Reports of our 2104 meetings

9 December 2014 - MARITIME KENT by Jonathan Fenner

Jonathan Fenner returned to give our annual Mollie Lewis Memorial Lecture. This was also our last meeting of the year. He took us on a journey from Gravesend to the bleak shore of Dungeness, with its constantly shifting shingle. This was a lecture absolutely packed with information about Kent’s maritime history.

Jonathan began at Gravesend, famous for its cargo ships and Pocohontas. From there, he went on to the golden sands of Thanet, the marshes at Romney and to the Cinque ports of Dover, Sandwich, Romney, Hythe and Hastings.

Along the Saxon Shore footpath lie the remains of the Roman ports of Reculver and Richborough. This latter was the secret port from where in 1916 munitions were ferried in barges during World War I. Nothing is left of this port now. Of the Cinque ports, Dover is the only one that still retains its commercial harbour. During World War I, the Dover Patrol kept the English Channel open, which was vital for getting troops to and from France. It was a port in Roman times and has a Roman lighthouse in the medieval castle grounds.

In 1297, a dreadful storm changed the course of the River Rother and redesigned the coastline, cutting off the ports of Romney and Sandwich from the sea, thus reminding us of the fragility of the coastline. Castles such as Dover, Walmer, Deal and Upnor were built to defend Kent. Upnor failed to protect the English fleet at Chatham in 1667, when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway burning 60 ships at anchor.

The fishing port of Ramsgate did not have a harbour until the 18th century but became very important in the Napoleonic wars and again in World War I. Kent still has fishing boats at Folkestone,Whitstable and Ramsgate and commercial ports such as Sheerness for freight. As well as a fishing fleet, Whitstable has a long standing tradition of oyster fishing existing since Roman times.

This was a true celebration of the Kent coast, its range of interest, diversity and its naval history.

David Gurney, our archivist, set out two ship letters of 1774 and 1835, from Montserrat, Bahia and Brazil to Guernsey. The ships had landed at Deal and Gravesend due to weather conditions. Ship letters were carried by brigs that were the maritime work horses of the 18th and early19th centuries. 

V.Dussek


10 November 2014 - 4,000 YEARS OF HISTORY IN OTFORD by Cliff Ward

Our speaker, Cliff Ward, Chairman of Otford & District Historical Society, guided us expertly through the centuries of history from the Bronze Age to the present day without any notes.

The name Otford is derived from Otter's land near a ford. There have been settlements in this fertile valley since the Bronze Age. The Romans built villas and houses here and the Anglo Saxons settled on Polhill in the seventh century. In Tudor times a magnificent palace was built. Each of these settlers left evidence of their existence.

We were shown photos of many interesting finds such as a Bronze Age burial urn complete with remains, Iron Age spear heads found near the River Darent, a large Anglo Saxon burial site with swords and knives and Roman pottery. We heard that the builder who found the first Roman pot, threw it in the air and whacked it with his spade. Happily several others were found. Six mills and a manor house were recorded in the Domesday book but surprisingly Otford has never had a market. Other finds such as the seals from papal documents and decorated discs from 13th century Archbishop's horse bridles and many more were well illustrated.

In 821 the 500-600 acres of this desirable land belonging to the
king were given to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since that date there have been 55 different archbishop landlords until Henry VIII. Henry's Lord Chancellor, Archbishop Warham, built himself a magnificent palace with 200 rooms, a magnificent gatehouse and a five storey tower. Otford was conveniently only a day's ride from London and Henry VIII stayed there on his way to France for the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Sadly, Elizabeth I sold the palace and it fell into disrepair in the 17th century.

More recently, the architect Lutyens, whose brother was the vicar of
Otford, designed the church hall on which has now been placed the millennium mosaic. Also a millennium model of the
solar system is to be seen on the recreation ground.

There was outrage at plans to fill in the famous pond and make a traffic island but the situation was saved by making it the only listed pond in England.

V. Dussek


14 October 2014 - OLD MAIDSTONE FIRMS, PART 2 by Andrew Clarke

Our Chairman began with the very sad news that Rosemary Foster had died and drew members' attention to the following tribute to her that he had placed on our website:

ROSEMARY FOSTER

It was with great sorrow that we learnt of the death on 15th September of Rosemary Foster, after a long illness borne with great courage and dignity.

Rosemary was an outstanding Chairman of Plaxtol Local History Group from 1999 to 2013. The Group flourished under her inspiring leadership, producing most of the extensive list of local history booklets and CDs that have left it in such good stead today. Amazingly, she carried on as Chairman for some years after her illness was diagnosed, with all the same energy, dedication, charm and good humour as before. Even after stepping down as Chairman last year, Rosemary continued to make an enormous contribution as a Committee member, not least to our recent very successful Plaxtol at War exhibition and booklet.

