A joint venture between the Sittingbourne Heritage Museum & The Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne
This Nationally important collection of purposefully hidden artefacts was discovered and rescued by a team of local historians headed by Alan Abbey and Phil Talbot. Alan Abbey was asked by the Honorary Secretary of Kent Historic Buildings Committee to help rescue the building from redevelopment. Despite making many new and important discoveries about the building's past, English Heritage was unwilling to list the Plough Inn as an historic building. The team were able to make a survey of the building prior to demolition and it was during that survey that the collection was discovered; the largest collection of its type ever found in the UK.
In all some 504 individual pieces were found, from 17th century clothing to tools and toys, which together form one of the most important discoveries found in recent years. The collection was all the more important as it was found in its original deposited context and recorded fully. This has cast new light on a little understood socio cultural phenomena as well as the history and heritage of Sittingbourne. Alan Abbey continues to research the collection and the Plough Inn, along with many other such finds across the south east of England.
The collection was the property of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), the owners of the building at the time of the discovery, and they have generously donated it into the joint care and ownership of the museum and the Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne; a group formed by the original survey and research team. In a joint venture the two groups have been seeking new funds to procure a specialised display and storage cabinet to allow the collection to be permanently housed at the museum.
This local partnership is working hard to ensure that local history and heritage stays local and, just as importantly, remains accessible to both local residents and academics alike. It is to be hoped that this joint venture will be the first of many others, dedicated to the preservation of our town and regions past.
The Plough Artefacts collection is a complicated one to consider in terms of social history. The collection contains some five hundred pieces, from small cloth scraps to complete items of clothing, from children's toys to ancient business receipts. Items were found in a variety of places around the building and, interestingly, were used and deposited at very different times. Many items were found above just one fireplace and layered in ascending chronological strata; albeit somewhat confused by the activity of rats and mice over the years. Another group of items were found under floorboards of the adjacent room whilst just two items were found in that room's identical chimney space. Nothing was found underneath the floorboards of the first room at all.
The difficulty in understanding the collection is made worse by the variety of items so hidden. Above the fireplace were found hats, hat brims, shoes, the remains of books and documents, children's clothes...the list goes on. In the adjacent room shoes were found under the floor boards but directly in front of the fireplace. It would appear that shoes at least were hidden for different purposes and used in different ways around the house.
A curious grouping were found under the floor boards of the adjacent room and consisted of a pair of lady's stays (a form of bodice) a coif (a lady's close fitting bonnet) and a pair of what have been described as men's undergarments. The group were found away from the fireplace and the stays dated to c.1620, making them the earliest example of their type in the country. There is no reason to doubt that the two other items are of a similar date and do indeed form a distinct group and were deposited together.
An odd find consisted of a long wooden tool wrapped in the remains of a leather tool belt or possibly workman's apron. The pair was discovered at the threshold of what was once a door between two parts of the building. The tool has yet to be identified.
Work continues to identify and understand the collection and good progress is being made. This work has also brought other collections of hidden artefacts to my attention which is helping to gain a better understanding of these most curious social phenomena. In an ancient house in Milton Regis, known as Hinde House, two leather cuirass like corsets were found in a blocked up space in a wall along with a crossbow. These items were dated to the 16th century and appear to have belonged to a lady judging by the proportions and overall size. These items are on display at Rochester museum along with a collection of shoes similarly found at the old vicarage at Hartlip. At a house in Bredgar near Sittingbourne a Victorian coffee pot and several small items of similar date were found hidden in a blocked up recess in a medieval fireplace. A single shoe was found at the Manor house at Milstead and a stash of Victorian and Edwardian documents and papers found under the floor of a building near Sittingbourne High Street.
Faversham Museum holds several shoes that have been found at several houses in the town whilst Sandwich museum has a most curious collection. From one old pub two very different groups were found from very different dates. From the old kitchens came the remains of a 17th century shirt, whilst at the more public end of the building came two early 19th century pitch coated bicorn hats and the remains of a short sword scabbard that had been purposely snapped in two. After consulting the museum staff it transpired that the owner of the pub at about that time was a retired Revenue Man; an early customs officer. I have also been contacted regarding a small pack of bible pages hidden in a brick wall between two houses. Igtham Mote also has a large collection of items discovered during the many years of renovation and these are well worth a look.
I am making a study of hidden items in Kent and would love to hear from anyone that has found something, no matter how small. The only way this fascinating subject can be better understood is by comparing and contrasting the finds along with their date and context; no small task. If you have found something get in touch as soon as possible. It would also be very useful to know how and where the item was found within the house, including such important details as which way up a shoe or other artefact was found and even which way it was pointing.
- Alan Abbey
These items and the others from The Plough finds are now displayed in The Sittingbourne Heritage Museum.