It is likely that the name ‘Cobtree’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cop’ meaning the ‘top’ or ‘summit’ rather than from the Cobnut tree.
The valleys at the foot of the North Downs have been settled and farmed since Neolithic times. The ancient monuments, Kit’s Coty House, the Countless Stones and the White Horse Stone all lie within a few kilometres of Cobtree so the landscape of park itself may well have been farmed since ancient times.
The first known written record of ‘Coptre’ in 1596 title deeds states that it was part of the estate of Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and royal courtier. His son ‘Thomas Wyatt was executed for plotting against Queen Mary (the Wyatt Rebellion)
The land continued to be farmed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1831, the farm was bought by the owner of Preston Hall. The tenant at that time, Mr William Spong is believed to have taken in a soaked Charles Dickens who had fallen in a pond while out walking near Cobtree Farm. It is said that Dickens immortalised him in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ as Mr Wardle of the Manor Farm near Dingley Dell.
19th Century maps show the landscape as patchwork of fields, orchards and woodland with a large brick and tile works adjacent to the current park boundary. The maps show two current areas of woodland that have existed since at least the early 19th Century. These are small remains of a once much larger ash plantation and a hazel plantation with standard oak trees. During the second half of the 19th Century the area of orchard increased to cover roughly the lower half of today’s park. Old cherry, apple and pear trees can still be found in the park and woodland.
In 1896, Cobtree House was leased to Hugh William Tyrwhitt-Drake who later purchased the house and about 300 acres of surrounding land in 1904 and leased a further 174 acres. The estate at the time included 15 cottages, a sand quarry, a riverside wharf, the brick and tile works site, and sporting rights to 228 acres. The house was renamed Cobtree Manor House, probably as a reference to Dickens as Cobtree had never been a proper ‘manor’. Hugh William died in 1908 and the estate passed to his son Garrard.
The park is best known locally as the site of the Maidstone Zoo. This was Sir Garrard’s private collection of animals which was opened to the visiting public from Spring to Autumn each year between 1934 and 1959. The opening ceremony in 1934 was conducted by Bertram Mills, the famous circus proprietor. The annual opening days were great events involving the top celebrities of the day including Gracie Fields, Elsie and Doris Waters and Jessie Matthews.
The 1939 programme lists thirty six kinds of animal including bears, camel, cheetah, chimpanzee, deer, elephants, kangaroos, lions, llama, yak, zebra and wolves. There were also numerous types of birds, fish and reptiles. Apart from the exotic animals there was a stud of cream ponies, one of only two in the country.
The zoo grew in size – a 1949 site plan shows about 120 cages and paddocks covering about 10 acres. The wolves and foxes were kept in the natural setting of the woodland and a Pets Corner with small animals was set up for children. There were elephant and pony rides available for a charge. A miniature railway with a petrol-powered ‘steam’ engine and two carriages ran on tracks along the carriage drive to take visitors the 500 yards from the main Maidstone to Rochester road to the zoo.
The zoo remained open throughout the Second World War and in 1946, Princess Elizabeth visited.
The zoo finally closed down in 1959 as a result of rising costs and Sir Garrard’s deteriorating health. Most of the animals were dispersed to other zoos and only the llamas and cream ponies remained at Cobtree for a few more years.
Having no children of their own Sir Garrard and Lady Edna set up and endowed the Cobtree Charity Trust in 1951. Cobtree Manor Park was created in the late 1970s by the Cobtree Charity Trust Ltd., working in partnership with the Cobtree Manor Estate Trust and Maidstone Borough Council. Hilliers of Winchester was given the task of designing "parkland garden" and 600 species of trees and shrubs were planted. Most of them have survived to this day, forming a sizeable arboretum.
Cobtree Manor Park is a landscape of diverse character: part open country park, part woodland and part parkland garden, all set on a gently sloping hillside with views of the North Downs. Remnants of the past can still be found in the park including a cattle shelter, sheep wash and the Elephant House.
In 2012-13, Maidstone Borough Council used funds generated by the Cobtree Estate to undertake major improvements to the park including a zoo-themed play area, improved car parking facilities, new footpaths, a sculpture trail, and new picnic tables and benches. In 2015, the final phase of the project was completed, creating the new visitor centre and cafe.