The Battle of Ebbsfleet (466)
The Dark Ages are so called not because they were uneventful or miserable, but because they left us next to no contemporary records. Those accounts that exist were mostly written long after the event, are short on detail, and seldom tally. A classic case concerns the battle at Ebbsfleet (Wippedesfleot), the Thanet village after which Gravesend’s railway station was named. We can deduce that, in 449, Germanic warriors were invited in by a Brythonic overlord to assist in his war with the Scots. They eventually turned on him and sought to take possession of Kent. A war followed, with landmark battles probably at Aylesford (455) and Crayford (457). By 466, the invaders were forced back to the place where they’d first entered Britain, and possibly forced to flee. Yet, determined to have their prize, they must have returned with a bigger army that drove out the Brythons for good. Undeniably Ebbsfleet heralded the dawn of the 400-year Kingdom of Kent.
Foundation of the King’s School, Canterbury (597)
The King at the time when Kent’s premier school was founded was not the usual Edward, George or Henry; it was Aethelberht. The bewildering fact is that the King’s School was founded nearly a thousand years before both Eton and Harrow. Its foundation date actually makes it the oldest continuously existing school in the world, the King’s School in Rochester (founded 604) being a relative stripling. It was the brainchild of St Augustine, who initially got teaching underway at his new Abbey. It acquired its present name from King Henry VIII, who granted it a royal charter in 1541 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It started admitting girls in the 1970s, and became fully co-educational in 1990. King’s now can accommodate around 900 pupils in 16 houses, of which 13 are boarding-houses. Its most famous alumni are Christopher Marlowe and Sir William Harvey, although the one best known to today’s public is Orlando Bloom of Legolas fame.
First Battle of Otford (776)
After the Kingdom of Kent had enjoyed three centuries of affluence and relative stability, the peace was disturbed in the usual manner: by a megalomaniac bent on empowering and enriching himself. The change was occasioned by the death of King Aethelberht II in 762. Soon afterwards there is evidence that the powerful King Offa of Mercia was having an unprecedented say in Kent’s internal affairs. By 785, Offa was plainly the direct ruler of Kent, having subsumed it into his Mercian domain. In between, the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicle’ gives us tantalising evidence of a battle at Otford in which the Kentishmen took on their mighty opponent. The record does not say who won, but the fact that King Egbert issued his own charters afterwards suggests a temporary reverse for the master. The following year, however, he won an important victory over his main rival, Wessex, and was again able to turn the screw on Kent. Independence would not be restored until his death in 796.
First Battle of Sandwich (851)
By the middle of the ninth century, the threat from the East presented by red-bearded men in longboats was serious, and incessant. They didn’t always get their own way, however. In 851, King Aethelstan of Kent took on a large Viking fleet off Sandwich. He won a great victory, killing many of the raiders and capturing nine ships; any Danes who got ashore ran off to overwinter in Thanet for the first time. The battle has been labelled the first recorded sea battle in British history. It was doubly auspicious that the locals should have won it. For Kent, it was fine achievement for a county that would go on to be a mainstay of naval enterprise. For Britain, it was a classic victory over a world-class opponent for a nation that, a thousand years later, would possess the finest fleet in the world. Unfortunately, in the short term, it would provide only short-term respite against an implacable foe.
The Sack of Canterbury (1011)
Though Canterbury had more than once experienced Viking aggression, nothing prepared it for what happened in 1011. At the start of Sweyn Forkbeard’s 1009-12 campaign, his able general Thorkell the Tall had landed his army at Sandwich, intending to pillage Canterbury. The county paid him Danegeld of 3,000 pounds of silver to go away; yet, two years later, he was back. The city resisted his assault for three weeks, until the siege succeeded on account of the treachery of a certain Aelfmaer. Once in, the Vikings did all they were notorious for, including stripping the city bare, setting fire to the cathedral, and taking eminent hostages, one of them being Archbishop Aelfheah himself. After ordering his kinsmen not to pay a ransom, Aelfheah was pelted with animal bones at a drunken feast in Greenwich and murdered with an axe-butt. So traumatic was the experience that, when the Norman Vikings invaded 55 years later, Kent’s capital gave in without a fight.
Cnut’s Kentish war crime (1014)
When King Sweyn died after just months on the English throne, his son Cnut was quickly driven out. He set sail for Denmark, taking with him his father’s noble hostages; and, at Sandwich, he paused to put them ashore. There was however a sting in the tail. On the beach, he had their hands, noses and ears cut off. This barbarity was an act of pure spite, meant as a rebuke to the English council that had sworn fealty to his father’s rule but shunned Cnut in favour of Ethelraed the Unready. These unfortunates would be a lasting reminder to Anglo-Saxon nobles of his contempt for them. It was plainly an effective tactic: English resistance folded when Cnut returned with a large army two years later. Having won back the crown, he instantly changed his tune, ostentatiously giving a decent burial to the archbishop slain by his own men. So that was all right, then.
Second Battle of Otford (1016)
King Ethelraed II’s hapless efforts to repel Cnut’s invasion came to a halt in April 1016, when he died in London. Luckily, his son Edmund Ironside was made of sterner stuff. Though most of England had given up, the young new king took the battle to the Danes. After winning back Wessex and relieving a siege of London, he headed for Kent, where Cnut was gathering his troops on the Medway. At Otford, he won a sterling victory that saw the invaders fleeing to Sheppey. Afterwards, however, he made a tragic error at Aylesford in accepting Eadric the Acquisitive back into the Saxon fold. Within weeks, during the seminal showdown at Assandun, Eadric and his men again defected, handing Cnut a decisive victory. Edmund was forced to come to terms, and within a month was dead, by fair means or foul. Cnut became undisputed king, and for once did something laudable: he had Eadric put to death.
The Kentish Resistance (1066)
After extinguishing the English nobility at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror showed zero tolerance to popular opposition. Dover and Canterbury fell without a fight. Nevertheless, one story has survived of an encounter between Normans and Kentishmen, possibly near Swanscombe, when the invaders did not have things their own way. In its crudest version, the invaders were chased out of Kent by a mob bearing staves. More subtly, a deputation approached William offering either the branch of peace or the sword of war; he opted for the former, and agreed to their demands. It may just have been symbolic of broader resistance by Kent people, but its basic truth is witnessed by subsequent events. Uniquely among counties away from the Welsh and Scottish borders, Kent was granted the status of semi-autonomous ‘County Palatine’, so retaining some of its own laws. The Conqueror was no respecter of rights, but knew a sturdy opponent when he saw one.
The Penenden Heath Trial (1076)
King William I’s invasion in 1066 was a historic slice of opportunism consolidated by unparalleled brutality. Because the Normans were outnumbered by about a thousand to one in their new land, he made liberal use of castle-building to overawe and oppress the populace. As the danger to himself subsided, however, he grew keen to build bridges. The first olive branch he offered was to the Church, which was hoping to recover some of its lost lands. He permitted a formal inquiry by many of the top nobles in England, even including some Saxons. It took place on Penenden Heath, north of Maidstone, and amounted to the trial of William’s rapacious half-brother Odo, who as Earl of Kent had been indicted by Archbishop Lanfranc. The nobles found against Odo and confiscated part of his possessions. William was no fool, however. Ten years later, he ordered the Domesday Survey, just so there’d be no doubt about who really owned England.
