King Aethelberht (ca 550-616)
Aethelberht was the greatest of the kings who ruled Kent for nearly 400 years before Wessex imposed national rule from Winchester. Unusually for the age, he was not a warrior king, but is famed for his role in replacing Germanic paganism with Christianity. Probably at the behest of his Frankish wife Bertha, he agreed to St Augustine’s visit from Rome that led directly to the establishment of the Catholic Church in England. The great influence this lent him led to his being recognised as Bretwalda – overlord of the various Anglo-Saxon kings who had settled in Britain. Under his peaceful 27-year rule from Canterbury, the first English law code and coinage were introduced. He can reasonably be said to have shaped the destiny of the English nation. For his piety, he was honoured as a saint, and is commemorated by a statue in Rochester Cathedral.
Sir Bartholomew de Badlesmere (1275-1322)
Badlesmere’s life was a tale of courtly intrigue gone wrong. Born at Chilham Castle, he fought for King Edward I as a young man in France and Scotland. Initially he got on with the King’s successor Edward II, being appointed custodian of Leeds Castle in 1317 after already inheriting land at Badlesmere. From this position of strength, he formed an alliance with other nobles to seek influence, and helped make peace between the King and the hostile Earl of Lancaster in 1318. As late as 1320 he entertained Edward lavishly at Chilham. However, the King’s dubious affiliation with the Despensers led to a rift. In 1321, Badlesmere joined Lancaster’s faction, causing the king to bar him from Kent and provoke the Siege of Leeds Castle in his absence. The rebels fled north, but were defeated at Boroughbridge in 1322. Badlesmere was shown no mercy, being horse-drawn from Canterbury to Blean, hanged, beheaded, and ignominiously displayed for years.
Richard Woodville (1405-69)
For a man born of relatively humble origins in Maidstone, Richard Woodville’s extraordinary story surely merits telling in a Hollywood movie. Like his father before him, he became chamberlain to the Duke of Bedford. His big break came when the duke died suddenly, and Woodville married his wealthy 19-year-old widow Jacquetta of Luxembourg before anyone could intervene. More luck came his way when Margaret of Anjou, a relative of Jacquetta by marriage, became queen, and Sir Richard became Baron Rivers. Further honours followed when he took up a military career. He switched sides in the Wars of the Roses, following which King Edward IV of York married Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth. The aristocracy was horrified by the power enjoyed by these upstarts, and the powerful Earl of Warwick made it his business to do for Woodville. After the Battle of Edgecote Moor, Woodville and his son John were duly taken prisoner and summarily beheaded.
William Caxton (ca 1420-1491)
Though Caxton’s date and place of birth are not precisely known, he reported that he’d been born and bred in the Weald of Kent. A successful merchant, he settled in Bruges while still in his twenties. There he learned of Gutenberg’s revolutionary new printing press, and set up his own. The first printed work in English, in 1473, was his own translation of a French work called ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye”. After returning to England, the first book he published was an altogether more famous one: an edition of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Most of his output was in English, which helped put this relatively parochial language on the literary map. Since Caxton often had to decide between alternative dialect words, such as ‘egges’ (from Danish) or ‘eyren’ (from German), he also contributed to the standardisation of the language. A stained-glass window commemorates him in Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Boleyn (1477-1539)
Best known as Anne Boleyn’s father, the 1st Earl of Wiltshire has been depicted in more than one dramatisation as an unscrupulous schemer. It’s debatable however whether the wealth of honours he acquired brought him much joy. He was born at Hever Castle, which his grandfather, a rich mercer, had purchased. It was inevitable that Henry VIII, another Kentishman, would get to know Boleyn’s two free and easy daughters, and that he would have relations with both. Even Boleyn’s wife Elizabeth was said to be the King’s lover, though he denied it. The obliging Boleyn’s power grew until he became Lord Privy Seal; but all turned sour when Henry had Anne and her brother George executed. Boleyn spent his last years in disgrace after the King took away his castle; both his wife and remaining child Mary died soon after him. No wonder his ghost is said to haunt his one-time home, Blickling Hall in Norfolk.
King Henry VIII (1491-1547)
Henry Tudor, born in Greenwich, boded well at first. Strapping, charming and intelligent, he’d but one great vice: an appetite for lovers that continued even after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Had she borne him a viable son, they might still have lived a quiet life; but their divorce in 1533 ushered in ten years of horror. Two of his next five wives were executed, another was divorced, one died after giving birth, and the last was lucky. Henry took his place in history by casting off the Catholic Church for the sake of his first divorce, ushering in the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Asserting the divine right of kings, he became increasingly tyrannical with age, not to mention physically repulsive. It’s curious that, had his elder brother Arthur not suddenly died at 15, we’d have been denied England’s most colourful monarch, and world history might have taken another course.
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder
Though best known for sharing his name with a prominent pub in Maidstone, Thomas Wyatt was well known in his day as a poet, a politician, and the father of an ill-starred revolutionary. He was born in Allington Castle, the son of one of Henry VII’s privy councillors. He became a diplomat and got embroiled in Henry VIII’s efforts to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Things turned sour when, like several others, he was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn and thrown into the Tower; it took Thomas Cromwell’s intervention to get him off the hook. He also had literary ambitions, seeking to popularise the sonnet as a poetic form in the hope of raising the literary status of English to that of Italian. His poems, though technically precise, innovatively subjective and mercifully short, are little read today. He died young, though not as young as his eldest son Thomas Wyatt the Younger.
Thomas Tallis (ca 1505-85)
No one knows for sure where composer Thomas Tallis was born, but he is reasonably assumed to be Kentish because his first job was at Dover Priory, he progressed to a prestigious post at Canterbury Cathedral, and he was living in Greenwich when he died. The remarkable thing about him is the admirable way he kept his head through a singularly dangerous period in history. A staunch Catholic, he performed his compositions not only for Mary I but also the Protestant monarchs Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, adapting to their personal preferences. His body of work is therefore relatively versatile for that epoch. He is little known today to the general public, but is reckoned by music buffs to be one of the best-ever English composers, and still regularly features in choral concerts. One of Vaughan Williams’ most famous works is his ‘Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis’.
Elizabeth Barton (1506-34)
Whether Barton merited the title Holy Maid or Mad Maid of Kent depends on one’s religious perspective. Of humble origins in Aldington, she became maidservant to a local farmer. After an illness, she turned into a visionary, making prophecies and generally extolling the Roman Catholic calling. Her miraculous work made her a celebrity, and she won a comfortable place as a nun at a Canterbury priory. When Cardinal Wolsey checked her out and gave his blessing, she had it made. Like so much in that era, however, all hinged on the monarch: Henry VIII. She’d vocally supported his resistance to Lutheranism, but his rebellion against Rome left her in a quandary. She decided to oppose his Reformation, claiming she had seen the place in hell reserved for Henry if he should remarry. It was a foolish choice. In no time at all, her head was being displayed on a spike on London Bridge. Given Henry’s reputation, ‘Mad Maid’ sounds right.
Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79)
Nicholas Bacon was born in Chislehurst and studied law on his way to becoming a career politician. He ingratiated himself with Henry VIII so well that, after the English Reformation, the King gifted him four manors. His fortunes went sharply into reverse when the Catholic Mary I took the throne, but recovered under Elizabeth I to the extent that he was made Lord Keeper of the Great Seal – not a job at a zoo, but an honorific title indicating that he took charge of the wax seal used by the monarch to signal her consent to documents. He remained staunchly anti-Catholic, opposing the restoration of Mary, Queen of Scots as well as Elizabeth’s mooted marriage to a French duke. His greatest legacy was his youngest son Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1620 would publish the book that expounded a formal basis for empirical investigation, ushering in the age of science.
Thomas Culpeper (ca 1514-41)
Thomas Culpeper from Bedgebury enjoyed courtly connections that secured him work for the royal family, procuring luxury goods such as hawks for hunting. Culpeper did well for himself, buying Higham Court at Bridge when just 20. Responsible at length even for dressing and undressing the portly Henry, he ingratiated himself to the extent that he was rewarded with various gifts of property; and, when either he or his brother was responsible for a rape and a murder in 1539, the guilty party was pardoned. It all went wrong when the ageing King married Catherine Howard. The 17-year-old Queen took a shine to the handsome Culpeper, inviting him regularly to her bedchamber. His designs may have been purely political; but, with Archbishop Cranmer already investigating rumours of the Queen’s premarital indiscretions, an incriminating letter found in Culpeper’s chamber was decisive. After pointlessly protesting his innocence, Culpeper was executed, along with the Queen and her lady-in-waiting.
