“The Oak Cottage” or “Oak Cottage”, on The Green
“The Oak Cottage” – or just plain “Oak Cottage” on The Green – was always a small, modest house, lived in by ordinary village people, usually craftsmen. In the last 200 years, it has only had three owners – the Farmer Baily family, the Morley/Hope-Morley family and now, since 1964/65, the Rowley family. But even its tenants have lived in the cottage for long periods – only four families in well over 150 years.
The Oak Cottage may possibly be the remains of a Tudor cottage – or it may be just on the site of a cottage from the 15th or 16th century. A 1541 map – which is very small scale and not very clear – shows three or four buildings in the field to the south of the road below the church. These could be any of Elizabeth Cottage, The Oak Cottage, Old Chimneys, Old Wood Cottage and/or Gales.
One expert said that the beam timbered wall on the south side of the house was Tudor and that some of the nails taken from internal walls could be that old. Only part of the timbered wall in the kitchen remains but in 1964 it stretched the whole 20ft of the south side of the cottage. However, others have suggested that the bricks between the beams are too large for that period. If it was built this early, it seems possible that the southern wall was an internal wall, with the building extending further southwards. The wall seems to have been originally only 4½ inches (which was later widened and rendered) and, as we will see from some of the shapes of the building on various maps, the building did seem to run further south.
Equally unclear is whether The Oak Cottage existed in 1579 when there was a register of houses in the Parish. A small cottage on the Green is mentioned but with no name. The cottage was owned by John Rogers – a landowner who certainly would not have lived in it.
By 1620/1630, The Oak Cottage seemed to be owned by Thomas Carpenter who had inherited it with other houses in the village from his father, John. In 1642, Stephen Bellingham owned the property and twenty three years later it is inherited by his daughter, Obedience – perhaps the most interestingly named owner. However, as women could not hold property in their own name, it became registered in her husband’s name, James Beecher and passes in 1698 to their son, James Beecher, the younger. He sold it to the Burgess family who are by this time Lords of the Manor. (See Lawrence Biddle’s book, Leigh in Kent 1550-1900, p.23 Burgess at Hall Place from ca 1745-1820 and the F N Stagg informal history of the village which says the Burgess family were landowners in Leigh from 1747).
Of course, the above owners were just that – owners: they had tenants in the cottage. We know nothing for certain about the size or shape of the cottage in this period until 1700 and only the names of a few tenants. The cottage was apparently occupied by William Richardson around 1750.
Relatively definite evidence of dating of the house in its present form comes from coins dated 1700 and 1701 found embedded in the plaster of the lathe and plaster outer wall of the main bedroom in 1965 by the Rowley family. So at the start of the 18th century the main external walls of the cottage were as they were in 1964/65 19ft 3ins (5.87m) east-west and 24ft (7.32m) north-south or 17ft 9ins by 22ft 6ins internally. And it remained this basic size and shape with four rooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs – a period of 270 years – until extensions were added by the Rowley family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The garden, too, would have almost certainly kept the same boundary and almost certainly was primarily for producing fruit and vegetables as it was until 1964.
About this time, from 1700 on, the look of the Green was changing. The area in front of The Oak Cottage and in the centre of the village, known as the Green, has been called the Green/Leigh Green from at least the 15th century[i] (see below*). It had been a central field, owned like so much else, by the Hall Place estate. A certain number of residents – mainly those near the Green but including at least one farm, Great Barnetts – would have had rights to graze their livestock on it. In his book about cricket in Leigh, Nigel Shaw reckons that at some time between 1700 and 1750 cricket started in the village but it would only have had a scythed outfield around a more regularly cut square. There was no footpath or cart track round the edge of the field – probably only a track to what is now Green View Avenue probably from the Forge for the farmers to get to the land towards the Medway. It was not until the 19th century that the Green was more formally recognized as a public space, although it continued to be by the Hall Place Estate (until 1946). The Historical Society has the formal “Return of all Commons and Open Spaces within the Leigh Parish” dated 9 June 1865 which says “Leigh Green. 7-1-4 acres[ii]. Used for Fairs and Crickett (sic) and other Amusements by the Inhabitants of Leigh from time Immemorial. Signed M Noble and Frederick Relf – Overseers of the Poor.”
