A History of Tunbridge Wells

By Tim Lambert

Tunbridge Wells in the 17th century

The town of Tunbridge Wells began with a chalybeate spring. Chalybeate means it contains iron. Rainwater fell on the ground containing iron deposits, soaked through them then rose in a spring. The iron deposits in the spring water stained the ground around the spring a rusty colour. The spring stood by a common where local people grazed their livestock.

In the early 17th century people believed that they would be healed from diseases if they bathed in or drank from certain spas. In the year 1606 a nobleman, Lord North, who was staying at Edridge was out for a ride. He came across the spring with rust-colored edges and wondered if it had health-giving properties. (At the time he was suffering from tuberculosis or some similar disease). He drank some of the spring water and was, he said, healed from his illness. When he returned to London he told all his rich friends about the spring and soon many people flocked to drink from it.

After 1608 wells were dug and a pavement was laid but there were no actual buildings at Tunbridge until 1636. In that year 2 houses were built, one for ladies and one for gentlemen. In the late 17th century these developed into coffee houses. A coffee house was a place where you could drink coffee (a new drink at the time) or chocolate and read a newspaper. You could also socialize with other visitors.

In 1638 a walk was laid out at Tunbridge with 2 rows of trees on either side. Local tradesmen began setting up stalls and selling goods between the trees. n Meanwhile Tunbridge Wells had its first royal visitor in 1630 when Queen Henrietta Maria, came after the birth of her son, the future Charles II.

Furthermore, in 1632, a book was written praising the wells and their supposed health-giving properties. It was called ‘The Queens Wells, which is a treatise on the nature and virtues of Tunbridge Water’.

In the late 17th century Tunbridge developed rapidly. In 1663 Charles II and his queen came and camped near the wells. Then in 1678 the Chapel of King Charles the Martyr was built. After 1680 houses were built at Mount Ephraim. In 1682 land near the common was sold. After 1682 houses were built in the area of Mount Sion. In 1687 the shops were burned in a fire but the owner rebuilt them, this time with a colonnade in front of their entrances.

At the end of the 17th century, a travel writer named Celia Fiennes visited Tunbridge Wells. She said: ‘The water I have drunk for many years with great advantage. It is from the steel and iron mines’. She also said ‘They have made the wells very commodious by the many good buildings all about it and 2 or 3 miles around which are lodgings for the company that drinks the waters’. Also ‘All the people buy their own provisions at the market, which is just by the wells and is furnished with great plenty of all sorts of fish and foul.’

She also described ‘The walk which is between high trees on the market side which are shops full of all sorts of toys, silver, china, milliners and all sorts of curious wooden ware besides which there are 2 large coffee houses for tea, chocolate, etc and 2 rooms for the lottery and hazard board (i.e. for gambling). ‘At the lower end of the walk, you go straight along to a chapel (King Charles the Martyr)’.

And she said: ‘There are several bowling greens about the wells’

In 1698 Princess Anne (she became Queen in 1702) was visiting Tunbridge Wells and her son fell over while playing. The Queen commanded that the walk where he fell should be paved. This had not been done by her next visit to Tunbridge in 1699 much to her annoyance. The offended princess left. After she had gone the authorities quickly paved the area with pantiles but the Princess/Queen never returned. The pantiles were later replaced with stone but the name has remained.

A drop of water

Tunbridge in the 18th century and 19th century

By the early 18th century the present street plan of the town center had been laid out and in 1703 The Grove was donated to the town by a landowner as a public park. Tunbridge Wells may have had a population of about 1,500 in 1725. Then in 1736 Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, a rich dandy and socialite came to the town and appointed himself master of ceremonies. He arranged balls and other social events. Tunbridge reached its peak in the early and mid-18th century.

However, in the late 18th century, a new fashion began for visiting the seaside. This drew visitors away from the town. n Tunbridge Wells had a fire brigade as early as 1794. It was one of the first towns in England to have an organized fire brigade.

During the 19th century, Tunbridge prospered. In the early 19th century a theater was built. It was later converted to a corn exchange where grain was bought and sold. In the early part of the century, a new estate was built around Mount Pleasant Road. The Church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1829. The new buildings included a terrace called Calverley Park Terrace, built in the early 1830s. By then the population of Tunbridge Wells had reached about 6,000.

In 1826 a water company was formed to provide piped water, but no sewers were built in Tunbridge Wells till the early 1870s. In 1829 a dispensary was founded where the poor were given free medicines. Then in 1884, a general hospital was formed. In 1835 a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners was formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Tunbridge. They also had authority over markets and the water supply.

Then in 1836, Tunbridge Wells gained a police force. In 1846 the railway reached the town. Nevill Ground cricket ground opened in 1898.

By the early 1880s, the population of Tunbridge had reached 25,000. It reached 20,000 only 10 years later. In 1889 Tunbridge was made a royal borough. In 1894 the boundaries were extended.

Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery was founded in 1885. In 1897 a Technical Institute was opened in Tunbridge.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was famous for Tunbridge Ware. This consisted of boxes and other wooden goods. They were inlaid with other woods.

Tunbridge in the 20th century

In 1900 the boundaries of Tunbridge Wells were extended again to include Rusthall. At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Tunbridge stood at about 33,000. Growth then levelled off for the next 60 years. By the 1930s the population of Tunbridge Wells was about 35,000. Growth then leveled off for 30 years. In the early 1960’s it stood at about 38,000. Growth then became more rapid.

In 1909 Edward VII allowed Tunbridge Wells to add the prefix ‘Royal’ to its name. However in the 1920s, the manufacture of inlaid wooden boxes known as Tunbridge ware came to an end.

Meanwhile, in 1914 Suffragettes burned the pavilion in Nevill Ground cricket ground.

In the 1920s a council house estate was built at Rusthall. Then after 1945 other estates were built at Sherwood and High Brooms and at Ramslye.

During World War II some 15 people were killed in Tunbridge Wells by bombing. Many more were injured. In the town, 13 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged. However, the town soon recovered. n The museum In Tunbridge Wells opened in 1952.

Meanwhile, in the 1950s an attempt was made to attract light industry to Tunbridge and in the 1950s an industrial estate was built at North Farm. However, Tunbridge Wells in the late 20th century was largely a dormitory town with a large retired population. Royal Victoria Place shopping center opened in 1992.

Tunbridge Wells in the 21st century

Today Tunbridge Wells is a thriving town. The population of Tunbridge is 56,000.