Kents Hill Road - From Rural Idyll to Modern Suburb


A Wish

Mine be a cot beneath the hill;
A bee-hive’s hum shall soothe my ear;
A willowy brook that turns a mill,
With many a fall shall linger near.

The swallow, oft, beneath my thatch
Shall twitter from her clay-built nest;
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch,
And share my meal, a welcome guest.

Around my ivied porch shall spring
Each fragrant flower that drinks the dew;
And Lucy, at her wheel, shall sing;
In russet gown and apron blue.

The village church among the trees,
Where first our marriage-vows were given,
With merry peals shall swell the breeze
And point with taper spire to Heaven.

Samuel Rogers (1763-1855)1

View of St. Peter’s Church from Chesterfield Avenue in the 1940s

You may wonder why I have started this article with a poem from a Romantic poet. I believe this verse encapsulates the longing for a little piece of the English countryside, where a family could put down roots and grow, in the clean air.

This longing was evident in the war-weary Londoners, who came down to Benfleet from ‘the smoke’ in their droves between the Wars, first to holiday, and often later to settle. My husband’s family was among them.

My father-in-law, George Gaines at Surene in the 1940s

 

The Gaines family, originally from Southwark, outside Surene (1963)

Let us take a look at one of the local roads in the area, which saw enormous change.

Kents Hill Road runs from Church Road down to the High Road, bisecting the London Road at ‘Little Tarpots’. It started life as one of the farm tracks, joining the main road in South Benfleet with the Little Tarpots area on the London Road, and onwards towards ‘Forty Acres’. Until the 1960s it was little more than a muddy lane.

In 1921, there were only twelve properties in Kents Hill Road including this house called ‘Lamorna’. It was named after a small cove near Penzance, and owned by Herbert Hare (the grandfather of Roger Hare). This old bungalow stood on the crest of the hill, and had an abundance of fruit trees, which was part of Kents Hill Farm’s old orchard. The information on ‘Lamorna’ and picture, is courtesy of Margaret March who has an article, ’73 Kents Hill Road’ on this site.

73 Kents Hill Road Benfleet, before 1973

By 1939, just before World War II, there were seventy-seven households.

The 1939 Register, the census taken on the eve of war, provides a fascinating snapshot of the people here at the time. There were many retired households, with a smattering of teachers and civil servants. Much of the populace were small ‘own business’ people – among them, an antiques dealer, painters and decorators, builders, shop keepers, market gardeners, butchers, plumbers, mechanics, poultry keepers, dressmakers, machinists, and tailors.

Unlike today, a mere handful commuted to office jobs in London – among them a worker for the Port of London Authority, a company secretary, an insurance clerk, and a typist at Lloyds. A few worked on the Thames, a tugboat captain and a lighterman among them. Some were employed in local warehouses, brickworks, shops and factories, or on the railway, for the General Post Office, or as general labourers.

By this time, you can already see the shift away from agriculture, with fewer people employed on the land. It is the retired folk who show up as having been agricultural labourers, grooms, stable hands, jobbing gardeners and farmers.

Researching the early days of Kents Hill, in May 2017, my imagination was caught by the discovery of what looked like footings, in the park at Villa Road. These were first spotted by my husband, when walking our dogs. They measure approximately 150ft by 50ft. We also discovered what looked like a capped well.

This mysterious outline would have been the ideal site for a farmhouse, or farm buildings, as it would have been on the crest of the hill, on the flat piece of land before it drops away towards what is now the High Road. The first photograph is of what could possibly be the capped well.

Kents Hill Farm capped well in 2017

Kents Hill Farm footings with Appleton School in the background in 2017

The Kents Hill Road end of Villa Road, which is made up, has an intriguing chunk of woodland just past the site of the footings.

Looking towards the copse from the Kents Hill end of Villa Road

A further ramble through the chunk of woodland in the middle of Villa Road, revealed another made-up section of road which leads out to the High Road.

Looking towards the copse from the High Road end of Villa Road

On the corner of the High Road and Villa Road stands Kents Hill Cottage. This was originally two cottages, as late as the 1939 Register, and has an interesting monogram in the side of the building, which is hard to read, ‘1836 CR, or JR?’

