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History of Dunkirk

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Dunkirk
Typical Buildings

Dunkirk
Woodman's Hall,
former pub


Dunkirk
Sir William Courtenay

Dunkirk
Battle of
Bossenden Wood


Dunkirk
Courtenay on
his charger


Dunkirk
Courtenay after death

Dunkirk Church, now a dwelling
Dunkirk Church,
now a dwelling

Dunkirk - New World Village in Kent

Uniquely in Kent, Dunkirk, 5 miles east of Faversham, just off the A2, can claim to be virtually a ‘New World’ village.   In other parishes in the county you’ll find at least one medieval building - and often lots.

Not so here.  The earliest buildings - and there are only two or three - date from the 18th century, well after the real ‘New World’ on the other wide of the Atlantic was colonised by Europeans.

Many of the houses are simple weatherboarded structures; and if you detect a resemblance to the earliest settlers’ homes in New Zealand, there’s a good reason.   Serious house-building in both did not start till after 1840.   What gave New Zealand its big impetus in that year was the Treaty of Waitangi, by which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain.

What gave Dunkirk its impetus was ... the Last Armed Rising on British Soil.

Haunt of outlaws

Dunkirk has always been well-wooded, and probably for this reason its large 5,000-acre area was simply left out when Kent was first parished after its conversion to Christianity. There was probably no-one living there permanently, so no church was needed.

If an area was ‘extra-parochial’, then the sheriff’s writ did not run there, and petty thieves and ne’er-do-wells could find sanctuary there. So Dunkirk became notorious for harbouring smugglers and other minor criminals. Some of them built little shacks for themselves and settled there permanently. 

Most became law-abiding and made modest livings in the timber trade. Hence the dedication of one of the parish’s two pubs - the Woodman’s Hall. Literacy was poor: in 1840 only half the inhabitants had a book in their home.

Last armed rising on British soil: The Battle of Bossenden Wood

Come 1838, and Dunkirk was the scene of the last armed rising on British soil. It was just the right place. Though close to Faversham and Canterbury, it was still a wild area. Its people were poor.   So were many people in nearby parishes. 

The start of farm mechanisation had lost them their jobs, and they and their families were close to starvation. Parish ‘out-relief’, which allowed them to stay in their own homes while drawing benefit, had ceased, and many were in and out of the Workhouse.

Into this scene of rural deprivation came a colourful character who called himself  Sir William Courtenay.   Just 38, he was tall, dark and handsome, with immense charm, and the gift of the gab.  In earlier life he had attended meetings of the Spencean Society, a proto-socialist organisation, and he identified strongly with society’s underdogs.  

He stood for Parliament in East Kent, but not surprisingly failed to get elected - only the rich had votes in those days.   Figuring that constitutional means would never solve the country’s ills, or rid it of its conservative Establishment, he decided that rebellion was the only answer.

In Dunkirk and other parishes around Faversham he raised a ragged army of jobless farm labourers. “I’m now going to strike the bloody blow! The streets that have heretofore flowed with water shall flow with blood for the rights of the poor.”

Rather late in the day, the authorities realised that he was a serious threat. The Army was called out, and there was a pitched battle in Bossenden Wood. Courtenay’s ill-equipped followers were no match for disciplined troops, and were soon defeated.   He and seven of his men were killed. On the Government side just two men died. You can see a memorial to one of them, Lieut. Bennett, in the north aisle of Canterbury Cathedral.

Courtenay had claimed he was immortal, so his body was put on show in the stables of the Red Lion, so that people could see he was dead. They flocked to the site. The rebellion hit the national headlines, and an astute publisher brought out an ‘instant’, detailed account of it.

Mercy and mission

The Government realised there was a serious problem in Dunkirk. They dealt leniently with the survivors of Courtenay’s army. Most were given parole. Only two were sentenced to transportation, and one of them went on to make a fortune in the Australian gold-fields. Was he the inspiration for Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860/1)?

Frightened of further unrest in the area, the Government decided a Christian mission might help, made Dunkirk a proper parish (at last), and built both a church and a school. The church, at the top of Boughton Hill, was declared redundant some years ago and has been converted in to a dwelling.  

Its most famous ex-pupil is Jack Cornwell, hero of the 1918 Battle of Jutland in World War I, who, though mortally wounded, stayed alone at his gun on HMS Chester and kept firing it.    He was awarded the VC posthumously.       

But why Dunkirk - isn’t that in France?

Even the name is new by Kent standards.   Most place-names in the county go back to Saxon times, a few, even earlier, to when it formed part of the Roman empire.   Dunkirk only acquired its name in the 18th century.

It used to be said that it was a bit of a nickname.   If it was the haunt of smugglers and a sanctuary for petty criminals, then it was rather like how Dunkirk in France used to be - a free port, where no duties or taxes need be paid.   

Recent research has revealed that this isn’t the explanation.   In the early 18th century there was a house on the Dunkirk/Boughton-under-Blean border called Dunkirk - and this gave its name to the area.   And how did the house get its name?   Perhaps between 1658 and 1662, when the French Dunkirk was an English possession, the owner had traded there successfully and named his house in Kent in remembrance of this. Dunkirk is in the part of France where Flemish, not French, was spoken, and the name means ‘the church on the dunes’.

To find out more about Courtenay and Dunkirk ...

Track down these three books:

    ‘Canterburiensis’, The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Sir William Courtenay, Canterbury, 1838

    P. G. Rogers, Battle in Bossenden Wood, OUP 1961 and Readers’ Union Book Club 1962

    Barry Reay, The Last Rising of the Agricultural Labourers, Clarendon Press, 1990