This is a study of the parish of Bilsington in south east Kent. The aim is to find out more about the people who lived there prior to the First World War.


The parish of Bilsington is situated between the town of Ashford and Romney Marsh. There is a small hamlet called Bilsington Cross at the point where the road from Tenterden to Hythe crosses the Ashford to New Romney road. The church is situated alongside Court Lodge, an old manor house.

Bilsington.gif Ordnance Survey, 6" to 1 mile (surveyed 1871)


There is extensive woodland in the northern half of the parish

Bilsington_N.jpg Ordnance Survey, 1" to 1 mile (surveyed 1870-72)

and this was also the location of the Augustinian Priory, the remains of which can still be seen.

Bilsington_Priory.gif Ordnance Survey, 6" to 1 mile (surveyed 1871)


Otherwise the parish is a collection of outlying farms.


The Royal Military Canal runs through the southern half of the parish.

Bilsington_S.jpg Ordnance Survey, 1" to 1 mile (surveyed 1870-72)



The population of Bilsington in the 19th century varied between 213 and 389, rising in the early decades but then staying relatively constant until the last decade.

1801 1811 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901 1911
213 232 299 332 385 389 360 349 382 367 279 285


The parish registers show a significant excess of baptisms over burials throughout the century. This should have resulted in a doubling of the population. The fact that it didn't suggests that considerable migration out of the parish took place.

Period Baptisms Burials Natural Increase Actual increase Net Out-Migration
1801-1810 71 41 +31 +19 +12
1811-1820 86 39 +47 +67 -20
1821-1830 114 59 +55 +33 +22
1831-1840 138 41 +97 +53 +44
1841-1850 143 47 +96 +4 +92
1851-1860 131 76 +55 -29 +84
1861-1870 145 64 +81 -11 +92
1871-1880 157 84 +73 +33 +40
1881-1890 156 61 +95 -15 +110
1891-1901 110 47 +63 +12 +51


Household Size

1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
Population 385 389 360 349 382 367 279
Households 67 74 74 87 85 82 71
Household size 5.7 5.3 4.9 4.0 4.5 4.5 3.9




Literacy was assessed by looking at the number of men and women who signed their names in the marriage register:

Period Number of marriages Men signing (%) Women signing (%)
1813-22 29 51.7 37.9
1823-32 35 42.9 28.6
1833-42 36 50 36.1
1843-52 30 56.7 46.7



At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, Bilsington was part of the possessions of Odo, the bishop of Bayeux. At some point in the 13th century, it was split into two manors.

Bilsington inferior (aka Bilsington court-lodge) was acquired by the Fitzalan family and c.1350 passed to Edmund Staplegate. It was sold to Sir John Cheney of Shurland c.1425. Court Lodge was particularly favoured as a hunting lodge by Archbishops Morton (1486-1500) and Warham (1508-1532), both of whom also embellished the adjacent church of St Martin. The house, park and chase (1000 acres) were bought and extended by Henry VIII in 1540. The manor was acquired by Francis Barnham of London in about 1560.

Court Lodge today


Bilsington superior (aka Bilsington priory) was acquired by Roger de Somery who sold it to John Mansell, who was in such favour with Henry III that he first made him his chaplain, and then his chief counsellor and keeper of his seal. Some years before his death, in about 1253, being then provost of Beverley, Mansell founded a priory for canons of the order of St. Augustine, and gave this part of the manor of Bilsington, among other premises, towards the foundation and endowment of it. The priory of Bilsington was built on the north-east part of this manor, on the height of the clay-hills, among the woods. It passed into the hands of Francis Barnham in about 1568.

Priory Farm today


Both manors passed to the Rider family when Philadelphia Barnham married Thomas Rider in 1682. Ingram Rider was the proprietor of both manors at the end of the 18th century.


The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural workers in southern and eastern England, in protest against agricultural mechanisation, low wages, the payment of tithes, poor conditions of employment and a lack of social security. They began with the destruction of threshing machines in East Kent in the summer of 1830, and by early December had spread throughout the whole of southern England and East Anglia.

The first threshing machine was destroyed on Saturday night, 28 August 1830 and, by the third week of October, more than 100 threshing machines had been destroyed
in East Kent. As well as attacking threshing machines, the rioters also burned ricks and tithe barns and maimed cows.

The rioters directed their anger at the three targets identified as causing their misery: the tithe system, requiring payments to support the established Anglican Church; the Poor Law guardians, who were thought to abuse their power over the poor; and the rich tenant farmers who had been progressively lowering workers' wages while introducing agricultural machinery. If captured, the protesters faced charges of arson, robbery, riot, machine breaking and assault. Those convicted faced imprisonment, transportation, and possibly execution.

