The cascade in Swan Street, West Malling is listed by English Heritage as a Late Georgian ornamental feature incorporating re-used medieval fragments from St. Mary’s Abbey. Although this is probably an adequate description for the casual visitor it is now in need of revision. The following article explores some neglected historical sources to offer a more detailed description of the cascade and its history.
The cascade carries a stone plaque bearing the initials GTHF and the date 1810, conveying the impression that it was built by George Talbot Hatley Foote who purchased Malling Abbey in 1809. The attribution was published in 1893 by C.H. Fielding1 and has been repeated by numerous historians and commentators over the ensuing 120 years, all failing to question a clear but inconvenient record of the stream and cascade published in 1798 by Edward Hasted2:
“The precinct of this monastery is washed by a rivulet of excellent clear water, which rising in the Hamlet of St. Leonard, runs by the house, and through the gardens of it, whence gushing through the wall with a cascade, it crosses the road towards the Rev. Mr. Brooke’s gardens.”
However, the well-publicised identification in 2005 of a watercolour sketch of the abbey and cascade by J.M.W. Turner, dating from 1791-2, demanded that the history books be re-written. The process started (and finished) with a reassessment by Andrew Wilton, a leading authority on Turner’s life and work, who explained the discrepancy as follows3:
“The Abbey was purchased and converted into a residence by Fraser Honeywood; it passed to his son Sir John Honeywood, who sold the property to George Foote in 1799 [an error by Fielding]. The fountain was restored in 1810 (the date is given on an extant plaque), giving it the appearance of a neo-gothick folly, but Turner’s record suggests that it was indeed a late medieval structure belonging to the original Abbey”.
This was not a good start for pedantic historians. Foote actually leased the Abbey from the second Sir John Honeywood (d. 1806) and his executors between 1798 and 1809, and could conceivably have restored the cascade during this period. However, Turner’s earlier sketch shows the waterfall and its surrounding structure well established and almost exactly as it appears today (i.e. with modern restorations), and Foote’s contribution appears to have been limited to filling an existing niche above the arch and inserting the plaque, perhaps to announce his eventual ownership. Thus although there is evidence of eighteenth-century restoration, it was completed well before Turner’s arrival.
Ornamental waterfalls are not a recognised feature of medieval abbeys, but the removal of the ‘cascade’ allows the surrounding masonry to be reassessed as the late medieval structure suggested by Andrew Wilton. Before turning to this aspect, however, the creator of the cascade as depicted by Turner has yet to be identified. An earlier reference appears in a letter to Dr. Samuel Johnson from the 12-year-old Queeney (Hester Maria) Thrale in 1777. Queeney, who had recently visited Francis Brooke in West Malling with her parents, admired “the Cascade out of the Wall and that down by the Ponds” (see below) when Brooke was resident opposite the cascade at Went House.
The main purpose of the Thrales’ visit was, at the suggestion of Doctor Johnson, to consult with Francis Brooke regarding plans to have ponds built in the parkland of their family home at Streatham. The extent of Brooke’s enthusiasm for landscaped gardens and water features is demonstrated by his estate map, drawn up in 1747 when he was resident at Brook House (now the NatWest Bank) in Swan Street.4 Based on land leased from Fraser Honeywood, Francis Brooke planted formal gardens to create a vista across the street to the front of Brook House, whilst growing hops on the remainder of the Abbey land in the western part of the precinct and using buildings near the gatehouse as an oast and stores. Meanwhile, a formal garden to the rear of Brook House provided direct access to Banky Meadows (then called Down Field and later Brooksfield), a substantial part of which was described as his pleasure grounds. Here the stream running northeastwards between Swan Street and the London Road was transformed into a formal canal of five ‘fish ponds’ separated by weirs, proceeding from a temple and pool at the southern end and terminating in a ha-ha and a waterfall feeding a larger formal pool in what is now the garden of Fishpond Cottages.
Francis Brooke was assigned a lease on Went House in the following year, and may well have intended to create a water feature such as the cascade within view of his new residence. However, his interests in the Abbey lands remained unchanged until 1760, when the expiry of other leases enabled him to take action to secure the water supply from the Abbey precinct to Went House. An agreement was then drawn up with Fraser Honeywood that they should share the materials from the demolition of certain occupied buildings in the Abbey precinct, including a mill house and part of a large medieval building adjoining the south side of the Gatehouse5. Brooke was then permitted to lay new water pipes from a pond close to Honeywood’s residence in the precinct to an existing pond in the garden of Went House6, which involved the creation (or restoration?) of a secondary water supply from the pool of the cascade to Brooke’s garden pond. From here the water returned through his laundry house to the main stream running northwards to Banky Meadows. The pond near Honeywood’s residence still exists, as does the water supply from the cascade to the garden of Went House where the pond later gave way to a stream supplying water to nearby Hermitage Farm. On this evidence there is little doubt that the cascade as depicted by Turner was created by Francis Brooke shortly after the agreement was reached with Fraser Honeywood in 1760.