Queen Mary I (1516-58)
Like her father Henry VIII, Mary Tudor was born at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich. Unlike him, she had a Spanish Catholic mother, and took great exception when her father renounced the Catholic Church, divorced her mother, and had Mary declared illegitimate. Her brother, who succeeded in 1547 as Edward VI, feared what would happen if ever Mary wore the crown, and changed the law in favour of his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey. On his early death in 1553, Mary usurped the throne and had the young Grey put to death. She then heaped savage retribution on Protestants, having around 300 burned at the stake. Worse, she married King Philip II of Spain, soon to be England’s mortal enemy. The nation was ruined economically, suffered famine, and significantly lost Calais, its last possession in France. Though Catholic historians have attempted to repair her reputation, any impartial observer might feel she’d earned her epithet, ‘Bloody Mary’.
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger (1521-54)
The political climate in mid-C16 England was not unlike Britain in 2019: a nation divided between those who respected overseas authority and a majority preferring self-determination. When the former camp seized power in 1553 under Mary I, there was more than a Twitter storm for English Protestants to contend with. Resistance took diverse forms. Thomas Wyatt had actually been born a Catholic at Chatham, but was hostile to Spain on account of his experience of the Inquisition when accompanying his father on a diplomatic mission. Ever the rebellious sort, he objected violently to Philip II becoming king consort of England. At Allington Castle he drew up plans for the Queen’s overthrow, and assembled an army of 1,500 men “of the best shire” at Rochester. By the time they reached Blackheath, however, the government had amassed a huge army, and Wyatt’s Rebellion soon fizzled out. After he was executed, someone added insult to injury by stealing his head as a trophy.
Joan Boucher (d 1550)
Anabaptism is the credo that baptism is invalid for candidates who have not professed their belief. Being outside of mainstream Protestantism (the Amish sect being typical), C16 Anabaptists were as unpopular with the Church of England as with Roman Catholics. Joan Boucher, from Romney Marsh, may have been descended from Anabaptist refugees from persecution on the continent. She became an outspoken champion of her faith, and was briefly jailed for her critique of the Eucharist. Five years later she was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death. The following year saw numerous attempts by leading church figures to persuade her to recant, which would have made for good propaganda. She steadfastly refused. Royal chaplain John Rogers declared that beheading was too good for her, and she was burned at the stake. The ironic twist was that, with Mary I on the throne five years later, Rogers suffered the same fate: a case of the burner burnt.
James Burbage (ca 1531-97)
Burbage was probably born in Bromley. His trade was carpentry, which later served him well as a theatre-builder. First, however, he cut his teeth as an actor. Possessing all the charms of a top male thespian, he became leader of Leicester’s Men, the foremost troupe in Renaissance theatre. In his forties, he set about building arguably England’s first dedicated theatre since Roman times. ‘The Theatre’ opened in 1576 across the fields in Shoreditch. In the 1590s, Burbage’s legendary actor son Richard began appearing there with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Among young Burbage’s friends and colleagues was one William Shakespeare, several of whose early plays must have been performed there. By the time of James’s death, however, the Burbages got embroiled in a legal dispute over the Theatre’s lease. Richard and brother Cuthbert resolved the matter by secretly removing the theatre over Christmas 1598 and rebuilding it in Southwark as The Globe. The rest, as they say, is comedy.
Sir Francis Walsingham (ca 1532-90)
Chislehurst-born Francis Walsingham was the devil incarnate to Roman Catholics, but to modern eyes rather resembles a C16 incarnation of James Bond’s ‘M’. After Cambridge, he became a lawyer, but exiled himself when Mary I commenced her persecution of Protestants. On returning after her death, he became a trusted adviser to Elizabeth I. In 1572, he was deeply affected by his experience as ambassador in France, when he witnessed the massacre of up to 30,000 Protestants ordered by Queen Catherine. Thereafter he showed extreme prejudice towards Catholics, opposing all rapprochements with France and Spain and ruthlessly crushing repeated plots against Elizabeth’s life. Chief among these was the Babington Plot, intended to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. It was Walsingham’s spy ring that unearthed the fateful evidence, and he who pressed successfully for Mary’s execution. After serving unfailingly as the Queen’s personal secretary for 17 years, he died of cancer back in Chislehurst.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Good Queen Bess’s 44-year reign now seems brief compared with her modern namesake’s; but its length was a blessed relief after the turmoil of the last quarter century. Considering the adversity she faced, it’s only a wonder it lasted so long. She was born at Placentia Palace in Greenwich, three years before her mother was executed by her father. Her half-brother who succeeded him died at 15, following which their half-sister Queen Mary I imprisoned her in the Tower. At 25, however, Elizabeth was herself crowned. In addition to an attack of smallpox, she survived numerous plots and rebellions. Perhaps her most glorious achievement was presiding over the destruction of Philip II of Spain’s invasion fleet, the Armada, in 1588. The great disappointment of her reign, however, was the Virgin Queen’s failure to provide a direct heir. Instead, she left the English throne to the Stuarts, the Scottish Catholic dynasty who would provoke two revolutions.
Thomas Digges (ca 1546-95)
Digges was born in Wootton, near Dover, the mathematician son of a mathematician. Having studied the supernova observed by Tycho Brahe in 1572, he concluded that it was so far away as to contradict Aristotle’s cosmic model. He was among the first in Britain to pick up on Copernicus’s theory that the universe revolved not around the Earth but the Sun, and to publicise it. More than that, however, he challenged the Prusso-Pole’s belief that the stars were mounted on spheres that restricted their range. Instead, he proposed that stars extended to an extreme distance and in unlimited numbers, accurately anticipating modern cosmology. He even went so far as to query why, if there were an unlimited number of stars, the night sky was not uniformly filled with starlight. He thus first stated the ‘Dark Night Sky Paradox’ that would not be resolved until the C20. Copernicus is now celebrated, whereas Digges is forgotten.
Jack Ward (1553-1622)
Anyone looking for a real-world inspiration for Jack Sparrow could do worse than consider Jack ‘Birdy’ Ward, a fisherman from Faversham. His story is almost too outlandish to be believed. He began his piratical career by preying on Spanish shipping at Elizabeth I’s behest. When James I made peace with Spain, Ward stole a small barque in Portsmouth that he used to capture a bigger vessel; an even better one followed. Progressing to the Mediterranean, he captured a 32-gun Dutch ship that brought him several large hauls. Finally, with extraordinary bravado, he took the mighty Reniera e Soderina, which he fitted out as a Man-o-War. The amount of booty he took in eight years was staggering, equating to hundreds of millions of pounds today. He retired in 1612 and, having been refused a royal pardon, went into exile in Tunis, where he became Yusuf Rais. A heavy drinker and a bigamist, ‘Birdy’ may eventually have died of plague.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)
Few have packed so much into a short life as Philip Sidney. Born into a prominent family at Penshurst Place, he was already an MP at 18. After three years travelling through Europe, he met Penelope Devereux, the Earl of Essex’s sister, who later inspired him to write 108 love sonnets; she however wed unhappily elsewhere. Instead he married Sir Francis Walsingham’s daughter Frances in 1583. He was also knighted that year, and became MP for Kent a year later. A militant Protestant, he befriended Italian radical Giordano Bruno. Posted to the Netherlands, he actively supported Dutch resistance to the Spanish army of occupation. At the Battle of Zutphen, Sidney was shot in the leg, and died weeks later of gangrene; his insistence on giving his water to another wounded man would prompt a classic thought experiment in evolutionary biology. His writings – which included literary criticism and a romance – were only published posthumously, but assured his lasting fame.