There was unrest at Ruckinge (a parish adjacent to Bilsington), reported as follows:

Information was received by the magistrates at Hythe on Monday last, the 15th inst., that a body of men were collecting at Ham-street, to proceed into the districts of Rucking and Bilsington in order to compel the farmers to pay higher wages. On Tuesday morning, Sir William Cosway, under whose immediate charge this district has lately been placed, accompanied by William Deedes Esq., a neighbouring magistrate, with a body of special constables and also Captain White of the Staff Corps with fourteen or fifteen soldiers, proceeded from Bilsington to meet the mob. At Ruckinge, Mr Deedes and his division fell in with about 100 or 200 men and, while in the act of expostulating with them, Sir William Cosway and Mr Charles Deedes came up by a footpath into the very midst of the mob. The latter having made their way through the motley assemblage, Sir William, after communicating with his brother magistrate, turned to them and desired to know what they wanted and why they did not obey the law by instantly dispersing? Two or three of the mob spoke together about raising their wages, but one fellow, close to Sir William, made use of such threatening language that the magistrate seized him and immediately called upon Mr Deedes and the special constables to get between the mob and the prisoner. A violent attempt at rescue now took place, but the magistrate never let go of his prisoner and subsequently two men who led the
rescue were secured and the mob dispersed. The three prisoners have since been lodged in Canterbury gaol.

Thomas Cobb, Richard Stickells, Samuel Jones, Michael Fagg and Faulkner Harding were found guilty of riotous assembly and assault. Cobb and Stickells were each sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.(2)


Bilsington was a typical rural community, with most of the inhabitants making a living from farming. The head of the family was an agricultural labourer in 34 of the 67 houses listed in the 1841 Census. The land in the parish was split more or less equally between pasture and arable. Quite a few people kept a hop garden.

There are sixteen farmers listed in the 1851 Census and their farms ranged in size from 6 acres to 500 acres. The average farm size in Kent at this time was 143 acres, but most of the Bilsington farms were much smaller. Only Priory Farm (190a), Court Lodge (174a) and Bridge Farm (500a) exceeded the average.

When James Rolfe left Bridge Farm in 1868, the subsequent auction included 518 Romney Marsh sheep, 29 head of cattle, 16 draught horses and 3 nag horses.

An auction at Priory Farm in 1879 included a flock of 304 well-bred Kent sheep and lambs, seven valuable and powerful cart horses, bay harness mare (five years old), 17 Sussex beasts, 20 head of swine and a quantity of poultry.

It has been possible to link eighteen individuals named as occupiers of land in the Tithe Award of 1840 with occupiers of farms and cottages listed in the 1841 Census for Bilsington:

Name Age in 1841 Birthplace Occupation Pasture Arable Hops
Bartholomew, Thomas 47 Cranbrook Farmer 12 14 3
Bates, Thomas 48 Ewhurst Wheelwright 6 - -
Bailey, Thomas 30 Bilsington Ag Lab 6 10 -
Friend, Richard 56 Mersham Labourer 1 - -
Goddard, Samuel 63 Capel-le-Ferne Farmer - 13 -
Gurr, James 75 Woodchurch Farmer 6 - -
Gurr, Richard 53 Bonnington Farmer 56 29 -
Harris, James 46 Great Chart Ag Lab 1 - -
Hilder, Edward 46 SUSSEX Farmer 76 94 24
Mittle, William 74 New Romney Farmer 1 - -
Nash, Robert 35 Shadoxhurst Farmer 8 10 2
Pilcher, Hansel 61 Snave Farmer 29 10 -
Ransley, Edward 61 Bilsington Sole Maker 2 3 -
Sibery, Edward 55 Hawkhurst Farmer 89 71 12
Stoakes, Archibald 53 Lympne Farmer 44 220 -
Swain, John 47 Brookland Farmer 4 46 -
Waddell, Ann 62 Warehorne Farmer 11 13 -
Wanstall, Mark 37 Bonnington Farmer 2 4 1


In addition, the following individuals occupied land in Bilsington but did not actually live there:

Name Age Occupation Place of residence Pasture Arable Hops
Bailey, James 73 Grocer Aldington 2 - -
Brisley, Margaret 80 Farmer Ruckinge 2 - -
Brockman, Frederick 30 Independent Cheriton 17 - -
Birch, Thomas 60 Farmer Aldington - 3 1
Butcher, Henry 35 FArmer Bonnington - 2 -
Chittenden, James 45 Grazier St Mary in the Marsh 130 - -
Coates, William 40 Grazier New Romney 3 - -
Epps, James 35 Farmer Hurst 4 22 2
Foord, Richard 55 Farmer Aldington 2 - -
Godden, Thomas 65 Farmer Ruckinge 156 75 -
Jarvis, Mark 60 Farmer Ruckinge 18 25 -
Mills, Samuel 60 Farmer Aldington 18 49 -
Piddlesden, John 25 Farmer Newchurch 6 13 -
Pilcher, Jesse 35 Ag Lab Saltwood 22 - -
Potter, Martha 50 Farmer Mersham 41 93 4
Pryor, Joseph 50 Farmer Mersham 32 35 -
Rigden, Thomas 55 Farmer Newington 61 - -
Terry, Edward 35 Farmer Ruckinge 17 24 8
Woodland, John 50 Farmer Ruckinge 26 - -
Woolley, Jesse 55 Farmer Ruckinge 4 6 -

This emphasises the point that Bilsington was very much an open community and parish boundaries were largely irrelevant to most of the population.


