At the time of the First World War, the ‘Milton Rural District’ included sixteen parishes around the urban area of Sittingbourne and Milton; and when men enlisted they gave Sittingbourne as their nearest town.
There are five parishes north of the London to Dover Road, and bordering the marshes which run along the Swale and the River Medway. To the east, Murston and Tonge were known, before the 19th century, for the production of corn. Some of it would have been taken to the water mill at Tonge to be made into flour; but much of it would have been exported to London from Crown Quay in Sittingbourne or the various wharves in Milton. They were both ancient parishes – having manors at the time of the Norman Conquest; and Tonge was mentioned in the Domesday Book as having nine households.
The land was low-lying, and in the 18th century the air there was described as ‘very gross, and much subject to fogs, which smell very offensive’. During the 19th century Murston became a centre of industry, with the development of brick and cement manufacture by the firm of Smeed Dean – and no doubt continued to suffer from ‘offensive smells’! Housing was also built there for the workers; and although it has now become part of ‘Sittingbourne’, it was at the time of the First World War still a separate community.
The parishes to the west are Iwade, Lower Halstow and Upchurch (which was recorded in the Domesday Book as having six households). Sheep and cattle were kept there; and wild fowl were caught, which were taken to be sold in London. There were two main creeks: Otterham Creek had a ‘wharf for the landing and shipping of corn, and the produce of neighbouring woods’; and Halstow Creek had oyster beds. Like Murston; Lower Halstow and Upchurch were to become centres of brick-making in Victorian times.
In the other eleven parishes surrounding the urban area of Sittingbourne and Milton: Bapchild, Rodmersham, Milsted, Kingsdown, Tunstall, Bredgar, Borden, Bobbing, Newington, Hartlip and Rainham (now in Medway), agriculture remained the main ‘industry’; two of them, Tunstall and Newington, were both mentioned in the Domesday Book. Tunstall (which was later visited by Queen Elizabeth 1) was of ‘medium’ size with 18 households, and Newington was ‘very large’ with ninety-six. Although that came nowhere near the size of Milton, with 383 households – some of which would have been along the London to Dover Road in what is now Sittingbourne.
The land was poorer in the south, often being clay or chalk with flints. Much of the land had originally been covered in woods; and the growing of trees – for wood, fruit and nuts – was an important aspect of the agriculture in that area. In the 18th century, Borden was described as being ‘encircled by fruit trees’. Before long though the fruit trees were to be replaced by hop gardens, which were more profitable. In Hartlip there was an area of ‘waste ground, called Queen-down, which was for many years a noted warren for rabbits’.
These parishes were affected to an extent when the clay and chalk was dug out, to be used to make bricks and cement, but usually the land was returned to agricultural use afterwards. However, changes in agriculture in the late 19th century, with greater mechanisation, led to the need for fewer workers. Many men moved to the towns, or emigrated. In the years prior to the start of the war many local men emigrated to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. They also served during the war, and make up a significant proportion of those from the area who died.