Foundation of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester (1078)
Rochester missed out on founding the world’s oldest extant school, but was compensated with Britain’s longest-running hospital. St Bartholomew’s was built by Archbishop Gundulf fifty years before its more famous namesake in London. It was intended as a leper colony – like the Harbledown Hospital founded six years later at Canterbury – but also catered for the poor. In view of the nature of its occupants, it was built outside of the city wall in a part of Chatham under Rochester’s jurisdiction. After living mostly off the charity of the local Priory, it fell on hard times when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It only recovered when the growth of the Royal Dockyard added so much to the value of the Hospital’s lands that the Crown even tried to sequestrate them. St Bart’s was expanded and modernised in the 19th century; but the NHS had no need for it, and it closed in 2016 amid plans for redevelopment as housing.
The First Siege of Leeds Castle (1139)
Leeds Castle east of Maidstone looks so tranquil that it is hard to imagine serious conflict there. The first occasion was in the 12th century, when King Stephen seized the throne. In 1119, Robert de Crèvecoeur had erected a stone fortress there – possibly a motte and bailey – on land that had been gifted by William II to his cousin Hamo. The Crèvecoeurs supported Empress Matilda’s claim to succeed her father Henry I, and in 1139 were in an awkward position when she invaded England with French troops. King Stephen’s forces under Gilbert de Clare laid siege to the castle. Although the Castle fell, Matilda’s forces eventually engaged Stephen in 1141 at Lincoln, where he was captured; but popular resistance to her accession barred her from formally becoming monarch. The Castle was at length returned to the de Crèvecoeurs, who managed to retain it for another hundred years before the Crown pinched it for good.
The Great Fire of Canterbury Cathedral (1174)
In 1067, months after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England, England’s foremost religious building burned to the ground. Whatever the true cause, Saxons will have seen it as a sign of God’s anger. Mysteriously, after the Cathedral had been entirely rebuilt in Norman style, there was a repeat a century later. In September 1174, the building was again engulfed in flames, suffering major damage. Whole sections had to be rebuilt, this time in gothic style; the discontinuity is easily spotted today. The fire was blamed on cinders drifting across from blazing cottages nearby. However, a historian recently suggested that the actual cause was arson: Canterbury was in competition with Durham for pilgrims’ visits, so its monks were desperate to build a new shrine to the recently murdered Thomas Becket. Perhaps; but, given the paucity of hard evidence, one might as well argue that God was reacting to the recent canonisation of the enigmatic Becket.
The Siege of Rochester (1215)
The signing of Magna Carta in June 1215 is usually presented as the end of a conflict. In truth, it was the start of a worse one. Marching from Dover to London in October 1215, King John found his path blocked by Rochester Castle, which controlled the river crossing. The rebel barons had taken the initiative by sending William d’Aubigny to reinforce it, and the city constable had admitted his troops. Ironically, John had commissioned expensive repairs not long before. He decided on a siege. Despite his best efforts, including lighting a fire in a mine that collapsed a corner of the keep, he could not break the defenders’ resistance. At length it was starvation that did for them. Apart from cutting off the hands and feet of some who agreed to leave the castle early, the King was persuaded to treat his prisoners with uncustomary clemency. It was however the beginning of the end for him.
The French Invasion (1216)
The First Barons’ War (1215-17) was a civil war on English turf between Normans loyal to the atrocious King John and Normans prepared to do anything to dethrone him. The barons who’d forced the King’s hand at Runnymede were still unhappy, and next invited Louis, son of King Philippe II of France, to join them in deposing the King of England. Ignoring his father’s and the Pope’s warnings, Louis sent a vanguard of knights to London, and then an invasion fleet. His army landed in Thanet in May 1216. King John abandoned the county to its fate, and Louis marched unopposed to the capital. Like Hengist before him, he had arrived as a mercenary, but now had an appetite for conquest. He was proclaimed King of England by his supporters, and went off to suppress much of the South, while John skulked in the West. Nevertheless, Louis and Kent still had some unfinished business.
The Siege of Dover (1216-7)
Although young Prince Louis’s exploits in England had earned him the sobriquet ‘le Lion’, the war was not over. He had Canterbury and Rochester under his control, but the crucial port of Dover was still holding out. In July 1216, he headed back east to remedy the omission. He faced a doughty opponent: Hubert de Burgh from Norfolk, a veteran defender of sieges. The French successfully undermined the Castle barbican, and then brought down one tower of the gatehouse; but their massed assault was bloodily repulsed. After failing to starve the defenders out, Louis agreed a truce in October. King John died four days later, but de Burgh continued to resist on behalf of child king Henry III. Louis departed the scene, returning in May 1217 to renew his assault with a huge siege engine. Resistance remained fierce, however, both from the sea and Willikin of the Weald’s heroic guerrilla warfare. This time, Louis gave up for good.
Second Battle of Sandwich (1217)
De Burgh’s indomitability at Dover Castle tied up the invaders’ resources so seriously that Prince Louis’s allies in the North were emphatically defeated at Lincoln. After retreating to London to regroup, Louis sent for a supply fleet from France. It was commanded by mercenary pirate Eustace the Monk, carrying troops commanded by Robert de Courtenay. On August 24th, de Burgh led the English fleet, using a battle-plan worthy of Nelson. He allowed the heavily laden French fleet to pass Sandwich before setting sail, looping behind them to attack from the windward. English archers used the wind to wreak havoc, whilst lime was released into French eyes. The invaders were routed, and Eustace was beheaded on deck. Louis renounced his claim to the English crown and went home; there’d be no King Louis I of England after all. He’d been beaten by Kentish pluck, on land and at sea. In its consequences, it was like Waterloo and Trafalgar combined.
The great South-Eastern flood (1287)
Anyone wondering why Tenterden is a Cinque Port nine miles inland need look no further than the flood of 1287. During the C13, there were six violent storms that wrought havoc with Kent’s southern coastal towns. The mother of them arrived in February 1287, striking with such violence that there was widespread flooding. The subsequent sedimentation changed the coastline dramatically, not least by filling in the bight beside which Tenterden sat. Also affected was New Romney, hit by an avalanche of gravel that physically moved it a mile inland. The Rother found a new outlet at Rye, which was elevated to the status of a Cinque Port at New Romney‘s expense. Also in Sussex, Winchelsea was obliterated, and had to be rebuilt at the top of a cliff, while Hastings lost its harbour when a cliff collapsed. Even so, England could consider itself lucky. In the same year, a storm further east caused the death of 50,000 in Holland.
The Second Siege of Leeds Castle (1321)
Whatever King Edward II’s other vices, the one that gave rise to the greatest antagonism was his indulgence of the gangster-like Despenser family. Kent-born Bartolomew de Badlesmere, who had been granted stewardship of Leeds Castle, joined the party of barons opposing them. While he was at Oxford attending a meeting of these ‘Contrariants’, the blue touchpaper was lit. The King got his wife Isabella to detour to Leeds and demand to be accommodated. This was a smart move, because Badlesmere’s wife Margaret was known to detest her. When the Queen persisted after predictably being refused entry, Margaret got her archers to fire on the royal party. Six were killed. The King mounted a major siege that the Contrariants opted not to interfere with. Margaret surrendered after a fortnight and became the first woman to be imprisoned in the Tower. Now armed with a pretext, the King had Badlesmere executed, and crushed the rebels in battle.
