General history: Divisions of the county

Pages 250-260

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1797.

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Divisions of the county

IN the reign of king Alfred the inhabitants of this island, following the example of the Danes, were so greedy of spoil and rapine, that no one could travel in safety, in order, therefore, to secure them from such outrages and robberies, the king divided the several counties, or shires, into smaller districts, which were called laths, or tritbings, each of which he again divided into hundreds, taking the model of them, no doubt, from his German ancestors, in whose country a like system still prevails. (fn. 1) It has been much questioned from whence the hundreds in England took their name, and what was the extent of their jurisdiction; however, the general opinion has been, that they were so called from their extending over a district, in which one hundred assessors, pledgers, or sureties of the king's peace resided, which plainly accounts for the great difference in the size of them; some in this county having but one or two parishes, whilst others have twenty, or more, or the greatest part of them within their bounds. Every hundred was governed at first by a particular officer, called a centenary, or hundredary, who was chosen into that office by all the elder sort of the people, who met together at the usual place in the hundred on a certain day appointed for that purpose. This officer held his court, called the hundred-gemote, or hundred court, for particular cases within the extent of his jurisdiction; but there was an appeal from it to the court of the lath, or trithing.

These laths in this county were five in number, and were so called from the Saxon word, gelatbian, to assemble together; for in this court all the principal men of the hundreds, within the bounds of the lath, as- sembled together, to debate and determine the matters brought before them; though if they were found too difficult, they were sent up from hence to the superior county-court, as to a parliament of the whole body of the county. All which has been already treated of more at large. King Alfred, for the still better establishment of the peace and security of his people, subdivided these hundreds into tithings, so called, because in them ten families were cast into a society, or as they were termed in this county, boroughs, of the Saxon word, borh, signifying a pledge or surety; each of whom was bound to the king for the peaceable and good behaviour of the others. The chief in each of these tithings, as they were called in the west, was named tienheofod, or theohungman, from his office; and with us, friborg, from fri, free, and borgh, a surety, or pledge, as much as to say, a free pledge. This fribourg or borsholder's office was, at its first institution in this court, called the lete, or view of frank pledge, (which, being esteemed the king's court, has been long since granted by charter to the lords of hundreds and manors,) to determine the smaller differences between neighbours, and such trespasses as belonged to their farms; the greater matters being reserved to the hundredaries. Besides this, the king ordained, that every natural inhabitant, or Englishman born, should live in some hundred, or tithing, that would be bound for his appearance, to answer the law; but he that could not find such surety, should abide the severity of the law, and if such offender happened to make his escape, then all that hundred or borough incurred a mulct or fine, to be imposed by the king. By which means, it is said, king Alfred reduced his subjects to such a state of hohesty and good behaviour, that having caused bracelets of gold to be hung upon posts in the highways, to delude the greediness of passengers, none dared to touch them. (fn. 2) This wholesome distribution of justice by king Alfred lasted but a small time; for the kings his successors, either for the sake of improving their revenues by the profits of these hundreds, or of obliging some of their nobles, granted some of them, and let others to farm to their great men, or sheriffs, under a rent, or otherwise; so that this office of bundredary was soon laid aside, and the jurisdiction became vested in the lord of the hundred, as abovementioned. But it was not long before great evils arose from this change; for, either through the negligence or connivance of the lord of the hundred, great mischiefs happened to those that travelled through these districts; murders were committed, robberies perpetrated, houses burnt, and theft practised among the people, so that few could pass through the country in quiet, or reside at home in safety.

