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Strange customs in the Garden of England


Every county of the UK has its own peculiar customs, such as the annual Cheese Rolling festival in Gloucester, the Welly Wanging from the West Country or the absurd Gurning Trials of the North East.

Kent, the so-called ‘Garden of England’, tucked away in the bottom south-east corner of the country, has many of its own customs, preserved in books such as Pegge’s Alphabet of Kenticisms and Henry Edwards’ A Collection of Old English Customs, as well as more academic tomes like Hasted’s History of Kent and the research documents of The Kent Archaeological Trust.

One custom from the fishermen of the south coast is that of ‘eumbal whitings’, described by Dr Pegge after a meeting with the local minister. The minister described a custom of the local fishermen who sold the eight largest whitings from each catch separately from the rest, and saved the money for a Christmas feast called a rumball. The master of each boat provided food and entertainment for his own boat, and the minister conjectured that the custom could be a reminder of the offerings which were once given to St Rumwold (or Eumwald) at a now-demolished nearby chapel.

Folkestone is also known for The Folkestone Mermaid, a sculpture installed in 2011. Created by artist Cornelia Parker, the mermaid represents the real-life figure of a local mother-of-two rather than the romanticised figure in Copenhagen.

Saving money for a Christmas feast is not, perhaps, a very unusual custom, but that of whispering the news of a death in family is unfathomable to many. The tradition in East Kent of whispering the news of a person’s death to the bees was recorded by W F Shaw in 1888. Twenty years before, the journal

Notes and Queries reported that the death of Mr Upton of Dartford Priory was conveyed to his cattle in a similar manner by his son, letting them know that their master was dead. 

Harking back to even earlier times, there are several Lady Wells in Kent, sacred places from before records began, with perhaps the most well-known being at Lamberhurst. Even here, however, the origins of the well are unknown, although the number of such wells indicates that the tradition might have been brought here by the Celts.

Many Lady Wells have been lost altogether, such as the St Mary’s Well at Tonbridge, the Lady Well at Seale and Our Lady’s Well at Lacton Hall, Ashford, while others have merely been forgotten or been replaced by a pump.

Two other sites which are still known and visited are the ones at Bedgebury and at Hothfield, and there are many others still to be discovered.

Another most bizarre custom was record by a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine for 1779 as reported in Brand’s Popular Antiquities of Great Britain. The report describes how the writer witnessed a group of girls from as young as five or six burning an effigy of a ‘holly-boy’. The boys had built the holly-boy and the girls had built an ‘ivy-girl’. Each effigy was stolen by the rival group and burned with much merriment. This practice may have been the precursor of the Edenbridge Bonfires, at which effigies are burnt in a celebration of Bonfire Night, or could be the reminder of much older, pagan Winter Solstice ceremonies. 

A similar ceremony to the holly-boys has been recorded as taking place during the harvest season, with an effigy being created from wheat straw and decorated with lacy paper cut-outs. The doll or guy is made in the fields and carried back to the village on a wagon, where the farm hands are treated to a celebratory harvest supper.

As the Church was once an important part of the life of a community, giving rise to many local traditions. The Church once required each member to donate a tenth of his produce or income to the upkeep of the church and the clergy. Huge tithe barns which were used to store the goods can be seen across Kent, with good examples at Chilham and Lenham.

The village of West Farleigh seems to have had problems collecting the tithes, as a curious agreement has been recorded between the vicar, Richard Bystone, and his flock. Along with the normal payments for services, the agreement details exactly how much should be given to the church, dated ‘the 32nd year of Elizabeth, 1590’.

A Communicant, the first time, pays 1d (one old penny) and ever afterwards 2d. Baptising a child, 4d.  Churching a woman, 1d. A marriage 1s. 6d plus 4d to the Clerk. Burying an adult 8d, but for a child just 4d. Milk of a cow, 1d. Sheep's wool, the 10th. Pigs, to have the 10th, and of seven to have one. Grass, the 10th cock. Herb garden, 1d or if sowed with any grain, a 10th, as in all other things. Hemp, the 10th handful. Of acre wood, and coppice woods, to pay tithes, but not of tops of trees. 

In a county of such diverse landscapes, with traditions of land and sea, downs and woodlands, and a regular influx of migrants, it is not surprising that Kent has developed a range of traditions. The customs of the county are many, and not all can be explained, but they link every Man of Kent and Kentish Man with the county he calls home and with those who went before.

By Susan McGowan

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