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Hartlake tragedy

You are in: Kent > Romany Roots > Hartlake tragedy > Dawn's story: 'Hops and Hartlake'

Dawn Baldock

Dawn's story: 'Hops and Hartlake'

As a child, Dawn Baldock was told stories about Hartlake Bridge and the mystery of the White Lady mist, which still shrouds the scene of the 1853 tragedy. Read, listen and watch...


Even now, 60 years after first being told of the tragedy at Hartlake Bridge, Dawn Baldock still finds the place hushed in mourning and imbued with a deep sense of unease.

It was on the 20th October 1853 that the old wooden bridge spanning the river Medway near Hadlow gave way under the weight of the hop-pickers' cart, spilling them into the swollen, troubled waters below. Thirty people, the youngest aged just four, lost their lives. For Dawn, working as a hop picker in the neighbouring fields throughout the 50's and 60's, the echoes of the tragedy could still be felt.

Edmund North

Edmund North

Romany roots

Dawn's grandfather Edmund North was a Romany from a long line of travelling families traceable back to the 1700's. Born in Kent in the 1820's he and his peers worked as  basket and chair makers, farm workers and toured horse races and markets selling pegs, button holes and, in season, Christmas decorations.

Dawn's mother Nellie was the first generation to settle - and they did so in Croydon after WW1. Edmund nevertheless kept to the old ways: "he used to have his little remedies for illnesses, he'd mix you up a potion or an ointment", says Dawn. He also loved music and would play a squeeze box, bones or spoons.

Dawn with her siblings and friends

Dawn with her siblings and friends c1948

Friendship in the fields

Hop picking was always a part of the North family's life - in fact Dawn's parents met on a farm near Golden Green, just down the track from Hartlake Bridge. Dawn has fond memories of long Kentish summers:

"The hop-picking is a great part of my growing up - I went there from when I was five years old until I was a young married woman in the 60's.

"My friends were all from Romany families. Friendships like that mean an awful lot. True Romany friendship is the best friendship you can have."

The Bell

The Bell Inn today

The North's tin hut was decked out with silk bedspreads on the walls, brass beds and a dresser for the family china. Evenings were spent round the fire or groups of pickers would head to The Bell for drinks and shrimps. This was the highlight of Dawn's week - everyone would dress in their best clothes and walk up the pub where there would be laughter and music. But The Bell had seen sadder times - it was here that the bodies of the drowned hop pickers were brought back in 1853.

The birds wouldn't sing

And it was here, in the fields of Golden Green that the story of Hartlake seeped its way into camp fire conversation:

The Medway at Hartlake

The Medway at Hartlake

"From the time you could remember the story was told - about the travelling people drowned in the river. The bridge always had an air of something about it, you could sense something as you walked across it. The birds would be singing either side of the bridge but once you was on the bridge, it stopped.

"As children, if we were naughty, we'd be told to cross the white bridge. The children used to run across because we were afraid that the bridge would collapse. It just had this eerie feeling about it, even as adults you could sense it.

"And if you were near the bridge at dusk when the mist appeared - the White Lady as we called it - it looked as if it was coming from the water under the bridge. The feeling that the White Lady was the spirit of the river and the spirit of those that had drowned in that spot."

To this day Dawn still feels the draw of the river and can hear the water murmur with the screams of the 30 souls that lost their lives that day in October.

last updated: 15/10/07

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