In this uncivilised state, as it may well be termed, this country remained even to the time of king Edward I. who, in the 13th year of his reign, by the statute of Winchester, made many regulations for the better government of the police, and the re-establishment of quiet and safety throughout the kingdom. For this purpose he instituted a hue and cry, which made the whole county answerable for the robbery and the damages thereof, and a watch, which should be kept in every town from sun-setting to sun-rising, from the time of Ascension to Michaelmas. He ordained that the highways should be cleared of wood, to prevent the felons concealing themselves, and directed that every man, according to his substance, should have arms in his house, to pursue the felon effectually. He likewise constituted two constables in every hundred, to view the armour, and present the defaults thereof, and the defaults of tourns of high. ways, &c. since which time acts of parliament have enlarged the power and authority of these officers, who are employed to keep the public peace, and convey the warrants of magistrates to the petty constables and borsholders of the several vills, boroughs, and parishes within their hundreds. They are called chief or high constables, to distinguish them from the petty constables of parishes and boroughs, and were antiently chosen and sworn in the tourns held for the hundred; but the sheriff, or lord thereof, neglecting to hold their courts at the usual times, they are, in such default, now usually appointed at the general court of quarter session.

THIS COUNTY has been for some time divided into two districts, usually called West and East Kent, which nearly divide it into two equal parts, in which are contained the five laths, or great districts, which comprehend the whole county of Kent.

The western division, or West Kent, contains the laths of Sutton at Hone, and Aylesford, and the lower division of the lath of Scray.

The eastern division, or East Kent, contains the laths of St. Augustine and Shipway, and the upper division of the lath of Scray.

The extent of both these districts, as well as of the laths, may be easily traced out by the dotted line on the map of the whole county, prefixed to this work.

These laths are divided into fourteen bailiwics and sixty-three hundreds, as well for the distribution of justice by the sheriff and his bailiffs, as by the justices of the peace; and within the limits of the above are thirteen franchises and liberties, most of which have courts of record belonging to them. These hundreds are again divided into parishes, the institution of which, in England, many of our writers have ascribed to archbishop Honorius, about the year 636, build- ing their opinion on the authority of archbishop Parker; but Mr. Selden seems rightly to understand the archbishop's expression, provinciam suum in parochias divisit, of dividing his provinces into new dioceses The distinction of parishes which now prevails could never be the model of Honorius, nor the work of any one age; the reduction of a whole country into such formal limitations must have advanced gradually, and have been the result of many generations. (fn. 3) There are four hundred and thirteen of these parishes in this county, most of which are subdivided into vills, boroughs, and hamlets; among which are fifteen separate jurisdictions, or liberties, not in any hundred, having constables or officers of their own, and three exclusive jurisdictions from the justices of the county, as is the liberty of Romney-marsh, and that of the cinque ports.

The lath of Sutton at Hone contains the bailiwics of Sutton Dartford and Sutton Bromley, and the hundreds of

Bromley and Beckenham,
Axtane, alias Clackstone,
Little and Lesnes,
Dartford and Wilmington,
Codesheath alias Codesede,
Westram and Etonbridge,

The lath of Aylesford contains the bailiwics of Hoo, Twiford, Eyhorne, and the lowy of Tunbridge, and the hundreds of

Chatham and Gillingham, (fn. 3)
Larkfield, alias Lavercfield,
Wrotham, (fn. 4)
Watchlingstone and
the lowy of Tunbridge,
West, alias Little
Brenchley and
Eyhorne, alias Aihorne,

The lath of Scray, formerly called Sherwinhope, and in Domesday Wiwarelest, contains the bailiwics of Milton, alias Middleton, Scray, and of the Seven Hundreds, and of the hundreds of

Great, alias East
Barnfield, (fn. 5)
Blackborne, alias
Bircholt, antiently
Middleton alias Milton,
Boughton alias Bocton.

The hundreds of Calehill, Chart and Longbridge, Felborough, and Wye, commonly called the Four Hundreds, once belonged to this lath; but they have been a long while severed from it, and added to the lath of Shipway.

