Reports of our 2011 Meetings


In the Middle Ages, the bridge at Rochester was burnt down twice and washed away almost every 20 years. Strong ten knot winter flood waters undermined the piers, despite annual repairs to the bridge.

Our speaker Jim Preston, an industrial archaeologist, told us that in 1830 when piles were being driven in for a new bridge, Roman masonry was found, confirming the existence of a bridge that was on the line of the Roman road.The original Medieval bridge, paid for by Sir John de Cobham in 1393, had no parapet and it was not uncommon for people to fall from the bridge and drown. It was also considered dangerous to cross the wooden planking on horseback. Nevertheless this bridge was part of a key route to the Continent and essential for transporting goods since transport by boat was more difficult.This stone bridge was to be the only crossing at Rochester for the next 500 years. Sir John de Cobham received a Royal Patent and thus the Wardens of Rochester Bridge were established, enabling them to own land and use the income to maintain the bridge.  

Cubitt designed the new iron bridge and the railway bridge beside it that was opened in 1856, after which the old bridge was demolished. The new bridge carried the water and gas supply. In 1970 an additional road bridge was opened to relieve the traffic.Today this bridge is known locally as the new bridge and the Victorian bridge as the old bridge.

Jim Preston showed us old photographs showing the construction of the bridges.     

David Gurney made a display of the photographs of the renovation of the 15th packhorse bridge at Roughway.

V. Dussek


"Romantic, tranquil and stunningly beautiful" were the words used by Bernadette Gillow, the National Trust Property Manager, to describe Ightham Mote. Bernadette has been in charge of this property for the last 16 years, but the National Trust has owned Ightham Mote since 1985 when Charles Robinson, the last owner, died. It was his request that the National Trust should take it on.  He loved the property passionately and was concerned about its future, so he had started negotiations as early as 1960. Both Charles Robinson and the Colyer-Fergusson family before him had opened Ightham Mote to the public, but 25 years later there have been 2.7 million visitors.

With this number of visitors, regular maintenance, efficient facilities and car parking are required. There are 250 volunteers and 20 regular staff (by comparison, Chartwell has 45). The staff look after the house, historic gardens, holiday cottages. 550 acres of estate and an arable farm. The chapel was restored in 1996 at a cost of £10 million and further restoration has included both wings, the library and the roof, supervised by Stuart Page, the architect. Each time that scaffolding is erected, the moat has to be drained and the fish go to Bodiam for a holiday. One of the many winter jobs was relaying the cobblestones in the courtyard, 30,000 of them.

The National Trust has moved with the times in 25 years. Can we remember when lady volunteers were not allowed to wear trousers? Their ethos is still "beauty forever and for everyone", but the thinking behind the restoration is to keep the spirit of the place. There are many new ideas, walks, activities for children, Ightham Village Fete, carol singing and concerts, making everyone feel welcome.

Bernadette Gillow gave us a fascinating insight into the thinking and working of the National Trust and its vision for the future of Ightham Mote. We all share wholeheartedly in the belief in the spirit of the place.   

David Gurney made a display from our archives of 19thcentury photographs of Ightham Mote, Ightham and Ivy Hatch.

V. Dussek


Three years ago Lord Sackville and his young family moved into the private apartments at Knole. Thirteen generations of this remarkable family have lived at Knole since 1604. The house was remodelled to awe and impress, by Thomas Sackville, the first Earl of Dorset, in 1604. It is a calendar house with 356 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. Henry VIII loved it and took it for his archbishop, Thomas Cranmer.

However, not all the subsequent Sackville ancestors felt the same love for it. Some found the estate a burden and some found its greyness depressing, nevertheless Knole had, and still has many beautiful faces. We saw the painting by Kneller of Charles Sackville, the 6thEarl, looking rakish in a satin dressing gown.  He was Lord Chamberlain at the court of James II,and one of his jobs was to dispose of old, unwanted furniture from the royal palace at Whitehall. Much of this found its way to Knole, giving the house a fabulous collection of fine furniture, replacing some that was damaged during the troubled times of the Civil War.  A pictorial tour accompanied this talk together with amusing historical anecdotes. Despite the grandeur of the house, the saga of domestic family life also existed there, as was shown in a photograph of Vita Sackville West on her wedding day in the private chapel in 1913. To this day there have been weddings and baptisms in the same chapel.