The Dover Straits earthquake (1382)
Though the North-West of Europe is not normally associated with newsworthy seismic activity, an area of instability does exist to the east of Kent. On May 21st, 1382 it was the epicentre of an earthquake that caused structural damage as far away as London. There is no record of a tsunami, but the quake is estimated to have been in the region of 6 to 6.5 on the Richter scale. The effects in Canterbury were considerable, including the partial collapse of St Augustine’s Abbey and Christ Church. Even as far away as Hollingbourne, the church and manor suffered serious damage. Fortunately, no deaths were recorded. The earthquake occurred a year after the Kent-based Peasants’ Revolt, and was a sure sign of God’s displeasure with either the King or the rebels, according to perspective. Certainly it disturbed the ‘Earthquake Synod’ in Blackfriars, where the Archbishop of Canterbury construed it as a portent endorsing the persecution of supposed heretics.
The Eleanor Cobham witch trial (1441)
El & Humph were the C15 supercouple. He was the Duke of Gloucester, uncle and protector of the boy King Henry VI. She, a lady-in-waiting to his wife Jacqueline d’Hainault, was his mistress. After divorcing Jacqueline, Humphrey settled with Eleanor at Placentia Palace in Greenwich, where they ran a celebrated court frequented by the artistic slebs of the day. She was known for beauty and wits, he for sophistication and hedonism. When he became heir presumptive to the throne, however, things turned nasty. Eleanor was accused of witchcraft after being told by three astrologers that the King would soon die. Convicted of treason, the three were executed, and she was made to do a harlot’s public penance before being jailed for life. An old woman who complained at Blackheath about the King’s treatment of her was rewarded with execution. ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ himself was forced to divorce Eleanor, and in 1447 died while under arrest for treason.
Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450)
Despite being born in Sussex, Jack Cade was known as the ‘Captain of Kent’ for good reason. By 1450, the rule of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou was already known as much for ineptitude as for brutality. It was Jack Cade who organised a distinctively Kentish uprising. He circulated a manifesto called ‘The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent’, airing the people’s grievances. Among them was being blamed for the death of the corrupt Duke of Suffolk, who had been washed up on the Kent coast. Ignored, Cade convened an army of 5,000 at Blackheath. What followed was something of a replay of 1381: a march on London, initial military successes and revolutionary justice, followed however by a lack of self-restraint that alienated the locals. Badly beaten on London Bridge, the rebels withdrew; Cade was hunted down and slain. Though crushed, Kent’s rebellion paved the way for the Wars of the Roses five years later.
The Sack of Sandwich (1457)
No sooner than the Hundred Years’ War with France ended in 1453, the aristocracy got the Wars of the Roses started. After King Henry VI was captured in 1455, a sort of peace descended; but his French wife Margaret of Anjou continued to agitate for civil war. The supportive King of France sent a fleet from Honfleur under the command of Pierre de Brézé, a veteran antagonist of the English army. His 4,000 men put ashore at Sandwich on Sunday, August 28th, 1457. The unsuspecting townsfolk found themselves on the end of a Viking-style raid, as the invaders ran amok. Apart from pillaging and burning down the town, they murdered John Drury, the mayor – a deed commemorated in the town mayor’s black robe today. Sandwich, which had been England’s biggest trading port outside London, never got over it. The motives of the French are unclear, though it could have been a pre-emptive strike in support of the baguette.
The Third Battle of Sandwich (1460)
The last and best remembered sea-battle off Sandwich came in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses. In October the previous year, King Henry VI had won a walkover at Ludford Bridge, resulting in the flight of the Earl of Warwick and the future King Edward IV to Calais. By January, the royal Lancastrian fleet under the command of Maidstone-born Earl Rivers was at anchor off Sandwich. At dawn on January 15th, Sir John Dynham under Warwick’s command mounted an attack while the Lancastrian officers were still asleep. So total was the surprise that the King’s key ships were captured, along with their cannon, and Warwick was able to land his army at Sandwich. Having already made himself a hero in Kent by clearing the coast of pirates, he picked up many extra recruits on his way through Canterbury and Wickhambreaux. He marched his men to Northampton, where in July he won a major victory against the King.
The Lollard heresy trials (1511-2)
In the C14, the Oxford priest John Wycliffe earned the opprobrium of the Roman Catholic Church by railing against many of the Church’s mainstream beliefs and practices, including the extravagant lifestyle of clergymen. He even translated the Bible into English so as to demystify it. He was in effect a harbinger of the English Reformation. The Church reacted in the normal manner of centralised authority, by declaring this challenger a devil and his followers idiots. They were in fact called ‘Lollards’, meaning something like ‘Mumblers’. But insults were not enough. In 1511, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, took a zero-tolerance stance. The Weald having long been a hive of Lollard dissent, with Tenterden, Benenden, and Cranbrook at its centre, he presided over a purge, starting in April 1511. 53 suspects were tried, of whom all bar five abjured their error and were made to do penance. The five, however, endured a single visit to the stake.
The incorporation of Maidstone Grammar School (1549)
Maidstone, now Kent’s county town, had a school at the ecclesiastical College of All Saints as early as 1395. It endured for 151 years, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries rendered it unfit for purpose. In 1549, however, the town was incorporated under Henry VIII’s short-lived son and successor Edward VI, permitting the establishment of a new grammar school at the Corpus Christi Hall in Earl Street. It remained in this location until 1870, when a larger and quieter replacement was built just off the Tonbridge Road west of the river; but this too was replaced just sixty years later by the more spacious building that forms the hub of the current school. MGS will therefore celebrate its quincentenary within 30 years. The first grammar school in Kent, it set a precedent for the likes of Dartford Grammar School (1576), Norton Knatchbull School (1630) and the Harvey Grammar School (1674), making Kent a grammar-school hotbed.
The murder of Arden of Faversham (1551)
North Kent was the scene of a C16 national sensation that was not so much a murder mystery as a murder farce. Alice Arden of Faversham decided with her low-born lover Mosby to murder her husband, former mayor Thomas Arden. After several failed attempts, she hired a couple of assassins called Black Will and Shakebag to do the job professionally. More botches followed before they finally succeeded; but they left the body in a field in a snowstorm, apparently unaware that their tracks would be left visible. The hitmen fled, but Arden and Mosby were tried and sentenced to death. Strangely, though he was hanged, she was burned at the stake, having been found guilty of ‘petty treason’ against a superior, namely a man. So dramatic were these events that they inspired an anonymous 1592 play, now thought to have been written mostly by William Shakespeare himself. The Bard, coincidentally, had an ancestor called Thomas Arden who’d died shortly before.
The Huguenot migrations (1572/1685)
‘Huguenot’ was another religious name coined as a term of derision. Its origins are obscure, but it described the French Calvinist Protestants who by the mid-C15 amounted to two million – roughly 10% of France’s population. Their growing strength provoked a Catholic backlash, culminating in 1572 with the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Tens of thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, prompting an exodus. A favoured destination was Elizabethan England, with its sympathetic Protestant work ethic. Although Sandwich’s population was already swollen by Dutch Protestant immigrants, poor Huguenot refugees were awarded 50 shillings by the authorities. More stayed in Dover, but most moved on to Canterbury, which acquired the largest foreign population outside of London. This sudden influx brought unrest over overcrowding, crime, and preferential treatment for ‘strangers’, but the Government prized the immigrants’ commercial worth, especially as weavers. There would be a larger influx a century later, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had halted the persecution.
