THE CORN EXCHANGE – AN HISTORIC VENUE FOR OUR NEW VENTURE
To continue zooming in towards our new centre of operations – having looked at the broader history of Tunbridge Wells, then that of The Pantiles – it’s time to complete our progress by featuring the Corn Exchange itself – the building in to which we will be installing ourselves as this blog post is published.
As you’d expect from any self-respecting building on The Pantiles, it’s ineffably Georgian – though not quite as old as some of its neighbours. This – naturally – is a story in its own right, as the existing façade which fronts on to the Lower Walk replaced an earlier somewhat jury-rigged structure when construction started in the spring of 1801.
The project was undertaken at the behest of an extraordinary character – Mrs Sarah Baker – an actress and impresario who played a significant role in Kentish theatrical circles during the latter part of the 18th century and beyond. Sarah was London-born in the mid 1730’s to Ann and James Wakelin, a theatrical couple. Her parents toured the country along with a few hand-picked colleagues as a small travelling company, her father acting and her mother both dancing and managing the troupe. Sarah and her sister Mary both danced too, and our heroine also tried her hand as a puppeteer. In her mid-twenties – and still with the family business – Sarah was to marry the multi-talented Mr Baker, who was variously listed as an acrobat, a ropedancer, a tumbler and a clown. It would be entirely remiss of me not to mention the type of entertainment offered by such companies, particularly a specific act by the name of The Child of Promise – a ‘polander’ or acrobat, who ‘stands on her head, on the top of a candlestick, during which time she turns herself round several times, and drinks a glass of wine’ – fans of the X-Factor and similar tawdry displays should consider themselves not inconsiderably short-changed from this point onwards…
The company, for the most part, undertook their theatrical peregrinations in and around Kent and, with Sarah increasingly taking the reins, they began to feature a less eclectic playbill containing more formal pieces rather than their former repertoire which was more akin to a revue featuring fairground variety acts. These performances were staged in a temporary pavilion which could be broken down, packed up and moved from place to place, although Mrs Baker’s now renowned company also established a more permanent presence in Tunbridge Wells for a time at a site opposite Clifton Place on Mount Sion, which became known as The Temple of The Muses, or just The Temple for short. For the convenience of her customers, Sarah even implemented donkey rides to spare would-be patrons from the Pantiles the exertion of tackling the sharp incline of Mount Sion up to her theatre. Her former mobile accommodation was also given a more enduring location, being installed at Faversham where it was to serve as the town’s permanent venue for the following few years. After a short time, during which Sarah’s Temple shows had competed with and ultimately outdone the attractions of a rival theatre on Castle Street (now Cassidy’s bar), run by a Mr Joseph Glassington, she largely dismantled her existing theatre and reassembled the constituent parts next to the Sussex Hotel below The Pantiles – the current position of the Corn Exchange – in September of 1791. She built on the site occupied by Morley’s Coffee House (which fronted on to the Lower Walk, and was previously known as The White House) and Todds Great Rooms, which were to the rear. This was to prove sufficient for her needs in the short term, but the indomitable Mrs Baker (by now long-since widowed) had her sights set on more ambitious projects.
The business was obviously proving to be profitable, as Sarah was in a position to commission the construction of properly-founded playhouses and theatres across the region. However, in keeping with her more itinerant roots – and to facilitate the ease of relocation and re-use of scenery and props as the party toured across the county – Sarah came up with an ingenious idea. Her four main theatres - at Canterbury, Rochester, Maidstone and (shortly) Tunbridge Wells – were all built in a similar style and adhering to near identical dimensions so that everything could easily slot in to place wherever the next performance happened to be scheduled. This has turned out to be a boon for us, as to the best of my knowledge, there is no extant image of the interior of the Tunbridge Wells Theatre, but we have been presented with a gift by Mrs Baker’s expedience.
If we take a look at the image shown of the Rochester theatre, built in 1791, the similarity to our own incarnation which followed is obvious and – as luck would have it – there is also a sketch of the interior of the playhouse in the Medway towns (shown below); it is, therefore, an entirely reasonable assumption that this appears pretty much exactly the same as what would have be seen from the back of the auditorium on the Lower Walks when the new enterprise first opened its doors on 8th July 1802. Note the further similarity of both the Canterbury and Maidstone theatres.
Another common feature of the four venues was that Sarah had accommodation built next door to each of them, both for her own family and for her performers. She would invariably ‘man’ the box office herself prior to performances, receive her audience, take their admission fees and then retire to her home during the performance to count the takings. The standard charges at this time were three shillings for a place in a box, 2s in ‘the pit’ and 1s in the gallery. Sarah was able to finance a comfortable lifestyle in to her 80th year, but was ultimately to die in 1816, at her house adjoining the Rochester playhouse.
The Tunbridge Wells Theatre continued under the management of Sarah’s son-in-law, William Dowton, for some years, but eventually fell out of favour with the public and its doors closed for the last time in 1843. However, the great and good of the town devised a new use for the building, and – after considerable cogitation – it was reconstituted as a corn exchange and market room in November of the following year. Many local worthies attended a celebratory dinner, held on the site, and hosted by the Earl of Abergavenny – an antecedent of our current landlord – see the newspaper report of the time appended hereabouts for the full list of dignitaries who graced proceedings with their presence…
It may seem odd that the dinner should have been attended by such an elevated cross-section of local worthies, but it should be remembered that at this time the Corn Laws were still in place, rendering cheap imports of grain almost impossible and ensuring that rural land ownership was essentially a license to print money by selling produce to a captive market with little or no competition and at pre-determined prices. The Corn Exchanges sought to legitimise the control exercised by the land owners over their tenant farmers, and were in some ways little more than a ‘self-preservation society’ intended to maintain the status quo. It was a decidedly libertarian move and an early example of social justice when – as the culmination of a nationwide movement of concerted opposition over a decade or so – the laws were repealed barely three years after the Corn Exchange had opened for ‘business’ in the wake of the Irish famines of the mid 1840’s. However, the building then took on a somewhat nobler mantle, as part of the mechanism of newly-emancipated free-trade, where prices and exchange rates were negotiated with a view to a far more equitable distribution of profits based on transparent market forces.
