Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

Standard

“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

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