Wright Brothers and Short Brothers at Shellbeach, 1909
Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC)
It is appropriate that the most famous Roman should have been the first true colossus to set eyes on Kent. When he landed in 55 BC, Caesar was already celebrated as the great general Marius’s nephew who’d been captured by pirates but, after being ransomed, returned as promised to crucify them. Now, while engaged in the conquest of Gaul, he turned north. That first landing had value only as reconnaissance; but he came back the next year with a huge army that cut through the resident Celts like butter. After reaching modern-day Hertfordshire, he set up a client king and returned to Gaul. He wrote an account of the local peoples, insightfully remarking that, “By far the most civilised of all these are the ones who inhabit Kent“. His last ten years were taken up by his civil war with Pompey, his affair with Cleopatra, his dictatorship, and his bloody assassination on the floor of the Senate.
Claudius, Emperor of Rome (10 BC-AD 54)
Soon after becoming Imperator in AD 41, Claudius set about expanding the Roman Empire on a number of fronts, the most northerly being Britain. Attracted by the prospect of British mines and Celtic slaves, he sent four legions to undertake the conquest of the island. Once the campaign was going well, he turned up in the late summer of AD 43 to take the credit. His stay, probably commencing at Richborough, lasted just 16 days. Claudius had actually started life in a neighbouring province, Gaul, making him the first Emperor born outside of Italy. His various physical afflictions had long kept him out of the public eye, but recommended him to the cynical Praetorian Guard. As Emperor, he proved an able administrator and briefly restored stability to Rome. Ancient historians regarded him as bloodthirsty and temperamental, but he now looks an oasis of sanity compared with Caligula and Nero, the two monsters who book-ended his reign.
Galba, Emperor of Rome (3 BC-AD 69)
It is quite a coincidence that, of the five Roman commanders who led the invasion of Kent in AD 43, two – Galba and Vespasian – would later become Emperor. Their imperial fates, however, would be very different. Galba was unintentionally responsible for briefly postponing Roman rule in Britain, the invasion being delayed on account of his illness. At the time he commanded the Upper German legions, having pursued the typical military and administrative career of a patrician. Galba’s misfortune was that, 10 years after retiring under Emperor Claudius, he was recalled by the unstable Nero to govern Hispania. Eventually, Galba opportunistically rebelled, and was proclaimed Emperor when Nero prudently killed himself. He assumed the role in June 68, but instead of taking a firm lead proved indolent and negligent. Having already alienated many with his robust discipline, he found himself friendless when former ally Otho declared against him. After a rule of just seven months, he was executed.
Caratacus (AD ca 15-54)
When Claudius’s army arrived in Britain in AD 43, Caratacus was chieftain of the all-conquering Catuvellauni. Ironically, his military prowess prompted the fateful invasion when a defeated opponent, Verica of the Atrebates, fled to Gaul and appealed to the Empire for help. It was all the excuse Claudius needed. When news of the Roman invasion reached his stronghold at Colchester, Caratacus brought an army to Kent with his brother Togodumnus to mount a defence. The pair were twice defeated, first on the Medway and then on the Thames. The Romans took Colchester and turned it into their first colony, Camulodunum – notoriously the scene of the first massacre perpetrated by Boadicea and the Iceni 17 years later. Caratacus was eventually captured and sent to Rome, where he successfully pleaded with the Senate for his life; he never went home. He is now identified with the legendary Welsh hero Caradoc, and was commemorated in a witty boy-scout song, ‘The Court of King Caratacus’.
Vespasian, Emperor of Rome (AD 9-79)
Arriving in Kent as leader of one of the four invading Roman legions in AD 43, Vespasian had little reputation to fall back on: from a non-patrician background, he’d pursued a chequered career as a bureaucrat. Yet he distinguished himself in subjugating the south of Britannia as far west as Cornwall, and was rewarded with a consulship. After serving as governor of Africa, he was sent to quell the Jewish Revolt in AD 66. Three years later, Nero’s assassination precipitated the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors. Vespasian could never have guessed that he’d be the fourth. He skilfully restored order, and with his sons Titus and Domitian established the 27-year Flavian dynasty. He famously imposed a tax on urine collection, for which reason Italians still call a urinal a vespasiano; and, more significantly, he sent Agricola to subdue the Scots. Renowned for his gentle wit, he quipped on his deathbed, “Damn. I think I’m turning into a god!”
Pertinax, Emperor of Rome (126-193)
Pertinax was a decent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of humble origins, he performed well in the Parthian War, later becoming governor of a succession of Roman provinces, including Britannia. He arrived at Richborough in AD 185, and may have dwelt at Lullingstone Villa, where a bust possibly representing him was found. His time in Britannia was unhappy, the troops being restive, but easy compared with what followed. After returning to Rome, he found the Pretorian Guard at his doorstep on New Year’s Day 193, and assumed they had been sent by Commodus to kill him. In fact, they were proclaiming him emperor. He immediately took measures to restrain these Praetorians’ abuse of their power, which simply outraged them. Three months later, they came to confront him. Instead of fleeing, Pertinax – whose name meant ‘stubborn’ – stayed to reason with them. They murdered him, and sold the emperor’s title to the highest bidder.
Septimius Severus, Emperor of Rome
Like Vespasian, Severus came to power after the murder of a tyrant followed by two short-lived pretenders. Unlike him, Severus had to vanquish two other generals to secure absolute power. He was actually of Carthaginian extraction, born in modern-day Libya. His background was equestrian, though he did enjoy some aristocratic connections. As Emperor, he fought a running battle with the disapproving Senate. He also bravely disbanded the over-mighty Praetorian Guard. Fortunately, the populace loved him for restoring the dignity of his office. His calling, however, was military. After campaigns to expand Rome’s frontiers in the Middle East and North Africa, he ordered the construction of London’s walls with stone from Maidstone before heading north to subdue the Scots. He fell sick in mid-campaign, and died at York. Disastrously, the three Severans who succeeded him – Caracalla, Elagobalus, and Alexander Severus – proved respectively bad, mad, and sad. They ushered in a half-century of crisis that all but destroyed the Empire.
Offa, King of Mercia (d 796)
Offa was the most outstanding Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred. Whether he stood out for the right reasons is another matter. He was the classic warlord, ever on the lookout for opportunities to expand his dominions. When King Aethelberht II of Kent died in 762, leaving behind an uncertain succession, Offa took advantage by sending in an invading army. What exactly happened next, the records are too patchy to tell. We know that he fought a battle against the Kentishmen at Otford in 776, though the outcome is unknown; but it’s clear that Kent had become a client state of Mercia at some point. He threw down a further challenge to Canterbury by setting up a short-lived archbishopric at Lichfield. In truth, like many a conquistador, he left behind little of any use. His most enduring legacy was the Dyke that still bears his name, built to put a stop to Welsh raids into England.
Alfred the Great, King of England (ca 848-99)
It is a pity that Alfred is mostly remembered as the man who burnt the cakes. If any king deserves the title ‘The Great’, it is him. He was just 16 when the fearsome Great Heathen Army landed from Scandinavia, and 24 when he was crowned king of Wessex. It was only by remote chance that he ever reigned, three elder brothers having died naturally before him. Though not physically powerful, he’d a towering intellect and a kind disposition that endeared him to all. He also had iron determination. After the Viking horde swept across England, Alfred was reduced to just fifty knights holed up on the Isle of Athelney. Undaunted, he built a new army locally that sensationally smashed the Danes at Edington in 878. Guthrum was forced to sign an epoch-making peace treaty that enabled Alfred to unite the English nation under one king. He came to Kent in 892, successfully repelling a massive Viking invasion fleet.
Sweyn Forkbeard, King of England (960-1014)
Sweyn (or Svend in his native Danish) was England’s most colourfully named monarch. He ruled Denmark for nearly 30 years, took over most of Norway, and briefly became King of England. Son of the equally colourful Harold Bluetooth – who’d united parts of Scandinavia in the same way that Ericsson Mobile’s technology would later combine devices – he was a pagan who unceremoniously dethroned his Christian father. From 1002 he mounted a series of raids on England, ostensibly in retaliation for the so-called St Brice’s Day Massacre when the English had turned on Danish settlers, but more likely in search of booty. He acquired a fortune in Danegeld, and in 1013 mounted a full-scale invasion, starting in Sandwich. His army then swept anti-clockwise around the whole nation. He declared himself King of England on Christmas Day, but died five weeks later in Lincolnshire. He had however fatally damaged the Anglo-Saxon monarchy by opening the door to his hard-nosed son, Cnut.
Cnut the Great, King of England (ca 990-1035)
Cnut (or Canute) was the only English king bar Alfred to be called ‘Great’. After his father’s death, he was driven from England by the returning Saxon king, notoriously pausing in Kent to mutilate his Saxon hostages. He returned to Sandwich in 1016 with a mighty army that conquered all England. He then set about re-modelling the nation, merging it with his native Denmark before adding Norway and part of Sweden to his empire. Though cruel and immoral, he seriously sucked up to the Church, even making a pilgrimage to Rome, which earned a good press from the clerics who wrote history. The anecdote for which he is best remembered, when he instructed the waves to turn back, was actually meant to demonstrate his piety by revealing the limits of his earthly power; virtue signalling is nothing new. Like Offa, Cnut left behind nothing worth the bloodshed. The earthy Saxons doubtless had much pithier epithets for him than ‘Great’.
Richard I, King of England (1157-99)
Generations of English children grew up thinking Richard the Lionheart a national hero. The belief stemmed entirely from his prowess as a warrior: the Crusader King who earned his spurs as the worthiest opponent ever faced by Saladin, but who was incarcerated for years by the Holy Roman Emperor on his journey home. Beyond bellicosity, however, he had nothing to offer England. The fact that his true cognomen was Coeur de Lion says it all. He was thoroughly rooted in the Norman elite who still tyrannised England, and his heart lay in France. His mother Eleanor of Aquitaine took him there at 13, and he didn’t return before landing at Sandwich in 1194. On top of participating in repeated revolts against his own father, he spent his life seeking salvation by persistently breaking the Sixth Commandment, including the massacre of 2,700 prisoners at Acre. His only good legacy was his Three Lions crest, which now adorns the England football shirt.
Alexander II, King of Scotland (1198-1249)
The red-haired son of Scotland’s King William the Lion, Alexander was sent to London as a youth in the interests of good relations with England, and was knighted by King John in 1213. Ironically, he would be back three years later as King of Scotland at the head of an enemy army. Having joined the First Barons’ War on the rebels’ side, he marched all the way to Dover to join up with Prince Louis’s French invasion fleet. It came to nothing, because John died, the Pope supported the accession of the young King Henry III, and both Louis and Alexander were obliged to go home. The Scottish king prudently resumed good relations with the English Crown, later marrying Henry’s daughter Joan of England. In 1237 he went down in history as the Scottish king who signed the Treaty of York, fixing the border between Scotland and England on pretty much the lines that hold today.
John II the Good, King of France (1319-64)
Whoever thought of the epithet ‘Jean le Bon’ had a way with irony. The son of Philip the Fortunate, he was the somewhat weedy individual whose reign started with plague, rebellion, and war, but deteriorated. At Poitiers in 1356, his army was so much the bigger that the English were desperate to make peace; yet Jean fluffed the negotiations, and was routed. Taken prisoner, he was exiled in London, where he lived a flâneur’s life. After four years, his son paid a ransom of 3,000,000 crowns by the Treaty of Brétigny. Jean took his time to get home, stopping for a feast at Eltham Palace, an overnight at Dartford, visits to Ospringe’s Maison Dieu and the Becket shrine at Canterbury, and dinner at Dover. When his other son defaulted on the terms of the Treaty, Jean voluntarily returned to captivity while his people starved. The English must have thought, “With enemies like Jean, who needs friends?”
Edward, the Black Prince (1330-76)
To England, Edward of Woodstock was the heroic Prince of Wales who twice made a mockery of overwhelming French superiority: at Crécy in 1346, and again at Poitiers ten years later. To France, on the other hand, he was a brigand who unchivalrously despoiled and looted the French interior, and mercilessly massacred hordes of prisoners. The King of France, John the Good, didn’t seem too bothered, accepting Edward’s invitation to dinner at Dover on his way home from exile in 1360. Nicknamed the Black Prince after the colour of his armour, rather than his reputation for ruthlessness, Edward would have made a good successor to King Edward III in the hard-man mould of Edward I; but he was enfeebled by dysentery, and felled by it at 45. Unluckily for England, his son Edward had also died young, so the throne passed to the boy’s awful brother, Richard II. The Black Prince now lies serenely in Canterbury Cathedral.
Manuel II Palaeologos, Emperor of Byzantium (1350-1425)
A thousand years after the Romans departed, another Roman Emperor visited Kent. We’d have called him a Greek, Manuel Palaeologos being Emperor of Byzantium, a relic of the old Eastern Empire; but his people still called themselves Romans. King Henry IV accommodated him lavishly at Eltham Palace, with even a joust thrown in. The Emperor had come touring Europe to drum up support for the defence of Constantinople against the Turks. He pleaded that Byzantium, Christianity’s bulwark against the Caliphate, had fallen on hard times since the Fourth Crusaders stripped it bare. Even with the unprecedented backing of the Vatican, normally at odds with the apostate Orthodox Church, he got little help. Manuel’s son John would be killed at Constantinople 52 years later, defending the city in vain with a ragbag of Greeks and mercenaries against Mehmet II’s horde. Having secured a foothold in Europe, the Ottomans would be at the gates of Vienna within 80 years.
Sigismond of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor (1368-1437)
Sigismond of Luxembourg looks from a distance like a jobbing king. Originally from Nuremberg, he was the son of a Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, from the powerful Luxembourg dynasty. By the time he visited Canterbury in 1416, he himself was King of Hungary, of Croatia, and of Germany. He came to Kent in pursuit of an alliance with England, having seen his current allies, the mighty French, humbled at Agincourt. He and Henry V signed the Treaty of Canterbury that paved the way to ending the Great Schism between the Popes of Rome and of Avignon. After achieving his aim, he lost interest in England, but reverted to his hobby of CV enhancement by adding the kingdoms of Bohemia and Italy. Eventually, in 1433, he matched his father in becoming Emperor. The fact that he actually troubled to cross the English Channel, however, is evidence of England’s growing stature after centuries as a Norman backwater.
Henry V, King of England (1386-1422)
The Duke of Monmouth, son of Henry Tudor, was essentially Black Prince, Volume II. Both were named after their warlike father, proved argumentative eldest sons, became brilliant generals, made light of enemy numerical supremacy, and won momentous victories. Both also treated their captives with monstrous inhumanity. The major difference was that Henry’s father died young, so that he actually succeeded to the throne. In 1416, he struck a landmark alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor at Canterbury. Not only that, but he made the French king’s daughter his wife, becoming heir to the French throne. Had he lived just two months longer, England and France would have been united under one monarch; the mind boggles. Instead, his life resumed the course of the Black Prince’s. He too died of dysentery, and left a fool to rule in his stead. Harry did come to England’s aid in 1944, when Laurence Olivier’s ‘Henry V’ proved the best morale-booster of WW2.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
Despite his Latinate name, Erasmus was probably born in Rotterdam. The illegitimate son of a Catholic priest, he was himself ordained in 1492. He studied at Paris before being invited to Cambridge. There he became Professor of Divinity at Queen’s College, whose distinctly humanist leanings matched his own. In 1499, he famously visited Eltham Palace, where he met Henry VII’s three children. Young Prince Henry ordered him to write them a poem, which he did; but it was the last time he would kowtow to the author of the English Reformation. Intellectually, he was a free spirit. His views became manifest as the Protestant revolution swept over North Europe. Erasmus critiqued the Catholic Church – his first work ‘In Praise of Folly’ being a satire – but also refused to adapt to the Lutheran orthodoxy. In an age of partisanship, this ‘middle way’ was courageous, though likely to please few. He is now generally rated among the most enlightened of theologians.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)
It’s unsurprising that Erasmus’s best friend in England was Thomas More. Both were learned, humanistic, and Catholic; but More went further. Born into a wealthy London family, he served as a household page to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lived at Knole House. After Oxford, he studied law. He actually accompanied Erasmus on that famous visit to Eltham Palace, and later would get to know Prince Henry all too well. An MP at 26, he was knighted in 1521 for services to the King, succeeding Wolsey as Lord Chancellor eight years later. It was an untimely appointment, with Henry’s divorce from Catherine on the cards. Sir Thomas was a devout Catholic, who wore a hair-shirt and might have become a monk. Out of principle and obstinacy, he refused to endorse the King’s ‘great matter’, literally to the death. The martyr was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, ironically after his satire ‘Utopia’ had made him a Bolshevik hero.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-58)
It’s disappointing that the son of ‘Philip the Handsome’ and ‘Joanna the Mad’ was not ‘Charles the Insanely Good-Looking’. Charles V, a self-styled Charlemagne, was head of the Hapsburg clan when the world was falling at its feet. In short order, he found himself Lord of the Netherlands, where he was born, followed by King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, King of Italy, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor; not to mention overlord of the Americas. Anxious to stave off an Anglo-French alliance, he visited Kent in 1520, meeting Wolsey at Dover and Henry VIII at Canterbury. Two years later, after Henry’s ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ jaunt proved a waste of money, he returned to Dover, showing off Aztec treasures looted by Cortes. The anti-French pact he struck came to naught when Henry divorced Charlie’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon. The Emperor, grown disillusioned with his project to unify Europe, ultimately abdicated all his titles.