There are four maps from 1758 to 1778 which feature Leigh. However, none gives any clear detail of The Oak Cottage. The 1758 map – Lady Yonge’s Estate – is very unclear and shows little more than the church and the main part of the village; the 1760 maps are surveys of four farms and give no useful information about the central village; the 1769 Andrew Drury map – once again spelling the village LEIGH as with all these 18th century maps – has four or five small rectangles south of the field below the church; and Hasted’s huge tomes (1778), with their beautifully drawn maps, again only show five rectangles on the south side of the road between the High Street and “Barnett” which could even include some of the High Street houses and Gales in Powder Mill Lane as well as Elizabeth Cottage, The Oak Cottage, Old Chimneys and Old Wood Cottage. The earliest semi-official Ordnance Survey map of 1801 is very small scale and even by 1821, when maps were becoming more sophisticated, Greenwood’s map of Kent shows only three black rectangles where The Oak Cottage is today.
Lawrence Biddle (Leigh in Kent 1550-1900 -p75) wonders whether The Oak Cottage was rebuilt around the 1820s, or perhaps around 1800, citing the arched windows of the cottage as being from this period. Only one of these original windows remains – on the north side, although photographs taken during the Second World War show the four front sash windows either side of the porch as the arched type, (replaced by metal window in the 1950s). However, the coins dated 1700 and 1701 make this suggestion invalid as far as the main structure is concerned.
During the nineteenth century it is clear that the house continued to belong to the Hall Place Estate, first the Burgess family and then the Farmer Baily family. In 1822 Oak Cottage was included in the property acquired by the first Farmer Baily from Mrs Harbroe of the Burgess family (Lawrence Biddle, Leigh in Kent 1550-1900, p 130).
In the 1840/41 Tythe map several features about the house are shown. The cottage is number 45 and the index does not call it The Oak Cottage – just “Pound”. There is a path to the cottage across what is called “Leigh Green” from the bend at today’s Vicarage and Pippin Cottage gardens, just below the present War Memorial over to The Oak Cottage; but there does not yet seem to be a track round the Green. There seems to be a clearly marked fence round the Pound to the west of The Oak Cottage and there is a large pond about the size of the cottage garden on the eastern boundary of the Pound. The shape of the house is somewhat puzzling as it not only seems to run primarily north/south but it has what appears to be an extension on the eastern side running more than half the length of the building. Whilst there was certainly a bread oven with its exterior chimney in this area, no foundations of walls to the east of the cottage were found when the 1960s extension was being constructed there. It is possibly that the map is wrong and what it shows is the separate outhouse which was 16½ ft from the eastern wall of the cottage. (It was a building containing a privy or perhaps two privies) and at some stage a single story tiled workshop, both of which were still there in 1964 and remain today (2017), although the converted privy is now within the extension).
The 1870 Ordnance Survey Map, however, seems to confirm many of the Tithe Map details, although not very clearly and there is no name given to the cottage. The shape is still an “L” and there seems to be a porch or something similar in the middle of the southern wall. For the first time two outhouses seem to be shown – confirmed on the map two years later.
The 1872 drainage map (by far the clearest of the maps showing the cottage) again gives the similar shaped cottage but also clearly shows the two outhouses – one on the NE corner of the garden and one on the site of the privy. (The similarity of the shape of the house in these maps may well have occurred as one map followed the previous one. However, it does not explain the shape on the first one). What is very clear, however, is the size and position of the pond which stretches around the cottage on the eastern but also now the southern side – probably 40-45ft north/south and 50-60ft east/west. All these aspects of the size and shape of the cottage and its surroundings in mid-Victorian times seem reasonable, with the major exception of the shape of the house which does not seem to tie in with the 20th century shape of the cottage.
