Reports of our 2007 Talks

DECEMBER 2007 - LESSONS IN LOCAL HISTORY: THE CASE OF SEAL: David Williams and Peter Mountfield

David Williams and Peter Mountfield came to talk to us about the history of Seal and  their new 272 page illustrated book on the history of Seal, recently published by Phillimore, that they had been writing and researching since 2000.

It is probable that the name Seal (Sele or Sale) is from the Anglo Saxon meaning a muddy pool. Historically the land in the parish was arable, pasture and woodland with a tributary of the Darent running through it.

David Williams gave a detailed history, describing the fluctuating prosperity of the parish from Roman occupation to the 20th century.   The village has an entry in the Domesday book, and later in 1233 was granted a charter for a weekly market and thus it prospered. Substantial houses were built in the parish, namely; Stonepits (C11th), Hall Place (C13th),Wildernesse (C17th) and also the church (C12th).   Famously, the manor of Seal and Kemsing was once owned by Sir Thomas Boleyn father of Anne.

The Hearth Tax records in 1664 showed that Seal had 134 households which  was only surpassed in the area by Sevenoaks with 186 households.

For 300 years there has been a dwelling on the site now occupied by Dorton House, first owned by Earl Camden’s family for 150 years and in 1722 by the Hillingdon family who were bankers.   But sadly, with the decline of arable farming from 1800 there was a period of severe poverty in Seal when a quarter of the population was classed as paupers.   Not until the coming of the railways in 1860 did Seal prosper again when a dozen wealthy professional families settled there: barristers, solicitors, ship builders and stock brokers.  

To illustrate how the village looked at this time David Williams showed us old photographs of the busy village street with shops, garage, public houses, butcher and post office.

It was evident from what we had already heard that yet more interesting details of the history of Seal and its people were to be found in the book itself.  

As the talk was in two halves, the members enjoyed a glass of mulled wine in the interval when they were also able to see the fruits of the work of the Census Project Group who have put the entire set of Plaxtol censuses 1841-1901 on to one CD that is now for sale at £10.00. This complete record of the population living in Plaxtol  during this period, includes names, addresses, ages, occupation and family relationships. It is fully indexed and a very useful tool for anyone researching their family or village history.                                        



We welcomed back David Carder who came to our aid as our advertised speaker was regrettably in hospital.  

The talk began with a short history of bricks from Roman times with illustrations and diagrams to explain the terms used in brick laying techniques.

Although there is little medieval brickwork in Kent before the 16th century there are two earlier local examples seen in the gatehouse at Lullingstone (1497) and at Otford Palace (1503). The Romans were the first to make fired bricks and these can still be seen in the walls at Richborough and in other sites where Roman bricks have been re-used in buildings. As a way of recognizing the different styles, a simple rule of thumb can be applied. Roman bricks are thinner, being half an inch thick and medieval ones one inch. 

A tax on bricks was introduced in 1784 so that bricks were made bigger to avoid it, since tax was to be paid on each brick. Subsequently brick size was standardized in 1803. During this time of taxation, as well as wooden weatherboarding, the “brick tile or “mathematical tile” was used, and examples can be seen at Faversham. 

Bond is the name given to the way in which bricks are placed in patterns of headers and stretchers to give walls strength and stability.   The commoner ones are English bond, Flemish bond, and Header and Stretcher bond.  In Plaxtol we have an unusual example of 19th century Rat Trap bond seen where the old surgery used to be in The Street.

To end this interesting talk David Carder showed a series of stunning houses with elaborate brick features such as crow-stepped gables, curved gables (Ford Place, Wrotham), ornate dormers and towers, and also The Red House, Sevenoaks and Bradbourne House, at Larkfield.

Afterwards we were invited to try out our building skills by making walls with small wooden bricks to demonstrate English bond.   

Vanessa Dussek                                                                                                          


On 9th October, the Village Hall was packed for a most interesting lecture by Dr Ian Beavis, Curator of Tunbridge Wells Museum, o­n Decimus Burton and the Renaissance of Tunbridge Wells. Dr Beavis’s talk was beautifully illustrated by slides of old maps of Tunbridge Wells and of watercolours and prints of many buildings associated with Decimus Burton.

Burton was the son of a property developer who lived at Mabledon between Southborough and Tonbridge. He trained as an architect and, early in his career, worked with John Nash o­n the design of the elegant classical-style buildings surrounding Regents Park in London, and then designing his own buildings, such as the screen at Hyde Park and a large development at St Leonards o­n Sea.

