After reading about the Tocci brothers, the Italian conjoined twins at the turn of the last century, I was heartened to read of the Maids of Biddenden. Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci didn’t even learn to walk because of their life on the sideshow circuit. No one knows exactly when they died only that they lived out the rest of their lives secluded from the world in a high walled house after they were put on display during their childhood. Shunning the world that seemed to swallow for them all the joys that make a human being thrive and flourish.
Mary and Elizabeth Chulkhurst had fame too from their trait of being joined at the hip or anywhere for that matter. Most sources put their birth at 1100 in the small village of Biddenden in Kent. They were born to wealth and were celebrated by their village in their lifetime and to this day.
Being “pre-medical” in their time-line the facts of where and how they were joined are sketchy. It is highly unlikely they were joined at the joints of the arms. Reports have them with four arms that were usually around each others shoulders. It is thought perhaps they were joined at the base of the spine in a way that they could travel along side by side.
Like most sisters they fought often and it would even “come to blows”. Still such devoted sisters you’d be hard pressed to find. When, at 34, the first sister died the other refused any attempt at separation to save her life. She is quoted of saying, “As we came together, we will also go together.” She reportedly died about six hours later. Which sister died first is not recorded online at least but a woman without a sister does endure a great poverty. Who could have known this better than Eliza or Mary? They were a physical embodiment of that amazing relationship of sisterhood. The person you can want murder and would die for at the exactly the same moment.
They left a legacy to the town of Biddenden of not only a conjoint notoriety but of their love for the poor. Their wealth was put in five plots of land known as Bread and Cheese Lands. Every year the income from this land was put into a dole that would feed the poor at Easter. An act recorded since 1605. The gaps of years and lack of history before this time may put their birth somewhat nearer the 16th century but tradition holds with 1100.
The unsavory but souvenir worthy Biddenden cakes which are stamped with their likeness appeared somewhere around 1775 and are still made today. Made more as a keepsake than a culinary treat for visitors. They were distributed to the poor along with cheese, bread and tea. In 1907 the lots of land were sold which increased the dole to the extent that not only Easter offerings to the poor could be made but cash payments at Christmas. What lasses! They have a colorful sign in Biddenden depicting the sisters with a plaque that reads:
Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst the famous twins known as the Biddenden Maids were born in the year 1100 joined together at hips and shoulders. They lived together thus joined for 34 years when one of them was seized with a fatal illness and died. The other refusing to be separated died 6 hours later. By their Will they left their property to the poor of Biddenden.
In commemoration of the Biddenden Maids an annual distribution of bread and cheese takes place on Easter Monday morning from the old bakehouse. Biscuits bearing the impress of the two maids, their names and year of birth are available at the same time to all who apply, visitor and parishioners.
While we consider the poor, and perhaps more pointedly those in Japan, who are enduring hardships untold think of Eliza and Mary. Their love and goodness resound to this day during every Easter season. They have looked after and fed the poor for centuries. When you give to those in need raise a glass of cheer and toast to the Biddenden maids.