By Tim Lambert
Maidstone began as a Saxon village. From the 10th century, it was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Maidstone was a large village with a population of perhaps 250. (Most villages would have 100-150 inhabitants). At that time it had 5 watermills, which ground grain to flour.
By the 13th century, Maidstone grew into a town. Situated on the Medway it was ideally situated for transporting vegetables and fruit from Kent by water to London. It was also the market town for a large part of Kent. As well as a weekly market Maidstone also had annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Kent and from London to buy and sell at a Maidstone fair.
As well as the fair and the market there were many craftsmen working in Medieval Maidstone. Dyer’s dyed wool and stonemasons worked the local Kentish ragstone. There were also shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, butchers, brewers, and bakers. There was also a tanning industry and hides were brought from London along the Medway to be tanned in the town.
In 1261 Maidstone was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). By the early 14th century, Maidstone probably had a population of around 2,000. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town although its population was devastated by the black death of 1348-49.
In 1396 a College of Secular Canons was formed (secular canons were like monks but they lived by less strict rules). All Saints Church was erected by the College.
The Archbishop obtained a residence in Maidstone in the 13th century. The present Archbishop’s palace dates from the 14th century. In the Middle Ages Maidstone had a religious guild, the Guild of Corpus Christi. The members of the guild employed a chaplain who said prayers for their souls when they died. The guild also looked after its members in old age and in times of sickness. However, the guild was dissolved at the Reformation.
Maidstone in the 16th century and 17th century
During the 16th century and 17th century Maidstone grew increasingly important. Its population grew from about 2,000 in 1500 to about 2,500 in 1600 and about 3,000 in 1650. This was despite outbreaks of the plague. Like all towns, Maidstone suffered epidemics. It struck in 1563, 1575, 1595, 1604, 1069, and 1626. The last outbreak of the plague was in 1666. Then it died out although afterward, Maidstone suffered from outbreaks of smallpox.
Markets and industries in Maidstone flourished in the 16th century and 17th centuries. Wool was manufactured in the town. (In the late 16th century weavers from Holland fleeing persecution settled in Maidstone). However, in the late 17th century the wool industry went into decline. However other industries boomed in Maidstone in the 17th century. Among these were thread making and brewing. In the late 17th century a new industry grew up in Maidstone – paper making.
In the Middle Ages Maidstone belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1537 the king took control of the town from him. Then in 1549 Maidstone was given a new charter, which made it independent. Maidstone was given a mayor and corporation who ran its affairs. The same year the town gained a grammar school.
During the civil war of 1642-46, Maidstone and the rest of Kent were controlled by parliament. However, in 1648 parliament managed to alienate Maidstonians by outlawing traditional ceremonies. There was an uprising in Kent and royalist soldiers were stationed in Maidstone. However, in June 1648 parliamentary troops attacked. The royalist soldiers were routed. Some fled, others were killed or taken prisoner.
Maidstone in the 18th century
By the early 18th century the population of Maidstone had probably reached 4,000. It doubled by the end of the century. Maidstone continued to be an important market town. In 1739 the Medway was deepened upstream of Maidstone as far as the modern-day border between east and west Sussex. This enabled produce to be brought to the town more easily. During the 18th century, the old industry of thread-making declined.
On the other hand, the industries of papermaking and brewing boomed.
In 1791 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men with powers to pave and clean the streets of Maidstone and light them with oil lamps.
Maidstone in the 19th century
In 1801 the population of Maidstone was just over 8,000. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town. It grew rapidly. By 1851 the population had risen to over 20,000. By the end of the century, it was over 33,000. In 1819 Maidstone gained its first police force and in 1822 it gained gaslight.
Like all 19th-century towns, Maidstone was dirty and unsanitary but things improved after the 1870s when a network of drains and sewers was created. In 1858 Maidstone Museum opened and in 1879 Brenchley Gardens were turned into a public park.
During the 19th century, the industries of brewing and papermaking boomed. Other industries grew up in Maidstone especially later in the century. One was making farm implements and machinery. Another was food processing such as jam making and bottling mineral water.
Maidstone in the 20th century
In 1901 the population of Maidstone was 33,000. By 1971 it had more than doubled to 72,000. The first electricity was generated in Maidstone in 1901 and from 1904 electric trams ran in the streets. Maidstone gained its first cinema in 1910.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Maidstone. Many of those built in the 1930s were meant to replace slums that were demolished in the town. After 1945 many more council houses were built in Maidstone such as the estate at Shepway. Hazlitt Theatre opened in 1955. Maidstone General Hospital opened in 1983.
In the early 20th century the old industries of papermaking and brewing continued to flourish but they both declined sharply later in the century. In common with other towns, Maidstone lost much of its manufacturing but service industries became more important. Today tourism is a major industry in Maidstone. Retail is another important industry. The Chequers Centre was built in 1976.
Maidstone in the 21st century
In 2005 Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre opened. In 2020 the population of Maidstone was 155,000.