothas, eliciting perhaps the most ferocious barrage from the ground defences the town had ever seen.
The local newspaper, the East Kent Gazette, reported:
The second Gotha was surrounded by British fighters shortly after, returning from a successful raid on London.
It is home to Oak Athletic FC.