Among her many other accomplishments, Rosemary was a keen golfer, an expert plantsman, an energetic gardener and a talented artist. She will be very much missed by us all.

We extend our deepest sympathy to her husband Maurice and to the rest of their family.

Andrew Clarke told us that his talk was a nostalgic rather than historic look at a hundred years of old Maidstone family businesses from 1880 to 1980. He began in 1889 with a photograph of Foster Clarke's lemonade crystals in a bottle. Children would dip their fingers in and lick the crystals, making their fingers and tongues yellow. Foster Clarke was also famous for his lemonade, blancmange, jelly and custard powder. The colour of the adjacent Medway river gave an indication of what was being produced at the time. His answer to Bisto gravy was Gravet.

Apart from butchers, bakers and foodstores, Maidstone had an amazing variety of businesses. There were furniture stores, a theatrical costumier, printers, hatters, opticians, a hotel and restaurants,  a mineral water factory, a cherry brandy maker and a boot maker. The latter had an unmistakeable sign of a huge boot, measuring six foot and painted gold, that hung above the shop. With the photographs of the shops were shown their owners with their stiff white collars and moustaches.

Original bills reflected the prices. A complete bedstead cost £3 14s 6d, a pair of trousers £1 10s 0d, compared with lunch at Chiesman's Georgian restaurant for 1s 9d.

We laughed when Andrew Clarke, himself from the family of Clarke's furniture stores, told us that he had cricket ball practice in A C White's showrooms after closing time, with his friend.

This was a fantastic archive, personally collected by our speaker. It was a pleasure to see these nostalgic photographs and listen to the stories of the families and their businesses.

V. Dussek


9 September 2014 - SMUGGLING IN KENT by Peter Ewart

Peter Ewart's talk included many stories of smuggling gangs and was illustrated with more than 40 slides.

Smuggling in Kent began in the 17th century and continued to the middle of the 19th century. Any notion that smugglers were rascals was immediately dispelled as they were more likely to be bloodthirsty cut-throats.

The whole of Kent was involved in smuggling, often using creeks to bring the contraband inland. Smuggling was the black economy of the day. 'Runs' were usually carried out at night when small vessels were loaded with contraband from large boats at sea, although the notorious Hawkhurst Gang moved contraband in broad daylight. The rendezvous were swift, quiet and efficient. Contraband was stowed in windmills, stables, and churches with full knowledge of the clergy. Tea, alcohol and lace often found its way to the gentry in London.

There was constant conflict between smugglers and customs men. In 1748 Customs Officer William Galley and informer Daniel Chater, were savagely tortured and murdered, causing a public outcry. The perpetrators were sentenced to death by hanging (they danced the hempen jig).

During the Napoleonic Wars (1797-1815) the people of Kent continued smuggling with the Low Countries and France but by this time the Royal Navy patrolled the area.

Punishment for smuggling increased over the years with transportation for 7, 14, and 21 years, then the death penalty; hanging without Christian burial.

Under English Law, men with Dutch citizenship could not be charged with a capital offence: smugglers' children were often born in Holland.

In conclusion, there was reference to the end of smuggling in the 1850s due to the relaxation in taxation laws. 

Gillian Hogg


13 May 2014 - RUDYARD KIPLING'S BATEMAN'S by Richard Rattle

In 1902, with his wife Caroline, Joseph Rudyard Kipling first saw Bateman's, a grey stone house built in 1634, beamed and panelled.They fell in love with it. He called it "his good and peaceable place". He and Caroline bought it for £9,300 equal to £1.75 million today.

Our National Trust speaker, Richard Rattle, told us that the house lay in 33 acres with a lake, watermill and oast houses that Kipling described as having "red brick stomachs". The house had no electricity, so Kipling used the mill to generate it by installing a water turbine. By the front door is an iron stone placed there to ward off witches and evil spirits.

Born in India, Kipling was sent away with his sister to school in England. They did not see their parents for six years and this was an unhappy time. He returned to India aged 11 in 1882 and lived there until 1889. In 1892 he married Caroline and they moved to Vermont where The Jungle Book was written. He loved India, motor cars, Bateman's and children. Having a generous income from his writing, he was able to be one of the first motorists and continued to drive until 1930.

He restored the garden at Bateman's specifically so he could play in it with his three children, Josephine, Elsie and John. He wrote the "Just So" stories for Josephine. He was devastated when she died from pneumonia and later when his son John was killed in 1915 in the first World War. John's body was not found until many years later. Following this Kipling became involved with the War Graves Commission.

"Lest we forget" and "Known unto God" are attributed to Kipling. He became a good friend of George V, dying in 1936 two days before the king, he is buried in Westminster Abbey. Caroline died 4 years later and her ashes were scattered at Bateman's where Kipling would have wished to be buried, near the house he had loved so much.

Richard Rattle gave us a fascinating talk that will make us appreciate our visit to Bateman's in June all the more.

