Reports of our 2010 meetings


'Kent is the only place for happiness'.   These were the words of Jane Austen, Clare Graham, our speaker, told us, as she began by tracing Jane Austen's family back through six generations in Kent. The Austen family came from generations of Kentish yeomen and clothiers in Horsmonden, although Jane's maternal forbears were wealthier, as her great grandmother Elizabeth Weller was the daughter of a Tonbridge lawyer and was born in Bordyke.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth was left a widow with seven children and was obliged to take a post as housekeeper at Sevenoaks School. It was Elizabeth's son Francis who bought The Red House in Sevenoaks in 1730 where Jane Austen visited when she was 12. Another of Elizabeth's sons, William (Jane's grandfather) became a surgeon and lived in Tonbridge. George, his son, was Jane's father who was educated at Tonbridge School, went to Oxford and returned to teach at Tonbridge School before going into the church and settling in Hampshire.

Another place in Kent that Jane Austen loved was Godmersham where her brother Edward lived. She spent much time there, as Edward was a good host arranging visits to the races, theatre and the seaside and giving Christmas parties and balls. It was at Godmersham that Jane mixed in the social circle and these experiences were described in her novels, since she wrote about what she knew. Jane also visited Westerham when travelling from Hampshire to visit her relatives in Seal, Wrotham, Kemsing and Tonbridge.

V. Dussek


Richard Filmer's lecture was one of the best we have heard and was enhanced by beautifully crafted slides.

Sadly, many crafts and trades are fast disappearing. He began by enumerating the traditional Kentish trades and crafts of coppicing, shipbuilding, coopery and papermaking and went on to talk about managed woodland and coppicing. Kent has more chestnut per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Chestnut is cut to the ground so that it can shoot again and grow 8ft in a season. There is fear for the future of coppicing since woodland is not being managed as the demand for agricultural tools, hurdles for sheep and cattle, hop scuttles and splayfooted fruit picking ladders has vanished. When there were 45,000 standard tall cherry trees in Kent, there was work for the making of ladders and baskets for fruit picking. There were 8 basket makers in the town of Faversham at the turn of the century. Every town had a brewery and skill was needed to make the wooden casks exactly the right size. It was done with simple tools by eye by men without the knowledge of mathematics who took pride in their work. Cricket balls had to be a perfect sphere and an exact weight.

In agricultural areas wheelwrights lingered on, whilst in towns there were still 4 or 5 shoe and bootmakers. Each craft and trade was illustrated with slides of the craftsman at work. In all the cases Mr. Filmer had known the craftsman and many were in their eighties or nineties. In particular the bootmaker was 90 but still had orders enough to last for 20 more years.

This talk was a real tribute to the skill of craftsmen the like of which we shall not see again.

David Gurney made a display of photographs from our archives of workers at Roughway Papermill at the turn of the century.  



Jonathan Fenner gave a lecture that was a real tour de force, covering the unique and rich architecture of Kent.  From the 17,000 listed buildings in Kent, he selected those that illustrated the history and diversity of the heritage, due not only to the proximity of Kent to London and the continent but also to its ecclesiastical and secular patronage.  Throughout the talk we were treated to a cavalcade of superb photographs.

Beginning with some of the best known castles and cathedrals in Kent he reflected on how the architecture spoke to us.  The thirteenth century castle at Leeds is royal and tranquil but Dover is defensive and military.  Rochester with its massive 113ft Norman towers guarding the Medway crossing had a different message. He  described it as a siege castle and it was besieged by King John in 1215. 

Continuing with selected rural, industrial, civic and quirky modern building, again with a series of superb pictures, we saw familiar Kentish oasts and less familiar power stations at the Isle of Grain and Dungeness contrasted with a new modern house design based on the local fishermens' huts at Dungeness. 