In 1841, most of the farmers employed at least one indoor servant, but Edward Sibery at Court Lodge had four, Edward Hilder at the Priory had five and Archibald Stokes had eight.


Other occupations represented in the 1841 community were carpenter, wheelwright, blacksmith, tailor, schoolmaster and publican. By 1891, the community had lost its tailor and its schoolmaster but acquired a couple of grocers, a butcher and a timber dealer/carrier. The first signs of mechanisation also appear with the listing of an engine driver (thrashing machine) and a traction engine proprietor.


Land Ownership

According to the Tithe Award Schedule (c.1840), the 2844 acres of land in the parish were owned by around fifty different individuals, but only eight of them lived in the parish. Dame Elizabeth Harvie Cosway was the major landowner with over 1100 acres (half of it woodland), followed by Sir Edward Knatchbull (248a), William Deedes (142a), Rev George Simpson (130a) and Rev Thomas Pierce (121a).


The church, which is dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, is a small building, of but one aisle and one chancel, having a low pointed wooden turret on the roof at the west end, in which are two bells. There are no memorials in it. In the chancel there are four stalls, two on each side at the west entrance of it.



Community Life

There is an inn, the White Horse, at Bilsington Cross. The proprietor in 1841 and 1851 was John Stokes, (originally from Hythe). In 1871 and 1881, it was Richard Bates. In 1891, it was Richard's widow Rebecca and in 1901 it was George Howland.



An annual fair was held on 5th of July.


The village had a National School to provide elementary education to the children of the poor. It was built in 1833 and run for many years by John Williams from Shropshire.


Travellers into and out of Bilsington used one of two roads: an E-W road runs from Hythe to Tenterden and a N-S road from Ashford to New Romney crosses it in the centre of the parish.


Examination of the 1851 Census shows that only 25% of householders were born in the parish. Of those not born in Bilsington, twenty were born in contiguous parishes, twenty-nine elsewhere in Kent and five outside Kent.

Families & Notable People

In 1825, William Richard Cosway Esq - a resident of Cheriton, near Folkestone, bought the Bilsington Priory Estate from Thomas Rider Esq., of Boughton Monchelsea. He helped establish a school and supported reforms for agricultural workers in the area. He was knighted on April 29th 1829. He died in a coaching accident in 1834 and the following year the Cosway Monument (a grade II listed building) was erected in his memory.



A Poll Book of 1790 lists just four freeholders in Bilsington: John Blechynden, James Hobbs, Richard Marsh and Thomas Spaine, and it seems that only James Hobbs and Thomas Spaine lived in the parish.

By 1840, only the Marsh family still owned land in Bilsington. The Hobbs and Spaine families appear to have broken all links with the parish.


In the 1820s, Bilsington was home to several members of the band of smugglers known as the Aldington Gang, including their leader, George Ransley, who lived at Bourne Tap, and his second in command, Samuel Bailey.

Although Ransley’s official occupation was farming, he sold smuggled liquor at his cottage which was run as an unlicensed beerhouse, "notorious for drunkenness and unbridled sexual licence". It was also the focal point of his distribution system for contraband goods, selling up to 100 tubs of spirits a week.

His son George later gave a detailed account of his father’s activities:

My father, a farming hand by trade, took to smuggling first about 1812 to make more money. He used to smuggle gin, brandy, tobacco and sometimes cards from France. He would cross over to France by packet from Dover, and buy a boat over there that would carry about 200 tubs holding about three gallons and three quarts apiece. The boat would be manned by sailors kept by Ransley on purpose to bring over the smuggled goods, and who chiefly lived at Folkestone.

After buying the goods Ransley would arrange for them to be brought over to England at a certain time and place, and employed a number of men to be on look-out when the boat arrived. Fifteen men would be on each side of the appointed landing place to keep the preventive men back while the goods were being landed, and these men were called “scouts”. Besides these, about one hundred men were employed to carry the goods away from the boat. The scouts were paid a guinea a night for their work, while the men who carried the tubs got 7s 6d per night. The tubs cost in France about 14s each and were worth about £4 in England. At that time it was impossible to purchase a gallon of spirits from the merchant in England under £2 to £2 5s.