John Leland (ca 1503-1552)
An alumnus of Cambridge, Oxford and Paris, Londoner John Leland was concerned that the great libraries of the monasteries King Henry VIII was intent on destroying were being lost, priceless volumes being removed, for example, by scholarly Germans. He got a dispensation to create a register of all books held by such libraries, which in turn led to many being saved in royal libraries. In the 1530s and 1540s, he undertook a series of tours of English and Welsh regions, extensively cataloguing England’s antiquarian heritage. The county he focused on first and foremost was Kent, which he described as “the key of al Englande”. His records were published together as his ‘Itinerary’. His interest extended into archaeology. He reported the particular proliferation of Roman coins at Richborough, higher than anywhere in Britain. He also identified Roman bricks, both there and at Canterbury, Dover Castle, and Lympne. He is now known as the father of local history.
Philip II, King of Spain (1527-98)
After Charles V split his empire, Philip II took charge of the Hispanic division. This man took his work very seriously. His ideological goal was to crush Protestantism, to which end he waged war even on his own Dutch Calvinist subjects. In 1554, he wed the new Catholic Queen of England, Mary I, who introduced him to Greenwich. The marriage was a purely political arrangement: he made himself co-regent in law, although ‘King Philip of England’ is seldom listed in British history books. After Mary’s false pregnancy and early death, he devoted himself to overthrowing her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth I. His plans to replace her with Mary Queen of Scots having been foiled by the latter’s execution, he plotted a more direct course: invasion. Already infuriated by having his beard singed at Cadiz, he saw his project ruined in 1588 by the wreck of the Armada sent to transport the Duke of Parma’s huge army to Kent.
Sir Walter Raleigh (ca 1553-1618)
Raleigh, a Devonian, is remembered 400 years later only for a succession of gallant failures. He first came to attention when he helped suppress Desmond’s rebellions in Ireland, growing rich on the proceeds. After becoming Elizabeth I’s favourite, he supposedly put his expensive cloak over a puddle for her at Deptford. In 1584, he organised the first of three failed missions to found the first American colony. He next blotted his copybook by romancing a lady-in-waiting, which got him gaoled. To redeem himself upon his release, he set out to find El Dorado, but failed in that too. Even when he sought to popularise smoking, it only caused his manservant to pour water over his head. For his part in a supposed plot, James I sent him for 12 years to the Tower, where he wrote part of his ‘History of the World’. He went exploring again in 1616 but, after illegally ransacking a Spanish outpost, he was beheaded.
Christian IV, King of Denmark (1577-1648)
Christian is famous for reigning for 59-years, longer than any other Danish monarch. He visited England once, in 1606. His sister Anne had married King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 also became James I of England. His unprepossessing brother-in-law was suddenly worth a visit; so Kristian sailed to Gravesend. The two must have had plenty to talk about, James having recently survived the Gunpowder Plot orchestrated by disaffected Catholics, while the hard-drinking Dane was a Lutheran faced with the Counter-Reformation in Europe. Two decades later, Christian would get his country embroiled in the Thirty Years War, pointlessly invading Germany and prompting a bigger Catholic army to tear through Jutland. The farce permanently cost Denmark its status as top-dog in the Baltic. It was typical. He played up to the people, even renaming Oslo after himself; but, like many an autocrat, he left it in worse shape than he’d found it. He died a bitter man.
Pocahontas (ca 1596-1617)
The Disneyfication of Pocahontas did nobody any favours, except Walt Disney Pictures. The 1995 blockbuster movie made her a princess, with the looks of Beyonce and opinions of Jane Fonda, who enlightened John Smith, fell in love, and saved his life. The reality was entirely different. She was one of the Powhatan chief’s many children, with no special status. She was a child when she encountered the mercenary Smith, whose accounts of her were fanciful. After Smith went home, she became a pawn in negotiations between natives and settlers, her marriage to John Rolfe sealing an eight-year peace. At 19, she was brought to London to meet the Queen, Anne of Denmark, in an effort to raise funding for the Virginian colony. Never more than a curiosity, she died suddenly on the Thames, and was buried in Gravesend. The biographical description of her as “ambassador, stateswoman, peacemaker, visionary” would have angered her people, and embarrassed her.
Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)
Anthonio van Dyck was born in Antwerp – then in the Spanish Netherlands, now in Belgium – but ended up an English resident, and indeed a knight. From a wealthy merchant family, he was a precociously talented painter, joining Rubens’ studio in his teens. After a visit to England in 1621, he left to perfect his technique in Italy before returning to Flanders and working as a court painter. The accession of Charles I of England was timely, the King and Queen being keen on patronising grand portraiture that glorified the aristocracy. In 1632, he moved to London, being immediately adopted into court circles and earning good money for his considerable output, which generally flattered the sitter. In addition to a house at Blackfriars, he was rewarded with a suite of rooms at Eltham Palace, which he used as his Kentish retreat. By way of acknowledgement, Charles had van Dyck buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Charles I, King of England (1600-49)
Charles Stuart’s reign started promisingly. Three months after his accession, he spent a fortnight in Kent, travelling to Dover to meet his French bride Henrietta Maria and bring her back via Canterbury and Cobham Manor. Cheering Protestant crowds didn’t know that he’d already betrayed them, having signed a secret agreement with her father to relax constraints on English Catholics, and to lend ships for controlling French Huguenots. It wasn’t just his father’s empathy that Charles lacked. Despite his obvious incompetence in both domestic and foreign affairs, he continued to rule high-handedly. Being divinely appointed, he reasoned, he should run his land according to his own conscience. When he first abolished the Short Parliament, and later botched an effort to arrest five MPs in the Long Parliament, popular loyalty deserted him. He ended up at war with the Parliaments of both England and his native Scotland. When, convicted of treason, he was beheaded at Whitehall, the crowd only groaned.
Henrietta Maria, Queen of England (1609-69)
Considering all that had gone before in English history, Charles I’s choice of bride must be adjudged typically ill-advised. First, Henriette Marie was the daughter of a Bourbon and a Medici, and neither family was ever Anglophile. Second, she had a devout Catholic’s hostility to Protestant ceremony, for which reason she courted unpopularity by refusing to be crowned. Third, she was an obstreperous 15-year-old when they married; the two even got into an argument as he was collecting her from Dover. She disliked being called Queen Mary, signing herself ‘Henriette R’ even though Charles named Maryland after her. She liked little about England, except maybe the fashionable new spa near Tunbridge (sic), where she went to recover after childbirth. Her extravagant spending and overtly anti-Protestant sympathies steadily cemented public antipathy, which turned to hatred as she urged Charles towards Civil War. After voluntary exile, she returned briefly during the Restoration. She died in Paris of an overdose.
Charles II, King of England (1630-85)
Charles Stuart the Younger famously stayed overnight at what is now called Restoration House in Rochester on his way back from exile. After 11 dismal years of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Londoners hailed his proclamation as monarch the next day with the customary optimism that things can only get better. In truth, they only got worse. The Restoration was a riotous time, at least for Charles and his cronies. After making a worthless marriage, he spent his debauched existence fathering a succession of bastards by his various mistresses, whom he was happy to flaunt before his wife. After initially taking pains not to make the same political mistakes as his father, he grew increasingly tyrannical with age. When Parliament made moves to prevent his Catholic brother’s succession, he reverted to Tudor barbarity in dealing with the perpetrators. Charles survived the Rye House Plot in 1683, but died of kidney failure two years later. He reportedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)
Although John Evelyn’s diary covered a much longer period and is a more useful historical resource, Pepys’s is better known today. The simple reason is that it’s a far racier read. It covered only the 1660s, but Pepys cannot have guessed what an extraordinary decade it would be – the Restoration, Second Dutch War, Great Plague, Great Fire of London – all of which he experienced at first hand. Though a Londoner, he had many connections with Deptford, Greenwich and Chatham as a senior Royal Navy administrator. A more prurient reason for reading Pepys’s diary, however, is its candid account of his sexual encounters, many the consequence of exploiting his official positions, that became known once the code he wrote it in was broken. Anyone wondering why England progressed in a generation from Merry Monarch to Glorious Revolution can discern from Pepys the joyful cant and hypocrisy at the heart of the Restoration.
James II, King of England (1633-1701)
The Exclusion Bill was Parliament’s attempt to prevent the succession of Charles II’s resolutely Catholic brother, James. The two royals turned savagely on its supporters, and the so-called Whigs’ worst fears were realised when James Stuart became king. Immediately, two revolts arose, including one by his nephew the Duke of Monmouth; both were put down. James, having learned nothing from his father, adopted the strategy of systematically inserting Catholics – who represented only 2% of the population – into key positions of influence, including the judiciary. It stirred a massive populist backlash. When a Catholic heir was born, and James then prosecuted seven Anglican bishops, Parliament moved to replace him with his Anglican daughter Mary. To that end, her husband William of Orange was invited in 1688 to invade England. The friendless James fled, but was captured by fishermen at Faversham. Though released, he was beaten the following year at the Battle of the Boyne, and disappeared into exile.
Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England (1638-1705)
If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, King Charles II must have had an incredibly short memory. His own mother had demonstrated that a C17 Queen of England ought not to speak poor English, deplore Protestantism, dislike English manners, and so be publicly loathed; but that’s what Charles imported when he wed Catarina de Bragança in 1662. It was a political arrangement, meant to strengthen ties with Portugal; and Charles made no bones about his intention to continue womanising relentlessly. Catherine did differ in two essentials from her mother-in-law. Where Queen Henrietta loved to spend money profligately, Queen Catherine preferred to accumulate it; and the former gave England two worthless sons, whilst the latter remained childless, despite numerous resorts to the magical waters of the Tunbridge spa. Catherine became a main target of the scurrilous Popish Plot, but lingered for seven years after the King’s death in the hope of winning a law-suit.
William Penn the Younger (1644-1718)
William Penn was a stereotypical rebel: an elder son living in the shadow of a rich and distinguished father who had high hopes for him. Strict and humourless, he was drawn to religious non-conformism. At 22, he joined the Quakers, and undertook an evangelical tour of Kent in 1672. With his subversive writings, he antagonised the authorities even more than his father, and was repeatedly gaoled. His life changed when he inherited a fortune in debts owed by the Crown. King Charles II cunningly discharged them by gifting Penn 45,000 square miles of America, provided that he took his troublesome Quakers with him. Penn whimsically named his new province Sylvania, and Charles pointedly added the prefix ‘Penn’ in honour of the father. Young Penn preached tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, a melting-pot, and centralised government, so setting the tone for modern American Democratic discourse. He died penniless back in England, and his sons renounced his beliefs.
Captain Kidd (1655-1701)
Captain William Kidd, a Scot, was an accidental pirate. He’d been doing good business in the Caribbean as a privateer when he was summoned in 1695 to take on a mission for a syndicate led by King William III. After his ship Adventure Galley set off from Deptford, he was challenged to lower his flag in deference to a Royal Navy yacht at Greenwich. To emphasise the point, a warning shot was fired. His crew responded by showing the yacht their buttocks. So enraged was the Navy captain that he removed many of them. Kidd was forced to take on replacements in New York, most of whom were outright blackguards. The crew often came close to mutiny, and eventually compelled Kidd to capture a ship illegally off Africa. Back home, he was charged with piracy. The King’s involvement was diplomatically overlooked, and Kidd was hanged at Wapping. He was actually hanged twice; the first time, the rope broke.
Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725)
Peter the Great was that rarity among tsars, one who made a positive difference. When he succeeded his half-brother Feodor III in 1682, Russia was a backwater, regarded more as part of Asia than Europe. After an abortive adventure against the Ottomans in the Black Sea, Peter understood that he needed to emulate Dutch and English naval power. Having befriended William III, he came to Kent to study English seamanship. He stayed for three months at Sayes Court in Deptford, also visiting Greenwich and Woolwich. His unruly entourage did so much damage – using paintings for target practice, and racing wheelbarrows around the gardens – that the Treasury had to pay the regular tenant damages. Peter reaped the benefit when Russia smashed Sweden in the Great Northern War, permanently changing the Nordic balance of power. His lasting monument is the city he founded, St Petersburg: not only Russia’s gateway to the Baltic, but also a shining symbol of modernity.
Canaletto is not so named because he enjoyed painting the canals of his native Venice, but because his real name, by coincidence, was Giovanni Canal. He was not only a master of Venetian waterscapes, but of city squares too; and he worked with precision at such a rate that he created a unique pictorial record of C18 Venice. At the time, the British consul was Joseph Smith, who took Canaletto under his wing to their mutual benefit. Canaletto came to England from 1746 to 1755, continuing his work with panoramas of London and elsewhere. He also strayed down the Thames, where he painted magnificent views of Greenwich Hospital. Aside from his playful ‘caprices’, Canaletto recorded what he saw faithfully, and both early and late in his career preferred to paint in situ rather than at his studio. His particular talent was for deviating subtly from photographic realism, for which reason he is recognised as a forerunner of Impressionism.
John Wesley (1703-91)
John Wesley from Lincolnshire earned his place in history as an evangelist of Methodism. Now the dust had settled on the great schism between Catholicism and Protestantism, the opportunity arose for a C18 ‘Revival’ movement, supposed to reinvigorate the Anglican Church with “Christian perfection”. The differences between rival positions such as Wesley’s and Calvin’s look to outsiders so subtle as to be abstruse. The onus therefore was on preachers like Wesley to proselytise by strength of character and force of rhetoric. In this, Wesley was remarkably effective. Barred at first from teaching in churches, he took to streets and houses. One of his favourite platforms was the house in Rolvenden Layne – now Wesley House – where he was arrested in 1760. On account of their sheer fervour, fellow Methodists became disproportionately influential in British political issues, including the slave trade and prison reform. Methodism was disseminated with such vigour around the British Empire that it still has around 80 million adherents.
Dick Turpin (1705-39)
Today’s public image of Dick Turpin is as far from reality as can be imagined. He was born in Essex, and started life as a butcher. A gang of deer thieves used him as a fence, but he decided he could make a better living by joining them. This ‘Gregory Gang’ became a notorious band of robbers. They ravaged the countryside, their favourite tactic being raids on remote households where they would torture householders into handing over their life savings; murder and rape were later added to their charge sheet. Their activities were mostly north of the Thames, but also extended to Gravesend and Charlton in Kent. After the gang was brought to justice, the pock-marked Turpin turned to highway robbery. In 1737, he murdered a gamekeeper, and was later hanged at York for horse theft. He owes his reputation as a gentleman robber to William Ainsworth’s 1834 novel ‘Rookwood’, which curiously chose to depict him as a “heroic” figure.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)
Benjamin Franklin – polymath, Founding Father, all-round marvel – exemplifies the principle that history written by victors is seldom good history. The son of English Quakers, he illicitly quit his brother’s business in Boston to work in Philadelphia on newspapers that made money from advertising slaves. He fulminated against tyranny while himself being a slave-owner. Much of his journalism was moralistic invention. He took a common-law wife who was already married, but separately had a bastard son who so deplored his father’s beliefs that he quit America. Franklin also whiled away many years in England. Whilst genially debating colonial affairs with Pitt the Younger at Hayes Place, he fomented revolution through his mouthpiece Thomas Paine. While in Kent, he heard about Gray’s electricity experiments, later laying claim to the theory with his lightning stunt. All these points, incidentally, have been made in American books. Had the rebels lost the war, Franklin would have been hanged as a traitor and forgotten.
