Hidden Gems… Maidstone Museum

This feature aims to be the first in a series of articles hoping to draw the reader’s attention towards some of the UK’s hidden gems; collections of military antiques on public display that are not so well known, but still worth a visit. The first to be featured is the collection of Royal West Kent militaria held in Maidstone Museum.

The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment was part of the British army from 1881 to 1961 when the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment of Foot was amalgamated with the 97,h (Earl of Ulster’s) Regiment of Foot, although its distant origins can be traced as far back as 1756. In January

1921 the Regiment was renamed The Royal West Kent Regiment (Queen’s Own) before being rechristened again, four months later, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. This title remained until 1961 when the Regiment was amalgamated with The Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) and became known as The Queen’s Own Buffs, The Royal West Kent Regiment. In a certain sense, though, The Royal West Kent Regiment continued until 1977 when the popular situation comedy, Dad’s Army (a fictional Home Guard platoon who wore the West Kent’s cap badge), aired its final series. In reality, subsequent amalgamations led to the Georgian Officers (left) Lieutenant Colonel T Fitzgerald (right) Captain A. G. Coote.

Regiment’s present title: The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

The Royal West Kent held a collection of artefacts within its Maidstone barracks until the depot closed in 1961. At that point, the collection was moved to Maidstone Museum where it has remained ever since.

This is not to say that the display has remained unchanged and the collection has been continually added to, rearranged and reinterpreted throughout its time at Maidstone Museum. Currently a team of volunteers, often former members of the Regiment themselves, verify, conserve and catalogue the many artefacts already held by the museum (some 650,000 in total) as well as examining the many new items donated by ex-servicemen or their surviving relatives.

This author was lucky enough to have been shown the collection by Collections Manager Giles Guthrie, who explained how the display has been remodelled since 2008. On his own admission he is very much a ‘people person’ and he has made a great effort to supply a human face to the exhibits. This has been achieved through a reduction of the more traditional artefacts (such as medal groups — of which there is still an impressive selection — and regimental silver) and an increase in the number of photographs, personal items and letters home. The effect is quite impressive as the visitor gets to see the men who made the Regiment as well as the artefacts they left behind. It will be interesting if this social aspect can be extended to the regimental families, particularly the camp followers who would have served alongside the Regiment during the Georgian and Victorian eras. For those who still prefer a more traditional display, the accompanying photographs will demonstrate that many original items are still to be seen (albeit 2% of the overall collection).

The collection is contained within a single room, which is dominated by the presence of a Sutlej Gun (one of two from the Sikh Wars of the 1840s). Around the edges are fixed cabinets which chart the history and development of the Regiment in an anti-clockwise direction. The first of these cabinets is dedicated to the yeomanry and militia units attached to the West Kent. On the walls above the cabinets are a variety of insignia, including regimental standards from the 18,h and early-19,h centuries.

The far wall contains a comprehensive selection of medal groups while the smaller cabinets, those situated behind the Sutlej Gun, feature colonial campaigns, inter-war years, and postwar conflicts. If all of this is not enough for the eyes, visitors are recommended an additional trip to Collector’s

Corner (Brewer’s Street) where Friday and Saturday only a wide range of military antiques are offered for sale.

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