By Richard Fleury
After WW1 Faversham people honoured the dead by spending money collected for a memorial on improving their local hospital.
A hundred years later, Faversham councillors took money from the same hospital to help pay for a new £150,000 ‘eyesore’ monument few wanted.
How did it happen?
“There cannot be a more fitting way of commemorating the loss and suffering associated with the war than the means of lessening sickness and disease.”
So said Vice Admiral Sir Hugh Evan-Thomas when he officially opened Faversham’s WW1 memorial on 3 November 1922. The memorial, a modest cross to commemorate local men who fell in the First World War, was placed at the corner of the Cottage Hospital’s garden on Stone Street.
Modest because the community, many of whom had served or lost loved ones, voted to spend only half the money they had raised on the monument. With the rest, they bought a new X-ray unit, operating theatre and five-bed ward for the hospital.
Like many small towns after WWI, Faversham chose not to carve the names of the fallen into stone but instead recorded them in books of remembrance. Faversham’s books, in St Mary’s Church, lists names from both world wars.
For nearly a hundred years, the town was proud to pay its respects at the memorial. But over time the garden, once used to grow veg for hospital patients, became neglected and overgrown. Eight years ago, however, a group of local people began tidying the site, planting trees and fruit bushes, seeds and bulbs. Filled with colour, it attracted visitors and wildlife.
“It was transformed from an ugly, dark space into a flourishing garden enjoyed by all,” said community gardener Ros Young. “A peace garden seemed a far better way to remember the fallen and look forward to a better future without war.”
Until a group of local councillors decided they knew better. For them, the humble wishes of those who lived through the ‘war to end all wars’ were not good enough. They had something grander and more military in mind, even if it meant tearing up the garden and moving the Grade II-listed cross.
Leading them was councillor Michael Cosgrove. Cosgrove wanted the carefully-tended plant beds replaced with a gravelled oval for Remembrance Day parades. The cross, repositioned in the centre of the garden, would be flanked by bulky concrete plinths bearing the names of dead servicemen, with empty space left for ‘future conflicts’.
Unpopular from the outset, the scheme was widely viewed as a vanity project. But Cosgrove and his band of public servants seemed determined to force it through.
Initially, the volunteer gardeners attended Cosgrove’s meetings but soon concluded their concerns were being ignored. “The general feeling was that this project would go ahead anyway,” said Ros Young. “It seemed very unfair and undemocratic.”
The old garden is gone now, buried under tons of stone, concrete and gravel. Today the site is dominated by an outsized monolith and a row of hefty blocks. Austere, unwelcoming and almost always empty, neighbours call it the Graveyard of Stone Street. And worse.
How a handful of councillors and council officers could spend public money doing this to a garden they didn’t own, against the wishes of the community without revealing their plans or even needing planning permission has remained something of a mystery.
This is how they got away with it
In 2014, the Faversham War Memorial Project Group met in the Mayor’s Parlour. They called themselves a ‘community led group’ but, in reality, they were a committee dominated by Conservative councillors and council officers.
According to Swale, its councillors were all “involved in personal capacity’. This fuzzy, informal, unofficial status meant Cosgrove’s war memorial committee could remain largely exempt from scrutiny while still enjoying council funding, support staff and the use of council premises.
Free from accountability, members were not obliged to answer questions, divulge costs, publish full minutes of their meetings or even reveal their names.
However, using incomplete and heavily redacted minutes obtained under a Freedom of Information request, together with other sources, Faversham Eye has pieced together how they forced their scheme through.
So who were they?
Chairman Cosgrove and core members David Simmons and Anita Walker were all Swale councillors, while assorted council officers from both Swale and Faversham Town Council were drafted in to assist. Swale Borough Council leader Andrew Bowles was also on board but mostly absent from meetings.
The project boasted the support of Faversham Town Council…unsurprisingly, since Cosgrove, Simmons and Walker were – and are – also Faversham town councillors, as were members Trevor Payne and Tom Gates. Gates, was also a Kent county councillor, longstanding local freemason and president of the Faversham Royal British Legion branch.
