If a person was too poor, too old, too ill or destitute, the workhouse was their last hope. Our speaker Eric Keys had spent ten years researching the 36 Minute Books documenting the monthly meetings of the Guardians who administered the workhouse.  They told a grim story. The care of paupers had been the responsibility of the parish from the seventeenth century, but the increasing burden on parish funds made them combine to set up workhouses.   In 1835 the first workhouse was built in Sevenoaks at St. John's.  This building was enlarged 5 times before it was replaced by a workhouse at Sundridge, where it remained until it became a hospital in 1948.  

The workhouse was like a self contained village having its own bakery, laundry, orchards, vegetable garden, piggery as well as a chapel schoolroom and infirmary.  Nevertheless, the inmates lived on a starvation diet of gruel and bread and cheese. We were shown the daily menu.  Families were split up.  Husband, wife and children were separated and denied access to their parents. As well as destitute families 15 to 20 vagrants would arrive each evening. 

The population of the workhouse during the period 1851 to 1901 ranged from 254 to 189 and nearly half the population at this time were children, some having been born there.  The rising bell in the morning was at 5am. Able bodied adults worked ten hours a day running the workhouse, but children spent the morning in the school room before taking on their share of the duties. These children shared beds, sleeping on straw-filled mattresses with no pillows.  There were no toys, books or games. In the early years it seemed that, if you were poor, you were punished although later in the 20th century older pauper children were being prepared for apprenticeship, the girls in sewing and domestic duties and the boys in shoemaking.

Many people, young and old, died in the workhouse and were buried in local cemeteries.This is confirmed by our Plaxtol parish registers.

This subject aroused much local interest and had several local connections.  It is paradoxical that this austere building with its history is now luxury flats.

David Gurney arranged a display of the relevant page copied from the Plaxtol Burial Register and two aprons belonging to Lily Heskett from when she went into domestic service before the war.                   

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Helen Allinson explained how life in a Victorian village was governed by a strict social hierarchy. At the top were the Squire and then the Vicar. Below them came the farmers, the craftsmen, the farm workers, and at the bottom were tramps, gypsies and hop pickers. As everyone in the village grew up together, went to school together, and worked together, they would all know each other very well. The village would be largely self-sufficient.

The pay for farm workers was low, and did not rise until the 1880s, when unions were established. Waggoners were paid slightly more, but did longer hours looking after the horses. Workers lived in tied accommodation and were sometimes subject to harsh treatment by farmers. For example, after a father was killed in a ploughing accident, his family was instantly evicted.   Farmers did set up Agricultural Associations, which offered annual prizes for say the best ploughman.

Workers joined Friendly Societies, which would meet in the local pub, to save money for funerals - to avoid the pauper's grave. A chest with multiple keys (to stop embezzlement) would be used to save penny contributions. The society feast day became an important day in the village calendar, second only to Xmas.

Village entertainments would include Mummer plays, performed by men and boys only. Doggerel verses used were passed down aurally. Costumes would be very basic - just a few ribbons. Some villages would have a brass band, or hand-bell ringers.

A village would have a variety of craftsmen - blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, bakers etc. Some of these would be prosperous, owning their houses, and employing apprentices. Village sounds would be from these occupations - the modern curse of motor noise was totally absent. Windmills were used for milling, until cheaper corn became available from Canada. By WW1 windmills were falling into disrepair.

At the top of the social pyramid, life was good, with a lifestyle supported by servants. However, management of the servants could be a challenge. A female servant collapsed while serving at dinner, and gave birth. She was sent to the workhouse a week later. The vicar would be highly educated, and with limited duties, had plenty of time for hobbies. However non conformism was strong and in some villages Methodists had similar congregations to the C of E church.

Children were seen and not heard. Child mortality until the age of 5 was high. After the 1870 Education Act, primary school was compulsory, an unpopular move with labourers who needed the help of their children. Teachers were paid by results, based on annual assessment of pupil progress.

