Elizabeth Kendall, who has recently died, was passionate about Gillingham and keeping it green and pleasant place to live. Gillingham News interviewed her a few years ago and it was fascinating listening to her tell how the town changed…
Gillingham was a very different place when Elizabeth Kendall moved here at the end of 1968. On Station Road was an egg-packing factory and an abattoir for pigs. ‘You would be woken in the night by the sound of the animals fighting,’ she says. The glue factory had recently shut down (so the town had certainly become less malodorous), and the cinema too was gone, but the high street was still bustling. On the Square, was an electrical shop and a hairdresser, as well as a couple of grocers, one of which used to roast its own coffee, plus a chemist and a vet. ‘There were two butchers, one near the church and another where Reynolds is now,’ recalls Elizabeth. ‘And you could also go to the abattoir and get fresh pork.’
Phoenix Inn had rooms that it let out, and there was a Co-Op, opposite to where it was situated before it moved, and there was also International, another small supermarket. ‘You could anything you wanted in Gill,’ says Elizabeth. ‘The electrical board had a showroom with cookers to buy. There was a wool shop and a haberdashery, as well as Huzzards who sold school uniforms and men’s and women’s clothing. Dirks sold sweets as well as books and stationery. There were at least two shoe shops and two doctors. Crockers was there, and it is the only one that is left.’
Elizabeth didn’t need to leave the town to do her shopping. ‘Whether it was my every day shopping or for Christmas, everything I wanted was here,’ she says. ‘And you never went out without meeting someone you knew.’
The countryside was different too. ‘There were still farms and farmers in the town – at Peacemarsh, Chantry Farm with the Martins, and on the Shaftesbury Road there was another between the centre of the town and Orchard Park. And the fields were lovely. I used to walk through Chantry Fields and it was filled with wild flowers with glow worms in the hedges; clouds of butterflies used to come up as you walked. And there were mushrooms in autumn – you could walk the dog in the morning and come back with breakfast.’
Elizabeth came to Gillingham to take up the position of head teacher at Mere Infants School as it was then. Relocating from the Midlands with her was her husband, Jim, who took a job as one of the ground staff at Gillingham School, and her mother, who was separated from Elizabeth’s father.
In Gillingham they bought an 18th century cottage – its deeds show the date 1758 – on the banks of the River Stour. It was named Chantry House but Elizabeth’s mother deemed that name too presumptuous for a mere cottage and renamed it Chantry Ford. ‘The homes on Barnaby Mead had just been built then and I remember my father, who was separated from my mother, saying, “why did you buy an old cottage and not one of those new houses?” But mother wanted to be away from the road as she had three cats.’
There had once been two other properties nearby but one was lost during the war. ‘Three bombs fell – one hit the Red Lion and another hit one of the next-door cottages. Legend has it that the owner, an elderly gentleman, was in the outside loo so he was ok! The third bomb has never been found. When they were doing Waitrose, they had to get the bomb squad in because one resident said that was where it had fallen; but they didn’t find anything.’
After Barnaby Mead, the next wave of construction saw houses built at the end of Common Mead as well as Maple Way and Sycamore. ‘From there it just mushroomed,’ says Elizabeth. The fields beside her home became Waitrose in 1991. ‘What’s really changed is the amount of traffic and cars and the street lighting,’ says Elizabeth.
More homes and more people, however, coincided with Gillingham High Street losing its vitality. ‘What had been going on slowly for years started speeding up in the Eighties,’ she says. ‘People became more mobile – the car is extraordinary factor in changing one’s habits. We used to walk to the shops or cycle, but with a car people got into the habit of going out on the weekend to go shopping – going to Yeovil, or even Poole.’
The changes prompted Jim to want to move. ‘But I said there was absolutely no point – what’s happening here is happening everywhere,’ says Elizabeth. ‘Unless you want to go to the Hebrides, and you don’t do that when you’re retired!’
Instead of moving, having taken early retirement in 1988, Elizabeth set about doing what she could to keep Gillingham as green as possible. She was a member of Gillingham Town Council from 1990 – 1995 and a founder member of Gillingham Action for Nature (GANG) through which she was instrumental in the purchase of Withy Wood for the town, which is still maintained by GANG today. ‘I was very concerned that we would lose our green areas and sense of greenness,’ says Elizabeth.
The creation of the main road through the town, Le Neubourg Way, was inevitable as the traffic began to increase. ‘I didn’t like the idea of it but something had to be done,’ she says. ‘Large lorries would come down the High Street, into the Square and onto Wyke road and it was a dodgy business – they kept on chipping the side of the Phoenix as they went round.’
Elizabeth is responsible for the blossom trees that line the road in the section near Waitrose. ‘The idea was to do a wildflower bank – elements of this remain, but others have been taken over by bramble now,’ she says.
Appointed Tree Warden for Gillingham Town Council, she was also responsible for planting many of the trees that can be found in the town, and she won preservation orders for many of the old oaks including those by Rolls Bridge. She remains an advisory to the current Gillingham Tree Warden.
When it came to the building of the town’s newer housing estates, she battled to make them more suitable to comfortable living. ‘It was often about attempting to get the density reduced,’ she says. ‘Developers were often very ambitious about what they put down on a piece of paper. I voted against them when they were far too crowded.’
Elizabeth was also a member of the Civic Society, History Society and Three Rivers Partnership, the last, a community charity that supports the town and was responsible for the creation of RiversMeet Leisure Centre. In 2006, the council awarded Elizabeth the Freedom of the Town of Gillingham ‘in recognition of her long service to the town’s natural environment…’
While far less mobile that she would like to be, Elizabeth does still get out and about, especially to Friday’s Community Market, to which she and her mother used to supply flowers many years ago, and while the town has changed dramatically in her lifetime, she’s still positive about it. ‘Recently, there’s been a wave of renewing and refreshing the town, with some very interesting planting as well – it’s brought real pleasure to see it.’