William Adams (1564-1620)
William Adams of Gillingham has the distinction of becoming the first western samurai. In 1600, he was hired as chief pilot of a five-vessel Dutch trading fleet headed for South America’s west coast. After the fleet was scattered by storms, one ship turned back, another was captured, and two remaining captains were killed by natives. Desperate, the remaining crews opted to cross the Pacific. One made for Indonesia, where all were slaughtered, and the other two for Japan. After desertions and a shipwreck, only nine men survived the voyage to Usuki, where the ship with its cannons and cargo was seized by the authorities. Luckily, the future Shogun took to Adams, whose talents he employed to enhance the Japanese navy and develop trading links. Adams was eventually declared reborn as a samurai. Named Miura Anjin, he began a new life as an influential official, remarrying but continuing to provide for his wife back home. He never came back.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)
Kit Marlowe, son of a Canterbury shoemaker, was such a precocious literary talent that it is no wonder he has been credited with secretly writing the early works of his exact contemporary, Shakespeare. After attending The King’s School and Cambridge, he began working for the government in some secret capacity, possibly spying for Sir Francis Walsingham. Meanwhile he also turned his hand to drama, writing the innovative and hugely popular tragedies ‘Tamburlaine the Great’, ‘The Jew of Malta’, and ‘Doctor Faustus’. Both careers came to a sudden halt in Deptford on May 30th, 1593. After a day’s drinking with three dubious Walsingham agents, he got into a fight with one, Ingram Frizer, who mortally stabbed him in the head. Frizer was acquitted, but the coroner’s report still seems fishy, especially as Marlowe faced politically inspired criminal charges at the time. While his dramatic torch passed to Shakespeare thereafter, Marlowe’s murky death still provides rich material for conspiracy theorists.
Sir William Harvey (1578-1657)
William Harvey was born into a wealthy family in Folkestone, where his father later became mayor. After leaving The King’s School in Canterbury, he went to Cambridge, where he gained his doctorate in medicine after a spell at the University of Padua. He took a career-long post at St Bartholomew’s, living in Ludgate. As well as lecturing, he won a plum job as personal physician to King James I in 1618. Another client was Sir Francis Bacon, deviser of the scientific method. Though Harvey disliked Bacon’s style, he published in 1628 a work that accorded well with Bacon’s eminently practical method: ‘De Motu Cordis’, his comprehensive account of the circulation of blood. In overturning Galen’s ancient theory, it naturally ruffled feathers, and was not accepted for decades. Nevertheless, it proved a turning-point in medical science, and Harvey is now honoured as a forerunner of the scientific revolution. He died in his seventieth year of, ironically, a cerebral haemorrhage.
Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653)
Many generations of the Kentish Filmers lie buried in East Sutton Church; Robert was the one who lived through the accession of the Stuart monarchy and England’s descent into Civil War. Filmer studied law, and was knighted by King James I in 1619. As from the 1620s, he worked on his one work of note, ‘Patriarcha’. This was an intellectual justification of the Divine Right of Kings, the basis of his argument being the God-given right of a man to rule his family, as testified by the Old Testament. This ‘right’ was vigorously asserted by the headstrong new king in 1625, Charles I. The Long Parliament’s uncompromising response to Kentish efforts to conciliate between King and Commons was to spark civil war in 1642. The Roundheads soon looted Filmer’s manor house, taxed him heavily, imprisoned him in Leeds Castle, and took his estates. He survived, however, because luckily for him ‘Patriarcha’ wasn’t published till 1680.
Aphra Behn (1640-89)
The enigmatic Aphra Behn from Canterbury (or maybe Wye) could be famous for her cool name alone. She wasn’t actually that exotic: Aphra was a biblical name, like Keturah or Keziah, and her maiden name was probably Johnson, unless it was Cooper. She acquired the Behn from a Dutchman, who may actually have been German. It’s said that she spied for King Charles II, though we’ve no evidence. We do know that, being Catholic, she injudiciously supported the doomed King James II. She responded to her impoverished condition by expressing herself prodigiously in print. She was forgotten until Virginia Woolf praised her for being a female writer, after which Behn was lionised by numerous feminist commentators. Some blamed prudish Victorians for her oblivion, although others think she just wasn’t much cop. Another feminist, Germaine Greer, had the last word, describing her as a palimpsest: a blank sheet onto which later generations project their own prejudices. Either that, or she wasn’t.
Stephen Gray (1666-1736)
The appropriately named Gray, from Canterbury, ironically started life as an apprentice in his father’s dyeing business. His passion however was science, and he assisted the great astronomer John Flamsteed with observations. This association was to hobble Gray’s scientific career, because it incurred the enmity of the domineering Isaac Newton. Sick and poor, Gray ended up in 1720 in a position at Charterhouse. There he made an epoch-making discovery: that a static charge could be conducted along a wire. On a visit to Reverend Granville Wheeler at Otterden Place, the two performed a series of experiments in and outside of the house. They demonstrated not only the conduction of electricity across 800 feet but also the principle of insulation. Gray’s celebrated ‘Flying Boy’ experiment later also demonstrated electrical induction. His work was enthusiastically taken up by better communicators like Benjamin Franklin who stole the credit. The colourless Gray meanwhile ended up in a pauper’s grave.
Stephen Hales (1677-1761)
If he’d been responsible for just one invention instead of several, Stephen Hales would surely be better known today. The son of a baronet in Bekesbourne, he went to school in Orpington before studying divinity at Cambridge. There he acquired an interest in science that stayed with him even after he became a curate in Teddington. He was in fact criticised for being a man of God who practised vivisection. His animal investigations did however lead to his best known and valuable discovery, the means to measure blood pressure. He also added significantly to contemporary understanding of the heart and circulation. In a similar vein, he gave descriptions of the absorption of air and water in plants that pre-dated better known experimenters by a century. To prove his versatility, Hales even invented a ventilator to improve air quality in ships, mines and prisons. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he did useful work in other areas, from water distillation to mortality rates.
Robert Maynard (1684-1751)
This humble sea-captain from Dartford is renowned for one extraordinary achievement. In the early C18, a Bristolian called Edward Teach earned notoriety in the Caribbean as the fearsome pirate Blackbeard. He preferred to terrorise victims into submission, his appearance being instrumental: an imposing physique, draped in dark clothes, with a huge beard tied in knots, sometimes with slow-burning matches attached. After plundering the Caribbean for years, he moved north to plague the American colonies, before retiring with his treasure and a royal pardon. When he reverted to his old ways, Lieutenant Maynard was charged with arresting him. He traced Blackbeard’s ship to the harbour of Bath, North Carolina. The pirate crew promptly boarded Maynard’s apparently ill-manned ship; but it was a trap. Maynard’s men flooded on deck, isolating him and Blackbeard in single combat. As he moved to attack, the dreaded pirate was cut down by a blow from behind. Maynard hung his bearded head from the bowsprit.
James Whatman the Elder (1702-59)
James Whatman is one of those unfortunates who enjoy global fame but are almost forgotten in their own backyard. A Loose-born man, he married widow Ann Harris, and so acquired Turkey Mill in Maidstone. There, in the 1750s, he invented the superior-quality ‘wove’ paper – the kind that now accounts for over 99% of global production – and upgraded paper-making from a cottage industry to full-scale manufacturing. His revolutionary wares were used by George Washington’s equally revolutionary government, by Emperor Napoleon and Queen Victoria, by artists like Gainsborough, Turner, and Blake, and by the publishers of several great works. Whatman’s name lives on in other languages as the word for high-quality paper. His son James the Younger (1741-98) continued his innovative work, and took on young William Balston (1759-1849) as his apprentice. Balston eventually founded the Springfield Mill that was used for producing J Whatman papers after his master’s death. It was finally demolished for housing in 2018.
William Shipley (1715-1803)
Shipley was born in Maidstone but raised in London. At 21, he inherited £500 that paid for training in painting and drawing at Northampton. Although his own work was unremarkable, he started a highly successful drawing school in the Strand. In 1753, it prompted his idea of a society aimed at making Britain a centre of creative excellence. It was launched the following year as the ‘Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’ – now the RSA – one of its founder members being fellow Man of Kent Stephen Hales. As its focus became more industrial, he rather lost interest, and resigned his official post in 1760. He married and retired to Maidstone, where he set up the ‘Kentish Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge’, whose major achievement was improved sanitation at the local prison. An inventor in his own right, he is celebrated for pioneering the creation of private organisations for the benefit of society.
