Reports of our 2015 Meetings

8 December 2015 - BEASTS, BISHOPS AND BANKERS, THE STORY OF SEVENOAKS

Jonathan Fenner returned to give us our Christmas talk on Sevenoaks and its history.

The story begins at the time of the Norman Conquest with the establishment of a trading post at the edge of the Wealden forest.  This was at the place where two drover's roads met, the London Road and the Dartford Road and where there may have been a wayside chapel. This same road pattern still exists today. There is documentary evidence in 1280 that a charter was granted for a medieval market where livestock was sold until the market was moved to another location in the town in 1918. Illustrations showed us that there had been a livestock pond in the market near the Chequers Inn and a timber framed market building.This was replaced in 1840 with the present building that once housed the courthouse above it.The Shambles was a medieval thoroughfare and one shop dating back to 1420 still exists today. As coaches came from London - a 3 hour journey- there were many alehouses.

The town was a favourite for bishops in the fifteenth century as the land belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Boucher lived at Knole and there was an archbishop's house where Loch Fyne restaurant is now. By the fifteenth century the town became a place for the great and the good. The first banker, Lord Sackville, Henry VIII's First Lord of the Treasury, was granted the estate of Knole. New families came into the town after the Reformation, landed gentry bought property, so other estates such as the Wildernesse, Greatness, Montreal and Kippington grew. Because of this secular money more town houses were built designed by architects, many drawings of which we were shown. Always an agricultural town, Sevenoaks was never industrial, with the one exception of the silk mills at Greatness built by a Huguenot.  

With the coming of the railways in 1860 this town of property changed demographically.   Railway workers needed housing so the area around Hollybush Lane between1849-70 housed railway, gas and laundry workers. A row of twenty four artisan houses were built in red brick in Lime Tree Walk by Sir T. Jackson with gables, dormers and oriel windows. He also built the Emily Jackson Hospital. Another benefactor to the poor was Margaret Boswell who founded a school for 15 of the poorest children in the town.

The story that began with a drover's road, a market and a church graced by bishops became a gentrified place of fashion and fortune alongside social housing for workers.

David Gurney set out a display of maps and historic photographs of Sevenoaks.                                   

V. Dussek


10 November 2015 - YOUNG DICKENS AND HIS KENT

Ian Porter, author and London Blue Badge Guide, well known in Plaxtol from his previous visit to the Men's Group, gave a vibrant account of the life of Dickens, and his connections to Kent. We might have been surprised when we realised he was going to speak without the usual slideshow - but we need not have feared that the evening would be lacking in entertainment. Although he started by saying that it was difficult to find something new to say about Dickens, so soon after the celebratory events of the bicentenary of his birth, in 1812, everyone, including the Dickens fans amongst us, found something new in what Ian had to say. He gave us a fascinating resume of the life of Dickens, in particular his early years, which highlighted how many of the characters and places which populate his novels were based on his own childhood.

Ian painted a vivid picture for us of the unregulated and lawless London of the 1820s to which Dickens moved with his father. This was a city so dark that a 'link boy' could be hired to walk with you holding a flaming torch to light your way, and where public hangings took place and sewage drained directly into the Thames -  and often straight out again through the public water taps which were used for washing! Parts of London familiar to us now had very different connotations for Dickens: the blacking factory where he worked as a boy stood where Charing Cross is now, and the currently fashionable area of Shad Thames was adjacent to the notoriously squalid Jacob's Island, where Bill Sykes met his end.

Dickens spent the formative years of his childhood in Kent, in Sheerness and then Chatham, and returned to the county after his marriage when he bought Gads Hill Place in Higham. Just as he had with London, he drew on his experience of the county for the locations in his novels. The setting for the famous opening scene of Great Expectations, where Pip first meets Magwitch, was based on the churchyard at Cooling or that of High Halstow, and Miss Haversham's Satis House on Restoration House in Rochester. 

We all went away with vivid picture in our minds of the places which shaped Dickens novels, and a strong sense of his talent and achievements.

As far as we know Dickens never visited Plaxtol, so there is no Dickens section to our archive - but David Gurney had set out an excellent display of items from the archive relating to Plaxtol church which included some seventeenth century rush matting found in the church roof.