Kents Hill Cottages from High Road

Kents Hill cottages side elevation 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had a feeling that it must be connected with the elusive Kents Hill Farm, and decided to delve deeper. All I had to go on was two nineteenth century entries in Trade Directories2, and photos of anonymous footings taken on a smartphone.

Kents Hill Farm was shown on the first Ordnance Survey Map of Benfleet in 1799 (published in 1805). A section of this has been reproduced as a pull out to accompany Dr. H. E. Priestley’s article, ‘The Map of Benfleet 1798-9’3. To quote from his article, ‘Kents Hill Farm stood in the middle of its fields with a number of paths leading to it. The main access to it, we are told, was along what is now Villa Road, but this is not shown even as a bridle-path on this map’4. Dr. Priestley goes on to say that, ‘New Thundersley, a low clay land subject to flooding, was hardly inhabited at that time’. In his ‘History of Rochford Hundred’, published in 1867, Philip Benton says in the chapter on South Benfleet, ‘The Dean and Chapter of St. Peter in Westminster sold …. part of the farm called Kents Hill, to the Rev. John Mayor, rector of Shawbury, Shropshire, in 1799’5.

A few pages further on Benton continues the narrative, ‘South Benfleet Hall and Kents Hill (the latter originally Dean and Chapter property) belongs to George Rosher of Gravesend, son of Jeremiah Rosher, the owner of the celebrated gardens named after him, the Rosherville Gardens’6.

Dr. Priestley states on his list of Owners and Tenants of Properties marked on the 1840 [Tithe] Map, that Jeremiah Rosher was the owner of Kents Hill Farm, with William Barnes as the Tenant7. In the accompanying article, ‘The Benfleet Tithe Map of 1840’ he observes that, ‘the name of Jeremiah Rosher was very famous at one time in England’….and that ‘he was the owner of the renowned Rosherville Gardens at Gravesend, to which Londoners made pilgrimage in their hundreds at weekends’8.

Map of the area

Dr. Priestley says in the same article, that the Rosherville Gardens were famous enough to elicit a verse in Gilbert & Sullivan’s light opera ‘Box and Cox’ :

“Visions of Brighton and back, and of Rosherville,
Cheap day excursions, already the squash I feel,
Fearing the rain, put on my mackintosh I vill,
Now for my breakfast, my light de-jeu-nay!”

Jeremiah Rosher wrote his Last Will and Testament in 1837 and died on 3rd December 1848. In his Will, he leaves ‘all my estates situate at South Benfleet…..called Kent’s Hill and South Benfleet Hall Farms to my said three sons Henry Rosher, George Rosher and Edward Rosher in equal shares as tenants in common and their several and respective heirs and assigns’9.

In 1893 Kents Hill Farm was for sale by auction, as reported in the Essex Chronicle of the 19th May 1893.

Extract from Chelmsford Chronicle 19 May 1893

 

It was bought by the land speculator, Robert Varty.

Varty purchases Kents Hill Farm

 

I am indebted to Eileen Gamble, for trawling through the newspaper archives, and also for pointing out an on-line source for Jeremiah Rosher.

It wasn’t until I had the good fortune to access papers recently gifted to Benfleet Archive by Mr. Douglas Wilson, who owned Wilson Brothers in the 1960s, that more pieces of the jigsaw started to emerge. An Abstract of Title between George Brenchley Rosher (Vendor) and Robert Varty (Purchaser) dated 29th September 1894 set out the extent of Kents Hill Farm. The bulk of its land lay in South Benfleet, with a small portion in what was to become New Thundersley. It comprised 273 acres, 2 rods and 24 poles and had a Rectorial Tithe Charge of £53.16.0. The farm was mixed arable and pasture, growing barley and roots, oats, peas, spring beans, fruit and with woodland. This document states that in March 1849 the Farm had been in the hands of Henry Rosher and Edward Rosher, and passed down through their family.

In 1896, the farm was in the hands of one Frank Bate, whose cousin Arthur Bate was charged with ‘being drunk and disorderly on the highway’ on the 7th December.

Extract from Southend Standard and Essex Weekly Advertiser 17 December 1896

By March 1908, Kents Hill Farm had been re-named ‘Oakleigh Hall’, and its owner, Frank Bate, was in bankruptcy. It seems a greatly reduced property, with just one hundred and twenty chickens and six pigs – little more than a smallholding.