Tunbridge Wells  has elegant buildings commensurate with the fashionable 18th century spa it became but in contrast is the 1939 Town Hall built in monumental style.  He followed on with selected Wealden and smaller yeomen's houses displaying symmetry and classicism in wood, tiles and brickwork. Ford Place, Chevening and the Palladian house at Mereworth were named among many others. An example of quirky civic architecture was the neo classical clock tower at Herne Bay built in 1834 for £4000 with a private donation.

He finished with a look at the modern revival of the seaside towns of Kent, Folkestone and Gravesend. There was an amusing award winning design of a public lavatory in Gravesend and Roger De Haan's Quarterhouse, the music, theatre and creative venue in Folkestone.

After this feast of diverse architecture found in Kent, we know how much there is to celebrate.

David Gurney mounted a display of photographs of Plaxtol buildings from our archives. 

V. Dussek        


Peter Rumley, our scheduled speaker unfortunately could not give his talk on Saltwood and Allington Castles, which will now be given in January 2011. David Carder stood in at short notice and talked about the construction and workings of barns, mills and oast houses.

Timber framed barns are found over the whole of England, but those in Kent are all of the box frame type, as opposed to the cruck frame type, which is the prevalent style in the West of England. A box frame barn comprises a number of bays, each one built from a timber box frame. The roof may extend down below the level of the top of the box, thus creating aisles in the barn. These were used for storage. The central bay will generally have a pair of doors facing each other. This allows easy access and exit for carts, and ventilation to blow the chaff away from the threshing floor. 

Barns can be dated by dendro-chronology, which uses the pattern of annual rings. The oldest surviving one in Kent is at Littlebourne, and was built in the early 14C.

Windmills were originally built in the post mill style, with the mill building able to rotate around a central post, so that the sails could always face the wind.. The sails were angled so that the mill balanced around the pole. The first mill recorded in Kent is at Canterbury around 1200. Tower mills, introduced from Flanders, were built from the 16C. In these mills only the cap rotated, so the mills could be bigger. Later these mills would use a smaller fan tail sail to keep the mill facing into the wind. The number of mills peaked in the early 19C, but declined thereafter. Kent's last working mill, Stelling Minnis, stopped in 1970. Corn was lifted up the mill using a drive from the sails and placed in a hopper from which it dropped by gravity down to the pair of mill wheels. The lower one was fixed, and serrations in the wheels gave an effective scissor like motion to grind the corn. Watermills were introduced by the Romans.

Oast houses were used for drying hops. Hops are 80% water which must be reduced to 6%. Hopped beer was introduced from Flanders in the 14C, and commercial growing began in England in 16C.   Initially the oast house would be inside another building. In order to get better circulation of heat, in the 19C the square style was replaced by roundels. However, by the end of the 19C kilns reverted to a square plan, which were easier to build and could be made larger. The furnace would be lit below a slatted floor made of poplar, and the hops would take about 10-12 hours to dry.  The largest oast complex is at Beltring, near Paddock Wood. The Museum of Kent Life at Sandling still has a working oast.

Stephen Hemsted

MAY 2010 - THE HUGUENOTS IN KENT, 1530-1730

Norman Hopkins returned to give us a fascinating talk on the Huguenots. The origin of the name Huguenots is unclear, but they were Protestants who suffered persecution for their religion in France and the Netherlands. They rebelled against the rituals of the Catholic Church and its perceived corruption and chose instead a much simpler form of worship centred on the Scriptures and prayer. In 1572, up to 100,000 Huguenots in Paris and elsewhere in France were killed in the aftermath of the St Bartholomew's Day massacre. It was not until 1598 that the Edict of Nantes gave French Huguenots limited civil rights once again, but the Edict was revoked in 1685 and they were again placed under stringent restrictions. All this persecution led many Huguenots to flee France for England and other countries during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The first wave of Huguenot refugees in England were Walloons escaping the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands in the 1540s, many settling in Sandwich. In 1548, the first Huguenot congregation in England was established in Canterbury. In the late 1550s and 1560s, there was a major influx of Huguenots into Kent, the town of Sandwich even inviting them to settle there. Soon 129 of the 420 households in Sandwich were of Huguenot origin, conducting 59 different trades. Suffering a dearth of pilgrims following the Reformation, Canterbury also welcomed the hardworking, often middle-class, Huguenots, providing 100 houses for the refugees, many of whom settled around St Alphage's Church. In 1592, Canterbury's population was about 9,000, of whom 3,312 were Huguenots. The Huguenots prospered as weavers, silversmiths, bookbinders, potters, furniture makers and in many other crafts and quickly integrated into the local community.          