From the middle of the 19th century, the various families who rented the property can be traced. In the 1851 census, the cottage is occupied by Henry Barden who is described as a “journeyman carpenter”. Henry Barden had been born in Leigh in 1816. His father – another Henry Barden – had come to Leigh from Brenchley in the early part of the century and had clearly worked his way up locally because by 1841 he had become the Bailiff or Steward to Thomas Farmer Baily. It would have been quite natural for Henry the younger to train as a carpenter; travel the country as a “journeyman” (His oldest son was born in Woolwich); and to return to the village where he had been born and where his father must have had a say in allocating one of the estate cottages to his son and the young family. Henry Barden the younger seems to have taken over The Oak Cottage around 1848 and the 1851 census confirms this. Henry Barden the elder was clearly an active man (he fathered three children by a second wife forty years younger than himself when he was nearly seventy); and it was almost certainly at his instigation that in 1856 four semi-detached cottages were built next to The Oak Cottage – which were and still are perhaps unsurprisingly called Barden Cottages. Rumour has it that Henry Barden the younger had a good deal to do with the actual building of the cottages next door to him. The family is still shown as living at an unnamed house on the Green in 1861 which is clearly Oak Cottage; and in 1864 the Leigh rate book belonging to Thomas Farmer Baily shows Henry Barden in The Oak Cottage.
When Samuel Morley bought Hall Place in 1870, The Oak Cottage was one of the many cottages included in the sale. It is sometimes assumed that the Hall Place Estate owned virtually every house in the village and almost certainly every house in the middle of the village and around the Green. However, Lawrence Biddle’s research on the 1870 Hall Place Map, the 1922 Penshurst Estate map and the Rate Book information to the Census list shows that in the 1850-1880 period the Sidneys owned a number of houses around the Green area, including Elizabeth Cottage, the Cricket Pavilion, Barden Cottages, Old Chimney, Gales and Greenways Cottage (Penshurst Sales Particulars pages 15, 14, 13, 11 and 10). But they did not own The Oak Cottage. In the 1870 Hall Place Sale Particulars, it describes what is now The Oak Cottage as follows: Lot 15: a cottage dwelling, brick, board and tile. With barge boards, containing 8 rooms, with carpenter’s shop and garden, situate on Leigh Green, near the preceding lots, on the East, No. 59 on Plan: and containing 11 perches. Let to John Cooke at a Rent of £10 per annum.
However, John Cooke is not there in the 1871 census; in fact, it is not possible to determine which property is The Oak Cottage in this census. Therefore, nothing more is known about Mr Cooke. And soon afterwards its use was changed, for when the new Hall Place was being built, Mr Morley was distressed that so many of the labourers who had been brought down from London to Leigh had nothing to do with their spare time – except, one guesses, to get drunk which he vehemently opposed, so he turned The Oak Cottage into a Christian Reading Room for at least part of the 1870s.
However, probably towards the end of the 1870s, when Hall Place was completed and the outside workmen had left the village, The Oak Cottage was changed back from a Reading Room to a dwelling. It was occupied by George Simmons and his family. George had been born in Edenbridge where his father had been a cordwainer (or shoe maker). George had moved first to lodgings in Forge Row, Leigh (where Forge Square cottages now are), where he is shown in the 1871 census as being a cricket ball maker.
When George moved to The Oak Cottage, he was in his mid-forties and his wife, Mary, was slightly older. They had had eight children, of whom seven survived, although by the time they got to The Oak Cottage only four were still living with their parents – Eliza, who is described in the 1881 census as aged 19 and “sometime servant, unemployed”; Joseph aged 11 and John aged 9, both presumably at the Village School for boys; and baby Fanny, aged 3. Ten years later Eliza had moved away from The Oak Cottage but the two youngest children remained, with George still a cricket ball maker, his son John who is “unemployed” and Fanny. By 1901, Fanny has moved away but otherwise the census shows no change – John still with no occupation recorded, although at some point John began to follow his father and became a cricket ball maker – in his case with Messrs. Duke & Son. The 1911 census gives John Simmons, then 39 and single, as a cricket ball maker – stitcher, still living with his parents, who are in their late 70s. His father, George, still a cricket ball maker at 77. However, a year later, John Simmons would be dead. John – known as Jack by the family – was one of the victims of the Titanic disaster which took place on 15 April 1912. He was 40 years old.
