Kent Archaeological Review extract

Dartford Priory and Manor House.
by Brian Philp.
(Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit.)

The local planning-lists for August 1976 gave the first warning of the final go-ahead of a major factory development in the centre of Dartford. This was immediately picked up by the Unit's archive and survey team who confirmed that it sat right across the certain sites of the medieval nunnery and also the manor-house of Henry VIII. Even whilst the Unit was giving urgent consideration to the matter a call came from Dartford Museum pleading for the Unit's full-time action on what was clearly a major undertaking. Miss Parke, the new and most enthusiastic curator, had quickly realised the importance of the sites in both the county and national contexts. Thus a major rescue-programme, on behalf of the Department of the Environment, began.

The Unit opened negotiations with the developers and owners of the site, Hall Thermotank Ltd, whose response was immediately helpful and correct. They readily consented to preliminary excavations on the few available areas and agreed to co-operate during the construction programme. Not only this, but through the good offices of the directors of the property company Messrs Hoggan, Crocher and Robinson, good facilities were provided for the work and the staff canteen even made available for the diggers, a most welcome change from the usual soggy sandwiches in the rain.

At the time of going to press the Unit's work has been underway for three weeks by both mechanical and manual means, mostly in heavy rain. Three areas have been partially examined and although it is clearly unwise to jump to hasty conclusions on the strength of this preliminary work, it seems clear that substantial sub-structures and foundations of both the monastic church and the manor survive. This seems generally confirmed in an adjacent area where a local team uncovered walls, hearths and drains representing a small part of the total manor area. The monastery was established in the mid-14th century as a house for Dominican nuns and no doubt the church and conventual buildings covered several acres, now all within the factory limits. Its site was found in 1913 when the factory was extended across an orchard. The walls then found (see Figure 1) were planned, but the related stratigraphy and other basic data were not recorded as such skills were sadly lacking locally. Of the Tudor manor-house we know much more. The Surveyor General's detailed accounts survive and it is clear that the monastery was substantially demolished whilst the manor-house was built. Work started in 1541 and largely completed in 1544. At times more than 500 men were being employed on the site at a time, though this varied with the programme and the season. The labourers seem to have been paid 5d a day, the skilled men 8d. a day and the chief bricklayer 12d a day. There were no paid holidays and work may have stopped each Christmas for about three weeks to allow the workmen to travel home.

Plan: Figure 1. Dartford Priory -- Based on original plan by H E Aldridge.

Figure 1. Dartford Priory -- Based on original plan by H E Aldridge.

The walls were of brick and stone and several of the major buildings were battlemented. Large quantities of materials were brought in from all over Kent and beyond. Notable amongst these were tons of building stone from the recently demolished Barking Abbey and from stocks held at Westminster and Canterbury. Lead, slate and tiles were employed on the roofs. The whole task took about four years and the cost was certainly greater than 5,000. These records give a useful, though qualified, look at what was clearly a great Tudor manor of palatial proportions. Great courtyards and ranges of two storied buildings probably incorporated at least 100 rooms. Anne of Cleves lived here for some years and that Henry and his Privy Council visited on rare occasions shows how the town of Dartford clearly emerged into the national limelight. Of all this majesty only the small gatehouse, known locally as the 'Priory' and carefully restored by Hall Thermotank Ltd, and a few other fragments survive above the ground. Just how much more survives beneath, the next few months may tell!

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