The Dover Straits earthquake of 1580
Although not as strong as the 1382 earthquake, the one that occurred at 6pm on April 6th, 1580 had equally dramatic if rather different effects. Its epicentre was not off the North Foreland but on the coast of France, near Calais. It caused dramatic activity in the English Channel, with freak waves that caused two dozen or more vessels to capsize; one passenger reported that his ship grounded five times on the seabed. The waves demolished a portion of the white cliffs at Dover, bringing down part of the Castle wall with it. Though earthquake damage was worst in Northern France and Flanders, the tremors rendered Saltwood Castle uninhabitable, while in London two children were killed by falling stones. Shakespeare even mentions the earthquake in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was also remembered in the 1980s, when calculations were made to estimate its intensity; the Channel Tunnel was accordingly constructed to withstand such a battering, if it ever happens again.
The great gale of 1624
October 4th, 1624 brought a storm described as “a terrible gale, the like of which has never been seen” – which was really saying something among a nation of seafarers. About 120 vessels had taken shelter in the Downs, normally a safe haven. Ships were torn from their anchorages and tossed around like toys, crashing into each other with calamitous effect, and no hope of rescue. One warship, the ‘Antelope’, had its anchor cables severed by a merchant ship, the ‘Dolphin’, and was blown onto the Goodwin Sands. Despite losing her rudder and all her masts, she was finally brought to dock at Deptford, but only after the crew watched in horror as the Dolphin went down alongside with all hands. A French warship exploded with the loss of 200 lives, while Admiral Hendriksz’ Dutch flagship foundered. It was perhaps a portent: those two nations, which would both be at war with England that century, had just formed an alliance.
The Battle of the Downs (1639)
On October 21st, 1639, a sea-battle took place in Kentish waters between two alien powers. The antagonists were Spain and Holland, and the warzone the Downs, the safe anchorage off Deal. During the Eighty Years’ War between the Spanish Empire and the emerging Dutch nation, a fleet was sent from La Coruña to reinforce and resupply Spanish troops in Flanders. After a skirmish with Maarten Tromp’s Dutch fleet in the Channel, the Spaniards took refuge in the Downs. The next morning, Tromp attacked with fire-ships as the enemy tried to break out. It turned into a rout. Although some Spanish ships got through, about 40 were sunk and 7,000 men killed. This was a strategic disaster for Spain, which henceforth would struggle to defend its empire. Furthermore, England’s humiliating inability to prevent this blatant breach of its territorial integrity became a factor in the later Anglo-Dutch Wars. Not that the numerous Kentish spectators minded: they joyfully plundered grounded Spanish vessels.
The Kentish Petition of March, 1642
The English Civil War was the outcome of unstoppable force meets immovable object. King Charles I obdurately refused to recognise Parliamentary resistance to his aims, and Parliament obdurately refused to raise taxes if he wouldn’t. There was no desire for regime change; but the nation spiralled downwards as the impasse continued. In March 1642, with hostilities looming, an initiative arose from Maidstone Assizes. Kent was Parliamentarian in outlook, like the rest of the South and East, but with Royalist landowners. The impartial gentry of Kent presented a petition asking the Long Parliament to compromise with the King, particularly by renouncing its claim to controlling the militia. Printed copies of the signed petition were distributed. The demands were moderate; but Parliament reacted with outrage. The petition’s presenters to Parliament were arrested, its perpetrators were declared delinquents, it was publicly burned by hangmen, and Parliament concocted its own petition with more signatures. By August, the nation was at war with itself.
The Faversham witch trial (1645)
Though witches are associated with the Middle Ages, settling scores with an allegation of witchcraft was still commonplace in the C17; and East Kent was a hotspot of indictments. When Thomas Gardiner hurt himself in a fall, Joan Walliford embarrassed him by laughing. He charged her with making it happen by witchcraft. Her friends Joan Cariden, Jane Hott and Elizabeth Harris were named as accomplices. All either confessed to having had the devil appear to them in the form of a cat or, would you believe, a hedgehog. Their ready admission to such nonsense suggests a good deal of coercion; but it was enough to see them arraigned. Their trial consisted in being dunked in the river. Had they drowned, they would have been held innocent; but the devil helped them stay afloat. On September 29th, three were hanged at Faversham; Harris’s fate is unknown. Fortunately, the scientific revolution would soon be delineating the difference between truth and self-serving superstition.
The Plum Pudding Riot (1647)
With the first Civil War over and King Charles safely in custody, the Puritan-dominated Parliament was free to throw its ideological weight around. The Puritans’ intolerance did not stop at restricting sports. They even banned Christmas. Popular reaction was predictably hostile, especially in Kent. The Mayor of Canterbury arrived at the marketplace on December 25th to find few traders observing the legal injunction to work normally. When he urged revellers to get to work, he got a surly reaction that turned to pushing and shoving. Someone produced an inflated pig’s bladder, the football of its day. It was a signal for the sort of competitive mass brawl that infuriated the authorities. Before long, it turned to a riot: a metaphorical bloody nose for Puritanism from the rebellious Men of Kent. It signalled an end to the phoney peace, and the start of further hostility that, by the summer, would turn to mortal conflict.
The Battle of Maidstone (1648)
The Kentish rebellion of Spring 1648 went further than football. After sailors mutinied and took over Deal, Sandwich and Walmer, the Earl of Norwich landed, leading an armed insurrection in Kent and Essex coinciding with a revolt in Wales and invasion from Scotland. His force at Maidstone amounted to 10,000 volunteers; but he made the mistake of sending the majority to defend other towns. On June 1st, he was confronted by a force of 4,000 New Model Army veterans under Sir Thomas Fairfax. The initial combat took place on Penenden Heath, but Fairfax cunningly attacked the town from the south, eventually fighting his way up Gabriel’s Hill and through the town to St Faith’s Church. Havock Square, outside Maidstone Museum, now marks the point where the Royalists made their bloody last stand, although a thousand hid in the chapel before surrendering. Some diehards held out in Essex, but it was curtains for King Charles: he was beheaded in January.
The Battle of Goodwin Sands (1652)
One of the biggest challenges facing the English Commonwealth under Cromwell was the mercantile strength of the Dutch Republic. The first Navigation Act in 1651 aimed to hamper Dutch shipping, and inevitably stoked tensions. On May 29th, 1652, the great Dutch admiral Maarten Tromp was commanding 40 ships escorting a convoy. He defiantly ignored Cromwell’s decree that foreign ships must respectfully dip their flag when passing through the Channel. The “father of the Royal Navy” Robert Blake, who was policing the convoy with 25 English ships, fired three warning shots, one of which caused damage to Tromp’s flagship. Tromp returned fire, and a five-hour battle ensued. The Dutch withdrew with the loss of one ship, but the Commonwealth declared war two months later. This First Dutch War started well, when the Dutch fled the Battle of the Kentish Knock in September. However, the Government overconfidently sent warships elsewhere, allowing Tromp to win a major victory off Dungeness in November.
