‘Agriculture and Commerce’ proclaims the motto of Maidstone, the town at the heart of the Garden of England. It’s where the River Medway divides Men of Kent from Kentish Men; the same river that has provided water, power and transport throughout the town’s history. It’s also where the UK’s first complete dinosaur fossil was discovered – a proud feature of the Maidstone coat of arms.
I grew up in Kent and throughout my teens and twenties could not wait to escape my suburban home for the bright lights of London, where I’ve lived, contentedly, since the age of 30. In recent years, however, I’ve found myself drawn back to the county which I so longed to leave and, whilst having no intention (for now) of moving away from the capital, am far more interested in Kentish history than I once was.
And anyway, who could resist a museum located in a genuine Tudor manor house? For Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery resides in Chillington Manor – whose former owner, Dr Thomas Charles, left his library and collections of art and antiquities to the town when he died in 1855.
Three years later, the Charles Museum opened and for the next 70 years its crumbling buildings were transformed through the generosity of local benefactors: wings were added, the courtyard restored and the Elizabethan façade refurbished.
Its collections continued to grow and to reflect the interests of local people – one such personality being Julius Brenchley. Born in 1816, Julius was bitten by the travel bug whilst on a European Grand Tour – and spent the next 22 years travelling the world. When he died, aged 56, he left his collection of items from the Pacific Ocean to the Museum – including his 9m long canoe, decorated with shell and mother-of-pearl.
A fittingly historic location, then – but what really took me by surprise about Maidstone Museum was the extent of its remit. Hosting 600,000 artefacts, from bygone and contemporary eras, the Museum specialises in history both local and international: Ancient Egypt, Archaeology, Costumes & Textiles, Ethnography, Natural History & Biology, Fine & Decorative Art, Geology, Japanese Decorate Art & Prints and Local History.
All of the above interest me, but time today was limited (a gastro pub lunch called) and I was keen to learn more about the history of Maidstone itself; I shall have to return to explore the other collections. This post’s focus, therefore, shall be on local history. To my 13-year-old self: it is far, far more interesting than you might imagine…
Stone tools tell us that our ancestors lived in the Maidstone area at least 400,000 years ago. But Maidstone’s history really begins in the medieval period, when Archbishop’s Palace, overlooking the River Medway, became the focus of a small-scale development with a market and fairs.
In 1261, Archbishop Boniface obtained a grant from Henry III to conduct a market every Thursday at Peter’s Field. These markets went from strength to strength across the centuries: in the 1720s Daniel Defoe declared Maidstone’s market the best in England, paying tribute to bullocks with crooked horns, cherries, hops, timber, corn, paving stones and apples. By the 19th century, the town was also supplying agricultural machinery, seeds and sundries for the hops and fruit trade – and labour (during the 20th century, schoolchildren were given days off for fruit picking).
Maidstone’s markets continue to the present day and I loved the evocative photos on display, including one of Winston Churchill visiting the town’s Agricultural Show in 1948.
The military, too, has been linked to Maidstone for centuries. European wars during the 18th century meant that troops were often camped around Maidstone. More recently, 70,000 troops were deployed to the area during WWI and the RAF and the Army were stationed here during WWII.
What became evident as I progressed through the Museum is that this town has long been integral to Kent: as many as 1,000 years ago, county meetings were held at Peneden Heath. Maidstone became a town in 1549, after being granted a Royal Charter – which it lost five years later for its part in the Wyatt Rebellion. At first, the mayor did all the administrative work for the town – but surprisingly, this role did not carry the kind of prestige that you might imagine. In Elizabeth I’s reign, people were so reluctant to do this job that anyone who refused was fined £40.
Less surprising is that Maidstone has known its share of corrupt politicians, particularly during the 18th century, when it was frequented by characters such as the delightfully-named Thomas Bliss.
Speaking of nefarious characters, crime & punishment has long loomed large in Maidstone’s history. This is where the first recorded trial in England was held, in 1076 – and the first recorded execution. By the 1600s, Maidstone’s gaol was “a cage for rogues and vagabonds”. Major trials included the leader of “the darkest episode of the Navy’s history” (the Nore mutiny of 1797) and of Stephen Forwood, alias Ernest Walter Southey, tried in 1865 for the murder of four children and his wife.
If that was sobering, the exhibition about Maidstone and mental health is downright depressing. The County Asylum opened in 1833, at a time when inmates were kept physically restrained (there’s a shocking note about two men who were chained to their beds for four and half years). “Progress” saw the introduction of lobotomies and electric shock treatment. Thankfully, attitudes did, gradually, begin to change, culminating with the introduction of care in the community.
Nor has Maidstone always been the most hygenic of towns. An 1847 Council report described it as “one complete series of cesspools”. The Council’s main concern was the ‘Fever Streets’, which boasted no paving or sewage, open drains & cesspools, pig sties and slaughter houses.
On a lighter note, I enjoyed the section about beer: brewing, so I learned, was a major industry in Maidstone during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the country’s brewers had good reputations as employers, often providing clothing, housing, firm outings, holidays and beer to drink at work. They worked their employees hard, though: it wasn’t until 1847 that a law was passed limiting the working day for women and children to ten hours per day.
Maidstone was also renowned for its production of ragstone, used since Roman times – and for being a paper-making town…but I feel I’ve said enough for one post. The above encapsulates just a few of the highlights of this marvellously informative and entertaining museum, which is geared towards both adults and children: I really do hope that, should you find yourself in Kent, you will pay it a visit. There’s a nice café, serving home-made sandwiches & cakes – and you are guaranteed a warm welcome from the friendly & knowledgeable Museum staff.