Skip to Content.

Kent Archaeological Review extract
 

Digging Up the Past --
Charles Roach Smith - Man of the Century (1).
by Harold Gough.

One of the 19th century's noted archaeologists who had particular links with Kent was Charles Roach Smith (1807-1891). Born in the Isle of Wight, he reluctantly plied the trade of retail chemist in the City of London, until his shop was compulsorily purchased for redevelopment. He was unsuccessful in new premises, and retired to Strood in Kent, where he cultivated grapes and other fruit which earned a great reputation.

A dull life? Far from it. Thanks to the speed and efficiency of Victorian railways, he travelled the length and breadth of Britain, and much of Europe, studying antiquities, organising excavations, and stirring up an interest in archaeology wherever he went.

It all began, really, from an early interest in coins, and the discovery in a shop till at Chichester of a coin of Faustina the elder. Soon after, on the strength of local gossip, he borrowed his employer's horse to go to see a hoard of coins grubbed out of a field six miles away. By the time he located the finder's wife, she had gone to bed. Nothing daunted, young Smith roused her, persuaded her to admit she had them, and bought a dozen. Later he acquired 300 out of the 840 originally found-the rest had been lent to the Lady of the 'Manor and were never heard of again.

This action on the part of the lady had its counterpart a few years later in Smith's experience, when he heard of a board of 4,000 pennies of William Rufus, found near Bishop's Waltham, Hants; the greater number had been melted down by the lady of the manor to make a piece of plate!

His next spark was kindled by a visit to the villa at Bignor, which inspired him to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

When Roach Smith at length set up his own business in London, he found himself in the middle of an area of development and excavation; the authorities were not in the least interested in any finds and he was able to poke about and build up a collection, his report on which earned him his FSA. Another rich source of material was the bed of the Thames, which was being deepened by the "ballast-heavers" -- the famous bronze head of Hadrian came from here.

He was one of the founders of the British Archaeological Association, whose first meeting at Canterbury in 1844 has already featured in this series. His own report on this throws another light on the more social side of the proceedings. The Revd R H Barham, author of the "Ingoldsby Legends" and other learned members, seem to have spent their time turning out verses and skits on their colleagues' addresses. The Dean of Canterbury was worried about the possible spontaneous combustion of pigeon droppings on the cathedral roof, based on what was thought to have happened at Pisa. Barham produced a verse while the cathedral surveyor was replying that the idea was ridiculous and that they might just as well be worried about the robins in the cloisters.

"By the droppings of dickey-birds, fanned by a breeze, a Spontaneous combustion occurred once at Pisa; So beware then, grave guardians of old Durovernum, Lest cock robins build in your cloisters, and burn 'em."

Roach Smith soon saw the importance and publication of both fresh and former finds with adequate illustration, for reference purposes, and issued seven volumes of "Collectanca Antiqua" to this end. In explanation of the wide field covered and his independent viewpoint, he pointed out that some of the existing publications were governed by

"councils interested only in one subject, who would be tempted to undervalue the labours of their colleagues who laboured in different fields."

He edited the 18th century "Inventorium Sepulchrale" described in "Digging up the Past3," and wrote three volumes of autobiographical "Retrospections" before his death, here the reader can follow the life and thought of the kindly and energetic man whose long lie filled most of his century and made him many friends and very few enemies.

His particular interest in Kent began long before his retirement to Strood. The first page of his "Retrospections" begins: "It was early in my antiquarian youth and late in the autumn, that I made my first acquaintance with Richborough and Reculver." He seldom gives precise dates to his personal tales, but this was soon after the Reform Act of 1832. He arrived in Sandwich late at night, found a hotel bed, and next morning went to see William Rolfe the local antiquary, who showed him a gallon of Roman coins found in the nearby sandhills. Then a stroll up to Richborough for his first visit and back to Sandwich for lunch. In the early afternoon, he decided to walk to Reculver. Rolfe tried to dissuade him, but he set off. He reached Minster about the middle of the afternoon, where Dr Freeman, himself an authority on Reculver, also discouragd him without success, and finally gave him the name of the innkeeper at Reculver, a patient of his, who would put him up for the night, if he managed to get there.

Reaching St Nicholas at Wade late in the afternoon, the spires of Reculver seemed so close that he pressed on across the marshes, with the guidance of a local girl, for a short distance. The half-hour, which he had expected would see him at his destination, dragged on and darkness fell. When the moon rose he found himself surrounded by ditches and began to panic a little. However, crossing one of the dykes on a precarious hurdle, he at last came to the sea wall, a long way cast of the fort. By the time he got to the King Ethelbert Inn he was all in, but the landlord welcomed him, sat him down and took his boots off. They talked long into the night -- Smith's legs were immovable by now -- and he heard all about the history of Reculver.

(To be continued.)

 
Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.