The Garden of England, as Kent is often described, is the county of my birth and indeed, my ancestors have been living here since the earliest dates. Kent is known as the Garden of England because historically, it was full of pretty apple, pear, plum and cherry orchards. Even today, it is renowned for its excellent fruit. Situated in the south eastern corner of England, its proximity to London meant that there was always a ready market for its produce. On the lonely Romney Marsh area around Dungeness, close to the Sussex border, sheep have grazed for centuries. The Romney Marsh or Kent sheep became a recognised and successful breed that has been exported around the world, particularly to New Zealand. Kent was also the centre of the English beer industry, hops first being grown in the county as early as 1524. Its dry, sunny climate made Kent an ideal place for hop gardens to flourish and oast houses, used to dry the harvested bines, dot the landscape in the Weald to the south. As a maritime county, Kent’s ports were centres of maritime trade and travel to the Continent across the English Channel. Four of the ancient Cinque Ports, originally formed for military and trade purposes, are in Kent: New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Many ships, such as the famous Victory, Nelson’s flagship, were built at the dockyard in Chatham on the north coast. Despite the dominance of agriculture, various industries were established in towns throughout the county: for example, silk weaving in Canterbury, paper making in Maidstone, explosives in Faversham and cement manufacturing along the north Kent coast. In Tudor times, iron smelting and cloth making was practised in the Weald, which was then heavily forested.
The main river in Kent is the meandering River Medway, which roughly divides the county between east and west. If you were born on the east side of the River, you are a Man of Kent or a Maiden of Kent, whilst if you were born on the west side of the River, you are a Kentish Man or Kentish Maiden. Since I was born in a hospital in Chatham, which is just over the eastern border, I am a Kentish Maiden.
Kent is so-called because it was first settled by a Celtic tribe called the Cantii or Cantiaci, who were described as the most civilised of the Celtic tribes by none other than Julius Caesar, who first landed on the Kentish coast at Deal in AD 55. The Romans returned permanently in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius and landed in Richborough, Kent being the gateway to the conquest of Britain. After the departure of the Romans, Kent was settled by Germanic tribes, Anglo-Saxons in the west and Jutes in the east. Undoubtedly, I must have a lot of ancestors amongst those early settlers.
One peculiarity of Kent is the system of gavelkind where all male heirs inherit equally. Gavelkind vanished in all other English counties after the Norman Conquest and was superseded by primogeniture, where the eldest son or nearest male relative inherited all land and assets. It is thought that gavelkind might have survived in Kent because the Men of Kent (the Jutes) reputedly confronted William the Conqueror, and refused to let him pass through to East Kent when they met him in Swanscombe in 1066, after the Battle of Hastings. They would only let William proceed if he allowed them to keep certain privileges, one of these being gavelkind. As a result, Kent was given semi-autonomous status under William’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux. The symbol of Kent is the white horse, Invicta, Latin for unconquered, because the Men of Kent frightened the Normans away.
Location of Records
When it comes to family history, Kent has a wealth of records but it takes some investigation to track down their whereabouts. Many records are divided between the two dioceses in Kent: Canterbury in the east and Rochester in the west. Canterbury was where St Augustine, who brought Christianity to Britain, established his church in 597, becoming its first archbishop. The diocese of Rochester was created a few year later to the west of the county. With the arrival of the Normans, a cathedral (and castle) were built in Canterbury and shortly afterwards, the same in Rochester, which resulted in Kent being the only English county with two cathedrals. Maidstone is the county town but assize courts were held in both Maidstone and Canterbury, as in the Medieval period, Canterbury was granted a charter that gave the city special rights, as if it was a county.
