Wittersham, Kent

History

The parish of Wittersham, Kent, four miles south of the town of Tenterden is now a village like most others in the area: surrounded by agricultural fields, woods and arable countryside. Along with its neighbouring parishes of Ebony and Stone, the village forms the 'Isle of Oxney', which as the name suggests, was actually once surrounded by sea. Gradually, following a series of devastating storms in the 1200s, more and more land became reclaimed from the sea and, by the 1500s the Isle of Oxney was no longer surrounded by water.

In his 1799 survey of Kent, Edward Hasted wrote this about Wittersham: 'This parish, which partakes of the gross unhealthy air of the adjoining marshes, is a lonely unfrequented place; it is about two miles and an half acros each way. The village, with the church and parsonage, stand nearly in the middle of it, upon high ground, the ridge of which runs through the centre of it, surrounded, excepting on the east, where it joins Stone, by a large tract of marsh-lands, which reach to the extremity of the island, excepting where they join the parish of Ebeney towards the north-east. At the west end of the high ground is a hamlet, called Pinyon Quarter, in which stands Palstre-court, and there are several other houses interspersed over it. The soil is a kind of loam, which in some places has the quarry or sand stone mixed with it. There are some small pieces of coppice wood in the different parts of the upland of it. A fair is held here yearly, on the seast of St. Philip and James, May 1, for toys and pedlary.'

Although no loner an island, Wittersham remained remote, but the population did increase gradually over time. By 1851 there 897 inhabitants were recorded in the village. Despite this, in 1888 the village was described in an article in the Illustrated London News as ‘a very remote place’. Even as late as the 1920s the parishes were surrounded by marsh land.

The first member of the family to move to the village was one Thomas Dungate, born around 1637 in an unknown location. He arrived in Wittersham with his wife, Anne at some point prior to his death in 1670. This couple form the top of Wittersham Tree 1 and, because a DNA link has been established between Wittersham Tree 2 (1740+) and Ticehurst Tree (1703+), also have to be related to these so-far unconnected trees, potentially even being the common ancestors.

The first baptism recorded in the registers was that of Thomas and Anne's grandson, Thomas Dungate in 1693 (although he later signed his own name Dengate).

Thomas Dungate's burial in the Wittersham parish registers, 1670
Thomas Dungate's baptism in the Wittersham parish registers, 1693

The Church & Cemetery

 

In the centre of the village stands St John the Baptist Church, being visible for several miles around. It dates back to the thirteenth century, built in the early-English style with a seating capacity of 750. The longest-serving rector was William Cornwallis, who occupied the living for almost fifty years from 1778-1827, undertaking numerous Dengate baptisms, marriages and burials during his time there.

Among the many weather-beaten graves in the churchyard there are two still (just about) bearing the Dengate name: Thomas Dengate (1693-1766) and Elizabeth Dengate (1765-1790). Also in the churchyard are the graves of Ann Freeland (née Dengate 1768-1826) and Louisa Body (née Dengate 1809-1852).

There may be many other Dengate graves in the churchyard, but which are sadly no longer visible. There have actually been sixty-nine Dengates buried in the churchyard (not to mention all the off-shoots of the family where a woman has married out of the name!) between 1670 (the first) and 1899 when the churchyard closed.

Elizabeth Dengate's grave in Wittersham Churchyard

There have been 117 D*ngate baptisms in the church, the first being 1693 and the most recent 288 years later in 1981! Thirty-two marriages have occurred in St John’s church, the earliest being 1748 and the most recent being 1988.

Opposite St John the Baptist Church lies a small cemetery, which took over as the burial place for Wittersham and its contiguous parishes after the closure of the church- yard. In it you will find no headstone or memorial bearing the name Dengate, despite their being 7 Dengates interred there. Henry John Dengate (1860-1929), his sisters Charlotte Dengate (1838-1917) and Ellen Maria Weaver (née Dengate 1856- 1919) are all buried in the non-conformist, unconsecrated ground near to the entrance of the cemetery. Ellen Maria Weaver’s eldest daughter Carrie Weaver (1882-1912) is also interred in this part of the cemetery. The other Dengates buried in the cemetery are Ann Dengate (1825- 1908 née Hoad), her son, Alfred Dengate (1850-1943), Alfred’s wife Elizabeth Dengate (née Brann 1854-1918) and two of their children, Minnie Grace Dengate (1876-1943) and John William Dengate (1880-1918).

Railway

Wittersham joined the country's growing rail network, when a new station was opened there on 2nd April 1900. A service was there until 1961, when it closed down. However, in 1978 the Kent and East Sussex Railway reopened it on their Heritage Line, which runs from Tenterden, Kent to Bodiam, Sussex.

