InQuire's History of Canterbury Episode VII: The Heartthrob, the Universities and the Canterbury

By Josh West


Welcome to the last episode of InQuire’s History of Canterbury. After six episodes and two thousand years, there’s only one century and 1,400 words to go until you can forget you ever read them. This last episode looks at Canterbury in the twentieth century, where it encountered famous visitors, two new universities and its very own blitz.

If you live in Saint Dunstans or use Eliot footpath to get to university, you may know the strange alleyway with the little tunnel on one side off Beaconsfield Road. This is the only remnant of the world’s very first passenger railway, maybe even the first railway ever. Called the ‘Crab and Winkle’ line after the imports of seafood it brought, the railway line was built in 1830 between Canterbury and Whitstable and was the first railway dedicated to taking passengers instead of cargo. In 1835 it also became the first railway to issue season tickets, so Canterbury residents could enjoy the so-called ‘delights’ of Whitstable in the summer holidays (it was a simpler time). The railway closed in 1952 and the railway tracks were removed. You can still see some, however, on campus; the path running between Library D-Block and the Registry, the one with all the names carved on the cobbles, is framed by reclaimed tracks. This is the only really interesting thing to happen to Canterbury in the 1800s, so we’re going to skip a few decades and look at the much more exciting twentieth century.

Unfortunately for female and feminist readers, Canterbury wasn’t very much into the whole suffragette thing in the 1910s. In fact, whilst women were starving themselves in prison, lobbing axes at politicians and throwing themselves in front of horses to get the vote, Canterbury was busy campaigning for the exact opposite. In 1911, a meeting was arranged against votes for women. Hosted by the local MP and the Dean of the Cathedral, the keynote speaker was herself a woman called ‘Miss Lindsay,’ the Katie Hopkins of Edwardian Canterbury.

Anti-Suffragette poster for the 1911 meeting in Canterbury

Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Society

Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock. Image courtesy of the IWM

Major Edward 'Mick' Mannock.

We’ve already seen how Canterbury’s strategic position in the middle of Kent meant it played host to numerous invasions over the years. 1914 was no different, except these soldiers were leaving rather than coming. During the First World War, Canterbury was a popular stopping point for soldiers either training or on their way to the front. Houses were set aside for billeted troops and their doors were marked in chalk. Canterbury was actually so close to France and Belgium that, on a clear day or night, residents could hear the cannon fire from the front line. You get the same effect with Summer Ball nowadays, except Rudimental are a bit less

morbid. Of course, Canterbury had its own military heartthrob. With an air of Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’ and a smile that made women faint outside M&S, Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock was the best British pilot in the war, taking down 61 German planes, and probably just as many women. Unfortunately, his good looks had no effect on German pilots, he died in July 1918 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. A total of 531 men from Canterbury died in the war, and countless others were wounded. On 10 October 1921, the Canterbury War Memorial in Buttermarket was unveiled by mass murderer (or war hero if you’re a military historian) Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig

In 1931, Canterbury played host to its first of many important visitors in the twentieth century, the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was on a visit to England to raise support for Indian Independence when he was invited by the Socialist Dean of Canterbury (I know, how does that work?), Hewlett Johnson to visit Canterbury. Gandhi spent two days in Canterbury that October, visiting the cathedral, local people and reportedly even doing a bit of shopping along the high street.

Whilst Canterbury escaped the bombs and raids of the First World War, it wasn’t so fortunate in the Second. Between 1940-45, Canterbury experienced 153 air raids, where 10,445 bombs were dropped on the city; 731 homes and 296 buildings were destroyed, countless people were injured and 119 killed. The worst attack was on the night of 1 June 1942, the ‘Blitz of Canterbury’. In just a few hours, 800 buildings were destroyed and a thousand damaged whilst 43 people died. Most of the original medieval city was rubble by the morning. Have you ever noticed how Canterbury looks medieval at the west side and as you walk up the Parade it gets more modern? The obscure tower that stands outside Game and KFC is all that’s left of a church that had stood there since 1300, you find hundreds of plaques around Canterbury to medieval buildings either bombed out or demolished. It was only due to the amazing work of firefighters (and maybe a little help upstairs) that the cathedral wasn’t razed. A city that had taken nine-hundred years to build, destroyed in one night by a maniac who couldn’t even grow a proper moustache.

Canterbury High Street after the Blitz of Canterbury in 1942

Canterbury High Street after the Blitz of Canterbury in 1942. Image courtesy of KentOnline

However, as we’ve seen before, Canterbury never stays down for long. From 1950, the derelict ruins were demolished and the town redesigned. In 1955, a major reconstruction was underway to make a modern Canterbury, with shopping centres and carparks. They even built a ring road around the city, which became pedestrianised (though someone should remind Deliveroo riders that) so people could get stressed in traffic easier and not bother the town as much.

The first Kent students cross Eliot footbridge after arriving on campus in 1965

The first Kent students cross Eliot college footbridge after arriving on campus in 1965. Image courtesy of the University of Kent

But it was the sixties which saw the creation of Canterbury’s most important post-war institutions. The decade saw a huge expansion and increase of universities around the country, and lucky Canterbury got two! In 1962, Canterbury Christ Church College was founded, named after the monastery it’s built over. Originally a teacher training college, it became Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) in 2005. But enough about that hole. On 4 January 1965, the University of Kent received its royal charter and the following October the first batch of students, now known as ‘the first 500’, arrived on campus. At the time, the only buildings that were finished (Rutherford was still being built and the library was a house in Saint Dunstans) were the Marlowe building and Eliot College, which meant the ‘first 500’ spent most of their first term trying to find their room.

The eighties saw two special events in Canterbury. In May 1982, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the UK. He visited Canterbury whilst he was here, not easy given this is the heart of the Anglican church which had kicked his church out 400 years before. These hostilities must still have been raw because he didn’t get a very big turnout. The second momentous occasion was in 1986, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand met in the cathedral. Together they signed the Treaty of Canterbury, which commissioned the building and operation of the channel tunnel, meaning European visitors could go straight to London instead of having to invade Canterbury first like the previous two millennia!

The first decades of the twenty-first century have also made a mark on Canterbury. Between 1999-2005, Whitefriars Shopping Centre was constructed, giving modern-day worshippers of materialism their own pilgrimage site. In 2017, Canterbury (more precisely Canterbury’s students) elected Rosie Duffield as MP, giving Canterbury its first non-Conservative MP in 160 years.

So there we have it, two thousand years of Canterbury. In that time our city has experienced four burned cathedrals, several murdered archbishops, six saints, two plagues, several million pilgrims, a Nazi Blitz; invasions by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, the French, and Parliament; visits from Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, St Augustine and Charles I to John Paul II, Gandhi, Chaucer and Mozart, and we must be the only place in the world to have had a Christmas pudding fight. All that has led us to today, a city of 55,000 people, with two universities, a Labour MP and over 2.2 million tourists a year. So hopefully, you’ll now have a better appreciation of the place you chose to study or live in. Let’s face it… I doubt it, but thanks for reading anyway.

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