A perambulation through pubs, places and peers

There are of course many public houses in Sevenoaks, although by no means as many as there used to be. (By 1920 for example there were 10 in the St Johns & Hartslands area alone: The Bat and Ball, Camden Arms, Castle, Compasses, Elephants Head, Greyhound (later The St John’s Tavern), Man of Kent, New Inn, Railway Tavern and Rifleman. Only the latter remains. Nationally, pubs are being closed at the rate of 50 a month).

This article is the first in a series about the history and stories of hostelries, past and present, of Sevenoaks and surroundings. Many are important, architecturally and/or historically, and as I am discovering, a surprising number have fascinating stories to tell. This article covers my exploration of pubs in the area which have links to the aristocratic Camden family. I look forward immensely to continuing the research.

See our magazine for further articles on our historic pubs and inns.

An Elephant’s Graveyard?

The Elephants Head at Hook Green KWTwo friends and I were taking refreshments in The Elephant’s Head at Hook Green after a pleasant walk around Lamberhurst, and we fell to wondering about why the old pub was so-called. The anecdotal story told to us, of an elephant buried in the grounds, seemed a little fanciful, but worth exploring. I then recalled that until relatively recently, there was a pub with the same name on Seal Road at Greatness. A little detective work led me down a trail with several intriguing and tortuous twists and turns.


The Elephant’s Head at Hook Green (KW)

Some of you may already be aware of what I discovered: that The Elephant’s Head pubs in our area are named after the crest on the coat of arms of the aristocratic Camden family, which has long associations with Sevenoaks. Three more elephant heads feature in the arms. In the south east there are in fact five pubs of that name, with three having a direct link to the Camdens and their lands at Wildernesse and elsewhere.

Sir John Pratt by Michael DahlIn 1705, Sir John Pratt bought a mansion house (Stidulfe’s Place) in Seal, together with the surrounding 364 acre parkland. He renamed it Wilderness (the ‘e’ seems to have been added in the early 19th century). Sir John was an eminent judge and politician, becoming Lord Chief Justice of England from 1718 to 1725. Wildernesse was to remain in the family until 1885. The estate stretched from Godden Green to what is now Hospital Road, and goes back in time to 1327, when it was owned by Robert de Stidulfe. In 1954 the mansion, much enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries, was acquired by The Royal London Society for the Blind. Then called Dorton House, it is now home to 23 luxury retirement apartments, going once more under the name of Wildernesse House.

Wilderness House c1800

Sir John’s third son was the eminent lawyer and Whig politician Charles Pratt, a leading proponent of civil liberties who became Lord Chancellor in 1766. The previous year Charles was raised to the peerage with the title Baron Camden. In 1786 he was made 1st Earl Camden. He was buried in Seal Church, where there is a memorial stone in his honour. We will hear more of him later.

The family crest displaying the elephant’s head can be seen today on three of the surviving lodges to Wildernesse Estate (Avenue, Hillingdon and Homestead Lodges). The heraldic device symbolises great strength, wit, longevity, happiness, royalty, good luck and ambition.

A print of the Camden coat of arms dated 1768 The crest from the demolished Paygate Cottage Seal Road. 1808 KW Sevenoaks Museum  Sir Charles Pratt by Joshua Reynolds 
A print of the Camden coat of arms dated 1768 The-crest-from-the-demolished-Paygate-Cottage-Seal-Road.-1808-KW-Sevenoaks-Museum Sir Charles Pratt by Joshua Reynolds




In 1786 Wildernesse estate passed to Charles’ son, another John – John Jeffreys Pratt, the 2nd Earl Camden. In 1812 he became the 1st Marquess Camden. In 1795 John Jeffreys had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, with a certain Colonel Arthur Wellesley as his ADC. The two men became close friends and in March 1815, Wellesley, now 1st Duke of Wellington, came to stay at Wildernesse. The two double rows of limes that still grace Wildernesse Avenue were planted to commemorate his visit and after the battle became known as The Waterloo Limes.

ehProbably in 1867 (the earliest reference traced) a public house was built on Seal Road, Greatness, on land neighbouring Camden’s Wildernesse estate, and was named The Elephant’s Head in deference to the Camden family. (In fact the estate’s latest owner, George Charles Pratt, 2nd Marquess Camden, had died in 1866 and it was leased to Charles Mills {later Lord Hillingdon} who bought it in 1885).

