To begin this second instalment of the historical background of our new home town, I should close the 18th century narrative on Tunbridge Wells and its increasingly lofty niche in courtly circles. There are two further royals to add to the list of visitors, as 1795 saw the waters taken by Princess Sophia – twelfth daughter of George III and Queen Charlotte – and in the following year, the widowed Duchess of Cumberland, George’s sister-in-law by way of her marriage to Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn. It’s not entirely clear whether these were exactly the seemly and stately progresses that the town’s proponent diarists would have entirely approved of; the Dowager Duchess was evidently known for her “habitual, varied and active coquetry” and Sophia was known to enjoy her escapes from the oppressive domestic dominion overseen by her mother to the fullest possible extent, so much so that in her early twenties she is rumoured to have given birth to an illegitimate son. Although the patronage of such early celebrities and their lack of inhibitions may not have been exactly the preferred advertisement sought by the town’s luminaries, it would have been as true then as it is now that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and such sauce and gossip-mongering would only have increased the allure of the place.

the Duchess of Cumberland


Decimus Burton

To hark back to the earliest of hosts whose largesse in no small part led to the popularisation of the Wells, John Nevill, 3rd Earl of Abergavenny – a descendant of the gentleman who first invited the Baron Lord North to these parts - regularly welcomed King George III as a guest to the family home at Eridge Castle. George would then often visit the town – specifically the Pantiles – in the company of his Lord Chancellor, Lord Thurlow. The Regency period also saw many European dignitaries make landfall within the town and a conscious effort was made to expand the scope of the grand buildings which - to this point – had almost exclusively been confined to Mount Ephraim. The renowned architect, Decimus Burton, who was responsible for many of London’s leading developments was retained by an MP, John Ward to oversee the most significant phase of this expansion. This entailed the construction, over three decades of the two dozen grand villas on the Calverley Estate grounds, along with ancillary buildings, and the obligatory feature for any self-respecting spa town which was a crescent of imposing residential properties in the style of those already extant in both Bath and Buxton. At the north eastern corner of the extensive site there was Calverley Market, Calverley Terrace and the Calverley Parade, which gave what was to become the centre of the newly expanded town the appearance of broad, Parisian boulevards. That developers saw fit to sweep away this part of Burton’s legacy in the mid 20th century and replace it with the almost brutalist abomination which is the current town hall, library and Assembly Hall is one of the worst acts of architectural desecration imaginable…

Fortunately, these beacons of heinous disregard remain in almost dreadful isolation (although the adjoining multi-story car park now acts as the full point to an exclamation mark of poor taste) and it is surrounded and overshadowed by many other examples of much finer work by Victorian designers from Monson Colonnade right down to the steps of The Wells themselves, by way of the (now somewhat diminished) Great Hall and the smaller scale refinement of the High Street, Chapel Place and Mount Sion.

The late Regency period also saw the large-scale establishment and subsequent proliferation of the Tunbridge ware trade, producing – for the most part – keepsakes of the town for sale to the innumerable tourists who flocked to bathe if not in the waters themselves then certainly in the reflected glory of visiting the highly-regarded venue. The craft deserves far more extensive consideration than that of a bit part in this potted history and, once we are properly established in the cradle of its creation I fully intend to set aside a more appropriately comprehensive tally of column inches, as it will be afforded a specific area within our new premises and needs to be shown due deference as a result – more to come, as they say…


Tunbridge Ware writing box c.1875

The name itself of this craft is indicative of the protracted discomfiture regarding the title of both the town and that of neighbouring Tonbridge. Indeed, it is often cited that the first makers of Tunbridge ware at anything more than a cottage industry level were the Wise family, based in the centre of Tonbridge from 1746 at the deliciously ambiguous ‘Wise's Tunbridge Ware Manufactory’.  This was in spite of the town being recorded in the Domesday Book as Tonebridge. There was no properly right or wrong way of spelling the name of our town’s northerly neighbour, which seemed to vacillate between one iteration and the other on a whim throughout history, as did that of the location of The Wells, although the latter did seem to adopt the ‘u’ variant with increasing regularity as the extent and stock of the town itself grew more substantial. Eventually it was left to the machinations of the South Eastern Railway Company and the GPO to resolve matters with a degree of permanence when they bilaterally decided that the current spellings should be used for the respective railway stations and postal town names as they formalised their networks in the mid 19th century.