The Maidstone witch trial (1652)
The Faversham witch trial of 1645 exposed the absurdity of charges brought as a means of silencing unwelcome women; but it was not exceptional. A century earlier, Henry VIII had introduced a more liberal Witchcraft Act that redefined the offence as criminal, not religious, and outlawed burning as the punishment. Elizabeth I went further, making hanging the penalty only for a second offence, provided that murder was not involved. Perversely, James I reversed the trend in 1604 by making even injury by witchcraft a capital offence. Witch hunters made a fortune drumming up business for the hangman. On July 30th, 1652, seven witches were tried by Sir Peter Warburton at Maidstone Assizes: Anne Ashby, Mary Browne, Anne Martyn, Anne Wilson and Mildred Wright of Cranbrook, Mary Reade of Lenham, and Elizabeth Hynes. Ashby proved their collective guilt by reportedly going into ecstasy in court and expanding to a “vast bigness”. All were hanged at once at Penenden Heath, a record.
The Raid on the Medway (1667)
The Dutch attack on the Royal Navy in the Medway in June 1667 was so expertly executed that it counts as Britain’s own Pearl Harbor. It did not start a war, however, but ended one. The Second Dutch War had been going badly for Britain, which was teetering after suffering the Black Death and the Great Fire of London within the last two years. The Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter led a daring mission up the Medway, first capturing the unsuspecting defences at Sheerness and then jumping the ‘Gillingham Chain’ that was supposed to bar entry to Chatham Dockyard. 13 major English ships were destroyed at anchor, and the flagship HMS Royal Charles was towed back to Amsterdam as a prize. A month later, Britain sued for peace. De Ruyter is hailed today in Holland as a national hero on a par with Nelson, and the transom of the Royal Charles is displayed proudly in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
The Secret Treaty of Dover (1670)
King Charles II was most fortunate that his Treaty of Dover remained secret for a hundred years. The Second Dutch War had ended badly for Britain, not least because of the King’s financial mismanagement. Parliament responded prudently by striking an alliance with the Dutch and Sweden to counter French aggression. Charles, meanwhile, ploughed his own furrow. Through his sister Henrietta, he initiated secret talks with her brother-in-law, King Louis XIV – the despotic Sun King. After considerable wrangling, they concluded a dramatic agreement. Charles would personally receive a monumental bribe from France, plus the help of French troops in case of rebellion. In return, unbelievably, he agreed to convert to Catholicism, and join the French in waging war on Britain’s allies, the Dutch. The compact was signed in secret at Dover; war was duly declared; and the Third Dutch War proved another calamity. Had the truth come out, the traitorous king might well have suffered the same fate as his father.
Nevison’s horse ride (1676)
John (alias William) Nevison is barely remembered today, but was a scourge in his time and certainly did not lack ingenuity. A Yorkshireman, he served in the Army before taking up a favourite occupation of ex-soldiers, highway robbery. Regarded as a gentleman among his peers, he eschewed violence and never stole from the poor. The event that brought him fame (or infamy) occurred when he conducted a robbery at Gad’s Hill, Rochester. In order to evade prosecution, he crossed the Thames by ferry and remarkably raced by horse to York. That evening, he went to see the Lord Mayor and struck a wager with him. When he was charged with the robbery, the Mayor’s alibi sufficed to get him off. It only brought him a temporary reprieve. After further close shaves, including a pardon that spared him transportation, he was arrested on a charge of murdering a constable. In view of his past record, he was hanged.
The Verviers earthquake (1692)
On the afternoon of September 18th, 1692, there occurred the most powerful earthquake ever recorded on the mainland of north-west Europe. Measuring around 6.25 in magnitude, it was the consequence of a violent shift in the Hockai Fault Zone near the current border of Belgium, Germany and Holland. The local disturbance was so strong that entire buildings fell down, including churches. The tremors were felt right across southern England; so the effects of the two-minute quake were considerable across Kent, particularly in Canterbury, Dover, and Sheerness. Deal Castle shook so violently that it seemed in danger of collapse. With pewter falling off shelves in homes all over, there was widespread terror. The incident did have a funny side. A story went round afterwards concerning anatomy students at the University of Leiden. When the quake started, the skeletons hanging in their laboratory suddenly sprang to life, causing them to run for their lives.
The Kentish Petition of 1701
Conscious of its status as the nation’s senior county, Kent was never backwards in putting forward its opinion on national matters, never mind how unpopular they might be. Kent’s Petition of 1642 had only goaded Parliament into civil war. Now, with William of Orange on the throne, it was another story. Five Kent men went to petition the Tory-dominated Commons to pass a bill of supply so that the King could build Britain’s defences against the French. Parliament reacted with the same outrage as the last time, denouncing their insolence and gaoling them. Kentish folk were lampooned as a race of Long-Tails, i.e. rats. Redemption came two weeks later from an unexpected quarter. With a 16-man guard for protection, Daniel Defoe came to Parliament and, in the name of 200,000 loyal subjects, reminded MPs of their democratic duty. The bill was passed. On their release, the Kent five were banqueted in London, and hailed as heroes back in Maidstone.
The Great Storm of 1703
December 1703 saw the most destructive storm in English history. A gale had been brewing for days, and exploded on the 7th. The winds are reckoned to have been equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane. Damage to shipping was particularly grievous. HMS Vanguard sank at anchor in Chatham dockyard, but at least no one was harmed. It was another matter on the Goodwin Sands, which became a seamen’s graveyard. Numerous ships were wrecked, mostly with all hands: HMS Restoration (387 lost), HMS Northumberland (220), HMS Stirling Castle (206) and HMS Mary (268) among many others. There was, however, one incredible good-luck story. Seaman Thomas Atkins was swept from the sinking ‘Mary’ onto the deck of the ‘Stirling Castle’, which itself was about to capsize. Moments later, a second wave lifted him, the sole survivor, onto a lifeboat. The Government attributed the storm to God’s anger with the nation, and ordered a day of fasting as penance.
The discovery of electrical current (1729)
Until Stephen Gray of Canterbury came along, electricity was thought to be static. It was while teaching at Charterhouse School that he discovered he could make a charge migrate along a stick. Wishing to experiment further, he involved his friend Reverend Granville Wheler while visiting Otterden Place in June 1729. To begin with, the tests they conducted were within the house. They replicated one that Gray had already done with thread but on a larger scale, along a whole gallery. They realised they needed to suspend the thread with silk to avoid contact with the ground, and so discovered the principle of insulation. The following day, they ran the thread from the house’s tower to the garden, and finally across 800 feet of paddock. Wheler reported the groundbreaking results to the Royal Society, which awarded Gray its first Copley Medal. Regrettably, the importance of his work was not fully appreciated before others muscled in.
The launch of HMS Victory (1765)
In the era of sail, it was customary for warships to form a line that fired on the enemy passing in the opposite direction. Such ‘ships of the line’ were divided into four ratings, according to their number of guns and crew. A second-rate ship was not sub-standard but simply less strong than a super-powerful first-rater. So, when the Government ordered a new first-rater in 1758, it was a big deal. That ship would be HMS Victory, and she would be built at Chatham. The name was not altogether propitious – the last ‘Victory’ had gone down with all hands – but it seemed appropriate in 1759, when the world fell at Britain’s feet. 150 workmen built the frame using 6,000 trees, mostly oak, at a cost equating to around £9 million. She was launched in 1765, featured prominently in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, and won fame as Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar. Officially still in commission, she is now displayed at Portsmouth.