V. Dussek


3 AND 4 MAY 2014 - PLAXTOL AT WAR exhibition

 

"Amazing", "fascinating", "most impressive" and "so professional" are typical of the comments on our Plaxtol at War exhibition held on 3 and 4 May. The huge amount of very positive feedback we received can perhaps best be summarised by this comment:

"Astonishing visitor numbers for a truly astonishing exhibition. The exhibition layout, the exhibits, the variety of information, the uniforms and the overall attention to detail were way, way beyond what one would expect from a local event."

For two days, the Memorial Hall was transformed into something like a branch of the Imperial War Museum, complete with restaurant attached.

A large crowd gathered for the opening by Elisabeth Hodges, who was presented with a posy by Immy Werneke. Many of our 744 visitors came back to have another look at the exhibition and to savour the delicious food served in the marquee by Plaxtol WI, enjoying the chance to catch up with old friends (some from as far afield as Cornwall and Yorkshire).

Among the many highlights were Don Jones's superb half-scale replica of Plaxtol War Memorial on the stage and Plaxtol Primary School's amazingly detailed and beautifully crafted model in the Committee Room.

The exhibition far exceeded our own expectations, with £910 raised by the raffle and £710 in donations. We sold all 140 copies of the first print of our new Plaxtol at War booklet, but the reprinted booklet is available for £6 from Plaxtol Local History Group (see Books etc) and at Plaxtol Village Stores.

We shall also be producing a second booklet later this year containing some of the fascinating WW2 memories of the 21 past and present Plaxtol residents who so generously shared their wartime experiences with us.

Huge thanks to all concerned, but especially Plaxtol WI, Plaxtol Primary School, our exceptionally talented exhibition designer Don Jones and the rest of my incredible Plaxtol at War team.

Haydn Puleston Jones, Chairman


APRIL 2014 - POETRY OF THE GREAT WAR by Bob Ogley

We were delighted to welcome Bob Ogley and his wife Fern to the meeting. This was the premiere of their talk on Poetry of the Great War.

When Kitchener called for volunteers, everyone believed the war would be over by Christmas. Referring to Kent and Sussex poets, Bob began with David Davies, who later changed his name to Ivor Novello. Davies composed "Keep the Home Fires Burning", a popular song, which lifted spirits at home in 1915 when the war continued.

Siegfried Sassoon, who attended New Beacon School, Sevenoaks, foresaw war looming and joined the Sussex Yeomanry on the day WW1 was declared. In 1915, he was a second lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In France, he became close friends with Robert Graves. Sassoon's poems conveyed the ugly truths of the trenches in contrast to the patriotic propaganda at home. Whilst in hospital, he met Wilfred Owen who wrote his famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" describing the horror of a gas attack. Owen's poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor.

Edward Thomas, who lived at Elses Farm, Weald, was killed in action at Arras in 1917. He immortalised the railway station at Adlestrop (the Cotswolds) in a poem of that name. Rupert Brook, commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was known for his idealistic war sonnets especially "The Soldier - If I should die, think only this of me:" Charles Hamilton Sorley was introduced by Sassoon to Robert Graves. Sorley wrote three sonnets including "The
Mouthless Dead."  

A selection of poems by Edmund Blundon, Robert Graves, John McCrae ("In Flanders Fields"), Robert Frost, W H Auden and Rudyard Kipling ("My Boy Jack") were included in the talk and read with great feeling by Fern.

Gillian Hogg


MARCH 2014 - THE QUEEN'S OWN ROYAL WEST KENT REGIMENT IN THE GREAT WAR by Christopher Jupp

Our speaker, Christopher Jupp, comes from a long line of soldiers who served in the Royal West Kent Regiment from 1843 to 1957. He is the Regimental archivist and historian. He gave us a fascinating history with superb graphic illustrations explaining the battles of the Great War most succinctly. He told us that between 1914 and 1919 the regiment gained 70 Battle Honours, including Afghanistan 1919 and five Victoria Crosses. The 1st Battalion were one of the first battalions to serve on the Western Front in 1914 in the battle of Mons where 240 men helped to wipe out 3,000 of the enemy, all due to the accuracy of British rifle fire and the efficiency of the Lee Enfield rifle. 

The 1st, 2nd and 8thBattalions served on the Somme in July 1916. They held Trones Wood for four to eight hours in the hot, dry and dusty summer weather - quite different to the mud of the trenches. The wood was destroyed finally by shelling. Ten officers were killed and fourteen lost.The shell shock suffered by the survivors was terrible. We were told that it was untrue that shell shocked soldiers were shot. They were taken out of the battle and cared for. In 1916 at the battle of Monchy le Peux, near Arras, every single man in the action was awarded a medal. This was unique. 

