Monday 12 November 2012

Martha Dodd - Elmley's Longest Resident?

A couple of weeks ago, a local historian, G. Turner, kindly sent me some photographs in response to my previous blog posting re. Seaview Cottages at Elmley. Among them was a copy of a newspaper picture (above), from c.1938 showing who I presumed to be Mrs. Martha Dodd, receiving post from a postman at Elmley. I knew that the Dodd family had lived on Elmley and although they were not related to me in any way, I was intrigued that she appeared to have lived on Elmley continuously for at least 87 years and I  decided to see what I could find out about her.

Martha was born in a cottage on the Elmley marshes in 1851. Her parents were William and Elizabeth Flood and she was the last and youngest of their eight children. Her father was born across The Swale at Lynsted and her mother at Ospringe and by the time of her birth in 1851 her parents had been living at Elmley since 1838, with William employed there as a shepherd.
Looking at the wide expanse of Elmley today it would be easily to imagine that, all those years ago, Martha had been born into a pretty bleak landscape, but that wasn't necessarily the case. Sure the conditions in the cottages were very basic but with numerous cottages dotted around the marshes and a row of cottages in Kingshill farmyard itself, plus a church nearby, there was a modicum of social life. Between 1857 and 1987 the whole of Elmley was owned by the Oxford University Chest and the tenancy quite often changed hands. When the tenancy of the whole of Elmley was advertised in the Kent Gazette in 1853, two years after Martha's birth, listed alongside the various buildings, grazing marshes, etc, was a brickworks. These works, covering some 25 acres alongside The Swale, included "an inexhaustible supply of brick earth, newly built cottages, drying sheds and kilns." It seems that the brick works began life in the late 1840's and only lasted for around ten years, because in c.1860 a cement producing factory was built on the site. Included in the same advertisment was the Ferry House pub and Ferryman's cottage on the Murston side of Elmley Ferry, this 10 acre site also belonged to the Elmley estate.

 Anyway, despite the employment offered by this nearby industry, Martha's father remained working as a shepherd and by 1861 the family were found to be living at Rose Cottages on the flat marsh north of Kingshill Farm. By this time, two of Martha's brothers were also employed, one as a farm labourer and the other as a Cooper. A 1946 sketch of the buildings show a largish L-shaped cottage close to a second building with cattle stalls below and rooms above. Today, only the second building remains.
A second family of three, the Rutlands, are also shown as living at the cottages at the same time but whether they all shared the larger cottage or were split between the two buildings is not indicated.

In 1868, the 17yr old Martha married 25yr old shepherd James Dodd. He and his family were living in a cottage elsewhere on Elmley after moving from Little Bells Farm, near Eastchurch, some years before. That's pretty much how it was in those days, it was a pretty solitary life and unless you was lucky, you simply married somebody who lived close by, had children and spent a life mirroring that of your parents before you. The harsh facts of this were obviously clear to Martha just three years later in 1871 when she was just 20 yrs of age. Both she and James were living in an un-named cottage on Elmley, she already had a 1yr old daughter Ann and they were sharing the cottage with three of her husband's relatives, his 60yr old grandmother, his 18yr old sister and a 14yr old nephew.

By 1881 the Turkey Cement Works down by The Swale were in full flow and even employing some people from off of Sheppey - new blood was beginning to appear on Elmley!. As a result, several short terraces of houses had been built, also one or two larger houses and there was even a pub-come shop, "The Globe" - a small community was forming. Four years later in 1885, a new school was also built alongside the church, a school mistress employed and an average attendance of 49 children attended.
In the 1881 Census Martha and James were recorded as now living in that community, in one of the Jobs Hole Cottages, (they later became Seaview Cottages), at No.4. This move very likely came about becase James had changed jobs, he was now working as a second Wallman and it was custom in the district that regular Wallmen were allowed the use of a cottage and a certain quantity of coals, with their wages fixed on that basis. It was an important job because with high tides regularly occurring in The Swale, as they still do, upkeep of the sea walls was vital in order to prevent the marsh and its buildings from becoming flooded. By that time as well, they were sharing their cottage with their now five children - Harriet b.1872, Esther b.1873, Alfred J. b.1875, Jane E. b.1877 and Alice E. b.1880. Curiously, there was no mention of their first-born, Ann, who would of been 11 that year, had she died? Fortunately as well, the relatives were gone, Martha would of been glad of the room, the cottages were always pretty cramped affairs in those days.

