Church should review battle memorials say local residents

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Memorial to those killed in Bossenden Wood

More than forty local residents have written a letter to the Cathedral requesting that memorials to the casualties of the Battle of Bossenden Wood should be included in the Church’s Review of the political significance of its monuments. 

This Battle took place in 1838  near Dunkirk, just outside Canterbury, when the Army was sent to put down an uprising of farm workers led by the colourful character of John Thom. He was a charismatic figure and a powerful orator who had gathered a considerable following in the area. He called himself Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta and dressed in flamboyant costumes. 

Thom has regularly been dismissed as `mad’ and the uprising as a `riot’. In fact, Thom led the last of a series of protests and uprisings by impoverished and desperate farm workers in the 1830s that started with the `Swing Riots’. The first of these occurred in Lower Hardres, also nearby. There is nothing there to commemorate this.

The battle in Bossenden Wood was brief but bloody. Thom was the only one of the demonstrators who was armed, the rest had only cudgels and farm implements. As soon as they engaged, Thom shot one of the officers, Lieutenant Henry Bennett. The soldiers then opened fire. Thom and eight of the farm workers were killed and many others were wounded. 

The bodies of Thom and the other workers who were killed were taken to the Red Lion pub nearby where they were put on public display. The battle was reported in The Times and curious sightseers poured in to see them. They were then buried in unmarked graves in the churchyard of St Michael’s, Hernhill.

Lt Bennett was buried with full military honours in the Cathedral, where there is a marble memorial to him. It does not explain who he was or how he died apart from saying that he “fell in the strict and manly discharge of his duty”. 

Memorial to Lieutenant Bennett

Until recently there was no memorial to Thom or to the others who died with him. A few years ago a wooden board was put up in the churchyard at Hernhill which lists their names and ages, and states that they were “killed in Bossenden Wood”, but it provides no explanation of the circumstances of their deaths. There is no marker at the site of the Battle and until earlier this year it was not even noted on Ordinance Survey maps. 

The Battle of Bossenden Wood was an event of considerable historical significance. It was the last battle with casualties on English soil and has been called the `last peasant’s revolt’. The recent letter argues that it deserves a more fitting recognition than it has so far received.

The letter points out that this is an important local instance of a situation that is all too common. Most monuments in Churches and public places are to the wealthy, to politicians and military figures, few are to working people or to those who fought for their interests, let alone to black, Asian and ethnic minority figures. 

The letter asks for the memorials to the casualties in Bossenden Wood to be included in the Church’s Review. It does not ask for these memorials to be taken down. Rather it urges that an account of the context of their deaths should be provided by these memorials, and that a more fitting and enduring memorial to the casualties buried in Hernhill should be erected. 

The letter has been received warmly by the Cathedral and by the Vicar of St Michael’s, Hernhill. A response is now awaited.

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