Reports of our 2012 talks


Pat Mortlock, one of our favourite speakers, came to talk on the historical traditions of the twelve days of Christmas, illustrated by photos of famous country houses in the snow. Our English festival is one of the longest in Europe because the rich undertook to feed the poor for twelve days during the lean winter. The evidence for this is seen in medieval England when Richard II in 1384, fed 1,000 people with meat and drink at Eltham Palace. No further evidence of this philanthropic act is found until 1482 when Edward IV gave an extravagant feastat Christmas with 1,000 sheep, 6 bulls, and even porpoises. A month later he died. The Earl of Northumberland in the sixteenth century maintained this tradition with a feast of 15 swans and malmsey wine "as always". The long tradition of feeding the poor, including entertainment, has existed in Coventry since 1610, as has the tradition of role reversal in Roman times, between masters and slaves on twelfth night. In north Kent at Christmas, a play was performed outside in the "playstool" area near the church, when a collecting bowl was passed around on "Plough Monday" for distribution
among the poor.

But in 1647 Christmas was abolished by Cromwell. Churches were closed and three hundred vicars were imprisoned for disobeying this rule. Thus, Christmas remained in decline until it was reinvented by the Victorians. The first Christmas card was in 1843, following the introduction of the penny post in 1840. The Christmas tree came from a German tradition since George III had a German wife. Beef was eaten in the north of England and goose in the south.

Nevertheless, in 1887 the original tradition was still alive since the writer Henry James noted that seventy rustics were invited to eat beef, turkey and plum pudding at Ightham Mote. It was not until the 19th century that Christmas became a childrens' festival.

Pat Mortlock reminded us that there is now no meat in mince pies and no plums in plum pudding. Yet some of the original Christmas traditions still exist..




Gruel, bread, soup, a little cheese and hardly any meat was the starving labourer's diet. More shocking than this was the diet of the workhouse and prison.  Jules Dussek, a retired surgeon with a passion for food, gave a well illustrated, informative and amusing lecture presenting the facts in digestible portions.  He quoted Cobbett, who started life as a farm labourer, became an MP and author of thirty million words. Cobbett wrote in Rural Rides "the labourers seem miserably poor…and their looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig."

The bread was heavy and doughy and could be pulled from the mouth in long strings.  It was eaten with a little cheese and no meat.  In the workhouse the daily diet consisted of gruel (water and oatmeal), soup, bread, suet pudding and a little meat and cheese. Jules showed us examples of these meagre quantities. In prison, an ox head (12lbs of meat) fed 100 prisoners. The Poor Law Act of 1834 replaced Parish Relief and
the Corn Laws raised the price of bread.  This did not help the labourer's falling wages of 9 shillings a week.  The Reverend H. Millman said "the workhouse should be a place of hardship, coarse fare, degradation and humility.  It should be administered with strictness and severity and be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity." Lord Stanhope of Chevening fought hard against this flagrant injustice.

Having hit the depth of starvation our appetites were stimulated by Brillat Savarin's description of a gluttonous meal of seven courses. In 1854, Rev. William Collier ate three quarters of a roasted pig whilst on his way to have lunch with a friend. The Prince Regent, George IV, known as the Prince of Whales, "became obscenely obese, died massively bloated and terminally debauched." At this time it was recommended that ladies breakfasted on mutton chops and half a pint of ale. 

Eliza Acton who lived in Tonbridge, wrote a book of cookery in 1845 for private families that sold 60,000 copies.  This was sixteen years before Mrs.Beeton, who was the first cook to give quantities and cooking times. We saw examples of contemporary menus.

At the end of the lecture Mollie Lewis's publications and notes were displayed as well as a selection of 19th century cookery books.  The members were invited to sample the soup and suet pudding.  Many were brave enough to do so with varying comments.                                                                                                                                                           



"To walk through a Renaissance garden is to walk through the avenues of the Renaissance mind." Our speaker, Sally Berkeley, an expert on Renaissance gardens, took this quote from Sir Roy Strong's book.

The Romans were the first to create small enclosed gardens for pleasure. Illustrations in 15th century manuscripts depicted small compact gardens with trellises and roses. A century later gardens had become utilitarian with Royal parks and deer parks, often walled. In England it was Henry VIII who pioneered garden design with his garden at Hampton Court. Here there were small compartments, green and white wooden paling and heraldic beasts, as well as the first ever enclosed gallery in England, where one could walk and look down on the symmetry of the garden in summer and winter. These ideas had filtered through from France to England. Henry's love of gardens was passed on to Elizabeth I who enjoyed scented gardens. It was for Elizabeth's favours that Robert Dudley refurbished his one acre garden at Kenilworth, based on Italian classical design. He also flooded 11,000 acres around the house to form a lake. Sally Berkeley said that Kenilworth is one of the best examples of formal, symmetrical, geometric gardens. At Kenilworth there were water features, fountains, squares edged in box, obelisks and terraces. Thus the garden had become an adjunct to the house that also had to fit into the symmetry.

