Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst (or Chalkhurst), commonly known as the Biddenden Maids, were a pair of conjoined twins supposedly born in Biddenden, Kent, England, in the year 1100. They are said to have been joined at both the shoulder and the hip, and to have lived for 34 years. It is claimed that on their death they bequeathed five plots of land to the village, known as the Bread and Cheese Lands. The income from these lands was used to pay for an annual dole of food and drink to the poor every Easter. Since at least 1775, the dole has included Biddenden cakes, hard biscuits imprinted with an image of two conjoined women.
Although the annual distribution of food and drink is known to have taken place since at least 1605, no records exist of the story of the sisters prior to 1770. Records of that time say that the names of the sisters were not known, and early drawings of Biddenden cakes do not give names for the sisters; it is not until the early 19th century that the names “Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst” were first used.
Edward Hasted, the local historian of Kent, has dismissed the story of the Biddenden Maids as a folk myth, claiming that the image on the cake had originally represented two poor women and that the story of the conjoined twins was “a vulgar tradition” invented to account for it, while influential historian Robert Chambers accepted that the legend could potentially be true but believed it unlikely. Throughout most of the 19th century little research was carried out into the origins of the legend. Despite the doubts among historians, in the 19th century the legend became increasingly popular and the village of Biddenden was thronged with rowdy visitors every Easter. In the late 19th century historians investigated the origins of the legend. It was suggested that the twins had genuinely existed but had been joined at the hip only rather than at both the hip and shoulder, and that they had lived in the 16th rather than the 12th century.