Lydia Goodson


13 October 2015 - THE HISTORY OF KENTISH SEASIDE RESORTS UNTIL THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The English do like to be beside the sea. Our speaker, Ann Kneif, talked about sea bathing, starting with the Tudors to the Victorians and up to the First World War when seaside holidays stopped. She explained how sea bathing started when Henry VIII's surgeon recommended it for health and this continued as a benefit for ailments into the 19th century. In that century, the seaside also became popular among the wealthy for holidays and entertainment. From 1836, it also became available to the poor once sailing hoys, omnibuses and trains made travel easier. It was said that Margate was vulgar, Ramsgate less vulgar and Broadstairs was genteel. 

The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate was founded in 1791 for the relief of the poor suffering from consumption and the practice of drinking seawater continued until well into the 19th century. It was the wealthier families who stayed at the seaside for several weeks in hired cottages. It was normal for fathers to go to work in London by train for business during the week. Poorer families took the sailing hoys to Whitstable (a 10 hour journey), Margate and Gravesend, or travelled by paddle steamer (a 6 hour journey) for 5/- with unlimited luggage. The London to Margate uncomfortable bumpy omnibus was cheapest of all. Popular entertainment consisted of shrimping, Punch & Judy shows, concerts, black and white minstrels' shows, donkey rides or simply walking on Margate or Folkestone pier for 1d.

The highlight of the talk was the amusing cartoons of the new fashionable Victorian bathing machines and the accompanying rumours of naked bathing and ladies cavorting like mermaids. Scarborough had the first bathing machine - it looked like a beach hut on wheels and was towed out to sea for privacy. Some even had canvas hoods. Sole occupancy cost 1/6d or 9d for sharing. Even Queen Victoria had her own bathing machine at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

We were impressed by the amount of research for this very well illustrated talk. The photographs and humorous Victorian cartoons delighted us all.

On the theme of entertainment, David Gurney set out various posters of local pre-war Plaxtol and Fairlawne events, from our archives.

V. Dussek 


8 September 2015 - FORTRESS KENT

After a gap of several years, we welcomed back Roy Ingleton who gave us a lively account of more than two thousand years of  Kentish history relating to defences and fortifications created to protect us from invaders. 

In the Iron Age, there were hill forts such as those at Oldbury, and Bigbury Camp near Canterbury, consisting of ditches, embankments and wooden pallisades, but as Roy explained these defences were easily breached when the Roman legions arrived. The Romans in turn built wholly new forts, such as Richborough, Lympne and Reculver; fortified Canterbury town; and built a larger fort in Dover on the site of the original Iron Age fortification.  However, during the subsequent dark ages, it seems that the ancient Britons were more likely to rob material from the forts for their own use, than to maintain or improve their defences.

At the end of the 9th century, when threatened by advancing Viking invaders, King Alfred strengthened the defences at Canterbury and Rochester by building taller and stronger city walls and he added new fortified settlements near Sittingbourne. There was a significant increase in defensive activity during the Norman period. Temporary forts built at the time of the invasion were subsequently replaced by larger forts of the 'Motte and Bailey' design, such as that at Tonbridge. It was during the Norman and Plantaganet periods that the large stone castles with which we are familiar began to appear, including those at Rochester and Leeds, as well as Cooling, Scotney and fortified manors such as Penshurst.

In the 16th century Henry VIII, with an eye to our tempestuous relationship with the French, built new castles along the coast at Deal, Walmer, Sandown and Sandgate with Elizabeth I adding Upnor to defend the dockyard at Chatham. It was to be another couple of hundred years before the next burst of fortification activity, prompted by the fear of a Napoleonic invasion. This produced massive extensions to the Dover castle defences, as well as a chain of Martello Towers along the south Kent coast and the construction of the Royal Military Canal. It also saw construction of additional forts, batteries and towers to protect Sheerness and Chatham, including Forts Pitt, Amherst and Clarence.

Roy's narrative concluded with commentary on the defensive changes made in the 20th century. These included the digging of trenches; siting of machine gun and anti-aircraft posts; the laying of barbed wire and mines; deployment of concrete tank obstacles and the building of forts offshore north Kent. Also, during the second World War three radar towers in Kent were critical to the successful identification of incoming enemy aircraft. Finally, during the Cold War these towers formed part of the nation's initial early warning system for identifying incoming ballistic missiles.

This was a fascinating and entertaining account, supported by some excellent photographs and artists impressions. 

R.Simpson


12 May 2015 - THE HISTORY OF HADLOW CASTLE AND TOWER

Following our AGM, Ann Hughes and Roger Stanley gave an excellent power point presentation.

