William Shipley would surely have been delighted. Shipley, who founded the RSA in 1754, was born in Kent’s county town of Maidstone. He came to London and became the archetypal Enlightenment polymath: artist, educator, philanthropist, inventor and social reformer, part of a self-confident coterie determined to make Britain a centre for intellectual advancement in the arts and sciences.
Having set the RSA ball rolling he retired to Maidstone at the age of 53 and, for his remaining years, until he died aged 88, devoted himself to his family and to local causes, including measures to eradicate Gaol Fever (now known to be typhus), which was ravaging the prison population of Maidstone at the time. His fine Maidstone townhouse in Knightrider Street is a short walk from All Saints Church, where he is buried, and the adjacent Archbishop’s Palace, which stands at the heart of an important cluster of ancient monuments and Grade One listed buildings on the banks of the River Medway.
But, as last year’s initial iteration of the RSA Heritage index revealed, Maidstone’s rich heritage, typified by many fine historic buildings, a great museum and the wonderful Mote Park, has for too long been kept hidden in plain sight. I was brought in by the local Council to advise on a culture and heritage strategy for the borough, and, from my perspective, the Index couldn’t have come at a better time. It recognised the strength of Maidstone’s heritage assets but consigned the town to the lower echelons of the table for it poor use of those assets. But, crucially, it rated Maidstone highly for heritage potential. This chimed strongly with the views I’d encountered locally: Maidstone was, I was told, in danger of being seen as a “bland cultural desert”, seemingly preferring to embrace “clone town” status rather than to seek to carve out a distinctive identify for itself as a place of heritage and creativity.
The evidence from the Index and from other research coincided with a fresh impetus and a strong will to change on the part of the Council – and a determination to forge new partnerships with anyone able to help with the process of transformation. We invited Historic England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and of course the RSA itself to a series of meetings, culminating in a day spent taking a walking tour of the town centre and agreeing priorities for action.
The Maidstone Townscape Heritage Partnership Board was then formed, drawing in expertise and enthusiasm from local traders and creative entrepreneurs, potential investors, the Museum, the local College and a wide range of public agencies. Over 1400 local people responded to a consultation process to determine priorities for action. And the town is waiting to hear the outcome of a bid for significant lottery funding to bring dilapidated heritage buildings back to life, restore traditional shopfronts, raise awareness of important historic events and improve the public realm in the part of town that links the main shopping zones to the heritage quarter down by the river.
The RSA’s Heritage Index works – it has stimulated debate and catalysed change - and Shipley’s legacy has come home.
Heritage isn’t simply a bunch of buildings from the past; rather it is a collective store of memory and experience that bind people to place, and people to other people where they live.