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Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Joanna Barker

The chalybeate spring near Tunbridge in Kent was discovered in 1606 by Lord North, who noticed the colours given to the water by its high concentration of mineral salts, particularly iron and manganese. The reputation of the spring’s healing properties spread, and in 1630 Queen Henrietta Maria came for a six-week visit.

In 1638 the spring was enclosed and the Upper and Lower Walks created with two parades of wooden buildings; these burned down in 1687 and were rebuilt with the colonnades that exist today. (However, most of the existing buildings date from the early 19th century.) the Walks were paved with pan tiles: thick clay squares shaped in a pan. They were replaced with stone paving in 1793, but the walks are still known as the Pantiles.

Development of the town began in 1682 when Thomas Neale, an entrepreneur and speculator who was Master of the Royal Mint, bought the Manor of Rusthall and built lodging houses to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. By 1739 the freeholders who owned land around the wells were anxious about over-building and lobbied for the introduction of the Rusthall Manor Act; this specified that the Walks, Wells and Dippers’ Hall were to remain open to the public, and no further building could take place on the Common. From this time, building took place on the hills overlooking the Wells, particularly on Mount Ephraim and Mount Sion.

Noting the success of Bath, in 1735 the town invited Beau Nash to become its Master of Ceremonies; given Tunbridge Wells’ limited season, which ran from June to September (between midsummer and Michaelmas), Nash was able to combine fill the role in both towns. He added to the attractions of the Assembly Room, coffee houses, shops and Music Gallery in the Pantiles by opening a Gaming Room, and in 1736 the town received a thousand visitors, including seven dukes, 33 marquesses, earls and barons, 16 knights, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole – and the 18-year-old Elizabeth Robinson, who was visiting with her parents from nearby Mount Morris.

During the 1760s there was a vast improvement in the network of roads around Tunbridge Wells, opening up communication in all directions. By 1780 a daily stagecoach ran between Tunbridge and London, and the town could offer at least seventy-three lodging houses. However, their quality was flimsy: they were timber-framed and provided poor protection against bad weather.

Unlike Bath, Tunbridge Wells had no purpose-built theatre during the 18th century. Sarah Baker, who in 1770 had opened a “Temple to the Muses” in Castle Street, built a theatre in 1802 which ran for fifty years, but was then turned into the Corn Exchange. Racing took place on the common and cricket was introduced in 1750. There were two libraries, music recitals and public lectures.

Elizabeth Montagu paid regular visits throughout her life, often staying for several weeks between June and September. It was the scene of her first meetings with Frances Boscawen and William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, who were to be important figures in her life.

Tunbridge Wells was considered secondary to Bath as a spa town, but in 1749 Montagu felt that ‘in many ways this place is inferior to Bath, in some it is better’. She was disappointed to find that as fashionable society was increasingly attracted to Tunbridge, she was mixing with the same people she met in London:

‘When the country lady came hither from domestic cares and attendance on her dairy and hen-roost, and her cherry cheek’d daughter from plain work and pastry, the mechanic’s wife from attendance on her shop and accounts, Tunbridge was a place of recreation, but now the squire’s lady comes from whisk in assemblies, miss from Ranelagh, and the bonne bourgeoise from Marybone Gardens; it is but the same scene on another stage.’

In 1749 she preferred the open nature of the Tunbridge streets, but thirty years later, after Bath had been expanded by the Palladian terraces of the new town, it was the Tunbridge lodgings she found inferior:

I found much more benefit from Bath waters than I have from Tunbridge for some years past, & the accommodations at Bath are infinitely preferable. There are not above two Houses on Mount Ephraim & Mount Pleasant that are not mere Hovels, the bedchambers so low & small one is stifled & if the weather is bad one is confined all day in a little parlour not much larger than a bird cage, so that unless one goes to Tunbridge at the beginning of ye Season one is miserably accommodated.

However, she remained fond of the place, and in 1785 recommended to her sister-in-law that she take her daughter there, for:

Tunbridge has a pert character, the Pantile Walk in summer is pleasanter than the Pump room at Bath in winter and as anything original pleases more than a bad imitation, I must own I passed my time there with less ennui than in the City of Bath, where the London Life is awkwardly imitated.

In 1753, Montagu spent four months in Tunbridge Wells with two young protegées, Miss Carter and Miss Botham. They took the same house on Mount Ephraim that Mrs Boscawen and her husband had occupied three years before. Nearby was Stone House, occupied by Gilbert West, his wife Maria Temple and his sister Mary West, known as Molly; their guest throughout their stay was William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham, who was at the time Paymaster-General, and was recovering from an attack of insomnia and depression. They spent the days visiting the sights of the local countryside such as Penshurst Place, and passed the evenings in each other’s houses, or attending balls together in the assembly rooms. Montagu’s lasting support for the future Prime Minister may date from this idyllic summer.

References:

Margaret Barton, Tunbridge Wells (London: Faber & Faber, 1937)

Thomas Benge Burr, The History of Tunbridge Wells (London: M Hingeston, J Dodsley et al, 1766)

Phyllis Hembry, The English Spa 1560-1815, A Social History (London: Athlone Press, 1990)

Alan Savidge, Royal Tunbridge Wells (Tunbridge Wells: Midas Books, 1975)


Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.