A castle was built in 1722 by the Dalton family, changing ownership many times within the family. Walter Barton (1747-1823) inherited a large fortune from his uncle Richard May and became Walter MAY. Having purchased the property, he decided to tear down the old house and replace it with a modern mansion in Gothic style. We were shown some wonderful photographs of the house, particularly the very grand interior. Walter May relinquished control of the estate in 1815 to his son Walter Barton May who built the Tower in 1838, topping it with a 'lantern' in 1840. 

The Castle was purchased in 1859 by Robert Rodger JP. In 1900, the Castle, Castle Farm, cottages and 251 acres passed to John Pickersgill Rodger, who sold it later that year to Scott Foster MacGeagh for £13,500. Henry Thomas Pearson bought the castle in 1919 for £24,000.

In 1951, the main building of the castle was demolished. Bernard Hailstone, a local artist, purchased the Tower and remaining courtyard buildings, preventing its demise. Unfortunately the storms of 1987 caused major damage and, during the 1990s, Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council made the building safe and removed the lantern. Many attempts were made to save the Tower in the following years. The Save Hadlow Tower Action Group was formed in 2001 and, in January 2003, the Vivat Trust agreed to undertake the restoration. There was yet more work and fundraising to be done, including a Public Enquiry but finally, on 24th February 2011, the property was transferred to the Vivat Trust. The Tower is now a holiday home but can be viewed by the public on Open Days or by appointment.

Gillian Hogg


14 April 2015 - OLD KENT WINDMILLS

Andrew Wood gave us a thorough insight into the history of windmill workings in Kent. Although windmills had been used extensively for hundreds of years, the first half of the nineteenth century was the heyday of such activities in Kent. Sadly, the use of windmills declined fairly rapidly in the early part of the twentieth century as new technologies supplemented and then superseded the need to rely on such an unpredictable power source as the wind.

In his introduction, Andrew said that there were several different types of windmill, including Smock mills with a brick base and wooden structure, Tower mills with a brick tower and Post mills which had to be turned into the wind manually by the miller. Originally, the sails or 'sweeps'  had canvas cloth spread over a wooden frame but over time this system largely gave way to wooden shutters. He then played a video presentation which he had prepared focusing on many different windmills spread across the county, showing where they had been located and what they had looked like, and in many instances by using old photographs he was able to show how the structures had fallen into disuse and dereliction over the years, before their eventual demolition. It was also interesting to note the frequency with which windmills had burnt down - their wooden structures combined with the heat generated by the milling process presumably making them vulnerable to fire risk.

We were told about windmills in and around Rochester, Sheerness, Sittingbourne, Cranbrook and several Kentish villages including, of particular local interest, the nearest windmill to Plaxtol - Watts Cross Mill on the edge of Hildenborough. Dating from around 1812 this old Smock mill last worked in 1910 but was only demolished 1961, with its brick base still extant. It had been a rarity in that it had retained cloth sails throughout its working life. There are still two windmills not too far from us at Meopham and West Kingsdown, preserved thanks to the intervention of Kent County Council.

Andrew added colour to the history of individual windmills where possible by noting unusual happenings such as, for example, the mill that was haunted by a former miller who had killed himself and the mill where a donkey was tethered to the sweep whilst the owner went inside to buy some flour. Unfortunately, the miller hadn't noticed the donkey and released the brake!

Altogether this was a fascinating, well illustrated and entertaining account.

R. Simpson 


10 March 2015 - GILBERT THE RED AND THE 1279 PREAMBULATION OF THE LOWY OF TONBRIDGE

Gilbert The Red, Lord of Tonbridge Castle, had red hair as depicted in a stained glass window at Tewkesbury Abbey. At age 36, his titles were 9th Earl of Clare, 6th Earl of Hertford, 7th Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan. The Clare family were immensely powerful in the 13th century but Gilbert was a very aggressive unpleasant character, our speaker told us.  

Deborah Cole is a writer, lecturer and researcher with a PhD in archaeology.  She has translated a 13th century document (found in the Canterbury Cathedral archives) that contained the names and manors of the 24 knights who were chosen to settle a land dispute between Archbishop Lanfranc and the Lords of Tonbridge. The dispute was to settle what land belonged to the Archbishop and what to the Lord of Tonbridge.  

Gilbert had built Tonbridge Castle to guard the Medway crossing that was used by Edward I on his journeys from London to Normandy. Gilbert needed revenue and had to ensure that the lands (the lowy) around Tonbridge were profitable enough to supply the needs of the castle. Twelve knights were selected by the Archbishop and twelve by the Lord. They took an oath and then walked the boundary. Local people brought their pigs in the autumn to graze on the acorns in the woods around Tonbridge. These areas subsequently became farms. Deborah Cole established where the farms and their boundaries lay. 