In the early 1960s, an elderly Leigh resident (the Rowleys cannot remember whether it was Charlie Ingram or Bert Stubbings) added some extra memories. The Rowleys were told that Jack Simmons who was wrongly said to be “aged 18” and a lady by the name of Helen Twomey sailed on the Titanic on their honeymoon. However, this rumour is contradicted by further research. There is no record of any marriage for a start. Jack’s age is completely wrong and Helen had a job to go to in America. Nor were they even travelling in the same class. (More information is given under Jack Simmons .
The villager also remembered either from personal or from village memory that there was a memorial service for Jack where Mary Simmons, Jack’s mother, wore black but purposely wore a large red flower in her hat. Jack’s body was not recovered but he is remembered on his parents’ tombstone in Leigh Churchyard.
The Simmons were said to keep pigs, with Doris Ingram who lived in the cottage from 1923 remembering that there was a sty “across the yard” (i.e. in the SE corner of the garden) and a hook in the kitchen ceiling where the pork/hams were hung while they were cured.
George Simmons died the year after his son John in 1913 but his wife, Mary, continued to live in the cottage until 1921. After her death, the Estate allocated the cottage to Charles (Charlie) and Ethel Ingram, a Leigh family from at least the middle of the 19th century. There is a good deal about the lives of Charlie and Ethel, their two children, their wartime evacuee and Charlie’s father, Ike, in “We Had Everything . . . “ (see index) which is interesting but not necessary to repeat here. However, there is no mention of a bread oven and its chimney on the eastern side of the house. Perhaps this part of the building was demolished early in the 20th century before the Ingrams arrived but this is unlikely as the three chimneys appear in an undated photograph of the cottage which could be from the 1920s or 1930s or even the 1940s.
The Historical Society has a copy of the March 1925 lease of the Village Green by the Right Honourable Samuel Hope, Baron Hollenden of Lyghe (sic) to the Rural Parish of Leigh (sic) of the land constituting the Village Green, containing 6 acres and 2 roods or thereabouts for 21 years yielding and paying yearly rent of 5/- (five shillings). Cricket and other games were forbidden on Sundays.
Charlie and Ethel Ingram rented The Oak Cottage from around 1921. Before that they had lived at Cinder Hill. They were pillars of the village community for the next forty years. Charlie was (again) a cricket ball maker but – as is described in “We Had Everything …” he had to turn his hand to odd jobs, including grave digging, to make ends meet. For many years he was the Verger and Doris Ingram remembers he was famous for winning virtually every prize for vegetables at the Produce Association Shows. Many more details of the day-to-day life in The Oak Cottage are given in “We Had Everything …”.
Several changes to The Oak Cottage and its environs took place while the Ingrams lived there. At some point, probably when gas was installed in the cottage, primarily for a gas cooker but also for gas lighting in the sitting room, the copper in the corner to the left of the kitchen window was abandoned. The copper was being used to do all the washing and to provide bathwater in the 1920s and 1930s. The copper itself was still in place in 1964 but the chimney which must have been there (the fourth chimney!) had long been taken down. There were three other major changes between 1921 and 1964. Firstly, around 1930, Mr Boakes, a local builder helped by his son Dusty Boakes, filled in the pond which surrounded the Cottage on the east and south corner of the dwelling. Secondly, in front of the outdoor earth privy, some six yards from the back door of the cottage, a water closet was installed. Charlie Ingram said to the Rowleys, the new owners in 1964, that this addition to the facilities was only added in the 1950s. Thirdly, one of the cottage’s two remaining chimneys was taken down, probably in the late 1940s. It was a large chimney on the southern side in the dining room. And finally, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, the four distinctive arched windows at the front of the house were replaced – by the Hall Place Estate – by iron framed Crittall windows, with plum coloured paint. There was one last change just before the Ingrams left. It seems likely that villagers in The Oak Cottage had the right to graze geese and probably sheep, pigs and goats on the Green until the 1920s and 1930s but, unfortunately, all the Deeds for the cottage and many of the houses in Leigh were destroyed in the Second World War’s London bombing of the I & R Morley offices in the City or in Hall Place’s solicitor’s office (Biddle and Son). So the owners of The Oak Cottage can find no legal proof of their grazing rights.
