Reports of our 2008 Talks


At the last meeting of the year our speaker took us on a colourful 21 mile tour of the Darent Valley from prehistory to industry. He guided us eloquently and expertly through its historical, architectural and cultural heritage. From its bubbling springs at the source in the Squerrys Court estate, Westerham, the river flows to Dartford, its industrial mouth where the salt flats and flood gates lead to where it meets the Thames.

We were taken on a captivating journey full of humorous anecdotes about the famous people who lived there.The Darent Valley has been inhabited for 2,500 years and boasts Roman villas, 21 watermills, 2 castles, an Iron Age hill fort, a bishops palace as well as many churches, Saxon and medieval artists, authors and architects have also been captivated by the Darent villages, notably Graham Sutherland who lived in Shoreham as did Samuel Palmer from 1824-26. He made the valley famous by his bold sepia landscape paintings.

Here also the composers Moeran and Butterworth shared a cottage. Dickens came to fish near the Lion Inn at Eynsford and the barrister, Edward Hasted, who was better known for mapping Kent in the eighteenth century, lived at Sutton at Hone. In the industrial world, John Spilman made the first white paper under royal patronage in the reign of Elizabeth I in one of the Darent's many mills. There were 2l water mills in as many miles, most were corn mills although some were converted to paper mills in the eighteenth century.

We recalled the loaf-shaped Daren bakery vans who delivered flour to be made in to Hovis bread.All this and much more was eloquently described and beautifully illustrated thus finishing the year on a high note, followed also by a glass of mulled wine.



In 1662 the hearth Tax of 2 shillings p.a. was introduced It was expected to raise £300,000, or the equivalent of £23 million today. After several unsuccessful attempts were made without reaching this target a commission was appointed and this resulted in the collection of £200,000. William and Mary however repealed this law because it was so unpopular.

Records for collection in Kent only cover 1664 but this does give an excellent snapshot of the distribution of wealth in the county at that time. The hearth tax was collected at lathe, hundred and borough level - not by parish - and so it was very complicated. Kent consisted of four areas : West, Central, East and Thames Edge.

In West Kent Knole was outstanding in having 84 hearths. Sir Roger Twysden, who was in charge of the tax collection, had 30 hearths at Royden Hall. Broome Park at Barham and Fairlawne at Plaxtol had 20 hearths each, while Ightham Mote and Yates Court each had 21. Several houses in Plaxtol had between 5 to 9 hearths. In the Hundred of Wrotham, 17% of houses had 3-4 hearths. Not surprisingly many dwellings with 5-9 hearths were inns.Many medieval houses had smokebays, later followed by the addition of a chimney. Indeed only a few new houses were built in the C17th.

In Plaxtol, Old Soar had 4 hearths in 1664 but this was in the more recent part of the house, not the medieval section. Bartons Farm contained 3 hearths and Mark Gardner at Dux had 2. In Wrotham, 44% of all dwellings had one hearth and in East Kent there were 70% or more with only one hearth. These figures reflect the fact that East Kent was less wealthy than other parts of the county, although for individual houses the number of hearths was not always a strict guide to wealth.

Old Well House in East Peckham shows the development from the Medieval house with an open hearth to the smoke bay of the C16th and then the four flue stack in the C17th - after the 1664 tax.In East Kent one saw mostly small houses with only one hearth. However these houses did represent a wealthier sector as the population in this area was so sparse. Indeed soon after the hearth tax was repealed the houses in East Kent were enlarged as a result of the increase in prosperity.

A number of residents were exempt from the tax and these included those with a property value of less than 20 shillings p.a. and those on low income. In Wrotham 36% were exempt which represented 67% of single hearth house. Plaxtol was not a wealthy parish: 53% had only a single hearth compared with the Kent average of 35%.

Clare Graham


John Stevens, mayor of Rochester, was said to have built the house in the C18th and also the Sir John Falstaff public house opposite, on land owned by Lord Darnley.