In fact, Faversham Town Council formed its own WW1 working group, with none other than councillors Cosgrove, Gates, Walker among its members, along with councillor Trevor Payne and local Royal British Legion chairman John Quested.
So…not exactly a grass-roots community organisation. Not all members were councillors or council employees however. Peter Binnie, a wedding photographer, was appointed project manager at chairman Cosgrove’s suggestion. Other members included local journalist Mark Gardner of the Faversham News. Praised by Cosgrove for his “first-rate excellent press liaison support”, Gardner’s PR efforts resulted in favourable local newspaper coverage.
Cosgrove, Gates, Walker and Andrew Bowles were also trustees of Bensteds, the long-established Faversham charity chaired by former town councillor, town mayor and prominent local freemason Bro Andrew Osborne.
Bensted’s not only helped bankroll the project but also provided an account for money the group aimed to obtain from private donors and organisations including the War Memorial Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund and a public appeal.
Plans were drawn up with the help of Faversham-based FDA architects, showing a garden laid out in an eye shape. The design looked not unlike the Faversham Eye logo or even, some say, the famous masonic ‘all-seeing eye’.
By 2015 the scheme’s initial estimated £80,000 cost had crept up to £120,000. As well as cash, Cosgrove’s team needed what they termed ‘community buy-in’. But they had a problem: the community wasn’t buying it one bit.
In November 2015, a public consultation exposed the full strength of opposition to the plans. Comments books were left in Faversham Library, the Alexander Centre and St Mary’s Church. Page after page, the objections piled up:
“To destroy this much loved, much cared for and admired green space would be a travesty.” “We need more volunteers, not bigger memorials” “Leave the garden alone. A plaque could be added commemorating the fallen. Spending £120,000 is completely unnecessary.” “Faversham is being slowly ruined by people who think they know best.” “A memorial to Mr Cosgrove who seems determined to concrete over what little green space remains in Faversham.” “Who do you think you are to desecrate this lovely place?” “It will go ahead anyway. This consultation is an empty farce.” And simply: “Shame on them.”
Only seven favourable comments were left, one of which was penned by former town councillor and mayor, Bensted’s Charity chairman and prominent local freemason, Bro Andrew Osborne.
But the people had spoken. And the people were not impressed.
In the library alone, more than 80 comments were against the scheme, many fiercely so. Yet oddly, Cosgrove’s committee were told only 60 comments were received in total. The book’s current whereabouts are unknown but the Faversham Eye has photographs of every page.
Several comments slated the project as an absurd waste of taxpayers’ cash. But that was a misconception, according to Cosgrove and his committee. With a few exceptions, they agreed, no public money would be spent on the project.
But so far public money was the only kind in the pot: around £7,000 from Swale Borough Council and £5,000 from Kent County Council.
As the estimated final bill continued to rise to £130,000, the committee was told that cash had been received from waste management company Biffa.
We contacted Biffa to ask how much the company had donated and spokesperson said:
“We do not appear to have funded the Faversham War Memorial Garden. This type of project would not fit under our funding criteria. Perhaps there was a donation from the local Biffa depot.”
Why would a local depot donate company cash without head office approval? We asked Mike Cosgrove but he declined to answer. In fact he wouldn’t answer any questions about his project.
Another cash injection was announced: from Bensted’s Charities. Bensted’s, is a charity for ‘the relief of old, sick and inform persons, and for the provision of educational and recreational facilities’, with a typical annual income of around £25,000. It would go on to pour a total of £32,700 into the scheme.
By the end of 2015, Bensted’s had also paid out £1,820 in ‘consultancy fees’ from its war memorial fund. Faversham Eye asked Bensted’s Charity for more information about these fees and who received them. It referred us to Cosgrove who declined to answer.
By early 2016, the projected cost was revised yet again, to £150,000. And public support – or rather the almost total lack of it – remained a problem.
Minor alterations were made to the plans – narrowing the central path and reducing the number of concrete plinths from ten to eight – and the committee discussed how consultation results would need to be ‘refined’ before being presented to Faversham Town Council.