Capability Brown (1715-83)
Lancelot Brown from Northumberland got his nickname from his habit of telling prospective clients that their property offered “capability” for improvement. Although he dabbled in architecture, his forte was garden design, in which he came to excel. In fact, he was such a dab hand at it that he earned the best part of a million pounds a year in today’s money. The secret of his success was the landscape form of garden design popularised by his tutor, William Kent, that replaced C17 formality. Brown’s designs were typified by lawns running right up to buildings, lakes fed by hidden streams, and clumps of trees scattered about. The romantics of the next century came to hate his formulaic style; but Brown had left his mark on 170 properties around the country. Many of them were very famous, and five were in Kent: Chilham Castle, Ingress Abbey, Leeds Abbey, North Cray Place, and Valence near Westerham.
Horace Walpole (1717-97)
Horatio Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, was the only son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Not surprisingly, after following his father to Cambridge, he became a Whig MP for nearly three decades, representing three different constituencies. Yet it was as an author that he made his name. He was a prolific writer of letters, which have been published in 40 volumes, containing much of political and social interest. In his forties, he wrote ‘The Castle of Otranto’, a medieval thriller. It was in fact the first Gothic novel, and would inspire the likes of EA Poe and Bram Stoker. Walpole was fascinated by medievalism, to the extent that he’d had an extraordinary mock-Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill House, built near Twickenham. Among his friends, the lifelong bachelor Walpole counted Edward Mann, owner of the altogether more traditional Linton Park, south of Maidstone; Walpole was a keen visitor.
George III, King of England (1738-1820)
Since he had what it takes to rule Great Britain for nearly 60 years – then a record – it’s a pity that George III is only remembered now for two things: losing his American colonies, and losing his marbles. There’s no denying that Mad King George had a serious problem: he suffered from an illness, possibly porphyry, that increasingly debilitated him. Yet, in his time, the nation underwent the Industrial Revolution, defeated France in the Seven Years’ War, and overcame the mortal threat of Napoleon. His most conspicuous visit to Kent entailed an occasion in 1799 when Lord Romney invited the King and Pitt the Younger to his estate at Mote Park in Maidstone. The host laid on a full military parade of his 5,228 volunteers, the occasion being commemorated with a pavilion that still stands. By 1810, however, George’s mind was so far gone that his son had to rule as Prince Regent throughout his last decade.
Field Marshall von Blücher (1742-1819)
Ask any German who won the Battle of Waterloo and you’ll get one answer: Blücher. By their account, Wellington was hanging on by his fingernails when the Prussians arrived like the US cavalry to win the day. However one regards it, his arrival was most welcome, if a little tardy. Gebhard von Blücher was born in Rostock, and ironically was taken prisoner by the Prussian Army in 1760 while fighting for Sweden. He became the outstanding Prussian general, taking on Napoleon more times than any other and matching him for belligerence. In 1814, after decisively defeating the French army at Leipzig, Blücher was invited to Britain to celebrate Napoleon’s abdication, along with several other allied war-leaders. After landing at Dover, they were given a sumptuous reception, which included visiting the Woolwich Arsenal. Unfortunately, the festivities were premature. Within months, Napoleon would escape and form a new army that was to test Blücher’s determination one last time.
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was Tony Blair without the principles. He started as a churchman and, as a bishop, joined the États Généraux, where he cynically pontificated against the Church. He fled for England when Robespierre took over, but was obliged to return in 1794 when fellow refugees turned against him. He ingratiated himself with Napoleon, who saw him as a weapon in international negotiations, even though he secretly worked against Napoleon’s interests. The interests that concerned him most were his own, especially living in splendour at Valençay and siring dozens of illegitimate children. His greatest achievement was brilliantly saving France from dismemberment at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-5, which made his reputation as the world’s craftiest diplomat. Afterwards, he was sidelined during the reign of Charles X, but returned in 1830 as Ambassador to Great Britain. He relished being greeted at Dover by tricolour-waving crowds and a cannonade, 36 years after returning to revolutionary France under a cloud.
General von Bülow (1755-1816)
Although Blücher is synonymous with the Prussian Army at Waterloo, the contribution of Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr von Bülow, cannot be underrated. He was a career soldier who worked his way up through the ranks with aplomb. Strangely, he first came to the attention of Frederick the Great through his musical ability, which won’t have hindered his assiduous pursuit of a military career. Von Bülow distinguished himself as a general late in the Napoleonic Wars, when he excelled in the defence of Berlin, and then in the crucial defeat of the French at Leipzig. He did not always get on with Blücher, there inevitably being rivalry between these two great contemporaneous Prussian generals; but he served the Field Marshall well in the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. He came to Kent for the victory celebrations that June, before adding further to his personal glory at Waterloo, where his brigade played a crucial role in finishing off the Grande Armée.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
Having been born into a wealthy family at Salzburg, Austria, Mozart developed a precocious musical ability that became unmistakable when he wrote his first symphony at 8. As his older sister Nannerl was also a talented pianist, their composer father Leopold took them on a European tour so that the children could perform for high society. From April 1764 they spent more than 15 months in England, including a few days in Kent when Mozart performed at Canterbury. They stayed at Bourne House as guests of Sir Horatio Mann, and possibly also Egerton House and Higham Park. Young Mozart went on to become arguably the greatest composer in history, responsible for 600 works including 22 operas and dozens of symphonies. Plagued by money troubles, however, he was hit by depression and then illness. He died suddenly at 35, and was buried in an unmarked grave. We can only imagine what musical wonders he might have produced in his maturity.
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Blake was one of the giants of the Romantic era, excelling not only in painting but also poetry. He was quite possibly mad; certainly his contemporaries thought so. He was at first a painter, and his work so highly original that it inevitably suggested a diseased mind, though today we might see in it a forerunner of Surrealism a hundred years before its time. His first great poetic work, ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, illustrated by himself, dwells on the corrupting influence of society on human simplicity. The young Blake took a positive view of both the French and American revolutions, something he came to regret in later life. It is ironic that his most famous work ‘Jerusalem’ is now a great patriotic anthem; it was in fact the product of his deep religious faith. Late in life, Blake came to Shoreham near Sevenoaks to visit the Brotherhood of Ancients, a group of young artists who idolised him.
Thomas Telford (1757-1834)
Thomas Telford was a titan of the golden era of Scottish civil engineering. He was born at Eskdale, close to the English border, and lived in poverty after the early death of his father, a shepherd. He became a stonemason, but made his reputation with a broad variety of engineering tasks that he undertook in Shropshire. Eventually he proved himself so versatile that his friend Robert Southey, the future poet laureate, called him the ‘Colossus of Roads’. In 1830 he came to Kent to build the Whitstable Harbour station at the terminus of the new Canterbury and Whitstable railway line, a project that attracted a galaxy of engineering stars including himself, George and Robert Stevenson, and even IK Brunel. Such was Telford’s mastery of civil engineering that he became the first president of its Institution, remaining so for 14 years. When in 1968 a new town was built in Shropshire, it was naturally named after him.
Although Horatio Nelson was born in Norfolk, Kentish people always treated him as one of their own. Chatham was still central to Britain’s naval might, so Nelson was a regular visitor; and his most famous ship, HMS Victory, was built there. Despite his obvious seamanship, Nelson took a beating in a land assault at Tenerife in 1797, but showed his character by corresponding chivalrously with the defending general afterwards. He subsequently proved himself master of the sea, winning one major victory after another. His tactical genius was matched by his ability to get the most out of his men by keeping them fully in the picture, contrary to the custom of the day. His adulterous relationship with Lady Hamilton and ill-treatment of his wife, though shameful, were publicly tolerated because of his sheer popularity. After losing first an eye and then an arm in battle, Admiral Nelson famously lost his life at Trafalgar at the moment of his greatest triumph.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire, the son of a wealthy merchant. After enjoying a sybaritic lifestyle, he was elected MP for Hull. In 1785, after a European tour, he underwent a Damascene conversion, becoming an evangelical Christian. A year later, he was approached by a group of abolitionists asking him to take up leadership of their cause. Despite being deeply conservative, he agreed, and maintained the struggle for nearly five decades. He was aided by his close friend Pitt the Younger, to whom he expressed his ambition to end slavery by political means at Holwood House near Bromley in 1787. He incurred the wrath of William Cobbett – the radical who believed that charity begins at home – for championing the rights of foreigners whilst doing nothing for the British working class. Nevertheless, in 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed. Wilberforce died three days after the Slavery Abolition Act finally killed off slavery in the British Empire.
Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia (1770-1840)
Friedrich Wilhelm III, König von Preußen may sound a grand personage, but he was in fact far too diffident ever to be a ruler. This was surprising, given that his grandfather was Frederick the Great, Germany’s finest ever monarch; but, there again, his father had been a pleasure-seeker and just the wrong man to have in charge when the French Revolution started. Luckily, the indecisive King’s wife was Queen Luise, who was not only beautiful but also so smart that Napoleon called her Prussia’s best minister. She died suddenly in 1810, but by then had galvanised a group of able commanders who would ultimately turn the tables on the French. The King came to Kent in 1814 with his best general, Blücher, to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat, thus sharing the glory of the true hero. Friedrich Wilhelm would rule for another quarter century, and his son Wilhelm would become the first Kaiser of the united Germany.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth is now popularly synonymous with the poem ‘Daffodils’, the epitome of the pastoral dimension of the Romantic movement he co-founded. He was born into poverty in the Lake District, and raised a devout Christian. He did however undergo a spell of youthful rebellion. In 1790, he travelled to France via Dover, about which he wrote a few poems. He sired an illegitimate child by a French woman, and enthusiastically endorsed the French Revolution, only to be profoundly disillusioned when a callous tyranny was replaced by a bloody one. Back in England, he met Samuel Coleridge, with whom he published the groundbreaking ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in 1798. This was an attempt to return poetry to the language of the people, and underscored the supposed innocence of mankind before exposure to the corrupting influence of society. At 30, he settled at Grasmere, married, and wrote his best poetry. In later life, he succeeded fellow ‘Lake Poet’ Robert Southey as Poet Laureate.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Coleridge’s life was blighted by two facts: he suffered terribly from depression, and the laudanum he took for it profoundly changed both his outlook and the way people responded to him. He initially supported the French Revolution, and while at Cambridge made abortive plans with Robert Southey to found a commune called ‘Pantisocracy’ in Pennsylvania. Later he also befriended William Wordsworth, and the three would become known as the ‘Lake Poets’. Coleridge contributed few of the poems to ‘Lyrical Ballads’, the pioneering collection he co-wrote with Wordsworth, but did compose one of the greatest: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. With the fragmentary ‘Kubla Khan’, it proved his exceptional talent. He moved to Keswick in 1800 to be near Wordsworth; but his increasingly erratic behaviour drove others away, even his wife, and his health deteriorated. He sought relief at Ramsgate, staying there ten times. He died in Highgate after being tended at a physician’s home for 18 years.
Louis-Philippe I, King of France (1773-1850)
As the progressive Duke of Chartres, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans fought with distinction for France in the Revolutionary Wars, but took warning when the King was executed. He exiled himself overseas for 21 years until the Bourbon restoration in 1814. After the 1830 Revolution to depose Charles X, however, he was himself crowned. He ruled in a wholly conservative fashion, giving money-makers their head and forging a friendship with Britain. Later in his reign, however, the economy deteriorated, and the ‘Citizen King’ was in turn ejected by the Revolution of 1848; his replacement was the terrible Napoleon III, which goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for. Louis Philippe avoided the mistake made by Louis XVI in leaving Paris conspicuously. Instead, he and his wife took a humble cab, describing themselves as the Smiths. They sailed to Dover with their family and, after travelling through Kent, settled in Surrey. By all accounts, they were popular guests.
Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein, was an antimatter version of Adolf Hitler: a German-born Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and an ultra-conservative who repudiated both nationalism and socialism. A diplomat’s son, he made his name by arranging the marriage of Austria’s Marie Louise to Napoleon after his divorce from Joséphine. Ironically, four years later, Metternich would be among the allied leaders arriving at Dover to celebrate the Emperor’s abdication. After serving as Foreign Minister for 12 years, he additionally became Chancellor in 1821, and then retained both posts for 27 years. His philosophy was simple: after the traumatic upheavals of the Revolutionary period, Austria required stability. He therefore resisted all such social change as had occurred in Britain. Consequently, political unrest grew until he was ejected in the 1848 Revolution, and fled to England. He still divides opinion: the man who contained Russian expansionism, but sowed the seeds of the Austrian Empire’s collapse.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Austen was well into her thirties when she had her first novel published. After an initial success with ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in 1811, she followed up with her chef d’oeuvre, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Her subject matter was the manners of the landed gentry, which she brought to life with masterly precision, and mocked with subtle wit that was never spiteful. She knew this world well, being sprung from the wealthy Austen clan from Kent. Although born in Hampshire, she had lasting connections with Kent, her brother Edward frequently inviting her to Goodnestone and then Godmersham; the latter probably inspired ‘Mansfield Park’. Following those initial successes, two further books were published in quick succession; but, in no time, she sickened dramatically, and was soon glad to die. Although two more novels were published posthumously, the world was left wondering what other masterpieces she might have created in her prime.
Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
Charles Lamb had an unusual distinction: he was a very fine essayist. In fact, he was more popular at it than his expert friend William Hazlitt, because he entertained rather than lectured. His popular touch was evident from his best known work, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ (1807), which he co-wrote with his sister Mary; she covered the comedies, he the tragedies. Sadly, the partnership did not last. Both were mentally ill, and during a psychotic episode she took umbrage at her mother’s scolding and stabbed her through the heart. His greatest work was a solo effort called ‘Essays of Elia’, the first volume of which came out in 1823. Lamb’s social circle was a constellation of Romantics that included all three ‘Lake Poets’, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. Lamb too was drawn to that magnet for poets, Margate, which he first visited in 1801 and described as the best place he’d ever been for a holiday.
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Whereas England has a strong claim to the greatest literary tradition in the world, the numbers of classical composers and painters who bear comparison with their European counterparts can be counted on the fingers of one of ET’s hands, and still leave enough for him to phone home. One outstanding exception is Joseph Mallord William Turner. This London-born artist was so talented that he was painting in the Impressionist style decades before Monet was born. He was famously fond of Margate, where the Contemporary gallery is named after him, although he painted all over Kent. An obsessively private eccentric, he never married, but had two illegitimate daughters by Sarah Danby, the aunt of his loyal housekeeper of 40 years, Hannah Danby. Turner, ever eccentric, thoroughly neglected his health and appearance for the sake of his painting, and his lifetime oeuvre of over 550 oils and 2,000 watercolours transformed the genre of landscape painting.
Alexander I, Tsar of Russia (1777-1825)
Alexander I’s reign did not start propitiously. He consented to a plot by nobles to force his father’s abdication, only to learn later that it had all gone badly wrong and Paul I had been murdered. He found himself Tsar at the age of 23, and not at a good time, with Napoleon looming large in Europe. Alexander’s subsequent handling of the Napoleonic Wars was scarcely coherent. He opposed France, but after two catastrophic defeats formed an alliance with Napoleon that was always doomed to fail. It was however on his patch that Napoleon’s grand design finally faltered. After Borodino in 1812, the French army was decimated by the long march home with the Russians in pursuit. Alexander was naturally invited to the victory celebrations that brought him through Kent to London, when he was reunited with his fellow reactionary Metternich. Having been relatively liberal, he grew increasingly authoritarian, and was succeeded by his even tougher brother Nicholas.
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet (1778-1829)
Although he was originally set to be a surgeon, Davy luckily took up chemistry instead. His first major discovery was that nitrous oxide could be used as an anaesthetic; for good reason he named it ‘laughing gas’. It got him a job at the Royal Institution as a lecturer. There he realised that electricity could be used to break down chemical compounds into their constituent parts, and so discovered several important elements: potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium, boron. Yet another ingenious South-Westerner with an interest in mines, he developed the safety lamp bearing his name, which became indispensable to miners. His one vice was an addiction to fame. He was knighted, became the first-ever Baronet in science, and presided over the Royal Society. He regularly came to Tonbridge to meet his friend and fellow scientist John Children, including for one landmark conference in 1813 that involved experimenting with the world’s largest galvanic battery.
Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)
Elizabeth Gurney sprang from the great Quaker tradition of wealthy entrepreneurs. Both her parents were from banking families – the Gurneys and the Barclays – and she married Joseph Fry, a cousin of the Quaker chocolate-makers. She acquired a zeal for reforming Britain’s prison system after being horrified by a visit to Newgate prison in 1813. Particularly struck by the condition of the women and children she encountered, she devoted herself to improving prison conditions both in Britain and abroad. In addition, she started up charities and homeless shelters. The Home Secretary, Robert Peel, was encouraged to get the Gaols Act passed in 1823; it did little use, however, because it was not properly enforced. However, Queen Victoria expressed her support, and in 1845 the Mayor of London paved the way for the first Elizabeth Fry refuge, in Hackney, for women newly out of jail. By that time, Fry had been living in Ramsgate, and died there of a stroke.
George Stephenson (1781-1848)
When he arrived in Whitstable in 1825 to supervise the building of his new railway line to Canterbury, George Stephenson had come a long way. He was born in Northumberland in humble circumstances, but became a model of self-improvement. While working at a coal mine, he paid to attend night school to learn the three R’s, so that he could go into engineering. He designed the first of many steam locomotives in 1814, and moved onto building entire railways. In 1829, he collaborated with his son Robert on the invention of the famous Stephenson’s Rocket. In between, he invented a miners’ safety lamp, which he demonstrated a month before Sir Humphrey Davy announced his own at the Royal Society. Stephenson’s prior claim was dismissed, largely because of his provincial accent, and he was even accused of stealing the idea. Stephenson Senior ensured that his son Robert had lessons in received pronunciation, but never forgave the bigoted London elite.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
The last ideological war in Britain took place 200 years ago. While one body of men sought to improve the human lot through science and technology, another turned to revolutionary idealism married to escapism and ‘free love’. The arch exponent of the latter, now known as the Romantics, was Lord Byron. His upbringing was itself romantic: after spending his first 10 years growing up in poverty in Aberdeen, he inherited a baronetcy. His years at Cambridge were dissolute, and after his first poems were mocked went on a two-year European tour, familiarising himself with the ports of Dover and Sheerness. Around 1812, he completed ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which made him an instant celebrity, and opened the door to scandalous fornicating in London. In disgrace, he departed England for good in 1816. After publishing ‘Don Juan’ in 1823, he left Italy to fight for the Greek rebels against Turkey. He died of a fever at Missolonghi.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
When you learn that Albert Einstein kept his picture on his wall, that Lord Rutherford described him as one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time, and that Sir Humphrey Davy called him his own greatest discovery, you will know that Faraday was no ordinary scientist. He was a pioneering chemist who made a number of discoveries, including benzene; yet his forte was the field of electromagnetism, in which his discoveries paved the way for practical applications of electricity. It was he, for example, who selected Dungeness to be the first electrically powered lighthouse. He made many of his discoveries actually at the Royal Institution in London, where he innovated the Christmas lectures for children that continue today. Although Faraday was not himself a mathematician, James Clerk Maxwell formalised his discoveries and paid tribute to the mathematical calibre of his mind. Faraday is commemorated in the standard name for the unit of capacitance, the farad.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Like his friends, the fellow Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, Keats died young, but without first enjoying the customary roistering. In fact, Keats appears a more dependable individual all round. A Londoner, he was training to be a doctor when he suffered bouts of depression, and decided to change course. A key moment in his poetic development was a visit to Margate in summer 1816, when he also began his career as a great letter-writer. Leigh Hunt introduced him soon afterwards to Byron and Shelley, and he re-invented himself as a poet. There were only two women in his life, and both were the subject more of his love than sexual appetite. Before he could marry the second, Fanny Brawne, he was sent via Gravesend to Rome to recover from tuberculosis. Instead, he succumbed five months later. His six-year career had already yielded such well-loved poems as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, and ‘To Autumn’.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Godwin’s Bohemian background was long on radical politics but short on morals and money. Meeting the aristocratic roué Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16 didn’t help. Already married, he took her to Europe and got her pregnant, although they eventually wed after his wife’s suicide. On a trip to Switzerland in 1816, they arranged a contest with Lord Byron and John Polidori to devise the best ghost story. Godwin imagined ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, and with Shelley’s help turned it into a novel. Frankenstein’s monster certainly fired the imagination of Romantics troubled by science and industry. Whether it would have sold had readers not assumed that Shelley wrote it himself is debatable. Years after Shelley drowned, Mary visited Sandgate to help her recover from smallpox, looking (she said) like a monster. She is now granted legendary status by feminist academics, although Germaine Greer‘s scathing assessment is that ‘Frankenstein’ has more loose ends than a grass skirt.
Granny Smith (1799-1870)
Asked what the connection is between Peasmarsh just over the East Sussex border and an apple, most locals would reply Sir Paul McCartney, who lives in the village and created Apple Corps. There is however another connection. Maria Ann Sherwood was born in Peasmarsh and married Tom Smith in Ebony, Kent. Both were agricultural labourers, and in 1838 emigrated to New South Wales, where farm workers were needed; they later bought their own orchard near Sydney. Just two years before her death, she cultivated a new strain of apple from a crab-apple chance seedling. The fruit’s crisp texture and sharp tang commended it, as did its longevity. The next owner of the Smiths’ farm, Edward Gallard, began growing it commercially, calling it Smith’s. In 1891, the apple was renamed Granny Smith in her honour. Now famous around the world, she is celebrated in Sydney with a memorial park and annual festival. Apple Corps’ logo, incidentally, is a Granny Smith.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75)
Many of us have a mental picture of Andersen as the sweet young Danish cobbler depicted by Danny Kaye in the 1952 biopic, crafting wonderful stories for the delight of children everywhere. It’s not a picture Charles Dickens would have recognised. The two met at a reception in London in 1847, when the Dane oozed admiration for the age’s “greatest writer”. A decade later, he asked to stay for a fortnight at Gads Hill, to which Dickens politely consented. He soon wished he hadn’t. Andersen ended up staying five weeks, and exasperated the whole family with his bizarre behaviour. Eventually Dickens had to ask him to leave, and dropped their acquaintance as fast as possible. Some critics have suggested that Andersen inspired the excruciating Uriah Heep in ‘David Copperfield’, which was written shortly after that first meeting. It’s just as well that he is remembered better for ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’, and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59)
When the BBC ran its ‘Greatest Briton’ poll in 2002, it surprised many that second place went to Portsmouth-born IK Brunel, whom many viewers had never heard of. It is possible that organised voting helped secure the result, not unconnected with the university that bears his name; after all, several British engineers with a comparable claim did not feature at all. Yet Brunel’s lifetime achievement certainly qualified him to be in the running. He was a rare mix of technological brilliance and hard-nosed pragmatism. It is telling that his three most extraordinary achievements – the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, and the Great Western Railway – occurred in three different spheres. All made a significant difference to the quality of life of human beings, testifying to the supreme public value of expertly applied technical ingenuity. Brunel was so conscientious that he even travelled to Kent in 1835 to examine the Stephensons’ innovative Canterbury & Whitstable Railway.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-49)
Chopin’s obviously French name may cause confusion when people learn that he was Polish. The explanation is simple: his father was a French emigrant. Chopin left Poland for France in 1830, making his name as a pianist in the salons and becoming a society favourite. Aged 26, he made the acquaintance of French writer Aurore Dupin, alias George Sand, who became his lover for nearly a decade. Having mastered his craft, he focused on the talent he had already developed by the age of 15: composing. Chopin is practically synonymous with piano works. His oeuvre includes over 200 compositions, including mazurkas, études, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, and polonaises, as well as two concertos and a funeral march. Still not 40, he died in Paris of tuberculosis. In 2010, the Polish ship Dar Mlodziezy brought an orchestra to Dover Town Hall to play a commemorative concert during her voyage retracing Chopin’s European tour of 1848.
Karl Marx (1818-83)
Marx may have been the most divisive man in history. He was certainly a man of contrasts. Though from a wealthy Jewish family, he had no money. After settling in Highgate when exiled from Germany, he plotted the destruction of the British state. His ‘Communist Manifesto’ was a stirring call to arms against tyranny, but ‘Das Kapital’ was rooted in Feuerbach’s antiquated thinking, and revealed the journalistic nature of its composition. Marx does seem however to have had his heart in the right place. His big idea was that the controlling socialist state established in the wake of revolution would inevitably wither away, introducing an epoch of exploitation-free liberty. He didn’t foresee that C20 revolutionists would invariably opt to forestall the last stage. In any case, the crotchety Marx was plagued by boils on his legs. It’s comforting to picture him on Margate beach, soothing them in the surf while musing on surplus labour.
Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of India (1819-1901)
The reign of Queen Victoria was so long, and her domain so wide, that even Americans call the late C19 the Victorian period. Yet, though she was not mad like her equally long-lived grandfather, her reign followed an opposite trajectory. When she assumed the throne at 18, Great Britain led the world. The energetic young Victoria’s zenith was the Great Exhibition of 1851, a world showcase that owed much to the enthusiasm of her loving husband, Prince Albert. As late as 1856, Britain was capable, with France, of foiling Russian expansionism in its own backyard. Albert‘s death in 1861 changed everything. As Germany overhauled Britain’s industrial dominance, and the government pursued a policy of competing for territory in Africa, Victoria retreated into reclusive veneration of her dead spouse, occasionally taking holidays in Thanet and visiting Prince Alfred at Eastwell Manor. Though she again became a national treasure after her Golden Jubilee, she is most associated now with unfashionable moralism.
George Eliot (1819-80)
Mary Ann Evans from Warwickshire wrote a string of famous novels, one of which – ‘Middlemarch’ – is considered by some the greatest novel ever. She published as ‘George Eliot’ for several reasons: to distinguish her fiction from her well-known work as editor and critic; to allow her to tackle meatier subject-matter than other female writers; and to disguise her racy private life. One lover was Herbert Spencer, with whom she would go on secret trips to Broadstairs; he would not marry her on account of her unsightliness. (Henry James called her “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous”). Evans’s appeal was entirely intellectual. She evinced sparkling empathy, insight, and wit that shone through in her work. The one man not bothered about her looks, George Lewes, remained with her for 24 years, despite being married. She remained single until his death, when she married a man 20 years younger, becoming Mary Ann Cross. On their honeymoon, he jumped into Venice’s Grand Canal.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
It’s a pity that Herbert Spencer, the man who turned down George Eliot, could not see beyond the end of her nose. They had plenty in common, he being no oil-painting himself but possessing a sharp intellect. He is now remembered almost exclusively for four words he coined that are usually misattributed to Charles Darwin: “Survival of the Fittest”. This was an idea that Darwin would certainly have nodded to in the natural world; but its interest to Spencer, a polymath, was broader. He saw it as a general principle – one that might apply in any sphere. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, it did not mean that whatever is best will inevitably outlive its competitors, but whatever is best suited to the prevailing circumstances. Barring the existence of any force majeure, this would seem to be borne out by evidence. The fact that Spencer’s big idea has itself struggled to survive says something about the world we live in.
Friedrich Engels (1820-95)
It’s hard to say what Karl Marx would have done without Engels. The rebellious son of an industrialist with factories in Germany and England, he was sent to live in Manchester, but visited Marx in Paris on the way. They did not get on. Engels co-habited with a radical Irishwoman, Mary Burns, whose sister Lydia he took up with when she died. After seeing working conditions in Mancunian factories close up, he wrote ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, which helped prompt today’s more humane practices. Once Marx arrived in Highgate in 1849, the two collaborated closely, albeit under police surveillance. Engels was the more organised, and edited Marx’s copious unfinished work after his death in 1883. Yet he was a paradox: a Marxist who adored partying, foxhunting, and regular trips to Margate. As one biographer pointed out, Engels was a father of Stalinism, but would scarcely have got on with it.
Victor Emmanuel II, King of Italy (1820-78)
Alongside France and Turkey, Britain’s unlikely other ally in the Crimean War was Sardinia. After its troops performed creditably at Sevastopol, the island’s King Victor Emmanuel was invited to Britain in December 1855, along with King Napoleon III of France. The two landed at Dover, and visited Britain’s prestigious military centre at Woolwich. In truth, the get-together was a chance to prepare the ground for the Congress of Paris the following February, when Russia’s fate would be decided. Hob-nobbing with Napoleon III proved invaluable to the Sardinian king, at a time when fragmented Italy was in the throes of the Risorgimento. With French help, he was able to liberate Lombardy from Austria, and assumed the throne of Italy itself in 1861 after Garibaldi handed the South to him. When France also withdrew its garrison from the Papal States in 1870, he made Rome the capital of his new Italian nation.
Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)
Brown was always a square peg in a round hole. His family was Kentish, although he was born at Calais, and throughout his life he flitted between France and England. He married at Meopham, but his wife died of consumption, and he had a child out of wedlock before marrying again. His calling was painting, and here again he was hard to pin down. With his early work, which included portraits of his relatives at Foot’s Cray, he impressed Rossetti and befriended the Pre-Raphaelites, without ever fitting the bill himself. In fact, his work is hard to categorise, consisting of biblical and historical scenes, painted in often dark colours, whose meaning is sometimes abstruse. His best known work was ‘Work’, a Hogarthian tableau with a distinctly social-realistic feel that is vague enough that critics cannot resist impressing their own meaning on it. Brown developed an affinity with Manchester, and painted a history of the city in 12 murals.
Matthew Arnold (1822-88)
As the son of Thomas Arnold, the idealistic head of Rugby School, Matthew unsurprisingly grew up to be a schools inspector. Like his father, he enjoyed telling people what to believe and how to act. His moralistic streak extended even as far as his honeymoon in Dover in 1851, when he appeared more preoccupied with didactic poetry than romance. It was nevertheless good poetry. His ‘Dover Beach’ contains the famous last lines “And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night”, which could be the anthem of Generation X. The poem’s theme, loss of faith, was Arnold’s signature. It was not published until 1867, by which time Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ had rubbed salt in his wounds. Though never as popular as Browning or Tennyson, the surprisingly congenial Arnold was rewarded for his efforts by being appointed professor of poetry at Oxford.
Wilkie Collins (1824-89)
William ‘Wilkie’ Collins, a Londoner, managed the feat of writing not just one novel that is still much loved today, but two: ‘The Woman in White’ (1859) and ‘The Moonstone’ (1868). He was an outstandingly imaginative deviser of plots, and saw them through highly plausibly. What is more, his characters were so rounded that they still feel like real people. Unfortunately, he does not rank highly in most critics’ lists of the great novelists. His writing lacks certain essential qualities, such as metaphysical speculation, social commentary, moral concern, religious devotion, and political posturing. He has therefore gone down in literary history as an incorrigible crowd-pleaser, like an English Edgar Allan Poe, albeit less well known. Unfortunately, he became addicted to the opium he took for his gout, and maintained a long relationship with two women simultaneously. Despite his failings, Collins kept good company, coming to visit his friend Charles Dickens in Folkestone.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
Fans of Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti won’t want to hear it, but he was probably more famous for his lifestyle and influence than what he painted or wrote. His Italian family was called Rossetti because so many of them had red hair, and he was born in London because his father was a revolutionary nationalist who had come to Britain in exile. After studying under Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti created the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with his friends Holman Hunt and John Millais. Though it turned out to be Britain’s one serious movement in C19 art, Rossetti’s own contribution was less impressive than that of his ‘Brothers’. Furthermore, his first volume of poems in 1870 was received so unfavourably that it induced a drug-fuelled tailspin. Aged 54, he went to London architect John Seddon‘s bungalow at Birchington-on-Sea to recover his health, but fell into a terminal decline. He is buried there in the graveyard of All Saints.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
For a future co-founder of a major art movement, Pissarro had a suitably exotic background. He was born in the Danish West Indies, of Portuguese and French Jewish ancestry, and after a spell in Venezuela shuttled repeatedly between France and England. While living in London, he came to Kent to paint views of Sydenham, close to the Crystal Palace, but also made a less felicitous sketch of Tenterden. Although Pissarro was at the heart of the nascent Impressionist movement, there is a reason why he is less well remembered than his peers: he lacked their talent. His real worth was his influence. With his long, prematurely white beard, he was regarded by the others as their elder statesman, and provided a stabilising influence that extended as far as pioneering the development of Post-Impressionism. At 40, he married his mother’s maid Julie Vellay in Croydon. One son, Lucien, also became an artist, and likewise came to Tenterden to paint.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94)
The artist-poet Gabriel Dante Rossetti’s younger sister Christina is less well-known than him, but was probably more gifted, specifically in the realm of poetry. Born in London, she was the youngest of four siblings who also included writers William and Maria Rossetti. She was a devoted Christian, and her piety shines through in her work, most famously in the poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ that is still sung movingly at Christmas concerts across the country. Yet she was versatile in her invention, coming up with such ingenious poems as ‘Goblin Market’, which in the best Brothers Grimm tradition is an ambiguous Gothic parable that also makes a gripping yarn for innocent children. Rossetti remained a spinster, turning down three offers of marriage ostensibly for religious reasons. She came to Birchington-on-Sea in 1882 to care for her brother at what became known as the ‘Rossetti Bungalow’, but had to watch helplessly as he died.