Dickens's father was a clerk in the naval yard at Chatham. On one of their many walks, they passed Gad's Hill Place. His father noticed Charles' interest and said that, if he "were to be very persevering and work very hard", he might one day live there. By 1856, Dickens was indeed wealthy enough to have bought the house, in which he would eventually die in 1870.

Anne's excellent photographs of the house demonstrated his appreciation of light and airiness in a pre-electric age. Dickens demolished interior walls, replaced dark wooden panels with glass and hung numerous mirrors to spread that precious commodity - light. A door in the form of a bookcase contained dummy books with such amusing titles as "Cats' lives" in nine volumes! As was fashionable at the time, there was a billiard room, tiled not wallpapered in order to avoid damage from the cues (the room was rather small). Externally, the house has an interesting cupola containing an alarm bell. The original windows were small and louvred but, with the abolition of the glass tax in 1845 and the window tax in 1851, the louvres were removed and the windows enlarged.

Opposite the house, which was on the busy London Road, was an area of land called the Wilderness, where Dickens had his "Swiss Chalet" built and where he wrote For ease of access, he constructed a tunnel under the road.  His last and unfinished work "Edwin Drood" was written in the chalet.

Dickens last major improvement to Gad's Hill Place was the addition of a conservatory which has recently been returned to its original state.

Higham inspired the locations for some of Dickens's novels. St Mary's Church may have been the setting for the Magwich confrontation with Pip in Great Expectations and of course the adventures of Mr Pickwick were set around the area of Dingly Dell and Muggleton (Maidstone).           

Ian Gerrard


Who were the radical dissenters? Our speaker Norman Hopkins described them as orthodox Christians, many from Kent, who disagreed with the state enforced faith of the time that was either Roman Catholicism or Anglican. They were not fanatics. They were alarmed at the form of religious teaching in churches and wanted simplicity.  James I vowed "to make them conform or harry them out of the land".   We now remember them under different names, Lollards, Reformers, Puritans, Baptists, Anabaptists and Separatists.   Our speaker told us how many had suffered for their consciences and it made a sad story.   Some dissenters spoke out boldly, some met secretly in houses but many were martyred.

The Lollards wore brown garb and went barefoot and came from Tenterden and Cranbrook. Of the 300 Reformers who died for their faith in Queen Mary's time, 64 came from Kent and were burnt at the stake in Martyrs Field, Canterbury.

With extracts read from contemporary writings, Norman Hopkins introduced us to some of the most interesting dissenters.  

In Henry VIII's reign William Tyndale, the brilliant Hebrew scholar who spoke 8 languages, made a new translation of the Bible into English. The church believed that the availability of an English Bible would ferment heresy by permitting people to form their own opinions. Nevertheless Bibles in English poured in from printing presses abroad.   Before he was martyred in 1536 Tyndale gave his papers to John Rogers of River Hill.   Rogers printed the first authorized English Bible in 1551 but was himself burnt at Smithfield as the first Protestant martyr.

Edward Dering, described as "the most learned man in England", spoke out in his preaching and offended both the church and Queen Elizabeth I. He was concerned that 1 in 20 parishes had no minister and therefore no teaching. Of course, the Crown received the revenues from the parishes with no minister.

Some groups like the Separatists went underground and finally 200 people, mostly from Kent, left in 1634 for Boston. These were the Pilgrim Fathers.  Later in 1662 many non-conformist ministers were ejected from their churches, including one Matthew Darby of Plaxtol.

It is interesting to reflect that, without our ancestors fighting for their individual rights, we would not have the liberty of conscience and freedom of worship that we have today.   They deserve our admiration.                                                                                                                                                        



Pat Mortlock gave us a stimulating insight into the way people thought, lived, their fears and superstitions and general life in the sixteenth century. The lecture explored whether this period was a 'Golden Age', as has historically been argued.

