Welcome to Bearsted
A brief overview
The terms ‘village’ and ‘community’ have attracted many definitions and descriptions. The Oxford English Dictionary advises a village is ‘a group of houses situated in a rural area, larger than a rural hamlet but smaller than a town.’
Bearsted, as a village or community, can be traced back many centuries in historical sources but it is most curious that in 1086, when the Domesday book was compiled, there was no entry for it. This omission has attracted many theories and it continues to puzzle community historians to this day! At least one theory surmises that Bearsted was included under the possessions for Leeds and Leeds Castle, but as it cannot be proved, it remains a theory.
It is generally agreed by historians and archaeologists that most settlements in Kent were originally linear. It is difficult to imagine this today as the image of Bearsted is usually conveyed by the houses situated around the Green.
In 1798, the historian, Edward Hasted, described Bearsted as still comprising several separate linear areas: Madginford, Roundwell, the area around the Green, and Roseacre Street. They were all hamlets that more or less functioned independently but were loosely united by the church of Holy Cross. He also noted the main geographical characteristics of Bearsted were sited around areas of chalk, sand and clay. In his opinion, the land was sufficient to support the community and their associated industries.
In 1831 a census recorded Bearsted inhabitants as numbering 594. Although some families moved around the area seeking seasonal work, the population remained relatively stable for virtually all of the nineteenth century. The main road to, from, and through Bearsted would have been Ware Street from a junction with the Sittingbourne Road as it progresses out of Maidstone. Today, the name of the road changes from Bearsted Road to Ware Street and then on to The Street and Roundwell. Our modern route, currently called ‘The Ashford Road’ existed but it was not a main thoroughfare. The traffic that passed though Bearsted was on foot, or riding either a horse or a donkey. Sometimes the horse or donkey was harnessed to a cart or farming wagon.
Trade directories for Bearsted show that there was a great inter-connectivity to neighbouring Thurnham. They were not huge communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but there was a wide variety of occupations. Until relatively recent times, the residents would have shared employment, experiences, and devised their own entertainment. Opportunities for ordinary people to enjoy a holiday from everyday life were largely centred around traditional or religious festivals such as May Day, Easter, or Christmas which marked the year’s progress. If there was a nearby fair or a sporting event though, some employers did release their staff for the day. So, by all accounts, the chance for relaxation was just as appreciated then as it is today.
The population began to expand as more people moved into the village, drawn by the need for employment and the labour demands of agriculture and other industries. A railway line was extended from Maidstone through Bearsted and onto Ashford so a railway station was built and opened in 1884. Some of the industries evolved and diversified: the village blacksmith later becoming a mechanic and garage owner as the horseless carriage arrived and then developed into the popular motor car. Tile and brick makers in Bearsted adapted to changes in demand by manufacturing and supplying bricks to local builders for housing but also for oast houses in which to roast hops. Other trades and professions, such as the staff at the corn merchants, the postmaster, the master at the village school and some shopkeepers were deliberate introductions.
In 1891, the census return recorded that the population of Bearsted comprised 665 people. The number of houses had slightly increased too reflecting that some new properties had been built in the village during Queen Victoria’s reign. However, the majority of ordinary people did not own their home; they either rented property or lived in tied accommodation.
But the early years of the twentieth century saw the start of world wide social and economic change. Members of several long-established local families emigrated and explored the wider world prior to the Great War in 1914. Farm and labouring work continued to employ the largest number of people in Bearsted and Madginford, but there was still sufficient capacity in the community to support a diverse variety of occupations. The death of Water Fremlin in 1925 and the subsequent dispersal sale of his estate at Milgate, estimated to have covered approximately half of Bearsted, meant a loss of one major form of employment. However, a diversity of occupations in the area meant there were still jobs available, albeit slightly further afield, in neighbouring Thurnham, Hollingbourne and Otham.
Housing in quantity began to be built in the Roseacre area at the end of the First World War. Tower Lane was built, followed by parts of Plantation Lane, The Grove and some houses in The Landway. Substantial plots of land at Spot Farm were sold as smallholdings and the area later became known as Yeoman Way, Cavendish Way, Copsewood Way and Shirley Way. Houses were built along and below the south side of the Ashford Road which were named Royston Road, Winifred Road and Rosemary Road after family members of the developer, Royston Phillips, who was based in Croydon. However, building development came to a standstill during the Second World War.
After the Second World War, Britain began to rebuild and reconstruct, and this time is now regarded as a time of further widespread change. This national mood was affected by cultural, social and economic factors and unsurprisingly this was reflected in local areas. Bearsted began to slowly change once more.
Farm land was built upon at Cross Keys in the 1950s to address an urgent need for accommodation in Bearsted. In the 1960s, a housing estate at Madginford farm began to be constructed, Roseacre School was built and then opened on The Landway in 1972 (Thurnham Infant School eventually shared the school site in 1989). Recent smaller scale housing schemes developments have resulted in the arrival of The Orchard in Yeoman Lane, Windmill Heights in Roseacre Lane, and the grounds of Bearsted House (also known as Eylesden Court) were developed into retirement housing known as Bearsted Courtyard. In recent years another phenomenon has arisen: the demolition of individual, large, old houses and each plot being replaced by several houses, hence Bearsted Heights replaced St Faith’s Home. Tylers Croft and Bradley Court have also been built.
Latterly, Oak Croft, and some houses on Hog Hill have been constructed. New developments are also underway adjacent to Cross Keys and on land at Barty.
We are most fortunate in continuing to have a rich community life, ably reflected in a diverse range of leisure pursuits and sporting activities. Probably the most notable of these is the fact that cricket has been played on the Green for at least 250 years and which is reflected in the village sign which shows Alfred Mynn at the wicket. The sign was designed by Alan Warland and was erected to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Amongst the most recent community activities has been the arrival and development of Bearsted Woodland Trust. Originally borne out of a determination to retain a green space, it has now become a much-cherished facility for the local community but is also appreciated by others living slightly further afield.
Many previous inhabitants made a contribution to the village. Some are still remembered to this day. Latter day residents are also in the process of making their marks upon the community as opportunities and challenges are met and considered.
Kathryn Kersey, 2020