Exactly what that ‘refinement’ entailed remains unclear. But town councillors were told that there were 115 comments in total. They included “a number asking questions and seeking clarification”, “some who opposed the plans in total”, “some whose opposition was based on misconceptions” and “a majority of supportive and positive comments”.
Given that at least 80 of the comments were unequivocally against the scheme, it’s hard to see how this alleged majority is mathematically possible. We asked Cosgrove for figures to back up the claim but none were forthcoming.
Since Cosgrove, Walker and Simmons all sat on Faversham Town Council, no-one was especially surprised when the council ‘warmly endorsed’ the ‘refined’ results. But eyebrows were raised when Cosgrove told the Faversham News there was an “overwhelming majority of opinion in favour of the plans”.
The people had another say in September 2016, when Cosgrove’s committee tried to get planning permission for what it called its ‘substantially modified’ plans.
Again, the response could not have been clearer. This time there were 74 letters and emails objecting. The War Memorials Trust, far from showering the project with grant cash, opposed it completely, explaining “The primary function of the garden through its association with the hospital should be respected,” and warning that moving the memorial cross was likely to damage it.
The only letters in support came from Swale’s own officers and three ‘neighbours’. One ‘neighbour’ was former town councillor Trevor Payne, another was town councillor Geoff Wade and the third was – you’ve guessed – our old friend former town councillor and mayor, Bensted’s Charity chairman and prominent local freemason, Bro Andrew Osborne. Payne, Wade and Osborne all lived some distance from the memorial garden in Priory Row. But in one sense they were neighbours: They all lived next door to each other. What are the odds?
Osborne wrote: “It is clear that the author of the letter from the War Memorials Trust has no qualifications in either architecture or landscaping, more importantly has not visited the site, has no knowledge of the history of the memorial and is probably only regurgitating the objections of those who have taken over the land for their own personal enjoyment.”
Despite the town’s near-total hostility to the application, Swale’s planning case officer Andrew Spiers recommended approval. Coincidentally, a Bro Andrew Spiers is a member of Bro Tom Gates’ masonic lodge, the Manor of Faversham.
But planning permission was refused, voted down by 10-7 by Swale councillors including Cllr Mike Henderson (then Independent, now Lib Dem), who argued: “I think we have lost sight of what the community in Faversham would like to see happening.”
What few knew then was that Cosgrove’s committee had applied for planning permission for land neither they or Swale owned. Although the tiny hexagon of land the memorial cross stood on belonged to Swale Borough Council, the garden didn’t.
Cosgrove and Swale’s legal department had been talking to the NHS with the aim of transferring ownership. But it turned out the NHS didn’t own the garden either. Nobody did. It had remained unregistered for more than 40 years.
So in late 2016 Swale hastily applied for squatters’ rights – ‘adverse possession’ to use the legal term – claiming the council had maintained the garden since 1990.
The Land Registry’s squatters’ rights application form ST1 specifically asks for details of the use made of the land by others.
But Swale’s ‘statement of truth’ penned by council officer and war memorial group member Graeme Tuff makes only a fleeting mention of the volunteer gardeners who turned up most Sunday mornings for eight years to mow the lawns with their own mowers, refurbish the benches, pick litter and weed flowerbeds. Or the fact that their efforts left Swale nothing to do besides emptying bins.
“Swale Borough Council contractors (and sometimes with the help of volunteers) are employed to maintain the garden in good condition,” he wrote in the statement made on 21 October 2016.
Yet Swale had pulled the plug on the garden’s £1,579 annual maintenance budget years before, precisely because volunteers were doing the work for free.
Tuff’s statement even claimed:
“Local residents wish to see the property redesigned to create plinths with the names of almost 400 soldiers who were killed in the two world wars as well as relocating the war memorial to provide an enhanced war memorial.”
As the ‘unrefined’ public consultation and failed planning application had amply demonstrated, most local residents wished to see no such thing.
