Once the unhealthiest place in Kent, Newchurch benefited from improved farming and sanitation to become a thriving community with some fascinating characters.
The population of Newchurch has varied widely over the centuries. The Domesday Book gave the earliest estimate, but this was for the Hundred of Newchurch, which included Ruckinge, Bilsington and St. Mary-in-the-Marsh. At one time, only 8 adults were recorded in Newchurch. The 1851 census showed 177 males and 144 females and in 1901 145 males and 99 females.
In the past Romney Marsh had the worst record in Kent for health and life expectancy, not only due to Bubonic plague, smallpox and fevers, which other areas suffered from, but also marsh ague or malaria.
This most common cause of death in the marsh area between the 16th and 19th centuries was caused by stagnant contaminated water – a good breeding ground for infected mosquitoes, the unsanitary state of the dwellings and lack of good clean drinking and washing water.
From about 1550 to 1750, about one third of infants died at birth or before they were a year old and four out of ten burials were for children under five. Due to the incidence of disease on the marsh and their unhealthy looks, the people were described as mean, stupid and apathetic, not caring whether they lived or died. The landowners and more affluent would live outside the marsh on higher ground, while encouraging workers to work on the marsh by offering higher wages. The smugglers amongst them could easily earn six times as much as other workers.
A fair for toys and all sorts of household items was held at Newchurch every year on 12th June. Here, eel catchers would display vast quantities of eels in tubs around the fair. It was estimated that over a ton of eels were there, as eel feasts were common in Newchurch and the surrounding villages.
The last of the blacksmiths in Newchurch, Jim is seen here by Forge House, with a pile of horseshoes. The original forge was the other side of the house before he took over the old carpenters shop on this side.
Landlord of The Black Bull, Edward Broad with Mrs.Isabella Broad and daughter Isobel, c.1932
Many people had no television at this time. Newchurch villagers were able to watch the Coronation procession and Abbey Service in the village hall on a TV set loaned by Mr. & Mrs. Bradwell. Later, sports events and a cricket match between the ladies and gentlemen were held on the Bull Field. This was followed by a social in the Bull hall.
On 3rd of March 1822, Michael Collyer of Newchurch, inn keeper, was charged with allowing Gaming with Cards at The Black Bull and had forfeited the sum of five pounds, being his first offence.
In 1823, Mary the wife of Soloman Rogers of Newchurch was convicted for swearing four profane oaths – penalty 4 shillings and 1 shilling costs.
On May 25th 1901, George Charles, a waggoner’s mate living at Newchurch, pleaded guilty to riding without reins at Orlestone on May 11th 1901. P.C. Byne saw defendant, who was in charge of a team of four horses, riding on the shafts. Fined 5s., with 9s.6d. costs.
The last meeting of the Board took place in 1930 when it closed.
There is one public charity in Newchurch. In 1707 John Finch of Lympne, left land in his will for the benefit of poor old people in Newchurch and Lympne. The bequest states that a proportion of certain rentals should be distributed to ‘six of the poorest and oldest people in Newchurch and Lympne, who had been good, honest and industrious people of civil life and conversation, being true members of the Church of England, who had never received alms or relief of this parish or any other, if so many should be found here, to be disposed of half-yearly, namely upon the Sunday after Christmas day and the day of my burial.’
Bond making was one of those jobs that was done on a wet day on the farm, when it was not possible to carry on outside. Bonds were straw ropes used to bundle up straw as it came out of the thresher and were made from bundles of straw with the aid of a wimble. This was an implement which put the twist into the bond as the worker gathered handfuls of straw and kneaded it into the turning, lengthening rope. Here 90 year old Fred Stutely judges a bond making competition in Newchurch in 1952.
From left to right are Les Stickles, Punch Ovenden, Alfred Lancaster, Harold Whitehead, Len Whitehead, Jack Bourne, Fred Stuteley, Arch Homewood, Frank Homewood, Ern Head, Bill Buckman, Percy Homewood and Reg Homewood.
This Newchurch character has been the centre of many far-fetched tales and the butt of many jokes to this day, principally because of the way he dressed. His dress is always described when the subject of Barney comes up, and was remarkable for its eccentricity. His trousers are always described as enormous, slung very low, and supported below the knees by straps known as ‘yorks’. There were several layers of voluminous jackets and waistcoats and a narrow black and white plaid scarf. This was topped with fur headgear that resembled a woman’s toque.
His job was rock-breaking, and he would sit at the side of the road on a bag of straw with his hammers, a piece of leather to protect his fingers and a pair of wire gauze goggles to protect his eyes. He was born in 1835 and lived for much of his life in one of the cottages known as the Poorhouse, close to Norwood Farmhouse. He died when he was 87 and is buried in Newchurch churchyard.