David Gurney mounted a display of signs from 3 old Plaxtol businesses. The centrepiece was the magnificent, three-dimensional metalwork sign made by Hyders for their workshop in the Spoute and recently donated by our President, Jayne Semple. It was accompanied by the old Rorty Crankle Inn sign donated by Clare and Luke Harrison and by the wooden board (donated by Mrs Webb) from when Ellen Hodder ran the Golding Hop.

Haydn Puleston Jones


Pat Mortlock, one of our regular speakers, gave us a fascinating talk with what she called "a slightly different view of Henry VIII".

Henry became King of England at the age of 17 in 1509, when the population was only about 3 million. He inherited a stable throne from his father Henry VII, together with the then enormous fortune of £1.8 million. There was no standing army and no police force. The country was governed through the royal Court by only 500 to 700 noblemen and middle class officials, one of whom was Richard Clement of Ightham Mote, a gentleman usher to the King. Writing home to Venice, the Venetian Ambassador to the Court described the young Henry VIII as "the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on".

Henry, as the second son of Henry VII, was expected to go into the Church and received a well rounded education - he was fluent in Latin and French, studied poetry and music, and was very interested in architecture. He finished the construction of King's College, Cambridge, founded the Royal College of Physicians and set up a good school at Court to educate his daughter. He built Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, extended Hampton Court Palace (a gift from Cardinal Wolsey after failing to get the Pope to annul Henry's first marriage) and, by the end of his reign, owned 53 castles and palaces. He strengthened the Royal Navy and built a series of forts around the coastline, including Walmer and Deal castles. He loved outdoor pursuits, especially hunting.

Soon after becoming King, and to secure Spain as an ally against France, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, who had died of tuberculosis several years earlier. Catherine accompanied Henry to meet King Francois I in France at the Field of Cloth of Gold - on the way to Dover, they stayed at Otford Palace and Knole. Catherine produced 3 sons, all of whom died within a few months of birth, and a daughter, Mary. Henry's strong desire for a male "heir and a spare" led to the well known history of the break with the Roman Catholic Church, the dissolution of the Monasteries and his six marriages (his second wife, Anne Boleyn, being from Hever Castle).

Most of his reign, Henry surrounded himself with able advisers, such as Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, but lacked sound advice in his last 3 less successful years. He did however succeed in establishing his young son Edward as his Protestant heir.

Pat Mortlock gave us an enthralling insight into one of England's best known kings.       

David Gurney displayed photographs of a 16th century portrait of Lady Elizabeth Golding (an ancestor of the Goldings of Plaxtol) and of several old Plaxtol houses.

Haydn Puleston Jones

MARCH 2010 - The 6th Mollie Lewis Memorial Lecture: SANDWICH

What makes Sandwich the "completest medieval town in England?

Sarah Pearson our speaker, explained that rich medieval merchants' houses had been built in the 14th and 15th centuries when Sandwich was a thriving trading port, but once the port had silted up Sandwich was isolated leaving 70 of the medieval houses that survived intact and complete for posterity. The story begins with King Canute giving Sandwich control over its own busy trading waterway. The "wich" in the name means a trading station, as in Ipswich.