Between 1500-1600 the population of England increased from three to four million, caused by an improvement in the weather resulting in successful harvests and a reduction in the instances of disease. London dominated the population and by 1600 had risen to 150,000 from 80,000 in the 1500s. Canterbury had a population of 4,000-5,000 and Tonbridge of just over 700. 

Diet was a concern during this period, for the whole population. Whilst the poor could not afford to eat meat, the wealthy would only eat meat, viewing vegetables as peasant's food. Plague and smallpox were the biggest diseases feared during the period. Fire was equally threatening, with homes being constructed of wood and thatch. Life expectancy was low and child mortality high.

In the early part of the period, inflation and unemployment hit the increasing population. Prices were six times higher in 1600 compared with 1500, whilst wages were only five times higher. The ever increasing poor received little support - they would have gone to the monasteries for help, but these were dissolved by Henry VIII from 1536-40.

The resulting increase in discontented people led to a number of clever money making initiatives, for example, Abraham men would rub herbs into their skin to cause infection and were given money to go away. It was undoubtedly fear of social disorder which gradually converted the maintenance of the poor from an aspect of Christian charity into a function of the state in the form of the Elizabethan Poor Law.

Death, disaster, poor diet, inflation and unemployment led many to turn to the supernatural, magic, alcohol and tobacco. Foreign exploration, the invention of the printing press and the impact of the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in significant change. People who would have donated funds to the monasteries founded schools instead, for example, Sir Andrew Judd. Text books were printed and lessons in Latin and Greek were being taught. Literacy rates were very high.

In summary, as a century characterised by peace, good harvests, and education becoming more available, a Golden Age certainly did exist in many ways, emphasised by the fact that what came next with the Stuarts was much worse!

Joanna Low


We realize how fortunate we are to have 2000 years of rich heritage in Plaxtol and so we were most intrigued and looking forward to hearing the conclusions of our speaker Malcolm Davies, the archaeologist, of his 8 years' excavations in Plaxtol.  His interest in this area started research into the tile maker Cabriabanus.

Plaxtol, he told us, was the most southerly Roman settlement in Kent and was quite isolated from Canterbury, the heart of Roman Kent.   However, three important sites were found in Plaxtol. Sedgebrook villa, a Romano-British farmstead at Allens House with separate bathhouse and tilemaker's kiln and a burial site at Ducks Farm.   Sedgebrook was a high status winged corridor villa occupied from the 1st to 4th century AD that was excavated by the Kent Archaeological Society in 1986-89. Items of interest found there were a silver spoon marked "Aprile"and a voussoir tile signed by the maker "I Cabriabanus made this wall tile". Malcolm Davies said that this showed an amazing degree of literacy for a Roman craftsman of the 1st century.   At Allens Farm, 450 metres from Sedgebrook, there existed a simple Romano-British farm villa and two other structures.   One was a bathhouse, originally excavated by Major Luard in 1858, where the statuette of Minerva was discovered. It had a latrine, changing room, a heated room and hot and cold bath area.

The other structure was a tile-making kiln that was only the second one ever to be found in Kent.   Cabriabanus made his tiles in this kiln where the last firing has been dated as AD 120-165. Roman coins, 1,500 sherds, samples of Samian ware and local Patchgrove pottery were also found.

Lastly, in Ducks field a skeleton, cremation urn and pottery were found together with evidence of a stone pathway, stone walls, and Roman nails but no evidence of an enclosed cemetery.

Thus he suggested it could be seen how much 367 years of Roman occupation had influenced the local late Iron Age agricultural occupants of this area. The occupation had brought coinage with which to buy land and trade and skills with which to make pottery, build fine villas and farmsteads, and eventually bring peace and prosperity for more than three centuries.                                        

V. Dussek           


"Leather was the plastic of the Middle Ages",  Jayne Semple, President of our local history group, told us when she gave the annual Mollie Lewis Memorial lecture.   Everyone needed leather.   It was strong, flexible, hard wearing and waterproof. Strong "red" leather was used for saddles, harnesses, boots and shoes.    In order to make leather the tanners needed tree bark, water and a supply of hides from cattle.  Wherever there was a population, butchers and tanners would be working in profitable family-run businesses and were of yeoman status. The Miller family was the richest one in the area owning tanyards at Makefayres and Basted.  In 1444 John and Thomas Wolfrych owned a property in Roughway which included a house (now called Old Allens) built with the profits of tanning. Sir William Hampton, an alderman of the City of London, employed tanners to make the finer leather for pouches and other goods for London markets.   His name survives today in two local properties.