Jeffery, 1st Baron Amherst (1717-97)
Considering that he became the supreme leader of the British forces, and had an admiral and a general for brothers, it’s a surprise that Jeffrey Amherst‘s father was merely a Sevenoaks lawyer. He made his name during the Seven Years War, when he led the British forces in North America. After Wolfe captured Québec, Amherst went on to take Montréal and so terminate French rule of the future Canada. For this, he was promoted and knighted. He was later recalled to Britain to account for the subsequent Indian revolt, but nevertheless promoted again. At the start of the American Revolution, he was made Baron Amherst of Holmesdale in the County of Kent, and Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, but took no part in action. Fort Amherst at Chatham was named after him, and in 1778 he was even visited at his home, Montreal Park in Sevenoaks, by the King and Queen. He died and was buried at Sevenoaks.
Edward Nairne (1726-1806)
Nairne came from Sandwich, but made a career for himself as an optician in London. His passion was for inventing. He came up with two seriously useful devices. One was a marine barometer – in other words, one with the stability to operate dependably even on the ocean wave. It was so good that James Cook took one with him on his second expedition to the South Pacific. The second was the good old rubber eraser. Until Nairne’s discovery, writers had depended on breadcrumbs to rectify errors. He certainly knew how to exploit its commercial potential: he put it on sale at £13 in today’s prices for a half-inch cube. Not all his inventions were so smart, however. He created an electrostatic generator (pictured) that he sold on a health platform, claiming that electricity would cure anything from nervous disorders to sciatica. Had it worked, it would surely have put Tunbridge Wells’ miraculous Chalybeate Spring out of business.
Major General James Wolfe (1727-59)
Wolfe was a military genius who, had he lived longer, might have rivalled Nelson in heroic stature. He was born in Westerham, the son of a future general. He joined the Army at 14, showing his precocious talent in several battles in Flanders and Scotland. He was already a major at 18, and lieutenant colonel at 23. The Seven Years’ War in 1756 saw him promoted to Major General. Posted to Canada, he displayed all his leadership qualities, carrying the same kit as his men, and both giving and demanding all. Hearing him described as mad, the King wished Wolfe would bite his other generals. His zenith was the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when through sheer audacity he took Quebec City against the odds, undermining French control of the region. He could not savour his triumph because, like Nelson, a musket ball cut him down, aged 32. He lies in the family vault in Greenwich.
William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)
The younger Pitt, from Hayes Place near Bromley, may be thought of as the Churchill of his day. As Prime Minister, his father the Earl of Chatham had unsuccessfully supported the American colonists in the 1760s; it fell to his son to deal with the loss of those colonies in 1783. Pitt was only 24, the youngest British premier ever, and apart from one three-year interval would remain in the role until his death. His aloof superiority limited his popularity, but he showed intellectual and administrative rigour now rare in politics. Though formally a Tory, Pitt had Whiggish views on slavery (Wilberforce was a good friend) and Catholic emancipation; his achievement lay in modernising the nation without upheaval. His true hour came when Britain stood alone against Napoleon’s might, and his patriotic devotion to duty proved inspirational. Sadly, he suffered from chronic ill health exacerbated by drink, and died at 46 with the nation’s fate still in the balance.
William Beresford (1768-1854)
The 1st Viscount Beresford started life in the British Army as a humble ensign from Bedgebury Cross. After 20 years of unblemished service, apart from an incident with a musket that cost him an eye, he came a cropper when occupying Buenos Aires as a captain, and was held captive for six months before escaping. It was perhaps symptomatic of his martial talents. Yet there was no doubting his organisational ability, and the future Duke of Wellington recommended him in 1807 for the post of Commander in Chief of the Portuguese forces in the Peninsular War. Stationed in Madeira, he knocked the Portuguese troops into an effective fighting unit. Alongside Wellington’s army, his Anglo-Iberian force helped drive the French out of the peninsula. Even after suffering multiple breakdowns in his health, he took part in the final invasion of France. In retirement, he developed the Bedgebury pinetum and founded the village of Kilndown, where he died.
Sir William Congreve (1772-1828)
Though sharing his name with the coruscating dramatist, this Congreve was responsible for a different type of fireworks. His father was Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal, a position the boy himself would later hold. After attending school near Gravesend, he studied at Cambridge. A businessman and inventor, he registered 18 patents; but the creation that bore his name was a military rocket. The idea had been suggested by weaponry used against the British East India Company. Congreve developed his own version that was successfully deployed in the Napoleonic Wars. Congreve rockets were also used against Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, prompting the reference to “the rockets’ red glare” in the US national anthem. In happier times, Congreve organised the celebratory fireworks after France’s defeat. The MP for Plymouth, he was no honest man: he sired two children out of wedlock before leaving his mistress, and fled the country when facing a fraud charge.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
William Hazlitt happened to be born in Maidstone, but was a man of the world. After two years in Kent, his Irish Unitarian father resumed the family’s restless perambulations. Hazlitt eventually settled in Soho. He never married, preferring the liberal and open use of common prostitutes. He grew immensely well connected with the Romantic literary scene, and despite his obvious talent as an artist was persuaded by Coleridge to take up writing. He became a master of a now rather lost art, essay writing, and has been called the world’s greatest essayist. As a journalist, he excelled in invective and irony, targeting the powerful. His uncompromisingly radical stance perhaps was the undoing of any mass popularity he might have enjoyed: his works are no longer published and seldom studied. He is still relished nevertheless by non-conformists, and his name is ironically still celebrated by his very provincial hometown’s municipal theatre.
William Colgate (1783-1857)
Robert Colgate, a Hollingbourne farmer, was not only a nonconformist Arminian Baptist but also a politician with revolutionary views. Six years after the birth of his son William, he moved the family away to Shoreham near Sevenoaks, and again in 1798 to New York, where he aimed to make his fortune as a soap manufacturer. He failed; but his son, also a religious sectarian, followed in his footsteps. William created a profitable starch, soap and candle business bearing the Colgate name. As was the norm with Protestant minorities, he determinedly made money so as to fill the coffers of his particular sect, the First Baptist Church. His son Samuel took over when he died, and in 1873 launched the first Colgate Toothpaste, for which the company became world-famous. In 1928, however, the business was purchased by the world’s No. 1 soap manufacturer, Palmolive-Peet. Colgate subsequently made its indelible mark on western culture with its ‘Ring of Confidence’.
Sir James Mouat (1815-99)
Mouat, born in Chatham two months before Waterloo, took part in Britain’s next major conflict, the Crimean War. Having entered the Army as a medic, he rose to the rank of surgeon. He was at the Battle of Balaclava when, on October 26th, 1854, an order was badly misunderstood and the Light Brigade – whose real job was mopping up after the Heavy Brigade – charged the Russian guns. The charge was led by Lt Col William Morris in the centre of the front rank. After losing his sword running through a Russian officer, he was struck twice on the head by sabres and impaled by a lance. Having lost his horse, he mounted another that was shot. He ran off, but fainted. Mouat raced to his rescue and, under heavy fire, saved him from bleeding to death. For this, Mouat was awarded the Victoria Cross, and eventually promoted to Surgeon General. Unsurprisingly, Morris died from the effects four years later.
Frederick Robson (1821-64)
Thomas Brownbill was the original little man with big talent. He came from Margate, and started work as an engraver; but his heart was set on the stage. To begin with, he earned just five bob a week doing shows in Whitstable. Once he became known in London as actor Frederick Robson, however, fame beckoned. He evolved into a now familiar type, the extrovert all-round entertainer who could sing, act, and make people laugh; the charismatic movie star Al Jolson might almost have modelled himself on him. An excellent mimic, Robson had an uncanny knack of getting the audience roaring with laughter one moment, and bursting into tears the next. Once he started appearing at the Olympic Theatre in 1853, he became a sensation. The great and the good came to watch and pay tribute to him. At his peak, however, his drinking got the better of him, and he succumbed dramatically to heart and kidney disease.