Turning to the surrounding stonework, the salient features of the design have more in common with authentic late medieval buildings in the Flemish style than with imaginative eighteenth- century follies; indeed, the simplicity of the crow-stepped gable appears to have been of little interest to eighteenth-century English architects and landscape designers. Even in the late medieval period the stepped gable was rare in England and geographically concentrated in areas of Flemish influence, notably in East Anglia where the Tudor south porch of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Little Whelnetham, some 2 miles south of Bury St. Edmunds, provides an interesting comparison with the structure at West Malling.
Stylistically, then, the design of the structure appears authentic and appropriate for the late medieval mouldings preserved in its fabric. In detail, the crow-stepped gable is basically original with some eighteenth-century refacing and restoration to the niche, and modern replacement of the capstones. The waterfall emerges under a late medieval arch and statuette plinth, flanked by splayed side walls with matching drip mouldings (now with some modern replacements). These are linked to the arch by similar mouldings in a suite of medieval masonry that was clearly created to fit the bay-fronted design of the structure. In this cohesive design two crudely constructed blank windows below the mouldings also stand out as later alterations (below):
Here it is significant that the soil levels are some 6 feet higher on the Abbey side of the wall, with the blank windows necessarily retaining the soil behind them. The mouldings above, however, suggest that the blank windows replaced functioning openings belonging to an attached building (see below) before the waterfall was created. Prior to this work the fall of water had evidently been employed to drive a nearby water mill, the buildings of which were recorded in a lease of 1704 7 :
“… And all that Millhouse and the toft [land and buildings] of the late Water Mills scituate and lying and being within the Precincts and Territories of the Scite of the late dissolved Monastery of Westmalling commonly called by the name of the Abbey Mills of Westmalling. And all the Streams and Watercourses thereabouts belonging to…”
The locations of the buildings and land described in the lease are confirmed by an estate map of 1705, showing the water mill and mill house to the east of the Gatehouse8.
Further details of the cascade can be gleaned from Francis Brooke’s estate map of 1747, which shows a small building in the same location with the adjoining area set back from the road. The elevation (below, left), viewed from the Abbey side and behind the façade, shows a central entrance flanked by two windows, and was evidently drawn before the soil levels were raised.
Although there can be no certainty that the small building shown in 1747 was part of the original structure, a medieval building of some description appears more likely than a free-standing façade with windows. To create the waterfall it would in any event have been necessary to remove the building, repair the façade, fill the water channels and re-deploy the water supply from the demolished mill, a process that is barely touched upon in the agreement of 1760. The location in Swan Street clearly provided an interface between the medieval Abbey and the townspeople, possibly serving as a public water supply and a place for the almoner’s twice-weekly doles to the poor9. Indeed, the Abbey held complete control over the stream from the springhead at St. Leonard’s Tower to the northern parish boundary, and some public access to water would have been both charitable and necessary to keep the peace. However, an injunction was issued against the abbess in 1299 for selling bread and ale to the public, whilst in a dispute recorded in 1293 she was called before the Justices Itinerant for ‘inclosing within a wall a common watering place’10. Although the disputed watering place was not explicitly located in Swan Street (then Holirode Strete), it is arguably the most likely place in the parish for people and their water to have clashed with the abbess and her walls.
With thanks to Alan and Mary Gibbins of Went House and Mother Mary-David of Malling Abbey for considerable help with research materials and with provision of access to the sites, to Michael J. Fuller for his advice and expertise on water mills, to Colin Canfield for his constructive comments on architectural details and permission to reproduce photographs from his website: english-church-architecture.net, and to the British Library Board for permission to reproduce details from the Estate Maps as credited above.
Mike North. August 2013.
1 Fielding. Memories of Malling and its Valley, p.104: “Mr. Foote built the picturesque cascade which is so well known to all visitors to Town Malling, and which bears his initials and the date, 1810”.
2 Hasted, History and Topographical Survey of Kent, 2nd Ed. Volume 4, p.519
3 Tate Britain: Catalogue entry ref. D00184
4 British Library, Egerton MS 3021 S.
5 Kent History and Library Centre, CKS-U838/T241/3
6 West Malling Tithe Survey, Schedule No. 260
7 Kent History and Library Centre, CKS-U2119/T1 (Extract). The same properties appear in several Title Deeds between 1704 and 1739.
8 British Library, Egerton MS 3021 R. Two millstones preserved as garden ornaments in the Abbey precinct probably originated from this site.
9 Anne Oakley. Malling Abbey 1090-1990, pp.29-32 (Visitation of Archbishop Winchelsey)
10John Harris. History of Kent, p.195 (P.R.O. Kent Eyre of 1293-1294)