A fact not well known is that more men from the Royal West Kent were lost in 1918 than in any other time in the war. Many local soldiers from this area fought at Gallipoli with terrible losses. A thousand men were reduced to just two hundred, many dying of dysentery.

The heroism of a young company commander aged 26, is not to be forgotten. Lt. Colonel Dawson was wounded 8 or 9 times, was awarded four DSOs during the Great War and once led his battalion into battle on horseback. Sadly he was killed by a shell in December 1918 when he stopped to pull up some leeks from a vegetable patch.

Far from dwelling on the loss of life in the Great War, Christopher Jupp made the evening a celebration of the heroism and achievement of the men of the Royal West Kent regiment.

David Gurney put out a display of photographs of some of our local veterans of the Great War.

V. Dussek


FEBRUARY 2014 - WROTHAM POTTERY, AN ART HISTORIAN'S VIEW by Lydia Goodson

Our speaker, Lydia Goodson, gave us a fascinating talk on this instantly recognisable decorative pottery, made within a few miles of Plaxtol between 1612 and 1739. It is part of our local history. She told us that her passion for these strange pieces of pottery was originally awakened by an article by Jayne Semple, our President, who is an authority on the subject and gave us a talk in 2007. 

This rough red-brown clay pottery, boldly decorated with white pipe clay, glazed black or brown, bears the date, the initials of the potter and sometimes the initials of the recipient. Our speaker encouraged us to ask ourselves where these potters lived and for whom the pieces were made. There are 140 known catalogued pieces. They are simple, everyday items, jugs (pipkins), drinking vessels (tygs) and candlesticks, made within a few miles of here since there was a good source of clay, sand and water for glazing, wood for the kilns and a weekly local market at Wrotham. Only one kiln has ever been found, in Beechin Wood Lane. 

The earliest piece of pottery, one of nine, was made by John Livermore (IL) in 1612. He lived at Styants Bottom. George Richardson (GR) from Platt was working from 1642 and made elegant pieces. He married Mary Hubble of Plaxtol, whose father Nicholas Hubble was also a potter from 1649-87. Henry Ifield worked at Claygate in 1652. There were several easily-recognised motifs in contrasting colours, such as goats, flowers, rosettes, fleur de lys and later coats of arms. These motifs were all in use at the time of making. 

For what were the tygs with four double handles used? The most likely answer is that they were wassailing cups, passed from hand to hand and used on special occasions. 

Production ceased after 1739 when the local potteries could not compete with larger ones. Our speaker brought two examples of these unusual looking pieces to show us. This well-crafted talk certainly stimulated our interest so that we are all hoping more pieces will be found to add to the collection.

V. Dussek


JANUARY 2014 - THE WOMEN'S LAND ARMY by Dr Ann Knief

There was a packed hall for our speaker, Dr. Anne Kneif, who was talking about the Women's Land Army. This was an appropriate beginning for the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

The Women's Land Army was started in 1917 when the Government knew there was only 3 weeks of food left and not enough labour to cultivate the land. Patriotic posters and propaganda encouraged women to join and several thousand did so. 

The Government was better prepared in World War II as, by March 1939, 4,700 women between the ages of 17 and 21 had applied and were to undergo four weeks training. Lady Denham, who had started the Women's Institute, was put in charge of the management. By 1941 it had become compulsory for all women between the ages of 17 and 45 to apply for war work, either as land girl or to work in munitions. There were a further 28,000 recruits.  

Where did they live? Some lived on the farms in unused cottages in primitive conditions with no heating and outside lavatories inhabited by spiders. Big country houses were requisitioned where four women shared a bedroom and 30 shared a bathroom. Billy Butlin was charged with creating large hostels for them. The women earned 28/- a week and men 38/- a week, both had deductions for lodgings. The Land Girls had a uniform of breeches, green jumpers and boots. The work was hard and the food mediocre. They had breakfast at 06.30, sandwiches for lunch and a hot meal in the evening.  

These women did heavy work in all weathers on the farm, hoeing, hedging, digging ditches by hand, ploughing with horses, harvesting, stone picking, milking and even rat catching. From 1947 some drove tractors. This was better paid with 10/- a week more and they did their own maintenance. They had a social life for the nearby army camps would invite them for dances but they still had to wear their breeches. At the end of the war some were released but some stayed on to help the returning farm workers with the tractors and new machinery.

By the end of this fascinating talk, so well-illustrated with original photos, posters and amusing contemporary cartoons, we were fully aware of the enormous contribution these women had made to the war effort. Yet, this was not recognised until 2009 when they each received a medal. Surprisingly, many said that this was a happy time in their lives. The war had stolen their youth but had given them skills and confidence and the knowledge that they had served their country well. We were privileged to have at the meeting Dorothy Smith, a former Land Girl, who brought her medal to show us.                                           

David Gurney set out a selection of agricultural photographs from our collection.

V. Dussek