George Bunyard (1841-1919)
George Bunyard (no relation) is another Maidstonian better remembered overseas than at home. He was the grandson of James Bunyard who founded a horticultural business in the county town in 1796. Much of Maidstone west of the bridge belonged to his Royal Nurseries, and Broadway was dominated by his elegant shop fascia declaiming “NURSERYMEN SEEDSMEN POMOLOGISTS FLORISTS”. His family also owned the South Eastern Nursery (later Rose Nursery) in Ashford. Bunyard’s knack for innovation became world renowned. Among many other strains, he popularised the ‘Allington Pippin’ apple, the ‘Superlative’ raspberry, and the ‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’ broad bean. He was honoured by the Royal Horticultural Society, where he was chairman of the Fruit Committee, and made a Freeman of the City of London. His eldest surviving son Edward became a noted writer on gastronomy before WW2. Sadly, the business was acquired by Akzo Nobel in 1960. Paradoxically, Bunyard now has a Wikipedia entry in German, but not English.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930)
Robert Bridges might be considered the Edward Elgar of poetry. His work was always gentle, measured, and dignified, refusing to make concessions to modernism. Unlike Elgar, he was never wildly popular. In truth, his verse was best used as lyrics, especially hymns. His work was set to music by his friend Gustav Holst, and his best known verses are the words of ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. This isn’t so surprising when you consider that his mother came from a line of noble clerics; and, after Bridges’ father died when he was eight, she took the family away from their home in Walmer to marry a vicar. Bridges was a hospital doctor by profession, but quit his job when just 37 on the grounds of ill health. It was only in retirement that he threw himself into poetry. He was nearly 70 when he became poet laureate for life. His most popular book, ‘Testament of Love’, wasn’t published until 1929.
Sir Edward Sharp (1854-1931)
The son of a paper-factory manager, Edward Sharp was born in Maidstone. After attending the Grammar School, he set up a grocers’ in the town centre. By his mid-20s, he was making his own sweets, which he also sold by travelling around on his bike. Within 20 years, he disposed of the grocery store to concentrate on confectionery manufacturing on the site of a former skating-rink. The company developed a high-quality toffee branded ‘Kreemy’, produced at Sharp’s new factory, the ‘Kreemy Works’. Alongside Foster Clark, it temporarily made the county town a serious player in packaged food manufacturing. The widowed Sharp married his secretary at 74, and died three years later. Thanks to heavyweight advertising, Sharp’s had become “The Word for Toffee”, and the biggest toffee producer in the world. The business was acquired by Trebor in 1961, which was swallowed up in 1989 by Cadbury. The factory closed in 2000 with the loss of 300 jobs.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)
The life of Alfred North Whitehead was a game of two halves. He was born in Ramsgate and attended Chatham House Academy, of which his father was the headmaster. Gifted in mathematics, he went to Cambridge. Having secured a 26-year career as senior lecturer, he co-authored ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910-13) with former pupil Bertrand Russell. Whitehead then underwent a transformation, fancying himself as a philosopher and then a metaphysician. His ‘Reality and Process’ (1929) speculated that reality rests not in matter but in change. This Germanic way of thinking owed much to Hegel, whose ideas were already shaping forces that would turn the C20 into an ideological bloodbath. British empiricists might fume that Whitehead’s ideas were not provable, and the stuff of under-occupied arts professors; but Whitehead has had the last laugh. The speculations of French post-modernists, encouraged by the endorsement of an actual mathematician, swept like wildfire through American academia – where Whitehead ended up – and thence the western world.
George Foster Clark (1864-1932)
Born in Ramsgate, George Foster Clark moved to Maidstone as a boy and, after becoming a grocer’s assistant, began at the age of 25 to experiment in new methods of food production. Two years later, he started his own factory, producing packaged foods under his own name and fruit drinks under the brand name Eiffel Tower. After becoming Mayor in 1916, he twice stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal. Now a rich man, he made major gifts of land for the Foster Clark council estate and a new Grammar School building, and helped fund the West Kent Hospital. Perhaps on account of his generous provision for employees, his business was little affected by the General Strike of 1926. The canning factory he’d recently opened kept the business going strong for two more decades, but fast and frozen foods eventually brought its demise. The Foster Clark name now survives only in distant outposts of the former British Empire.
HG Wells (1866-1946)
Herbert George Wells, born in Bromley High Street, was three when Dickens died 25 miles further east in Rochester. He grew up to be the great man’s literary and political successor. A member of the Fabian Society – a club for gentleman socialists – he concerned himself with the welfare of the less fortunate without subscribing to any doctrinaire ideology. Hence the popularity of his social novels ‘Kipps’ (1905), ‘Tono-Bungay’ (1909), and ‘The History of Mr Polly’ (1910), in which Wells explored social mobility in a light-hearted Dickensian tone. The last was set in “Fishbourne, Kent”, probably based on Sandgate, where Wells also lived. Yet it is other work that Wells is best remembered for. Though Jules Verne was the father of science fiction, Wells perfected most of its clades: time travel, invisibility, interplanetary war, space exploration, futurology. Though nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, however, he never won it.
Alice Keppel (1868-1947)
Normally described as a socialite, Alice ‘Freddie’ Edmonstone was an exclusive courtesan. She was born at Woolwich Dockyard while her father was Superintendent there, but grew up in the family’s Scottish castle. At 23, she married George Keppel, a soldier whose humble income was no reward for her looks, figure, and charms. She multiplied her wealth by embarking on affairs with wealthy aristocrats, one of whom probably fathered her elder daughter, Vita Sackville-West‘s future lover Violet. Having become an expert society hostess, she made her biggest catch in 1898: the Prince of Wales. Though old enough to be her father, he added her to his long list of mistresses; her husband, also an adulterer, would leave the house whenever her patron turned up. As King Edward VII, he rewarded her, his foremost paramour, with shares in rubber worth millions. She lost her self-possession when he died; and, ostracised by King George V, the couple left the country.
Emily Davison (1872-1913)
Emily Davison was born a wealthy merchant’s daughter in Greenwich, but moved away at an early age. A bright woman, she should have won a First at Oxford University, but was denied by the rules of the day. Understandably vexed, she joined the radical Women’s Social & Political Union. So passionate was her belief in women’s suffrage that she took to criminal behaviour, including throwing stones and setting light to post-boxes. She repeatedly underwent imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding, leading Sylvia Pankhurst to complain that she was out of control. That much became obvious at the Derby on June 4th, 1913, when she ran onto the track in front of the King’s horse Anmer. When she died days later, she was hailed as a martyr by ‘Suffragette’ magazine, but widely condemned by media and public. The effect of her militancy was merely to alienate public opinion; but the upcoming World War would soon change things.
Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
The most exotic thing about Walter ‘Jack’ de la Mare was his surname, which he acquired from a Huguenot ancestor. In all other respects, his life was a pastiche of suburban ordinariness. Having been born in Charlton, he worked for 19 years in Standard Oil’s statistics department. He met an actress at the local amateur dramatics society whom he courted, married and settled down with at Beckenham, and then Anerley, both in the Kentish outskirts of London. They had four children, around whom family life revolved. What changed his life in his thirties was a pension that allowed him to concentrate on his writing. He specialised in poetry for children. His most famous work was ‘The Listeners’, concerning a traveller who knocks at a door but is heard only by the spirits within. It gave a clue to his other talent, which was writing ghost stories. His copious output also included short stories and novels.
Mary Tourtel (1874-1948)
Mary Caldwell was the creator of one of Britain’s most popular and enduring cartoon characters: Rupert Bear. Her husband Herbert Tourtel, as News Editor of the ‘Daily Express’, needed a property to compete with the signature cartoons of the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Mirror’. He asked his wife, an illustrator, to propose something. The character she designed began appearing in 1920 in a single frame under the sub-head ‘Little Lost Bear’. He was originally rather more ursine than today, and brown: he later was turned white to save on ink. Otherwise he was recognisably the same. The property really took off after Herbert died and Mary retired with failing eyesight. Enid Blyton‘s artist Alfred Bestel took over in 1935, and expanded the cartoon into the multi-frame design with text narrative that has filled annuals from 1936 to the present day. Tourtel was born, died and was buried in Canterbury, and is commemorated at the Beaney museum.
