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10 fascinating historical facts about Maidstone

By Ed McConnell

While in recent years Maidstone may be better known for the country’s largest Wickes, the place R&B superstar Usher mistook for Manchester and the home of the estate which at one point claimed the dubious title of the UK’s teenage pregnancy capital it also has a rich history dating back far longer.

1. The last person to be publicly executed on Penenden Heath was John Dyke, from Bearsted, who was hanged on Christmas Eve 1830 for arson after setting light a hay bale. Years later another man confessed to the crime on his death bed. Mr Dyke is commemorated by a stone in the churchyard Holy Cross Church, in Church Lane, Bearsted. Executions moved to outside the newly opened Maidstone Prison in County Road. In August 1831 a crowd of 6,000 turned out to watch 14-year-old John Amy Bird Bell hang for the murder of Richard Faulkner, 13, after robbing him of nine shillings, an allowance given by the parish of Aylesford for his disabled father. He called out to the mostly female crowd watching: “Pray for a poor boy”.

John Dyke is commemorated by a plaque at Holy Cross Church, Bearsted
John Dyke is commemorated by a plaque at Holy Cross Church, Bearsted

2. While over the centuries Maidstone earned the title of Kent’s county town and became known for its paper making and brewing industries, that has not always been the case. Maidstone first became known as a town when it was granted the royal charter in 1549, a title it was to lose five years later for its part in the Wyatt Rebellion, an uprising stemming from Queen Mary I’s decision to marry Philip of Spain. The town would regain and lose its title several more times.

Week Street, Maidstone. Picture: Martin Apps
Week Street, Maidstone. Picture: Martin Apps

3. Week Street lies on the same line as a Roman road which ran to Rochester via the ironworks of the Weald. Its name is thought to derive from the Latin word ‘vicus’, meaning small town. A possible Roman building was unearthed at the junction of King Street and Week Street in the 1960s.

Maidstone's coat of arms, which includes Iggy the dinosaur
Maidstone's coat of arms, which includes Iggy the dinosaur

4. One of Maidstone’s most famous residents is a 3.5tonne, 13metre long dinosaur. Iggy the Iguanadon was discovered in a quarry in Queen’s Road in 1834. A cast of the 125-million-year-old herbivore is now on display at Maidstone Museum. Iggy is part of Maidstone’s coat of arms, the first dinosaur to be featured on one.

The former Fremlin's Brewery elephant logo has been part of Maidstone’s history since the 1860s
The former Fremlin's Brewery elephant logo has been part of Maidstone’s history since the 1860s

5. Long before Fremlin Walk was at the forefront of the Maidstone retail scene a very different industry dominated the town centre. Fremlin’s Ales & Beers was opened by Ralph Fremlin, of Wateringbury, in 1861 and over the next century grew to become the largest brewery in Kent. It amassed 800 licensed premises which in 1967 were brought by Whitbread, which also owns Costa Coffee and Premier Inn, and sold off five years later. Fremlin’s iconic elephant can still be seen above the Earl Street entrance of the shopping street, however to this day its roots are unclear. One distinct possibility is that it stems from the brewery’s fine line of Indian Pale Ale.

6. John Ball, a prominent figures in the Peasants’ Revolt and early espouser of socialist ideals, was freed from incarceration at Mill Street’s Archbishops’ Palace during the uprising in 1381.

The elephants of Maidstone Zoo. Picture: James Sephton
The elephants of Maidstone Zoo. Picture: James Sephton

7. While in recent times you’d count yourself lucky to catch a glimpse of a Macaw on Cobtree Manor Park Golf Course, in years gone by elephants used to roam the site. Maidstone Zoo was a popular attraction for 25 years until it closed in 1959. Locals could hear the lions roaring from their homes and elephants Gert and Daisy became firm favourites. Their home at Cobtree Manor Park fell into disrepair but has recently been given a new lease of life as a Men’s Shed.

8. A freedom of information request in 2014 revealed Maidstone Borough Council had spent a grand total of £0 taking precautions against nuclear attack.

A plaque outside Drakes in Maidstone commemorates seven people burned for their beliefs
A plaque outside Drakes in Maidstone commemorates seven people burned for their beliefs

9. In June 1557 Edmund Allin, his wife and five others were burnt at the stake, where Drakes pub now stands in Fairmeadow, for refusing to accept Catholicism.

Guy Gibson being sworn in as a Venture Scout with the Tovil Scout Group, 1943. Courtesy of Tovil Scout Group
Guy Gibson being sworn in as a Venture Scout with the Tovil Scout Group, 1943. Courtesy of Tovil Scout Group

10. The leader of the Dambusters raid Guy Gibson, who was based at nearby West Malling, became a Tovil Venture Scout in 1943. Mr Gibson was a war hero and took the oath at the group’s headquarters, then next to Reeds Paper Mill, while on a tour of the town just 34 days after the famous raid. Fifteen months later he was dead, killed on another bombing raid in Germany.

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