Reduced at its source in recent years to a mere trickle, because of depletion of the aquifer in response to people’s demand for more water, a sad shadow of its former self, Cooksditch is the tributary of Faversham Creek which rises in a little pool on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School playing field, behind Cyprus Road and the St Mary of Charity Church of England Primary School in Orchard Place.
As a source of fresh, pure water, in conjunction with other factors, it probably prompted the building of the Iron Age farmstead and later Roman villa which overlooked it downstream on the west. In its lower reaches its course was probably altered by the monks of the Abbey established nearby in 1147 and certainly transformed when its outlet into the Creek was canalised in the mid-19th-century, as Chambers’ Dock, to provide berths for barges delivering ‘roughstuff’ to the Abbey Brickfield and loading with the finished product.
Indeed the course of its upper reaches may also have been altered in early times. ‘Ditch’ these days tends to connote an insignificant drainage channel dug alongside a road or field but the word is cognate with ‘dyke’ and originally meant a trench, whether wet or dry, dug, or adapted, for defensive purposes. The origin of the first element of its name is not known. Perhaps, as in the case of Cookham in Berkshire, the ‘cook’ referred to some nearby cocc, or hillock (even perhaps tumulus?), now gone: this element survives in present-day English ‘haycock’ - a heap of hay.
Cartographic, geomorphological and other evidence indicates that the stream may originally have had two other sources, one a spring just east of the Parish Church (which is perhaps why it is sited where it is) and one perhaps a watercourse which followed the line of Preston Street as far as Market Street and then fed NE into it. Certainly as late as the early 19th century an arm of the stream ran parallel with East Street on its N side, reaching almost as far as Church Road.
No surprise therefore that East Street itself was known as Cooks Ditch till the late 18th century and that the stream also gave its name to the ‘principal messuage’ on the corner of East Street and Church Road.
Cooksditch - the house, to give it its proper name (it is not ‘Cooksditch House’) - was rebuilt in Georgian times but has a history going back at least as far as the 14th century. The first known owner, in 1351/2, was John ‘Dreylond’ (Dryland) and the property remained in his family for many generations. The Drylands were well-to-do, were to provide the town with several of its Mayors, and had their own coat of arms, described by Hasted, the Kent historian, as:
Gules, guttée de l’arme a fess nebulée, argent.
However, according to Burke’s General Armory (1884), the Dryland arms were:
Gules, guttée d’eau a fess wavy argent
(A red shield, spattered with drops of water, with a thick wavy band across the middle). Colin Parry, a Faversham heraldry expert, suggests that these arms may have been meant to symbolise the Cooksditch stream: a wavy fess is often indicative of a watercourse, and is perhaps a reverse pun on ‘Dry-land’ - the heralds, he says, loved this kind of thing!
The connection with the family ended when Richard Dryland, who owned the house in the late 15th century, left only two daughters. One of them, Katherine, inherited it and married Reginald Norton. An ancient carved panel bearing the Norton arms at 19 Court Street is thought to have come from Cooksditch.
Their first son, and heir, was John Norton, Mayor in 1499 and 1500. He was made a Knight of the Bath on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Arthur on 17 November 1501. He bore arms:
Azure, a maunch ermine, over all a bendlet gules
On the left in the chancel of the Parish Church is a fine stone tomb intended for his widow, Lady Jane Norton. In the event it was never used, and remains unmarked, because she re-married and was buried elsewhere.
Reginald and Katherine’s second son, William Norton (Mayor in 1527), lived in the house, but some time after his death it was sold to a Mr Parsons, who soon sold it on to a Mr Ashton. One of his daughters married into the local Buck family, who were owners in 1660. By now it was probably occupied more as farmhouse than a town house, and among the tenants (in 1702) was Henry Rigden.
About 50 years later the Bucks sold the property to Jenkin Gillow, who bore arms:
Argent, a pale, sable, between four fleurs de lis, gules.
Colin Parry points out that these are a variation (indicating a relationship) of the Gillow arms described in Burke’s General Armory (1884):
Gules, a lion rampant or, on a chief of the last three fleurs-de-lis of the first
From him it passed to his nephew, Stephen Gillow, of St Nicholas in Thanet, who died in 1774, leaving it to his son, also Stephen.
The building at this stage was a large, rambling medieval mansion which would have been of the greatest interest had it survived. Young Stephen decided to move to Faversham but was not too enthusiastic about living in the old house, so rebuilt it in its present Georgian form. After his death in 1784 his widow Elizabeth added the two white-brick wings and also refronted the house in white brick to match. The wings were probably built as saloons for the entertainment of guests, perhaps also for small-scale balls. They are lofty, gracious rooms, with elaborate fireplaces, and one still retains a fine panelled ceiling.
With ownership of the house went ownership of Gate Field, a very large field opposite the house which extended west as far as the rear of Preston Street and south as far as the present railway line - hence Gatefield Lane, between Preston Street and Newton Road, which was originally part of a long footpath leading across it from Preston Street to Macknade. So Cooksditch also served as a farmhouse, and had a barn and other outbuildings behind it, not to mention a pond. The outbuildings were destroyed by fire in 1847 and the opportunity was taken to build a replacement farmhouse at Lady Dane, Love Lane. (The name ‘Lady Dane’ is a corruption of ‘Lady Jane’, the wife of Sir John Norton.)
Elizabeth Gillow died in 1825, aged 88, and the house was inherited by her eldest daughter, also Elizabeth, who in about 1800 had married the Rev Francis Simpson, of Tarrant Gunville, near Blandford in Dorset. He died in 1827 and his widow returned to Faversham to live at Cooksditch with her children. One of these, Catherine (1812-1892), married William Rigden, owner of the nearby brewery, later Whitbread Fremlins, most of which has recently been converted into a Tesco supermarket. Some of their descendants still live in the Faversham area.
By 1859 Elizabeth Simpson had moved to Maidstone and the house was let to a series of tenants, including Richard Bathurst, a local solicitor, and (after her death) Dudley Garrett, a GP, who died in 1887 aged 45.
Gate Field became ripe for residential development with the arrival of the railway in 1858 and much of it was bought from Mrs Simpson by William Maile, a local property developer. On the site he laid out four parallel roads running N-S, Newton Road, St Mary’s Road, St John’s Road and Park Road, and these were developed under covenant over the next three decades. However to preserve an illusion of rural charm a small meadow opposite the house, which came to be known as Gillow’s Meadow, was retained until Queen’s Parade was built on the site in 1901. Outside the house in the 1890s would gather throngs of local hop-pickers, waiting for farm wagons to take them to the gardens, sometimes, once out of town, across the grattan (stubble-fields).
Cooksditch was converted into a residential care home in 1990. The opportunity was taken to incorporate Nos 1 and 2 County Villas, former police houses, adjacent to the east and in Edwardian style. New premises, carefully designed to harmonise with the old, were also added. The result is a delightful and well-equipped complex which offers comfortable and attractive accommodation close to the town centre. Expert and friendly staff are on hand to see that residents’ needs are properly met in a non-institutional environment. The present owners, who bought the property in 1996, are Christopher and Gillian Ilsley.
Text by Arthur Percival