Although there is still much to be restored, the National Trust has guaranteed the survival of Knole. Lord Sackville described Knole as having been rescued from the beauty of benign neglect. In the attics forgotten treasures have been found that, when sold, have financed much restoration. We have heard talks on great houses but none more memorable since this was an eloquent and personal story told by a member of the family, celebrating the present but not overwhelmed by the past.  

David Gurney laid on a display of large 1936 and 1939 posters for the Ancient Order of Foresters Anniversary Grand Fetes in Fairlawne Park

V. Dussek


This month, Professor Stephen Prickett, Regius Professor Emeritus of English at Glasgow University, gave us a fascinating lecture on references to Kent in various Shakespearean plays, enlivened by his readings of extracts referring to the county.

Henry VI, Part 2 was the first Shakespearean play to make detailed references to Kent. It was written in 1592 and includes a section relating to the rebellion of men from Kent led by Jack Cade. Our speaker took us through a dialogue between Cade and Alexander Iden, an esquire of Kent, noting that Iden (not Ightham) is now just over the county border in Sussex. The tale was based on the standard Elizabethan history written by Hollingshead, which provided 90% of the material for Shakespeare's so-called "History Plays".

Professor Prickett speculated whether the scene between Cade and Iden was in fact written by Shakespeare, as one of the characters in the play was man called Best who is not mentioned in Hollingshead's history but, when the play was written, he was in gaol in the basement of King's School, Canterbury - the home of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, whom some argue wrote the play.

Our lecturer then turned to Henry IV, Part 2, which refers to Gads Hill near Rochester (where, incidentally, Dickens later had a house) and memorably re-enacted part of a scene from that play between Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Shakespeare was one of several writers of plays for the King's Men theatre company and may even have acted in it. The company is known to have performed at several places in the county, including Canterbury, Faversham and Dover. One comic scene between Edgar and the blind Gloucester supposedly took place on a cliff near Dover (hence the name Shakespeare Cliff).

Professor Prickett speculated as to who wrote The Elizabethan drama Arden of Feversham, a play about the murder of Thomas Arden in Faversham by his wife Alice and her lover. Was it Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or someone who disliked Shakespeare?

His lecture was followed by an interesting and wide-ranging question and answer session on Shakespeare.

Haydn Puleston Jones


Following our AGM (efficiently and speedily chaired by our Chairman Rosemary Foster), Peter Ewart provided us with a most interesting and extensively illustrated account of the agricultural riots that started in East Kent in the late summer of 1830 and soon spread to most of England.

In the 1820s, the author and political reformer William Cobbett toured England recording his observations on rural life, resulting in the publication of his book Rural Rides. While he looked at the past with rose-tinted spectacles, he was undoubtedly right in saying that, in the 1820s, the rural poor were not as well off as when he grew up in the 1770s and 1780s. Many lived in damp, cramped, unhygienic, single-storey hovels, the inhabitants often crowded into a single, poorly-furnished room. He described labourers' houses in East Kent as "beggarly in the extreme" and the people as "particularly dirty". Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, many soldiers had been demobbed, with no work to go to and  nowhere of their own to live. There was huge unemployment, many were starving and all had to pay high rents to their landlords and tithes to the church.

Agricultural labourers relied on earnings from threshing wheat by hand to keep them going through the winter. In the late summer and autumn of 1830, some noticed that their employers had hired machines to do the job instead, putting them out of winter work. On 28th August, in the parishes of Upper and Lower Hardres near Canterbury, several dozen farm labourers dragged threshing machines from their barns and smashed them. This was the start of the "Swing Riots" as they became known.

On succeeding nights, the riots spread to other nearby parishes and many of the rioters were charged to appear at the Quarter Sessions on Canterbury. However, the magistrate, Sir Edward Knatchbull, knew of their desperation and imposed quite light sentences. This led to an outcry in the rest of Kent and in London. In a few days, dissent (in the form of machine smashing and arson) spread across Kent and into Sussex and Surrey. In November 1830, there was a major incident in Ash, this time resulting in very severe penalties (including transportation to Australia for life or several years' hard labour), although many were later commuted to lighter sentences.

