On this day day in history : 31st May 1838 – The Battle of Bossenden Wood takes place between a group of agricultural labourers and armed soldiers…. It is the last battle to be fought on English soil….

Scene at Bossenden Wood drawn by an eyewitness – Public domain

Self-proclaimed Sir William Courtenay was a Cornish wine merchant; his real name was John Nichols Tom – and he was born in 1799 to inn-keeper parents…. Tom received a good education in which he stayed until he was 18 and then he was apprenticed to a solicitor…. Deciding Law was not for him he left after 3 years and tried his hand as an inn-keeper…. Later he went to work as a clerk for a wine merchants and when the owners retired took over the business…. He married Catherine in 1821….and everything in life should have been rosy – only this was not how it was to work out….

Courtenay – public domain

When Tom was in his late twenties his mother was sent to a lunatic asylum – where she died…. Around the same time, in 1828, the premises of his wine merchants business was destroyed by fire…. In 1831 Tom had a mental breakdown, for which he received treatment…. Believing himself sufficiently recovered he left Truro with a consignment of malt, bound for Liverpool…. From there he wrote to his wife; he travelled to Birmingham and wrote again that he was going to France – that was the last she heard from him….

In September of the following year Tom turned up in Canterbury, dressed in flamboyant finery, with long flowing red hair and beard…. He called himself ‘Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, heir to the Earl of Devon and the Kentish estates of Sir Edward Hales’…. Most people realised he was an imposter – but he was an amusing larger-than-life figure and soon became very popular in Canterbury…. Having being persuaded by local dignitaries and politicians to stand for parliament, in the December 1832 General Election, he gave some colourful speeches – and actually gained respectable results, even if not enough to get him into government….

In March 1833 Tom found himself on the wrong side of the Law…. He gave evidence in the defence of some smugglers from Faversham; they got off – but Tom was charged with perjury…. He was found guilty and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment and 7 years transportation….

News reached Cornwall of the goings on of this man who called himself Sir William Courtenay – and Catherine travelled to Kent to find out if this was indeed her missing husband…. Tom denied knowing her – but she managed to convince the authorities and told them of his mental breakdown…. After being examined by two doctors Tom was declared of being ‘not in sound mind’ and was admitted to Barming Heath Asylum in October 1833…. He was the perfect patient….and 4 years later Queen Victoria granted him a pardon – on condition he returned to his family in Cornwall….

Barming Heath Asylum – now St. Andrew’s House, Oakwood Hospital…. Coutenay would have been one of the first patients admitted when it opened in 1833…. Image : Moriarti01 CC BY-SA 3.0

But of course, he didn’t…. instead he spent the next few months wandering through eastern Kent rousing agricultural workers, small holders and artisans…. A New Poor Law had recently been introduced; all unemployed, able-bodied men were required to enter the workhouse…. Tom promised a better life….inciting them to rise-up against low pay, lack of work and poor conditions…. Gradually he built up a band around him….and together they roamed through the Kent countryside and drummed up support….

Wealthy landowners began to get agitated and on the 31st of May 1838 a warrant was issued for Tom’s arrest…. The local constable of Boughton-under-Blean, his assistant and brother, Nicholas Mears were despatched to find him…. Tom and his followers were staying at Bossenden Farm, near to to the village of Hernhill and when the constable’s party arrived Tom shot Nicholas Mears dead…. The constable and his assistant beat a hasty retreat – and a detachment of the 45th Infantry was called out from their barracks in Canterbury…. Under the command of Major Armstrong, 100 men and 3 junior officers tracked Tom and his 30 or 40 followers to a clearing in Bossenden Wood…. Tom and one other carried guns….the others were armed only with sticks….

Bossenden Wood

As the soldiers advanced Tom shot dead Lieutenant Bennet, one of the junior officers…. A battle commenced, that lasted for around 10 minutes…. Tom and 8 of his men were killed….and a young special constable helping the soldiers was caught in the crossfire and died…. One soldier got slightly injured by a stick….

Commemorative plaque, Hernhill Churchyard CC-BY-SA- 3.0

Over the following days most of Tom’s men who had managed to escape were rounded up….including 2 women…. They were all tried for murder and were either transported or imprisoned….

John Nichols Tom – image via Youtube

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