A Kentish Scrapbook
PUBLISHED: 13:05 21 February 2015 | UPDATED: 13:05 21 February 2015
Kent Life's history sleuth unearths the stories behind Kent's rich heritage from March days past, from the fabulous Kitty Fisher to a biblical building and the hero of daylight saving
A Fisher of Fortune
If Catherine ‘Kitty’ Fisher were alive today her face would be on the cover of every glossy magazine.
Famous for being famous, the media would be shadowing her every move and not merely by chance but because she would have ensured it. Despite being born in the 18th century, Kitty had a talent for self-promotion and knew just how to capitalise on her exploits.
A fall from her horse in St James’s Park was quickly turned from a source of embarrassment and tears to one of laughter and ‘accidental’ exposure to a growing audience.
The mere act of eating a sandwich, if we are to believe the rumours, was turned into a display of outrageous flamboyance and audacity when she slipped a £100 bank note inside it. And, if her public adventures weren’t enough to fuel the gossips, there was always her private life.
As in all the best tabloid tales, her background is a mystery. Born around 1740, Kitty began life as either a lowly lady’s maid or a stay maker. When she discovered the power of her wit and beauty, however, she began working her way up the social scale, via a rather large number of bedrooms.
By the time she was 18, Kitty was being kept in a ‘state of sumptuous affluence’ by Commodore Keppel, but she was not content; once Sir Joshua Reynolds had painted her portrait, Kitty became one of the most famous courtesans of the day.
She mixed in the highest circles and always dressed to impress. Casanova described seeing her wearing ‘over a hundred thousand crowns’ worth of diamonds’. He also apparently found her ‘charming’ but not enough to ‘seize the opportunity to have her for ten guineas’.
Loved and vilified in equal measure, reams of poetry were written in Kitty’s honour and thousands of adoring fans bought copies of her image.
Over time, however, her allure began to fade and her future was publicly debated. Many predicted a humiliating fall from grace followed by a wretched death but once again Kitty Fisher triumphed by marrying her wealthy admirer, John Norris, MP for Rye, in 1766.
Sadly, her reign over Hemsted House in Benenden, now Benenden School, lasted just a few months as, while taking the waters in Bath, Kitty succumbed either to the effects of her lead-based cosmetics or, more likely, tuberculosis and died.
On 23 March 1767, Kitty was buried within the Norris family vault at Benenden in ‘her best gown’, just as she had requested.
Her husband is said to have been devastated, but eventually revived himself sufficiently to find solace in the arms of a Mrs Knight. Their subsequent liaison resulted in an adultery suit that cost Mr Norris £3,000 in damages and gained him a second wife.
As for Kitty, her name, and fame, now lives on through Reynolds’s celebrated paintings and the name of her once local pub, the Kitty Fisher in Benenden.
James Jershom Jezreel was a ‘tall imposing man’, nearly 6ft in height and well built. When his hair was allowed to fall free from its traditional ‘Jezreelite roll,’ it covered his shoulders and added to his luxuriant beard.
His persuasive speaking manner, all-consuming belief in the Jezreelite cause and piercing eyes, which ‘bore timid people through and through’ drew hundreds of followers to his sect, the ‘New and Latter House of Israel’, from America, Australia and Britain and his most cherished desire was to build them a sanctuary.
Jezreel’s unique vision took its inspiration directly from the Bible. His dream was to build a headquarters shaped as a perfect cube and, having bought a six and a quarter acre plot at the top of Chatham Hill in Gillingham, Jezreel engaged architects to draw up the plans.
His ideal design was impractical and, in the end, he had to accept a slightly modified version made from steel and concrete, with yellow brick walls and eight castellated towers.
Jezreel wanted the building to be big enough to accommodate 5,000 people, with a revolving 24ft wide platform within the main assembly room and topped by a spectacular glass dome some 94ft in diameter that would be invisible from the outside. It was an ambitious project for such a small group but Jezreel was convinced that it should be built and his followers could pay for it. He wrote to them all, urging them to immediately sell all of their belongings - at their best price, and travel to Gillingham where they would donate all of their wealth to the group’s community treasury, thereby raising the funds to build the Tower and ensuring their path as one of God’s 144,000 chosen immortals.
Today, the thought of one man having so much influence over people seems unbelievable but during the Victorian era being saved from your sins was a serious business and followers came from all over the world.
Sadly, the building of the tower had barely begun when Jezreel died on 2 March 1885 from a burst blood vessel and not, as widely rumoured, excessive drinking.
His wife, known as ‘Queen Esther’, persevered with his plan despite constant financial difficulties and even went as far as implementing a month-long fast amongst the Jezreelite followers in order to raise cash.
Eventually the tower began to rise but when Queen Esther died just a few years later the build ground to a halt for the last time.
Covered with carvings of crossed swords, trumpets and scrolls the tower was an imposing and intriguing site but without a roof it quickly became overgrown and fell into disrepair.
In an echo of the quick burst of religious fervour that had inspired it, the significance of Jezreel’s tower was short lived and, in 1961, it was demolished.
The Sunshine Saver
Every year our clocks spring forward and fall back an hour in an attempt to wring every last drop of sunshine we can out of the British weather but if it hadn’t been for William Willett, an Edwardian resident of Chislehurst, we might have been living with a little more darkness.
Willett was a respected builder who loved an early morning ride through Petts Wood and it’s said that his idea for daylight saving was inspired by the fact that many of the houses remained with their blinds drawn during his ride, their occupants seemly unaware of the productive sunshine hours they were wasting.
Using his own financial resources, Willet published a pamphlet; ‘The Waste of Daylight’ in 1907 that proposed that clocks should be advanced by 80 minutes in April and delayed the same in September.
He suggested this adjustment be carried out in several twenty-minute stages but the idea received great opposition. Willett carried on campaigning and by 1908 he had managed to gain the support of public figures such as Winston Churchill and Robert Pearce, an MP, who both made several unsuccessful attempts to get it passed into law.
The outbreak of the First World War called for new ways of saving resources, primarily coal, and once again the idea was mooted in Parliament.
This time the scheme was successful and, on 17 May 1916 the Summer Time Act was finally passed in Britain – it had already been implemented in Germany.
Sadly, Willett didn’t get to enjoy his moment of success, or claim his rightful acknowledgement, as he had died the year before, on 4 March 1915 from influenza.
During his memorial service it was said that Willett ‘tried to bring more sunshine to the masses’ and in 1927 a memorial sundial, continuously set to daylight saving time, was erected in Willetts Wood.
Florence, Willett’s second wife, was present at the unveiling of his memorial and now, 100 years later, The Chislehurst Society is bringing Willett’s name back to life though the restoration and display of a signed map he had drawn for a 300 house estate he wanted to create.
Having bought the grounds for Camden Park, Willett got as far as building several houses in Wildernesse Road and six in Camden Park Road. These six were given house names with initials spelling out the word ‘Camden’ but unfortunately the original names of ‘E’ and ‘N’ have been lost over time.
The restoration of the map was made possible through a Heritage Lottery Grant which has also been used to refurbish Willetts’ memorial sundial and his gravestone at St Nicholas’ Church in readiness for the 100th anniversary of his death on 4 March 2015 when his grave will be re-dedicated in the company of some of his great, great grandchildren.
The grant has also been used to create a display celebrating many other famous former residents and it can be seen at Bromley Library until The Chislehurst Society’s headquarters are re-opened this summer.