Reports of our 2013 talks


Our speaker, Chris McCooey is an author and journalist. He gave us a light hearted and lively evening of a humorous selection of rogues, rascals and rebels from his book of the same name. He told us that he “spends time nosing around in churches” as part of his research, where he has found some interesting material for his books. His specially selected characters were varied - Smokey Joe, a colourful Bexley tramp, the politician Alan Clark, Cynthia Payne, owner of a high class brothel, Vera Atkins of SOE fame and Dr. John Bodkin-Adams who benefitted from his deceased patients’ wills. The latter generated a discussion on the ethics of the easing of the passage of death. Several of our members remembered Smokey Joe riding his bicycle without tyres, with a bucket attached for donations of food. It was a very entertaining evening,
quite unlike our usual talks after which we enjoyed a glass of mulled wine.

V. Dussek


The Domesday book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086, was the first record of its kind and is the oldest document in the Public Records Office. No other country has such a detailed record, said our speaker, Professor Richard Eales of Canterbury University, who has written the introduction to a recent publication of the Domesday book.  

Professor Eales began with the story of the Norman Conquest, setting the scene perfectly with illustrations taken from the Bayeux tapestry. Following the conquest there was social upheaval in England when English nobility lost their lands to Norman knights. Thus the survey was commissioned twenty years later. Amazingly it only took a year to complete. The whole document was hand written by one scribe, probably taking him nine months. Five hundred sheep provided the parchment. William the Conqueror never saw the book as he died just before it was finished. 

The Great Domesday book (book of judgement) recorded 13,000 places, listed 300,000 people - peasants, landowners and the value of their land for assessment of taxable assets. 30,000 slaves and 37,000 freemen were also listed. 86 churches were recorded in 147 places. It was a colossal undertaking. The Little Domesday records Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, with more detail including livestock that the Great Domesday does not have. Acopy of the land owned by Canterbury Cathedral was made for them from the manuscript. The first county in the book is Kent with14 pages, beginning with Dover. Plaxtol, listed under Wrotham, was a developing area with woods, valuable timber and 500 pigs, more than any other region. 

Professor Eales gave us a superb, well-crafted talk with clear diagrams of the settlements  and population that greatly helped our understanding of this unique document.  We were given a snapshot of local society in the 11th century, town by town, village by village, farm by farm.         

V. Dussek


Plaxtol has a special connection with hops since John Golding discovered the hop that bears his name in 1790. We welcomed back our speaker Richard Filmer who came to give us an illustrated history of hop growing, hop culture and the many skills and tools involved. It was the hop that changed the national drink of old unhopped ale into beer. The hop is like no other plant for rapid growth as it grows nine inches in 24 hours and is extremely demanding to grow. Much of the work is done by hand in the depth of winter.  

We were introduced to the mysteries of hop stringing on stilts. Once aloft on their stilts the hop stringers would work there all day even eating sandwiches and smoking their roll-ups. In the wet winter months, with gnarled hands and brown weathered faces the workers train and trim the roots by hand with simple tools. We understood the demands of hop growing with the needs of high labour, the battles with storm damage or disease that could wreck a hop garden. First the flea, then the fly. Then the mould and then they die.  

In 1870 there were 72,000 acres of hops in England, but today only there are only 2,000. The refusal of the government to put duty on the importation of foreign hops was responsible for severely reducing the English hop industry in 1908. Richard Filmer's photographs of the hop workers were not like the Victorian romantic hop picking photographs. No other pickers of potatoes or carrots have been depicted so romantically. Hops were handpicked into bushel baskets by all members of the family, young and old, until the invention of the hop picking machine. Some babies were born and there were deaths in the hop gardens. Originally hop pickers lived in squalor, without running water or sanitation until conditions improved in later years. Fatal outbreaks of cholera were not uncommon.  Hop picking has always depended on importing extra labour, but 1952 saw the last 'hop pickers' special' train.

We could have continued to listen to much more of this beautifully illustrated talk about those workers whose versatile skills through the centuries have made a contribution to this fascinating and demanding agricultural industry.



Our speaker this month, Tony Singleton, provided a very knowledgeable account of the rise and eventual decline of cloth making in the Weald. Tony explained that this cottage industry developed particularly during the reign of Edward III (1312-1377) as a result of economic policies which restricted wool exports and cloth imports, and banned the wearing of foreign cloth. Although cloth was made in many Wealden villages, the main focus lay around Cranbrook, Biddenden and Benenden. 'Broadcloth' was the product made in Kent, a densely woven woollen cloth made from carded warp and carded weft, and almost from the start the industry was regulated. 