Since the hides came from the butchers with hooves and horns attached, they had to be cleaned, scraped, soaked and cured in open pits for up a year.   This was a very smelly process.

A colourful picture of a window in Bourges Cathedral showed us a tanner scraping the fat and flesh from a hide whilst his dog waited patiently for the scraps.

Other tannery sites were at Nepicar Street, Plaxtol Street, Basted and Roughway Street.   The latter, being near the river, had at least six tanning sites. We were also told about a thoroughly rouguish character named Thomas Derman, always in trouble with the authorities, who set up a tannery right in the middle of Plaxtol at Tebolds.


FEBRUARY 2008 - SEVENOAKS 1919 TO 1987

We stepped back visually into the past eight decades with Edwin Thompson's collection of photographs, many developed from old glass plates and postcards. He began with a short survey through the decades to establish over what time his audience had been associated with Sevenoaks. Starting with the 1987 hurricane, he continued with the opening of Sevenoaks bypass, the falling of the V2 rocket, the opening of the Majestic Cinema (one of four cinemas), the building of shops in Bligh's Hotel garden, the forge next to the Bat & Ball pub and the demolishing of the spire on St.John's Church (1880). There was much laughter since none of the members were able to remember the last few events.

Most memorable of the many delightful black and white photographs were the racecourse at Greatness Farm with Mr and Mrs Rait standing near the thatched grandstand (1919) with a railway sleeper propping up their cottage, the first Sevenoaks railway station at Bat & Ball, the manual telephone exchange (1949), evacuees, traction engines and milk and bread being delivered by hand and tricycle carts.

Together with our speaker's own anecdotes and his detailed knowledge of local history, we enjoyed an evening of nostalgia, especially for those who had grown up in Sevenoaks. This collection forms a very important pictorial record of local history.

V. Dussek


Plaxtol Local History Group were very fortunate to have Dr. Joan Thirsk, who specializes in the history of agriculture, and her co-authors Caroline Wetton and Anne Hughes come to talk to us about their recently published book.

The story begins at an auction in Wiltshire with the exciting discovery of a rare Latin manuscript of a survey of Hadlow Manor made in 1460 that was for sale. Acquiring this was the chance of a lifetime.

Dr. Thirsk did acquire this manuscript and had it translated into English by a medieval scholar friend.   In what she described as a "co-operative experience", she began with Caroline Wetton, artist and designer, Anne Hughes and Allison Williams, history graduates, the analysis of the manuscript. Caroline Wetton made sense of the geographical information and mapped the past on to present day maps.   This was the first time anyone had managed to map a manorial survey.

The survey gave the names of the tenant farmers, acreages and use of land and the authors began to unravel the jigsaw of pieces of land.

Some interesting facts emerged. In the fifteenth century the Weald was a poor country area but was heavily wooded and hence was a first class hunting area patronized by the rich who came to hunt.    The forest extended 40 square miles between Hildenborough and Tonbridge. North Frith was a big source of timber for 21 years until 1571 when there was no timber left.   There were no references in the survey to orchards but only gardens and fattening of pigs. The land near the Medway was fertile during the summer due to flooding each winter.   We laughed at the lovely story of the farmer taking his precious pig into the house to save it from drowning.

 Dr. Thirsk ended by eloquently summarizing the great changes in agriculture that occurred during this 140 years with the planting of hops, iron forging and the fortunes of the Hadlow families.                                     

V.Dussek                                                                                        #Top

Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group, 2008