Queen Marie of Roumania (1875-1938)
Princess Marie of Edinburgh, or ‘Missy’, was the first future queen from Kent for three centuries. She was born at Eastwell Manor, daughter of Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh and the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, making her a granddaughter of both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II. She spent her childhood in Kent and remained fond of Eastwell. She nearly became Queen of the UK, when the future George V proposed to her. Unfortunately, her mother objected to her remaining in England, and her aunt objected to her mother’s pro-German sympathies. Instead she was chosen to be wife of the Roumanian Prince Ferdinand, and spent the rest of her life in the Balkans. Having persuaded her husband as King to declare war on Germany in WW1, they were forced to flee the country; she worked as a nurse in Moldavia. The two were however restored as popular rulers of a united Greater Roumania until his death in 1927.
Alexander Duckham (1877-1945)
Duckham is a rare case of a self-made Kentishman who left behind a nationally famous brand. He was born at Blackheath, the son of a patent-owning engineer. He learned about lubrication at Fleming’s oil company before setting up his own business at Millwall in 1899. Just as the production of internal-combustion engines was taking off, he helped establish production of high-quality oil in Trinidad. Duckham took an interest in early motorsport, not to mention the development of air travel. Louis Blériot was a friend, and Duckham paid for the monument at Dover to his historic cross-Channel flight in 1909. After living for 13 years at Vanbrugh Castle, Duckham donated it to the RAF. His company, having become the acknowledged expert in lubrication technology by WW1, went public in 1920. His son Jack took control of the business at his death. Though it was overtaken in size by Castrol, and bought by BP in 1969, the brand continues to thrive today.
Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954)
This Sandwich-born thespian’s Hollywood debut must have been the longest-awaited in history. After starting his career at Ramsgate’s Marina Theatre, Sydney Greenstreet proved to be highly versatile in anything from vaudeville to Shakespeare. He was also very striking, with his 25-stone physique and cut-glass accent. His many appearances on either side of the Atlantic brought him film offers that he invariably declined. It wasn’t until the age of 61, fifteen years after becoming a naturalised American, that he made his movie debut; and what a debut it was. He played one of a trio of fictional characters whose like had not been seen before, or since: his own Kasper Gutman alongside Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo and Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. That unforgettable performance in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ brought him instant fame and a part in ‘Casablanca’. He remained in demand throughout the 1940s, but ill health intervened, and he died 13 years after his dramatic breakout.
Sir Malcolm Campbell (1885-1948)
Born in Chislehurst to a Hatton Garden diamond trader, Campbell tried but failed to make a living in banking. His only true love was speed. He raced motorcycles and, having seen a play called ‘The Blue Bird’, gave that name to the cars he raced. After WW1, when he was a motorcycle dispatch rider and ferry pilot, he won the Bordeaux Grand Prix twice; but his ambition was to be the fastest man on Earth. He set a new land-speed world record of 145 mph in a Sunbeam in 1924. As automatic technology improved, he was able to raise this dramatically, and at Bonneville Flats in 1935 became the first man to exceed 300 miles an hour. Four years later he was able to break the water-speed record on Coniston Water at practically the same velocity as his original 1924 land record. He even managed to die in his bed, unlike his ill-fated son Donald.
Russell Thorndike (1885-1972)
Although as an actor he lived in the shadow of his famous sister Dame Sybil, Russell Thorndike would add a second string to his bow. He was born in Rochester, where his father was Canon at the Cathedral, and attended the Kings School. He embarked on an acting career, actually performing opposite his sister; but then WW1 started. His brother Frank was killed, while Thorndike himself was badly wounded at Gallipoli and invalided out of the Army. After the War, he appeared in a few movies, initially silent ones; but his main preoccupation became writing. In 1915, he had invented the Doctor Syn character, a fictional Vicar of Dymchurch who doubled as both the piratical Captain Clegg and the Scarecrow, a smuggling ringmaster. In the 1930s he developed it as a series of swashbuckling thrillers, all set around Romney Marsh. The books were given a new lease of life by a 1964 movie starring Patrick McGoohan.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Sassoon was the greatest enigma of the British war poets. He was born in Matfield to a Jewish father and Catholic mother; his forename solely reflected her passion for Wagner. Educated in Sevenoaks, he proceeded to Marlborough and Cambridge before living an idle life on his father’s modest bequest. Being a decent cricketer for Matfield, he hoped to play for Kent. Out of patriotism, he signed up at the start of WW1. Despite his brother Hamo’s death at Gallipoli, ‘Mad Jack’ proved himself a recklessly courageous officer, and eventually won the MC. His attitude changed entirely after the death of a friend. His formerly Romantic poetry turned into a vitriolic counterblast against jingoistic propaganda. Accused of treachery, he was sent to be treated for shell-shock. He did return to the War, but was accidentally shot in the head by a comrade. Afterwards he joined the socialist Daily Herald, and later converted to Catholicism, living handsomely off his aunt’s rich legacy.
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
Victoria Sackville-West had the misfortune to be born into a family of landed gentry that, while occupying Knole near Sevenoaks for 300 years, had earned itself a reputation for both unpleasantness and madness. She herself came along just in time to be part of the inter-War jeunesse dorée that produced the bohemian Bloomsbury Set, of which her muse Virginia Woolf was a member. When she wasn’t having affairs with either men or women – starting with Violet Keppel at school – Sackville-West spent her time writing books about her affairs with men or women, and the disapproving society surrounding them, to which she now owes her literary reputation. She also wrote some less successful poetry. Despite her and her husband’s androgynous promiscuity, she had an enduring marriage with Harold Nicolson. Having been unable to inherit Knole as a female, she ended up living at Sissinghurst Castle, whose garden the pair transformed to the people-pleasing delight it is today.
Sir Charles Gordon Larking (1894-1978)
On the surface of it, Gordon Larking should have been doomed to obscurity. His insane grandfather had hanged himself in Maidstone prison, leaving his wife and eleven children destitute. Gordon’s father nevertheless made a success of his life in accountancy; and young Larking, as well as following in his father’s footsteps, reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Army. He went on to be national chairman of the British Legion from his base at British Legion Village near Aylesford. Among his duties, he undertook a tour of southern Africa in 1949 during which he even discoursed with the hardline new South African Premier Dr Malan, whose National Party had just taken power. More locally, he was three times Mayor of Maidstone, became a justice of the peace, and even served as president of the local football club more than once. A book called ‘The Remarkable Larkings: the Story of a Maidstone Family’ recounts this story of unusual guts and determination.
William, 1st Baron Rootes (1894-1964)
Billy Rootes was a business wizard. He was born in Goudhurst, where his father had a small engineering business that subsequently moved to Hawkhurst. After attending Cranbrook School, young Rootes became an apprentice engineer. He set up his own car business at 18, and made his younger brother Reggie a partner. Before long, the pair started a car dealership in Maidstone. After growing it into the nation’s biggest in sales and service, they spread their wings into manufacturing. This they did by buying up numerous classic British brands, including Commer, Hillman, Humber, Singer, and Sunbeam. In 1938, they set up a new town-centre headquarters at a splendid Art Deco building. During WW2, having established himself as an industrial tycoon, Rootes was put in charge of military vehicle and aircraft production. The Rootes business peaked around 1960; but it was undone by union action and losses on the Hillman Imp. After Billy’s death, Chrysler bought his brother out.
Major James McCudden (1895-1918)
Fighter ace James McCudden sprang from a military family in Gillingham, his father being a Sergeant-Major. Though he joined the Royal Engineers in 1910, he was fatefully drawn to aeroplanes at the airbase near the family’s new home in Sheerness. By the outbreak of WW1, he became an RFC mechanic, and then a reconnaissance observer. In 1916, he qualified as a fighter pilot, making his first kill in September; his fifth five months later won him the Military Cross. He was posted to Maidstone to train other pilots, and performed defensive duties around Kent before returning to France. Having grown exceptionally skilled at attacking from below, within twelve months he completed his total of 57 kills: a highly respectable tally alongside the Red Baron’s 80. Following a ‘Daily Mail’ campaign, he received a VC to cap his six other decorations. Just four months before the end of the War, McCudden was killed in an unexplained flying accident.
Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967)
Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent was born in Ashford, the son of coal merchant Henry and school matron Agnes. Growing up in Lincolnshire, he was fortunate to be near Peterborough Cathedral, where he nurtured whatever talent he had inherited from his father, an amateur musician. He was spotted there by Sir Henry Wood and invited, at 26, to conduct one of his own pieces at the Proms. It was the beginning of a career that would lead to him becoming synonymous with the Proms for two decades. He became a huge favourite with the crowds on account of the nattiness and panache that earned him the nickname ‘Flash Harry’. He got the best out of soloists and particularly choirs, and was instrumental in getting the London Philharmonic going. He was not everyone’s cup of tea, however: orchestras generally disliked him because of his dismissive attitude; and he earned a reputation as a predatory philanderer, particularly among titled women.
Elsa Lanchester (1902-86)
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born in a terraced house in Catford, where her father Seamus Sullivan and mother Biddy Lanchester lived in sin in a resolutely working-class household. As a child, she learned to dance under Isadora Duncan, and after WW1 embarked on a career in cabaret; her performances got her a role in a minor British film. In 1927, she had the good fortune to be spotted by Charles Laughton, whom she married for life. He got her into Hollywood, where she enjoyed a 50-year career. She is still remembered for a single coup de théâtre: her brilliant evocation of experiencing the world through the eyes of the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ in 1935. Her performance incorporated spine-chilling screams that she must have rehearsed for weeks. Ironically, her screen partner as the Frankenstein monster, Boris Karloff, was born minutes away in Camberwell. It may be something they put in the water.
Bob Hope (1903-2003)
Leslie Hope was the epitome of the C20 wisecracking, womanising, golf-club wielding American alpha male. Surprisingly, he was actually born the son of a stonemason in a terraced house in Eltham. Although the Hopes emigrated in 1908, he never forgot his roots, and in 1982 rescued the Eltham Little Theatre. He got into show business after trying boxing. He starred in 54 movies over a period of 34 years, the zenith being the seven ‘Road’ movies he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Blessed with a silver tongue, he was also a legendary compere, and ran the Oscars ceremony a record 19 times. He suffered one of his most awkward experiences while presenting the Miss World contest in London in 1970, the occasion of the unprecedented Women’s Lib demonstration. Notorious for his insatiable appetite for beauty queens and the like, he must have found the intrusion as disconcerting as an alien invasion.
Ballard Berkeley (1904-88)
It’s funny to think that Ballard Blascheck from Tunbridge Wells was in his seventies when he landed the role for which he would always be remembered. He went into the movies in the 1930s, specialising in ‘quota quickies’, British movies made on the cheap that cinemas had to screen by law. At that time he had the looks of a matinee idol. By 1969, however, he looked and sounded every bit the old English gentleman, which he first played in an episode of ITV’s ‘The Main Chance’. In 1975 he was cast for a similar role in the sitcom later voted Britain’s greatest ever TV production, ‘Fawlty Towers’. Although Berkeley’s bumbling old Major Gowen was mostly a foil for John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, he did come up with one moment of great comic poignancy, when he explained what had happened to the one love of his life. “I took her to see India”, he said wistfully, “… at the Oval”.
Michael Powell (1905-90)
Powell was revered for shooting great movies until he shot himself in the foot. The son of a hop farmer, he was born in Bekesbourne, attended the Kings School, Canterbury and Dulwich College, and briefly went into banking. He got into film production at 20, and by 1929 was a lifelong friend of Alfred Hitchcock. He was soon directing his own ‘quota quickies’, but it was not until 1939 that his career was transformed by Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian refugee whose talents perfectly complemented his own. They made a string of distinctive and popular movies together under the name ‘The Archers’. Powell was set for movie greatness until 1960, when ‘Peeping Tom’ destroyed his reputation. Critics excoriated it as filth, and denounced Powell as a pervert. Today it looks a virtuoso British counterpart to Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, and the pioneering slasher movie. Powell never made another movie in the UK, and had 30 years to regret his own ingenuity.
James Robertson Justice (1907-75)
With his bulky physique, bushy beard and booming voice, Justice appeared the model of gentlemanly dependability. He was in fact anything but. James Justice was born in Lee Green, the son of a Scottish geologist. He failed to complete his education, and for years drifted from job to job, even taking up motor racing. He fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, which is when he acquired his trademark beard. After he was invalided out of WW2, however, his life finally acquired its direction. He was cast in ‘For Those in Peril’, the first of 83 movie appearances that included ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. He specialised in the superior establishment type with an impeccable English accent. Paradoxically, he had reinvented himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Scot, appropriating the Robertson name and kilt, standing unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in Scotland, and having himself billed in some movies as Seumas Mòr na Feusag.
Margot Grahame (1911-82)
Margaret Clark was only three when she moved from her birthplace Canterbury to South Africa. She returned to England in her teens and, after a spell on the London stage, became a film actress at 19. Being smart, sassy and pretty, she got a huge amount of work, and soon was the top-paid actress in Britain. Having caught the attention of Hollywood, she landed a contract with RKO. In California, she showed her star potential in two 1935 movies: as the prostitute Katie Madden in ‘The Informer’, a melodrama concerning the seedy side of the IRA, and as the ravishing Milady de Winter in ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1935). She never topped those achievements, however. She became the epitome of the hard-working Hollywood actress with an unhappy love life: she had two failed marriages, and her one true love wouldn’t marry her. In her later years back in London, she became as unsightly as she was bitter.
William, Lord Deedes (1913-2007)
Bill Deedes was one of those characters for whom the term ‘good egg’ might have been invented. He was born at the family home, Saltwood Castle, where he lived until it was sold in 1925. Following in the 300-year tradition of Deedes MPs, he stood successfully for Ashford in 1950. He retained the seat for the next 24 years, also serving as Minister without Portfolio under two Tory prime ministers. He was much better known, however, as a newspaperman. He edited ‘The Daily Telegraph’ for 11 years, and with his high intellect but genial manner became a treasured TV pundit on political matters. Being good friends with the Prime Minister’s husband Denis Thatcher, he was immortalised by ‘Private Eye’ in its regular ‘Dear Bill’ feature. The same magazine also poked fun at his slight speech impediment by annotating all its more outrageous assertions with the spoof editorial comment, “Shurely shome mishtake – Ed.”
Trevor Howard (1913-88)
Trevor Howard-Smith was born in Cliftonville, Kent, although he spent much of his childhood travelling the world with his father, an insurance underwriter. After RADA, he went onto the stage. His star status was assured when, in 1945, he was cast by David Lean in ‘Brief Encounter’, and four years later by Carol Reed in ‘The Third Man’, both of which became classics. In 1956 he made it to Hollywood, and spent another 32 years making movies. Although his performances were of a consistently high calibre, he never made a great movie again, his best role perhaps being Captain Bligh in the 1962 remake of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. Howard was that rarity, a Hollywood actor who had an enduring marriage. He was no saint, however. His alcoholism interfered with his work; and, despite his reputation as a war hero, it emerged after his death that he had actually been expelled from the Army as a psychopath.
Lance Corporal John Harman (1914-44)
Born in Beckenham, John Harman came from a highly irregular background. His father, an apparently wealthy businessman, bought the island of Lundy and declared himself king, even issuing illegal coinage with his own head on it; he eventually proved to be a bankrupt fraudster. Harman himself went to war in Burma, and by 1944 was a humble Lance Corporal. At the Battle of Kohima, his platoon was endangered by a Japanese machine-gun post only 50 yards away. He single-handedly took it out with a hand-grenade before returning with the machine gun. The next morning, when more Japanese infantry arrived and dug in, he again took them on alone, killing five with his rifle and bayonet. As he headed back to his comrades, however, he was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. For his singular bravery, he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, which can be seen displayed in the Royal West Kent regimental museum in Maidstone.
