Kent - Places and People

Kent is the county at the bottom right hand corner of England, surrounded by sea to the north, east, and south. and joining East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London on the western side. It has had quite a turbulent history; the now peaceful towns and villages have had their share of battles, riots and persecution over the years.

The Huguenots

Huguenot weavers house canterbury
Huguenot weavers houses in Canterbury

The distance between Kent and France is only 21 miles (across the Channel between Dover and Cap Gris Nez). Owing partly to this closeness to France many refugees have come through Kent over the years, and have made their home in the county.

In fact, the word ‘refugee’ was brought into the English language by the Huguenots who fled from northern France, Belgium and Holland when their Protestant religion was suppressed. Many Huguenots came to England in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the 1750s there was another large influx. Many of these refugees settled in Canterbury and Sandwich, bringing their skills into the area, including silk weaving, paper making, goldsmithing and bookbinding. If you have Kentish origins but your name is of French derivation, you may find you have Huguenot ancestors. In other cases you may be surprised by your French origins; many Huguenots anglicised their names, for example ‘Le Blanc’ became ‘White’.

Smuggling and the Hawkhurst Gang

Many of our Kentish ancestors must have been involved in smuggling in one way or another, or if employed by the Revenue, trying to stop it. However, one particularly notorious band of smugglers was the Hawkhurst Gang, whose heyday was 1735 – 1749, known throughout the country for their audacity and ruthlessness. The gang members included John Diamond, Daniel Chater, Jeremiah Curtis, Arthur Gray and Thomas Kingsmill. The gang shot and killed a Revenue Officer, Thomas Carswell in 1740, and in 1747 they tortured and killed Daniel Chater, believing him to have double-crossed them. The ringleaders were subsequently captured and executed, their bodies were hung on gibbets in Horsmonden and Hurst Green


Picture by G. Morland

The Swing Riots

The Swing Riots in 1830 -1832 represented the largest rural uprising since the Peasants Revolt of the 14th century. The riots were born out of the desperate situation of the poor agricultural labourers. Their wages were dependent on the harvest, and they relied on the winter work of threshing the corn by hand to keep their families from starving. The introduction of the threshing machine in 1830 meant that this winter work was no longer available, or at the very least, wages were much reduced. The situation was desperate, and rioting broke out in Kent, initially in Lower Hardres, spreading quickly to neighbouring areas.

The first indication of trouble would be a letter from 'Captain Swing', which would be sent to local landowners and dignitaries, demanding higher wages and the destruction of the threshing machines. If there was no response, groups of 200 or more farm workers would gather, burning barns and breaking the hated threshing machines. Despite the large scale destruction of property, no-one is believed to have been killed during these riots.

As might be expected, many rioters were harshly dealt with; 2000 people were arrested, over 500 were transported and 19 were executed, including a 12 year old boy. However, Kent rioters were more fortunate, as they were tried and sentenced by local justices who were sympathetic to their plight. Four were executed, 48 were imprisoned and another 52 transported to Tasmania or New South Wales.

William Dodd, a farmer of Upper Hardres, had 2 threshing machines smashed; George Youens subsequently confessed to the crime. The case was heard by Sir Edward Knatchbull at Canterbury in October 1830. He gave the perpetrators a lenient sentence of a caution and 3 days in prison.

Robert Peel and his Tory Government pressed for more severe treatment of offenders. When, in August 1831 Richard Marsh of Ripple near Dover had his threshing machine broken, the culprits received a sentence of one years hard labour.

Reward Poster

From 'The Swing Riots in Kent' by A. Cresswell, CKS copyright 2003, KCC Arts & Libraries Publication

The Battle of Bossenden Wood

This tragic story started with the landing at Herne Bay in 1832 of one John Tom, alias 'Squire Thompson', 'Count Rothschild' or 'Sir William Honeywood Courtenay'. He was originally from Cornwall, and appears to have suffered with mental illness for several years. He was adept at deceit, and was soon a notable Canterbury figure, and in 1832 stood for Parliament. He promised to improve the conditions of the poor. He failed in this attempt and was subsequently admitted to the lunatic asylum at Barming. On his release, he made for Boughton and stayed with his friend George Francis. This friendship soon turned sour and he ingratiated himself with the local farmers and smallholders. He became well known to the Culver, Wills, and Hadlow families, among others.

