"Many times on our travels we meet someone who says - oh yes Biddenden - that's where the twins came from isn't it?" - Prue Stokes, Biddenden, Kent
The Biddenden maids biscuit has been described as a memorial food item. The museum has three of these Biddenden cakes, 1884.56.100, given by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers in 1884 and obtained in 1875, 1902.60.4 donated by Henry Balfour, and 1917.53.684 given by Anna Tylor, owned previously by her husband Edward Burnett Tylor who was given the object by Mrs. Elton. There is also a printed account, 1818.104.22.168, given by Pitt Rivers, which sounds similar to the broad sheets mentioned by Bondeson (1992:17):
'A broadsheet on the Biddenden Maids was printed in 1808 and sold outside the church during Easter. ... In the 1820s, a 'new and enlarged' account of the Maids was printed ...'
While there are many sources of all the story of the Biddenden maids, briefly, this is the likely form. Two sisters, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst came from the town and are supposed to be one of the earlier known sets of conjoined twins. They gave about 20 acres of land near to the church in Biddenden for a charity to be managed by the church wardens. The rent paid for this land by farmers was to be used to give a dole of bread and cheese to the poorest of the village. However, according to Mrs. Prue Stokes, the local historian and chairman of the Biddenden Historical Society,
"so far no will or document has been found confirming this bequest, nor do they have a date for it nor do they know the girls' names." She adds "the date often given of birth in 1100 and death in 1134 might be a misreading of 1500-1534. It was not very easy in 1134 for ordinary people to bequeath land in that way - that was more frequent in the 1500s when charitable giving was frequent. There is some indication that the land belonged to a family called Chalker. If you say 'Chalkers' quickly you get something like 'Chulkhurst' the name they are given now. This name occurs nowhere else."
Further, the charity dole has existed continuously since the mid 1500s. In the 1640s and again in the 1650s, the rector of the parish tried to claim that the land was part of the church's land - the 'glebe' - and that the rents should go to him (Long 1930:57) but happily lost his action. A Court of the Exchequer in London decided in favor of the church wardens and gave them permission to continue managing the rent of the land and the charitable dole as they had always done. So it has continued to the present day. The land has mostly been sold and houses built on it. The invested money together with some other charitable bequests, some land and a building are all now administered by a body of trustees called the Consolidated Charities of Biddenden.
The dole took place at the church and beer was also given out in 1681. Sir Benjamin Stone (1906:28) who documented the English folk life and customs through photographs, writes that in the 1900's that "people from all parts of the countryside, as well as many from London, flock thither on the chance of obtaining one of the famous Biddenden cakes." The dole takes place at 10:00 am at the village about 13.5 miles from Maidstone and less than 50 miles from London (Long 1930: 56-57). Similarly, Bondeson (1992, 2000) describes how this caused 'disturbances' on the distribution of the dole; from that time on, according to Stokes, the hand-out was moved to the workhouse, now called the Old Workhouse and still belonging to the charity, from where the Biddenden dole takes place every Easter Monday morning. Parishioners can apply to receive the gift. Further, extra help can be given at other times of the year - help with fuel costs for instance. About 60 old people receive 1 pound of cheese, 1/2 pound of butter, loaf of bread and 1 pound of tea. The occasion always attracts interest from tourists and other visitors. The biscuits distributed today look just like the 1906 biscuits because the same mould have been used over the years. Each biscuit is 12 cm x 5 cm (about 4.5 inches long) or so. A new dole recipient gets one free, and visitors can buy one. They are made by a baker in Cranbook in batches and kept until they run out - a big batch every few years - they keep well if the weevils don't get to them!
The cakes/biscuits were an innovation some time in the eighteenth century. They were, and are still, made from a simple flour and water mix pressed into a wooden mould which depicts two women side by side, and then baked. Stokes explains that "the biscuits were believed at one time to be a cure for stomach trouble but they are not really meant to be eaten, just to be a souvenir." Stone (1906:28) notes that in the 1900's, the cakes are more suitable for preservation as curios rather than for eating, "since they are so hard and durable that they will keep for twenty years."
A historian of Kent in 1780-90, Edward Hasted, believed the figures on the biscuits represented a typical pair of recipients of the dole and nothing to do with conjoined twins. The picture and account of the charity found its way into many accounts of local customs and was embellished. However, to Stokes (2008)
"there has been no proof that the two sisters were conjoined - they might well have been normal twins; the chances of their survival in early times, if joined, seem slim. A Swedish doctor has suggested they could have survived."