Nearer home, Sir Henry Sidney created an Italian garden at Penshurst. There were similar Italianate gardens at the great houses of Roydon Hall, Chipstead, Chevening and Fairlawne. At Knole there was a later fashion for a grander "Baroque" style of garden where long avenues stretched into the distance, so that the garden no longer looked inwards but outwards. There was another interesting feature at Roydon Hall, where two tower-like gazebos were built in the garden for outdoor entertaining.
The English have always had a great love of gardens. Sally Berkeley with her well-crafted and well-illustrated talk led us through the development of early English gardens and their history. It is sad that many of these no longer exist. Our speaker brought many interesting books for us to look at after the talk.

V. Dussek


In 1558 John Knox published a pamphlet titled 'The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women'. Our speaker this month, Jackie Eales, Professor of Early Modern History at University of Kent, Canterbury and President of the Historical Association, explained that Knox was railing against government by women and, in particular, that of the two Catholic queens, Mary Tudor in England and Mary of Guise, the Regent in Scotland. Knox reflected a commonly held view that for women to rule over men was unnatural and against the will of God. Nonetheless, Tudor queens did so despite this public distrust, through inheritance where the male line failed; non royal women usually wielded power and influence representing their spouse when the head of the family was away fighting a war.

In a wide-ranging talk, Jackie gave us a fascinating insight into the attitude of the time to the role and behaviour of influential women, which was largely driven by religion and the bible in what was a very patriarchal society. The talk was well illustrated including reference to matters as diverse as witchcraft trials; the persecution of religious martyrs; the long and ultimately successful battle of Lady Anne Clifford to secure her inheritance and subsequent property rights; and aspects of the life of Dorothy Selby of Ightham Mote. In considering the extent to which attitudes had changed by the end of the Stuart period to allow women more influence and involvement, Jackie touched on the undoubted shifts in female literacy noting the lives of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the first Englishwomen to support herself by writing plays and poetry and Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), our first female Anglo Saxon scholar.

David Gurney set out a fascinating display of photos and maps showing local houses from the medieval period and local maps dating back to 1568.

R. Simpson


Plaxtol has 60 listed houses, 13 of these are medieval. So said our speaker Jonathan Fenner, who is both architect and historian.  He described with enthusiasm and wit what he called his palette of Plaxtol houses. With brush strokes of colour he painted in the details of over 30 houses on this canvas.  Plaxtol has been inhabited for 2000 years since arrowheads and Roman settlements have been found here.  Over the centuries farms have appeared and during prosperous times farmers, landowners, butchers, maltsters, papermakers and even bricklayers have built themselves larger, finer houses. 

The 13 medieval houses show how the prosperity of the village grew in the 15thand 16th centuries. With past and present photos Jonathan Fenner illustrated the variety of houses.  The largest is Fairlawn but many medieval timber framed Wealden hall houses still exist, some jettied and some hidden by the Georgian style symmetrical brick fronts, fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries.  

The Street has a different feel to it with 19thcentury businesses, industries, pubs and rows of red brick cottages. He included in the picture not only the larger houses but the rows of poorer estate cottages, the forge, the Wesleyan chapel, Victorian villas and even post war council estates.   The four Betenson Trust alms houses were built as part of 12 available at Platt and Wrotham and were to be occupied by "12 aged or infirm persons being poor, sober, orderly and industrious inhabitants of the Parish of Wrotham and members of the Church of England".  This was the last piece of public building in Plaxtol. Featured in Plaxtol are different styles of tiling, dressing ragstone, galetting and the chequered brickwork known as rat trap,and flemish bond.

A history of vernacular architecture is here. These houses tell us about the people who lived in Plaxtol and the local materials used to build them.  In centuries to come, what will be said about the houses being built now?

David Gurney set out a display of photos of large and small Victorian house complementing the talk.

V. Dussek


Benjamin Harrison was a man with a passion for archaeology.  He scoured the Kent countryside on foot looking for stone tools.  Our speaker, Angela Muthana who is researching his work, told us that Benjamin Harrison was born in Ightham during the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, and lived in Ightham all his life.  He has a memorial in St Peter's church.  He left his many finds and 23 volumes of his diaries to Maidstone Museum, and Angela Muthana is transcribing these diaries.  

He went unwillingly into the family grocery business in Ightham after he left school at 14 but he was already starting to collect stone tools found in the Shode in Ightham.  Digging at Oldbury, he found a stone tool, that he called an eolith and that he considered had been made by human hand.  This sparked a controversial and heated debate among archaeologists.  He was encouraged by Marcellin Boule, the French archaeologist, who supported his theory that there were prehistoric people living on the Kentish Downs who used stone tools, predating Neanderthal man. This was his claim to fame.  

Although Benjamin Harrison never published anything himself, some of his finds were published but not attributed to him. Nevertheless, he was well known internationally.  Angela Muthana was keen that he should be recognised, especially in the world of archaeology and not just remembered for the eolith, for which he has been unjustly criticised. Now, both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum are following up his research.

It was a great pleasure to be able to handle some of the stone tools, see his sketches and turn the pages of the diaries belonging to this extraordinary polymath.                     

David Gurney set out a display from our archives of photographs of Victorian local businesses in the villages of Ightham and Plaxtol.

