60 years of Kent Life: then and now
- Credit: www.chrislawsonphotography.co.uk
As we celebrate 60 years since our very first issue, we chat to the grand-daughter of our founder-editor, Henry Roy Pratt Boorman to find out more about the man behind the magazine and take a look at some of the contents back in June 1962
If charisma runs in families, Kent Life's founder-editor, Henry Roy Pratt Boorman, must have been a pretty charming chap. His granddaughter Libby Lawson welcomes me into the home she inherited via her grandfather - Bilsington Priory, seemingly in the depths of the countryside but actually just five miles from Ashford - with natural warmth, calming enthusiastic dogs as she settle me into one of the capacious sofas in her sitting room. Then, aided by her husband, photo-journalist Chris Lawson she plies me with coffee and home-made millionaire's shortbread, ensuring I'm relaxed before we start to chat. Just as well, really, that Libby's a born hostess, given that Bilsington Priory today runs as an award-winning wedding venue (and a great spot for the regular afternoon teas Libby offers), with bed & breakfast an option in the adjacent Edwardian manor house that's been home to the family since 1949.
It's through Bilsington and through working with Chris - whose stories on local personalities and their passions have featured within Kent Life - that I belatedly made the connection between Libby and her grandfather, Major Henry Roy Pratt Boorman. It was he who, in 1928 following the death of his father, took over the role as editor-proprietor of the Kent Messenger, then going on to found Kent Life as 'editor in chief' in 1962. Libby, who herself once worked in media sales for the family company, thinks he simply spotted a gap in the market for something different that local people would engage with and that advertisers would want to be part of: "It's so easy to forget now but of course, with TV relatively new back then, it was photo-filled magazines like Kent Life that pioneered local lifestyle features. Grandpa always had a nose for a good opportunity, loved good stories and wanted to run with the idea. He was passionate about Kent – a one-time mayor of Maidstone and author of several books about the county. He was also a sharp businessman – apparently he’d regularly tour the county looking for appropriate spots for advertising hoardings."
Known to his staff as 'The Guvnor' and his family as Roy, Henry Roy Pratt Boorman – born in Maidstone in 1900 and a man who ended up with both his own Coat of Arms and an MBE – combined warmth with intellect, business acumen and an exacting attitude to work. Recalls Libby, "I know that my Nan - his former secretary - used to type up his articles and if she made a mistake in her typing, he wouldn't simply cross out that mistake - he'd actually rip the paper, so she had to type it all again. He wanted things done correctly, certainly." He also brought to everything he did impeccable local connections – and wider ones, too. Says Libby: “In 1939, he accompanied George VI and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, on a trip to Canada - though we're not quite sure why.”
Growing up on a nearby farm (her mother, Mary, was Roy's daughter by his second wife and she also has a brother, John), Libby was a frequent visitor to Bilsington: "It was always full of people, from all walks of life – anyone with a story to tell, really. And Grandpa really was passionate about the county, writing a number of books about Kent, covering everything from churches to county heritage - and promoting it wherever he could. In the 1930s, apparently, he produced a magazine entitled, Kent Tells the World championing the county’s business and industry, with copies sent to British embassies around the globe, so he'd long recognised the value of magazines before he set up Kent Life.”
Looking through the very first edition of Kent Life, not only is Libby quick to highlight local families and businesses still thriving today (see below), she is particularly struck by a story about a walk through the Dartford Tunnel, then in the process of being constructed. "Grandpa definitely had a thing about tunnels," she says, "I once had a boyfriend who was working on the Euro Tunnel and he was fascinated by it."
Libby is also a highly accomplished horsewoman who rides daily, while Chris has trained race-horses, so I’m confident both of them will also enjoy a 1962 column by ‘Hopleaf’ that begins, “no where on my travels have I found greater interest in horses and ponies than in Kent”. Elsewhere, Libby, Chris and I note the number of social pages ("they were very popular back then - a real 'thing'"), a feature on nuclear Dungeness and the then-new Detling bypass, plus arts pieces including one that seems to rather insistently headlined “IT WILL BE FUN at Canterbury Festival”. So far, the mix of people, new happenings and the arts is pretty similar to the Kent Life of today but back in our first issue there’s a short story – perhaps that’s something we should consider reintroducing in the current Kent Life...
Like her grandfather and mother, both of whom farmed and kept bees, Libby is passionate about Kent in general and Bilsington Priory in particular. "I know we could sell it and move away," she jokes with Chris, "But I bloody love it here: the people in the community I've grown up in, and the sense of history here, from the ancient priory ruins to this house, which Grandpa bought for £25,000 back in 1949. It's just 'Home', and it's always going to be."
And what does she think her grandfather would make of Kent Life today, under different ownership but still recognisable as the title he set up? "I think he'd be pleased and proud that it's still going strong after all these years," she says. As today's editor, I hope our contents in 2022 would meet with the approval of 'The Guvnor' - and I'm sure he'd recognise that today's Kent Life team is every bit as passionate about the county as he and his team were back in 1962.
From 1962 to 2022
The cover of the original Kent Life featured, not a photograph as we have today, but a series of adverts. One of these was for Grant’s Morella, billed as ‘The Cherry Brandy’ and ‘Kent’s world-famous liqueur’. First produced in 1774 by Thomas Grant in Maidstone, with morello being a locally-grown variety of cherry, the drink is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, and was a favourite tipple of Queen Victoria, whose portrait appears on the label. Its popularity with the Royal Family has continued over the years, with the liqueur granted a coveted Royal Warrant from HRH The Prince of Wales in 1998. Faversham-based Shepherd Neame purchased Thomas Grant in 1988, and relaunched Grant’s Morella Cherry Brandy in the 1990s. It's still made to the same traditional recipe, using only English grain spirit. Anyone who’d care to raise a glass of it to Kent Life - or indeed, of course, to Her Majesty - can buy a bottle from the brewery's Faversham shop or online at shepherdneame.co.uk.
Coming full circle
The first edition of Kent Life featured a double-page spread of local weddings, plus news of engagements. Among those whose wedding-day photo appeared were Mr RJ Lightfoot, of Ashford (and son of Ashford’s mayor), who married Miss CJ Hobbs at Ashford Parish Church on April 17, 1962. Although, sadly, Robert – always known as Robin – died nine years ago, Carol – who Libby immediately recognised when flicking through our first edition - is still very much part of the local scene, still riding horses from her home at Brook – her own auctioneering Hobbs family merged with local estate agency Parkers, and Hobbs Parker is today the southeast’s largest firm of rural auctioneers.
Meanwhile her daughter, Chloe May Lightfoot, is a jeweller and member of the Guild of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, and crafts exquisite pieces - including engagement rings - from her 'Aladdin’s Cave' of a studio, based on a farm near Ashford. Despite having travelled for her work all round the world, from Switzerland o Russia, Kent is where she wants to be. “I love being based here – I grew up with both sets of grandparents 10 minutes down the road, and if I have children that’s what I’d want for them, too,” she says.