Many farms still reflect the 13th century names and some boundaries along hedgerows have not changed in 700 years. Plaxtol was not included in the Tonbridge lands, but the northern boundary lay close to School Lane. Gilbert the Red was a good soldier and a top jouster. He helped to expel the Jews from Canterbury and fought to subdue the Welsh. He built Caerphilly Castle thought to be modelled on Tonbridge. His only son was killed in the battle of Bannockburn and eventually Tonbridge Castle fell into disrepair.

Deborah Cole walked the 33 boundary miles, mapping as she went, joining up the farm names from the document.   The result is her book entitled The Tonbridge Circular Walk in which she has has divided the 33 miles into 12 smaller stages so that we can follow in the footsteps of the knights. This excellent talk stimulated many of the audience to buy a copy. 

V. Dussek 


10 February 2015 - SIR DAVID SALOMON, INVENTOR AND MOTOR PIONEER

This serious scholar was an amazing inventor with interests in railways, horseless carriages, photography, electricity and an author of scientific books. He pioneered electricity for domestic use and built the first electricity station in Tunbridge Wells in 1895. Dr. Beavis illustrated his fascinating talk with black and white photographs taken from Sir David Salomon's own albums. Sir David Salomon was a good looking man with a large bushy moustache such as was worn by Edwardian gentlemen. His father was the first Jewish MP and popular Lord Mayor of London. Born in 1851, he went to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. He held many civic offices in his later life and was active in promoting education and opportunities for women.

His achievements were staggering. He embellished his house Broomhill, building a tower with astronomical instruments, a laboratory, an accumulator house full of banks of batteries and had the best equipped privately owned workshops that were full of machinery. In 1896, he built a theatre for scientific conferences and an electrical organ completed in 1914. There was a magnificent stable block built of Portland stone and brick as he loved horses. He felt that horseless carriages would relieve the drudgery for horses. Horses of the future would be filled with petrol not oats. As Mayor of Tunbridge Wells in 1894, he demonstrated the horseless carriages that he had pioneered at an exhibition where it caused a lot of interest and the carriage was mobbed by the public. By the end of his life he had accumulated ten of them. There was a tragedy at the end of his life when his only son was killed in a troopship accident on his way to fight in World War I.   

The list of Sir David Salomon's inventions astonished us as did the breadth of his scientific knowledge and his talent - hard to match even today.                                                  

V. Dussek


13 January 2015 - MEDWAY VALLEY UNDER ROMAN OCCUPATION

Simon Elliott gave us superb well-crafted talk about his current exciting research. Whilst we know about the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, he said, we know little about the industrialisation during the Roman occupation. This was Britain's first industrial revolution.

The Medway is not naturally navigable upriver of Allington, but Roman locks and weirs were found in 1620 at sites upriver of Allington, at Teston, Barming, and East Farleigh. Major ragstone quarries existed at Allington, Boughton Monchelsea, Teston and Plaxtol with associated villas and settlements. The quarrying of Kentish ragstone was a huge enterprise used for urbanisation and fortification in Britain. In AD55 a Roman forum existed in London built of Kentish ragstone.

The south east prospered in the third and fourth centuries but the level of engineering to construct the locks only seven years after the occupation was amazing. There were two exciting discoveries to support this research. The first was the discovery in 1960 that a boat laden with 26 tonnes of ragstone had sunk near Blackfriars Bridge in the second century. Secondly, divers dug up huge stones and ships timbers buried deep in the Medway at East Farleigh and Tovil. They had been exposed by flooding. These were thought to be unfinished millstones or the bases of columns.

Plaxtol was an enigma. It had 3 villas and a named tile maker but the ragstone and Gault clay was surprisingly transported overland to the river Darent and thence to London and the north.

From the recent excavations in 2013 at the Teston villa, we saw tiles and a beautiful brooch, about the size of a 50p piece with tiny flowers of lapis lazuli and garnets. We were invited to join the Kent Archaeology Field School's Easter ongoing excavations at Teston on 3rd to 12th April.

Throughout this time, our speaker said, the Romans regarded Britain as the wild west of the Roman Empire as it was on its very edge. However there is little doubt that the Romans tamed and exerted economic control of the Medway from the earliest period of occupation.

David Gurney, our archivist, showed photographs and reports of some of the Plaxtol Roman finds.

V. Dussek