Reports of our 2018 meetings


Geoff Doel gave us a lively talk about these seasonal folk customs, and a couple of songs. The hooden horse is a tradition found only in East Kent, but mummers' plays are performed at Christmas and Easter over most of England except for East Anglia. These comic plays were performed by farm workers and evolved 200-300 years ago but may have even older roots. The theme of the play is the dying and renewal of the life of the land.

The plays were only written down in the 19th century, but died out in 1911 before being revived again in 1960 during a folk revival. Several Kent plays have survived and have been performed locally in Hollingbourne, Leigh and Bearsted. The illustrations that Geoff Doel showed us looked like Morris Dancers in smocks, some with blacked faces. The characters traditionally are always St. George, a dragon or Turkish knight, a doctor in a black hat, Father Christmas in green not red and a fool who introduces the play with boasting speeches in blank verse. St George always kills the dragon or knight and the doctor brings him back to life. Money was collected after the performance for food and drink for the players.  

The hooden horse is similar to a hobby horse with a wooden head and teeth made of hob nails or stones. The man hidden underneath sack cloth pulls a string to make the teeth snap loudly. He is accompanied by a waggoner with a whip, a rider, a doctor, musicians and a man dressed as a woman called a 'molly' who sweeps up behind the horse. When the hoodeners call at a house, they are invited in which brings luck and they are given money for their performance. The poor old horse dies, but is revived by the doctor. For further reading about these ancient customs Geoff Doel recommended Percy Maylam's The Kent Hooden Horse.



David Carder gave us a detailed talk about two important historic industries, namely iron and cloth making. He began by explaining the processes of each.  

The cloth industry employed hundreds of workers and had moved to the Weald of Kent by the 15th century. Previously in the 12th and 13th centuries, raw wool from Kent had been exported to Flanders to be woven there. After the 15th century, when Flemish weavers came to settle in Wealden towns such as Cranbrook and Tenterden, the industry flourished so that by 1550 wool was being woven in Kent and exported.  

There were ten mills on the River Len and twelve on the Loose Stream. Wool created wealth and fine churches were built. Kentish broadcloth, that was 100ft long and 5ft3ins wide, had become a very important industry and rich clothiers built big houses that can still be seen at Cranbrook and Biddenden.  Spinning and weaving could be done at home as was illustrated by some delightful pictures of ladies in the garden with their spindles or weaving on wheels and looms at home. This industry peaked but sadly began to decline by 1700 due to competition from Yorkshire.  

Iron is not found naturally, but is a combination of three elements that are heated and beaten. The difference between cast and wrought iron is due to the carbon content. Cast iron becomes wrought iron after continuous heating and beating. Thus, before the 15th century, wrought iron was not made, as it was not possible to heat the ore up to a high enough temperature until furnaces with water powered bellows could keep the fire going for 24 hours a day. Wrought iron was used for grave slabs, firebacks, cannons and cannonballs. Cannons were made for Nelson in the Weald. When the last forge closed in 1787, both the cloth and iron industries were in decline.                        



This subject has received much attention from historians from the sixteenth century to the present day and it attracted a sizeable audience for the return of our speaker Professor Jackie Eales.

She began by dispelling several myths. Firstly, to kill a person by witchcraft was punishable by hanging not burning. In 1603, James I passed a law making the mere practice of witchcraft punishable by death. Secondly, it is wrongly thought that a huge number of witches were condemned to death in England - however, recent studies confirm that, out of the 40,000 accused between 1560 and 1660, only 13 were condemned to death and 250 cases were thrown out of court. Surprisingly ten percent of those accused were men. Lastly, our speaker told us that the well-known tourist attraction of the ducking stool was not used for witches, but was only placed at the door of a person as a warning. 

We were reminded that this was a time when people feared devils, evil powers and the supernatural. Furthermore, religious rules reinforced the belief that being descended from Eve contaminated all women. As a protection from evil, it was common to make cross-hatched scratches on wood, called witches' marks, at the point of entry to a house. These have been found at Knole.

Printed pamphlets influenced culture and inflamed fear, breaking down traditional unity in village communities. The accusers were usually other women prejudiced by neighbourly disagreements about property, food or children. Trials increased between 1653 and 1645 and some took place locally in Maidstone and Faversham. The infamous witch hunter Matthew Hopkins and his acolytes toured villages looking for marks on the bodies of women, such as growths, warts or deformities and extracted confessions by torture. A lone voice was Reginald Scot, a lawyer and justice of the peace, who witnessed the trials. He was appalled at the absurd accusations, injustice and treatment of old and poor women. His book is a valuable contemporary account of these trials.  

After witchcraft became a statutory felony, fewer cases were sustainable in law so that, after 1657, there were no further executions in Kent. The very last execution was in Devon in 1685.  

Professor Eales illustrated her talk with many interesting pamphlets and writings and left us with a better understanding of witchcraft.                                      

V. Dussek                


Arthur Mee wrote of Chevening in the 1920s, 'Kent has no lovelier corner, so close to London'. Jonathan Fenner's illustrated talk demonstrated not only the beauty of these three closely linked villages, but also highlighted some more down-to-earth details of a history that ranges 'from fish to soap'.


