19th Century Kent

Wednesday, 9 April 2014, by Bob Ogley

Bob edited the ‘Sevenoaks Chronicle’ for 20 years, and, during the Great Storm of 1987, took many photos, self-published in ‘In the Wake of the Hurricane’. Copies sold in one week totalled 5,000, sales eventually reaching 265,000, establishing Bob as a writer.

The 19th Century was, for some time, a period of no public transport and little movement of people. Kent’s largest town was Chatham, bigger than Rochester, Canterbury, and Maidstone; even Lamberhurst outshone Orpington, as London’s growth had yet to take off. Outlying roads were poor, the better roads being controlled by turnpike; crime was rife, pick pocketing, rustling, and prize fighting all illegal practices. WILLIAM CALCRAFT at Maidstone sentenced miscreants to public hanging (by a short rope), other criminals rotted in prison hulks on the Medway and Thames (expiring from waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid), or suffered transportation to Australia as Prisoners of Motherland (POMs).

HORATIO NELSON arrived at Chatham at 12, the nephew of local Captain MAURICE SUCKLING. At Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson fell dying into the arms of a Kent man, WALTER BURKE, who subsequently recorded Nelson’s final moments. WILLIAM BLIGH, a victim of three mutinies, retired to Farningham, where he frequented ‘The Lion’ pub, which still stands. George III, already blamed for losing the American colonies, observed, when at Dover, Napoleon’s tents across the Channel, awaiting invasion. For years, naughty children were warned ‘Boney will get you’, fear of invasion being so real that Volunteer units were raised in East Kent, with camps at Coxheath and Shorncliffe. Forts were constructed to protect Chatham (Fort Pitt, Fort Luton, etc.), while 72 Martello towers and the Royal Military Canal also helped deter the invader. In mid-century, a Mereworth man of distinction was EDWARD LUCAS, first recipient of the Victoria Cross, who picked up a live shell landing on HMS Hecla in the Baltic during the Crimean campaign, and tossed it overboard, an act of considerable bravery and selflessness. The 19th Century saw not only the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War, but also the Zulu war, and two Boer Wars, this being a time of considerable belligerence.    

WILLIAM PITT the Younger, son of the Earl of Chatham, became Prime Minister at 24. He built a home at Keston, where, talking with William Wilberforce, he determined to end the slave trade. Reverend JAMES RAMSAY, of St Kitts, another abolitionist, was expelled from the West Indies, and, when vicar at Teston, wrote about conditions on the plantations. HANNAH MOORE, one of his parishioners, started the first Sunday school in Kent. An 1807 Act of Parliament outlawed slavery, and although it took time to eradicate the practice, it may be argued that the genesis of anti-slavery agitation began during Pitt’s conversations at Keston with his friend Wilberforce.

In sport, CHRISTINE WILES, from near Canterbury, invented overarm bowling while cricketing with her brother John, her voluminous skirts hampering her bowling underarm, the accepted practice at that time.

JMW TURNER lived at Margate, his fascination with the atmosphere of the sky finding expression in many of his paintings, while SAMUEL PALMER of Shoreham loved that ‘valley of vision’ between Sevenoaks and Dartford, especially dawn at Underriver. WILLIAM MORRIS, artist, poet, author, and socialist, helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, visitors to his Bexley home including Burne Jones, Holman Hunt, Blake, and Rossetti. VAN GOGH worked at Mr Stokes’ School, Ramsgate, writing to his brother Theo about the beaches. Wishing to visit London, but unable to afford the fare, he walked there from Ramsgate!

 KEATS, SHELLEY, and BYRON were also Kent residents, and three successive Poets Laureate had connections with the county. WORDSWORTH and his sister spent summers with their brother, rector of St Mary’s Sundridge, TENNYSON and his sister stayed at Boxley, near Maidstone, and ALFRED AUSTIN lived at Hothfield. CHARLES DICKENS, a Chatham naval clerk’s son, taught himself shorthand, and began writing, his continuous newspaper article on a fortnightly basis becoming ‘Pickwick Papers’, a massive bestseller. His ‘Great Expectations’ had settings in Cooling churchyard, the Medway, and Rochester. Dickens bought a house at Gad’s Hill, Higham, where he entertained Wilkie Collins and Hans Christian Andersen. The hero of a railway accident at Staplehurst, which left him traumatised, he died at 58. Although he wished to be buried at Rochester, Westminster Abbey is his final resting place, as it was for CHARLES DARWIN, of Downe, author of ‘Origin of the Species by Natural Selection’. Although the battle between religion and science caused considerable offence, the Church eventually did him homage. A Greenhithe ‘writer’ of lasting fame was ISABELLA BEETON, penning not a single word! Her publisher husband wrote up several recipes which had been collected, yet Mrs Beeton’s cookbook has enjoyed outstanding success.

The Industrial Revolution changed life enormously, railways giving rise to the concept of the commuter. Britain’s original passenger line linked Canterbury and Whitstable (the ‘Crab & Winkle’ Line), Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Invicta’ (preserved in a museum at Canterbury) hauling the first train. Sometime later the network pushed into Kent from London, 20% of Kent’s male population gaining employment in constructing the 827 arches on the London Bridge-Greenwich section. Tracks from Redhill to Edenbridge to Paddock Wood stretched 48 miles without any bend. Problems in reaching Folkestone were partially overcome by Pembury resident SAMUEL PETO’s 19-arched Ford Valley Viaduct, while explosives expert William Cubitt blew up Round Down, the hill falling spectacularly into the sea. Maidstone’s resistance to the railway allowed for Ashford’s development as a railway town.

DAVID SALOMONS of Tunbridge Wells became Kent’s first motor-car owner, purchasing a Peugeot from France. He established the very first horseless carriage exhibition (motor show), with four vehicles in attendance. Bexley resident HG WELLS predicted that ordinary folk would eventually drive, and that parcels would be also carried by road ……

 Bob’s eclectic selection (artists, cricketers, motorists, poets, politicians, railway engineers, sailors, vicars, and writers) represents a few of those who, in various ways, helped shape the 19th Century from a base in Kent, a county which Napoleon failed to invade.

Stefan Gatward