The main archives for the county are held by the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone: https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/
The archives for East Kent are held by Canterbury Cathedral Archives in Canterbury (though the Diocesan records, excluding the parish registers, are at Maidstone):
A large archive collection relating to the Medway area is held by Medway Archive Centre in Strood. Some parish registers have been digitised and are free to download: https://cityark.medway.gov.uk/
Due to changing county boundaries, some parishes that were formerly in Kent have been absorbed into Greater London. Records relating to these parishes can be found at the following archives:
Bromley Local Studies and Archives: https://www.bromley.gov.uk/historiccollections
Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre: https://www.bexley.gov.uk/discover-bexley/archives-and-local-history
London Metropolitan Archives (LMA): https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/london-metropolitan
Surrey History Centre (West Wickham parish): https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre
It is well worth exploring the catalogues of the above archives to identify records of interest.
Original parish registers are spread out between the various archives. The parish registers of West Kent are largely held by the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone (coloured pink on the map below). Parish registers for East Kent are held by the Canterbury Cathedral Archives in Canterbury (coloured blue on the map). Parish registers for the Medway area (coloured beige on the map) are held by the Medway Archive Centre in Strood. Parishes that were formerly in Kent, but are now part of Greater London (and in one instance, Surrey) are held by various archives, as detailed previously.
When it comes to online parish registers, by far the best website for Kent is FindmyPast: http://www.findmpast.co.uk/. A parish list provides a rough guide to the span of the registers that have been indexed for each parish, divided between baptisms, marriages and banns, and burials. However, although this is a valuable collection, researchers should be aware that the county has yet to be covered comprehensively and there are still gaps in the collection. Furthermore, some entries refer only to transcriptions, so it is still necessary to search the original parish registers to obtain the fullest information.
Ancestry – http://www.ancestry.co.uk/ – has limited coverage of Kent parish registers and there is no detailed parish list. However, it does have indexes to parishes now in the London Borough of Bexley 1754-1935, and the Tyler Collection, which contains entries transcribed from parish registers in East Kent. The Genealogist – http://www.thegenealogist.co.uk/ – has a small collection of Kent parish registers but the parish list is detailed. FamilySearch – http://www.familysearch.org/ also has a small collection of Kent parish registers.
I am pleased to say that there are some good marriage indexes for Kent. I am a big fan of marriage indexes, as they enable you to more easily identify siblings and potential parents when you are missing a baptism. They can also reveal the spread of a surname in an area thus helping you localise the name at earlier dates.
Sydney Smith produced a marriage index for West Kent, 1538-1812, which contains all known marriages in 133 churches or chapelries. This is now available to purchase either as a download or in CD-ROM form from Kent Family History Society:
There is also a marriage index for the period 1813-1837, compiled by Michael Gandy, that covers the whole of Kent. This is now available as part of the online records of the Society of Genealogists (SOG): https://www.sog.org.uk/.
A marriage index for grooms only covering East Kent for the period 1538-1754 is available at Canterbury Cathedral Archives. These marriages are also part of the Kent collection on FindmyPast. A marriage index for East Kent, 1754-1813, has been compiled by Michael Gandy and is available as part of the online records of the Society of Genealogists (SOG): https://www.sog.org.uk/
A free online marriage index covering parishes in mid-Kent, 1754-1911, is available on the Woodchurch Ancestry Group website: https://www.woodchurchancestry.org.uk/midkentmarriages/
Poor Law Records
Poor Law records can be very valuable to the family historian, particularly for revealing migration from one parish to another. Transcriptions of settlement certificates, settlement examinations, removal orders and bastardy bonds and other poor law material from Kent have been made by genealogist, Gillian Rickard. Details of her research services can be found here:
Kent Family History Society has also produced a CD (11), covering the Poor Law records of Mid-Kent:
The contents of this CD can also be purchased as a download:
It is fortunate that there is a marvellous collection of monumental inscriptions (M.I.s)for many churchyards across Kent, freely available on the website of Kent Archaeological Society: https://www.kentarchaeology.org.uk/research/monumental-inscriptions/
The M.I.s are indexed under each parish and often, additional research has been undertaken to add more information on a person, taken from a census or probate record for example.