Despite the heavy penalties, the riots continued and spread to East Anglia and Berkshire. Labourers often wrote letters to landowners and clergy, signing them "Swing" or "Captain Swing", threatening to smash machines or burn property. Rewards were offered by landowners and clergy for the capture of the rioters, but the riots quickly spread further into Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset and soon to most other English counties. Over 2000 rioters were put on trial, 252 of whom were sentenced to death, although only 19 of them were actually hanged. The hangings took place in public and were graphically reported by local and national newspapers.

No one knows why they were called the "Swing" riots, nor whether they were organised or spontaneous, but four years later they resulted in a major overhaul of the 300 year old poor laws. Instead of poor relief funded by an individual parish's "Poor Rates" and distributed by an often hated parish Overseer, workhouses were built by "unions" of several adjacent parishes. The only form of poverty relief was now to go to apply to live the workhouse, with its grim conditions, separating husbands, wives and their children.

Despite the riots, mechanisation did eventually start to return in the 1840s, heralding the beginning of another agricultural revolution.

Haydn Puleston Jones


Colonel Gibbons, leader of the Parliamentary army, burst into Goudhurst Church and ordered the Royalist preacher Wilcox: "come down from the pulpit or I will shoot you". This was an offer not to be refused, said our speaker Jackie Eales, Professor of History and American Studies at Christ Church University, Canterbury, who gave us a superb lecture.

She explained that preaching in church was the public broadcasting of the time and the pulpit was not only used for preaching but for reading Parliamentary edicts.  Kent was in the forefront of the religious changes and national events of the Civil War because of its proximity to the capital and the Continent. The county was one of the first to fall under Parliamentary rule. There had been a long history of anti-Catholicism in England fuelled by events such as the Gunpowder Plot and not helped by Charles I having a French Catholic wife.

In 1640, Edward Deering, MP for Dover, published an anti Royalist pamphlet that caused so much fury that it was publicly burnt by the hangman. John Culpepper, of the well known local family, attacked the King in 1640 in a personal speech.   It is interesting to note that Culpepper later joined the King's side and he was to live long enough to see Charles II restored to the throne. 

Our speaker explained that there were two Civil Wars. The first was from 1642-46 in which famous battles such as Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby were fought. The second was in 1648, in which Kent was very much involved. In the bloody battle of Maidstone, 11,000 men from Kent fought against the Royalists who wished to let King Charles go free. Nevertheless, in 1649 there were many Kent signatures to the petition that finally brought the King to trial.  None of those who signed were from the landed gentry.  This petition proved that there was support outside London for the execution of the King.  Three Kent MP's signatures were among the regicides. The Mayor of Maidstone was one of the two clerks of the court at the King's trial.

Sir Harry Vane of Fairlawne opposed the King but negotiated on behalf of the Royalists, taken prisoner at the 1643 local uprising. It is well known that he was executed much later ,when he criticised Cromwell for not being a true republican.Thus opinions in Kent were hugely divided among small communities, the church and the laity. It was apparent that radical religion and radical politics went hand in hand. It all came to a head at Christmas 1647 when the Puritans banned the Prayer Book, Christmas, Easter and abolished bishops. Many churches were purged of their preachers. Our church, without a saint's name, built during Cromwell's interregnum, stands as a reminder of those times.                                         



Dr Ian Beavis of Tunbridge Wells Museum returned to give us another fascinating and beautifully illustrated talk on the history of Tunbridge Wells, this time covering the Victorian period.

He reminded us that Tunbridge Wells had its origin in the discovery in 1646 of the Chalybeate springs, which attracted the wealthy to the area to take the waters. By the late 1700s, sea bathing in places like Brighton and Eastbourne had become more fashionable, so that Tunbridge Wells needed to redevelop itself as an attractive place to live. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the Calverley development by John Ward took place on the top of the hill, designed by the young architect Decimus Burton. It included a market, shopping streets and inn and many large and elegant houses.

The development was very successful and, in 1833, a public meeting was held to seek an act of Parliament to improve Tunbridge Wells further. The town was then run by a local board of Town Commisioners, who made many improvements, including setting up a local police force in 1835 and a fire brigade in 1845. In that year, the railway arrived, which further revived the town's fortunes. In 1866, 24 individually designed villas were built in Calverley Park, followed by houses (designed by William Willicombe) in Lansdowne Road and several grandiose mansions (such as Dunorlan). This encouraged other developments by local landowners, such as Camden Park by the Marquis of Camden and Broadwater Down and Nevill and Hungershall Parks by the Earl of Abergavenny

The town also grew as a commercial centre, with much of the High Street being remodelled by Willicombe and Mount Pleasant becoming lined with terraced shops to link the old Tunbridge Wells with the newer developments at the top of the hill. There was much church building, many setting up their own schools.

