Until the middle of the 19th century, ‘Fordcomb-Green’ was a hamlet with a few houses set around the crossroads near the Manor of Chafford, located within a triangle of three long- established villages, all with ‘hurst’ names: Ashurst, Penshurst and Speldhurst (a hurst: a hillock or wooded rise). The spelling of the village name seems to have been rather a matter of choice. Kelly’s Directories suggest that the ‘e’ was not added to ‘Fordcomb’, and also the ‘-Green’ suffix not discarded, until some time during the 1880s and 1890s. But officiating ministers recording in the church’s Registers from 1849 never used the ‘-Green’ suffix and some added an ‘e’ as they thought fit. The hamlet had a population largely involved in agriculture, but from early times there had also been workers at the Chafford Mill on the Medway, between the Chafford and Colliersland bridges. However, due to the discovery of the special quality of the spring water (hence the name Springhill nearby) the mill changed from grain milling to high quality paper-making, which required additional labour, at one time a workforce totalling 70, and so Fordcomb-Green’s population grew. The hamlet lay within the ecclesiastical parish of Penshurst: in the 1840s this had about 1,500 inhabitants, around 500 of whom lived within the ‘Fordcomb-Green’ area. A Petition for a new place of worship was made to the Archbishop, John Bird Sumner, as it was a three mile walk to St. John the Baptist church in Penshurst, and therefore the Fordcomb-Green parishioners were “precluded from attending Divine Worship”. In 1847 the Diocese of Canterbury (now Rochester) agreed that a Chapelry (or Chapel at Ease) should be built in Fordcomb-Green, with services conducted mainly by Penshurst clergy. Such places of worship allowed baptisms and burials, but not marriages.
In the 19th Century, Fordcombe continued to expand. Chafford Mill “gave work to a thriving community” – witness the millworkers’ dedicated houses: seven in Stone Row, one later becoming the shop; the original six of St Peter’s Row; and ten in the Chafford Cottages beside Chafford Bridge, and therefore close to the Mill. With an increasing population came the services needed to maintain it, including the shop-cum-Post Office, a fishmonger, a butcher, a baker and a cricket ball (not candlestick!) maker, and a laundry. Most of these had sadly disappeared before World War II, but the shop, now much missed, remained until the 1990s.
For over 150 years from 1756, the paper produced at the Mill was used for many purposes throughout the world, including the Bank of England’s £5 notes, many postage stamps, especially foreign stamps, cartridge paper for the Tower of London, and paper for the Government of India because it was found that important documents were not devoured by ants, as were ant-succulent papers from other suppliers. It is possible that Lord Hardinge, when Governor-General, mindful of his friend Richard Turner’s gift of the site for the new church, arranged this contract. However the mill was bought by Wiggins Teape in 1913 and promptly closed, causing many villagers to be out of work, and the equipment was transferred to their works in Dover. The Mill buildings were eventually demolished in the 1930s and today only the outline of the walls and the mill race can be seen.
In its heyday the Mill was a centre for social activities, and the annual Mill Ball held there was the highlight of the Fordcombe year, often lasting until 5.00 am. Many walked up to nine miles to attend yet were back at work on time next day. The Parish Newsletter in 1888 reported that “the dancing was of marvellous accuracy” (pre-dating TV’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’!) “and perfect propriety, so that those who object on the score of impropriety should see how a Ball is carried on in Fordcomb”. The Mill also had the honour of a Royal visit when the Princess Victoria, accompanied by her mother the Duchess of Kent, came when they were on holiday in royalty’s favourite Tunbridge Wells. This was in 1834, three years before Victoria became Queen. They “professed themselves highly delighted” after Richard Turner had conducted them around every department, explaining to them “the various movements of the engines”, and it was also recorded in the local paper that “Their Royal Highnesses were pleased to allow Mr Turner to send them some of the beautiful coloured paper”, which they had much admired.
Fordcombe’s School Log Book shows that the school opened in 1862, to be run by a mistress and monitors. The latter today we might call babyminders because, for the first nine years, it enrolled pupils aged, unbelievably, from as young as 1½ to 12, taught in the same building. However in 1871 it was divided into Infant and Mixed schools, with a combined roll of 80 children. This indicates the growing size of the village population, which in August 1870 had led to it becoming a separate parish with its own priest, so that marriage services no longer had to be conducted in Penshurst. In August 1870 a Vicar, the Reverend George Clowes, was instituted, becoming the first of Fordcombe’s nine incumbents. He conducted the first marriage in St Peter’s in July 1871: the first baptism had been in February 1849 and the first burial a month later (a rather sad and puzzling entry, noting merely “found drown’d in the Meadows”: no name, age or even gender was recorded. Perhaps a stranger caught in the frequent Medway floods in Spring?).
A substantial house in the village, off Fordcombe Road and The Lane, costing £1,735, was purchased to become the vicarage, and here George Clowes remained for 17 years. The succeeding incumbents had tenures of from 4 to 26 years, the latter being that of the Reverend Walter St John Field (1903-1929). In 1965 however, this house was sold by the Church Commissioners and a new Vicarage, St. Peter’s House, was built beside the churchyard – only to be sold nine years later when the joint benefice of Penshurst with Fordcombe was created (an appropriate reunion, if it had to happen, considering the Parish’s origins). The incumbent, the Reverend John Tadman, was then accommodated in the very attractive (but very cold) antiquated Rectory in Penshurst – which has also since been sold and replaced with a new building.
The Field and Field-Marsham families owned Ashurst Park, just south of Fordcombe village. George Hanbury Field (1835-1901) is commemorated locally by the initials GHF, which appear on many houses of the original 1,000 acre Ashurst Park estate. But his only son, Reginald George Field, by his second wife Emily (née Hardinge), had been killed in action in April 1918, so there was no surviving male heir. Therefore his nephew Charles George Bullock-Marsham was invited to inherit the Ashurst Park estate, providing that he changed his name to incorporate the name of Field, hence Field-Marsham. On Charles’ death in 1956, Ashurst Park had to be sold due to penal death duties. Charles had three children: Charles Austen, Robert and Mary Elizabeth. As just noted, the elder son was killed in action in 1941, and ‘Major Bob’, who farmed locally at Top Farm after retirement from the Cavalry, survived until 1996, but his much loved sister Betty, living in Tender Meads in the village, beside her beloved stoolball-cum-cricket pitch, only until 1987.
John Sworder October 2011