This is a study of the parish of Bonnington 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 Bonnington is situated between Romney Marsh and the town of Ashford.



Edward Hasted (1) gives this description:

It is a very lonely and unfrequented place, the situation cannot but be unpleasant, for the soil is a deep clay, the roads consequently are very miry and bad, the north-west part of the parish is mostly woodland. The village, usually called Bonnington-cross, stands on high ground, on the clay-hills, at no great distance from which is the church, nearly down the hill, at the foot of which, only one meadow intervening, is Romney Marsh. Northward is a large common, called Bonnington-common, over which the road leads to Aldington-corner.



The population of Bonnington varied between 126 and 187 during the course of the 19th century:


There seems to have been a serious housing shortage for a period of around 20 years (c. 1805-1825). It had eased somewhat by 1841, but even so we find that of the 24 dwellings, seven of them housed two or more families and the majority had at least one lodger. The rector in 1841, Thomas Clarke, shared his house with three labourers, their wives and their six children!

It appears that a dozen or so new houses were built in the 1840s and this must have eased the overcrowding problem considerably.

The male population varied considerably more than the female population, suggesting that movement from one parish to another was a way of life for agricultural labourers with no marital ties. They had to go where the work was!

The average age of the population gradually increased over the course of the century. For the Aldington registration district (of which Bonnington is a part), it rose from 24.78 in 1851 to 30.44 in 1911. This was not unusual, the same thing happened in surrounding districts.


The 1841 Census gives us our first detailed look at how the people of Bonnington earned a living. With the exception of Thomas Clarke, the rector, and George Court, a carpenter, all the adult males were either farmers (9) or agricultural labourers (38).

The Tithe Apportionment of 1842 shows that there were something like 600 acres of pasture and 300 acres of arable land in the parish. The growing of hops is also mentioned, but in most cases it was done on a very small scale.

The occupational structure didn’t change much, with the exception of a brief influx of craftsmen in 1871:


The drop in the number of farmers in 1861 may be partly due to reclassification. A man who farmed five acres but also worked as a labourer may have been classified as a farmer in 1841 and 1851 but as an ag lab in 1861. It’s quite likely that shepherds, carters and waggoners were all classed as ag labs in 1841.

Most of the farms were very small and would not have yielded much of a living. These small farmers would probably have supplemented their income by hiring themselves out to the larger farmers in this parish and in other parishes.

The Tithe Apportionment (1842) shows six farmers with holdings of more than 50 acres:


Henry Tilbe also had major holdings in Hurst and Aldington (and probably elsewhere). He lived at Hythe. Thomas Blake was a Dymchurch butcher; Richard Foord lived in the neighbouring parish of Aldington, where he also had a considerable holding. William Sheather, the Kesby brothers and Mark Swain all lived in Bonnington. Sheather also farmed 25 acres in Aldington.


According to the Tithe Award Schedule, the 1113 acres of land in the parish were owned by around 35 different individuals, only one of whom (Henry Butcher) lived in Bonnington. Charles John Lawson, a barrister who lived near Sidcup, was the major landowner with over 150 acres. The owner of the manor in 1799 was Samuel Goddard of Mersham.

The School

A National School was built at Bonnington in 1840 and Bagshaw's directory of 1847 lists Mary E. Williams as the schoolmistress. She was the daughter of John Williams, the schoolmaster at Bilsington.



No schoolmaster/mistress is listed in the Census until 1861. In that year we find a Day School run by Anne Hambrook next door to Pinn Farm. The 1871 O.S. map shows a Parochial School and a schoolmistress, Sarah Ellen Duckworth, is listed in the Census, but she is apparently having to share the building:


The Pub

The earliest record of a pub in Bonnington is a document in the National Archives dated 21 September 1826: "Recognizance for William Huxstep of the Royal Oak, Bonnington, to keep an alehouse".(2) Also known as the Old Oak, it stayed in the family until the Second World War, eventually closing in 1971. It was situated in the extreme south of the parish, so not very convenient for most of the inhabitants, who probably frequented the White Horse Inn at Bilsington.


The Church

The parish church, dedicated to St Rumwold, is about half a mile to the south of the hamlet, on the Royal Military Canal.



The rector in 1851, Thomas Clark, lived at Court Lodge. The parsonage was occupied by a farmer.


The main route through the parish would have been the Tenterden to Hythe road (B2067). There must have been some traffic on the canal, since we see one or two bargemen listed in the Census, but it was probably goods rather than people.


Baptisms exceeded burials by a considerable amount throughout the 19th century, so if the population was remaining more or less stable it meant that there was a steady flow of people out of the parish. The table below confirms this.


Families & Notable People

A Poll Book of 1790 lists just three freeholders in Bonnington: Walter Higgins, Thomas Pantry and John Wanstall.

The HIGGINS family had been in Bonnington since the 17th century.
Walter Higgins and Elizabeth Hardres, both of Bonnington, married in 1698. Walter Higgins was baptised (aged about 42) in 1712.
John Higgins, son of Walter and Elizabeth, was baptised at Bonnington in 1716. He married in about 1728 and had six children with his wife Elizabeth.
John Higgins, son of John & Elizabeth, was baptised at Bonnington in 1737. He married Anne Sawkins in 1764 and had a son, also John, who was farming in Bonnington in 1841. His son, also John, followed in, his footsteps.
Walter Higgins, son of John & Elizabeth, was baptised at Bonnington in 1739. Walter and his wife Elizabeth produced ten children.
Ferdinand Higgins, son of Walter & Elizabeth, was baptised in 1784. He married Susannah Singelar in 1809 and is listed as an agricultural labourer in the 1841 Census.

The PANTRY family had been in Bonnington since the 16th century.
Edward Pantry married Jane Tyrrell in 1732. Thomas Pantry, son of Edward and Jane, married Elizabeth Shorter of New Romney in 1765 and produced five children. Their second son, Edward, married Catharine Higgins (daughter of Walter and Elizabeth) in 1794. Their son, also Edward, was reputedly a member of the Aldington Gang.

The WANSTALL family had been in Bonnington since the 1790s. They had previously lived in Aldington.
John & Mary Wanstall produced six children, all baptised at Aldington. Their son, Mark, married Anne Tutt in 1799 and they set up home in Bonnington.

William Sheather, farming 160 acres and employing nine men and two boys (1851 Census), would have been the nearest thing they had to gentry (excluding the rector).


We can get some idea of status by looking at which individuals employed servants. In 1851, four of the farmers kept servants: William Sheather, farmer of 160 acres, employed two male servants and two female servants; John Higgins, farmer of 8 acres, employed a 13 year-old female servant; George May, farmer of 24 acres, employed a male servant; Mark Swain, farmer of 50 acres, employed one male servant.


1. Edward Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 8, 331-337, 1799
2. The National Archives document Rm/JQ/r/10/4

Sources consulted

O.S. maps
Census returns
Tithe records
Trade directories
Parish registers
Poll Book