Helen Allinson presented a highly entertaining, expert and revealing story about the King George V Playing Field in Sittingbourne - From Mansion to Public Park (19 November 2008).
Helen began and ended with a clarion call for an interpretation board in the Park, so that the fascinating story and relics surrounding the park can be more widely and readily understood. A sentiment that the audience fully endorsed.
The talk was liberally illustrated with early images showing how the farm land (now largely developed) once supported a medieval, then thatched Tudor and finally a grand 18th century mansion. All that remains of the mansion are the stables - now used for a variety of purposes - and the base of four pillars that once graced the portico entrance to the mansion.
We learned how the ownership moved through each rebuilding from the AttaGore family, Thomas Roydon of East Peckham, Colonel Harper, Frank Bradley (farmer), and George Smeed (once a smuggler then self-made man in bricks, barges and cement - much sneered at by the local gentry). Before Smeed, we learned of the strong connection between Indian Raj and the mansion and its occupation - the money made in the Empire led to the grand developments (including moving a lane away from the mansion by 150 yards so that the poor people shouldn’t be too close!).
The surrounding farmland gradually diminished and became encroached upon as Sittingbourne grew until only the open space we see today remained at the time of the death of King George V when many civic authorities bought land for public parks to commemorate the King. Otherwise, this land would almost certainly have been further developed in line with the comfortable and well-built houses that now surround the Park.
The land surrounding the 18th century Mansion lent itself to sports and fetes over the years (with many thousands joining the fetes at the height of their popularity in the 19th century). The tradition was enthusiastically supported by George Smeed, who dismayed the local gentry by his annual invitation to people from the local workhouse to enjoy the grounds and receive gifts.
In its declining years, the mansion went through several unsuccessful auctions and was at times occupied by tenant farmers. During the First World War (1914-18), the mansion had just ceased to be used as a school (Bomber Harris attended that school) and was taken over by the army. We enjoyed the photographs of tents in the grounds! The army was a popular addition in many ways as they brought with them entertainment and a lively social life.....
In 1926 the house was demolished and the materials used elsewhere in buildings that sprang up in the parcels of land that were taken by developers. We heard how one family quite recently dug up their concreted garden to find a large medieval brick floor (the bricks being sold on as they are much sought after!).
And so the lecture closed, with recollections from several in the audience of their own use in recent times of this lively and popular public space. Several of the audience sought out the historical narratives that Helen has committed to books.