Naser al-Din Qajar, Shah of Persia (1831-96)
Despite having been at war with Britain as recently as 1857, the Shah of Persia was an honoured repeat guest in the 1870s. He enjoyed a boat trip between Sheerness and Greenwich in 1873, and a Royal Navy review at Dover in 1878. It made a nice change. His 47-year reign – the third longest in Persia’s ancient history – was plagued by central weakness, and grew increasingly dictatorial. His problem was Persia’s schizophrenic nature. It had been conquered by Mohammedans at a time of turmoil in the C7, but continued to regard itself as an Aryan nation, ethnically separate from the Arabs and Turks. Consequently, Persia, Iraq and the Ottomans were forever at loggerheads. Naser al-Din’s strategy was to forge links with the West. He made three relationship-building tours of Europe, and granted concessions in Persian infrastructure and commodities. This sparked a resurgence of Islamic nationalism that would eventually topple the monarchy. Ironically, he was assassinated while praying in a shrine.
Lewis Carroll (1832-98)
What more is there to be said about the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? The Oxford-based maths teacher’s relationship with young Alice Liddell has been the subject of endless speculation, and his provocative photography would seem to suggest nefarious motives. As there is no proof, however, it is perhaps wiser to ignore Dodgson and focus on his alter ego, Lewis Carroll, who without doubt was one of the most imaginative writers of all time. His two ‘Alice’ books offer little by way of plot, each being a series of the eponymous heroine’s loosely connected encounters with all manner of exotic characters; but what unforgettable encounters they are. Carroll applied three particular literary talents to embellishing them: ingenious wordplay, logical tricks, and surreal poems like ‘Jabberwocky’, which he later spun out into the ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. In between writing ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, Dodgson visited the Shell Grotto at Margate, declaring it “marvellous”. Praise indeed.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Samuel Butler was not a happy chap. He started life in a rectory, and couldn’t leave religion behind, even when he got embroiled in science. He had been destined for the clergy himself, but instead turned to sheep-farming in New Zealand for five years. Having developed an interest in biology, he initially reacted positively to the ‘Origin of Species’. Back in England, he visited Darwin twice at Downe; but he was convinced by Mivart’s futile attempts to reconcile evolution with Catholicism, and turned sharply against natural selection. His book-length attacks on Darwin were highly personal, accusing him of taking credit for his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s thinking. It distressed the poorly Darwin, whose supporters advised him to leave well alone. Butler died believing that Darwin’s silence proved him right. His best remembered literary effort today is his posthumous autobiographical novel ‘The Way of All Flesh’, although his satirical ‘Erewhon’ was also a decent attempt to spell ‘nowhere’ backwards.
James Tissot (1836-1902)
We tend to picture C19 artists as being like van Gogh: talented and sensitive, but unworldly and impoverished. Not so Tissot. He was born in Nantes as Jacques Tissot, but his sights were set further north. He changed his name to James before heading for Paris, where he encountered Degas, Manet and Whistler. After moving to London at 35, he specialised in art for the rich. That’s not to decry his ability. He painted the same sort of subject matter as city-based Impressionists, but in a more realistic style, and focusing on beautiful women in glorious finery that elegantly showed off their figures. A fast worker, and not cheap, he did very well for himself. He also came to Greenwich, though not to paint the Hospital like Canaletto. Instead he drew and painted excellent studies at a Thameside hostelry, the Trafalgar Tavern. In his fifties, having made his fortune, he piously turned to biblical scenes.
Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905)
England’s greatest Victorian actor started life in Somerset as John Brodribb. He was first billed as Henry Irving at 18, when he started his acting career in Sunderland. He spent years learning his craft the hard way in provincial theatres. Everything came together dramatically when, in 1871, he took on a role at the Lyceum Theatre in London, with which he would become synonymous as actor-manager. He was to prove highly manipulative, and amusingly even became the inspiration for his business manager Bram Stoker’s creation, Count Dracula. Irving is sometimes satirised as having a declamatory Victorian style; yet, according to contemporary accounts, he could convincingly impersonate any character, and injected endless subtlety into his intonation. It was inevitable that he would get to know England’s greatest living actress, Ellen Terry. The two, who were probably lovers, formed a superlative partnership playing Shakespearean couples. Irving was with Terry when she first saw her future home, Smallhythe near Tenterden.
Henry James (1843-1916)
James started life in a wealthy New York home, and ended it in England as a British subject. In between, he became one of the world’s great novelists. Since he was the brother of pioneering psychologist William James, it is unsurprising that his novels displayed meticulous insight. His work was founded on intensive research, and observed the principle that narrative must be grounded in the supposed experience of his characters. He first came to live in London at 26. After a year in Paris, he returned in 1876, and his golden era began. Much of his work concerned the innocence of Americans in the more sophisticated European world, although the relationship became more subtle and complex as time passed. His greatest work was perhaps ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ in 1881. After moving to Rye in 1897, James came to Surrenden Manor in Pluckley to attend soirées for fellow expatriates, thrown by wealthy American tenant Walter Winans.
Buffalo Bill (1846-1917)
William Cody from Iowa Territory probably earned his famous nickname by hunting bison in early life, though we shouldn’t discount the possibility that, as the archetypal frontiersman, he also smelt like one. Having later become a celebrity for his military exploits, he smartened up his appearance in the most dapper fashion, and went into show business. His speciality was extravaganzas bringing to life an idealised version of the Wild West for city folks. So wildly popular was his ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ that he took it on tours of Europe, which in August 1903 embraced Kent. With its vast cast of rodeo-riders and sharpshooters, broncos and bisons, cowboys and Indians, the sensational show was performed in Ashford, Folkestone, Ramsgate, Margate, Canterbury, Maidstone, and Chatham. Buffalo Bill, incidentally, is not to be confused with his old friend Wild Bill Hickok, the poker-playing lawman. Hickok did star in one of Cody’s productions, but was shot dead in 1876.
Lillie Langtry (1853-1929)
Emily Le Breton was born in Jersey, the only daughter of a vicar whose hobby was having illegitimate children by his parishioners. At 20, she married an Irishman who took her to London. There her looks quickly caught the attention of high society, especially after Millais painted her as ‘Jersey Lily’. Equipped with her trademark plain black dress, she embarked on a string of affairs with rich men, including the indefatigable Prince of Wales; he dropped her when she got pregnant by another lover. Needing money, she was encouraged by her friend Oscar Wilde to become an actress. Although critics mocked her, she became highly popular; and, after founding her own theatre group, she earned further fame in America. Through two lovers, she took up thoroughbred horse racing. In 1897 she divorced her husband and married Sir Hugo de Bathe, yet still found time to fit in an association with William Gladstone that led to a libel suit.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Considering the sea change in attitudes towards homosexuality today, it is the world’s misfortune, as well as his own, that Oscar Wilde was not born a century later. He came from an intellectual Dublin family, and soon revealed his own academic prowess. At Oxford, he joined the Art for Art’s Sake movement, living a suitably florid life. His razor-sharp brain made him a superlative epigrammatist, able to make readers laugh aloud. What is more, he created not only one of the world’s cleverest Gothic novels, but also two of its funniest plays, bringing him great popularity. Twice he came to Thanet, once for a lecture, once for a possible assignation. His life fell apart when he sued the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas for libel. After the truth came out, Wilde found himself in Reading Gaol for two years, an experience he lamented in two books. He fled the country for Paris, and died in utter misery.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
‘Cosmopolitan’ barely captures artist John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence to American parents, he was raised in Paris, moved to London at 30, and spoke four languages fluently, including German. That is not to say he was globally popular. Sargent was technically a maestro, but refused to accommodate any contemporary art movements. Instead, he painted in such a highly realistic way that he was called the Van Dyck of his age. Like Tissot, he also painted for the rich, his portraits being flattering whilst giving the impression of accuracy. It brought him heaps of work, but little credit with critics, who thought him insufficiently spontaneous and genuine. The turning-point in his career was ‘Madame X’ in 1884, which might have been judged a masterpiece, but was excoriated for indecency. Sargent quit France for England and thereafter just took the money, which notably included visiting Ightham Mote in 1890 to paint Miss Elsie Palmer.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Like his contemporary Dublin-born playwright Oscar Wilde, Shaw came to live in London at 20, and enjoyed a trip to the Thanet coast. Unlike him, he struggled to integrate, and eventually made himself a career as a polemic playwright. His approach was to take a political idea and turn it into a palatable gobbet of theatre. As the Fabian Society’s communicator-in-chief, he propagated most of their opinions this way, which ranged from anti-nation, anti-religion, anti-war, and even anti-vaccination views to support for eugenics, Mussolini, and Stalin. His 60-play oeuvre provided ample material for O- and A-level students of the post-WW2 generation. His popularity later waned as the leftist causes changed, and audiences grew less tolerant of being lectured. Ironically, his legacy – apart from the phenomenal talent for aphorisms known as Shavian wit – is that tremendous piece of Hollywood froth, ‘My Fair Lady’, an adaptation of his egalitarian ‘Pygmalion’.
Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell (1857-1941)
Robert Powell acquired his double barrel when his mother snobbishly decided to exploit her eminent husband’s first name after his death. Powell, a Londoner, joined the Army, serving in India and South Africa. As a colonel at the Siege of Mafeking in 1900, he incurred his superiors’ anger by declining to break out with his garrison when the chance arose; but the public adored him for ingeniously seeing the Boers off. The training manual he based on his soldiering experiences proved so popular that he decided to write a more youthful version, ‘Scouting for Boys’. This he did at his cousin’s property, the Manor House in Speldhurst. Published in 1908, it has sold 150 million copies worldwide. On the back of it, he held the first Scout Rally at the Crystal Palace in 1909 and, with his sister Agnes’s help, also launched the Girl Guides. He was outlawed by the Nazis, but formally honoured by several European nations.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Arthur Doyle was born in Scotland to Irish Catholic parents; he adopted his third forename Conan as a double barrel in his teens. He became a doctor, but impecuniousness made him turn to writing. His fertile imagination produced such memorable characters as Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard, and that master of deduction, Sherlock Holmes, a character so rounded that many still think him real. One story, ‘The Valley of Fear’, is set at Groombridge Place, which Doyle visited regularly. Holmes also mentions Margate, where Doyle examined the Shell Grotto, ascribing supernatural origins to it. The scientific community actually ridiculed him for his avid belief in the occult, and some suspected him of arranging the Piltdown Man hoax in revenge, although he has now been cleared. His vast literary output also includes ‘The Lost World’ (1912), a prototype of ‘Jurassic Park’. Despite all his literary invention, Doyle was actually knighted for writing a pamphlet on the Boer War.
Annie Oakley (1860-1926)
Phoebe ‘Annie’ Mosey was born in a log cabin in Ohio. Just six when her father died, she learned to shoot to keep the family fed. Fortunately, her gunmanship was prodigious, as America discovered when, at 15, she beat professional marksman Frank E Gardner in a competition. The two subsequently married and went into partnership, whereupon she adopted the stage name Oakley. Buffalo Bill signed her for his touring ‘Wild West’ show. So crowd-pleasing was her sharpshooting that she earned more than anyone bar him. In 1890, while staying in Ashford, she gave a breathtaking demonstration, among other things shooting clean through the edge of a playing-card. That same year, however, she inadvertently cost 20 million people their lives by successfully shooting the ash from a cigarette held by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Her career slowed after 1901, when she suffered terrible injuries in a rail crash. In 1946, she was celebrated in Irving Berlin’s musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.
WB Yeats (1865-1939)
Though he started as a painter and later took up play-writing, William Butler Yeats excelled as a poet. Had he lived a century earlier, he would doubtless have been recruited by Shelley as another Lake Poet. Instead he was born in Dublin at a time of growing Irish nationalism. A Protestant, he spent most of his life in England, yet his Romanticism took on a markedly Celtic hue that was reinforced by his ill-starred love for the Surrey-born Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. One of Yeats’s few recorded trips to Kent involved a different paramour: novelist Olivia Shakespear, with whom he travelled by train for a dirty weekend in Beckenham. That relationship also did not work out, but he did end up marrying Shakespear’s young step-niece, Georgie Hyde-Lees. Yeats’s occasionally sublime poetry eventually made him a cornerstone of Irish culture, and in 1923 won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also co-founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904.
Edith Cavell (1865-1915)
Born in Norfolk, Cavell went to work as a governess in Brussels for five years before returning to take care of her ailing father, a vicar. The experience gave her a taste for nursing, and she enrolled in London in 1896. Only a year later, the Maidstone Typhoid Epidemic broke out and she was sent to help out, for which she became one of many nurses to win the Maidstone Typhoid Medal. She returned to Brussels intent on developing the nursing profession, to which end she published ‘L’Infirmière’ magazine. In November 1914, she was trapped there by invading German troops, but ran an infirmary tolerated by the Germans because she claimed to nurse all soldiers, irrespective of nationality. In fact, it was a cover for smuggling Allied troops into Holland. The Germans found out, and shot her. To the Allies, it was a propaganda coup, although the Germans understandably maintained that they had acted within the law.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
‘Ruddy’ Kipling, the first writer in English to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, has long been a political football. It was George Orwell who started it, with charges of jingoism and imperialism. Kipling has had some surprising defenders, including TS Eliot, who after studying his oeuvre exonerated him. Even Billy Bragg, the left-wing singer, declared Kipling the honest voice of English national sentiment. Certainly Victorians found him a refreshingly plain speaker after the self-indulgence of the Romantic era. His novels, such as ‘Kim’ and the Jungle Books, speak volumes of his love for India, where he was born under the Raj. He still divides opinion in India, where recent efforts to celebrate him with a museum were stymied by the nationalist government. His poetry is best exemplified by ‘If’, often voted Britain’s favourite poem, which preaches equanimity in the face of defeat. In 1929, Kipling came to open the Milner Court preparatory school (now Junior King’s) in Sturry.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Although Mohandas Gandhi is remembered for nonviolent resistance to British rule in India, he was a steely politician with a lawyer’s brain. After studying in London, he moved to South Africa, where he first experienced racism and espoused civil rights. He supported the British Empire at first, but between the Wars encouraged civil disobedience in support of Indian home rule. In 1931, he arrived at Folkestone en route to a conference on constitutional reform. During WW2, his opposition to Indian enrolment in the British Army was unpopular among Indians, 2½ million of whom signed up in face of Japanese imperialism. In 1942, he was arrested after his “Quit India” speech, which prompted widespread terrorism. Decisively, he urged Indians to cease co-operating with the British. Independence in 1947 created as many problems as it solved. The partition of India and Pakistan on religious lines led to a half a million deaths, and Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy (1869-1947)
If he hoped for a nice quiet life, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was to be disappointed. He was 30 when his father King Umberto was assassinated by an anarchist. Consequently, his 46-year reign was fated to take in two world wars in which his nation played a role. As a constitutional monarch, he went along with the Italian government’s determination to join WW1 on the victorious Allied side, and in 1924 arrived in Folkestone on a state visit, 79 years after his grandfather Victor Emanuel II had also come to Kent. He was lucky that Mussolini expediently nailed a nationalist component onto his revolutionary socialist ideology, meaning that the monarch was tolerated under the Fascist regime. Indeed, Mussolini’s imperialism won the King the title of Emperor of Ethiopia. Nevertheless, in 1943 Victor Emmanuel seized the opportunity to disempower Il Duce. It did not help him. A 1945 plebiscite abolished the monarchy, and he was exiled in Egypt.