Tunbridge Wells was a small village to which, from 1606 o­nwards, summer visitors flocked to take the supposedly health-giving waters at the Chalybeate spring in the Pantiles. It was beginning to decline at the beginning of the 19th century, as sea bathing became more popular, in places like Brighton and St Leonards. In the early 1800s, the developer John Ward bought almost 1,000 acres o­n the north-eastern edge of Tunbridge Wells and appointed Burton to design the formal street layout and buildings for the Calverley Estate. These buildings (erected mostly between 1829 and 1836) included 24 elegant villas at Calverley Park, the Calverley Hotel (now the Hotel du Vin), a terrace of shops and residences at Calverley Terrace, a market hall and terraced houses in Calverley Road, Trinity Church and the nearby Priory, many of which survive to this day. Sadly, several of Burton’s fine large houses were demolished when Tunbridge Wells Civic Centre was built in the 1930s.

Burton also designed many other grand houses around Tunbridge Wells, including Holmewood House, Burrswood and Broomhill. His later commissions included the entrance gates, Palm House and Temperate House at Kew Gardens. He retired in 1869 and died in 1881 at St Leonards.

Haydn Puleston Jones

The Group enjoyed a most interesting talk by Gwen Jones covering the history of the hop industry from the mid 16th century to the 20th century.  The accent was the impact o­n social history in Kent. Charts illustrated the growth and fluctuations within the industry.  Acreage grew substantially in the 17th/18th centuries and although Kent was pre-eminent, other parts of England (examples, Nottinghamshire and Cornwall) were also growing hops. 
Decline in the industry was over a sustained period and by 1889, acreage of 57,000 (22%) was grubbed out.  Factors in the decline included penal excise duty, depression in agriculture and in brewing and controversially, the use of hop substitutes.  Hop growing was labour intensive, keeping three men busy for o­ne year per acre and therefore many jobs were lost. The decline impacted upon trades and subsequently led to depopulation of hop growing areas.  Woodland trades were particularly affected due to the reduction in demand for hop poles and this was exacerbated by the introduction of stringing hops.  There was less coppicing and jobs were lost by tanners, blacksmiths and wheelwrights.

Although plans of an oast house were brought from Flanders by Reynolde Scot in 1574 the design and construction changed as the industry developed and many of the jobs involved diminished as demand for hops fell.

The industry suffered further serious decline after W.W.1 and this did not o­nly affect labour in Kent but also poor East Enders who had relied o­n the hop harvest to maintain them through the winter.   Although mechanisation was taking place this did not save the decline.

The public’s tastes changed and lager increased in popularity: it was thought, at that time, there were no suitable hops grown in this country although, at the conclusion of the talk, a History Group Member stated that there were suitable hops for use in lager making, including our local ‘Golding Hop’ but this was not recognised at the crucial time. 
Gillian Hogg 

With her usual aplomb, our Chairman Rosemary Foster managed to complete our AGM in 13 minutes, after which we were treated to a most entertaining talk by Pat Mortlock. Pat subtitled her talk “River, Roads and Railways” and gave us a fascinating account, beautifully illustrated by slides, of how each of these influenced the development of Tonbridge over more than 900 years.

The River Medway was vital to the town’s development, as was its long-established bridge, which followed an ancient trackway from an iron age fort. Soon after the Norman Conquest, William I gave Tonbridge to his relative Richard Fitzgilbert. Close to the river crossing, the Castle was built – of local sandstone from a quarry about half a mile away. The Normans also built a sophisticated system of sluices, dykes and waterways, stretching 2½ miles back to Hildenborough. In the 1740s, the very successful Medway Navigation Company was set up, enabling barges to carry goods between Tonbridge and Chatham and beyond to the Thames.

Until the 18th century, roads around Tonbridge were notoriously bad.  Things improved when Turnpike Trusts were set up to maintain stretches of road, for which they charged road users a toll. In 1784, the Royal Mail system started – the road through Sevenoaks and Tonbridge to Hastings was selected as a route for Royal Mail coaches, further improving those roads. In the 1830s, 30 stagecoaches a day called at the Rose & Crown in Tonbridge.

In 1842, the railway line from London to Dover reached Tonbridge (via Edenbridge), largely because Maidstone resisted having a railway. In 1868, a new line connected London to Tonbridge through Sevenoaks. With lines from Tonbridge o­n to Dover and Hastings, the railways gave a massive boost to local agriculture and the town became an important communications hub, growing rapidly to over 10,000 people by 1900.
Haydn Puleston Jones

APRIL 2007

Our speaker, Anne Carter, gave us a lively, humorous and most entertaining talk on the 1400 years of history of Rochester Cathedral. With her great knowledge and affection for the cathedral, having worked there for 11 years, she led us through its turbulent history.   Rochester cathedral is the second oldest in England after Canterbury.   During the dissolution of the monasteries it was one of the last to be attacked, having already survived two dreadful fires in the 12th century destroying the roof and cloisters. During the Civil War the local citizens dismantled the organ pipes and hid them in their houses, from the soldiers.

Justus founded the original Saxon church dedicated to St. Andrew in 604, but nothing is left of that building.   The first Norman bishop Gundulf built a new church,in 1077 finished in a few years, it is said. His crypt and bell tower still stand. The crypt has a stunning mixture of Norman and early English arches. Bishop Gundulf is also known locally for building West Malling Abbey.   The present cathedral is mostly 12th century with 13th, 14th and 15th century additions.   Nothing else was added until the 19th century restorations began.

