The History of Maidstone
Human inhabitation of the area around Maidstone dates back as far as the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’ times. Many of the most notable finds from this period were taken from The Countless Stones, now a jumbled mass of half-buried stones; believed to have been a tomb of some kind. The Romans increased the importance of the area and paved the way for the development of Maidstone when they created one of the most famous Roman roads in Britain, a road that became known as Watling Street. The road passed through nearby Rochester and another road connected Watling Street in Rochester to Hastings on the southern coast. This road passed through the site of modern day Maidstone and two Villas have been found dating back to Roman times. It appears that the Romans were the first to extract the local sandstone, known as Kentish Ragstone; which was then transported down the road to Hastings and, via Watling Street, to other parts of the country.
The history of Maidstone itself as a village and later a town, begins at the time of the Saxon occupation of Britain. By the time of the Norman occupation and the Domesday Book in 1086 it was quite a large village with over 250 inhabitants (almost double the size of the average village back then). The location’s importance was recognised by the Norman settlers, who developed the area further. The Cistercian monks built an abbey at nearby Boxley, which stood for over 400 years before being destroyed in the 16th century during Henry VIII ’s dissolution. From the 10th century onwards, the land was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. There can be little doubt that the proximity of Canterbury would have helped the growth of the town and it became more and more popular for pilgrimages, following the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170.
By the 13th century, Maidstone had grown from a village into a town. The River Medway provided the ideal means for transporting the locally grown fruit and vegetables to the markets of London . A charter was granted to the town in 1267 which allowed the town to hold weekly markets and an annual fair. These were crucial to the growth of any town and helped Maidstone reach a population of over 2,000 by the early 14th century, a fair sized market town for the time. The Black
Death of the mid 14th century had a devastating effect on the population of Maidstone, as it did with most towns in England at the time.
At the end of the 14th century a college of Secular Canons was created in Maidstone and the All Saint’s Church was erected next to the college. Maidstone began to grow again in the 16th and 17th centuries. The woollen industry was thriving and its markets were booming. The population continued to grow despite outbreaks of plague throughout the 17th century. At the end of the 17th century the wool trade went into a decline, but other industries (notably paper making) thrived in the town. During the English Civil War , Maidstone was firmly on the side of the Parliamentarians until parliament outlawed traditional ceremonies, thus alienating the people of Maidstone. A minor Royalist rebellion was soon crushed, however, in 1648.
Maidstone continued to grown, assisted by the deepening of channels in the River Medway, which allowed for more efficient transportation of goods. By the 19th century the population was around 4000. The town underwent considerable upgrading during the 19th century. Like most towns, it had become an unpleasant and unsanitary place. Sewers, drains, paving and street lighting were all installed to improve life in the town. The first museum was opened in 1858 and in 1879 Brenchley Gardens were turned into a public park. During this century the paper industry continued to boom along with the Breweries, with food processing industries such as bottle mineral water and jam making also thriving. By the end of the century the population had increased over 8 fold to more than 33,000 in 1901. The town continued to thrive and grow, electricity was first generated in the town in 1901 and by 1904 electric trams were running in Maidstone. The first cinema was built in 1910. Much of the slum housing that had been built to cope with the rising population were demolished and replaced by council housing in the 1920s and 1930s. Maidstone is the county town of Kent and many important fairs and shows are held at the nearby Kent Showground, which lies to the north of the town. The best known and biggest of these is the Kent County Show , a major agricultural fair, held every July. The breweries have all but died out in Maidstone, where once there were five major breweries; there is now only one small brewery. One of the former breweries, Fremlins, is now part of the Fremlin Walk Shopping Arcade.