Be inspired by History, and the History Magpie, at the Rochester Litfest on October 10 2015

Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015

Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015

On Saturday 10 October, the third Rochester Literary festival – ‘Live’n’Local’ – will be kicking off a fantastic line up of literary events inspired by local people and places.

The Saturday programme is full of workshops and talks perfect for history fans and I’m absolutely thrilled to be running a creative writing workshop in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester between 10am and 12 noon.  I’ve been busy taking photos and arranging to borrow a few of the more tactile pieces from the museum’s collection for you to get your hands on and I hope the morning will inspire you to use objects as prompts for your own writing. The session is suitable for both fiction and non-fiction writers and I would love to see you there. (Cue sales pitch – tickets are £5 each and you can find further info here :))

What’s even more exciting is that the museum will also be hosting talks by these amazing speakers that afternoon:

Toni Mount Rochester Litfest

Toni Mount: 12 noon – 1pm

Prolific medieval specialist Toni will be unravelling the mysteries of ancient medicine and revealing a time when butchers knew more about anatomy than university trained physicians.

Truda Thurai Rochester Litfest

Truda Thurai: 2pm-3pm

Referencing short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral and her own methods of research, Truda will share some of her secrets to writing historical fiction.

Sir Robert Worcester Rochester Litfest

Sir Robert Worcester: 4pm-5pm

Sir Robert’s talk inspired the festival’s history themed day. The Magna Carta is widely regarded as a potent symbol of the freedom of the individual and 2015 is the 800th anniversary of its sealing at Runnymede. Sir Robert, the Chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, is a powerful and evocative speaker and during his talk he will be discussing its legacy.

Rochester Litfest is ‘run by writers for readers’ and materialises each year through the efforts of an incredible group of volunteers led by local writer Jaye Nolan. Jaye is one of life’s little whirlwinds, who filled with passion and commitment, has a knack for making things happen. This year’s ‘Live’n’Local’ festival is going to be amazing and I’ve only highlighted a few of its wide-ranging and diverse events.  The full programme can be found here and it would be wonderful if you could join us.

Looking forward to seeing you there.


The 17th Century Trial of Elizabeth Wood – the Benenden ‘Witch’

Anonymous copy of original 1693 'Cast out all Witches and Devils' poster

Anonymous copy of original 1693 ‘Cast out all Witches and Devils’ poster

During the 17th Century the accusation of witchcraft was a real threat and on 8 September 1653 the people of Benenden eagerly awaited a verdict from the Kent Quarter Sessions.

Following an alleged quarrel between Mrs Elizabeth Hodge and her neighbour, Elizabeth Wood, ‘a singlewoman’, Mr Hodge had accused Elizabeth Wood of witchcraft on the basis that their six-year-old son had begun to be ‘taken in the night time with strange fits of crying’ that could not be gratified.

When giving his evidence before three Justices of the Peace (William Boys, Robert Gibbon and Richard Kilburne) Mr Hodge stated that Elizabeth Wood had threatened to take her revenge on his wife and for past two months their son had suffered, calling out to him saying ‘Here comes a black thing and teares me and pulls mee by the backe’. On another occasion he is alleged to have said that ‘Bess’ would kill him and Mr Hodge believed he was referring to Elizabeth Wood.

Testimonies from all three adult parties are recorded within the Kent Quarter Sessions papers* and following an examination of Elizabeth Wood the entry reads…

‘She doth deny that she did…or practice any witchcraft upon Edward Hodge (son of Edward Hodge of Benenden aforesaid labourer) or by any other… or thing whatsoever, not hath she any skill or knowledge at all in any kind of witchcraft whatsoever and she doth deny that she did fall out with the wife of the said Edward Hodge his father.’

She was later acquitted.


These Kent Quarter Sessions papers can be found at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone under the reference of: Q/SB/4/52

Additional information was sourced from B.R.Dyer’s book ‘Kent Witchcraft’ published by James Pike Limited. 

Take a war time history walk with ‘Southborough War Memorial’ author Judith Johnson – September 12 2015

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew's School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew’s School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

For years, local history author Judith Johnson researched the stories of the 250 people remembered on the Southborough War Memorial. She visited their former homes and workplaces, talked to their relatives and laid local mementos at their distant resting places. Within the pages of her book ‘Southborough War Memorial: The Stories of Those Commemorated’ she has retold their stories and now, as part of the Heritage Open Days programme, she is giving you the opportunity to walk in their footsteps too.

Judith is passionate about these people and I’m thrilled that she has taken the time to tell us a little more about the walk and how her book originally started.

Over to you, Judith….