The remarkable picture below (used courtesy of the Ed Thompson collection) was taken by local photographer Mr Fielder. The identity of the elephant is not known for certain, but it has been suggested that this more unusual visitor is Lizzie. Her tale is a sad one. Lizzie and the pony – her constant companion, Dannie – were owned by Tom Fossett who ran a circus which had its winter quarters in Lenham in Kent. At the start of the war in 1939, the circus stopped touring and the pair were sold to Sir Arthur Tyrwhitt-Drake, owner of Maidstone Zoo. When the circus came off the road it was in Wales and so the elephant, pony and keeper made the walk from Wales to Maidstone – pausing, appropriately, at The Elephant’s Head. However the trek was too much for Lizzie. Little more than twelve months later she suffered a massive heart attack and died.

pub sign

A notice of auction of February 1868 stated that the pub was also an inn, with “a capital supply of good water”, four bedrooms, and stabling for three horses.  The pub also hired out ponies, flys, traps and chaises – perhaps for the influx of visitors arriving by the new railroad at Bat and Ball station.

The pub closed in 2009 and the building is now a veterinary practice.

The Hook Green Elephant

So what of the ancient pub at Hook Green? The tale that one of the Indian elephants brought to this country to show to Royalty died and its bones were buried in the grounds of the inn may be plausible in that various attractions were no doubt displayed in the “pleasure grounds” of nearby Bayham Abbey, which did receive royal visitors. However, in the absence of any exhumation, it’s far more likely to be merely an adventurous supposition.

The pubs sign in 1990But the next piece of the jigsaw fell into place. I recalled that the Camdens also held the title of Viscount Bayham of Bayham Abbey – just down the road from the pub. In 1714 Sir John Pratt had bought Bayham Abbey and its estate, to add to Wildernesse. (And of course this is commemorated in Bayham Road in Sevenoaks). The title was given to Charles Pratt in 1766.

ps2In 1768 a medieval farmhouse at Hook Green built in 1489 became an inn. Then or some time afterwards it was named The Elephant’s Head. The real origin of its name is now evident. (A report in the Kent and Sussex Courier of 19th September 1873 concerning an alleged rape refers to the pub as “The Elephant”, although in 1919 a transfer of licence applied for by “an agent for Marquis Camden” was granted for The Elephant’s Head).

This is described as “Glenfarg Sunday school outing to Hook Green, Kent”. (If correct, the children had travelled down from central Scotland).

This is described as Glenfarg Sunday school outing to Hook Green KentOver the years the family were great benefactors of the local community. Bayham Abbey School in Hook Green was built in 1860 by George, 2nd Marquess, for the children of the Bayham Estate. After his death in 1866 his titles were inherited by his eldest son (yet another John, one of 11 children), who decided to move from Wildernesse to Bayham. The 3rd Marquess was briefly MP for Brecon before entering the House of Lords: Lord Camden died in 1872 at the early age of 31, followed by his wife Lady Clementina Augusta, daughter of George Spencer-Churchill, 6th Duke of Marlborough, aged just 37.

The Bayham estate was extensive and was added to over the years. Bayham Abbey was founded c1200 as a house for monks of the Premonstratensian order but largely destroyed in 1536/7 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. In 1870 the 3rd Marquess built on the other side of the Teise valley the present Bayham Hall as his country retreat. The house and its 368 hectares of “pleasure grounds”, designed by landscape gardener Humphry Repton, were the scene of many a glorious social occasion and visited by royalty (including Edward Prince of Wales in 1920) and others amongst the great and the good DFL (“Down From London”). In 1961 the fifth Marquess entrusted the abbey ruins and the original 18thC residence, the “Georgian Gothic” Dower House (below), to the guardianship of the state.

greeIn the 1970s the family left Bayham, when the Hall, and in 1993 the rest of the estate, was sold into private ownerships.