The Battle of Botany Bay (1769)
The Callis Court gang was a notorious band of smugglers. Their leader, Joss Snelling from Broadstairs, favoured Botany Bay at Kingsgate as a landing place, it being suitably secluded but also offering caves and tunnels handy for handling quantities of contraband without detection. In March 1769, however, he was in for a surprise. Lying in wait was a squad of armed excisemen ready to make arrests and confiscate loot. When the ‘owlers’ resisted arrest, mortal hand-to-hand combat ensued on the shore and in the sea. Five of the gang who escaped the beach were met at the top by a mounted officer, whom they shot dead. A search of nearby houses yielded a dead smuggler in a cottage, alongside a dying one. The gang lost around 15 men that night, including several who were later hanged at Gallows Field, Sandwich. Snelling himself got off scot-free; and, as an old man, he would even be introduced to Princess Victoria.
The first Channel crossing by air (1785)
No sooner had the Montgolfier Brothers made history with their first-ever manned flight than two more adventurers felt the need to upstage them. John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard, an American and a Frenchman, came to Dover Castle to attempt a crossing of the English Channel by hydrogen balloon. They set off at 9 am on January 7th, 1785 in the expectation of arriving safely in Calais 150 minutes later. It wasn’t quite so simple. Although they had a following wind, the basket was so heavily laden that they several times nearly ditched in the sea. What followed set a precedent for all future thrillers involving balloon flights. They ejected their ballast, anchors, food and drink, and finally even their clothes. They then overshot Calais and landed in a forest, where their achievement has a memorial. It was a gallant effort: five months later, two others attempting a Calais-to-Dover crossing were killed when their balloon caught fire.
The Nore Mutiny (1797)
The Nore is an anchorage off Sheerness that gave its name to an infamous mutiny. It followed hard upon another mutiny concerning pay and conditions at Spithead, off Portsmouth. With Britain embroiled in war with the French Revolutionists, the Nore mutiny was a more sinister affair. It started when the crew of the ‘Sandwich’ seized control of their ship, and 27 others followed suit. Richard Parker from Exeter was elected their leader. His plan was to hold the Admiralty to ransom by blockading the Thames. Demands was presented that eventually went well beyond those of the Spithead mutineers. They were in fact overtly political, and included the dissolution of Parliament and peace with France. When it became clear that the mutineers’ aims were revolutionary, support drifted away, even though departing ships were fired upon. Eventually the Sandwich found itself isolated, and capitulated. Nine men were flogged, 29 imprisoned, and 29 hanged, among them Parker.
The wreck of the East Indiamen (1809)
The ‘Admiral Gardner’ and the ‘Britannia’ had three things in common: both were built in Blackwell, owned by the British East India Company, and doomed to the same watery end. Admiral Gardner, launched in 1797, made five trips to India, once surviving an attack by a privateer. Britannia, built in 1806, made just one voyage to China and India. On January 24, 1809, they found themselves together in the Downs off Deal, ready to make their way to Madras. A severe gale blew up that tore both from their moorings and onto the Goodwin Sands. Fortunately, local boatmen were able to save all but seven of Britannia‘s crew, and most of Admiral Gardner’s. The losses from the storm were largely financial. Apart from the two valuable ships, Britannia’s lost cargo was worth £2.5 million today, while Admiral Gardner was carrying nearly £1 million in copper coins belonging to manufacturer Matthew Boulton. This wind really was an ill one.
The Coast Blockade (1817)
We are so accustomed to the idea of smuggling as the pastime of romantic rogues that we overlook the savage reality. It was more like Prohibition Era gangsterism: as costly to society as it was to the Treasury. Customs & Excise always struggled to cope, not only because it was ill-equipped and outnumbered, but also because of corrupt officials and collusive communities. Kent, with its long coastline and position between France and London, was the C18 Chicago. What changed things was the Battle of Waterloo. With the Napoleonic Wars over, the Royal Navy had unused resource. In 1817, its guns were turned on smuggling. Patrols from HMS Ganymede and HMS Ramillies regularly rowed ashore from the Downs to guard the coastline. Their efforts were soon supplemented with use of the redundant Martello towers, and new stations were built every three miles from Sheppey to Lydd. This ‘Coast Blockade’ continued till 1831, when a fully-fledged Coast Guard service was introduced.
The last Penenden Heath hangings (1830)
By the C19, Penenden Heath had been a place of execution for around a millennium. Things were set to change in 1830, however, with Maidstone Prison being built; it was to be used as a new town-centre venue for this salutary public entertainment. The authorities laid on a grand finale, hoping for a big Christmas crowd. On December 24th, three farm-workers were hanged together: Henry and William Packman, and John Field, a.k.a. Dyke. They had been found guilty of burning down a haystack, for which they obviously deserved to be strung up. The man with the noose was William Calcraft. This great showman used a short rope to ensure a slow death by strangulation, giving him the pretext to pull theatrically on the guilty parties’ legs, or even climb onto their shoulders, to break their necks. As a plaque records in Bearsted churchyard, however, it was a miscarriage. Someone else subsequently admitted to the offence on his deathbed.
The Swing Riots (1830)
The Swing Riots were a typically Kentish revolt. After decades of low wages and high taxes, the spread of threshing machines was the last straw for farmworkers. Though technological efficiency was a boon to employers, it brought with it mass unemployment. Reaction began in the Elham area, when a threshing machine was wrecked one Saturday night in August, 1830. It started a copycat pattern of Luddism that resulted in over 100 machines being destroyed in East Kent within eight weeks. Action broadened to attacks on barns, haystacks, and even farm animals. The riots took their name from a mythical ‘Captain Swing’ whose name was routinely appended to threatening notes sent to opponents. During November, the revolt spread to neighbouring counties. The Duke of Wellington’s government fell, and the new Whig regime introduced the 1832 Reform Act as well as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. By then, 19 protesters had been hanged, 644 imprisoned, and 481 transported.
The execution of John Bell (1831)
With Maidstone Prison having opened by 1831, it was hoped that public hangings there would attract big town-centre crowds. The first looked a good draw, the convicted felon being a boy. This was John Any Bird Bell, 14, from a Rochester poor-house. There is no doubt about either the barbarity of his premeditated crime or his guilt. Knowing that 13-year-old Richard Taylor regularly walked from Aylesford to Strood with his father’s 9-shilling sick benefit, he plotted with his brother to rob him. When the boy resisted, Bird gruesomely cut his throat. His execution on August 1st did indeed draw a good crowd, estimated at over 8,000; and he gave the reporters something to enthuse about by struggling for two minutes before expiring. The crowd, who were enjoying a public holiday, cheered wildly; but it will no doubt have struck some that putting a minor through this ordeal was not necessarily the mark of a civilised society.
The wreck of RMS Royal Adelaide (1838)
The RMS Adelaide was an Irish paddle-steamer that chiefly operated between Cork and London. In 1850, just as the potato famine was easing, at least 150 Irish passengers boarded the ship heading first for Plymouth, where 14 further passengers joined. It set off for London at 3.30am on Friday, March 29th. The Adelaide was last seen late on the Saturday evening from a lightship 15 miles north of Margate. Two miles further on, she ran into trouble. Though distress flares were seen, there were only three or four, so that observers assumed the crew had solved the problem. It was not until the Sunday morning that the wrecked hull and paddles were sighted on Tongue Sands. Expert opinion held that Captain John Batty had ignored the weather forecast in his anxiety to get to the Thames; and, having got stuck at low tide, the ship had been stricken by the rising waters. All on board were lost.