Broadcloth had to be made in a standard size (28-30 yards long when wet; just over 5 feet wide, and weighing at least 90 lbs when dry) and each piece was inspected before receiving a leaden seal, an Alnage, as a quality confirmation. The records show that in 1561/2 the clothmakers of Kent paid more in fines than those of any other county, for failing the quality inspection, with the Cranbrook clothmakers particularly at fault.

Producing 11/12,000 Broadcloths a year the cottage industry peaked in the mid 16th century and was still flourishing when Elizabeth I progressed through Cranbrook in 1573. However, over the next 50 years or so competition increased as Protestant refugees from Europe arrived making new and different cloths and there was a gradual decline in Broadcloth production. Charles II recognised the importance of the industry and tried to support it, for example, by enacting that all bodies were to be buried in a woollen shroud at penalty of a fine, but this last ditch attempt had no real effect and the industry died out.

Tony then talked us through the production process from fleece to finished product incorporating selection, preparation, dyeing, carding, spinning, weaving, fulling, and finishing; he noted that Downland rather than Romney sheep produced the best fleece type for Broadcloth and explained which plants were the source of the coloured dyes used. Finally, he showed how labour intensive the production process was with around 45 people (assorted weavers, spinners, scourers, dyers, scribblers, etc) needed to make
one Broadcloth a week.

This was a fascinating and entertaining account, llustrated with excellent photographs and exhibits.

Roger Simpson

Instead of the anticipated talk on Eltham Palace, our speaker Mr. D.H.Williams gave a talk on Old London. The wide ranging talk covered the period from the Roman occupation to the Great Fire of London with many illustrations and several points of interest. He brought with him two helmets from his collection of armour, one called a morion and another that would have rendered the wearer completely deaf and almost blind on the battlefield.

At our AGM, Rosemary Foster stepped down as chairman and Haydn Puleston Jones was elected to succeed her. Rosemary was warmly thanked for being an outstanding Chairman for the last 14 years. Under her leadership, the History Group carried out a remarkable number of major projects, including transcribing and publishing all the available Plaxtol Censuses and historic Parish Registers and researching and publishing several booklets on village history - Rosemary's previous experience in publishing was particularly invaluable in this context. She leaves the Group in very good shape, with high membership and attendance at meetings and healthy finances. Rosemary will be very much missed as Chairman, but we are delighted that she has agreed to stay on as a Committee member. Her encouragement and enthusiasm for projects, combined with her natural charm and good humour, have greatly contributed to the success of the History Group. 
V. Dussek
David Carder, one of our popular speakers, returned to give a talk on the historical development of the less well known buildings in some of Kent's historic towns. Beginning with the most historic town in Kent, Canterbury, he surprised us with an unusual reconstruction of Canterbury in the Iron Age.

We were then guided through the walled Roman town, marking the sites of a large theatre, public and private baths and a temple. The Saxon reconstruction of Canterbury showed the once magnificent Roman buildings becoming dilapidated but the beginning of a Saxon cathedral and the abbey of St. Augustine in situ. Here early Anglo-Saxon kings and queens were buried with honour. Our speaker then highlighted the tradition of medieval monastic charity and hospitality. Overnight accommodation was available for men and women within the monastery of St. Augustine, rather like modern alms houses. What must be the oldest lavatory block in Kent, with sluices into the river, dated 1087,has been discovered. Further accommodation for poor priests and poor travellers was to be found at the Greyfriars and Blackfriars monasteries, as well as a guest house. Hotels grew around the cathedral for the pilgrims who came to visit the shrine of Thomas a Becket from 1170. Most unusual was the synagogue built in an Egyptian style in the nineteenth century.

Because bombing during the second world war exposed archaeological remains, much is now known about Roman Canterbury, but little is known of Roman Rochester. St. Augustine founded the first church in 607 making Rochester the second oldest see in England. There are two other medieval churches, a Norman castle and medieval walls. Here as in Canterbury, lepers and the sick were accommodated at the monastery of St.Bartholomew in 1078 and at Watts Charity in 1858, where a bedroom, food, entertainment and four pence a day was available for the lodgers. La Providence, founded in 1718, was a refuge for poor French Huguenots. The magnificent Norman castle was undermined in 1215 by tunnelling below the south tower and lighting a slow burning fire of 40 dead pigs underneath.

Nearer home in Tonbridge, a castle was built in the 11thcentury guarding the river Medway. An Augustinian Priory also existed in 1172 but was later demolished in 1625 to raise money for colleges that sadly were never built. Similar to Rochester, Tonbridge castle was built at a strategic point by the river and on a main thoroughfare. This was a thoroughly informative lecture enhanced by fascinating aerial shots of the towns.

