Reports of our 2018 meetings


Our speaker Irina Fridman’s talk was an unusual one. It was based on her own ongoing research from parish records of the relationship between the Jewish community and the local population in Chatham and Rochester from 1600-1900.  

She started with a brief background of the earlier history. Edward I expelled Jews from England in 1492, so that there were no Jews in England until Tudor times. Under Elizabeth I, some Jewish musicians are recorded as living in England. But it was Oliver Cromwell who allowed Jews to be employed in England, hoping to encourage wealthy Jews from the Netherlands bringing money and trade opportunities. It seemed that this wealth was not to be.

In 1650 a petition granted Jews the right to settle in England as before this time there had been no such permission. The settlers came from two Jewish cultures - the Sephardic Jews came from Spain and the Ashkenazi Jews from France, Germany and Eastern Europe. By 1681 there were 300-400 Jews living in London but trading was not allowed, so they were forced to move to Rochester and Chatham where records show they were poor and some needed alms and lived in tenements.

It was not until nearly 100 years later that their lives began to improve and they were integrated into the community. Israel Levy was appointed Chief Fire Officer in Rochester in 1780, the first wedding took place in Hebrew and burials were allowed in the Jewish cemetery. Jews began establishing themselves as small time silversmiths, tobacconists, jewellers and traders. There was work in Chatham because of the expanding dockyard so around 1850 was the peak of the Jewish community. There were 100 Jews recorded in a population of 30,000. This last figure included the large number of the military also living there. Jews were now able to take up official posts. John Levy was appointed mayor of Chatham in 1865 followed by his son Lewis. The High Constable of Chatham, the Captain of the Fire Brigade and the Vice Chairman of the Railway were all Jewish. Daniel Barnard opened a music hall in 1850 to entertain the troops before their postings to the Crimea. The local population attended after 9pm as the servicemen had to be back in barracks by that time.

The original small community worshipped in houses but as expanding numbers grew a new synagogue was built. This beautiful 19th century synagogue celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015 and is commemorated in a booklet written by our speaker. This was a most interesting and unique talk on a subject we have not heard before.  



Sir Paul Britton came back to give us an encyclopaedic description of the evolution of Kentish parish churches from the tenth century to the present day with his superb photographs of the churches, including details of monuments, fonts and pulpits. 

Beginning in the tenth century with the establishment of parishes, wooden churches stood at the centre of the village together with the manor house as at Penshurst and Shoreham. In his opinion, the reason why some villages moved away from the church in later centuries was not due to the plague but due to changes in trade and access to water. This is seen in churches at Offham and Trottiscliffe.  

There are few pre Norman conquest  churches left in West Kent, but the church at West Peckham is a Saxon survival. The Normans built stone churches, castles and bridges with amazing energy. A plain Norman church exists at Faversham and a grand example built 1104 at Brook. Reculver with its two towers is a rarity. The expanding population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made for the building of bigger churches with aisles. The new liturgy demanded room for processing and more altars.  

Wealthy areas took down old churches and built new ones in the Early English style. One of the best example is at Stone near Gravesend built in 1270 with slender piers. Church building continued into the fourteenth century with higher broader aisles, towers and patterned stonework. Pulpits and pews were not in use before this century as there were no sermons or hymns. Services were in Latin and the priest was separated from the congregation by a screen through which they could peer to see the sacrament raised. It was amusing that in one church children had made holes in the wooden screen so that they could see more easily. Altar rails were put in place to keep out stray dogs. 

From 1490-1500 parish church building had reached its apogee with the soaring Perpendicular style and fine monuments. One of the best examples of seventeenth century building is Plaxtol Parish church built in a Puritan style. With hour long sermons in the eighteenth century pews often faced the pulpit not the altar as churches were for preaching. The famous architect Augustus Pugin built a church next to his house in Ramsgate in the nineteenth century for his own use. Nearer home, the very modern nuns' church at West Malling Abbey was built in 1960 and Tonbridge School Chapel was rebuilt in 1990 after a fire. 

This beautifully structured talk had us captivated and keen to visit some of the Kentish churches shown in Sir Paul's excellent photographs.  

There was a display from our archives of Plaxtol Parish Church taken from drawings and photos showing the original church and the two Victorian extensions.                                        

V. Dussek


The 300 year rich history of Lullingstone told to us by Rod Shelton was much enhanced by his own beautifully constructed model of the villa to add to our understanding.  

Excavations in 1949 revealed a mosaic floor and, in 1956, a flood revealed a niche (now known as the deep room) and two frescoes of water nymphs. This was obviously an important villa. Roman occupation began in AD 120 when a simple farm house with two rooms was built and wheat grown on the land. Communal farming on a large scale was the Roman way of farming as they had an army to feed.  

Soldiers during the reign of the good Emperor Antonius Pius were generously paid and so the next owner of Lullingstone was wealthy enough to build a temple behind the house to demonstrate his Roman standing in Britain. The villa's next owner was a very high ranking army officer who had lived in the Middle East and wanted a country home. He was a man of taste and created in AD160 fantastic heated baths to the south of the house, decorated by Roman artisans and boasting a gym, cold, tepid and steam baths all heated by a wood burning furnace stoked by servants. There was a well in the house, a nymphaeum and palm trees decorated the walls of the temple. After five years this officer was moved onto another posting and the villa became state owned property.  

The current Roman military leader and governor of Britain then was Pertinax who commanded 150,000 soldiers. Two busts were found in Lullingstone, one of Pertinax and one of his father in law. 

In AD190 there was a military mutiny in Rome. British legions were required to fight in Gaul, leaving Britain and the villa undefended. It was stripped of its fittings and left empty, becoming semi derelict by AD198. A tannery occupied the kitchen block for the next 30 years until a landslip covered it in.  

Finally in AD285 an elderly man bought the villa and rebuilt the baths using British materials and artisans. He bought land and grew wheat. Following the turbulent years of war on the continent, the wheat fields of Germany were devastated and  there was a shortage of grain. Wheat was being exported from Britain to feed the Roman army and Lullingstone had a very large granary, so that the owner became wealthy following the demand for grain.   

However by far the most important discovery was the Christian chapel dating from 350 found in part of the villa, said to be one of the earliest in Britain.

It was a sad end to this 300 year old story when the owner was murdered during a reign of terror and the crops burnt. The remnants of the family left, vandals overran Kent and an accidental fire in AD490 destroyed the wooden buildings of this once beautifully restored villa, leaving only the front façade.

V. Dussek

Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group 2018