Extract from Essex County Chronicle 28 February 1908

The large farming estates, (Thundersley Hall, Jarvis Hall, North Benfleet Hall, Benfleet Hall Farm) had been steadily sold off from the 1870s onwards, due to the disastrous drop in the price of wheat caused by cheap imports in the closing decades of the 19th century, and the general decline of an agrarian economy.

Jarvis Hall, Benfleet

The land-owners sold their land for housing to speculators like Mr. Spitty and Mr. Varty, who divided it into small plots (roughly 20 ft by 112 ft) and sold it for as little as £5.00 a plot, even offering terms, so they were within the reach of ordinary people. That is how many families came to Benfleet, the ‘countryside!’.

By 1914, Kents Hill Farm seems in dire straits, with the farmer, Richard Bowman, considered to be of ‘unsound mind’ and his employee, Alfred Jennings facing charges of animal cruelty, as reported in the Essex Chronicle of 26th June 1914.

Extract from Chelmsford Chronicle 26 June 1914

It was a time of great change; the painful transition from rural village to modern suburb, and one wonders about the human stories behind these bald facts. People watched as their livelihoods dwindled, while the speculators bought and sold all round them. This is illustrated clearly in the ‘Kents Hill Estate Plan’ illustrated, where one can see the much reduced farm off Villa Road, and the steady march of marked out plots all round it.

Map of Kents Hill estate

Kents Hill would have formed part of the Jarvis Hall Estate, which Robert Varty had bought. It became the new ‘Kents Hill Estate’ in the 1920s. Alice Chafer, resident in Kents Hill Road in the 1930s, remembers a ‘big farmhouse in Villa Road, where the Robinsons lived’. Whether this was the Kents Hill Farmhouse, also known as ‘Oakleigh Hall’ in 1908, it is not clear. In the 1939 Register, it was referred to as ‘Oakleigh House’ and occupied by the Verini household.

Turning again to the excellent Journal of the Benfleet & District Historical Society, I quote from the memoirs of Lilian Hart, who was born in 1896 on Canvey Island, and moved to ‘the mainland’ for the ‘better conditions’, when she was a young wife. I’ll hand you over to Lilian, speaking about her life in about 1923: ‘About this time I was beginning to think about how far our own son would have to walk to school when he started. The new William Read School down the Long Road had been built. It was about a mile and a quarter from us and no transport for them. I had tried for some time to get my husband to move on to the mainland, if the opportunity came along, but I think he was loath to venture because of the shortage of work.

Stepping Stones c.1920 used to cross Benfleet Creek at low tide before the first bridge was built in 1930.

However, a great friend of ours had a niece whose husband was a partner in Raffin & Bonson Building firm. She and I persuaded my husband to see Mr. Raffin. In the end Mr. Raffin said he would provide work on the buildings if we decided to have a bungalow built on some of his land. This is how we came to live in Kents Hill Road.’

Lilian continues, : ‘Bungalows were not posh as they are today. One had to do one’s own decorating and fittings, just four rooms – a living room, sitting room and two bedrooms, all of a fair size and nice and square, a kitchen stove in the living room with a bath with a wooden top under the window on which you were allowed £75 subsidy if you agreed to have it; a sink in the corner with one cold water tap, no sewers, but we appreciated that cold water tap after only having buckets of water on Canvey. From then on we could use as much as we liked. At that time there were only four bungalows and two houses and a church between here and the main road at the Benfleet end, and only six houses and two bungalows on the left coming up. One good thing, we always had a good bridle path on that side to walk on. The road itself was deep ruts in winter time10.’

Another resident, Alice Chafer, told me the road still wasn’t made up by 1951, and ‘workmen put planks down so I wouldn’t get my wedding dress muddy’11.

Mr and Mrs Driscoll walking up Kents Hill Road in 1953

Dr. Tom Wilks came to Benfleet at about the same time as Kents Hill Road was beginning to be developed. Here he is pictured riding in the, as yet, unmade road in c.1930. The church and the house are still there today.

Benfleet – Kents Hill Road, Tom Wilks ‘A Doctor on Horseback’ c. 1930

Alice Chafer (nee Wade)12 moved to Benfleet during World War Two, when they were bombed out of their home in Canning Town, East London. Her father, John Wade, was a Port of London Docker at Tilbury, and she had a brother, John, and a sister, Joyce, who was born in Benfleet and is fourteen years her junior. One of Alice’s grandmothers was a Whitbread, of brewing fame. The Wades moved in with Alice’s grandparents in Rushbottom Lane, and then rented a bungalow in Kents Hill Road from a Mr. Joplin for 9s. 6d. per week. It was called ‘Blue Brae’ and stood on the Villa Road side of Kents Hill Road near the Bowers Road bend.