V. Dussek


Our speaker, Richard Filmer, returned to give another of his superb and beautifully illustrated talks, this time on the skills of making casks and barrels.

Cooperage was a big industry in the brewing county of Kent and has been in existence since Roman times. The wooden cask has always been the strongest, most robust of all containers.  Indeed, living history was made when a 63 year old teacher in the 19thcentury, had a barrel made especially for her, in order to perform a daring dive in it, from the top of Niagara Falls. She survived. 

The village cooper made tubs and buckets for domestic use, as well as casks for wine and beer. With no nails, glue, screws or knowledgeof maths, casks were made to a correct predetermined capacity, the shape varying according to the use.  They were practical, since heavy casks could be rolled instead of lifted and could contain anything from soap, glue, nails, china, lime, cement, gunpowder to fish. 

Sadly, the industry is dying, but along with photos of the last of the coopers in England, there were other photos of coopers in remoter parts of Ukraine, Romania, Syria and Portugal where cooperage is still alive.  In Turkey and Switzerland wooden pails and churns are still used. In France, Spain and Portugal casks and vats are used for the wine and sherry trade. We could see that the tools and process had not changed since Mediaeval times. Today, the cooper's T- axe is similar to the battle axe depicted in the Bayeux tapestry. The skill comes from an understanding of wood and a skill learned over a lifetime. 

Richard Filmer described the complicated process involving cleaving the oak staves by hand, hollowing and angling them and arranging them on the top metal hoop before steaming them over a fire to pinch in the other end. The metal hoops have been made the same way for 500 years.  The last cooper's business in London closed in 1980 so that this ancient skill is now remembered only in the surnames Hooper and Cooper.

David Gurney made a display from our archives of the late 19thcentury Golding Hop carved pub sign and photographs of other Plaxtol pubs, including the Cat & Tiger that closed circa 1891.

V. Dussek


The name Ightham comes from a Scandinavian gentleman called Erte, and "ham" meaning a homestead, said Jean Stirk, one of our two speakers, as she opened the talk. She explained that the village was important as it lay on a major crossroads. It was also a military road from Oldbury hill fort. Jean Stirk and David Williams aim to publish a book in 2013, on the complete history of Ightham and also aim to gather an archive for those wishing to do further research.  Their lively and well researched talk was a taster of what is to come from their book.

Jean Stirk continued speaking of how their information was being gathered not only from archives but also from recent years. There were stories from residents of life in this rural village of farmland, hops and orchards. There were several ghosts and seven murders to date. One village character made his own coffin which he used as his bed. Ightham industries were brickmaking and quarrying for Ightham stone,that has a unique green tinge to it.

David Williams illustrated his talk with photos and maps of the ancient parish boundaries and trackways - Pilgrims Way, Oldbury trackway and the coaching road. Much has been written about Ightham Mote and Oldbury hill fort but the village too has an interesting historic past. In the village street there are three medieval houses and the church has Saxon stone and a Norman window, as well as fine monuments - the Cawne monument (1340) and two Selby family monuments. It has two fine houses outside the village, Ightham Mote and Ightham Court, the latter where the James family lived from 1575 for several generations. The Wesleyans began meeting at a house called Double Dance in 1845 until a chapel was built in 1848. Many of us have a patchy knowledge of Ightham's history but our speakers made this into a colourful patchwork.  

This year will see a market and fair in Ightham, invoking their ancient charter of 1300. We all wished them success with their forthcoming book.                                                                                                                                                              



Some of us will remember the evocative smells of toffee, malt and gas that characterised old Maidstone.

Imagine pouring boiling toffee from vats into buckets by hand, then placing the buckets in trays of Medway river water to cool. Our speaker, Andrew Clarke, described how Sharpe's slab toffee used to be made. Sharpe's was founded in 1876 and later built a new factory in Sandling Road. He spoke of the old Maidstone family firms, namely Sharpe's, the four breweries and Clarke's furnishing store, which was his family business. All these were illustrated with delightful black and white 1920-1930 photographs and postcards from his father's collection.

Since deliveries were made originally by horse and cart, the Whitbread grey horses that pulled the brewery drays were a well-known sight in the town. There were photographs of the quaint, vintage delivery vans that were used in the 1920s. Trebor bought Sharpe's but destroyed all previous documents relating to the business. The four small breweries, of which Fremlins was the most famous, were bought by Whitbread and Courage. Nearer home, The Star & Garter at Basted was a formerly a Style & Winch public house and the Red Lion in Plaxtol belonged to Isherwood, Stacey & Foster, both Maidstone breweries. Clarke's furnishing stores was founded in 1929 by Andrew Clarke's grandfather and grew to a cover three floors. They championed the pioneering range of G-Plan furniture, famous in the 1950s. Sadly a huge fire destroyed the building in King Street in 1995 but a new store was built on the site of the old Sharpe's factory in Sandling Road.

Andrew Clarke's talk reflected the demise of family businesses in Maidstone, and now seen in many other parts of the country.                                                                

David Gurney made a display of photographs and artefacts of old Plaxtol businesses, from our archives.

V. Dussek

Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group 2012