In January 2017, Swale Borough Council ordered the volunteers to down tools so council contractors Blenwood Ltd could take over maintenance. Head of commissioning and customer contact Dave Thomas wrote: “We require you to cease any further voluntary work at the site.”
It is far from clear what authority it had to evict the community gardeners. Swale didn’t yet own the garden. Its squatters’ rights application would not be decided for months. Neither did Cosgrove’s committee, the NHS, nor the Cottage Hospital.
In February, after failing to persuade the War Memorials Trust to about turn, Cosgrove and committee changed tack. Moving the memorial wasn’t so important after all, they decided. The key issue was now the garden and, in particular, the concrete plinths.
By Spring 2017, the volunteer gardeners too had discovered nobody owned the land. But it was too late. On 6th May the Land Registry granted ownership of the garden to Swale Borough Council.
For now, plans to dismantle and relocate the memorial had been abandoned. Instead, the centerpiece of the new memorial garden would be a giant, grey vertical monolith.
Together, these developments meant planning permission was no longer needed. As new legal owner, Swale Borough Council automatically had so-called ‘permitted development rights’ to carry out ‘smaller scale improvements’ to its own sites.
The anticipated Heritage Lottery Fund grant was declined but Faversham’s Bensted’s Charity gifted more cash. Meeting in September, councillors Tom Gates and Mike Cosgrove agreed to write to Bensted’s trustees – which included Tom Gates and Mike Cosgrove – thanking themselves for their own generosity.
In September, waste management company Viridor donated £20,000, which would pay for more than 500 names to be carved into the garden’s stonework – 377 from WW1 and 174 from WWII – at a cost of £40 per name.
Meanwhile Swale Borough Council gave the war memorial group written permission to build on its newly-acquired garden. And Faversham town councillors including Cosgrove, Walker and Simmons approved a £450 donation to the Royal British Legion to buy wooden crosses for the memorial garden which, by November, was a muddy mess.
Cosgrove’s intentions were equally murky. Even as its contractors, Blenwood, were digging up remaining plants, Swale Borough Council purported to to be in the dark about the committee’s plans.
Volunteers complained the plans were ‘shrouded in secrecy’ as Swale referred their queries to Cosgrove, who failed to answer them. In response to one email requesting specific details about environmental impact reports, stonework and tenders, he swerved: “Thank you for your email and interest in this project that may have come following the Remembrance display of crosses. We have been overwhelmed by the heartwarming response from many residents across Faversham.”
Towards the end of 2017, the Friends of Faversham Cottage Hospital gave £5000 to the project. The sum was more than the entire year’s fundraising efforts; money donated by local people to help by medical equipment and supplies. After X-ray costs, it was the second largest expenditure of the year.
Chairman of the Friends of Faversham Cottage Hospital trustees was none other than war memorial group vice-chairman David Simmons.
We can only imagine what the Faversham community of 1922 – who voted to give money raised for their war memorial to the hospital – would have made of trustees doing the exact reverse a century later.
The Friends is a registered charity. Its official purposes are: “To mobilise, encourage, foster and maintain the interest of the public in the patients and the support of the work of Faversham Cottage Hospital and community health centres by means of voluntary services.”
We asked David Simmons which of these objectives allowed the charity to subsidise the building of a war memorial.
“Charity Trustees often have to make decisions which may appear surprising to those not in possession of the full facts,” he replied to our request for the full facts. “For many years Cottage Hospital staff, patients and their visitors have used the garden when weather conditions permit.”
Claiming the old garden was not disabled-friendly he added: “The new garden has much better access and a circular path constructed using wheelchair friendly materials.
This is strongly disputed by the volunteer gardeners. Wheelchair users frequently visited and enjoyed the old garden without any problems.
Simmons continued: “The donation was made with the restriction that it must be used to make the new pathway fully disabled access compliant using non slip materials. This restriction was put in place so that it could meet part of our charitable objects to support the interests of patients in Faversham Cottage Hospital.”
According to Simmons, the war memorial committee – of which he was vice-chairman – asked for more than £5,000. How much more? “I’d rather not say,” he said.