The Battle of Bossenden Wood (1838)
A battle on May 31st, 1838 in Bossenden Wood near Boughton-under-Blean is generally recognised as the last on British soil. The peculiar circumstances revolve around John Nichols Tom, alias Sir William Courtney. This Cornishman was a maltster who’d spent four years in Barming Heath Asylum. Towards the end of May, he started riding around the area west of Canterbury pontificating about the New Poor Law. His incendiary rhetoric drew a gang of supporters who followed him on foot. When a constable was sent to arrest him, Tom shot him dead. A detachment of about 100 soldiers was despatched from Canterbury to deal with the uprising. Some of Tom‘s followers fled, but he was left with about 40 men armed with sticks. When a detachment of soldiers approached the rebels in a clearing, Tom shot their lieutenant. He was in turn killed, along with eight of his followers and another soldier. Several rebels subsequently found guilty of murder were reprieved.
The great fire of Gravesend (1844)
At 10.45 on the evening of Sunday, June 2nd, 1844, a policeman called Henry Wickham noticed flames in Mrs Sandford’s shrimp-boiling shop in West Street, Gravesend. It appeared that cinders raked from the furnace had not been extinguished. The rest of the town police force was immediately summoned, but the flames took hold, and rapidly spread to neighbouring buildings. Before long, the whole locality was aflame. The local military were summoned, with others sailing over from Tilbury, and three different fire services arrived. They all served little use. The conflagration reached Mr Saddington’s salt warehouse, where barrels of gunpowder and sulphur were stored. In desperation, two were thrown into the river, but it was too late to remove them all, and three or four exploded, to dramatic effect. With the whole area ablaze, it could be seen from miles around. Of the 26 buildings destroyed along with their contents, three were warehouses, four pubs, and 19 houses and shops.
The Elham Murders (1846)
Early on Wednesday, September 30th, 1846, at a cottage in Elham, there occurred one of those grisly events that filled the Victorian penny dreadfuls. Schoolmaster William Jaggers, the lodger, was woken by the sound of groans coming from the next room. Downstairs, he noticed something at first surprising, then horrific: blood was dripping through the ceiling. It turned out that there had been murder above – bloody murder. Mrs Quested, a neighbour, went in to investigate. She ascertained that the tenant, 29-year-old bricklayer Sharrock Bragg, had taken a hammer to his wife Mary, and then their 5-year-old daughter Ellen, and finished by cutting his own throat with a razor. Somehow or other, baby Mary had survived. An inquest suggested that Rudd was subject to depression, and not of sound mind. It caused quite a stir thereabouts. After all, this was not the East End of London. This was the Elham Valley, deep in the Garden of England.
The Hartlake disaster (1853)
Hartlake Bridge at Golden Green near Hadlow is a spot more likely to be associated with romantic poetry than a disaster. On the evening of October 20th, 1853, a party of 37 Irish and Romany hop-pickers were returning to their camp on the back of a horse-drawn waggon. The weather had been poor, and the River Medway was in full spate. On the narrow bridge, one of the horses spooked, causing a wheel to crash through the balustrade. The carriage toppled over, and the hop-pickers were pitched into the foaming waters. Thirty were drowned. The inquest found that the bridge had been dangerously designed and maintained, but returned a verdict of accidental death. The incident was marked with an oast-house shaped memorial at Hadlow church. It was also commemorated in a 1975 folk song, and a plaque was unveiled in 2013 bearing the names of the dead.
The wreck of the Northern Belle (1857)
The Northern Belle was a trading vessel operating out of New Orleans. Early on January 5th, 1857, while heading for London from New York with a cargo of wheat and flour, she anchored off Kingsgate Bay in a storm. The ship was soon in such straits that the crew cut off two masts. As crowds watched from the clifftops, three rescue boats put out. One, the lugger ‘Victory’, went down with all hands; the others finally gave up. The Northern Belle’s crew lashed themselves to the remaining mast and sat out the night in blizzard conditions. The next morning, men from Broadstairs and Margate dragged another lifeboat two miles through the snow to Foreness Point, where the ship was now on the rocks. They managed to take off the whole crew of 23 before she foundered. This story of outstanding heroism travelled around the world; US President Franklin struck medals, and sent donatives for the rescuers’ families.
The Chatham prison riot (1861)
In January 1861, a minor incident led within days to a major insurrection at St Mary‘s Island Prison in Chatham. Early one morning, a trustee prisoner called Peters absconded during a regular medical examination and used a skeleton key to try and release a hardened criminal called Bennett. When he was apprehended, the prison population expressed its disapproval with a barrage of noise. The governor sent in a posse of 150 officers to restore order and place the ringleaders in punishment cells. This led only to a further escalation. A few days later, about 50 prisoners went on the rampage, releasing all the other thousand convicts and causing serious damage. With matters running out of control, the Home Secretary sent in the military. 400 Royal Marines marched in under arms to bring the situation under control. The blame was placed on slack man-management by warders who, having worked only on prison hulks, were unused to conventional prison methods.
The Staplehurst rail crash (1865)
Rail travel was never the safest in the Victorian era, and accidents were commonplace. One that took place at Staplehurst on June 9th, 1865 took on a particular significance because of one noteworthy passenger on board: Charles Dickens. He was in fact travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother. The accident happened because a stretch of rail had been removed during engineering works on a 10-feet high viaduct. A man carrying a red warning-flag was positioned only 554 yards up the track, barely half the regulation distance, which was insufficient to allow the train to stop in time. It was derailed, and 50 people were injured, 10 of them fatally. Dickens actually tended the victims, some of whom died in his presence. It affected him terribly. He could not speak for two weeks, and his son said he never got over it. He actually died five years to the day after the accident.
The great fire of Whitstable (1869)
Late on the evening of Wednesday, November 16th, 1869, a fire broke out in Whitstable that turned into a major conflagration. It started at the yard of Charles Hoult, a mast and block maker, and spread rapidly. As at Gravesend 25 years earlier, conditions were perfect for a blaze, most buildings being close together, wooden, and coated with asphalt. Fanned by the wind, the fire passed from The Wall along Harbour Street and Marine Street, and soon formed such a firestorm that distant features could be seen as though it were daylight. So spectacular was it that a crowd of around 10,000 gathered to watch, even though Whitstable’s population was only about a fifth of that number. The fire service was unable to make much difference because the tide was out and there was no other water source. 71 buildings were destroyed, including 25 habitations. Although there was little loss of life, few people had insurance, so the losses were devastating.
The sinking of the Northfleet (1873)
The ‘Northfleet’ was a frigate, actually built in Northfleet, that on January 13th, 1873 set sail from Gravesend for Hobart in Tasmania with 34 crew, 342 emigrants and four others on board. Because of foul weather, by the 22nd she had still only reached Dungeness, where she was at anchor. Around 10.30 in the evening, a steamer ran into her. Incredibly, the steamer silently backed away and disappeared into the night. Being heavily laden – there were 340 tons of iron rails and 240 tons of other equipment on board – the Northfleet sank within 30 minutes, before any nearby ships were even aware she had a problem. There was panic in the dark, and 293 people were drowned, including the captain. Investigations revealed that the offending steamer was the ‘Murillo’, a Spanish ship. Eight months after the collision, she was stopped off Dover and confiscated. The Admiralty censured her officers and ordered her to be sold.
