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How Maidstone earned Kent's County Town title and what it really means


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When you drive into Maidstone from the A20 or the A229 you will be greeted with signs saying 'Welcome to the county town of Kent', but does anybody know what the title means?

A county town is defined as the administrative capital, selected because of its central role in local government.

Welcome to Maidstone sign in London Road. Picture: Martin Apps
Welcome to Maidstone sign in London Road. Picture: Martin Apps

With Kent County Council (KCC) having its headquarters in Sessions House in County Hall, this fact in a nutshell sums up why Maidstone holds the title.

Perhaps the more interesting part comes from the historical events which led to it being based in the town in the first place.

Although the title is older, it was first used in its current formal sense in Kent around 132 years ago, when county councils were first established in England under the Local Government Act of 1889.

At the time Kent's newly-formed administrative council was looking for a home.

Maidstone already had a prison, which opened in 1830, the Royal West Kent Regiment from 1881, and the police headquarters, which arrived in 1857. Adding the county council seemed an easy and practical fit.

County Hall in 1933. Picture: Images of Maidstone, p38
County Hall in 1933. Picture: Images of Maidstone, p38

Maidstone had become a thriving town, which had expanded so much in size and population, that it had overtaken Canterbury, which would have been its closest rival to the title.

But it was only because of geography, geology and the Romans that Maidstone became the power hub, ideal for all these important functions.

John Bunyard, the author of Old Bunyard's Kent Pride, an online archive containing hundreds of stories sharing tales of Kent's past, explains: "Canterbury might have been chosen instead. It is now our only city and it was the capital of the Kingdom of Kent from the 6th Century.

"It had been a major Roman town and the capital of the Anglican Church but by a process of accretion, Maidstone had grown in importance, knocking Canterbury off the top spot."

Accretion is when one institution moves to a town which then attracts another, and so on.

John Bunyard has created an online archive of Kent's history
John Bunyard has created an online archive of Kent's history

He continued: "Maidstone started gaining power in Roman times because of its geology.

"Most of Kent is chalk and clay but running right through the middle there's Kentish ragstone which is good for building with, and conveniently that's where Maidstone lies.

"When the Romans arrived they wanted to fortify London and the obvious place to dig was next to the River Medway.

"They built quarries around Maidstone and over time the industry became something of a magnet."

Because of its location in the middle of Kent, and next to the river, Maidstone became a handy place to get things out to sea as well as up to London, making it a prime location for the paper making, brick making and brewing industries.

Kent Police Headquarters in Sutton Road. Picture: Matthew Walker
Kent Police Headquarters in Sutton Road. Picture: Matthew Walker

Population growth continued and Maidstone grew bigger, while Canterbury was being left behind, especially when the Wantsum Channel separating Thanet from the rest of Kent dried up.

Another historical link that gave Maidstone power was Penenden Heath.

In the Anglo Saxon days it was a tribal meeting centre because it was easy to get to and a big open space near a river where everybody could camp.

It was famously where trials and executions were held, so it became a major civic centre in Kent.

After the prison was built, which at the time was considered the most advanced in the county, hangings were eventually moved out of sight, but the presence of the county assizes until their abolition in 1972 confirmed Maidstone's status as the legal centre of Kent.

Maidstone Prison
Maidstone Prison

In more recent history, accretion continued to draw businesses to the town.

In 1934, the Granada Theatre opened on the corner of Lower Stone Street and Granada Street. It became a flagship location as it was the first in the 'Standard' Granada chain.

Then in 1979 Maidstone was chosen as the prime site for the television studios in New Cut Road. Its first transmission was in the autumn of 1982.

After centuries of building up the town into an administrative and economic centre, it seems almost ironic that many of the places that earned Maidstone the title are now slowly drifting away.

The Kent County Lunatic Asylum, later named Oakwood Hospital, which served the whole of Kent from Dover to Deptford from 1833, closed in 1994.

This aerial view of Oakwood Hospital was taken in February, 1934. Picture: Images of Maidstone, ps112-113
This aerial view of Oakwood Hospital was taken in February, 1934. Picture: Images of Maidstone, ps112-113

The Invicta Barracks is due to close in 2027 and now the council, possibly, and the constabulary are selling up.

The force has been based at the site in Sutton Road since 1940 but bosses say it is no longer providing the “best possible value for money”.

The chief officer team relocated in September to the North Kent Police Station in Northfleet but it’s not yet known where remaining staff will be placed.

As well as this, in March 2020 it was revealed Kent County Council is considering quitting Sessions House, after more than a century, with about 1,100 members of staff potentially affected.

Although the county council hopes to stay in Maidstone, the town's importance seems to be unravelling and everything that established Maidstone in history, earning it the title, could be changing.

But despite the moves, Mr Bunyard says it is unlikely the town will ever lose its title unless the county council relocates to another town entirely.

He added: "Maidstone is holding on by the fingertips because of all the changes.

"But I don't think Maidstone will ever lose its title as long as the county council remains. I think it's more likely that the term will fall into disuse because it doesn't mean anything any more.

"All the while the title has some historical cachet, I suspect people will continue to extract some use from it."

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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