In May 1838 'Sir William' drew a large crowd of followers; he was seen as a threat to law and order and a warrant for his arrest was obtained. The local constable, John Mears, a plumber, was responsible for arresting him. John Mears' brother Nicholas was shot by John Tom when they went to arrest him. John Mears and Daniel Edwards escaped to alert the magistrates.

John Tom and his followers retreated to Bossenden Wood. The group included Noah Miles, Thomas Ovenden, Mr Burford, Mr Couchworth, George Griggs. Soldiers from Canterbury were brought in and a short but desperate battle commenced. 'Sir William' and eight of his men were killed, and seven more wounded. Lieutenant Bennett and special constable Catt were also killed.

Killed Wounded
'Sir William Courtenay'/John Tom     
George Griggs                            
William Burford
Edward Wraight senior
William Foster
Phineas Harvey
George Branchett
William Rye
Constable Catt of Faversham

Henry Hadlow
Stephen Baker (later died)

Battle of Bossenden Wood

A verdict of wilful murder was returned against William Courtenay, Edward Wraight senior, Edward Wraight junior, Thomas Mears, James Goodwin, William Wills, William Foster, Henry Hadlow, Alexander Foad, Phineas Harvey, John Spratt, Stephen Baker, William Burford, Thomas Griggs, John Silk, George Branchett, George Griggs, Edward Curling and William Rye.

At the Court, it was stated that it was the women in the Hernhill and Boughton neighbourhood that had caused the trouble, inciting their husbands to commit breaches of the peace. William Burford’s wife had in fact made desperate attempts to get her husband to leave the group, but was unsuccessful. She was then arrested as an accomplice and faced execution or transportation, but was eventually freed.

Courtenay and his dead followers were buried in Hernhill churchyard.

From 'Battle in Bossenden Wood – The Strange Story of Sir William Courtenay' by P.G. Rogers OUP 1961


PocahontasPocahontas is well known today as the heroine of a Disney film, but she was a real Native American, born in Virginia in about 1595. She died in Gravesend, Kent in 1617.

Pocahontas saved the life of an English colonist, John Smith, by throwing herself across his body as he was about to be executed by her people. She was subsequently imprisoned by the English, who planned to exchange her for some of their soldiers who had been captured by her father. During her captivity she became a Christian and was baptised, taking the name Rebecca. She met and married John Rolfe, a tobacco plantation owner in 1614, and had a son, Thomas, in 1615

The family travelled to England and were due to return to Virginia in 1617. However Pocahontas became ill at Gravesend in Kent, was taken ashore and died. Her burial place is not known by there is a full sized bronze statue of her at St George's Church, Gravesend.

Pocahontas memorial at Gravesend

Descendants of Pocahontas through her son Thomas Rolfe include Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, Percival Lowell, Pauline de Rothschild and Nancy Reagan.

The First World War

First World War
The vast majority of WWI records are held at the National Archives at Kew. However, for those with Kent ancestors there are numerous poignant sources of information to be found, including local memorials and plaques. Local newspaper articles of the time also included many heart-rending examples of letters written to grieving relatives, by friends in the trenches who had witnessed the death of one of their comrades. One example is given below:

From the Whitstable Times & Tankerton Press, January 20th 1917
We regret to announce that Private G.H. Appleton of the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, whose home was at 53 Regent Street, Whitstable, was killed in Action on December 10th.

In a letter to Mrs S.H. Appleton of 72 Victoria Street, Whitstable, Private H.H. Chapman says,

Dear Madam – Just a few lines to tell you that we received George’s parcel quite safe. I shared the contents between his mates. Poor George was shot by a sniper on December 10th which proved fatal. Dear madam, you can rest assured that he was buried soon after he was killed that night. I have been a mate of George ever since last April when we joined up together. He was a good mate and very affectionate and he was liked by everyone in this Company.......if I am spared to get through all right I will come and see you.

We will never know whether H.H. Chapman (who lived at Doddington near Faversham ever did visit George's parents, but he is not listed as a casualty in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, so I hope so.


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