We were reminded of the beautiful Norman carvings of the west doorway and the later chapter house. We were asked to imagine the interior as it would have been decorated with wall paintings in vibrant colours. Many famous people visited Rochester such as Erasmus and Cardinal Wolsey.

Our speaker showed us some of the finer, sometimes humorous detail of the medieval stone carvings, the roof bosses and the fearful looking “Green Men” whose duty it was to keep out evil spirits, as were the gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral.   She told us that deliberate imperfections were also incorporated in some medieval designs since it was understood that only God was perfect.

We shall look forward with enthusiasm to our visit to Rochester Cathedral later in the summer.

Vanessa Dussek


Jayne Semple, our President, gave the third Mollie Lewis Memorial Lecture on Tuesday 13th March. In 1985 Mollie and Jayne founded Plaxtol Local History Group and together researched and recorded the local history of Plaxtol.   Their research forms the body of our present local history archives.  

Jayne Semple’s interest in Wrotham slipware pottery began 25 years ago. In the seventeenth century there was a flourishing pottery business in this area making glazed and decorated slip ware, mostly tygs (drinking vessels with handles) and pipkins (jugs). The finest of these made between 1612 and 1739 are now collectors’ pieces.  Although called Wrotham pottery it was not made in Wrotham but much nearer home around Platt, Long Mill Lane, Crouch and Claygate Cross. Clay was needed for the pots, wood for the kilns, sand and water for the glazes, and roads for transport to market. All these were found locally.   Only lead for the glazes and white clay for decoration had to be bought in.

We saw examples of the pottery, some with simple black glaze for everyday wear and some glazed brown and highly decorated with trails and spots in white clay. One spectacular piece was a candlestick with five heads and several handles. Some pots bore the maker’s initials, the earliest being John Livermore (IL) dated 1612, the latest being 1739. But the identity of one of the most prolific potters (IE) remains a mystery. Interestingly, although the potters were not literate the pots were initialed as a form of self marketing.  Potters families lived in the area sometimes for generations as pot making had begun in the thirteenth century. Some of their houses remain since they were comfortably off, not poor.   Platt Farm House was where the Stone family lived in 1562, the Bounde family was at High Crouch (1495), George Richardson at Roughway and at Claygate Cross the Ifields at who intermarried with the Boundes and the Richardsons.

Potters were licensed to dig the roads for clay but were sometimes fined if they upset the neighbours or made the roads impassable – hence potholes. Jayne Semple quoted from the Manorial Court Rolls that Richard and Robert Stone were fined for digging holes in South Street, Plaxtol and William Fenn from Claygate Cross was threatened with a fine of 6 shillings and 8 pence now equivalent of £1,000.

Cliff Ward of the Otford & Darent Archaeology Group displayed some pieces of pottery found recently when a kiln was discovered in Beechin Wood Lane.   750 pieces with brown and black glaze were found here. The top of the kiln was excavated but not destroyed.   Despite the prevalence of pot makers locally this is the only kiln ever  to have been found in the area.    

Vanessa Dussek                       


Not only did David Carder, our speaker from the Maidstone Archaeological Group, give a most interesting talk on building stones but afterwards we were able to pass round and handle many different types of stone, and so compare the weight and texture.

Most of us were familiar with ragstone, flint and Wealden sandstone that are the three building stones used extensively locally, but David Carder also introduced us to many others. Some interesting ones were tufa, light but strong and Winklestone a freshwater limestone in which, he explained, could be seen fossilized freshwater snails.   Carr stone was dark brown from iron deposits and looked like gingerbread. A house built of this can be seen close to the A25 at Borough Green.

 We were shown many slides of churches, houses, towers and tracery to illustrate and  explain the different uses of building stone. For example, freshwater limestone can be engraved, whilst Caen stone is used for tracery and Wealden stone can be polished like marble.  In the thirteenth century Purbeck marble was used for decorative purposes and beautiful carving can be seen in Rochester Cathedral. Chalk, being light and easy to work, has been used internally in the undercroft at Ely Cathedral.

Ragstone was quarried in Maidstone, near the present Maidstone East station, and the magnificent Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone remains as example of ragstone building, as also is Knole. Nearer home, building with Wealden sandstone can be seen in Tonbridge Castle and Penshurst Place.   Much flint building is found in East Anglia but some also in north Kent. There is a fine flint church tower in West Kingdown. Flintstones were used in different finishes such as alternating stripes at Hoo and in Canterbury a striking chequerboard finish.     The talk was finished with slides of a visit to the Canterbury Cathedral modern workshops where we saw stone masons cutting huge blocks of Caen stone into manageable pieces firstly with a double handled saw, then a round saw, before finally carving the stone.                                                                                                   

Vanessa Dussek                                                                    #Top                                       

Copyright: Plaxtol Local History Group, 2007