One of my best birthday presents last year was a subscription to Bygone Kent magazine. It’s the only magazine specialising in Kent’s history and it’s filled with a fantastic range of quirky snippets and well-written articles.
Stephen Rayner, an experienced journalist, national newspaper sub-editor and local history writer took over the role of publisher (jointly with his journalist wife Christine) last year, and has agreed – with Bygone Kent editor Andrew Rootes (also an experienced historian, author and long-standing journalist) to share some behind-the-scenes secrets with us here.
Hello Stephen and Andrew, many thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Bygone Kent has been published for over 30 years, what do you think make it so special?
Andrew: It is the only publication in Kent which can look at any aspect of the county’s rich history in an entertaining and informative way without becoming too esoteric. No aspect of the past is off limits if we think it will be of interest to our readers. In this way, we see ourselves as being complementary to the excellent work done over many years by Kent Archaeological Society and its learned volumes of Archaeologia Cantiana. We are all enthusiastic students of the past.
What are you enjoying most about your new role?
Steve: Learning more about Kent history! I was a strange child … I used to beg my parents to take me to the museum. I went to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, Rochester, where I had an inspirational history master, KH Baker, who turned the English Civil War into an exciting revolutionary tale – Game of Thrones has nothing on Lofty Baker’s Cavaliers and Roundheads.
Andrew: Looking for material for the magazine provides the perfect excuse to dig into the archives. And reading up about any aspect of our history inevitably leads to even more background reading about the period. For anyone interested in the past, the county provides an endlessly fascinating wealth of material.
And what’s your biggest challenge?
Steve: There are many. 1) Presenting Kent’s history in a readable form without dumbing down. We are not an academic journal, so were try not to pepper features with footnotes and references; nor are we downmarket enough to peddle too much folklore (“And to this day her weeping ghost can be seen every Michaelmas eve…”). It’s also important to source and reproduce images that are relevant to the feature. Some writers must imagine that these appear magically and that we have access to the most advanced and expensive picture libraries. We don’t … but we are resourceful. 2) Selling it. Many people believe Bygone Kent ceased publication years ago, so we are having to publicise (Thanks, HistoryMagpie!) that we are emphatically thriving. We are trying to sell Bygone Kent by subscription wherever possible because wholesalers take 42.5% of the cover price, which leaves us very little to plough back into its production.
Andrew: Bygone Kent has been going for more than three decades, and over that time there have been many books and booklets about specific Kent places and subjects. The trick is to find stories for our readers not yet discovered, or widely known, as a result of this research. We think Bygone Kent does this well.
Recent features have revealed, among many other things, ‘A City too corrupt for parliament’, the man responsible for the First World War’s ‘white feather’ campaign and the rediscovery of images belonging to the pioneering female photographer, Catharine Weed Barnes Ward. Do you have a favourite historical place, character, event or tale?
Steve: Too many to mention! But Andrew’s tale of Canterbury political corruption was a favourite. I had no idea that elections were so openly corrupt as recently as 1880, when handfuls of sovereigns were being handed out to buy votes (See Bygone Kent, Vol 35, No 5). I’m also a sucker for anything to do with the Jezreelite cult in the Gillingham area in late Victorian times – an amazing story that just kept on giving.
Andrew: I was born and brought up in the Medway/Gravesend area, have lived in villages outside Ashford and Tonbridge, and have spent most of my adult life in Canterbury – so in that sense I feel my interest is countywide. I have made a particular study of Dickens’s life in my home village of Higham, so that’s always of interest. But Bygone Kent has carried so many good stories it’s like being asked to pick a favourite child! I like them all!
Reader’s memories, letters and questions are welcomed and some of your content is provided by freelance writers. You’re now open to article submissions – what sort of pitches would you like to receive and what guidelines should writers adhere to?
Steve: We’re always open to submissions. Try to make your pieces of general interest. For example, your family’s history might be fascinating to you but it won’t be to everybody’s taste. Check through our online index to make sure it hasn’t been done before. You can check our past issues in many Kent libraries or we have some back issues available for sale.
Attach three or four decent images (properly captioned) and make sure you’ve cleared copyright on them. And please – we don’t want footnotes. If you want to say where you got the information, include it in the text. And as for acknowledgments, thank your helpers personally: don’t put them in a boring list at the end that takes up valuable space.
Each issue also features local history book reviews – which ones are currently on your personal reading list and why?
Steve: We’ve had a lot of interesting stuff over the past year and it’s good to see the rise of privately published – often self-published – works. (And here we must declare an interest – my wife and I also edit books and design them for publication.) However, we’re sometimes alarmed in the poor quality of editing in other self-published works, where a great idea and original research can be ruined by execrable grammar, nonexistent proofreading and a patent lack of fact-checking. But on to excellent local history books … currently receiving my almost undivided attention in the library of Bygone Kent’s ultra-modern, high-tech, publishing suite are two favourites, neither of them new: Brian Joyce’s Chatham Scandal, the story of the Medway towns’ radical solution to the increasing vice trade in a lawless town and, ahem, Front Line County: Kent at War, 1939-45, the thrilling tale of what happened here in the Second World War by … some bloke called Rootes.
With the re-opening of Dreamland in Margate, the new Huguenot Museum appearing in Rochester and Faversham’s exciting plans for a roaming Magna Carta exhibition, 2015 is going to be a great year for Kent’s history. Are there any events, or projects, that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Andrew: Well, the Huguenot Museum should give us a springboard for stories about the Huguenots in Kent generally (did you know, for example, that a service is still held in French every Sunday in Canterbury Cathedral?). This year is also the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s visit to Kent, so I’m sure we’ll recognise that in some way. And the First World War will doubtless yield more material. The county is our oyster.
The magazine has recently become available in both print and pdf format – what are your plans, or aims, for 2015?
Steve: We’re spending money on updating our website that has been a bit neglected since we took it over. With our colleague John Coulter I have just been updating and overhauling the Bygone Kent index, which is available online, and that will be included on the new website. The PDF version of Bygone Kent is particularly good value for subscribers who live overseas because of the H-U-G-E postal costs (please don’t get me started…)
And finally, how can people find out more about Bygone Kent?
Try www.bygonekent.org.uk in the first instance. Although it’s under reconstruction, the index is working fully, as is the sales section. And follow us on Twitter and Facebook…
Twitter – @BygoneKent
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/bygonekent,
Website – www.bygonekent.org.uk