Field Marshall Jan Smuts (1870-1950)
Few people have excelled at academia, military command, and politics, but Jan Smuts did. When he came from South Africa to study law at Cambridge, the Master of Christ’s College put him on an academic par with Milton and Darwin. After the Second Boer War broke out, he led a large commando force in the Boers’ ultimately losing struggle against the British Army. Thereafter he turned into a major asset to the British Empire and Commonwealth. In 1915, now a general, he captured German South-West Africa. He became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and again from 1939. Appointed a Field Marshall in 1941, he visited Dover in 1942, touring the Castle with Churchill amid great pomp, and was the only man to attend the peace conferences of both World Wars. Smuts’s opposition to apartheid led to his defeat by the Nationalists at the 1948 election.
The Wright brothers (b 1867/71)
Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright were the sons of a peripatetic American bishop who eventually settled down in Dayton, Ohio. They had no great academic careers, being more interested in practical matters. They set up a cycle business, and their workshop provided a handy environment for experimenting with mechanical innovation. It became their ambition to be first to fly a heavier-than-air machine. Their big conceptual breakthrough was an appreciation of the importance of stabilising an aircraft in three dimensions, rather than just applying power; the control system they devised provided the basis of modern aviation. On December 17th, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they flew their Wright Flyer 40 yards, and went into history. In 1909, they came at the invitation of the Aero Club to Mussell Manor on Sheppey, where Britain’s pioneering aircraft industry was burgeoning. Unfortunately, the Wrights were better inventors than businessmen, and did not profit greatly from their intrepid ingenuity.
The Short Brothers (b 1872/75/83)
The Short brothers were North-East England’s perfect complement to the Midwest American Wright brothers: not such visionary innovators, but gifted commercial developers. Horace Short (1872-1917) was an aeronautical business genius, and Eustace (1875-1932) and Oswald (1883-1969) able lieutenants. They first indulged their passion for aeronautics by building gas balloons at Hove, but were so impressed by the Wright brothers’ 1908 demonstration of heavier-than-air flight at Le Mans that they changed course entirely. They established the world’s first aircraft mass-production facility at Leysdown in 1909, producing their original Short No. 1 biplane and the Wright Flyer, the latter under licence. The five brothers historically met there in 1909. Shorts would become a major manufacturer and employer in the area until WW2, when it was nationalised. The company had specialised in seaplanes, the unmistakable Short Sunderland being its signature. The business’s headquarters later moved from Rochester to Belfast, where it is now owned by Bombardier Aerospace.
Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (1872-1970)
‘Bertie’ Russell was the son of Welsh aristocrats who passed on their liberal beliefs plus interest. Although by profession a mathematician and logician, jointly responsible with AN Whitehead for ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910-27), he became more familiar as a political activist. His credo was pacifism, for which he spent six months in jail in 1918; half a century later, he would become a prominent figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for which he was again jailed. His other views were similarly radical, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 for his contributions to liberal thought. However, he was barred from standing for the Liberal Party, being too much of a freethinker. Despite his views, he managed to befriend the patriotic Joseph Conrad at Capel in 1913. He was also married four times, though never for less than 14 years. Russell wittily claimed to have spent his life seeking evidence of human rationality, but never found any.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926)
Erik Weisz’s family emigrated from Budapest when he was just four, settling first in Wisconsin, where his father was a rabbi. They soon moved to New York, where Weisz made his showbiz debut at 9 as a trapeze artiste. At 17, he became a workaday magician billed as ‘Harry Houdini’, but was persuaded in 1899 to take up escapology. His spectacular and occasionally dangerous theatrical stunts rapidly brought him world fame. He devoted much effort to exposing magical fraudsters, paving the way for the likes of Penn & Teller. During one of his extensive European tours, he visited Rochester in 1905, requesting the opportunity to escape from its jail. As the police did not want their new modern jail to be exposed as breakable, he was turned down; but Chatham Police helped out, and he duly escaped from that town’s jail instead. Weirdly, Weisz died of peritonitis after being punched repeatedly in the stomach by an overenthusiastic fan.
Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)
Marconi was born in Bologna, the son of a landowning aristocrat and an heiress of the Jameson Irish whiskey family. He proved not only a gifted scientist – his invention of radio would win him a shared Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 – but also an accomplished businessman. He spent four years in Bedfordshire as a child, and so was equipped linguistically to move to England at 21 in order to seek governmental support for his work. The customs officer inspecting his equipment at Dover alerted the authorities, which sped things along. He returned in 1898 to set two world records: the first international transmission, and the first ever ship-to-shore radio message, both involving the South Foreland Lighthouse. He was fortunate not to be on the Titanic’s fateful voyage, but the onboard Marconi radio was probably responsible for saving all who survived. In the 1930s, Marconi became a proud Italian fascist. The BBC held a two-minute silence when he died.
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940)
The Scotsman Buchan had a steady career as a politician and diplomat, which eventually earned him a place in the nobility. He is however far better known as the author of the best-seller ‘The 39 Steps’, published in 1915, which 20 years later Alfred Hitchcock would turn into one of his best loved thrillers. Buchan owed the catchy title of his ‘shocker’, as he called it, to a recuperative trip to Broadstairs in August 1914, when war with Germany was occupying everyone’s thoughts. Family friends were staying nearby at St Cuby Villa on the clifftop at Kingsgate. Buchan’s small daughter Alice, who was recovering from an operation, proudly counted its 78 steps to the beach, which still survive today, albeit much altered. Buchan simply halved the number to make a snappier title. There are several other allusions to Broadstairs in the book, including “Bradgate” – probably a disguised portmanteau of Broadstairs and Kingsgate – where the denouement takes place.
Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964)
William ‘Max’ Aitken was a Canadian with boundless entrepreneurial talent that made him a millionaire in his twenties. By 1910, he had run out of opportunities in his homeland, and moved to Britain. He went straight into politics, winning a seat in the Commons the same year. He helped get Asquith removed from power in 1916, Lloyd George repaying him with a baronetcy and the post of Information Minister. From 1917, he became a phenomenon in the world of newspaper publishing, turning the ‘Daily Express’ into the world’s top-selling newspaper. He used his power to pursue his pet causes, such as free trade within the British Empire. During WW2, Churchill put him in charge of aircraft production, in which connection they met at Chartwell in Westerham. Beaverbrook’s son, also Max, actually became a well-regarded fighter ace. Aitken did have time for some hobbies in between his publishing and administrative duties, the main ones being book-writing and philandering.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
It was statistically probable that Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp would become an artist, since three of his five siblings who survived childhood also did. Growing up in an arty family in Normandy was the perfect seedbed for his fertile, not to say febrile, imagination. His work was unlike anyone else’s, and it is only with difficulty that he has been categorised, first as a Cubist and later a Dadaist. He faced a crisis in 1913, after his ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’, now a signature work, suffered a hostile reception. He joined his sister Yvonne in Herne Bay in despair. However, a restorative month on the North Kent coast helped him set new goals. In 1915, he moved to America. He never painted again, but created such extraordinary mixed-media works as ‘The Large Glass’ and, much later, ‘Étant donnés’. His ‘Fountain’, a urinal, vented his contempt for the art market; he even pretended for decades to have renounced art for chess.
Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935)
Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence was practically doomed to the life of an outsider, being the illegitimate son of an illegitimate daughter when bastardy was taboo. After a youth spent moving from place to place, he went to Oxford to study History and became an archaeologist in Syria. In 1916, he volunteered for British Army service in Arabia, and with his specialist local knowledge formed a bond with Arab nationalists that he exploited to help foment a revolt against Ottoman rule. Although his role was initially diplomatic, he participated in numerous military engagements, including the capture of Damascus. He recorded his heroic exploits in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, an account that has been challenged as romantic. Given Lawrence’s ambiguous sexuality, it is unsurprising that he was subsequently made welcome at Port Lympne House, home of the gregariously gay Sir Philip Sassoon. He died in Dorset in a motorcycle accident. David Lean’s 1962 biopic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ won seven Oscars.
TS Eliot (1888-1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot would be inconceivable today: a political ultraconservative who was also a poetical revolutionary. He left his high-society American background in 1914 for Britain, where he added Oxford to his education at Harvard and the Sorbonne. He worked in a school and a bank before getting started as a published poet under the wing of Ezra Pound, who had immediately recognised his genius. His first major work, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), established the archetype of the C20 ‘nowhere man’, and exposed the erudition, the plain speaking, and the sensory orientation that were to become Eliot’s trademarks. ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) epitomised contemporary hopelessness; he only got it finished during an inspirational trip to Margate. After renouncing his American citizenship in 1927, Eliot became increasingly Anglo-Catholic, as witnessed by his Kent-based play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1935) and his mystical poems ‘Four Quartets’ (1943). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
With his bowler hat, toothbrush moustache, walking-stick, and funny walk, Charles Chaplin was at one time the most familiar figure on the planet. His was an extreme rags-to-riches story, from the London workhouse to Hollywood superstardom. So stellar was his career that the former Walworth guttersnipe even found himself invited to Sir Philip Sassoon’s lavish Port Lympne Mansion. The master of silent-movie comedy, he didn’t give up when talkies started, but smartly experimented with music and mime in ‘City Lights’ and ‘Modern Times’ in the 1930s. By 1940, he had the self-confidence to lampoon another famous wearer of the toothbrush moustache, Adolf Hitler, in ‘The Great Dictator’: a courageous stand, as he was widely thought to be Jewish. After WW2, however, his popularity evaporated on account of his overt Communist sympathies and predilection for underage girls. He exiled himself to Switzerland in 1952, but was forgiven in the 1970s with an honorary Academy Award and a knighthood.
Dame Agatha Christie, Lady Mallowan (1890-1976)
Agatha Miller was born into a wealthy Torquay family. On marrying Colonel Archibald Christie in 1914, she acquired the greatest name in English crime fiction; the creator of Jack Reacher even adopted the pen-name Lee Child to get his books stocked beside hers. Her genius lay in devising plots of a sufficiently intricate nature that no car chase or shootout was called for. Her two main literary vehicles, detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, became household names. One Poirot story written at Folkestone’s Grand Hotel was turned into a major movie, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, as was ‘Death on the Nile’. She also wrote six mainstream novels as Mary Westmacott, and her play ‘The Mousetrap’ ran from 1952 to 2020, a world record. There was one mystery in her own life: she absconded for ten days in 1928 when her marriage to Christie broke up, causing a nationwide manhunt. Two years later, she married archaeologist Max Mallowan.
Laurel & Hardy (b 1890/92)
Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) and Stan Laurel (1890-1965) were made for each other, although it was a wonder they ever met. Hardy was from Georgia, and Laurel (born Arthur Jefferson) from Lancashire. Both found their way into Hollywood, but had largely insignificant careers until their mid-30s. Then, in 1926, they were thrown together as a fat man/thin man comedy partnership. It should not have worked without a straight man, but their shared haplessness proved hilarious, particularly in the shorts they made in the late 1920s. The bowler hats, ill-fitting suits, Laurel’s tearfulness, and Hardy’s pomposity made them hugely popular. By 1947, their star was fading, but they publicly reopened the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway to mass adulation while on a well-received British tour. They were very different: Laurel the consummate professional, Hardy happiest at a golf course or gambling den. Yet, though both had a succession of difficult wives, they remained devoted to each other till the end.
Ahmad Qajar, Shah of Persia (1898-1930)
By the end of the C19, the title ‘The Shah of Persia’, like ‘The Tsar of Russia’, was more glamorous in theory than in practice. When the young Ahmad Shah Qajar inspected the guard at Dover on his state visit in 1919, he had already been Shah for a decade, having succeeded his deposed father at the age of 11. A short, plump, and rather sickly young man, he appeared a strangely inappropriate master of the once powerful Qajar empire, which by then admittedly looked a busted flush. Unlike his great-grandfather, who had first come to Kent in 1873, he had not much time left to rule. Scarcely interested in politics, he let events take their course, and two years later was effectively deposed by Reza Pahlavi. His reign formally terminated in 1925, ending the 136-year-old Qajar dynasty. He spent the rest of his short life in exile, with only his five wives for consolation.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
Though born in Leytonstone and raised in the East End, Alfred Hitchcock came from a comfortable Roman Catholic shopkeeper’s family, and regularly enjoyed agreeable summer holidays in Cliftonville. He wanted to be an engineer, but got into film by creating title cards. After a mixed directorial start, his breathtaking breakthrough was ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1935. He clinched his reputation as the master of suspense with ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938) and ‘Rebecca’ (1940); but it was after WW2 that he hit his mother lode. A succession of masterpieces between 1951 and 1964 established him as an all-time great. Ridiculously, he never won a Best Director Oscar, and only ‘Rebecca’ won one for Best Movie. Yet he made himself far more familiar than most directors, by making cameo appearances in his own movies and talking to camera in the long-running ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ series on TV. He was no saint, however, and loved to humiliate his beautiful blonde leads.
Samuel Beckett (1906-89)
Samuel Beckett is something like the literary equivalent of Francis Bacon: revered in cultural circles, but far less known among the public. He was indisputably a great innovator, and a master of the Theatre of the Absurd. His ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1954) became one of the landmark plays of the C20, his talent for making futility and hopelessness seem something to laugh at striking a chord in austerity-hit Europe. The main reason for his more polarised following today is the unremitting bleakness of his world view, which has the character of a depressive mental disorder. Though an Irish citizen, Beckett lived in Paris for much of his life, mostly writing in French. For tax reasons, he came to Folkestone for a fortnight to get married, later mentioning Ash, Borough Green, and Snodland in his writing. The Nobel Prize in Literature that he won in 1969 may have cheered him up a little, since he wrote relatively little afterwards.
Sir John Betjeman (1906-84)
Whether or not he was one of England’s greatest poets, London-born John Betjeman was certainly one of its most popular. The reason for his success was that, instead of plumbing the metaphysical depths of existence, he took a whimsical view of the modern world, expressed simply, with the utmost clarity, and in pleasingly conventional poetry. It was a recipe good enough to make him Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death. He never got worked up about much other than modern architecture, which prompted his witty “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!” He was famously instrumental in saving St Pancras Station, where his statue now stands. On visiting Margate in 1940, he wrote, “Beside The Queen’s Highcliffe now rank grows the vetch, Now dark is the terrace, a storm-battered stretch; And I think, as the fairy-lit sights I recall, It is those we are fighting for, foremost of all” – a notion that still resonates today.
Errol Flynn (1909-59)
Calling Errol Flynn an alpha male fails to capture his outrageous machismo. Even as a boy in Tasmania, his precocity was obvious. He was first cast as Fletcher Christian in an Australian film, ‘In the Wake of the Bounty’, in 1933. He moved to England, but was sacked for manhandling a stage manager, and left for Hollywood. He landed the lead role in ‘Captain Blood’ in 1935, launching a long career as the ultimate swashbuckler. It also started a silver-screen partnership with Olivia de Havilland that stretched to eight movies. Soon world-famous, Flynn was even a guest at one of Lady Baillie’s ritzy gatherings at Leeds Castle. However, he became notorious for his off-screen exploits. He drank, smoked, and took drugs, all to excess; but nothing matched his appetite for women. Famed for seducing strangers in seconds, he prompted the catchphrase “In like Flynn”. Despite surviving a rape trial, his popularity waned, and his vices fatally caught up with him.
David Niven (1910-83)
Though great friends with Errol Flynn, David Niven could hardly have been more different. He was born in London into a well-off family of Scottish descent. He disappointed academically at Stowe School, and looked set to become an Army officer. He was however a prankster, which made him ill-suited to the Highland Light Infantry. Instead, he went into the movie business. Being naturally charming, well-spoken, and debonair, he got plenty of work playing English gentlemen, and ultimately won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1958 for ‘Separate Tables’. In 1967, he came to Mereworth Castle to play Sir James Bond in the spoof ‘Casino Royale’. He recorded his Hollywood memories in two side-splitting volumes of autobiography, ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ (1971) and ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ (1975). He was married twice, his first wife having died at 28 after falling down stone stairs. He succumbed to motor neurone disease after retiring to Chateau d’Œx, Switzerland.
Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)
Alec Guinness de Cuffe was the illegitimate son of an unknown father in London. He worked as an advertising copywriter before studying drama. Before WW2 he acted in several Shakespearean stage productions. Though no great looker, he established himself as an intelligent performer with a charming personality. Turning to film, he played Fagin in David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ (1946) before specialising in Ealing Comedies; he stunningly played nine different D’Ascoynes in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949), with delightful backdrops at Leeds Castle, Harrietsham, Boughton Monchelsea, and Otham. He was repeatedly cast by Lean over the next three decades, winning the Best Actor Oscar and BAFTA for ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ in 1957. He was already 63 when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first of three ‘Star Wars’ movies. Even later in life he starred on TV, enjoying success as John le Carré’s George Smiley in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and its sequel ‘Smiley’s People’.
Yehudi Menuhin, Baron Menuhin (1916-99)
The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in New York, Yehudi Menuhin was the ultimate child prodigy. He took up the violin at four, and already by 1923 was playing solo with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. During WW2, he entertained British troops, and in 1945 famously performed for inmates at Bergen-Belsen. Two years later, he started the rapprochement with Germany by appearing with Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin. Ever the internationalist, he founded the Festival Gstaad in 1957, and the Menuhin Competition for Young Violinists at Folkestone in 1983, teaching there himself for its first 12 years. After suffering a muscle injury, Menuhin was introduced to yoga by Nehru, and himself brought the great yogi BKS Iyengar to Britain. His name was popularised by the 1971 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show, when Eric Morecambe stood in for him because he was supposedly opening in panto at Birkenhead. Two years later, Menuhin politely declined an invitation to bring his banjo.
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Persia (1919-80)
When Mohammed Reza Shah came to Britain with Queen Soraya on a state visit in 1955, he was the very model of a modern Persian Emperor, having succeeded his despotic father in 1941 following a British and Russian invasion. Iran had celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of its monarchy in 1950, and the new Shah was bent on turning his nation into a modern western-style powerhouse. He gave women the vote, invested heavily in health, education, and industry, and aspired to place Iran on an economic par with Britain. The unfamiliar snow on the ground as he inspected RAF air power at Biggin Hill was however an omen. His friendship with the West had already incurred the enmity of Islamic revolutionaries. Though he awarded himself the title of King of Kings (‘Shahanshah’) in 1967, just a dozen years later he was deposed by the ayatollahs. Exiled to Egypt, he soon died, along with the world’s second-oldest monarchy after Japan’s.
Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)
Karol Wojtyla owed both his papacy and his papal name to the chance death of his predecessor, John Paul I, just one month after his ordination in 1978. Wojtyla, a Pole, became the first non-Italian pope since the C16. He was a conservative who sustained the traditional Catholic tenets relating to abortion, contraception, and the celibacy of priests. He was also evangelical in his approach, visiting 129 countries in his lifetime. He advocated the creation of new saints, pursuing his policy to such an extent that more were created during his tenure than during the preceding 500 years. In 1982, he became the first pope ever to visit the United Kingdom. From London, he flew into Canterbury by helicopter to meet the Archbishop. By that time, he was already actively involved in securing Poland’s and therefore Eastern Europe’s liberation from Communism. True to his own policy, he was fast-tracked to canonisation just nine years after his death.
Leo McKern (1920-2002)
Reginald McKern was an actor like no other. He was born in Sydney and moved to London to marry a UK-based Australian actress. He was not overly encumbered by good looks, giving rather the impression of a particularly villainous Spanish inquisitor. It did not help that, at 15, he had gone to work in a factory after leaving school and lost an eye in an accident. He was however a remarkably compelling actor. Despite his accent, he mastered drama from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams. Having made his film debut in 1952 in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, he came to Chilham in 1965 to film ‘The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders’ with Kim Novak. In 1967-8 he was the only actor to appear three times as Number Two in ‘The Prisoner’; the intensity he injected brought him a heart attack. He eventually became a household name through ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, playing the title role from 1975 to 1992.
Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
Strange as it may seem, Selling was a favourite haunt of Hollywood superstar Marlon Brando. On a weekend visit, he fell in love with the place, and returned a number of times. It was a far cry from Nebraska, where he was born, the grandson of a German immigrant called Brandau. He became the ultimate method actor, excelling in both ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951) and ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954), for which he won an Oscar. He was awarded another for his landmark Hollywood performance as Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. He declined to collect it as a political protest that has been labelled the invention of Academy Awards virtue signalling. Certainly he needed to appear virtuous, his life being a cesspit of professional bullying and predatory womanising. His co-star in ‘Last Tango in Paris’ even accused him of on-set rape. He got away with it, and died a grotesque lump, leaving a trail of ill-starred children behind.
Richard Burton & Dame Elizabeth Taylor (b 1925/1932)
Despite their very different starts in life, Richard Jenkins (1925-84) and Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) had much in common. He was a miner’s son in the Welsh valleys, she the Hampstead-born daughter of an American art dealer. Nevertheless, it was no surprise that they became lovers, both being not only outstandingly attractive but also superlative actors. What they shared on stage was an ability not just to appear convincing but to stun with the passion of their performances. This was even more true when they played a domestic couple in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in 1966 – for which Taylor won her second Oscar – than in the 1963 blockbuster ‘Cleopatra’. Unfortunately, both were alcoholics, and their high-profile relationship became a case of ‘can’t live apart, can’t live together’. Alongside their two broken marriages, they acquired nine other spouses between them, but still found time to attend the wedding of race-trainer Peter Cazalet’s daughter at Shipbourne in 1968.
Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, et al (b 1926)
The exceptionally long reigns of the two Queens Elizabeth have provided memorable bookends to the era of England’s world stature. While the first saw the nation emerge from regional obscurity, the second has in general been neither victorious, happy, nor glorious. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Mary Alexandra Windsor, born in Mayfair, has remained on the throne longer than any British monarch in history, having succeeded her father King George VI – of ‘The King’s Speech’ fame – as long ago as 1952. Despite today’s republican zeitgeist, she remains remarkably popular, retaining a dignity and a diligence that have conspicuously eluded certain of her kin. The Queen and her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, used to pay unofficial visits to the home of his cousin Countess Mountbatten in Mersham, and attended Lady Amanda Knatchbull’s wedding at St Mary’s, Ashford in 1987. Among numerous trips to Kent to open buildings and monuments, in 2015 Her Majesty visited Canterbury Cathedral, where she unveiled statues of herself and Prince Philip.
Eric Morecambe (1926-84)
John Eric Bartholomew from Morecambe, Lancashire was the best-loved British comedian of the 1970s. A hilarious prankster and all-round nice guy, he provided the classic comic counterpart to straight man Ernie Wise for over forty years. At their peak, they were the mainstay of most homes’ Christmas Day afternoon: the 1977 festive edition of ‘The Morecambe & Wise Show’ on BBC One incredibly reached an audience of 28.5 million. The pair had survived a long apprenticeship, touring the country extensively with their singing, dancing, but mostly comic act, during which time Morecambe perfected the well-timed catchphrase. It was on one such tour that he met Miss Margate, Joan Bartlett, whose brother owned the Bull’s Head pub in the town; they held their wedding reception there in 1952. A keen birdwatcher, Morecambe unfortunately also drank and smoked heavily, and suffered from chronic coronary disease. He suffered a fatal heart attack upon finishing a performance in Gloucestershire.
Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
If ever aliens discover the Voyager spacecraft launched into outer space in 1977, they will find themselves listening to Bach, Beethoven, and Chuck Berry. This was after all the man who effectively invented rock music. His genre was actually rock ‘n’ roll, in which he memorably wrote and performed such classics as ‘Rock and Roll Music’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, and ‘Johnny B. Goode’. In so doing, he developed two rock-music staples: strident electric-guitar riffs, and flamboyant showmanship. He performed his trademark ‘duckwalk’ at Woolwich, Lewisham, and Margate on separate tours over a period of 19 years. Berry was also the original bad boy of rock. He was variously convicted of armed robbery, underage sex, tax evasion, and narcotics possession. He was additionally exposed as an epic pervert, who possessed a vast porn collection and secretly filmed 59 women in the toilet. Incredibly, his wife, the wonderfully named Themetta Suggs, stuck by him through a marriage of 68 years.
Sir Bruce Forsyth (1928-2017)
Despite his Scottish name, Bruce Forsyth was a thoroughly North London boy. Both his parents were musical, and he showed an aptitude for the stage early in life. With variety in vogue, he learned to sing and dance as well as tell jokes. He got a huge break in 1958 as compere of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, which he made practically his own with his catchphrase “I’m in charge!” The ‘Beat the Clock’ routine sowed the seeds for his next success, ‘The Generation Game’, a major Saturday-evening TV success in the 1970s that immortalised his enduring catchphrase, “Nice to see you, to see you… nice!” It was the first of several gameshows in which he proved a consummate host. He enjoyed an Indian summer, hosting ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for nearly a decade from 2004. By 2012, he was the world’s longest-serving male TV entertainer, and that year even came to perform at the Hop Farm in Beltring.
Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009)
Irish-American Patrick McGoohan built one of the strongest cult followings of any C20 actor. After several minor roles, he became better known in 1960 for ‘Danger Man’, a TV thriller. In 1963, he starred in ‘The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh’, a TV series filmed around Old Romney that was re-edited as a movie, ‘Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow’. ‘Danger Man’ returned for three years in 1964, but McGoohan grew bored, and persuaded studio boss Lew Grade to back his idea for a Kafkaesque spy thriller, ‘The Prisoner’. It came to fruition in 1967, and turned into one of the most original TV productions ever. McGowan not only co-wrote it, but also starred as the anti-hero Number Six, the embodiment of 1960s individualism, impressing with his intelligent and resilient persona. The series ended with a return to Kent, specifically the A20 near Wrotham, with Number Six and his associates cavorting bizarrely in a cage on the back of a lorry.
Stanley Kubrick (1928-99)
It is debatable who is the world’s greatest film-maker, but there is no doubt that the New York Jewish director Stanley Kubrick created several of the greatest movies. Even while failing at school, he was proving a precociously talented photographer. With rare ambition, he segued early into movies, revealing his talent with ‘Fear and Desire’ in 1953. He entered the mainstream with two productions he undertook with Kirk Douglas: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) and ‘Spartacus’ (1960). They made him famous, but alienated him from Douglas, and Hollywood. He emigrated to dwell reclusively in Hertfordshire for life. His filmic genius was applied to a range of genres, including satire (‘Dr Strangelove’, 1964), sci-fi (‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, 1968), dystopian thriller (‘A Clockwork Orange’, 1971), and horror (‘The Shining’, 1980). In 1987, he made the Vietnam War movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’, with convincing action scenes he incredibly shot on Cliffe Marshes in the Hoo Peninsula, complete with imported palm trees.
Sam Cooke (1931-64)
The ‘King of Soul’ Sam Cook packed a lot into his short life. The son of a Baptist minister in Mississippi, he first showcased his silken voice in the ‘Soul Stirrers’. At 26, keen to move on from gospel, he altered his name to ‘Cooke’ and went solo. He registered several hits, including ‘You Send Me’ and ‘Cupid’, and later founded a short-lived record company. In 1962, he undertook a UK tour that included the Granadas in Maidstone and Woolwich. Meanwhile, he had divorced his wife, who died a year later, remarried, and survived a fatal car crash. He had at least six children, his one legitimate son being drowned at two. His life ended dramatically when, after an evening’s drinking, he initiated a bizarre confrontation in an LA motel that led to the receptionist shooting him dead. The verdict was justifiable homicide, but his family insisted he was murdered. His last words were, “Lady, you shot me”.
Little Richard (1932-2020)
Richard Penniman suffered a difficult birth that left him with a skinny physique; and he would have been Ricardo, but for a clerical error. These mischances came together in his now immortal stage-name. Even as a child, his uproarious singing marked him out at church in Georgia, where his father was a deacon and bootlegger. When he started performing, he injected an energy seldom seen before or since. Now generally considered the father of rock ‘n’ roll, he took the 1950s by storm with such classics as ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Tutti Frutti’. His tremendous popularity with white musicians and fans alike helped break down the race divide, assisted by UK tours that took him around Kent. He claimed that his effeminate bouffant hairstyle was meant to ease fears about his intentions towards white women, though it transpired that he was omnisexual and an obsessive voyeur. Despite living life to excess, he survived much longer than his musical contemporaries.
Sir Michael Caine (b 1933)
Maurice Micklewhite is not quite a cockney, coming from Rotherhithe. A fish-market porter’s son, he did his national service in Korea, which left him with a lasting antipathy to Communism. He made his acting debut at the Grand Hotel, Folkestone. As the stage name ‘Michael White’ was taken, he chose ‘Michael Caine’ because ‘The Caine Mutiny’ was out at the time. He got plenty of work, but made no progress. The turning-point came in 1963, when American director Cy Endfield, unfamiliar with English accents, cast him as a public-school educated officer in ‘Zulu’. His best roles followed in quick succession: ‘Alfie’ (1966), ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967), ‘The Italian Job’ (1969), and ‘Get Carter’ (1971). Ironically, he won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for playing Americans: ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ (1986) and ‘The Cider House Rules’ (1999). He has appeared in over 130 movies, many of them lucrative dross. In 1973, he married Shakira Baksh, a Guyanese Muslim model.
Kim Novak (b 1933)
Marilyn ‘Kim’ Novak was born in Chicago. Both her parents were ethnically Czech: her father worked on the railways, her mother in a factory. A beauty queen, she was a shoo-in for the movies on account of her outstanding looks. She had appeared in a handful of movies when, in 1958, the blonde-adoring director Alfred Hitchcock cast her opposite James Stewart in ‘Vertigo’. In a 2012 British film critics’ poll, it was voted the greatest movie of all time; but Hitchcock found her awkward, and there were mixed opinions about her performance. Despite having won two Golden Globes early on, including Most Promising Newcomer, her career thereafter rather fizzled out. In 1969, she came to Chilham to play the lead role in ‘The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders’, a dismal cash-in on ‘Tom Jones’. She made only a handful of movies after that, and when ‘Liebestraum’ was a failure in 1991, she stopped trying.
Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)
By pure chance, a football competition transformed Luciano Pavarotti‘s musical career from successful to stellar. Ironically, as a boy in Modena in northern Italy, he wanted to become a professional goalkeeper. Instead he went to music school, having inherited a splendid voice from his father, a baker. He embarked on a four-decade career, establishing himself as one of the world’s best ever tenors, albeit notorious for his unreliability. In 1990, the BBC chose his performance of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ as the theme music for its coverage of the Italia 90 football World Cup. It brought opera into millions of living-rooms for the first time, and prompted the first ‘Three Tenors’ concert at Caracalla’s Baths on the eve of the final. The album sold so well that the event became a regular affair, and Pavarotti found himself performing for audiences bigger than football crowds. In 1993, he sang at Leeds Castle before 18,000 fans, returning for an encore in 2004.
Gene Vincent (1935-71)
Vince Craddock would not necessarily have been the best name for a rock ‘n’ roll star, so it was no surprise that the man from Norfolk, Virginia changed it. After serving in the US Navy, he took up rock ‘n’ roll. He excelled in rockabilly, his biggest hit being ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ in 1956, which reached the UK Top 20. Before and afterwards, his life was a tale of woes. He had nearly lost a leg in a motorcycle crash in 1955. Five years later, on a British tour during which he performed at the Maidstone Granada, he took a taxi ride with Eddie Cochran. It crashed near Chippenham, Wiltshire; Cochran was killed, and Vincent seriously injured. He returned to Britain two years later, performing at Gravesend and Woolwich. His career, and indeed his life, were predictably short. At 36, he suffered a ruptured ulcer and died in California. Five years later, Ian Dury commemorated him with his ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’.