At a similar point in history, the now unequivocally-named Tunbridge Wells received a much-needed boost of royal patronage, having endured some fallow years with regard to the presence of such exalted persons (Lady Wellington, wife of the Iron Duke was a regular visitor to the point where she was considered an almost permanent resident on Mount Ephraim, but this seems to have been during periods when her husband was campaigning abroad, and the great man is not known with any certainty to have visited – an occasion which would have merited every bit as much celebratory cognisance as any royal progress). When still a mere Princess, Victoria visited the town for some three months in 1834, returning the next year when she was able to view the The Queen’s Grove – rows of 132 sycamore, elm and lime trees planted to commemorate her first visit, on the common and adjacent to the now mature installation in honour of Queen Anne. Burton’s machinations, as detailed above, also received the Royal seal of approval during the extended visit, as the Princess, her mother the Duchess of Kent and their retinue were based at Calverley House, one of his signature buildings. Victoria would also return as Queen in 1849 to call on Queen Adelaide just prior to her death, and again, in 1876, a guest of her daughter, Princess Louise, and her husband the Marquis of Lorne at their supremely elegant house, Dornden. Lorne went on to become the Governor General of Canada and – rather splendidly – part of the Princess’s full name, Louisa Caroline Alberta, was appropriated by the newly-minted province of Alberta on its confederation in 1905.


Tunbridge Wells Races - 1849


self portrait by Victoria aged 15

The youthful Victoria was an eager visitor to the annual races held on the town Common along a course which can still be discerned today by way of footpaths and bridleways. Her attendance demanded that it was a considerably more well-managed event than the usual rather coarse and chaotic affair, which caused such dismay and approbation amongst the residents of Bishops Down and Mount Ephraim in its less inhibited incarnations as to be banned entirely from 1851 as a result of their protracted protestations over a six year period. It is not, unfortunately, known whether any of these complaints were submitted in writing and signed “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” but it seems entirely reasonable to both imagine and fervently hope that may have been the case !

Further sporting endeavours were to help to enshrine the image of town as home to a particularly erudite, refined – and undoubtedly snobbish – class of gentlefolk as the game of association football made its mark in 1886. On the foundation of the first club to represent the town (a status which went on to be a bone of contention in its own right) the colours of light and dark blue were adopted, because of the preponderance of graduates amongst the founding fathers, even though the majority were Carthusians rather than having attended Oxford or Cambridge (and to maintain a distinction from the ‘proper’ Old Carthusuians team who used the traditional school colours themselves). The Two Blues, as the team became known, were often seen as being somewhat elitist, and it was no surprise that a heated rivalry was to develop with what was perceived to be the much more ‘working class’ team who began as Nevill (later, Vale) Rangers – the work’s team of a printing company called Hepworth’s. Appropriately, the Two Blues were strictly amateur players, whereas the Rangers had no compunction in paying for the services of ‘out of towners’ to enhance their prospects. Somewhat predictably, there were far more celebratory evenings in the beer houses and taverns of the town than took place in the more elegant salons and dining venues, as the Rangers won the vast majority of the encounters between the two clubs. It’s also worth noting that the town was the hub for the inception, development and production of the magnificent football game, Subbuteo during the 1940’s and 50’s – I shall be petitioning my colleagues that a small corner of the Corn Exchange be given over to this particular aspect of the town’s storied history, as some of the early game pieces are surely on the way to achieving properly antique status…


Football Programme

Tunbridge Wells FC


London Welsh


And so to the first decade of the 20th century, and the occasion which has probably done more than any other to define the town, its inhabitants and its perception from outwith – the confirmation of the prefix ‘Royal’ to the name. This was, rather prosaically, at the suggestion of the town’s own Borough Advertising Association who had been set up at the behest of the council to restore the town to former glories. Several ambitious, though costly, schemes had been considered and disregarded, mostly to do with development of The Wells themselves, the enhancement of the existing bath-house or the addition of supplementary buildings in the immediate vicinity. Eventually – and rather parsimoniously it would seem – it was decided that a formal petition be submitted to King Edward VII that he grant the use of the Royal prefix in recognition of (the then) 250 or so years of patronage of The Wells by his antecedents. Showing the same sort of creative sensibilities which would manifest itself in the destruction of Burton’s town centre some years later, the original suggestion was that the name should be changed entirely to Royal Kentish Spa, but the King’s representatives – fortunately – opted for the far more nuanced and less vulgar option which was simply Royal Tunbridge Wells, and this is the tile which was granted on April 8th, 1909.

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