The twin image (popularly known today as the Siamese twins) of the Biddenden maids is popular in Biddenden even today; and these have accumulated different meanings as manifested in the varying visual representations through time. In a way, the image of the conjoined twins has been appropriated as a commemorative material for specific event and persons through different forms of visual and material representation: from biscuits to postcards, village landmarks, and a recycling icon (even for a blog title for an evidenced based philosophical discussion on surgery!). Gosden and Marshall (1999:167) suggests that "people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations are tied up with each other." Here, the objects become invested with meanings through the social interactions they are caught up in. This notion of biographical approach is drawn from Kopytoff (1986) who felt that things could not be fully understood at just one point in their existence and processes and cycles of production, exchange and consumption had to be looked at as a whole.
For instance, one of the earliest visual representations of the Biddenden maids, after their image appeared in a broadsheet in 1808, is a printed postcard postmarked August 4, 1939 by Young and Cooper in Maidstone, Kent. The Biddenden maids are elegantly dressed in the costume of the time of Mary I. Here, while the writer notes that "the charity in charge of the dole no longer persist," the postcard is created as a substitute to commemorate this particular event. The postcard being accessibly possessed as souvenir in printed form. While current postcards are mostly views of Biddenden, an item which includes the original image of the Biddenden twins as part of the charity's history is sold at the Biddenden Church.
According to Hone (1847:446), there is a stone near the rector's pew marked with a diagonal line is shown as the place of internment for the Chulkhurst sisters. Likewise, it is also probable that the twin sisters were depicted on a stained glass window in the church's east wall, which was now filled in. A poem regarding this was quoted from the old charity documents (Hone 1827:446), shows the artistic and aesthetic appeal of the 'conjoined twins':
"The moon on the east side oriel shone,
Through slender shafts of shapely stone,
The silver light, so pale and faint,
Shewed the twin sisters and many a saint
Whose images on the glass were dyed;
Mysterious maidens side by side.
The moon beam kissed the holy pane.
and threw on the pavement a mystic stain."
Commemoration of the maids continued when a post was erected with a picture of the maids on top of it which stands on the village green as a village sign. According to Stokes, this sign was the result of a competition for village signs offered by the newspaper the Daily Mail in 1922. It was designed by a man from Suffolk who knew of the village. He did not win the prize but the paper so liked the design that they gave an extra award of fifty pounds. The sign was made and stood there until the 1939-45 war when it was removed so that German invaders would not know where they were! It was returned to its position after the war and was refurbished with a new pole in about 1993. The two figures of the girls in vaguely Tudor costume have been repainted but is still the original 1922 metal. The Biddenden post can still be seen today.
There are also other representations of the Biddenden maids in a rather modern way depicting them in red bodices of floor-length Tudor gowns. The Tudor dress in the 15th to the 16th century has ornate clothing which exemplifies how wealthy a person was, and thought that more likely that the twins lived in the 16th century than in the 12th century. This sculpted wooden figure is about 3 feet tall which stands outside the West House, a 16th century house in High Street, Biddenden. The house is now an award winning restaurant which was also at one time a craft shop. Moreover, it is also thought that it is in the All Saints Church, a Romanesque church that has an attached cemetery where the grave markers of the sisters, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst were to be found a long time ago.
It is significant to note that the context of how the images was originally used in the earlier days as an image of the twins shows the current ethos of the day (as a reminder of charity work done on Easter, a "cure" for stomach ache, even as a curio) have been transformed over time with different ends and purposes (as postcards, a wooden craftwork). Today, the image of the Biddenden maids are renown in medical literature as an earliest example of conjoined twins (Bondeson 2000), they are also prominent example of a 'rare curiosity' in some publications, and an inspiration to poetry and philosophy. Here, it is important to note the examples of imaging of the Biddenden maids brings attention to the way how 'human and object histories informs each other' through the various contexts and the resulting representation in such instance.
Andrews, W. 1891. Old Church Lore. William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; 150-151
Bondeson, J. 2000. "The Biddenden Maids," The Two Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels. Cornell University Press, pp. 141-159.
Clinch, G. 1900. The Biddenden Maids. The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist.
Gosden, C. and Marshall, Y. 1999. "The Cultural Biography of Objects," World Archaeology 31(2): 169-178.
Hone, W. 1827. The Everyday Book. Vol. II. London: Hunt and Clarke.
Long, George. 1930. The Folklore Calendar. London: P. Allan, pp. 56-57.
Kopytoff, I. 1986. The Cultural Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective edited by A. Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Simpson, J. and Round, S. 2003. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press.
Stone, B. 1906. Sir Benjamin Stone's Pictures: Festivals, Ceremonies and Customs. London: Cassel, 2:28-29.
Personal correspondence from Mrs. Prue Stokes, local historian and Chairman of the Biddenden Historical Society, Kent, 17-23 February 2008.