This business model prevailed for some fifty years, until the wider decline of British agriculture depressed the entire sector – and grain production in particular – as a result of the vast capacity of the North American prairie-based harvesting behemoth coming on line, and steamships being able to bring this foreign produce to UK markets in a timely and – crucially – cheap manner. The Tunbridge Wells Corn Exchange Co. Ltd had been floated to raise funds, and the venue increasingly hosted charity functions, political meetings, concerts, religious assemblies, Masonic gatherings and even the town’s chrysanthemum show to retain some relevance, but the decline in fortunes was as irreversible as it was inexorable and by the winter of 1901/02, liquidators had been appointed and creditors notified to submit details of their claims. There was an auction of the company’s assets held at The Swan hotel on the Upper Walks in March 1902, which detailed that the building was still actively holding a weekly corn market and numerous other events. But almost 100 years to the day that they were first opened to herald the arrival of Mrs Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, the doors of the building were closed for business, and the premises mothballed.
The next mention of the place in any meaningful sense is in December 1905 when it was announced as the venue for an Arts & Crafts Exhibition, with ‘undenominational’ religious meetings also being held (twice) on every Sunday. In addition, there were numerous public meetings, lectures and even a shooting range put in place for the Pantiles Rifle Club, but it was all a far cry from the times when the building was the theatrical and mercantile hub of the town. It was also utilised in part, albeit briefly, as the location of Mr Luke Pearce’s printing business. This rather ad hoc usage of the facility continued – as a drill hall by volunteers during the First World War for instance – and it suffered minor damage as the result of a fire in 1915 (with more extensive spoilage being prevented by ‘the promptitude of the Borough & Steam District Fire Brigades’). It also served as a general sale room throughout the following few years under the direction of a Mr A T Kemp. His enterprise included a very prescient foray in the summer of 1925, with the sale of ‘china, glass, curios and oddments (including) large Sèvres and Nankin (sic) vases’, though I’m not sure that we’ll be following his precedent by also disposing of horse hair mattresses, large refrigerators, carpets and garden rollers!
It was then acquired by Messrs Carter, Banks & Bennet, who resolved to use it as a ‘proper’ auction room, mainly for furniture clearances, despite being in direct competition with a similar venture in the adjoining Royal Sussex Assembly Rooms. The decade up to the Second World War saw the return of a more eclectic selection of proceedings – ‘ideal home’ exhibitions, demonstrations of ‘fuel-less cookery’, a wireless radio and speaker convention and – naturally – dog shows. However, such operations eventually became more sporadic and an application was then submitted to the Town Clerk for the grant of a theatrical license with the applicant undertaking to ‘have the building put in to thorough repair and to run it as a first class repertory theatre’, but this was refused. Immediately prior to the start of the war, the Council resolved to acquire the majority of the buildings on the Lower Walk – including the Corn Exchange and the Sussex Hotel – which prompted the local newspaper to call for the preservation of the whole area as a matter of urgency, and a plea for ‘sanitation to be overhauled’!
Whether or not this take-over and clean up was completed is somewhat obscured by the fog of war, but suffice to say that the town’s Art Society petitioned the Council for the site to be adapted for use as a ‘centre for the activities of several cultural societies’ in 1946 so it can only be imagined that the august civic administrative body in the Town Hall was, by now, in position to determine the path of future development. Evidently, however, there was then another period of stagnation and descent in to partial dereliction, with letters in the local press bemoaning the fate of ‘the lovely old buildings, all desolate and deserted’ in the late 1950’s. Given the desecration inflicted on many of Decimus Burton’s historic buildings nearer the centre of town at around the same time, we should at least be thankful that the only meaningful intervention by the Council seems to have been the installation of various commemorative plaques up and down the Pantiles – including one on the Corn Exchange. Ceres, the goddess of harvest, evidently watched on – implacably – from her position on the rooftop, albeit only with one arm, as this appendage seems to have been lost at some point in the decade before the war and was not replaced even when the rest of the figure was renovated in 1961, some 110 years after she had first been placed in her elevated position. A return to the guise of a theatre was again mooted in the mid ‘60’s, but was promptly quashed due to a short rein on public expenditure before the plan was given serious consideration.
Since then, the location has vacillated between use for warehousing, accommodating retail outlets, standing empty and being the focal point for any number of expansive plans for redevelopment as office or residential suites, before the current operators took the plunge in the late 1980’s and renovated the site to something approaching its current state of repair – with careful and thoughtful curation of its heritage to the fore.
We are very fortunate indeed to now be able to add ourselves to the long list of incumbents, and very much hope that we can prove to be worthy successors of those who have traded there before and been a part of the building’s colourful past over 220 years – we look forward to welcoming you inside, and cordially invite you to take your own place in the ongoing story of the Corn Exchange…