Sir Michael Winner (1935-2013)
It must be said for Michael Winner that he was clever. He was born in Hampstead into a wealthy Eastern European Jewish family and went to Cambridge, where he edited ‘Varsity’ newspaper. His credentials got him into journalism and then film writing, which led him to movie direction. There is little to be said about his directorial oeuvre, apart from the ‘Death Wish’ series (1974-85). Starring Charles Bronson, it took vigilante bloodlust to new extremes, albeit highly profitably. In lighter mood, Winner came to Chiddingstone in 1983 to re-make ‘The Wicked Lady’ in a suitable period environment. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a shambles, and earned the highly talented Faye Dunaway a ‘worst actress’ award. Late in life, Winner became the effortlessly irritating advertising spokesman for esure insurance, which he somehow remained for seven years. A noted philanderer despite his unsightliness, he was belatedly accused of sexual abuse by several actresses after his death.
Buddy Holly (1936-59)
Charles ‘Buddy’ Holley was the bespectacled kid who put Lubbock, Texas on the map. His musical origins lay in country & western, but he added drums with an R&B beat to create a unique rock ‘n’ roll sound. With the Crickets, he invented the two guitars, bass and drums combo that the Beatles institutionalised. More than that, he wrote a catalogue of rock ‘n’ roll standards, starting with ‘That’ll Be the Day’, a No. 1 hit in Britain in 1957. The next 18 months yielded such classics as ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Oh, Boy!’ and ‘Rave On’. During a UK tour in 1958, he played the Woolwich Granada, where a 14-year-old Mick Jagger watched him perform ‘Not Fade Away’. Eleven months later, disaster struck. The light plane carrying Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper crashed in foul weather in Iowa. It was “the day the music died”, as Don McLean put it. Incredibly, Holly was still only 22.
Glenda Jackson (b 1936)
Merseyside-born Glenda Jackson was the daughter of a builder and a cleaner. She went to RADA, and made her stage debut at 21, followed by her first movie in 1963. She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company the next year. She stunned everyone by landing a Best Actress Oscar in 1970 and repeating the feat three years later, for ‘Women in Love’ and ‘A Touch of Class’ respectively. She additionally won two Emmy awards for BBC TV’s ‘Elizabeth R’, the production of which brought her to Chiddingstone and Penshurst Place in 1970. Her success owed much to her hard-woman persona, expressed in a humourless disposition and steely voice. She took these qualities into politics, becoming Labour MP for Hampstead & Highgate in 1992, and serving as a junior minister under Tony Blair. She stood down in 2015 and returned to acting at 79 playing ‘King Lear’ at the Old Vic, which was certainly brave.
Sir Derek Jacobi (b 1938)
Derek Jacobi got his unusual surname from a great-grandfather who immigrated from Germany. He was born in Leytonstone, Essex, where both his parents were shopkeepers. After studying History at Oxford, he went into theatre, specialising in classical roles. He was spotted by Laurence Olivier, who invited him to London to be a founder member of the National Theatre. He went on to enjoy international repute playing Shakespeare; but it was for a different role that he would forever be remembered. In 1976, he was cast in the title role for the BBC’s classic adaptation of Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’, for which he won a Best Actor BAFTA. Although he went on to appear in numerous movies, it is still hard to watch him without recalling his blithering yet dangerous Roman Emperor. He rang the changes in 2009, coming to Rochester to help launch a documentary and book called ‘Charles Dickens’s England’. Jacobi’s long-term partner is theatre director Richard Clifford.
John Cleese (b 1939)
After performing in the Cambridge Footlights, John Cleese – né Cheese – came to the TV public’s attention in ‘The Frost Report’ in 1966-7, notably with the future Two Ronnies in the ‘Class sketch’. From 1969 he introduced four series of ‘Monty Python‘s Flying Circus’, and appeared in all the movies; his ‘Parrot’ sketch in the former and Black Knight role in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ count among the funniest in British comedy. When the Python team parted, his future seemed uncertain, until he launched into the two series of ‘Fawlty Towers’ that were ranked the best British TV programme ever. Next he took up a solo movie career, starring in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (1989) and numerous others. He performed two shows at Tunbridge Wells in 2014 to promote his autobiography, ‘So, Anyway’. A fervent Liberal Democrat, he bamboozled critics in 2020 by quitting London because he no longer considered it an English city, and moved to the Caribbean.
The Beatles (b 1940-3)
Things started happening for the Beatles late in 1962. They were signed by George Martin, got rid of Pete Best, and made their first Top 20 single. Their breakthrough was ‘Please Please Me’, released on January 11th, 1963. They had just started touring, exclusively in the North, but the next day made a huge detour from Birmingham to the Invicta Ballroom in Chatham, a converted cinema that later also hosted the Rolling Stones. In March and December 1963 they played the Lewisham Odeon, but the year’s highlight was the 12 gigs they played from July 8th to 13th at the Winter Gardens in Margate, the longest season they ever played outside the Cavern Club. Their set was in truth short and thin, featuring just nine songs, mostly covers. They had enjoyed their first undisputed No. 1 by then, with ‘From Me To You’; but ‘She Loves You’ did not appear until August, after which Beatlemania would rule the world.
Bob Dylan (b 1941)
Robert Zimmerman was the songwriter who, more than any, turned counterculture into the establishment credo of the C21. He was born in Minnesota into a family of Jewish store owners. He gravitated via rock ‘n’ roll into protest-related folk music, and in 1963 exposed his remarkable talent with the landmark ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Though his work was primarily concerned with civil rights, he understood that political messaging is best leavened with an admixture of lyricism; his political and love songs were equally poetic. He shocked fans by going electric in 1965, and again by becoming a born-again Christian in 1979; but changes of direction simply provided new leases of life. He has now made 39 studio albums and sold over 100 million records. After six decades in the music business, he still tours, and in 2010 and 2012 appeared at the Hop Farm Festival. He was controversially awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
Jimi Hendrix (1942-70)
Folkestone is not obviously associated with Johnny ‘Jimi’ Hendrix, but there is a connection. The bassist of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Noel Redding, was born there. That was the reason why, in 1966, Hendrix played at the Hillside Social Club. He had failed to make waves in America before new manager Chas Chandler moved him to London that year. His talent was recognised at clubs like the ‘Cromwellian’ in South Kensington, and within months he had three Top 10 hits. He became a global name at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he famously set his guitar on fire. At Woodstock in 1970, he played a magnificently disrespectful rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. It made him a rock legend, the man voted No. 1 in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine’s list of the world’s all-time greatest guitarists. He took the well-trodden rock-star path to destruction, however, joining the 27 Club after a surfeit of sex, drink, and drugs.
Sir Ray Davies (b 1944)
Raymond Davies, the son of a hard-drinking Welsh slaughterman and a North London harridan, was never likely to be Mister Pleasant. He started in pop music while an art-college student, teaming up with brother Dave in his ‘Quartet’, subsequently renamed The Kinks. They became known for their unruly behaviour, and their early music was appropriately hard-edged, including the prototypical hard-rock song ‘You Really Got Me’, their first No. 1. Davies really found his metier in 1966, when he started writing his more whimsical material concerning English social quirks, eccentric personalities, and suburban nostalgia, such as ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, and ‘Waterloo Sunset’. His most controversial hit was ‘Lola’ in 1970, a witty account of an encounter with a transvestite in a Soho club. Despite his awkwardness and eccentricity, Davies remains a fans’ favourite, as witnessed by his repeat appearances at the Hop Farm Festival in 2010, 2012 and 2014. He was knighted in 2017.
Bryan Ferry (b 1945)
That consummate crooner Bryan Ferry was the son of a Geordie farm-labourer. He studied Fine Art before co-founding Roxy Music in 1970. Thanks to his song-writing talent, underpinned by the band’s musical virtuosity, he shot to fame in 1972 with ‘Virginia Plain’. Ferry stood out for his sophisticated persona, sartorial elegance, and playboy looks. He inevitably became known for his love life, which involved Jerry Hall before she left him for Mick Jagger; it came as a shock when, after quitting the band, the balding Brian Eno revealed that he had been the more successful womaniser of the two. Ironically, his only No. 1 single was ‘Jealous Guy’, a Roxy Music cover version made after John Lennon’s death in 1980. Ferry nevertheless remained a heartthrob, especially after starting a solo career. He took with aplomb to singing standards after the Noel Coward fashion, as at the Hop Farm Festival in 2011.
Debbie Harry (b 1945)
Deborah Harry was actually born Angela Trimble in Miami, but was adopted in New Jersey. She tried numerous jobs, including Playboy bunny, before breaking into music. In 1974, she co-founded Blondie, as whose singer she would become the iconic pin-up of post-punk. The band’s third album ‘Parallel Lines’ reached No. 1 in the UK charts in 1978, and the following year ‘Heart of Glass’ became the first of their six No. 1 singles in the UK. In 1981, Harry made ‘Koo Koo’, the first of five solo albums. By this time, she had shown herself to be not only a gifted songwriter but also an intelligent actress: she would eventually appear in nearly 50 movies. With rare compassion for a celebrity, she took time out to look after her boyfriend, guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein, while he was suffering from a rare illness. She continues to perform today, and in 2010 fronted Blondie at the Hop Farm Festival.
Marc Bolan (1947-77)
Mark Feld was the son of a North London Jewish lorry driver, but turned out anything but orthodox. As Marc Bolan, he became the ultimate glam-rock vocalist, creating a series of No.1 hits starting with ‘Hot Love’ in 1971. He was already a cult favourite of folk-music fans, having created three albums with Eltham-born percussionist Steve Peregrin Took as Tyrannosaurus Rex, for which he penned tuneful short songs with esoteric lyrics owing much to Tolkien. Although the two earned a reputation among fellow musicians as a pair of hippy freaks, top DJ John Peel lionised them. The fourth album Tony Visconti produced, featuring Bolan on electric guitars alongside new partner Mickey Finn, proved Bolan’s stepping-stone to pop stardom. In July 1975, he and his expanded ‘T. Rex’ played their first Kent gig at Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall. After several years as a teen heartthrob, he was killed in Barnes when his girlfriend’s Mini crashed into a tree.
The artist formerly known as Prince was not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who liked him liked him a lot: he sold over 130 million records. He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minnesota. His musical father’s stage-name was Prince Rogers, so he gave his son that name in the hope of watching him realise his own unfulfilled musical ambitions. Prince began his career early, and briefly collaborated musically with his father. He ultimately proved not only extraordinarily versatile, but also prolific: he produced 39 albums, plus copious amounts of unpublished material, and classics for other artistes. The acme of his success was ‘Purple Rain’, a 1984 movie showcasing his ability, for which he won a Best Original Film Score Oscar. After a dispute with Warner Bros in 1993, he bizarrely referred to himself only by a symbol, but headlined as Prince at the Hop Farm Festival in 2011. He died of a drug overdose.
Toyah Willcox (b 1958)
Having been born into a wealthy manufacturing family in Birmingham, but shown little academic ability, Toyah Willcox unsurprisingly followed her mother, an ex-dancer, straight into entertainment. Though pretty and sexy, she had a lisp, and consequently sought to make a visual impression. Punk being the big thing in her late teens, she adopted a look that incorporated garish make-up and outlandish coloured hair. It got her taken seriously enough as a punk to land her a role in Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’ in 1977. However, it was musically that she would make her biggest impact. With her band Toyah, she had Top 10 hits in 1981 with ‘It’s a Mystery’ and ‘I Want To Be Free’. In 1986, she married prog rock heavyweight Robert Fripp, with whom she recorded an album; the two have remained happily together. Willcox showed her true middle-class colours in later life, appearing in panto for four seasons at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, and one in Bromley.
Colin Firth (b 1960)
Firth was born in Hampshire, the son of a couple of university lecturers. He went into acting straight from school, but had only moderate success until he was 34. Then, as Mr Darcy in BBC TV’s production of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, he captured women’s interest by soaking his shirt. It led to a clutch of serious roles, including ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’; Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’ in 2009 won him a BAFTA. His standout role, however, was as George VI in ‘The King’s Speech’ in 2010, which won him another BAFTA and a Best Actor Oscar, as well as making him one of Britain’s best-loved performers. In 2018, he came to shoot ‘The Mercy’ at Chatham Dockyard and Bewl Water. A conspicuous campaigner for ethnic rights, he was so appalled by the Brexit vote in 2016 that he regretfully applied for and received an Italian passport. He has a home in Umbria.
Brangelina (b 1963/75)
When Brad Pitt (b 1963) was filming the 2012 zombie movie ‘World War Z’ at the abandoned Pfizer plant in Sandwich, the address he stayed at in Ickham with his partner Angelina Jolie (b 1975) remained secret, in case the area was besieged by fans. This was after all the ultimate supercouple, known as Brangelina. Their meeting on the set of ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ in 2005 had contributed to Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston. The incessant exposure the pair received in the media proved polarising. For many, they were the world’s most beautiful couple, Hollywood superstars, enviably wealthy, and politically sound, as witnessed by their large multi-ethnic family. Others regarded them as evidence of what happens when too much money meets too little wisdom. Eventually, in 2016, Jolie sought a divorce after just two years of marriage. Nobody will ever know whether to blame the future vicissitudes of their six eccentrically named children on the break-up, or on Brangelina.
Russell Crowe (b 1964)
Russell Crowe is the finest actor ever to have emerged from New Zealand. When he was four, his parents emigrated to Australia and began a business as film-set caterers. Crowe was still a small boy when he got his first speaking-part in a TV production. He left school at 16 to take up acting, and had enjoyed a steady but unspectacular career when, in 1999, the part of a lifetime came along. It was Decimus Maximus Meridius in ‘Gladiator’. Crowe perfectly captured the Roman quality of virtus, a marriage of virtue and virility, winning himself an Oscar for Best Actor. Two years later, he consolidated that with a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for playing schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in ‘A Beautiful Mind’. He once came to film at Chatham Historic Dockyard, not for ‘Master and Commander’ in 2003 but for ‘Les Misérables’ in 2012. Despite his agreeable screen presence, Crowe is unfortunately notorious for his short temper.
Helena Bonham Carter (b 1966)
Without any formal acting training, Bonham Carter made an impressive start to her movie career in 1985 as Lucy Honeychurch in ‘A Room with a View’, which in part was filmed at Chiddingstone and Emmetts Garden. Despite subsequently getting a lot of work in high-quality productions, she won no top award in her first quarter-century of acting. She finally picked up a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Supporting Role playing Queen Elizabeth, wife of Colin Firth‘s King George VI, in ‘The King’s Speech’, a role she pulled off convincingly and movingly. She probably got her aristocratic bearing from her well-connected merchant-banker father, and her dark good looks from her Spanish mother, a psychotherapist. She has had two relationships with high-profile directors: Kenneth Branagh, who was divorced from Emma Thompson because of her, and Tim Burton, who cast her in several of his movies. In 2014, she came to Chatham Historic Dockyard to film ‘Suffragette’.
Nicole Kidman (b 1967)
Although Australian, Nicole Kidman was born in Hawaii, and so has useful dual citizenship in America. Anyone first watching her in the tense but exploitative thriller ‘Dead Calm’ in 1989 might have been expecting just another movie bimbo, but can only have been impressed by the maturity of her breakout performance. A combination of fresh-faced beauty and effortless professionalism would become her hallmark. She starred in 1999 opposite her then husband Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, the controversial ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and in 2002 won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Virginia Woolf in ‘The Hours’. Five years later, she came to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham to film ‘The Golden Compass’, an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’; she agreed to play the unusually malevolent Mrs Coulter only after the author pleaded with her. She is now married to country singer Keith Urban, and has herself made records.
Kate Winslet (b 1975)
Since Kate Winslet’s grandparents once ran the Repertory Theatre in Reading, where she was born, she understandably went straight from school into acting. She developed into a superlative actress of rare discipline and authority, as testified by the Best Actress Oscar she won in 2009 for playing a former Nazi concentration camp guard in ‘The Reader’. She has additionally won three BAFTAs. She does not always pick her roles well, however. The one that made her world-famous in 1997, Rose DeWitt Bukater in ‘Titanic’, was ironically one of her trashiest. She also came to Charing in 2018 to film another farrago of fact and fiction, ‘Ammonite’. One extra reason to be proud of her, however, is her impatience with Hollywood’s expectations of its actresses. She resists conforming to weight norms, has no time for cosmetic interventions, and despises industry pomp. She was once married to Sam Mendes, but now lives in West Sussex with her third husband.
CREDITS ON THIS PAGE
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Emperor Galba: ” Servius Sulpicius Galba Emperor’ by Gfawkes05, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Cropped).
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