Kent in recovery: How we have overcome adversity throughout history
PUBLISHED: 13:25 09 July 2020
With light at the end of the Covid tunnel at last, we take heart from how Kent recovered from previous calamities, from the 1930s depression to two world wars and the credit crunch
Things can only get better.’ A single released by D:Ream that reached No. 1 in the UK charts in January 1994 and was then adopted by ‘New Labour’ at the time of its 1997 General Election victory posed as an anthem for a moment when matters appeared to have reached a nadir and the only way (presumably) was up.
Yet as I began writing this in May 2020, it felt like another of those moments. We may have passed the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic and are no longer a nation and county completely in lockdown; we do now have the first tantalising glimpses of a road map out of lockdown, with gradual re-openings taking place from schools to workplaces. ‘Track and trace’ is being rolled out. There is no immediate end in sight, however, and there are gloomy forecasts for the national and local economy.
Yet we have been here before (more than once) and have recovered and can do so again. Read on if you want an uplift.
Perhaps I should start with the First World War, the one that should have been over by Christmas, but lasted more than four years. Dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, it was inconceivable there could be another on the same scale. The war, then the influenza pandemic that straddled its end, left a chastened world.
The first bomb dropped on English soil fell near Dover Castle on Christmas Eve 1914, a seasonal greeting if ever there was one. Faversham was already a centre for the explosives industry before the war: a tragic accident there on 2 April 1916 killed more than 100.
Ashford, where the railway works transformed it into east Kent’s largest industrial town, became a target for bombing, with a direct hit on the works on 25 March 1917 killing 61.
The war also gave a welcome impetus to local industry, even if it was in the cause of war. A shipyard was established at Faversham in 1916 at the Admiralty’s request and more than 1,200 ships were built here right up to 1969. Vickers moved into Dartford, another welcome boost to the local economy, while Short Brothers of Rochester developed the first plane to launch a torpedo (they’d be at it again during the Second World War when they built the first four-engine bomber, the ‘Stirling’).
Recovery came quickly. Within six years we were experiencing a British retail boom exemplified perhaps by the growth of Martins Bank in Kent, as its branches expanded in the 1920s. A local head office was opened in Canterbury in 1925, which assumed responsibility for branches that had opened at Broadstairs and Cliftonville (1920), Ramsgate and Margate (1921), Ashford (1922), Herne Bay, Sittingbourne, and Folkestone (1923), Faversham and Hythe (1924) and Whitstable (1925).
We can surmise that Kent folk had money to invest. Martins, the only UK bank not head officed in London, and with its grasshopper emblem, did well in the Garden of England. Families moved into the county too, wanting some of this prosperity. The migration of mining families into the Kent Coalfield between the wars is one example. It was the prospect of full-time work in a relatively new coalfield, with higher than average earnings that attracted them. With unemployment in traditional mining areas running as high as 50 per cent, it was easy to understand the constant stream of miners leaving the North of England and South Wales for a more prosperous Kent.
But the war still cast a shadow. As well as memorials sprouting up in almost every town and village in the county, the Victoria Hospital in Deal was built in 1919 to commemorate the men from Deal and Walmer who’d laid down their lives. Meanwhile Ashford had a new ordnance depot established in the late 1920s. The needs of the military would never forgo Kent, a county always in the frontline.
However, just 10 years after those Martins’ branches opened at Sittingbourne, Herne Bay and Folkestone, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.
The certainties that had gradually built up in Kent and the country at large were subsumed by new anxieties that came to fateful fruition when the Second World War started in September 1939. The war lasted a full six years and left country and county on their respective knees, with much destruction and debt.
Yet, just as happened a generation before, recovery came and came relatively quickly.
But first the Second World War had to be fought. Of course, much of the Battle of Britain took place over Kent’s skies, with RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Manston among the fighter stations writing their names into immortality.
Had the Battle of Britain been lost or Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, masterminded from the Dover Tunnels, proved unsuccessful, then we would almost certainly have seen German Panzers in Kent fields. Then there was the Blitz. Almost 100 citizens were killed in Ashford. Nearly 30 died in Northfleet on 16 August 1941.
Canterbury suffered the worst of 135 raids in 1942, as part of the so-called Baedeker Raids on cities of historic importance, the grimmest day being 1 June when over 40 died. More than 10,000 bombs fell on the city in total, with more than 1,000 buildings destroyed. Dover got a pasting from cross-Channel guns, with more than 200 killed. Later in the war (1944-45) Kent was hit by around 2,500 V-1 Doodlebugs.
After this pummelling there would be much rebuilding needed, but as with the post-First World War era, both Kent and Britain were up for it.
Charles Holden, a famed Art Deco architect of the London Underground, produced plans before the war was over for the renewal of Canterbury’s city centre, but came across an unexpected enemy in the shape of locals vehemently opposed to his plans. As a result, the rebuilding didn’t start until 10 years after the end of hostilities. In Tunbridge Wells they got ahead of the game with large-scale housing estates emerging to accommodate post-war population growth.
But it began with austerity; it was all a bit grey and drab. The winter of 1946-47 was the coldest in living memory, then we had the so-called ‘Austerity Games’ (the Olympics of 1948, in London). Rationing would not end fully until 1954. There were green shoots, however. King George VI attended the first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone (1950), the Festival of Britain took place over the summer of 1951 and by 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was able to declare: ‘You’ve never had it so good’.
It took time, but Britain and Kent recovered from the exigencies of both world wars and the same will assuredly happen after this latest calamity.
After the Second World War, it took a good decade and more, however, and the same may well apply post Covid-19.
Bold steps were taken in the immediate post war period and similarly ambitious thinking might be required this time, on the part of both central and local government. People can and will help and individual actions and choices can make a difference, as we’ve found recently.
We were given some clues as to where the stimulus for the county’s recovery might come from as the Government fleshed out the PM’s 10 May address, all those weeks ago.
A return to work was predicated where home working is not possible; a partial re-opening of schools would make it easier for some parents to return to their workplace; some outdoor sports facilities and courses would welcome people back, also garden centres; and, travelling to England’s beauty spots and resorts for day-trips was allowed once more.
With summer overseas travel looking increasingly unlikely, the ‘staycation’ suddenly looks in vogue and ‘hip’. Kent can begin to work again and enjoy its outdoor spaces once more. The county is already preparing itself for an influx of British visitors this summer, attracted by its open spaces and extensive coastline.
Covid-19’s bland statistics hide a myriad of personal tragedies and other longer-lasting fallouts. However, if there are to be positives emerging from it then perhaps the appreciation of daily exercise, from country walks to taking up jogging, the re-engagement with nature and the rediscovery of the British holiday are not to be sniffed at.
And for Kent? Here’s a few suggestions: support the local stores that helped us when we needed it; discover and embrace your High Streets; get out and explore the county (visit the open spaces, the glorious coastline, continue the exercise routine that started during lockdown); use your car less, walk and cycle more, continue to care for the planet as well as ourselves and others; keep up the charity fund raisers for your local hospital/care home; continue to do a good turn here and there (it doesn’t just have to be during a crisis that being kind makes us feel better about ourselves and the world).
We also need to maintain our new-found appreciation of who the real heroes are, and be hopeful; there’s a better world ahead and Kent will be a part of it. We’ve come out of the woods before: we’ll do it again. Things can only get better.