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Toke's Ledger Stones in Kent churches

Ann Pinder

Churches are of course an invaluable source of historic material, containing as they do so many memorials, not just on the walls but also underfoot. The practice of brass rubbing is no longer encouraged since the popularity of this hobby meant that an excess of rubbing led to surface damage of the, largely medieval, latten plates. There is however another type of memorial set into church floors, and that is the Ledger Stone, a flat solid plaque, some three foot by seven, laid over a grave, within the fabric of the church and bearing in many instances a roundel depicting the family coat of arms.

Such stones provide an essential source of reference for historians and those tracing their family tree, time capsules that include information not just on the first person to have been buried beneath each stone, but on other family members interred at a later date.

Ledger stones are not rare, which is maybe why they are somewhat overlooked, but being underfoot have come in for much wear and tear, subject to damage and neglect, despite their seeming hardiness and sturdy appearance, especially since they are frequently sited in the central aisle of the nave, before the altar, this being seen as the holiest place in the church.

In medieval times the word ledger referred to a document which was too large to stand upright, and was therefore placed flat on a ledge or desk, the word possibly coming from Middle English leggen to lay. The first ledger stones were coffin lids set into the floor, sometimes decorated with a cross and over the centuries this evolved into a large plaque. Mostly the material is dark in colour, variously described as black or blue marble, but in Kent Bethersden marble (in reality a type of limestone) has occasionally been used, so has iron though this is more common in places close to where that industry once thrived, such as in the Sussex part of the Weald.

Such materials may have ensured the ledger stone’s longevity but some have been damaged or destroyed, not only as the result of Victorian restoration, but also by WW2 bombing, as well as natural erosion, having been subjected to generations of passing footsteps. Others, too, have disappeared, albeit temporarily, beneath carpeting or floorboards, or are half hidden beneath choir stall, dais or (as at Rochester Cathedral) reception desk.

One Kentish man who appreciated their importance as a historical record was Nicholas Eyare Toke, a University and army tutor, who, after obtaining a degree at London University, settled in Folkestone, joining the Kent Archaeological Society in 1903.

Nicholas Toke was descended from the Toke family who once owned Godinton Park, at Great Chart near Ashford. The local church is rich in wall memorials recording various members of the family and Toke himself had a special interest in church "furniture". He was to contribute several papers to Archaeologia Cantiana on hatchments and stained glass, but he also enjoyed brass rubbing, a technique he went on to use on the raised surfaces of the heraldic devices which appeared on church Ledger Stones. There were plenty of them for him to record, and he began during the first world war, when his home town of Folkestone was not only a port for the embarkation of military personnel to the battlefields of Europe, but saw the arrival of thousands of refugees, notably Belgians fleeing from the German invasion of their country

The first of these refugees arrived - in whatever they could find to carry them across the channel, from ferries to fishing boats and coal-carriers - around the 20th August 1914, many with only the clothes they were wearing, and in search of shelter and food. Initially the townsfolk, even the poor, gave them refuge, and then things began to become more organised with the formation of a Refugees Relief Committee. Nicholas Toke, being skilled in modern languages, was made a Representative of the Local Government Board, charged with greeting and resettling the refugees. This was a task he undertook modestly but well and his endeavours were recognised by three countries, for not only was he awarded the MBE, but also the Medaille de la Reconnaisance Francaise and Belgian’s Ordre de la Couronne.

The refugee crisis wasn’t, however, Toke’s only preoccupation during WW1. During these years, at least from 1916, he was visiting parish churches in Kent in order to make rubbings of their heraldic ledger stones.

We know exactly where he was on specific dates for when he made the rubbings and recorded the inscription engraved into each stone he included the date of when he undertook each church visit, initially the month and year, then later giving the actual day so we known he was in Pembury on 27 December 1917 rubbing the ledger stone of Richard Amhurst who died in 1664, while a few days later, on the 1st January 1918 he was in Goudhurst working on the stone of John Bathurst (died 1697).

It must have been a solitary occupation, working quietly in country churches, a complete contrast to his war work, but his hobby continued even after the war had finished, through to December 1937, and he found much to occupy him in Kent’s two Cathedrals, especially in the 1920s and 30s at Canterbury. Here, as also occurs in parish churches throughout the county, a number of stones have been removed from their original site over the graves, and placed elsewhere, in this case in the cloisters, so they are no longer attached to their original burial sites.

250,000 ledger stones are said to be in existence throughout Britain, dating mainly from around the mid 17th century to the late 18th century when the middle classes sought to emulate the aristocracy in having similar memorials. Toke recorded around three hundred stones (all heraldic) and the dates of death on them range from 1579 to 1836, with the ledger’s popularity (at least according to Toke’s collection) seeming to peak during the 1730s. It was the Burial Acts of the 1850s that brought about the introduction of cemeteries and a ban on further burials inside the church itself, although an exception was made in the case of family vaults which still had room for further interments.

The various people who make up Toke’s historic cast include mayors and clergymen, merchants, lawyers, and those with baronial connections, along with a Royal Navy Commander, and families who sided with the Royalists in the English Civil War. There is much to admire in the progressively ornate types of lettering used in the epitaphs. Among these are sad inscriptions, recording early deaths, notably of young mothers and children, in a period when infant mortality as well as complications resulting from pregnancy and birth was high. There are those who perished from diseases fortunately no longer with us such as plague and malaria, which killed thousands in low-lying marshy areas. Some folk though lived well into their eighties, like the Reverend Edward Lunn who served as parish rector of Denton for 59 years under 6 different archbishops, and whose sister made sure that future generations knew her brother’s stone was supplied at her "sole expense".

The language used in the various epitaphs is often a delight, even poetical, with terms no longer used, such as "relict" for wife". In Alkham is recorded Elizabeth Slater who "fell from her horse and was deprived of her leg and life" while Sir Henry Palmer of Canterbury is described as being a "carefull father of thirteen children".

At the top of Canterbury high street stands a clock tower, all that remains of the church of St George the Martyr after it was badly damaged in a 1942 bombing raid. The church monuments were lost but there is one that remains; originally in the south aisle (as recorded by Toke), it lies now amid the dust and debris of the open sided tower: the heraldic ledger stone dedicated to Margaret Greenhill, who died on the 22nd January 1753, in the 94th year of her life, having outlived her husband Richard as well as two sons.

Nicholas Toke made several rubbings in the church in May 1917, including this one. He remained in Folkestone for the rest of his life, dying in 1960 at the age of 94, just slightly older than Margaret Greenhill. As for his invaluable record of ledger stone rubbings these were photographed on to a collection of glass plate negatives now housed in the KAS Library at Maidstone museum. These have recently been transferred to computer and will hopefully go on the Society’s website along with their epitaphs.

Toke’s way of recording was excellent at the start of the twentieth century and ensured we still have a record of stones which are either inaccessible or no longer exist, however, technology moves on and there is now an exciting new development being used to enhance engraved inscriptions and carvings on a variety of surfaces where the detail is badly eroded It is called Reflectance Transformation Imaging and involves taking multiple images with the camera fixed to a tripod, as the subject is lit from different angles. This fascinating technique, which even works out of doors on worn gravestones covered in lichen, is going to prove invaluable on ledger stones, especially those adorning table tombs in churchyards (as at Cranbrook) whose fine details have been lost. RTI will not completely replace manual recording but it certainly seems to be the way forward in ensuring we recover and retain family data which in all probability can be found nowhere else.

NOTE: A" Ledgerstone Survey of England and Wales" is now being undertaken, in which anyone can take part, and information on this can be found at