The lath of Shipway, alias Shepway, called in Domesday, Limwareleft, contains the bailiwics of Stowting, Shipway, and Chart and Longbridge, and the hundreds of

Chart and Longbridge,
Felborough, alias
Bircholt Franchise,
St. Martin's Pountney,

The lath of St. Augustine, called also formerly, Hedelinth, contains the bailiwics of Bridge, and Eastry, and the hundreds of

Eastry, alias Estrege,
Ringslow alias Tenet.
Bridge and Petham,
Westgate, and

The particular parishes in each of these hundreds are described in the future course of this history.

There are also several towns and places in this county, which have constables and other officers of the like nature within themselves, and are not subject to the constable of any hundred; some of these are in the forraigne, and others in their particular liberties. The following is a list of them both, and of those in the forraigne, of foreign, a term made use of to express a place that is in the jurisdiction of the county at large, and not in any liberty or franchise, which has a particular jurisdiction of its own, and in which the justices of the county cannot intermeddle, viz.

Ashford town,
Aylesford town,
Christ Church, in
Gravesend and Milton, Corporation of
Hadlow borough,
Brasted ville,
Hilden borough, in
Longport borough,
near Canterbury,
West or Town Malling,
Newenden township
Queenborough,Corporation of
South borough in
Tunbridge town.

The following places are in their particular liberties, in which the justices of the county cannot intermeddle.

CANTERBURY, which is a city and county of itself, and a corporation, under the jurisdiction of its own justices.

ROCHESTER is likewise a city and corporation under the jurisdiction of its own justices.

MAIDSTONE town is a corporation, which, together with the parish of Maidstone, is under the jurisdiction of its own justices.

ROMNEY marsh is likewise a liberty under the jurisdiction of its own bailiff and jurats.

In the liberty of the cinque ports are the following places, which have constables and officers of their own, and are under the jurisdiction of their own justices. This liberty has a court of chancery, and a court of admiralty, and it had antiently a court, called the castle-gate court, for the determination of pleas touching the guarding of the castle of Dover.

SANDWICH, with the three churches in the same; Deale, with the church; Ramsgate in St. Laurence, but not the church; St. Nicholas, but not the church; both in Thanet; Walmer, with the church; and part of Woodnesborough, but not the church, are in the liberty of the port and town of Sandwich.

DOVER, with its two churches; Birchington, with the church; part of Charlton, but not the church; part of Hougham, but not the church; St. John's with Margate, with the church; St. Peter's, with the church; Ringwold, with the church; and Woodchurch in Thanet, the church of which is demolished, are in the liberty of the port and town of Dover.

Part of NEW ROMNEY, viz. the town with the church; part of Old Romney, with the church; part of Apledore, but not the church; part of Brenzet, but not the church; part of Ivechurch, but not the church; part of Snargate, but not the church; so much of Bromhill as is in Kent, are within the liberty of the port and town of New Romney.

HITH, with the church, part of West Hith, but not the church, are in the liberty of the port and town of Hith.

BEAKSBORNE, with the church, and the Grange in Gillingham, but not the church, are in the liberty of the port and town of Hastings in Sussex.

FORDWICH, with the church, is a member of the port and town of Sandwich, and within the liberty of the same.

Part of FOLKESTONE, viz. the town, with the church; part of Faversham, viz. the town, with the church, are members of the port and town of Dover, and within the liberty of the same.

TENTERDEN is a member of the antient town of Rye in Sussex, one of the additional cinque ports.

There are, besides the above, several franchises and liberties within the forruigne, some of which have courts of record in them, though most of them are now disused.

The liberty of the archbishop of Canterbury claims over a great number of manors, parishes, and parts of parishes in this county, being such as have been at any time in the possession of the see of Canterbury, since the separation made of the archbishop's revenues, and those of the priory of Christ-church, in the time of archbishop Lanfranc. This liberty has in it a court of record, to hold plea of all actions, real, personal, and mixed; but it has been a long time disused.

