poppyCharing is a civil parish in Kent centred on the village of Charing itself and the smaller village of Charing Heath. The villages lie between Ashford and Maidstone. Charing itself lies on the historic North Downs trackway, often known today as the Pilgrim’s Way, which has been a transport and trading route since prehistoric times. Its recorded history goes back to Anglo-Saxon times and there is evidence of Iron Age and Roman settlement.

Charing and District Local History Society have carried out much research into the history of the village and the surrounding area. Until recently most of its research had concentrated on earlier centuries. However with growing demand for 20th century history and the approaching centenary of the First World War, it was time to learn more about the village in the early years of the 20th century.

We focused on the 1901 and 1911 censuses and the First World War, and researched not just the lives of those who died but included all who served, and explored how the people of Charing coped and contributed to the war effort. So much of interest emerged that we decided to mount an exhibition to share our knowledge with the people of Charing and elsewhere.

Charing is close enough to the coast for residents to have heard and even felt the guns pounding when the battles in northern France and Belgium were raging and the wind was in the right direction. Those with relatives serving must have found this very disturbing, and people worked long and hard to support their men in many different ways. Immediately war was declared, Charing prepared to set up a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) hospital for wounded soldiers, and opened a second one in 1916. They were staffed by volunteer nurses, cooks, cleaners and laundresses, and many locals made regular food donations to augment official rations. Agriculture, the main pre-war occupation, had to change in response to food shortages; businesses had difficulty finding staff, as young men were increasingly drafted into service; troops were billeted regularly, sometimes for months; and fund raising continued ceaselessly, ending with a major drive to provide a fitting war memorial to those who had died. Many sad stories emerged, but also some joyful or even funny ones. Life had to go on and everyone rose to the occasion. We can only display a small amount of what we found.

An exhibition of this quality would not have been possible without outside assistance. For their generous financial support, we are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Ashford Borough Council and its local ward members, and Charing Parish Council. Nor could the exhibition have taken place without the talents and hard work volunteered by two Charing residents, designer Jim Wire and illustrator Frances Pickering; they turned our work into professional panels.

We have also been helped by many families and individuals, both locally and beyond the parish who generously gave time, information or memorabilia. Without their contributions the exhibition could not have taken place. We thank them all.

During the exhibition we were contacted by yet more families whose relatives lived in the parish at the time, but now reside elsewhere. They have provided us with fascinating information which arrived too late to be incorporated; in return we were often able to give them new details about their relatives.