East Kent

Kent has a mix of topography, with extensive chalk uplands (the North Downs) and some low-lying coastal areas. Smarden lies in the "Weald of Kent", a sort of central bowl with clay soils, originally densely wooded. This area was very thinly populated in mediaeval times with less than one person per square mile, compared to about 10 per square mile in the well-drained uplands. The roads in the Weald were very poor and impassable in winter by any wheeled traffic. Maintenance was originally the responsibility of the parishes; in an effort to achieve better standards a system of toll roads (turnpikes) was introduced throughout England. The system did not reach the Weald until relatively late. It was never popular and not always effective, but the map shows which roads were considered sufficiently important to be maintained in this way.

The Royal Military Canal was constructed in response to the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France, beginning around 1800. At the time roads across the marsh were poor although the land itself was fairly well drained (and extensively used for sheep rearing). It was felt that an invading army could land and establish a camp before it was possible to mount any counter-attack. The canal was intended to enable rapid movement of troops and munitions round Romney marsh, as well as acting as a barrier to an invader. It was fortified, with deliberate kinks at regular intervals so that cannon could fire straight along the waterway at any French boats that might try to use it or to cross it.

The coming of the railways made a huge impact, in effect opening up the countryside to long-distance traffic and trade. It is hard to realise now but until 1850 most of the traffic between East Kent and London went by sea. The painter J.M.W.Turner liked to travel from London to Margate for the weekend, something which was only possible by boat. The very first railway was something of an oddity, built in 1830 to connect Canterbury with its local seaport at Whitstable. It was only the second railway line to be built in Britain and used stationary engines to help pull the trains up the hill from Canterbury. It took a few years for people to realise that railways could replace the traditional waterways. In 1836, the railway route from London into Kent was begun and the long straight line reached Ashford in 1842 and Dover in 1844. Branch lines were built a little later to connect with other towns. The railway then rapidly took traffic away from the river and Ashford became a regional centre for railway engineering. Today it is home to "Ashford International" railway station, on the line to the Channel Tunnel.

Smarden and the surrounding district

All modern maps of Britain are based on the Ordnance Survey which had its origins in 1791. Older maps were much less accurate, much more an "artist's impression"; the ordnance survey introduced a system of triangulation to establish a network of reference points on hill tops, leading to a precise survey of the whole country. The original motivation was military security; the French revolution and the onset of the Napoleonic wars raised the nightmare vision of an invading enemy army marching across the country while the government desperately tried to work out where it was. The scan below shows a section 4 miles across from the map of Kent (sheet 6 of the "Old Series", printed with a scale of one inch to the mile). This was first published in 1819 and regularly revised thereafter. (The maps have been republished in a modern facsimile edition by David and Charles.) The scan shows part of the edition revised "up to 1892" but apart from the addition of the railway (built in 1840) the 1819 edition probably looked almost exactly the same.

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The railway passes through Headcorn at the top, on its way east to Ashford and Dover. The main turnpike from Maidstone runs down from the north through Headcorn and Biddenden. This and other turnpiked roads are coloured orange; the sections shown in red were newly built around 1770 and do not appear on earlier maps. Smarden lies on the road running from Pluckley to Biddenden, which was poorly maintained even after conversion to a turnpike.

Smarden village is only a small part of the whole parish, most of which lies to the north of the river Beult which runs westwards through the village (and still floods it on occasion). The river also formed a natural boundary between the hundreds of Calehill to the north and Barkley to the South.

"Hummerton Green" is seen a couple of miles south of Smarden Town and can be identified with Omenden borough in Barkley. (The variation in spelling is not significant as both forms occur, for example in the Land tax records.) The name still survives on the modern map as Omenden Farm and Omenden cottages, in the same area. Gilham lies midway between Smarden village and Hummerton Green. I have inserted the name which was not shown on this map, though it does appear on more modern editions. Earlier maps actually show Omenden Green in this position; the Ordnance Survey map possibly is misleading. There may also have been a change in usage. The name "Gilham Quarter" simply refers to the area in which the Gilham family lived. (Thomas Gilham was one of the founders of the Baptist community.)


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This large scale map is traced from the 1838 tithe map and shows the centre of Gilham, with the Tilden chapel and Joseph Bridge's holding. The location can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map but is not named; it lies about 1 mile south of Smarden village and a little to the west.

The tithe maps must have been based on the Ordnance Survey but were at a larger scale and show all the field boundaries. Each field is numbered and the catalogues which go with the maps give their names and areas (in acres, roods and poles!) The reason for the detail was that "tithes" were in effect taxes payable to the church authorities and calculated on the area of land. To add insult to injury, the parishes themselves had to bear the high cost of surveying and producing just three hand-drawn copies. Whatever they must have felt at the time, the preserved maps are a treasure, beautiful to look at and a mine of information. They are also impressively large: the Smarden one is 10 feet square!

The wetness of the land is evident from the number of ponds (which also appear on modern maps).