Every family historian dreams of finding probate records that relate to their family because they can provide wonderful evidence on relationships, land holding, and the personal wishes of a testator. However, finding wills prior to 1858 can be a complicated business. Fortunately, there are many guides to the probate records of Kent. In summary, East Kent is mainly covered by the Archdeaconry Court and Consistory Court of Canterbury whilst the Archdeaconry Court and Consistory Court of Rochester covers West Kent. However, there were also the peculiar courts of Shoreham, Cliffe and Wingham and many Kent testators had their wills proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the highest court in the land.
For a visual aid, the maps of the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers provide the probate jurisdiction of each parish in Kent. These maps, published by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, can also be viewed on Ancestry. Another great resource is Kent Probate Records: A Catalogue and Practical Guide by Dr David Wright, which can be downloaded for free here:
Kent History and Library Centre have also compiled their own guide to Kent wills:
There is a collection of indexes to Kent probate records on FindmyPast, though the original records are held by the Kent History and Library Centre. If your ancestors were from East Kent, it is well worth looking at the complete and consolidated index to Canterbury probate records, 1396-1858, which can be searched online:
Dr David Wright has also compiled full indexes to many Kent probate records:
Although it is a lucky dip, you will find indexed transcriptions to over 6500 Kent wills here:
Indexes and transcriptions of Medieval and Tudor wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (P.C.C.) and Consistory Court of Canterbury (C.C.C.) can be found on the website of Kent Archaeology Society:
Tithe commutation surveys were carried out after the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, which allowed the payment or tithes in kind to be substituted for money payments. The records consist of a map and a corresponding schedule (apportionment) that lists owners and occupiers (tenants) of property and a description of the land for each parish. Kent Archaeological Society has transcribed the schedules of most Kent parishes, which can be searched by parish:
The maps are not available online but can be viewed at Kent History and Library Centre along with the original schedules, and at the National Archives (U.K.): https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
Kent Family History Society
Kent Family History Society is well worth joining if you have ancestors from Kent. It is a large society with over 2000 members around the world and they have many resources. Information on the civil registration districts in Kent and cemeteries in the county is available on their website. In particular, the society has a wide range of CDs available for purchase containing scans of parish records: members receive a discounted price. These can also be downloaded from the Parish Chest website, run by the Federation of Family History Societies: https://www.parishchest.com/.
North West Kent Family History Society
If your ancestors were from a parish in north-west Kent, or what is now south-east London, the North West Kent Family History Society will be of interest. Following the demise of Tunbridge Wells Family History Society, they also now cover parishes in the south of the county. Explore their website for details of their publications and resources:
Kent ARCHAEOLOGICAL Society
Kent Archaeological Society was founded in 1857 to promote the study of the archaeology and history of Kent. This is a very active society that covers a wide range of interests. There are many benefits to membership, including the society’s renowned publication, Archaeologia Cantiana. Membership is free for students 18+. Further details can be found on their website:
Details of Kent Civil Registration Districts: https://www.ukbmd.org.uk/reg/ken.html
Name rich indexes to Kent Quarter Sessions Records: https://freepages.rootsweb.com/~mrawson/genealogy/sessions.html
An online resource for photographs and drawings from Kent parishes:
A resource on workhouses in Kent:
Pedigrees of the Families of the County of Kent by William Berry:
Kent Online Parish Clerks:
Manorial Documents Register – Kent has now been added so one can discover what manors existed for each parish, the surviving records and their whereabouts:
It would be impossible to describe all the wonderful records that are available for family historians researching in Kent but I have aimed to highlight some of the most useful and accessible sources, especially those where indexes are available. I would also encourage you to consider joining one of Kent’s family history societies or Kent Archaeological Society to make the most of their wonderful resources. Kent has a fascinating history and I hope this article will encourage you to learn more about your Garden of England ancestors.
© Judith Batchelor 2022
To date, I have traced most of my Kentish ancestors back to the 18th century and in a few cases, to the 1660s, just after the English Civil War.
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