World War 1 brought major change, with all families being affected. Summing up, compared to modern village life, in Victorian times, there was much greater community support, and self entertainment.

David Gurney set out a display from our archive of photographs & clothing items from Victorian times.

Stephen Hemsted


Our speaker Dr. Ian Beavis, Curator at Tunbridge Wells Museum, gave a fascinating lecture full of contemporary quotations and enhanced by pictures, cartoons, advertisements and posters of the period.

"The air in Tunbridge Wells is pure, the water is good, the houses are neatly furnished and the residents obliging", wrote one of the fashionable visitors.

From a small Saxon settlement next to the medieval manor at Rusthall, Tunbridge Wells grew to be the fashionable springtime spa in rural Kent.   The dying Dudley Lord North, in 1606, discovered the healthy properties of the waters when he came to recuperate from a dissipated London life, aged 25. Two years later the first well was sunk.

Lodging houses sprung up in the four villages of Mount Ephraim, Mount Sion, Mount Pleasant and The Wells.   These villages combined to become known as Tunbridge Wells, incorporating the Saxon name of a settlement on the Medway.  

For the fashionable Georgian visitor in the 1700s, the day started with paying the "dipper" for a cup of the orange-coloured well water, known to be full of iron.   Some visitors drank up to 10 pints.   A public breakfast was followed by a walk to the Assembly Rooms or to the coffee house.   Good conversation was to be had there or at the booksellers.   An orchestra playing in the Pantiles made pleasant listening whilst looking in the jewellers or millinery shops.   Tea drinking took place in the afternoon and twice a week there was an evening ball for all classes, that is providing they adhered to the rules of decorum laid down by Beau Nash in 1735.

But already there had been several royal visitors to the town.   Queen Henrietta Maria came in the early seventeenth century and Queen Anne gave money to develop the Pantiles. Trees were planted to celebrate her coronation in 1702.

We are fortunate that to this day that the Pantiles are still famous and still attract visitors from all over the world.                                                                                                             


At the end of the meeting, we were able to view an interesting display, arranged by David Gurney, of late eighteenth century artefacts found at 2 Church Row.


Mary Goodchild, a former volunteer at Ightham Mote, described how she had become interested in the story of Charles Henry Robinson (CHR), and his purchase, at the age of 61, of Ightham Mote (IM) in 1953. She researched this via a series of interviews with 62 family members and colleagues.   

IM came on the market on the death of Sir Thomas Colyer-Ferguson, because his grandson James was not interested in living there. In the 1950s, many country houses were being demolished, and the sites developed. To protect IM until a suitable owner could be found, it was bought by a consortium of three locals, John Goodwin, a farmer, John Baldwin, a Pharmacist and William Durling, a builder.

CHR, from Portland, Maine, USA, had seen the house as a younger man. He had grown up as part of a prosperous family. His father set up and ran a paper distribution business in the late 1870's, and CHR and his brother duly joined the firm.

In the crypt at IM there is a memorial plaque to CHR, with the inscription "A Pilgrim Returned". Mary described how she had discovered, with the help of Henry's nephew Tim and his wife, that CHR's grandmother, Emily Cobb, was descended, via two different lines, from those who had sailed on the Mayflower. 

Mary described her excitement on tracking down amongst family papers in Portland the "Letter of Withdrawal", a letter drafted on the Queen Mary by CHR saying that he had changed his mind about buying IM. However, because the ship's Post Office was closed, the letter was never sent, and CHR reconsidered and sent an offer for the house. The letter is now in the library at IM.

The house was in a poor state of repair when he bought it, with the roof just about watertight. Several of the chimneys were in the moat. It was some time before he could live in it. John Goodwin and William Durling remained in close contact with CHR & the house, with Durlings doing much of the repair work. CHR would visit regularly for short spells up to 14 weeks a year, the maximum permitted under UK tax rules for a US citizen.

