THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS (Part One)
Main illustration taken from an engraving of Tunbridge Wells by Jan Kip (1719)
So, the domesticated feline is very much at liberty having made its escape from the hessian sack and, with much hullabaloo, we’re delighted to have been able to announce the establishment of our new presence “IRL” to use the apposite parlance (in real life). No more will we be operating almost exclusively in cyberspace, descending to terra firma only for the occasional exhibition or show, as our retail premises, showrooms and auction facility will all be opening shortly in Royal Tunbridge Wells.
Much has been written already about the luminaries of the antique’s world who have kindly agreed to support us in this venture, and of the events which they will be attending in the vicinity, but it falls to me to enlighten you as to the stories behind our new sphere of endeavour; firstly the town itself (in two parts), then more specifically The Pantiles where we will be located and finally The Corn Exchange which will form the centre of operations.
The town – almost to the point of self-deprecating hubris – has long been associated with seemliness, and an air of hauteur, embodied by the contrived mid 20th century indignation of the permanently exasperated ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ trope which persists to this day as the epitome of stuffy, reactionary Middle England. The Royal patronage of the town, however, is far from contrived – even though the fairly recent acquisition of the prefix in 1909 has often been used to sum up the perceived pretensions of the town and its residents.
It was a member of the court of King James I who is most often credited with the discovery which was to establish the town as a go-to resort for the nobility – Dudley, the 3rd Baron North. As a guest at Eridge Castle for a hunting jaunt in 1606, he was made aware of a chalybeate spring nearby, and urged to take the waters in order to restore his health having been suffering from an unspecified ailment. With his symptoms miraculously alleviated, Dudley returned to London after disquieting the local harts and hinds for the duration of his sporting recess, and became an enthusiastic exponent of ‘the dipping wells near Tonbridge’.
Dudley’s host for his visit was the Lord Abergavenny – an antecedent of the current Marquess of Abergavenny, who is our landlord in The Corn Exchange. It was at his Lordship’s behest that – following Dudley’s visit – the land around the spring was cleared and it was enclosed with paving stones and wooden rails. He thereby played a very significant though somewhat unwitting role in the foundation of the nascent town.
For reference purposes, Tonbridge is a far older town half a dozen or so miles to the north boasting a Norman castle, and chalybeate is simply a generic term for any natural spring in which the waters are enriched by minerals – iron salts, in the instance of Lord Dudley’s favoured watering hole.
North continued to espouse the merits of the spring waters, and lived for a further sixty years until his death at 85 in the same year as the Great Fire of London – a very respectable age for the time, and as fine an advertisement for the health-giving properties of ‘Frant Wells’ as they were initially known as could have been imagined. In no small way due to North’s promptings, a succession of the great and good of London’s higher societal echelons visited the site – even though there were few, if any, permanent buildings and any sojourn required the erection of a campsite, invariably at the southern end of what is now Mount Ephraim, adjacent to the Upper Cricket Ground and Bishop’s Down.
The first properly royal ‘client’ to take the waters was Queen Henrietta Maria – wife of Charles I – who was entreated to visit during 1630. She remained in situ for six weeks, following the directions of her physicians, taking a pint and a half of water a day at the outset, to the point where she was drinking twelve pints a day ! It’s stated that when not engaged in her therapeutic bowsing, she filled her time with ‘field sports and rustic amusements’ – it can only be imagined that these diversions were punctuated with increasingly regular ‘comfort breaks’ towards the latter stages of her treatment…
The next Royal Progress to list The Wells as its ultimate destination was that of Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, in 1663. She was accompanied, albeit briefly, by her husband, with the attendance of the King indicating that hospitality in the area had moved on apace from the requirement for earlier patrons to lodge under canvas. Indeed, the royal couple stayed at Mount Ephraim House, an imposing edifice still extant adjacent to the former Wellington Hotel (now a Travelodge) and immediately next door to ‘The Chalet’ which some 200 years later was to become home to the town’s Tunbridge Ware business. The royal retinue were still obliged to camp out on Bishop’s Down, but it would appear that this was far from the usual somewhat disorganised shanty-town, as archives show an expenditure of “£2590 0s 3d” for the encampment – including a separate tent for the King’s barber – which equates to something over a quarter of a million pounds in present day terms !
In addition to several large houses on Mount Ephraim, there were now buildings in close proximity to The Wells themselves. As well as separate lodgings for gentlemen and ladies, there were ‘cottages for tobacco smokers’ and, although at this point the Wells were still cordoned off by Abergavenny’s simple wooden railing, there were now-mature “lines of shady elms and limes”, first planted in 1638 and which marked out what would later become the course of The Walks, which – in turn – were to become The Pantiles.
Following the visit of Charles and Catherine, a local dignitary - Charles MacCarty, 1st Viscount Muskerry and Lord of the Manor of Rusthall - enclosed The Wells with a triangular wall made of stone, an ornamental arch and an adjoining hall “to shelter the dippers in wet weather” (all of which can be seen in Kip’s engraving shown above). This was to be the first significant building on the future site of the Pantiles, and I’ll feature this singular development in more detail in one of my next pieces – but what of the broader development of the town ?
In 1685 the Chapel of King Charles the Martyr was constructed, just over Frant Road at the rear of The Wells, and other substantial buildings began to appear. Mount Ephraim House was joined on its elevated position by Chancellor House, home of George Jeffreys, chief Justice and Lord High Chancellor of England under James II and who was notorious for his role in the Bloody Assizes in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion which saw hundreds of rebels sentenced to death for treason. King William III is known to have visited the town in 1698 – and is considered likely to have held in important Cabinet Council there, possibly in Mount Ephraim House which had long been used as the town’s assembly rooms.
Princess Anne of Denmark was another royal patron, visiting in 1696 before she became Queen Anne in 1702. She gifted the conservators of The Wells a stone basin for installation at the spring, which greatly enamoured her to the townsfolk to the extent that they planted Princess Anne’s Oak and – later - Queen Anne’s Grove in recognition of her donation (both of which can still be found on The Common).
Onwards to the 18th century, and the reputation of The Wells was to exponentially. There was an already extant ‘season’ at the city of Bath, where gentlefolk would gather to take the waters and indulge themselves in conviviality, and there was soon an equivalent season at Tunbridge Wells, which began immediately that the Bath event came to a close. The Georgian aristocracy flooded in to the town and elegant buildings went up by the Crescent, Grove and Place-full to accommodate them. One of the notable visitors during this period was Elizabeth Montague, a leading light in the ‘Blue Stocking’ movement, inveterate socialite and salonniere. Having formerly ‘held court’ at Bath on a regular basis, she transferred her affections – and those of her adherents – to The Wells in no uncertain terms, when writing in one of her (published) letters:
“Bath is a dull place. Tunbridge has a pert character. The Pantile Walk…is pleasanter than the Pump Room at Bath; and as anything original pleases more than a bad imitation, I must own I pass’d my time there with less ennui than in the city of Bath, where the London life is awkwardly imitated.”
And so, with the town now firmly established as a premier destination for the movers and shakers of polite (and to be fair, bawdy) Georgian society, let’s draw a brief veil over our own journey of discovery. More to follow, with Regency, Victorian and Edwardian gentlefolk all being drawn to The Wells – in all its pertness - with every bit as much enthusiasm as their forebears.
Princess Anne's Oak