Kent is a county full of rich history and heritage. Every year on the Feast Day of St Augustine (May 26), the founder of Canterbury Cathedral and the first Archbishop, the county celebrates its historical importance and place in the culture, geography and heritage of the United Kingdom.

The amazing work of Canterbury Christ Church University’s Centre for Kent History and Heritage is creating a greater understanding of the county’s past, its customs and legacies, and the significant role its people, and cities, towns and villages have played in our history and commonly held notions of community and identity.

Through the Centre’s Medieval Animals Heritage Project you can discover how dragons, lions and hedgehogs feature in East Kent’s diverse history; celebrate the University’s role in being part of Canterbury’s UNESCO World Heritage Site through the Christ Church Heritage A to Z and rediscover Dover through a new and unique digital experience, Imagining Dover.

This new digital exhibition celebrates the town of Dover across history, exploring how medieval Dover inhabitants located their faith in gifts to religious institutions through to perilous journeys into revolutionary France by women writers in the late eighteenth century. From travelling along the Dover Road in Dickensian Kent, to Cold-War Soviet military mapping and a contemporary psycho-geographical walk tracing the route of the River Dour.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

Kent also has a significant number of historical sites and archival resources that commemorate and inform the contribution the county has made to the defence of the British Isles. Dover Castle connects with the Napoleonic and both World Wars, as a military garrison and a naval base, taking a critical part in the planning and operation of the evacuation from Dunkirk (Dynamo) in 1940. Canterbury itself suffered the Baedeker Raids in June 1942 as a result of a deliberate campaign against cultural targets in Britain, and the Battle of Britain is commemorated at Biggin Hill, Hawkinge and Capel le Ferne.

Though its research the Centre explores the importance of Kent to the defence of the realm.

Chatham Dockyard in the 19th Century (Dr Martin Watts)

The 19th century saw Chatham Dockyard rise to a pre-eminent position among naval dockyards, with its prime location and key participation in the industrial revolution. Sheltered and with easy access to London, the docks in Chatham were considerably larger than those in the capital such as Blackwall and Deptford, and were therefore able to keep pace with the increasing size of warship required by the Royal Navy.

Folkestone and World War I (Dr Martin Watts)

The outbreak of war in August 1914 led to a transformation of this genteel resort. Folkestone, with its port and excellent rail and road links, became the main point of embarkation and return for the battlefields of France and Flanders. From August 1914 until the summer of 1919, nearly 10 million soldiers were safely transported across the English Channel. In addition, Folkestone witnessed the departure of over 1 million civilians to France, including large numbers of Red Cross nurses and other war workers. In the reverse direction, Folkestone received thousands of Belgian refugees who were provided with food and shelter before the majority were later dispersed around the country.

The white feather scheme (Dr Martin Watts)

The sight of able-bodied young men, of military age, perambulating along the Leas in August 1914, rather than volunteering to fight in the Army, so enraged a retired Admiral that he decided to do something about it. Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, a Folkestone resident, deputed 30 local women to approach these ‘slackers’ to remind them of their patriotic duty and to present them with an emblem of cowardice – a white feather. Fitzgerald evidently reckoned a man would be more fearful of public humiliation by a woman, than by facing the German army. The white feather scheme spread across the United Kingdom, at a time when all enlistment was on a voluntary basis. The government gave the scheme its tacit support, but enthusiasm faded when the scale of casualties on the western front became apparent and conscription was introduced in 1916.

Train Ferry at Richborough
Train ferry at Richborough

Richborough the Secret Port (Dr Martin Watts)

The battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 demonstrated just how attritional and industrialised the war on the western front had become, with hundreds of thousands of human casualties accompanied by an unprecedented consumption of material. The War Office was facing a problem supplying the armies in Flanders. With the military ports of Folkestone and Southampton at capacity, the government had to develop another port to ensure the availability of sufficient manpower and machinery of war to defeat the German army.

The old Roman port of Richborough, at the mouth of the Wantsum channel, was chosen for development. Within months creating a virtually self-sufficient new town that could house up to 20,000 servicemen and civilians, with its own power station and hospital was built in secret.

Richborough played a vital part in supplying the army for its ‘last stand’ at Amiens in the spring of 1918, and for the final one-hundred-day offensive that brought about the defeat of the German Army. The port was demolished in 1919. There remains just a few reminders of what was once a vital part of the war effort in 1918.