Many Friendly Societies were established to assist the poor and provide a focus for social activity. There were improvements to the Common (sometimes to provide work for the unemployed) and tourism again flourished as several hotels were built nearby, including the Wellington Hotel on Mount Ephraim in 1865. Tourists enjoyed visiting the numerous stately homes, open spaces and unusual rock formations in the town and nearby villages .

For entertainment, there were annual races (until 1851) and cricket, swimming and football were all very popular. The Opera House was built as a theatre in 1902 and there were many bandstands. The town attracted many artists and photographers, as well as some industry (such as making Tunbridge ware, brewing, mineral water production and a brick and tile company).

In 1889, the town became a borough with its own council and mayor, one of the most famous being Sir David Salomons in 1894, a pioneer motorist. The first motor show in Britain was held in the town.

Haydn Puleston Jones


Andrew Mayfield, our speaker, is the young archaeologist in charge of the excavations at Randall Manor in the Shorne Woods Country Park, near Gravesend. This is not far from the A2 and the Roman Watling Street. The on site excavation is a community project involving members of the public who are volunteers, local primary school children and Dorton House school for the blind. 

Randall Manor was the home of Sir Henry de Cobham who lived there in 1360 to 1400. The house would have been similar to Ightham Mote but without a moat. The excavations show that it was a substantial timber-framed hall house with a stone built end. It had a garderobe and a separate kitchen making it a high status building. It had outbuildings and three fishponds. It was demolished in 1500 and the building materials re-used in the nearby Cobham Hall, now a girls' school.  

The site was an abandoned clay pit when bought by the KCC in 1980. It was buried in dense woodland and was cleared to build a new centre where craft, study and survey days take place and the many finds are washed, sorted and displayed. Flint tools have been found from the Mesolithic period, as well as an Edward I coin and medieval tiles. During the Second World War it was an RAF base and was the supply station for barrage balloons. Slit trenches and air raid shelters and other memorabilia exist from this period.The site has had 1500 visitors in the past year and has been kept going by the commitment of the many volunteers aged from 5 years to 80.

Andrew Mayfield's energy and enthusiasm for this genuine local history project and his involvement with the community was obvious to us all. There will be an exhibition and display of finds on 16th and 17th April to which we were all invited.



A castle is a magical, powerful, romantic symbol - some were constructed as military fortresses and some as romantic homes, said our speaker Peter Rumley, who is consulting archaeologist at Saltwood Castle and Ightham Mote. He had an original way of looking at the construction of castles that reflected recent controversial changes of opinion and new theories. Before the twelfth century, castles were designed with solid towers and moats to withstand sieges. In the next century, battles took over from sieges and castles such as Saltwood, Allington, Cooling and Leeds were developed in a more romantic style, in beautiful landscape settings with ornamental lakes, though other castles made grand statements such as Dover whose keep was painted white so as to be seen from land and sea.

Saltwood Castle was a seat of ecclesiastical power and command. It was given by King Cnut to Christchurch, Canterbury in 1226 and in 1381 became the seat of Archbishop Courtenay. The architect of Canterbury Cathedral, Yvele, was contracted to build Saltwood's tall towers, so that it should be seen from land and sea alike. Peter Rumley suggested that Saltwood could have been an Anglo Saxon royal castle since nearby were three Royal Foundation nunneries and a cemetery where grave goods such as high status swords and jewellery were found.  An earthquake in the reign of Henry VIII destroyed much of it leaving only a small percentage today that is medieval. What we now see is a Victorian restoration.

There is similarity with Allington Castle, originally constructed in 1281 as an embattled manor house of ragstone and timber. A great deal was destroyed by fire, although  two dovecots in a prominent position still survive in good condition today. When Martin Conway bought the castle in 1870, it was a ruin.  He restored it with a fine gatehouse, manor house, towers and an ornamental moat with swans. 

In a beautifully illustrated lecture, Peter Rumley eloquently peeled back the layers of history, describing the social and economic history of these castles and how they became the dream homes of old soldiers.  


Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group 2011