Alice remembers the tiny cottage where Holy Family School now stands, as being owned by a Mrs. Allgood, who was a guest at Alice’s wedding to Harry Chafer in 1951. Alice had her wedding reception at the ‘Hollywood’ in Shipwrights Drive. They spent their wedding night together, and then Harry, who was in the Army, was sent to Suez the next day, and she didn’t see him for two years.

Alice was friends with Violet Walters, of ‘Winston’, Kents Hill Road, who worked behind the counter of a shop in Little Tarpots. A lady had left her bacon behind on the counter, and Violet was told to run after her with it. Tragically, she was struck by a car coming down Bread & Cheese Hill. She died at the scene. Alice and Violet were both fourteen years old. Alice, who had been going to pay her mother’s rent, witnessed the accident, and caught a bus to Hadleigh in a state of shock. She sat at the back of the bus shelter at Hadleigh Church for the rest of the day, twisting and shredding her lace handkerchief, until a Hadleigh boy, John Harvey, found her and took her home. Her parents were beside themselves with worry, thinking she had been killed as well.

Alice remembered Lacey’s General Stores being called Brown’s Sweet Shop in the 1940s.

When victory was declared in Europe in 1945, there was a large street party in Kents Hill Road, paid for by Mr. Lazell, the local ironmonger. Alice’s sister Joyce is on the stage in one of the photographs. (The following four photographs were provided by Alice Chafer).The party was held in the Howard’s field. They owned a dairy, and had a large house with a big garden which ran down to the back of Browns. The land in this area possibly once formed part of Little Tarpots farm, which will be my research project for another day!

VE Day Street Party – Kents Hill Road, Benfleet

 

VE Day street party in Kents Hill Road

 

VE Day Street Party – Kents Hill Road, Benfleet

VE Day Street Party – Kents Hill Road, Benfleet

Even as late as 1974, when I moved from my father’s shop in Benfleet High Road to New Thundersley, there was a small copse of trees opposite Kents Hill Junior School. About half a dozen old bungalows with wooden verandas stood next to the copse, as the road bends round towards Bowers Road. One of them was ‘Shamrock’, which was demolished in the 1980s, flanked by ‘Lamorna’, ‘Berry Cottage’, ‘Is-Myth’, ‘Wilthirdor’, ‘Kents Hill Nurseries’, and ‘Ronels’.

On the right, where Holy Family School stands, there was a long winding grassy path which led to a tiny cottage set back a long way from the road, and barely visible through the overgrown garden. It intrigued me as I cycled past to the station in the early 1970s. In the 1930s, as Alice Chafer told me in July 2017, it was owned by a Mrs. Allgood, who brought up four sons at the tiny property. In the same vicinity, was an even smaller cabin, known as ‘The Van’, where an old gentleman called Arthur ‘Tom’ Edwards lived with his housekeeper. His storytelling was popular with the local children.

At the Kents Hill School 50th Anniversary celebrations on the 13th July 2017, Benfleet Community Archive had a display of photographs and articles. Here, I was lucky to meet a former pupil from the late 1960s, Julie Shields, daughter of Tony Shields of the Shields family who run the waste disposal business on the London Road. My article on Kents Hill Road caught her attention, – we got chatting – and she texted her father to come down to the display and join us.

Tony was a mine of information. His grandparents had come to Benfleet in the 1920s, and built a bungalow called ‘Windy Ridge’ in what was then called Rectory Road (now Felstead Road). The land it stands on had been bought from Mr. Varty in 1896, by a coachman.

In 1926, ‘Windy Ridge’ cost £100 to build. I am glad to say, the now rebuilt ‘Windy Ridge’ still stands, after a devastating fire in the 1980s, when they discovered it had no foundations (much the same as my own plotlands cottage). The Shields family took over the Waste Disposal business from Charlie Pay, in 1957, and Shields are still trading.