Sir Edward Heath (1916-2005)
Like the contemporaneous band-leader of the same name, Ted Heath was an expert conductor, not to mention a first-class yachtsman. His metier, however, was politics. The son of a carpenter and a maid in Broadstairs, he attended Chatham House Grammar School before going to Oxford. His origins revealed themselves in his accent, a mangled version of received pronunciation that sounded as unnatural as did his French. He remained an MP for 51 years, for Bexley and Sidcup, and became Tory Party leader in 1965. For a decade, he and Harold Wilson looked a pastiche of the Disraeli-Gladstone double act. As Prime Minister in 1970-4, ‘Grocer Heath’ shepherded Britain through decimalisation and entry to the Common Market; but his premiership was blighted by inflation, strikes, and the Troubles. In 1975, he was ousted by Margaret Thatcher; she thought him a homosexual, though it seems likely that he was asexual. He devoted his remaining years to undermining her.
Robert Roland Stanford Tuck (1916-87)
Tuck, from Catford, was a merchant seaman before joining the RAF in 1935. As a pilot officer, he was thrown into the thick of the Battle of France. He proved a lethal fighter-pilot, racking up 29 confirmed kills, probably including the future Luftwaffe ace Marseille. There were also spills: he once bailed out over Tunbridge Wells, and another time had to glide his stricken plane back to the coast. He shot down a Heinkel 111 that jettisoned its bombs near an army camp; incredibly, the one man killed was his own brother-in-law. Though he won a string of medals, his war was over by January 1942 when flak brought him down near Boulogne. His life was spared because his captors were amused by his accuracy in sending a shell straight down one of their gun barrels. After WW2, he ran a mushroom farm in Eastry. He retired to Sandwich, where he is buried with his wife Joyce.
John Eldridge (1917-60)
Now all but forgotten, John Eldridge from Folkestone never showed what he was capable of as a feature-film director. The reason is simple: chronic illness did for him. He started off as an assistant editor, but by the time WW2 broke out was progressing into direction. This enabled him to make documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Unlike standard wartime propaganda, his work was subtle, and intelligent. He continued in the same vein after the War. His ‘Waverley Steps’ in 1948 was a classic, with superbly crafted cinematography that used real lives to illuminate the human drama in a manner decades ahead of its time. Eldridge moved into feature films, his first being the gentle comedy ‘Brandy for the Parson’ in 1952. His strongest movie was ‘Conflict of Wings’ (1954), a people-power drama concerning nature conservation. It proved to be his last. When he eventually succumbed to failing health, he was just 42.
Sergeant Thomas Durrant (1918-42)
At the height of WW2, the Captain of the German destroyer ‘Jaguar’ visited a PoW camp in Rennes to see Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Newman, who had just been captured while leading a successful commando raid on the Nazi-occupied docks in Saint-Nazaire. Incredibly, the Captain suggested that Tom Durrant from Green Street Green be honoured for his part in the raid. Durrant had manned the Lewis gun on a motor launch that ran into heavy fire from the shore. He carried on firing furiously after being shot in the arm. With the Jaguar closing in, he single-handedly took it on at 50 yards’ range. Wounded in most parts of his body, and barely able to stand, he replied to an order to surrender with further volleys directed at the enemy bridge. He was finally overwhelmed when Germans boarded the launch. They congratulated him on his courage, but he died soon afterwards of his wounds. His posthumous Victoria Cross is now displayed in the Royal Engineers Museum at Gillingham.
Hattie Jacques (1922-80)
Born in Sandgate High Street, Josephine Jaques was a complex character who became a national treasure. Her father died in a plane crash when she was a baby, so her mother raised her in London. She took to the stage at 22, and by 1951 had chalked up minor roles in three Dickens movies. She married John Le Mesurier in 1949. Two babies followed, amid much radio and pantomime work. Her big break came in 1958, when she was cast in the first of her 14 ‘Carry On’ movies. She eventually cornered the market in tough-yet-likeable matrons. She also enjoyed a long, successful TV partnership with Eric Sykes, which ended strangely acrimoniously. She proved a tough cookie off-screen, too: she invited her Cockney lover John Schofield into her home, forcing husband John Le Mesurier into the spare bedroom. When Schofield walked out, she was inconsolable, and fatally ballooned to 20 stones. To his dismay, Sykes was barred from her funeral.
Bob Monkhouse (1928-2003)
To be honest, Bob Monkhouse was not everybody’s cup of tea. He was born in Beckenham and attended Dulwich College, where he climbed the clock-tower and was expelled. His talent was beyond doubt: already at school he supplied both words and art to some famous comics, and he later started a business producing illustrated stories. On leaving the RAF in 1948, he set up as a gag writer for Bob Hope, among several others. His good looks got him a part in the first ‘Carry On’ movie in 1958, though he blundered by committing to the rival ‘Dentist’ films. He went on nevertheless to have a long and successful career on TV as a gameshow host. His smarmy manner eventually told against him, especially when he took to running a chat show. He excelled as a stand-up comedian, however, and was a master of ad-libbing. An obsessive collector, he assembled vast numbers of notes, videos, and sexual conquests.
Frank Muir (1929-98)
Muir was born in his grandparents’ pub in Ramsgate, where his mother ran a sweet-shop. He went to Chatham House Grammar, but also spent time in Leyton; he left school when his father died. During WW2, he helped improve parachute design using film evidence, and in peacetime struck up an enduring partnership with Dennis Norden, with whom he wrote scripts for Jimmy Edwards. With his tidy moustache, big bow-tie and gangly 6 foot 6 physique, he looked a natural performer himself. His posh accent didn’t hurt, either, even though he happily admitted to acquiring it not at Eton but in E10. His acme was as genial team captain in BBC2’s long-running ‘Call my Bluff’, and he is fondly recalled for his impeccable voice-overs on Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut commercials. Late in life he wrote an autobiography called ‘A Kentish Lad’, which surely should have been ‘A Lad of Kent’. He and his wife Polly were married for 49 years.
John Wells (1936-98)
Wells was the son of a clergyman. Born in Ashford, he studied at Oxford, where he made his debut in cabaret. It was however as a writer that he began his career, specialising in writing humour with a satirical bent. He became a founding writer of ‘Private Eye’, and in 1962 contributed to the ground-breaking TV series ‘That Was The Week That Was’. Numerous TV appearances followed. From 1979, he became particularly known for ‘Dear Bill’ – a long series of spoof letters supposedly written by the Prime Minister’s husband Denis Thatcher – which he co-wrote with Richard Ingrams. In 1981, he devised the theatre production ‘Anyone for Denis?’ in which he himself starred as Mr Thatcher. When he reprised the role in a Bond movie, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, his Denis Thatcher became more familiar than the real one. That was in fact one of a dozen movies he appeared in before, like Thatcher, he died of cancer.
Vanessa Redgrave (b 1937)
Redgrave was born in Beckenham into the ultimate British acting family. Her father was Sir Michael Redgrave, her mother Rachel Kempson, and her siblings Corin and Lynn Redgrave. Despite her father’s dramatic polish, Redgrave was more conspicuously successful in her acting career, winning an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony. Her other Tony was Richardson, the bisexual director; she had two actress daughters by him, Natasha and Joely, during their brief marriage. Since her twenties, she has been an unflagging leftist, evincing an intensity that might shame the many actresses who now flaunt the epithet ‘activist’. She vocally supported the PLO, and in 1977 did her career no favours by publicly criticising the Jews who protested against her. She stood often as a Workers Revolutionary Party candidate, though without mustering much support. She has witnessed much personal misfortune: her father’s erotic extravagance, her husband’s infidelity, the loss of both siblings within a month, and Natasha’s death in a skiing accident.
Frederick Forsyth (b 1938)
Forsyth was born in Ashford and attended Tonbridge School before going to Granada University. He did his national service flying jet fighters for the RAF. Afterwards he became a journalist covering the Biafran War. Outraged that the BBC preferred to suppress it, he turned freelance and in 1969 wrote a book telling the full story. For 20 years thereafter he worked as a part-time spy for MI6. It occurred to him to use his investigative techniques to research novels, and in 1971 published ‘The Day of the Jackal’, which became a highly successful movie. He followed up with another blockbuster, ‘The Odessa File’. Forsyth’s political leanings were most evident in ‘The Fourth Protocol’ in 1984, depicting a Russian plot to install a pro-Soviet Labour government. His later novels perhaps lacked the brilliance of his early successes. An ardent Brexiteer, he still appears occasionally in the media, mostly to protest that fascism was actually a creation of the left.
All text © Old Bunyard 2020. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.