Jumping forward to 1891, the cement works was at the busiest point in it's short history and was employing labourers from as far away as Birmingham. James and Martha were still living in the same cottage and James was still employed as a Wallman. Their 19 year old daughter Harriet was not recorded as living there however and had probably married or was working away somewhere, whilst 16 year old son Alfred was working as a labourer in the cement works. However the loss of Harriet from the household hadn't resulted in anymore room in the cottage, or any less work for Martha, for they now had three lodgers, all bargees working out of the cements work's small dock.
Martha was now 40 years of age and presumably life wasn't getting much easier, a husband, four children and now three lodgers all packed into the one cottage. Its easy to speculate, despite her age, whether Martha had yet ever been anywhere else away from Elmley.
The likes of Sheerness, Minster or Eastchurch would of all involved long walks along rough footpaths across fields and marshes, or possibly by horse and cart. Presumably the shortest route would of been via the Elmley Ferry, just half a mile away and a walk into Murston or Sittingbourne. Whichever route was taken would probably involve the best part of a day out and it would be easy not to bother, providing enough food could be achieved from their garden and the surrounding estate. Water was obtained from a wind pump close to the cottages and was stored in iron bound water casks outside the cottages. Likewise, coal was provided as part of their employment agreement, I wonder how it got there, was it brought there by a coalman on a horse and cart, or by other means. And finally to add to their problems, an inventory of all the buildings on Elmley that year noted that in respect of Seaview Cottages, "a good deal of work was necessary...not only to cottage occupied by Dodd but to the other three, for the labour of which the tenant is no doubt responsible".

1901 brought about the second year of a new century and with it came a rapid drop in Elmley's population figures. The cement works had closed in 1900 and with the urgent need to find other work, a lot of the community there had begun to drift away, with many ending up in London. The population figures for Elmley around that time demonstrate what I mean: in 1891 - 201, 1907 - 146, 1911 - 50. Children attending the Elmley schoolhouse had also dropped, with average attendances in 1907 of only 14 children.
For Martha and James, little had changed, they were still at No.4 Seaview Cottages, although James had now reverted back to a job as an Agricultural Labourer (farmhand) and the children had all left home. With the girls presumably getting married and therefore changing their surnames it has not been possible to track their whereabouts, except the youngest. 23yr old Alice was now working as a servant for an old lady in Dover. As for Alfred, well with the demise of the cement works he had obviously joined the exodus to London and in the autumn of 1900 had married a wife called Jane and was living in Greenwich and working in the local gas works there.

1911 is the last year that census returns are currently available on line and they once again show Martha and James still living on Elmley and although it isn't recorded, presumably still at Seaview Cottages. Martha was now 60 and poor old James 68 and still working as a farm labourer there. Interestingly, that was the first census where the householder was responsible for completing his/her own entry. In the relevant sections James has recorded that he and Martha had 7 children born alive, 6 were still alive in 1911 and one had died. That leaves a slight mystery in that I have only seen six children recorded as being born to the couple, perhaps James made a mistake with his entry. Of the children, once again only Alfred is traceable, still living in Greenwich, still working in the gas works and now with a 5yr old daughter.

And so, after that Martha's story goes cold, until that is, she re-appeared in a local paper in c.1938, pictured taking her post from the postman, who would of still come across from the mainland via the Elmley ferry. (I have another photo of the very same postman handing mail to a young Gransden actually at the ferry) The newspaper caption also indicates that she was living a few miles away from Kingshill Farm itself and so I'd be surprised if she hadn't spent all those intervening years still at Seaview Cottages - paperwork suggests that the cottages were still there as late as 1941. Was she living on her own when the photo was taken, I should think so, although it has not been possible to find an actual date of death for James.
Martha's is an incredible story, how amazing it would of been to be able to talk to her and compile all those memories into a real-life record of how Elmley had once been. It must of been so hard for her, well into her 80's, with the church and the schoolhouse falling into dis-repair and nothing but the ghosts of the brickfields community all around her.

Sometime between 1938 and her death in 1942, Martha was taken away from Elmley and removed to Farnborough Hospital in Kent where she died in Feb. 1942. None of her current family know the reason why she was hospitalised where she was, or what her illness was, but after her death she was brought back to Sheppey and buried at Queenborough Churchyard.


  1. Thanks very much Derek - what a fascinating and absorbing story !
    I would love to be able to add to it but couldn't compete with your detailed research and intimate local knowledge.
    That's another chapter for the book though.
    Ken L

  2. Thanks Ken,

    I keep on trying to come up with something different.

  3. A very interesting article about a part of Kent I have only got to know in the last two years, but somewhere I visit very frequently now. Many thanks for all the research you've done on it.

    Bryan B

  4. My pleasure Brian, I have had a love for Elmley since I first begun going out there as a 14 yr old in the early 1960's. These days my birdwatching is all done on Harty but Elmley remains my favourite place.