The Mrs. Allgood, (I mentioned in Alice Chafer’s story), who bought up four sons in a tiny plotlands property in Kents Hill Road, evidently also had a daughter. She became Tony Shields mother-in-law. Mr. Shield’s memories opened up a picture of the area in the 1950s. In the 1950s, the fish shop at Little Tarpots was owned by Johnny Burridge. It then passed to the Childs family, and then Sid Wright. Tony remembers there being three shops in Little Tarpots. What is now Laceys, was a sweet shop come general stores in 1953, owned by George and Ethel Brown. The Howards, of Howards Dairy fame, had a property and a field next door.

The shop now (2017) being re-built and re-roofed, was Leech’s Stores. Opposite Leech’s, roughly where the chiropodists is now, Brenda’s Stores stood.

In the 1950s, Fred Jolley was a grain merchant at Great Tarpots. He supplied Palmers on the corner of Green Road. Wheelers on Bread and Cheese Hill was the Blackbird Café, and the Traveller’s Rest opposite the café, was a Community Hall. At the top of Bread and Cheese Hill, at the start of Thundersley Park Road, was Jordans Stores.

Jordans at the top of Bread and Cheese Hill

Tony Shields reminisced about the people around in the 1950s – Dr. Wilks lived in a big villa in Kiln Road, just past the Council Offices. There were small plotland bungalows dotted around – a Daphne Wilkinson lived in ‘Meadow Croft’ which was set back beside Downer Road. Another, ‘Valona’ in the same area, was owned by George Webster, who had been a prisoner in a Japanese Prison Camp in the Second World War. I remember as a child in 1963, a very gaunt man called George, used to clean windows locally – he cleaned ours, in the sweet shop in the High Road in the early 1960s. I remember my father, Richard Bird, telling me that George had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. George always had a ready smile as he went about his business.

At the top of Bowers Road, where the land starts to rise, the locals called it ‘Green Hill’. It was so rural then, it would be almost unrecognisable today. In Spencer Road, Tony Shields remembers that there was a smallholding owned by a Mr. Jefferies, who kept pigs.

Spencer Road c.1920

The old plotland bungalows were obviously their owners pride and joy, with homely names like ‘Alanville’, ‘The Nook’, ‘Patuna’, and ‘Laburnum’. It was a fashion in the 1930s to link names together to make up a house name, for example, ‘Surene’ which was ‘Sue’ (my husband’s grandmother), and ‘Rene’ (my husband’s mother). ‘Surene’ in Malwood Road.  The requirement to have a house number did not come in until the 1950s. Surene was bought by instalments in the late 1920s by my husband’s maternal grandfather.

Payments for the three plots

 

A view of ‘Surene’ from the front

Kents Hill Road viewed from the High Road in the 1990s

I hope you have enjoyed my snapshot of the folk of Kents Hill, and the development of the area in general through the years. As we continue to evolve in the twenty-first century, if anybody can add anything to this community history, please get in touch with the site.

Footnotes

1 PALGRAVE’S Golden Treasury with additional poems, Oxford Press, 1928, p.143.
2 Whites Directory of Essex, 1848, p.543. In South Benfleet, a William Barnes is listed as ‘Farmer, Kents Hall’; in the Benfleet Directory of 1863, p. 534, William Barnes is listed as, ‘Farmer, Kent’s Hill’.
3 PRIESTLEY, H.E. (Dr.), Journal of the Benfleet & District Historical Society, No. 8, April 1961,inside back cover
4 Ibid., p.6.
5 BENTON, Philip, The History of Rochford Hundred VI together with the Parishes Comprised within the Union, 1867, reprined by Kessinger Legacy Reprints, Sept. 2010, p. 56.
6 BENTON, Philip, The History of Rochford Hundred VI Together with the Parishes Comprised within the Union, 1867, reprinted by Kessinger Legacy Reprints, Sept. 2010, p.64.
7 PRIESTLEY, H. E. (Dr.) Journal of the Benfleet & District Historical Society, No.7, March 1960, p.7.
8 Ibid., p.9.
9 www.gracesguide.co.uk/F._Rosher_and_Co detailed biography.
10 HART, LILIAN, written on her 77th birthday, 1st October 1973 entitled, ‘My Memories of Benfleet and Canvey Island’, from the Journal of the Benfleet & District Historical Society, 1974, pp.2-16.
11 CHAFER, ALICE, ‘Alice Chafer’s story’ told to me 1st July 2017.
12 Ibid.

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