By the 1950s, the Hall Place Estate was finding it difficult to keep the houses that they owned in a state of reasonable repair. Alfred Houghton, the Estate’s Agent, talked about it in later years, explaining that the rents were so low that the Estate found it difficult to do more than vital repairs, even though people’s expectations had dramatically changed between 1930 and 1950. The temporary ‘pre-fab’ homes down The Green Lane had central heating; hot and cold water; WCs and refrigerators. Few of the Estate houses had any of these; and certainly The Oak Cottage had none of them. Its ground floor was very old bricks laid on sand; its downstairs brick walls let in damp which permeated through to wooden wainscoting which stayed up only because of many layers of paint. The roof leaked and it had only one cold tap which was above an old stone sink in front of the window in the kitchen, next to the copper.
Charlie Ingram told the story of a last repair before he left the cottage with relish. One Saturday in the summer of 1964, he had been coming out of the ancient canvas tent in which the Village Produce Association Annual Show was held. As always, Charlie had won virtually all the prizes for vegetables and, as always, the 2rd Lord Hollenden (Geoffrey) had given Charlie the just rewards of many red rosettes. The two knew each other well, Charlie having been church verger for 20 or 30 or even 40 years whilst His Lordship had been the Rector for an equal time. As they walked out of the tent, His Lordship, wishing to make polite conversation, said “Well Charlie – where do you live?” Charlie pointed to The Oak Cottage thirty yards away. “Terrible state it’s in” said His Lordship, “who owns it?” Charlie was able to say “You do”, and when he told the story to the Rowleys he said it with a wry grin. However, he did add that Alfie Houghton, the Hall Place Estate’s manager, arrived on the Monday morning and a good quality new roof was erected within weeks.
We can get some idea of the predicament faced by the Hall Place estate by looking at the rent book now donated by Robin Hope-Morley to the Historical Society when the family sold Hall Place in 2017. The rent books cover all the many houses in Leigh and the surrounding area owned by the estate from the 1930s to 1959. They include large houses such as The Woods, Park House and Porcupine House down to small cottages, including The Oak Cottage. The rent, together with rates, for the “Cottage, the Green no. 47” was:
1930 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £3-15-11 for rates. Total: £19-7-11
1931 £3-18-0 (5 payments this year) = £19.10.00. Plus £3-15 for rates. Total: £23-5-00
1932 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £3-4-3 for rates. Total: £18-16-3
1933 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £3-3-1 for rates. Total: £18-15-1
1934 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £3-4-10 for rates. Total: £18-16-10
1935 £3-18-0 3 payments; £3-3 one payment making £15-18-. Plus £3-9-7 for rates. Total: £19-7-7
1936 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £1-17-6 for rates. Total: £17-9-6
1937 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £1-19-4 for rates. Total: £17-11-4
1938 & 1939 £3-18-0 a quarter or £15-12-0 a year. Plus £4-6-8 for rates. Total: £19-18-8pa
1940 Rent the same. Rate increase. Total: £20-9-6 pa
1941 Rent the same. Rate increase. Total: £20-15-2 pa
1942 Rent the same. Rate decrease. Total: £20-6-2 pa
1938 H Faircloth (carpentry) £2-7-6
White & Co. £5-3-0
1939 Woodhams & Son: £20
1956 & 1957 Rent £3-18-0 a quarter
1958 Rent increase by 7/6d in May and 19/2p in October – making £12-9-2 a quarter or almost £50pa
1959 Rent continues at £12-9-2 a quarter
Therefore, there was a dramatic increase in 1958 meaning that the rent had more than doubled from nearly £20pa to nearly £50pa.
