Sunday, 4 October 2009

More early Thanet history and reflections on books and documents.

As some of you will know I am no historian and got dragged into the history of Thanet when Ramsgate library burnt down and most of our local history collection was destroyed.

This leaves me with both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to relaying local history to others, I hope all of the serious historians that view our history in the context of a broad understanding of national and world history, which comes from history being their main interest will forgive and correct my errors.

My main advantage when it comes to relaying our local history is that I don’t make much in the way of preconceptions about what I expect my readers to know, running the bookshop and being there when customers are buying their local history books I have a fair idea of what it is they want.

I have come to something of an impasse in my local book publishing mainly because the restrictions of copyright, I have reprinted most of the main local history books that I am allowed to, that is those where the author has been dead for more than 70 years and I don’t have to get permission from them or the beneficiaries of their estates, if they are dead to do so.

Most of the remaining Thanet history books fall into the bracket where the author has died but it is impossible to track down their ancestors to get permission to reprint them, any help with this is always appreciated.

By virtue of the limited amount of information about the history of Thanet and the work that has already been done by past historians, any general work on the history of Thanet is to a greater or lesser extent plagiarism of those previous works.

There is a problem here though and that is that many of the writers either disagree on issues or are just plain wrong, often wrong information is repeated again and again in later books. At the moment I am trying to get a picture of what Thanet was like between about the time of Christ and about 1700, this is the period when there is little written history, I am inclined in my mind to think of it as the early confused period.

One of the most important series of documents that survive are the letters from the monarchs to The Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports from the early 1200s to the mid 1500s. these are mostly held in Canterbury Cathedral Library and have been collected in David Oliver’s book “Late Medieval Thanet and the Cinque Ports” this was only produced in a limited first edition and is fairly hard to get. I am reading it at the moment and hope to make the material in it a starting point for a general history of Thanet.

The general picture I have of Thanet during this period is that of a fortified island slowly turning into an extension of the mainland. This was achieved by the silting up of the Wantsum channel helped along by the land reclamation carried out by the monks who managed most of the land in Thanet.

The oldest map of Thanet is Thomas of Elham’s map of 1414 (above) at this time Thanet is clearly still an island and the Wantsum appears to be a bit less than a kilometre wide at some time between then and the late 1600s when Lewis was writing his history of Thanet it silted up pretty much to the position today.

Lewis claims to have spoken to a person of great age that remembers it being navigable I think it fair to assume this was a gradual process and that over a period of time with the craft able to navigate it getting smaller and smaller over a period of time.

The main harbour on the Isle of Thanet during this period was Margate the other gaps gates and stairs seem to have been mostly used for fishing and smuggling.

As far as our relationship with the Cinque Ports go, all of the Thanet parishes were affiliated with Dover in 1422, with the exception of St Lawrence (Ramsgate), which was a limb of Sandwich.

Sandwich’s effectiveness as a port was adversely effected by the silting up of the Wantsum certainly as early as 1422 something that had a very adverse effect on the town economy, the burgers of Sandwich were very resentful about this and as late as the late 1700s strongly opposed the enlargement of Ramsgate harbour.

As you will have noticed if you read yesterdays post the content of these letters form the monarch can be fairly bizarre and what they mean can be partly interpreted by a broader understanding of history.

This first extract relates to our local pirates:

From King Henry to The Sheriff of Kent (as this was written in 1413 it could either have been Henry IV or V). Arrest robbers in who in English balingers and other vessels lie in the river and take merchandise, goods and victuals though they be of Holande, Selande and other parts of the kings friendship.

The local monks seem to have been in on this game too.

This one in 1426 “Commission enquires into a complaint by the kings French subjects merchants of Abbevylle, Boloigne sur mer and Brugges that the abbot of St Augustines with a fellow monk called Belle and others arrested a ship loaded with wines and other merchandise claiming it belonged to Spanish enemies of the king.

The ship touched the Isle of Thanet. 74 tuns and one pipe of wine were taken away.”

This was just after Agincourt the abbot was condemned by the Westminster council and made to settle for cash with the Duke of Bedford who was the regent of the English positions in France. Interesting that the Abbot a true Thanet man manage to knock the duke down to 180 livere from the 200 demanded.

Or this truly bizarre one from King Edward IV in 1467:

“Commission to John Martyn, Kings Sergeant at Arms, to arrest malefactors who came upon a vessel sailing upon the sea next to The Isle of Thanet, which the merchants of Genoa had laden with 130 bales of woad at Sandwich their own goods to take to London and carried the vessel and goods off to places unknown, and to bring them before the king in Chancery and to seize the vessel and woad and put the same in safe custody.”

Although the ancient Britons painting themselves blue with woad seems to be largely mythical I gather apart from being a strong dye it is also an excellent wood preservative.

I am reminded of the period in the 1970s when Ramsgate harbour imported tractors and most of the boats in the harbour suddenly seemed to have new batteries not unlike those on the tractor.

Sergeant. “Why are all these boats blue?”
I will add to this today if I get the time.


  1. Interesting stuff Michael. During my time at a certain secondary school near you, we had "local history" as a lesson. There's so much to see and learn in and around Thanet.

  2. Wish I had had local history lessons Jeremy, I never know how to present it or if people are interested in the way I do.

  3. when we first moved here I dug into the local history sections at the libraries Thanet has an interesting history

  4. Try 'The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest' in your search for the very early history and archaeology of Thanet. You have it in stock I think.

  5. 19.34 thanks I have and will mention it as I cover the period in more detail and yes I do have it in stock.


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