Three large estates; Chipstead Place, Montreal House and Chevening House have defined the history and development of these villages. Now of course, only Chevening remains, but until the 1920s the big estates provided employment and housing for many. Chipstead, for example, had its own wheelright, forge, challoner, builders' yard, several pubs and shops. Two brickfields owned by the estate continued operating until the 1920s. Chipstead Place was demolished in 1932.


Nowadays Bessels Green is the village that is most familiar to visitors to Kent, as it straddles the A25 on the approach to Sevenoaks. Its well-known brightly coloured cottages on the green welcome visitors to the area. Jonathan reminded us, however, that until the eighteenth century it was Chevening that sat on an important thoroughfare, for it was situated near the crossroads of the Pilgrims Way and the Rye Road. The Rye Road was used from the Middle Ages to transport fish from the coast to London. The fish was carried in panniers called 'dossers' for this three-day journey, and the same panniers were used to carry the post: 'smelly, but efficient'!  London fish traders met the fish cargo at South Down House in Bessels Green to negotiate a good price, and the house retained a licence to sell wet fish until the 1930s. The Old Meeting House in Bessels Green, the first Non-Conformist house to be established in the Sevenoaks area, in 1716, has its own graveyard in which are buried members of the Colgate family, founders of Colgate-Palmolive - which took us neatly from fish to soap.


The owners of Chevening House moved the fishy thoroughfare in order to ensure that their privacy and peace were undisturbed, and tranquillity remains in the village today. Chevening means 'dwellers on the ridge' in old English and is now best known for the famous occupants of the house. Since the 1970s the house has been used by a person nominated by the Prime Minister and this in recent years has been the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. However, when the house was still lived in by the Stanhope family in the 1920s the newly installed telephone exchange had just two telephone numbers: 'Chevening 1' was the Post Office, and 'Chevening 2': the big house. Presumably the communication links to the house have improved somewhat since then.

Lydia Goodson


"Gardens are reluctant historic sources". Dr. Ann Kneif explained that gardens showed the self-expression and personality of their creator and had cultural significance over the centuries, but it was difficult to make out what was original.  

The Romans were the first to create small enclosed gardens, about which Pliny wrote. From the Romans, the Italian influence can be traced through the centuries to the present day. The main features brought from Italy were fountains and water, grottos, classical statues and urns and a grand overall vista. The garden was a novelty adding an extension to the house. Even the words pergola, vista and grotto have come from Italian.

The English have always had a great love of gardens. Sir Philip Sidney visited the famous gardens at Villa d'Este in Rome created in 1550 by Lucrezia Borgia's son, Cardinal Ippolito. Following this visit, he created his own Italian garden at Penshurst Place in 1660. Italian gardens with water features .are also found at Hever, Ightham Mote and Leeds Castle. At Leeds, there is a labyrinth and grotto with a green man and nymph statues and mosaics. Urns and topiary are found at Squerry's Court in Westerham.  

In the 18th century, landscape gardens became popular, created by Capability Brown (1715-1783) and giving a more natural look with sweeping lawns and tree-lined avenues. At Knole, there was a grander Baroque style where avenues stretched into the distance - thus gardens began to look outwards instead of inwards.

In the 19th century an Englishwoman, Eleanor Coade (1760-1840), invented an artificial stone. Many garden urns, elaborate statues and pots were made of this hardwearing, durable stone during this period.

At the beginning of the talk, Dr. Kneif asked the members if anyone had an Italian feature in their garden. Only one member put up a hand. But when the same question was asked at the end of the talk, several members put up their hands.                                                                            



John Cannon has been farming for 80 years, starting at age six helping with the cows on his father's farm in Tasmania. Aged seven, he won a cup for the best Jersey heifer calf.   In 1946 his family left Tasmania and came to farm at Old Soar Farm and Park Farm in Hadlow. Over his lifetime, he has farmed cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and grown wheat, oats, barley, rye, mangelwurzels, kale and potatoes. More recently in Plaxtol, he has grown strawberries, raspberries, cherries, hops, apples, pears and cobnuts.

We were sitting in his barn where on the walls was his collection of old farming tools, most of which he has used himself, all except three. He has seen many changes in farming and weathered many ups and downs. Referring particularly to apples and remembering the dumping of apple crops, he said that it was not always possible to sell what you had grown. In order to be profitable farmers had to be able to change the crops grown. Sixty apple trees per acre used to be planted and allowed to grow tall, but now there are 1000 small trees per acre, making picking easier.  

When he started working at 16, wages were four guineas per week, now they are £12.50 per hour. The oldest implement in the collection was a 250-year old single furrow horse oak drawn plough that he had found in a hedge. Also in the collection were a scythe, sickle, flail, several two and three pronged forks and a wooden hay rake, all of which he demonstrated. These were in use since 1793 and were depicted in a framed diploma of that date. A hundred years later, the invention of the seed drill and crop rotation were revolutionary in farming, as was the combine harvester and Massey Ferguson tractor in 1950. 

John has grown the famous Golding hop, found in a hedge in Plaxtol and one year he won the cup for the best hop. Due to overproduction of hops in the world market, no more hops are now grown at Roughway. He said with humour that, if you believed in gold at the foot of rainbows, then you could believe in the future of farming.   Nevertheless, he was very positive about the future of farming for his grandchildren. We felt very privileged to hear John's well-crafted and personal talk about farming in an area so intimately connected with Plaxtol history.                      



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