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Early Modern

ENTERTAINING DARTFORD'S PEOPLE

TOWN FESTIVITIES AND CELEBRATIONS

There was a noticeable decrease in the number of religious holidays and festivals after the Reformation. Puritans attempted to limit the number of holidays enjoyed by ordinary people and disapproved of the merrymaking that had been an integral part of town life in Tudor times. Nevertheless there were national events and occasions when the people of Dartford took to the streets to enjoy lively celebrations. Celebratory bonfires were held in the town to commemorate special occasions such as royal births, coronations and marriages. Victory in battle also provided an excuse for celebration. Celebrations were accompanied by peals of bells from the bell-ringers at Holy Trinity church. On some occasions the church was illuminated with candles.

The custom of ‘beating the bounds’ was observed every Rogation-tide. Bread, cheese and beer were carried to Birchwood near Wilmington for the beaters. Dartford’s parish boundaries were so large that it took two full days to perambulate the bounds. An old Dartford inhabitant was paid each year to "show the bounds".

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Dartford fair

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DARTFORD'S FAIRS

Although Dartford’s main annual fair is often described in contemporary literature as a ‘Charter Fair’, no fair charter exists for the town. The earliest written reference to a Dartford fair appears in the court rolls of Dartford Manor dated 1597. It is quite likely that a fair was held in Dartford for many centuries prior to this date. Queen Elizabeth I granted the Dartford fair and markets on a lease for 21 years to Edward Walsingham, at a yearly rental.

There were several famous fairs in the Dartford area. William Lambarde (1576) records that an annual fair was held on 20 July, St. Margaret’s Day, at nearby Darenth. Richard Kilburne, writing in 1659, highlights the fact that a fair was held at Dartford ‘...yearly upon the day of St. Mary Magdalen’, 22nd July. A guide book published in 1769 reports that ‘Dartford has a fair...on the 2 August for horses and bullocks’. Another booklet entitled The Kentish Traveller’s Companion (1790) declares ‘There is also a fair yearly on 2 August for horses and black cattle’. It would seem that the Dartford fair held annually on the site of the ‘Fair Field’, Lowfield Street, took place between 2 and 4 August. Dartford’s annual horse and cattle market was the venue for fun and frolics; a mixture of organised entertainment, sports and vulgar attractions.

Many of the games and entertainments at Dartford’s fair must have had a tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Early nineteenth century descriptions of the fair reveal that the main traditional attractions included dancing, boxing; jingling matches, climbing the greasy pole for a leg of mutton, whipping the ball out of the hole, donkey races, wheelbarrow races, walking the bowsprit, and a grand display of archery. The fair was a mixed blessing to the town. Noise, rowdyism and drunkenness were a feature, yet the fair generated income as well as lively entertainment for the town and rural population who streamed into Dartford from their villages in large numbers.

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Sport scene

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SPORT AT DARTFORD

Dartford was extremely fortunate in having two pieces of common-land suitable for sporting activities within its parish boundaries. Dartford Heath and the Brent provided a spacious venue for cricket, boxing and archery.

The first recorded local cricket match took place on Dartford Heath in 1723 when a local team played the men of Tunbridge. Dartford was chosen as the venue for important county matches throughout the eighteenth century. The most impressive result was achieved in 1765 when nine local cricketers and two London men beat the all-England cricket team twice. John Frame, one of the eighteenth century’s greatest bowlers lived and died at Dartford.

In 1786, the Brent was the venue for an open-air boxing match between two famous pugilists known as Ben and Tring. A special boxing-ring was installed on the Brent and a prize of 20 guineas offered to the winner. A great number of ‘gentlemen’ attended the fight and wagered huge amounts of money on the outcome of what was described by one commentator as "a dreadful combat". The bare-fisted fight lasted twenty-five minutes. Tring was carried from the ring "...totally disabled, though not disheartened".

Another more genteel sport enjoyed by locals and visitors alike was that of fishing in the River Darent. The river was well-stocked with trout, roach, dace, gudgeons, eels and remarkable fine flounders. Fishing in the river was regarded by the Dartford gentry as an illegal activity; fishing rights were privately owned.

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THE SOCIETY OF ROYAL KENTISH BOWMEN

The latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of numerous clubs and societies which the gentry and aristocrats were keen to join. Many of these clubs were exclusive, had their own rules and regulations and style of dress. Dartford Heath was the meeting-place for one such society, the Society of Royal Kentish Bowmen under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV.

The Society of Royal Kentish Bowmen was established in 1785 by J. E. Maddocks, Esq. of Mount Mascal, North Cray. Originally there were only eleven members and meetings were held at North Cray. The following year, membership of this exclusive archery society increased and the venue changed to Dartford Heath. Meetings were held every Saturday from May until September. A house on Dartford Heath, known as ‘Bowman’s Lodge’, was fitted out for their use. The Prince of Wales was made president of the Society in January 1789; this encouraged many aristocrats to join the group.

 

  

Wax seal of a Kentish Bowman

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The Prince of Wales insisted that every member of the Society should wear a ‘dandyish’ uniform comprising "A grass green coat with buff linings, a buff waistcoat and breeches; a black collar of uncut velvet in winter; tabby silk in summer, with yellow buttons". A white waistcoat and breeches might be worn at all meetings, but the uniform coat was indispensable, together with a R.K.B. button with a gold loop to a black round hat, and small black feather, without which no member was allowed to shoot, besides being fined 7s.6d. Captains and lieutenants of the Society were to wear a gold or silver arrow embroidered on their collars. Standard-bearers were appointed to attend every meeting of the Society dressed in full uniform.

There were four special shooting matches called ‘targets’ each year. The shooting range was at 100 yards. On each Target day, the standards were carried in procession to and from the shooting range, all the Society members walking together dressed in full uniform.

Members’ subscriptions were 1 guineas annually with 10 guineas entrance fee and a contribution of 1 guinea each year toward the cost of the four main dinners. Plays and other dramatic pieces were acted at ‘Bowman’s Lodge’, to which the local residents were admitted by ticket. The Society ceased its activities at Dartford in 1802.

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