In a tranquil village in the Weald of Kent, a pair of 12th-century sisters are still keeping watch over the poor of their parish, discovers Deborah Nash
Deborah Nash tells the story of the Biddenden maids
ANYONE who has passed through Biddenden in the Weald of Kent might have noticed twins Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst keeping watch over the picturesque village.
Today, it’s from the sign that, in 1920, won £50 in a Daily Mail competition for best design. Depicting the pair conjoined at the hip and shoulder, their names inscribed between the viridian blue of their skirts, the sign still stands proud on the village green above a panel detailing how the 12th-century sisters are remembered every Easter with the distribution of bread and cheese from Biddenden’s Old Workhouse, along with biscuits of flour and water bearing their likeness and date of birth.
The story, which some now claim is little more than local myth, details how the Chulkhurst twins were born into a wealthy local family. When Mary died from an illness in 1134, at the age of 34, Eliza refused to be separated from her and is quoted as saying: ‘As we came together, we will also go together.’ She died six hours later.
Legend has it that the sisters bequeathed 20 acres of land, known as Breadlands and Cheeselands, to the church wardens for the benefit of the poor of the parish. The land lay in five pieces around the village and the rents collected from the farmers funded the Easter dole, a tradition that has continued for more than 400 years.
Today, the land is considerably reduced: the Biddenden Consolidated Charity is managed by trustees and its current assets are two parcels of land and the Old Workhouse. Cheeselands is now a housing estate and Breadlands its playground. From the village sign, the Old Workhouse lies west, past a row of Flemish weavers’ cottages lining the high street.
At All Saints Church, where it’s believed the twins are buried, a notice advertises the Easter dole. Continue through the graveyard, up an uneven path, and a broad Georgian house with large windows looms into view: the Old Workhouse. Here, two farmers in flat caps stand waiting on Easter Monday with a clipboard and a list of pensioners’ names— the modern-day recipients of the dole.
‘We advertise the dole and people are only removed when they no longer live in the village or when they die—if their partner is still alive, we transfer it to them. It’s all done at the discretion of the Trustees,’ Tom Lupton, one of the farmers, explains.
Every year, a bakery in nearby Cranbrook provides the loaves and makes the memorial biscuits using a mould dating back to the early-victorian era—examples of biscuits from 1902 can be seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Sixty-two pensioners are expected to collect their uncut loaf, half a pound of butter, a pound of cheese and a box of tea this year. As the church bells strike 10, the windows of the Old Workhouse are opened to welcome the throng and the bags containing still-warm loaves are handed out.
In an era in which rural pubs, post offices and other amenities are becoming rare breeds, the Biddenden Easter dole is a comforting and continuing custom, fostering a sense of community and linking the villagers to the history of their home—the Chulkhurst twins would surely be pleased.
‘Every year, a bakery provides loaves and makes the memorial biscuits’
Above: The legendary conjoined twins. Below: A memorial biscuit of about 1900