A Kentish History Scrapbook

Waterloo Dispatch travelling through Rochester

Waterloo Dispatch travelling through Rochester - Credit: Archant

Our history sleuth Rachael Hale unearths the stories behind Kent’s rich heritage from Junes past, from news of victory at Waterloo to Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst train crash

Victorious News

The rattle of carriage wheels and the thunder of galloping hoofs signalled the approach of Major The Honourable Henry Percy as he carried the Waterloo Dispatch from Belgium to London.

As the Duke of Wellington’s least-injured aide de camp, Percy had been given the task of taking the Duke’s victorious battle report to the Prince Regent in London.

He also carried two captured Imperial Eagle flags, which he’d been ordered to place at Prince George’s feet in an action that would symbolise the end of a war that had been raging between Britain and France for more than 20 years.

Leaving Waterloo around noon on 19 June 1815, Percy travelled by horse-drawn post-chaise from Brussels to Ostend, where he boarded the Royal Navy sloop HMS Peruvian. However, the wind was not in his favour and soon Percy and the sloop’s commanding officer, Commander James White, had gathered four sailors into a small boat and started rowing across the channel.

Landing at Broadstairs on 21 June, at approximately 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Percy and the Commander located another post-chaise and rushed to London.

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Their route took them headlong through Canterbury, Sittingbourne and Rochester (see above) and they finally arrived in London, somewhat tired and dishevelled, around 10 o’clock that night.

Locating the Prince Regent at a soirée hosted by Mrs Boehm at No. 16 St James Square, Percy apparently burst in shouting ‘Victory! Victory! Bonaparte has been beaten’ and abruptly ended the evening as all the guests, including the Prince, quickly left to pass on the news.

Now, 200 years on, two actors in period uniform will carry ‘The New Waterloo Dispatch 1815-2015’ as they re-enact the journey. The pair will leave the battlefield at Waterloo in a post-chaise on Thursday 18 June and travel to London where, this time, they will be warmly welcomed at the former home of Mrs Boehm, the East India Club in St James’s Square.

Numerous public celebrations and events are being held across Kent, as well as in Central London, Belgium and Germany, to commemorate how the news of this victory spread.

You can find further information at: www.thenwd.org.uk.

A Tragic Tale

Travelling back from France on 9 June 1865, Charles Dickens, his female companion the actress Miss Ellen Ternan and her mother were on the Tidal Express train from Folkestone when it crashed near Staplehurst.

A badly timed repair of the track by a foreman who had neglected to check the timetable caused the train to derail as it crossed the bridge over the river Beult. As it broke in two, eight carriages plunged into the river below and out of the 110 passengers on board, 10 were tragically killed and, depending upon which report you read, either 14 or 52 were injured.

Dickens and his party were more fortunate and, although Miss Ternan received some injuries to her arm and lost ‘a gold watch key and chain, a bundle of charms and a gold seal engraved ‘Ellen’’, they were in the only first-class carriage that didn’t fall over the bridge.

Instead, their coach was caught by broken girders and left dangling from the ruined parapet. It must have been terrifying. A few days later, however, Dickens down-played the whole event and wrote ‘I am shaken, not by the dragging of the carriage itself, but by the work afterwards in getting out the dead and dying, which was horrible.’

What he doesn’t mention is how much work he actually did to help rescue his fellow passengers and, as the subsequent inquest revealed, there are several who would not have survived without his care.

Dickens refused to attend the inquest on the grounds that ‘it could do no good’ but for the rest of his life he was tormented by the scenes of that day. He suffered from recurring nightmares and five years later, on the anniversary of the crash, Dickens died from a stroke at Gad’s Hill in Higham.

There was, however, one other survivor who fared much better and that’s Dickens’ book Our Mutual Friend. Dickens was carrying an early copy of the manuscript on the day of the crash and he later wrote that he ‘instantly remembered’ it ‘and clambered back into the carriage for it.’

Casting a Shadow

What’s the time and what’s the weather like are two of the most-asked questions and this little Anglo-Saxon pocket sundial cleverly combines the two answers. Well, a sundial won’t work without a bit of sun to cast a shadow, will it?

The Canterbury Pendant is, to give it its correct name, a Saxon seasonal-hour altitude dial and it was discovered in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in 1938 when repairs were being carried out to the Cloister Garth.

The area was being re-levelled following the repositioning of some 17th and 19th-century tombstones and it was here, in the middle of the earth, that the pendant was found some two feet below the surface.

It certainly didn’t belong to any of the tombs but there’s evidence to suggest that, due to the location of its time markation points, it once belonged to a senior cleric at the Cathedral.

Made from solid silver with a gold cap and chain, the sundial has been dated to around 950 AD. Around the edges are the inscriptions ‘Health to my maker’ and ‘Peace to my owner’ and it measures 49mm long.

Its broadest face is just 16mm at the top and 18mm at the bottom and each side is inscribed with the months of the year, although not in the expected sequence.

It’s a little tricky to see but the gold pin used as the gnomon, the upright peg used to cast the shadow and therefore mark the time, has a green-eyed animal head at its tip. Another animal head appears at the end of the chain and at the top of the sundial holding the main chain ring in its mouth.

A dragon eating a sun was traditionally used to depict a total solar eclipse and historians have wondered whether this unusual design could commemorate a similar event, such as the partial eclipse seen in Canterbury on 29 October 878 AD.

A sundial of this period divides the sunlight into 12 seasonal hours and, on this dial, the lowermost dots represent noon. The upper dot of each pair marks the traditional monastic praying times of mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

It has since been discovered, however, that this particular sundial isn’t as accurate as it could be but without any other timepieces for the monks to compare it to – how would anyone have known?

The original sundial is still held by Canterbury Cathedral but this replica can be seen at the Canterbury Heritage Museum (do check the current opening times before you visit).

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