Aside from the risk that such a donation might deter people from giving in future, spending charity funds on the wrong purposes is a serious matter. A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We expect trustees to ensure that all decisions are made in their charity’s best interests and in compliance with their legal duties to manage their charity’s resources responsibly.”
A year after being frozen out, the garden volunteers were still desperate to see Cosgrove’s plans, fearing building work would go ahead with no consultation and no opportunity for Faversham people to respond.
But their emails and letters got nowhere. Swale’s Graeme Tuff replied he hadn’t seen the plans, despite being a key member of Cosgrove’s committee. At the next meeting he reported “a renewed campaign from objectors”.
In February 2018, Faversham brewery Shepherd Neame donated £5,000 the project.
Without further consultation, work started in March. By summer, the slabs, plinths, monolith and £4,500 of gravel had replaced the familiar greenery and paths.
Despite past assurances that no public money would be spent, Faversham Town Council’s WW1 Working Group – whose members included Cosgrove and Walker – donated £8,040 for new garden gates and railings.
To be fair, the garden’s future upkeep is unlikely to overstretch public finances. Its maintenance budget for 2018/19 is just £31.59, according to Swale Borough Council. No wonder the grass is getting long.
Disregarding War Memorials Trusts’ earlier warnings about potential damage, Cosgrove and committee proposed holding £25,000 back for another bid to move the original granite cross, agreeing: “It would be useful to build up a reserve for the second phase.”
Horrified at the new memorial’s disproportionate dimensions and brutalist appearance, some wrote to the Faversham News calling it an ‘eyesore’ and a ‘Stalinistic abortion”. The letters were ‘to be deplored’ concurred Cosgrove and his committee, as if questioning their design choices somehow constituted an appalling insult to the fallen.
Deplorable or not, such reactions were far from unusual. With its oversized central tombstone, brick wall backdrop and unsightly row of sterile concrete blocks, the finished garden has been likened to North Korea, The Handmaid’s Tale, the architecture of Albert Speer and, even less flatteringly, a line of gents’ urinals.
Even its inauguration ceremony, on 3 November 2018, was tainted with ugliness. Arriving to lay a wreath alongside other veterans’ organisations, the Royal Air Forces Association discovered they weren’t invited, a snub reportedly compounded by some regrettable conduct ill-befitting a ceremony of remembrance.
The puzzling secrecy surrounding this scheme leaves much we don’t know.
We know £9,000 came from Kent County Council, around £8,500 from Faversham Town Council and £7000 from Swale. Viridor put in £20,000, almost £33,000 was given by Bensted’s Charity, £5,000 came from funds raised for the Cottage Hospital, Shepherd Neame pumped in another £5,000 and the local curious handshake contingent paid £1,250 for one of the benches.
That makes £83,750. Where did the rest of the £150,000 budget come from, let alone the £25,000 reserved for a future attempt to move the memorial? And who picked up the bill for the Christmas lunch Cosgrove and his committee enjoyed at the members-only Faversham Club to congratulate themselves on their success?
Success is subjective, I suppose. People rarely sit in the garden now. It’s about as inviting as a mausoleum. Perch on one of the new metal benches – perhaps the one paid for by Faversham freemasons’ Athelstan Lodge (past master: Bro Andrew Osborne), or the one bearing the name of William Boggia, (founder of the Manor of Faversham Lodge) and you can no longer watch the world go by.
Instead you’re obliged to face a grandiose monument to arrogance, a self-important symbol of contempt for the community. Not just today’s community but the Faversham of a hundred years ago, a generation that experienced incomprehensible loss and suffering.
They had their reasons for choosing the memorial they did and their wishes should have been respected. It was – lest we forget – their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers who went to war and never came back.
SOURCES: A History of the Cottage Hospital by Stuart J Cornfoot The War Memorials Trust Swale Borough Council Kent County Council Faversham Town Council The Charity Commission The Land Registry Friends of the Faversham Cottage Hospital The Faversham Memorial Garden Conservation Group Biffa The Royal British Legion Viridor Faversham News Shepherd Neame The Royal British Legion