Thursday, 19 June 2014

Thoughts On Being A Kentish Lad

Well, I'm not, of course; neither Kentish, nor (I sincerely hope and deeply trust) a lad, but Kent is woven into my ancestry, and even incidentally into my own life's story.

I knew my paternal grandfather was born in Kent, in the workhouse in Minster, in May 1908. But even there, there is confusion, because Kent has two Minsters, and both are on islands, one, the Isle of Thanet, the other, the Isle of Sheppey. I don't think Grandad knew this, and assumed he'd been born in Sheppey - it's certainly what went down on his death certificate. But Grandad was soon brought back to London - we always thought of ourselves as London people - and grew up there, on both sides of the river. It was only when I started to do my genealogical researches in 1985 that I learnt more about our Kentish roots.

My father told me about The Thanet Way which marches down from the East End of London to Margate, via Canterbury, and our family tree has incidents all along its route. Grandad's father was born in Haggerstone, Shoreditch, to parents married in Canterbury. His paternal grandfather was born in Margate, to a local mother, but a father born in Fetter Lane in the City of London - and they were married in Kennington, then in Surrey, along The Thanet Way. The founder of this Haggis branch was Samuel Haggis of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire (1796-1846) who made his way from Cambridge through London and down to Margate in the 1820s. He was the first of five generations of fishmongers and fishermen, and I imagine that the fish trade was one of the busiest on The Thanet Way.

One bright sunny spring day in 1985 my father and I set out for Canterbury to do some research in the bishop's transcripts (the copies the parish priests had to make to the local bishop of everything in their parish registers) at the Cathedral Library. We already knew a few things by then, and as we passed the glorious building we wondered if, higher up than either of us could see, our plumber ancestor Thomas Page (1826-1915) might have made and inscribed with his initials the lead gutter hoppers that could have explained why he got a reference from the Dean to move into an almshouse called Jesus Hospital in 1897 (leaving his wife and a daughter behind). I still have our notes from that day, with my father's in his precise, tidy, handwriting. He found quite a lot of good stuff, but I had very much hoped he would find one of my main quests - the baptism of Jane Philpott (1815-1881), the girl from Margate who married Alfred Samuel Haggis (1820-1867) in Kennington in 1839. I gave him the most likely registers to look through, but alas, she'd lied about her age, and so I, looking in the register either side of the most likely, was the one who found her.

I'd not been to Kent before, but clearly Dad was no stranger to it - he remembered family outings to Margate and Ramsgate in the 1950s, and meeting elderly cousins he couldn't place at the time, not to mention a brief time staying with a mad uncle in Hastings. As we drove - and it's a long journey, from West Sussex, across the whole of East Sussex, and then most of Kent itself - he said, as we crossed into Kent "you look and see what sort of place this is". I noted lots of alleyways and sheds and signs of small scale commerce. "Yes" he said "they're all up to something!" He was very at home there. But he'd not been to Canterbury, and was impressed by the place itself, and also by the little almshouse, whose warden kindly showed us round, with no forewarning. Little could either of us know that one day I would be an almshouse trustee myself - but in London, the other end of The Thanet Way.

And so we dug and we rummaged, as I have done ever since. Jane Philpott's mother was Mary Stokes (1773-1863) who was born in Dover, but eventually died in Sheerness in Sheppey, just where Grandad thought he'd been born - a great-great-grandmother whose name he never knew. And we have a cavalcade of names - Page and Young, Belsom, Heywood, Minter, Terry, Sharp - all rooting us into the towns and villages of the Garden of England.

The Jewel in the Crown is Thomas Page himself who had a notebook which was transcribed and of which I have a copy, detailing - in annoyingly ungossipy terseness - the goings-on of Victorian Canterbury. He records nine suicides, a murder, and a hanging, and now I have all eleven certificates, and some further research is planned. Where it will take me, I don't know, and that's the adventure.

My Grandad left Kent in time for his brother (who died a baby) to be born in London in 1910, but there are other entwinings. My mother's parents were married in the same register office in Ramsgate on (Friday) the 13th of February 1942 as my Grandad's aunt had been in 1895. My maternal grandfather died a year ago today. Not sure if he ever went back to Kent.

And a few years ago, when my life was in tatters, my partner at the time, the tall and kindly Australian Andrew, was living in Erith in Kent. For a time, the keys to his flat in a grim tower block there were the things I most valued. The late comedian, Linda Smith, said of her home "Erith doesn't have a twin town, but it has a suicide pact with Dagenham".

So, I can't really claim to be "A Kentish Lad" like Frank Muir (it was the title of his autobiography) but Kent is woven round me, from churches and registers, through plumbing and metalwork, through a taste for Dover sole (the last meal I ate, in a smart Knightsbridge hotel with my grandmother who was married in Ramsgate 44 years before) and Whitstable oysters, wired into my genes, a rootless root, on both sides of my ancestry, up and down The Thanet Way for nearly two centuries.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014


  1. There' a coincidence here. I live in Erith, but at the posh part, Northumberland Heath. The flats that you allude too have all been demolished and a brave new Estate with houses is taking their place. I've a similar story of Kentish connections, not only through my spouse, whose grand mother was born on the wrong side of the blanket in Canterbury and ended up in one of those Worker factories in Stone, Nr Dartford in 1911, before marrying her grandfather in Charlton in 1916. On my side, I actually found 2nd cousins living and dying in Bridge (my former parish) on both my father and mothers sides in the early 20th Century.

    Perhaps we're drawn back to our roots as I love Canterbury, and while no longer in a parish there, return at least monthly.

  2. When I was ten ( I should have been eleven but in those days LEAs weren't bothered much, so long as the postwar baby boomers were schooled somewhere ) our history teacher told us the Vikings had landed on the Isle of Thanet. When he then told us it had become Kent in later years, I was fascinated. On a map it looked for all the world as if it had always been firmly joined onto the rest of England. When I was nine (I should have been ten ) the teacher in our Junior school had told us that Kent was known as the garden of England. She'd drawn a picture of an oast house on the blackboard. I can't quite recall in which classroom I learned that Londoners used to go hop-picking in Kent for their holidays and we read poems about it. It didn't strike me as much fun at all.
    The only time I remember actually going to Kent was the day I went by coach to get a ferry at Ramsgate. What I saw didn't look a lot like a garden but it was a dreary,wet, grey day and ferry ports aren't supposed to look pretty.
    I didn't see much to remind me of coal mines either, but I assume the coal is under the garden. A lot of Staffordshire and Derbyshire is made up of beautiful countryside on the surface,so I suppose Kent is too.