V. Dussek
Our speaker, Ian Walker, came at short notice to replace Christopher Jupp. Ian was himself in the Royal West Kent Regiment and was well qualified to talk to us on the Great War, having also been head of history at Sevenoaks School. He illustrated his talk with extracts from the diaries and memoirs of Kentish soldiers. These were not "hardnosed memoirs" of those who had survived, but literature in their own right, our speaker said.

Ernest Parker, returning home from the Somme in 1916, felt a tug at the heart strings at seeing the white cliffs of Dover and hearing the names of the railway stations in Kent. Another soldier was Lord Amherst of Riverhead. Having been to Eton and Sandhurst he fought at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was not the only soldier to write movingly of the sadness, utter exhaustion and lack of energy for the end of the war celebrations, that these survivors felt, as also Douglas Bell wrote in his diaries. Aubrey Smith, a ranker, of great character, born in Pembury, was deeply affected by the death of his horse and wrote of the inadequacy of equipment and training. Nevertheless, he said that it was the spirit of comradeship that kept them together, while they "slept, ate, swore and scratched themselves in the dugouts where the dead lay". There were several allusions in the diaries of the vile stench of war in warm weather. Donald Dean lied about his age and went into the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was wounded four times, once at Ypres and once being hit by a shell. He won a VC for leadership and courage and lived to be 88.
Although the Great War shattered our civilisation that had existed since the Middle Ages and killed some of the very best and the bravest, our speaker brought out the human aspects and indeed humour, all of which kept us listening to every word.

David Gurney set out some photographs and press cuttings of local soldiers together with a gas mask from our archives.

V. Dussek
David Williams, our speaker, is one of the authors of the book on Ightham history soon to be published. His talk forms a chapter of the book andcovers the history of Oldbury from the Ice Age to the present.

Oldbury is a Saxon name meaning a fortified place. It is a large site of 123 acres. Its natural defences were the steep banks on the south east and south west slopes and rocks for building walls and caves. Timber from the forest plus water made it a perfect site for a hill fort. Settlers in the Stone and Iron Ages used these natural defences and the landscape of 6000 BC is still recognisable today. Each of the settlers left their mark on the site. The rock caves were built by the Stone Age settlers, only two caves remain, the others were destroyed by quarrying in the 19th century. It is known that Oldbury was fortified in the Iron Age in 500BC since coins, metal working and pottery has been found in the excavations. There have been 5 excavations - the first in 1890 and the last in 1989. Benjamin Harrison, the Ightham grocer and archaeologist, was the first to discover prehistoric flints there in 1904. The ancient track ways running north and south were developed in the Iron Age and three of these have been identified. These track ways were important routes to the coast and continent and to Wiltshire, possibly linked to Stonehenge. Next came the Roman settlement that added to the fortifications, nevertheless the Romans only used Oldbury as a temporary camp. More recently, history records a grisly murder in 1750. The murderer was caught and hanged in a cage to die on Oldbury hill.
It is not surprising that some people still find Oldbury a spooky place. In the 19th century the rock was quarried and there was also a turnpike. Now the site is a council recreation area under the supervision of the National Trust.

David Williams gave us a huge slice of the fascinating history of Oldbury and its geology, packed with facts and very well illustrated with clear maps of the track ways and the site that enhanced our understanding.

Our speaker Ed Thompson has been collecting period photographs over many years. He is now looking into the collections of photographs held in libraries as he feels that they should be made available to wider audiences and not kept in files. His talk on the Sevenoaks villages started in a clockwise direction at Weald and finished nearby in Stone Street. Many of the period photographs in black and white have soft tones. In particular the snapshots of people, such as children crossing a road and a Baptist minister giving communion in the open air to a lady in a wheelchair, capture a moment in time not to be repeated, quite unlike static postcard views. Postcards were the text messages of the time, our speaker explained. A postcard could be written and sent in the morning and a reply received the same afternoon. Many are therefore dated and are useful records. Some memorable images were the destruction of the station at Westerham making way for the M25 motorway, the blackout screen on which some Battle of Britain pilots had written their names in the White Hart Hotel in Brasted and women at work in World War II. Who would have thought that there was a Lido full of happy bathers at Dunton Green in the 1950s. These villages form a garland around the town of Sevenoaks. The last photograph of this nostalgic look at the more recent past were of cottages at Stone Street surrounded by the neat lines of apple orchards as far as one could see.