The smuggled goods were landed at different places along the coast, to prevent detection, from Rye as far round as Walmer Castle. Sometimes these goods were brought across in a lugger, towing the boat in which the goods would be landed close in to the coast, and as soon as the goods were put into the boat the lugger would return to France. Father used to lead the men who kept the Preventive men back while the goods were being run, and I used to bring up the rear of the party.

The tubs, after being run, were taken to different places and stored underground in what used to be called “tub holes”. These were cut out of the ground and the earth carried away, only leaving sufficient to cover the top, which was closed with a wooden frame let into the ground, and fitted with a chain and ring, by which the cover could be lifted when required.

Ransley used to sell the spirits at his house to customers, wholesale and retail, and was twice fined for this at Ashford, £100 each time, by Sir Edward Knatchbull, magistrate of the parish, but the fines were never paid.

Father was defended on each occasion by a firm of lawyers of the name of Langham & Platt. On one occasion all his things were seized and taken to Ashford to be sold, but they were brought back unsold.

In the event of any man being wounded while protecting the smuggled goods he was carried away in a chance cart and taken care of until he was well again, the expenses being paid by Ransley. In the event of a man having a family, Ransley would support the family as well.
The scouts were always armed when on the look-out, and they often had encounters with the Revenue Officers. On several occasions, Ransley lost horses and carts when he was taking the smuggled goods to London for sale.

When a boat was timed to arrive at any particular place, Ransley would use for the purposes of signalling to the boat off the coast a lamp with a spout attached, so as to let people in the boat know that they were being looked out for ashore. This lamp was so made as only to show out seawards, and was moved backwards and forwards once or twice, as a signal for the boat to come in directly after the Coastguardman has passed along on his beat.

On one occasion, when three whale-boats laden with spirits were about to land, a revenue galley, manned by twelve men, came upon them and seized one whale-boat with her load, and putting one of their own men in her to take charge, rowed away after the other two boats, which, however, they did not overtake. When they came back to where the captured boat had been left with her crew in her, under charge of one of the revenue men, they found her gone. The smugglers had pitched the man overboard and made their escape, and the man’s body was picked up on the beach next morning, dead. A man by the name of Dotton was in charge of the three smuggling boats when this occurred, and, about a fortnight after, when he was walking on the pier at Folkestone he was arrested and tried in London on a charge of murder on the high seas, but acquitted.

Sometimes, when the smuggled spirits were to be landed by whaleboats, the tubs had lines fastened round them and sinkers attached, so that in the event of being interfered with bu Revenue Officers they could throw the kegs overboard and leave them and come afterwards on a dark night and pick them up with grappling irons. Sometimes too, when daylight overtook them in the middle of their work, after the tubs had been landed, they would plant them in drains and woods until the following night, and then, if not interfered with, remove them.

Ransley sold sometimes as many as a hundred tubs in one week from his house. People would come from thirty or forty miles away for the spirits, and would carry these away on foot, on horseback and in carts. Ransley used to pay people living around sixpence a tub for storing them.
In the event of anything happening to Ransley’s party on shore, while waiting for the boat, Ransley would let off a sky-rocket as a signal for the boat not to come in. The boat would then return to France and wait there until further instructions were received from Ransley, who would cross to France on purpose to make fresh arrangements.

Kentish Express, 20th June 1903

The gang were eventually apprehended after the murder of Richard Morgan on 30th July 1826, and the official report names eight prisoners: George Ransley (44), Samuel Bailey (36), Charles Giles (28), Thomas Dennard (21), Robert Bailey (30), Thomas Gillian (24), William Wire (17) and Richard Wire (19). By the end of the year, eleven more of the gang had been taken: Richard Higgins, Paul Pierce, Edward Pantry, Thomas Wheeler, James Quested, James Hogben, James Wilson, John Hogben, John Bailey, John Horne and James Smeed. Richard Wire was charged with the murder and nine others with 'being present, aiding, assisting and computing in the commission of murder'. The death sentence was pronounced on all but commuted to transportation for life. A ship carrying 191 male convicts left Portsmouth on 3rd April 1827, arriving at Hobart 118 days later. Wives and children were sent out the following year at the government’s expense.(3)



1. Maidstone Gazette & Kentish Courier, 23 November 1830
2. Maidstone Gazette & Kentish Courier, 30 November 1830
3. Kentish Express, 20 June 1903

Sources consulted

O.S. maps
Census records
Parish registers
Poll books
Tithe records The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 8 (Canterbury, 1799), pp. 344-352.
Douch, John, Smuggling - The Wicked Trade, Dover, 1980
Holland, M. (ed.), Swing Unmasked, 2005
Hobsbawm & Rude, Captain Swing, 1969