When I set out some years ago to find out as much as I could about the names on the Southborough War Memorial, the first step was walking up onto Southborough Common with a pad and a biro and making a list. I hoped to excavate some of the history of the more than 250 people from Southborough and High Brooms who were recorded there as having died in the First and Second World Wars, and make some kind of record that anyone interested might read.

There were to follow many hours down Tunbridge Wells Library at weekends searching through old newspaper reports on the microfilm machine. I had some very rewarding encounters with a number of close relatives, who were kind enough to share their memories with me. As they recalled their loved ones, they were  frequently moved to tears as the pain of their loss was revived. I was grateful too for the help and generosity of other local amateur historians, including members of the Southborough Society and medal collectors, who I found were always eager to give me whatever material they had discovered.

When my book was completed, my husband and son gave their time to proofread the text. Both of them were surprised at how moving it was to read of those, long dead, who they had never known and the cumulative impact of taking in the patchwork of information I’d gathered about these men (and one woman). Many of the relatives of those named on the memorial were prompted to tell me how touched and grateful they felt that the sacrifice of their loved ones had finally been honoured.

Some years later, I volunteered to do a guided walk of High Brooms as part of the Tunbridge Wells programme for the Heritage Open Days weekend. I spent several days walking around the streets of High Brooms with my husband, book in hand, researching a route (there are indexes at the back of my book which list the names in order of surname, military unit, place of rest, residence, and death date). I was amazed, given that I had been familiar with so many of the men’s details, at the further emotional effect of actually standing in front of their houses, speaking of them, and considering how it must have felt for the families left behind, who went in and out of those front doors.

I’m looking forward to repeating that guided walk, which will also include some High Brooms’ war-time experiences, on Saturday 12 September. This year will be particularly resonant, being the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hythe. I also hope that we shall have access to the Hythe Memorial in St Matthew’s Church.

The walk will last for approximately ninety minutes and we will be leaving from outside St Matthew’s Primary School in Powdermill Lane (TN4 9DY) at 2.30pm. Therefore, anyone planning to attend should aim to be outside the Primary School at least five minutes before we leave. I’d recommend some comfortable walking-shoes, and you should be prepared for some steep walks uphill. Look forward to seeing you there!

Author Judy Johnson

Author Judy Johnson

Finding Toad Rock at Rusthall

For years the sign post pointing to Toad Rock in Rusthall has intrigued me but, until now, I have never managed to find out what it actually looks like. So today, I followed thousands of Victorian tourists, who travelled via the newly installed railway to see it, and took a little detour to find the crouching toad.  This is what I found…

Toad Rock at Rusthall Image Rachael Hale

Toad Rock at Rusthall Image Rachael Hale

Can you see him?  Mr Toad sitting up there in all his glory?  He’s actually made from sandstone rock originally formed during the Cretaceous period.  Layer upon layer of rock was built up and our toad was sculpted by the wind as the lower, softer layers of sandstone and mudstone, were eroded.

He’s quite an imposing sight but to the Victorian, and Georgian visitors who visited before them, he must have seemed incredible.

Is this the final resting place of King Stephen of England?

King Stephen of England's Tomb Image Rachael Hale

King Stephen of England’s Tomb Image Rachael Hale

The exact whereabouts of the remains of King Stephen, the grandson of William the Conqueror – also known as Stephen of Blois – will never be verified but a small brass plaque that reads ‘In memory of Stephen, King of England’ inside St Mary of Charity’s Church in Faversham could provide a clue.

When King Stephen died on 25 October 1154, he was placed inside a family sarcophagus with his wife and son at Faversham Abbey, which had been founded by the Royal couple. Queen Matilda (aka Countess of Bolougne)  had quietly succumbed to a fever at Hedingham Castle in Essex in May 1152 but Prince Eustace is said to have been suddenly ‘struck down by the wrath of God while plundering church lands near Bury St Edmunds’ in August 1153.

For the next four hundred years they were able to rest in peace, that is until King Henry VIII decided that the Abbey was far too powerful, and rich to lie so close to London and had it dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries.  What exactly happened to the tomb of King Stephen and his family is unknown but one tale is that they were all thrown into the river and that some of the locals risked their necks to recover their bones while King Henry’s men melted down their casket and made into 1000 musket balls. The other, and I personally think a little more likely, is that the monks at the Abbey asked those at the parish church to look after the royal remains until things had settled down a bit and they were eventually re-buried within a corner of the parish church.

One thing that is for certain is that the truth will never be known.  The brass plaque could have been erected, exactly as it says, as a memorial to the King who had lived in the town. Or King Stephens remains, and that of Queen Matilda and Prince Eustace, could actually have been saved and safely interred beneath the plaque. As all three of them died from natural causes, they will never be disinterred, and therefore the mystery will never be solved.  And in many ways I think that’s better.  What do you think?


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