Biddenden Dole, KentJust a few miles from Ashford in Kent, and only a short drive from Sissinghurst , stands the ancient village of Biddenden , whose greatest claim-to-fame is the Biddenden Dole. This should perhaps be known by its official name, the Chulkhurst Charity, administered by the formidable sounding Consolidated Charities of Biddenden.
The dole itself is interesting enough: every Easter Monday certain parishioners are given a 3.5lb loaf, 1lb of cheese and 1/2lb of butter, plus 1lb of tea (it used to be beer but sadly that tradition was amended long ago). Also given out to the recipients, and these days available for visitors that day to purchase, is the so-called Biddenden Cake, a rock hard biscuit-like confection made from flour and water baked until it is hard enough to last 20 years according to local custom. The charity is funded by the money invested from the sale of 20 acres of farmland called Bread and Cheese Land, now mainly housing, though a workhouse building on the land still belongs to the organisation.
The cake takes us on to the fascinating legend, or myth, behind the dole, for on the cake there is a picture of two women in what looks like Tudor costume, joined together at the arm and hip. The names Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst appear above the figures, and on the left hand apron 34, the right hand one 1100.
Though the dole is thought to have begun in the 16th century, a wonderful myth has built up around it. The story goes that conjoined twins, Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, were born in 1100. When they passed away aged 34 - one died and the other refused to be surgically separated, expiring only hours after her sister - they left land to fund the charity.
Several problems appear on only a cursory examination of the story: Norman feudal law was not conducive to ownership of land by women, or to such a gift. No other record of the name Chulkhurst has been found, some locals believing it to be a corruption of Chalkers. It is likely such a rare event as surviving conjoined twins would be recorded elsewhere. And some are convinced that the women depicted are just a badly drawn couple representing likely beneficiaries of the dole.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the charity is a very practical one, with enough wealth behind it to help out those in need locally at other times of the year, notably with a contribution to heating costs for parishioners where needed. The real story will probably never be uncovered, and maybe other elements will be added to the myth as time passes, the fate of all the best stories.
More British Folk Customs?