The Kentish Cinque Ports (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh)

For England, what might be considered a unique confederation of medium-sized and small port towns was initiated in Edward the Confessor’s reign and is still valued by these urban communities today. As the name indicates, there were five head ports which together were to provide ship service to the monarch and in return received certain rights and privileges. Four of these five ports were in Kent: Sandwich, Dover, Hythe and Romney. Over time the burden of providing the king with fully manned ships annually became increasingly difficult and to help the head ports other towns became involved, either providing ships or money. Among these ‘limbs’ Lydd aided New Romney, while Folkestone is a limb of Dover. Not all were coastal communities, such as Fordwich for Sandwich and Bekesbourne for Hastings (the only Sussex head port).

The Centre also uncovers the secrets of medieval Canterbury and Victorian women’s writing societies.

Canterbury’s hidden medieval hospitals (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh)

Probably the earliest English hospital foundations are in Canterbury and both hospitals still function as almshouses, offering accommodation for the elderly. St Nicholas’ hospital at Harbledown began life as a leper hospital in the 1080s, while St John’s at Northgate housed a similar number of old and infirm inmates (30 women and 30 men). St John’s, like Archbishop Lanfranc’s other building projects in the city, was on a massive scale and even more importantly the buildings were constructed of stone, including Caen stone from Normandy.

The third hospital in medieval and modern Canterbury under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury is St Thomas’ or Eastbridge. Initially for poor pilgrims coming to Becket’s tomb in the late 12th century, it was later extended to women in childbirth. This medieval gem in the city is now an almshouse.

Maynard’s Hospital similarly became an almshouse. The building is still there and was until recently the Canterbury Heritage Museum, now repurposed as the ‘Marlowe Kit’.

St Mildred's Church, Canterbury
St Mildred's Church, Canterbury

Hidden medieval Canterbury (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh)

Canterbury has many fascinating medieval buildings. Among these are St Mildred’s church, constructed in the early 11th century. It contains great stones (see the south-west and south-east corners of the nave) which probably came from the Roman theatre. Also cutting edge for its time (c. 1485) is the queen-strut roof with clasp-side purlins in the roof of the vestry. This can be viewed from outside the church (north-east corner) and looks somewhat like a set of football goalposts.

Before the advent of chimneys, smoke from the fire in open halls would either go out through the rafters or through louvres in the roof. However, there was also another way and Canterbury boasts the rare survival of a smoke bay situated at the rear of the late medieval section of Pizza Express and visible from the courtyard. This meant the house did not need to have a detached kitchen, instead it was part of the main building.

Going inside some of Canterbury’s medieval buildings is similarly worthwhile. For example if you look closely at the oak beams above your head in Siesta, you will see Roman numerals cut into them. These carpenters’ marks were used to construct the building on site, the timbers having been marked when it was originally put together in the yard. This might be said to be the original flat-pack and for Canterbury may have taken place in Wincheap because the area accommodated the early medieval wagon or wain market, as well as the timber market or Timbercheap.

The Persistent Scribblers Society (Michelle Crowther)

The Persistent Scribblers Society (PSS) was a manuscript magazine society established in Canterbury in January 1875. Its membership consisted of 22 women and three men, who wrote short stories and poetry pseudonymously. The society flourished over the next four years, attracting 103 subscribers over a wide geographical area from Kent to Gloucestershire, and as far as Scotland.

Over the next four years, the Society issued packets of original papers, six times a year. These packets were themed and included stories and poetry discussing topics such as heroism, memories, old maids, lady-helps, gentlemen-helps and white lies. Their writing represents a microcosm of Victorian society at a time when women’s work, suffrage, and higher education were being hotly debated.

You can also find out more about why Canterbury is regarded as a religious capital by Dr Ralph Norman, Principal Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Educational Studies. And explore Kent Maps Online, an amazing interactive adventure by Professor Carolyn Oulton. This Digital Humanities project brings together research from English, History, Geography and Music to explore Kent’s rich heritage. Follow Dickens from Chatham to Broadstairs. Get inspiration from film maker Derek Jarman in Dungeness or learn more about writer Sarah Grand, who campaigned for women’s suffrage in Tonbridge Wells.

Keep up-to-date with the latest news and events from the Centre for Kent History and Heritage via their blog.