Alfie Houghton explained the position many years later. The Estate felt committed to the village and its inhabitants, many of whom had lived in their houses for at least one, if not two generations and many of whom had worked for the Estate. Yet as costs of repairs escalated and the expectation of what was a reasonable standard for a house rose, the Estate found it was losing money even without much modernization. The Estate’s financial advisers, therefore, suggested that all the houses should be sold, which in the late 1950s it started to do.
In the case of The Oak Cottage, by 1963/4 Charles and Ethel Ingram felt they had to move. The cottage had become so decrepit and damp in spite of the new roof and Ethel was not well. Luckily, they were able to move into the newly erected Charlotte Cottages. The Oak Cottage was auctioned in November 1964 and bought by Chris and Anna Rowley for £3,600. Charlie, however, continued to give helpful advice and lectures to the new owners as he regularly walked round the Green.
From early 1965 until September 1965, the Rowleys had the house rewired – when they bought the cottage it had gas lights in the sitting room. They dug about 30 tons of solid clay out to lower the ground floor; replaced the metal Crittall windows on the western side with wooden sash windows; installed hot air central heating and a hot water system for upstairs and downstairs; made one bedroom into a bathroom; took out a small coal fire in the sitting room to find a large open fireplace behind it; and completely redecorated, as well as re-doing the garden including building a N-S wall to provide a more private back garden. Over the coming years they built a single storey garage to the east of the cottage, with the outside WC and the outside privy incorporated within it and linking it to the old outside workshop. They also built on a porch onto what was originally the west facing front door. In the early 1980s they obtained planning permission to double the size of the house to the east, incorporating the single storey garage. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, their builder was Dusty Boakes from Ide Hill, who, with his father, had filled in the pond beside the cottage in the early 1930s. At various times, they bought more land, including the ditch/stream on the south side of the garden and the triangular piece of land behind it. In the early 1980s, they also bought the field behind Barden Cottages from Mrs Goodwin – who was, after her father, the farmer at Paul’s Hill Farm – and, around 2005, an unused piece of land at the end of Barden Road which had once been allotments and a car park. The latter was made into an Italian-styled, four level garden.
Around 2000, a sewage blockage occurred which revealed the three generations of pipe work from the cottage. In 1964 they had connected the new bathroom with the pipe leading from the outside lavatory which they in turn had connected to the kitchen sink waste water. However, when a camera was put down the blocked drain, it revealed not only many roots but an offshoot pipe which went towards where the pond had been. It was the original drain from the only tap in the house. However, it had become connected to the sewage outflows. The pipe towards the old pond was sealed off but not before noticing how well the oak tree, planted on the Green in the 1970s, had grown – well fertilized.
CHRIS ROWLEY (revised Jan 2018)
(with additional research by Joyce Field)
[i] The Green, at Leigh:
From “Some Historical Notes on the Parish of Leigh in Kent” Leigh Archives:
LE BROKE was a house and garden in 1496, when Richard Gilwyn – who lived at “Gilwyns alias Cinderhill” – left it to John Chyldern (Children) and Dionisia his wife. In the 1496 deed Le Broke is described as bounded to the N. By churchyard, to the W. By Chyrchelane (Church Hill) and to the south by “a common called Le Grene”. Also in the Manor of Leigh Hollenden Court records, there is mention as early as 1641 of the property ‘Little Broke, situate at Leigh Green.
[ii] 7-1-4 acres meant 7 acres, 1 rood and 4 perches (or poles which were the same as perches). An acre is 4,840 sq. yards; a rood, 1,210 sq. yards; and a perch (or pole) 30.25 sq. yards. So the Green was 20,641 sq. yards.