As he got older, he was concerned for the future of the house, and negotiated for the National Trust to take it over. A donation of £1.25m from Sir James Colyer-Ferguson was needed to make this possible. When CHR died in 1985, his ashes were buried at the house.

Subsequently John Goodwin gave the farm and farm house to the  National  Trust.

Stephen Hemsted 

David Gurney made a display from our archive of photographs of Ightham Mote.


We were very privileged to hear Dr. Joan Thirsk, who is a leading economic and social historian lecture on farming in the Weald.   She has written many books on the rural economy of England & Wales.   She first asked us to picture our area of Kent, on the northern edge of the Weald, with a lot of small farms, over a third of them being less than 5 acres.   Nevertheless, although one of the poorest areas in Kent ,the farmers were just about self sufficient.   But from 1500 onwards the pace of change quickened because of fresh ideas, changes in eating habits and new families moving into the area in the middle of the century. Also, in 1520, the first book describing farming practices was published. The land was destined to have many different uses, from fattening pigs to parks for deer and horses for hunting, and from hops for beer to timber for iron ore.

Pigs were fattened in the woodland and provided the meat for ordinary people. So important was pig rearing that, during the floods in Yalding, a family moved their pigs upstairs for safety.   The nearest deer park was at North Frith, but there was a total of 13 parks in the area where deer were kept for hunting and for food. This made the Weald more fashionable, so that the Fane family came to settle in Hildenborough, the Sidneys settled at  Penshurst, and the Boleyns moved from Norfolk.   The Sidneys came looking for timber to feed the charcoal furnaces they owned on land at Robertsbridge.  

Growing hops was just right for local small farmers, as 2 ½ acres was the perfect size for a hop garden. The local people grew hops in the summer and in the winter there was tool and brush making, weaving and even knitting.  Woad growing became a considerable crop in Kent and provided a lot of handwork to employ women. 

Thus through pigs, parks and knitting, this beautifully crafted lecture showed us how the rapid and substantial changes during this period of a hundred years, made a huge difference to the rural economy as well as the personal lives of the community.

V. Dussek  

David Gurney displayed a collection of nineteenth centrury photographs of agriculture in Plaxtol and Fairlawne and the 1744 estate map of Thomas Baldwin of Yopps Green.


Jayne Semple, our president, came from Bath to give the 5th Mollie Lewis Memorial Lecture and as always, she said, when starting a new project she looked to see what material Mollie had found.

On this occasion Mollie had left a task.   Where was the alehouse at which William Wybaud was murdered? - "with a stab at night".

Ale and bread were the staple diet through the medieval period and men drank a gallon of ale a day,  costing a farthing,  equivalent to one third of their daily earnings.   The poor could not afford ale and drank whey, buttermilk or not very palatable water.

The largest concentration of brewers and ale houses was in Wrotham itself, the leading settlement in the manor made up of six boroughs. There was a weekly market in Wrotham and it lay at the junction of the London to Maidstone and Gravesend to Tonbridge roads and therefore was a busy place for travellers needing food, ale and accommodation. The population in the fifteenth century was 200, supporting 5 licensed ale houses - one for every 40 people.   The Three Post Boys may have been a beer house from the fifteenth century to the 21st century.   Churchgate House was another alehouse and there were two others in the market square and one at the court house where the monthly manorial court was held. The Inne of the George is today Bishops Lodge. 

Women  brewed ale for home consumption and then sold the surplus - there were 7 women brewing ale in 1445 in Plaxtol.   From her research, Jayne Semple established that there was an ale house at Old Graingers, opposite the church, in 1441 providing food and ale for travellers, and another ale house at the Old Well House, probably with a steady flow of customers since it was opposite the forge.

Jayne Semple gave us much interesting detail, telling the stories of the brewing families obtained from the fifteenth century Wrotham Manorial Court Rolls, where licences and fines were recorded, but she still could not tell us where William Wybaud was stabbed.