The first cross-Channel swim (1875)
Captain Matthew Webb from Shropshire was a natural born swimmer. At 15, he saved his brother from drowning in the Severn, and after joining the Merchant Navy was celebrated for leaping into the Atlantic to try and save a man overboard. In 1873 he read of JB Johnson’s failed attempt to swim the English Channel, and decided to try for himself. He practised intensively at Lambeth Baths, in the Thames, and in the Channel itself. Following a failed attempt, he departed from Dover’s Admiralty Pier on August 24th, 1875, covered in porpoise oil and accompanied by three boats. Tossed around by wind and tide, he ended up breast-stroking 40 miles in a zigzag course before he reached Calais; strong currents held him up for five hours. He became a national hero, and his 21-hour 40-minute swim was commemorated with a statue at Dover. Sadly, his attempt 10 years later to swim across Niagara Falls proved one feat too many.
The wreck of the SS Deutschland (1875)
A maritime incident off Margate on December 6th, 1875 could have had major international repercussions. The SS Deutschland with its crew of 90 was carrying 123 German emigrants to New York via Southampton. In the pre-dawn dark and a blizzard, Captain Eduard Brickenstein sailed 30 miles off course, and got stranded on the Kentish Knock sandbank. A lightship three miles away saw his distress signals, yet no help was sent until the following day. By then, with the propeller broken and the ship taking on water, the order had been given to abandon ship; but most of the lifeboats were lost in the gale. 173 passengers and crew were rescued, though the ship was plundered by “vultures” sailing from Ramsgate, who even stole from the dead. The Captain appealed to Bismarck to take it up, but he fortunately was busy planning war on Austria. Gerard Manley Hopkins recorded the wreck in a poem dedicated to five nuns who drowned.
The sinking of the SMS Grosser Kurfürst (1878)
Less than a month after being commissioned in May 1878, the SMS Grosser Kurfürst of the German Imperial Navy was sailing past Folkestone with two other German ironclads when two local boats were spotted crossing their path. The Grosser Kurfürst turned to starboard and then straightened her course, whereupon the König Wilhelm alongside initiated the same manoeuvre. She somehow ended up ramming the Grosser Kurfürst, which sank in eight minutes. Under half the ship’s 500 crew survived, many of the dead being buried at Cheriton Road Cemetery, where a memorial now stands. The accident led to an embarrassing series of German courts martial that were intended to pin blame, and even embroiled the Kaiser. It prompted the German government’s prolonged reluctance to invest in new warships. It’s possible that the incident – which happened to be witnessed from another ship by the librettist Arthur Sullivan – inspired the blackly comic collision caused by Admiral Horatio D’Ascoyne in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’.
The SS Princess Alice disaster (1878)
At twilight on September 3rd, 1878, on the Thames north-east of Woolwich, there occurred one of those accidents that warrant the description ‘horrific’. SS Princess Alice was known locally as the ‘Shah’s Boat’ because she had carried the Persian king five years earlier. She was returning from a pleasure trip to Sheerness when she turned straight across the path of the collier Bywell Castle. She broke into two, and sank in four minutes. What made matters worse was that the Metropolitan Board of Works had just pumped 75 million gallons of raw sewage into the river at that point. Of the 130 who were rescued, many died later from poisoning. As there was no register, the exact tally of fatalities is unknown, but it exceeded 600, making it Britain’s worst ever inland water disaster. The coroner found the skipper of Bywell Castle at fault, while the Board of Trade blamed it on the skipper of Princess Alice.
The Maidstone typhoid epidemic (1897)
In September 1897, the county town was struck by Britain’s worst-ever outbreak of typhoid. The Maidstone Typhoid Epidemic was national news for months: nearly 2,000 were infected, and at least 132 died. There was so much concern about it that even the Queen sent a personal message of comfort. Scores of nurses were drafted in. Though some became infected, they regarded it as an occupational hazard. Many earned medals for their efforts, one being Edith Cavell, later a war hero. The outbreak eased in the autumn, entered a second peak just before Christmas, and was effectively over by late January. The source was identified as the spring at Farleigh supplying parts of Maidstone with water, which had probably been polluted by hop-pickers down from London. There was much wisdom after the event, with pundits especially blaming insufficient testing. Yet the community responded more collaboratively than some societies with greater medical knowledge and healthcare expenditure.
The great storm of 1897
Margate is no stranger to extreme weather, but the tempest that struck it on November 29th, 1897 did more than rattle windows. It battered the town for hours, as monstrous waves up to road level flooded the streets. Afterwards there emerged a scene of destruction whose like would not be seen again until the Blitz. The Marine Palace, an extensive entertainment complex on the site of the current Rendezvous restaurant, was obliterated barring only its brick-built components: its concert hall, swimming-baths, switchback railway and shops simply disappeared. So comprehensive was the destruction that its remains were demolished. There was a further trail of destruction at the jetty and sea wall, and numerous properties were inundated. Damage was estimated at over £10,000. Not everything could be made good with money, however. The lifeboat ‘Friend To All Nations’ capsized with the loss of nine lives. The men’s courage is commemorated by the distinctive Surf Lifeboat Memorial on Marine Terrace.
The first cross-Channel flight (1909)
Only five years after the first ever powered flight, the ‘Daily Mail’ offered a £500 prize to the first pilot to cross the English Channel. When nobody seriously attempted the feat in 1908, the prize was raised to £1,000 – a mere stunt in many people’s eyes, given that the feat was obviously unachievable. Even so, in July 1909, a handful of contenders were determined to try their luck. The first away was Hubert Latham, who got within six miles of the English coast when he was obliged to ditch in the sea. Six days later, while Latham was preparing his next attempt, Louis Blériot leapfrogged him. At 4:41am on July 25th, he set off from Sangatte, maintaining a steady 45 mph. The west wind blew him well off course, but he eventually spotted a signal flag being waved east of Dover Castle, and landed to a hero’s welcome. His 36-minute flight had turned a page in the history of aviation.
The first two-way cross-Channel flight (1910)
Although it was magnificent, Blériot’s cross-Channel flight in 1909 was a blow to British national pride, since it handed leadership in world aviation to the French. One of the men determined to set the record straight was Charles Rolls, the dare-devil half of the Rolls-Royce partnership. In May of the following year, he took delivery of a Wright Brothers biplane constructed under licence by Short Brothers in Kent. His plan was simple: to take off from Swingate aerodrome, less than a mile from where Blériot had landed, fly to Sangatte, turn round, and come back to his start point. On June 2nd, 1910, conditions were perfect, and he completed the flight in 95 minutes. On his return, he was greeted by a crowd of over 3,000. Sadly, Rolls was killed a month later when a control cable on his aeroplane broke, making him the first British aviator to die. A statue was erected at Dover to mark his achievement.
The HMS Bulwark disaster (1914)
There was great enthusiasm for going to war in August 1914. Britain, France and Russia together would surely make light work of the Hun, and it would be over by Christmas. After all, Britain ruled the waves. It was not long before reality intruded. On November 26th, the destroyer HMS Bulwark was at Kethole Reach, five miles off Sheerness. Some of the crew had been re-stowing cordite charges for the ship’s guns. At 7.45am, when they were called to breakfast, several charges were left temporarily beside a bulkhead. Unfortunately, on the other side of that bulkhead, a boiler was heating up. At 7.53am, the charges exploded, igniting hundreds of 6- and 12-inch shells. The ship was literally blown to pieces. Somehow 12 crew survived, but 741 were incinerated. Only about 30 bodies were ever recovered. If the Royal Navy could suffer such disasters when the Germans weren’t even in sight, it looked like being a difficult war.
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