The liberty of the dean and chapter of Canterbury claims likewise over a great number of manors, parishes, and parts of parishes, being such as were the estates of the late priory of Christ-church, and were granted, with all their liberties, privileges, and exemptions, to the dean and chapter, by king Henry VIII. in the 33d year of his reign. This liberty had a like court of record as the former, which has also been long since disused.

The liberty of Ashford claims over that town and all the parish, except the boroughs of Henwood, alias Hewet, and Rudlow. It has in it a court of record, to hold pleas for all actions, the debt or damages whereof do not exceed twenty marks.

The liberty of St. Augustine, near Canterbury, commonly called, The high court of the liberty of the late dissolved monastery of St. Augustine, near the city of Canterbury, claims over ten whole parishes, besides part of upwards of one hundred others, and into the city of Canterbury. It has, among other privileges, a court of record, to hold pleas of all actions, real, personal, and mixed, without limitation of any sum; but it has been long since disused.

The liberty of Eleham, which has no court of record for pleas.

The liberty of Gravesend and Milton, near Gravesend, claims over both those parishes, and has in it a corporation and a court of record.

The liberty of the duchy of Lancaster claims over certain manors, lands, and parishes in this county, being such as were part of it in the reigns of king Henry IV. and V. But this liberty has no court of record for pleas in this county.

The liberty of Liminge has no court of record for pleas.

The liberty of Queenborough has a corporation and court of record, which claims over the town and ville of Queenborough.

The liberty of the bishop of Rochester claims over all such manors, lands, and parishes, as are, or have been part of the revenues of this bishopric. It has a court of record for pleas in all actions, real, personal, and mixed, but it has long since been disused.

The liberty of Sevenoke has no court of record for pleas.

The liberty of Wrotham has no court of record for pleas.

The liberty of Wye has a court of record for pleas, in all actions, real, personal, and mixed.

As the county of Kent is divided into the two great districts of East and West Kent, so is the distribution of justice in it; for though every justice of the peace is, by the commission, appointed for the whole county at large, yet he usually confines his acting in that office, except upon extraordinary occasions, to that district of the two in which he resides, and in common matters, to that particular division of justices of the lath and hundred to which he belongs.

Each district of East and West Kent holds its own court of sessions four times in the year, that is, twice originally, and twice by adjournment, viz. the Eastern District originally at the Old Castle of Canterbury, on the Tuesday in the week after the Epiphany and the feast of St. Thomas Becket, from whence it is adjourned for the Western District to the county town of Maidstone on the Thursdays next ensuing; and the Western district originally at Maidstone on the Tuesdays next after the seasts of Easter and Michaelmas, from whence it is adjourned for the Eastern District to Canterbury on the Fridays next ensuing.

There are in this county thirty-four market towns. Viz.

St. Mary Cray, (fn. 6)
Eleham, (fn. 7)
Town Malling,
Milton, near Sittingborne,
New Romney,

Which last eleven are within the cinque ports.


  • 1. Chauncy's Herts. p. 25. Spelm. Gloss. verb. hund.
  • 2. Chauncy's Hertf. p. 25 et seq. Spelm. Gloss. Brady's Hist. Eng. p. 83. Lamb. Peramb. p. 22.
  • 3. Kennet's Paroch. Antiq. p. 586.
  • 4. Kilburne's Surv. and Lambarde's Peramb. This hundred was formerly distinguished as two separate half hundreds, viz. the half hundred of Chatham, and the half hundred of Gillingham and Graine; in the same manner was the hundred of Bromley and Beckenham, Chart and Longbridge, and others, that have two names joined for one hundred.
  • 5. East and West Barnefield are, in fact, but two half hundreds, and formerly had their separate names as such; which division was occasioned by their lying in two different laths.
  • 6. The market at St. Mary Cray has been discontinued from the time the market-place was blown down by the great storm in the year 1703.
  • 7. Eleham market is held on Palm Monday yearly. Eltham as as well as other places have the privilege of a market, but they are discontinued.