In the 14th century, there was no large port at Dover, thus Sandwich attracted international trade from as far as Venice. It also provided a safe route through the Wantsum Chanel to the Thames and London so that ships did not have to sail a long way round North Foreland. In that century, three fine churches were built, the town walls and four hospitals, one of which was a leper hospital.  There was a corn market and a busy fish market. The rich merchants' fine houses fronted the waterside. There were 300 households in the 11th century, rising to 1,000 by the beginning of the 15th. With Dover, Hastings, Romney, and Hythe, Sandwich became a Cinque Port. It had to give 20 ships and 21 men to the crown for 15 days a year but, in return, earned the privilege of carrying the canopy at coronations. These ports had their own system for Courts and meetings from the 12th century onwards.

By 1560, only 290 households existed. Since the coastline had changed, the trading ships stopped coming and  London dominated the international trade so that, by 1640, Sandwich had become a backwater.  Celia Fiennes, the diarist and traveller in 1682, called Sandwich a sad old town.

We were very fortunate to be able to hear such an authoritative and interesting speaker who has just published a new history of Sandwich.

David Gurney displayed a 1936 poster of a Grand Fete in Fairlawne Park, together with another Fairlawne fete poster for 1966. 



"We have all heard of the Vikings, the Romans and Queen Victoria but what of the history of Kent in the 20th century?" said Bob Ogley, who talked for an hour without any visual aids or notes and held us all spellbound with his cavalcade of Kent history. He spoke authoritatively, having himself written four volumes of a history of 20th century Kent.

He talked of the heroes of Kent in the world of sport, flying and speed. Such heroes as the Wright brothers, Malcolm Campbell and Sydney Wooderson, all of whom lived in Kent.

Kent has a magnificent literary heritage with such famous names as H.G.Wells, Siegfried Sassoon, E. Nesbitt, Enid Blyton and Ian Fleming to name a few.  We have engineering successes such as the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and the Channel Tunnel.

There have been tragedies in Kent too and we remembered the Dover-Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the floods in 1953 and the hurricane in 1987. The hurricane changed Bob Ogley's life, for the following day he hired a plane, pilot and photographer and photographed the damage from the air.   Having failed to interest any publisher in the resulting book he published it himself, selling 265,000 copies and becoming a national best seller.

The pace of life has changed since we were a front line county in the second World War. We shall not see Kent miners or hop pickers any more but we were reminded that we too are a part of the history of Kent.

David Gurney arranged a display of local photographs and posters of the 1920 Plaxtol Grand Fete and Coronation celebrations in 1953.

V. Dussek


Our speaker, the Curator & Keeper of Human History at Maidstone Museum, Giles Guthrie, brought some of the museum's treasures to us in Plaxtol, placing the artefacts in our hands to be passed around and admired. The prize piece was the exquisite 2nd century Roman statuette of Minerva originally found in Plaxtol at Allen's Farm in 1857 but now on show at the museum. This was not passed round for obvious reasons. It was only the second time the statuette has come back to Plaxtol. Maidstone Museum was founded by Thomas Charles in 1858 when he left his house, Chillington Manor, to Maidstone. It now houses 600,000 artefacts in this elegant Elizabethan manor house.

Our speaker first gave us a visual tour of the galleries, where there is to be found the best collection of fossils and Anglo-Saxon jewellery outside London. Other galleries included costume, painting, natural history, archaeology, local history, West Kent Regimental history and Giles Guthrie's favourite - the Carriage Museum.

We handled Samian ware bowls, similar to those used in Plaxtol in the 2nd century and flint tools of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic period. These tools had been made by patiently chipping and rubbing a lump of rough flint for days on end until it was as smooth as satin. Impressively, they fitted comfortably in the hand. 

Of the artefacts, one of the most beautiful was half of a Saxon bracelet made of bronze, gold and garnets. Most touching were 18th century love or farewell tokens with their romantic messages.

The present day museum is run by three curators with the help of many volunteers. Many artefacts are not able to be shown for lack of space and a large extension is planned for 2012. Meanwhile the museum welcomes everyone from families to serious academics. It is open all the year round and entry is free.                

David Gurney arranged a display of artefacts from our archives, notably iron gravemarkers, iron curling tongs and a small Victorian statue of a female mill worker, found at St. Hilda's, that has been recently dated by the museum.


Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group 2010