David Gurney, our archivist, displayed the original 1637 Indenture relating to land at Tebolds, Plaxtol with a transcription and summary, and part of a door from Lower Dux Cottage bearing drawings of two handprints and the intitials HP and IT with a heart and date 1772. 


"A picture is worth a thousand words", said Edwin Thompson, our speaker, as he was about to entertain us with local photographs from his own collection of the work and life of one man, the photographer Harold Camburn.   He was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1887, the son of a Presbyterian minister.  As a very young man, he joined a photographic shop and, by 21, he had started his own business in Grove Hill Road.   He travelled by motor bike and side car, taking good quality sepia photographs within a radius of 50 miles of Tunbridge Wells.   The photographs were developed on glass plates and then reduced in size to make the many postcards that were so very popular for communication at that time, since a postcard could be sent locally with an invitation and a reply received the same day.   Each postcard had a series of numbers for each town or village - there were up to 200 views of Tunbridge Wells.

Edwin Thompson had carefully arranged the views into categories. We saw a collection of churches, High Streets, villages, memorials, schools, important houses and rural scenes, as we travelled from Tunbridge Wells, to Kemsing, Shoreham, Otford, Penshurst, Dunton Green and many more, each view technically good but also artistic.   Often the motor bike and sidecar would be in the picture.    Camburn married in 1908 and volunteered in 1914 when he was joined the Royal Navy as a photographer.   He retired in 1939 and died aged 79 in Hampshire.  

Undoubtedly the most interesting photographs, in our speaker's opinion, were those of rural scenes, showing village life such as the view of Charing Church with a herd of cows passing by, apple pressing, thesmithy at Penshurst, hop picking, the local  pageant at Seal.

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JANUARY 2009 -

Until 1920 sheep, pigs and horses could still be bought at the market in the middle of the High Street in the market in Sevenoaks. So Ian Walker, retired head of history at Sevenoaks School began describing Sevenoaks from Georgian to Victorian times through the writings and diaries of early modern travellers, authors and painters. There were tales of highwayman, robbers, rascally gambling in The Wheatsheaf public house, good ale at The Royal Oak,great preachers and philanthropic builders.

Of the many humorous readings, the most memorable were the descriptions taken from diaries,particularly one in 1829 by Thomas Pocock, aged 15, who walked the 65 miles from London to Hastings in two days to visit his father, stopping for only one night. Also in 1788 John Byng, the fifth Viscount Torrington, and his companion stopped on their journey from Tonbridge at the Royal Oak in Sevenoaks for refreshment, eating cold chicken pie and drinking 2 quarts of ale and a pint of port. All these travellers marvelled at the panoramic view from the top of Star Hill.   But travelling in the eighteenth century was dangerous.   The owner of Riverhill House was shot in the thigh by a highwayman as he rode home, and a gentleman's servant was robbed of 4/6d and badly beaten.   The Rev. John Egerton, Vicar of Burwash, recounted a highly improbably story of how he had found a man on horseback completely buried up to his head in clay. After rescue, his horse still had a mouthful of hay from a haycart and four more horses also buried in front of them. It was well known, wrote the Reverend, that the clay of the Weald was like cement in winter and soup in summer. John Wesley preached many times in Sevenoaks and established the roots of Methodism in Sevenoaks.   H.G. Wells wrote "The Time Machine" whilst living in Eardley Road, rather shockingly with his mistress - and her mother.

The coming of the railway in 1868 divided Sevenoaks town instead of uniting it.   Workers' cottages were knocked down to build genteel villas, pushing the workers further away from the town.

Finally, in 1878, a philanthropic builder by the name of Jackson built 24 cottages in Lime Tree Walk that are still there to this day.

Ian Walker gave his talk without any slides or visual aids, proving the power of the spoken word.

V. Dussek

David Gurney arranged a display of photographs of Plaxtol in the snow from our archives.


Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group 2009