‘Feversham Creek, the marshes between Reculver and Westgate, the gaps between Margate and Kingsgate, and the “guts” of Romney Marsh were the landing-places most in use by the smugglers on the coast of Kent. The numerous green lanes and bridle-paths through the extensive woods stretching from Feversham to Canterbury, and thence to the coast, the marshes bordering the Swale, and the broader tracts extending west and south from Shorncliff to the borders of Sussex, afforded ample facilities for unobserved inland conveyance.’ 18 Reminiscences of a country journalist. 1886.
The chartist and journalist Thomas Frost was born in Croydon on 16 December 1821. His father (a tailor by profession) was involved with the Reform Bill agitation, meaning that while Thomas himself left his Norwood school at the age of 11, ‘the tools of literacy and the imagination were part of the fabric of his everyday life.’ Ancestors on his mother’s side, many of whom were buried in Beckhenam Churchyard, had ‘engaged in the forwarding branch of the contraband trade in Surrey and Kent’.
The essentially bohemian tendencies of the family are captured perfectly in Frost’s recollection that one night a cousin of his went missing, and at the end of six months had been given up for lost. While spending a few days at Gravesend a precocious young Frost decided on a visit to Northfleet. He walked round the churchyard, saw the chalk-pit (later the site of the Rosherville Gardens – and ‘As the day was warm, the chalk-dust of the roads in that part of Kent is provocative of thirst’ and the sign of the Leather Bottle swinging before a low-roofed, old-fashioned village inn, was suggestive of a cool mug of ale’, he went in. On the way out he was amazed to encounter the missing man, who was working there as an ostler. The two went back in for another drink, and the cousin implored Frost not to say anything to his family – while he duly resurfaced a month later, it is not clear how he explained matters to his wife.
Following an unsuccessful venture into newspaper editing in 1843, Frost himself became ‘a relatively isolated, geographically and socially mobile individual, who managed to scratch a precarious living from writing.’ His love of the Kent coast and its woodland comes across in much of his writing, and forms a setting for the now lost novel Edith Gray. He had married in 1841 and probably for the next decade he spent a week in the county every summer. On the death of his wife Lucy in 1851 after only ten years of marriage, he was left with a 6 year old son and soon remarried. While he went on to have two daughters with his second wife Julia, by 1867 he was living with Elizabeth (at 22 or 23 she was roughly half his age), with whom he had at least two further sons.
But when Frost and two friends decided that what they needed was a week’s holiday without their wives, there was ‘no difficulty in determining that our destination should be the coast of Kent.’ It seems inevitable that he should have written In Kent With Charles Dickens, although the writing seems to have lagged somewhat, taking at least three years and finally appearing in print only in 1880. Frost’s love of the author is indisputable, as he and his companions continue their ‘pilgrimage’ from Gad’s to the Rochester of Pickwick and Drood, and so on to Canterbury (Frost notes that one inspired dramatist has relocated Mr Peggotty’s encounter with a repentant Martha to the cathedral). Here the party breaks up, and Frost goes on alone to Deal, Dover and Margate. The book itself still makes engaging reading, and may have inspired the considerably more famous Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome in 1889.
It was probably during the Christmas of 1879 that Frost decided on a stay in Southborough, near Tunbridge Wells. He was sufficiently impressed by ‘this pleasant and healthful place, which many visitors prefer to the larger and gayer town in its vicinity’ to call its surroundings ‘more picturesque than those of any other in which I have resided.’ He went on – of course - to write a guide book focused on Tunbridge Wells in 1881.
In later years he was short of money, applying to the Royal Literary Fund no fewer than thirteen times after 1887. Frost died at his home in Derbyshire on 16 July 1908.
Frost, Thomas. Kingston-on-Thames, with Rambles in the District, etc. London : Marshall Japp & Co, 1881.
–. ‘The Legacy of a Lady’. Crystal Stories 2:24. Ed. F. W. Robinson. 135-146. 15 February 1883.
–. _ Reminiscences of a country journalist_. London: Ward and Downey, 1886.
–. Round Tunbridge Wells. With Map and … Illustrations. London: Marshall Japp & Co, 1881.
Gurney, Peter. Frost, Thomas. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2007. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/90087
–. Working-class Writers and the Art of Escapology in Victorian England: The Case of Thomas Frost. Journal of British Studies 45. 2006. 51–71.
Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men in a Boat. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2012. Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Below the Fairy City: a Life of Jerome K. Jerome. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2012.