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The settlement of Benenden. The Domesday Book surveyors remarked that Benindene was one of only four places in the Weald to have a church; a wealden iron industry probably predated the Romans, whose road for carrying iron from the mines in Hastings to London passed through the village. From the 14th century, the iron industry was supplemented by cloth-making to make the village prosperous. The Guldeford family arrived at the manor of Hemsted in 1388; Sir Thomas entertained Queen Elizabeth here in 1537 and his grandson Edward is buried in the north chancel.

In 1718 the house was sold to Sir John Norris, Admiral of the Fleet and Vice Admiral of England, who has a fine memorial in the church. His grandson, John, married the famous courtesan Kitty Fisher who died from smallpox in Bath just four months later. She was buried in the Norris crypt (location unmarked) in Benenden Church. The industrial revolution and then the expansion of British trade and empire brought changes in Benenden's fortunes. At various times Benenden had four mills - Wandle Mill, a watermill on the River Rother; East End Mill, a post mill (demolished c.1870) at the site later occupied by Benenden Hospital; and a pair of mills to the east of the village, one of which, Beacon Mill is still standing, though without its sails. Thomas Hallett Hodges acquired Hemsted in 1786; his family memorial records his position as High Sherriff of Kent and, poignantly, the death of two teenage sons on ships in the East and West Indies; his first son, Thomas Law Hodges, was MP for Kent 1830-32 and for West Kent 1832-41 and 1847-52. Then, from 1857, the house and the village were dominated by Gathorne Hardy, MP, who came from a Yorkshire family, wealthy owners of the Low Moor Iron Works in Bradford. His glittering political career is recorded on a memorial in the church; in 1878 he became Secretary of State for India, received a peerage and became the 1st Earl of Cranbrook. He built a new house at Hemsted and made extensive changes in the village, completely changing the interior of the church (in the course of which burials within the church were affected without recording the details), clearing properties from the Green (the drawing made in 1808 shows how it had been) to open up the current prospect and provide a magnificent setting for cricket, giving land beside it for the National School to be built (the Church Primary School), and building a working men's club at the village crossroads.

Cricket has been played on the Green since the 18th century. In the churchyard are the graves of two Benenden cricketers, E G Wenman and Richard Mills, who achieved unprecedented success in 1834 by successfully, as a team of 2, challenging 11 chosen players from the Isle of Oxney. Richard Mills' stone is engraved with bat and ball.

In 1907 the National Association for the Establishment and Maintenance of Sanatoria established a hospital, to treat postal workers suffering from tuberculosis. As TB declined, treatment expanded to include chest complaints and cancer; today 'Benenden' (The Benenden Healthcare Society) is a flourishing independent organisation, for most medical and surgical specialities, mainly treating members, but also NHS and private patients.

In 1924 Hemsted House was sold by Lord Rothermere (Harold Harmsworth, co-founder of the Daily Mail, owner of Hemsted since 1912) and became Benenden School, a new independent boarding school for girls. Lord Rothermere lost two sons in the First World War; in their memory he gave generous benefactions to the village of enduring value.

Notable 20th century figures buried in the churchyard include Collingwood "Cherry" Ingram (ornithologist, plant collector and gardener), James Collingwood Tinling (manufacturer of the first jet engine), Robert Speaight (actor and author), Wing Commander Ronald Kellett (founder and leader of Polish Kosciuszko 303 Squadron) and Andrew Gardner (ITN newscaster).

St George's Church occupies an imposing position at the top of the village Green on the ridge which runs from east to west. The Domesday Book records a church here in 1086. It was enlarged towards the end of the 13th century and a south porch added. Further alterations in 1418, may have included the addition of the famous detached bell tower, a skilfully constructed wooden building with shigled spire on a stone foundation, situated some ten or twenty feet from the north-west corner of the nave and stated to have been 132 feet high - nearly twice the height of the present tower. Certainly, the north porch was added with its grotesque gargoyles and stone-vaulted ceiling. The boss at the centre represents a salamander (symbol of eternal life) and the curious corbels in the corners have the shape of fantastic faces or masks. The stone seats on either side were provided for parties to betrothal and marriage settlements and also for handing over legacies and other payments requiring witnesses.

In 1672 there was a great fire:- "Munday the 30th day of December 1672, between twelve and one in the morning, arose a storm of lightning, thunder, a hard gale of wind and some rains out of the south-west, which set fire to the steeple at Benenden: whereby the said steeple, with the roofe and all timber works of the Church was consumed in 4 or 5 howers time; the five large bells melted; also five houses adjoining to the Churchyard Gate on the north side burnt to the Ground". An appeal was launched and rebuilding took place 1677-1678. This included a low flat ceiling supported by Ionic columns, windows probably altered to let in more light, a red three-decker pulpit on the south side, squire's high-boxed pew on the north side and a musicians' gallery in the west end.

The present tower was started at that time but not finished to its present height until 1718. The interior of the church then remained little altered until 1861 when it was entirely re-designed and adapted under the architect David Brandon who was commissioned by the Rt. Hon. Gathorne Hardy, owner of Hemsted from 1857 and later created Earl of Cranbrook. The organ was installed at this time and the stained glass windows followed. The interior has altered little since. The bells have been twice rehung, most recently to include the addition of five new ones, making an exceptional total of 13.

The picture here is taken from a postcard of the church and churchyard from the southeast as it appeared in about 1900. (Click the picture for an enlarged view.)

The Churchyard is still open, so this record is a snapshot in time. There are some 2000 names connected with known plots and a further 8000 burials recorded purely by name. Areas around the church and in current use are kept trimmed, but the older sections (E and D) are maintained as a conservation area and cut only twice a year. Benendenís monumental masonry, situated in relatively clean air and in the relatively humid climate of the Kentish Weald, is well-endowed with lichens, to date one hundred and eleven different kinds, making it one of the richest burial grounds in the county in this respect.


The Parish Church of St George, Benenden. Copyright © 2015. With grateful acknowledgment to the Oxfordshire Family History Society.