The Windmills

Wittersham once boasted two windmills, although only one now remains: Stocks Mill, built in 1781, which operated for 120 years and the Old Post Mill, which once stood near the centre of the village, opposite the Ewe and Lamb Inn. The former mill (named after the stocks which once stood nearby) ceased production at the end of the nineteenth century as demand for locally-produced flour declined. It has been restored by Kent County Council and is now open to the public. The later mill, the Old Post Mill, is now sadly long gone, having ground flour for the village from c.1736 until 1922 when it was demolished. It was at this mill that at least three generations of Dengates learned the art of milling. The first-known Dengate to mill at Wittersham was William Dengate (1735-1814), whose skills were handed down to his sons, something repeated over many generations.

Stocks Windmill, Wittersham
Wittersham School (right)

Wittersham School

In 1820 the Rev William Cornwallis founded the first village Free School to provide an education of the poor boys of the parish. The school-master for the first fifty years was Jeremiah Poile. Unfortunately few registers or log books survive for this period and it is not until the Free School was incorporated with the National School in 1874 (in accordance with the law) that more detailed records for the school exist. In that year the school moved into new buildings close to the village church, where Wittersham’s children continue to be taught to this day.

 

The first entry in the Wittersham school log book reads: “I William Livermore commence work as master of the Wittersham National Boys' Mixed School - my wife Helen Amelia Livermore acting as Assistant, to teach the infants, and needlework to the Girls. The school was opened by the Bishop of Dover on Wednesday October 28th - work commenced on the following Monday November 2nd when 100 children were admitted and classified ac- cording to attainments.”

An entry for 21 December that year reiterates just how isolated Wittersham could be in the depths of winter: “Attendance terribly low, owing partly to the very bad weather, and almost impassable state of the roads, and partly to the approach of the Xmas holidays. Very little useful work done.”

The schoolmaster evidently had great difficulties in persuading the locals to adhere to the Education Act of 1872! 5 April 1875: “Attendance considerably improved - several children away at field labour: one case, that of Mary Anne Carter - is a direct breach of the Agricultural Act: she is under age, has not made the requisite attendance, thus no certificate.” 7 May 1875: “most of the children at whom we have worked all the winter, are now employed in field labour, in systematic defiance of the Agricultural Act 1875, which is practically a dead letter.” 17 May 1878: “...great numbers of children are being kept away in consequence of the "Hop-tying". The hops have been growing unusually fast, the mothers are compelled to go "tying", and keep the children to help them or to mind the house and babies...

The first Dengates to get a mention in the log book appear on 19 March 1880: “The attendance has increased this week. One boy - Albert Masters has returned after an absence of three months. Maria and Charles Dengate too have been absent a great deal - Edward Wimble and Harold Masters having found a shilling in the yard brought and gave it up to me. It was an act of honesty which gratified, and a little surprised me - and I commended them openly.” Eight years later Charles and Maria’s nephew, [Alfred] Ernest Dengate found himself in the logbook for the wrong reasons! 18 April 1888: “Ernest Dengate a boy in the 3rd standard was exceedingly stubborn this morning for which I was compelled to punish him. This afternoon he has absented himself from school without leave.” 23 April 1888: “Ernest Dengate came to school this morn- ing & expressed sorrow for the bad behaviour of Friday last & promised to behave better in future.

Despite the Education Act becoming compulsory in 1880, it was still felt necessary by the School Attendance Officer to bribe the children! “Mr Collard [school attendance officer] visited the school at 4 o'clock and distributed nuts and sweets among the infants as in former years. The youngsters greatly appreciated this kind act of Mr Collard & they promised to be regular in their attendance at school during this next school year. Three cheers were given for Mr Collard...

On 7 May 1903, at the age of 14, [Christine] Nellie Dengate was appointed pupil teacher at Wittersham National School. This followed the practice of elevating a former pupil into a teaching role. She was given the day off on 4 November 1903 to attend her brother’s wedding in Peasmarsh—the above mentioned Alfred Ernest Dengate, who had obviously not turned out too badly in the end—despite his stubbornness!

The Village

Several of the properties in Wittersham were built by the builder John Dengate (1824-1895) and his sons George Dengate (1861-?) and Alfred Dengate (1850-1943).

The war memorial has the name of one member of the family, William Dengate, who was killed 1st July 1916.

Dengate Cottage

The first occupants to give Dengate Cottage its name have yet to be discovered, but Charles Dengate, a baker by trade, was resident here in the mid-1800s. He used the front part as his bakers shop and the back as his home. The small home, on the Main Street still bears the name Dengate Cottage. More information can be found here.

The dedication of the Wittersham War Memorial

There are still members of the Dengate family resident in Wittersham, although their numbers are not what they once were!

Dengate Cottage, Main Street, Wittersham

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