Curator Talk Podcast: Episode 2, Reinventing Tunbridge Wells Transcript - Amelia


Tunbridge Wells grew up around the chalybeate spring on the Pantiles, and in the early days its economy was entirely dependent on the visitors who came to ‘take the waters’. In the 1700s most of the local businesses and shops closed down for the winter and didn’t reopen until the visitors returned in the spring. By the mid-1700s people had already realised that the town’s economy was quite precarious. What would happen, they asked themselves, if the spring were to fail or if it were to become unfashionable? And in fact those fears were realised in the late 1700s and early 1800s when up and coming seaside resorts like Brighton started to suck away fashionable society from the older inland spa of Tunbridge Wells.

So the town needed to reinvent itself, otherwise it was in danger of declining into just a ghost town. But it was one thing to identify the problem, it was another thing to find a practical solution. It needed outside investment to revitalise the town. Fortunately that outside investment was available thanks to the Kent-based property developer John Ward who had a vision for the redevelopment of Tunbridge Wells.

John Ward had had his eye on the town from the early 1820s when he bought up the 1000 acre Calverley Estate from various sources, and he earmarked some 56 acres at the western end, centred on what is now Tunbridge Wells town centre, for what he called his Calverley New Town, which was going to represent an entirely fresh start and to replicate and improve upon the facilities which were there down in the old village centred on the Pantiles.

With this vision in mind, John Ward needed a town planner and an architect. Fortunately he knew just the man, the up and coming young architect Decimus Burton, who had already rebuilt his country seat at Holwood Park. Decimus Burton, born in 1800, was the son of James Burton who was himself a well-known property developer and building contractor who lived at Mabledon between Tonbridge and Southborough. Young Decimus was learning his trade in his teens, and by the age of 20 he was working with the fashionable architect John Nash on the prestigious Regents Park development. And at 23 he was out as an independent architect with his own London office.

Decimus Burton began work in 1828 on laying down the plans for the Calverley New Town. The original idea was that the contractor for the project would be his father James, but James had become preoccupied with his own property development, the new town of St Leonard’s at Hastings, which was also designed by young Decimus. So a London building contractor called John Bramah was brought in, and he set himself up in Tunbridge Wells to carry out the practical aspects of the project. Most of the building materials – the sandstone and the bricks – were provided from the Calverley Estate itself.

At the heart of the development was Calverley Park, begun in 1829 – 24 individually designed villas with their dedicated pleasure grounds in front and three picturesque entrance lodges which were originally security features to keep out undesirables. Then there were the two rows of houses along the top of Mount Pleasant hill where the Civic Centre now is: these were known as Calverley Parade and Calverley Terrace, and you can see just one surviving bit of Calverley Terrace beyond the Police Station.

In 1829 there was Holy Trinity Church, which was Tunbridge Wells’ first official parish church, and next door to it the Priory in matching Gothic style. The foundation stone for Holy Trinity was laid in 1827, and we gather that the plan was for Princess Victoria, visiting the town with her mother the Duchess of Kent, to lay the stone, but for some reason she couldn’t make it. However, the little Princess was available to lay the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria School off Camden Road in 1834. In the same area Decimus designed a number of artisan cottages so that there would be accommodation for workers to service the shops and other small industries that the town needed to get that diverse economy going.

From 1832, there was what was originally called Calverley Promenade which we now know as Calverley Crescent. That was originally intended to be a new Pantiles with a colonnade of shops and other facilities and a pleasure ground in front, but it never worked in that role and so it soon reverted to being residential accommodation which is the way that it has remained ever since.

More successful as a shopping street was Calverley Road – the bit between Calverley Park and what is now the junction with Camden Road. On the corner of Camden Road there was the Camden Hotel and the new Market. The Market was never terribly successful as such but, being quite an imposing building with columns in front, it worked very well as the town’s first Town Hall when it was adopted as such in 1846.

Finally in 1840 we have the Calverley Hotel in Crescent Road – now known as the Hotel du Vin – which was an enlargement and rebuild of the Georgian Mount Pleasant House which was where little Princess Victoria spent those several holidays with her mother the Duchess of Kent.

John Ward’s New Town was not universally popular. Some local residents thought that it ruined the rustic, informal atmosphere of the old village of Tunbridge Wells. They complained about houses being built in regimented straight lines instead of scattered all higgledy-piggledy as you can still see in the ‘village area’ around Mount Sion. One disgruntled resident wrote to the local press complaining about the ‘sudden appearance of a rich London merchant who banged his tremendous purse about the heads of some dozen or two of the old inhabitants who forthwith fled and left him in full possession of their ancient abodes’.

Despite opposition, the New Town prospered, and John Ward was quite effective in his marketing of the town. He sponsored in 1832 John Britton’s ‘Descriptive Sketches of Tunbridge Wells and the Calverley Estate’ which helpfully included even plans and elevations of the Calverley Park villas to encourage new residents. He also made quite a deal of the several visits of Princess Victoria that she made to the town at this period, saying ‘If the town of Tunbridge Wells is good enough for Princess Victoria, it’s good enough for you!’

As a result of the new development, the town’s population was boosted from around 1000 to nearer 6000. John Ward and various local professional and business people started to campaign for a proper local government for Tunbridge Wells which could raise taxation to support local services. Up to that point everything had been provided by subscriptions from the residents and regular visitors, but that was quite an unfair system because some people never paid their way, other people had to make up the difference, or alternatively things just didn’t happen at all.

In 1829 a committee was set up to explore the way forward for a new system of governance for Tunbridge Wells. This did, however, meet with opposition. The same people who didn’t like Decimus Burton’s ugly new modern buildings thought that the old informal arrangements for running Tunbridge Wells were perfectly satisfactory – ‘Yes, the streets are all mud, and there’s raw sewage running in ditches, and there’s pigs and other animals roaming at large in the streets, but that’s all fine, it’s part of the rustic atmosphere that our visitors know and love’.

Eventually John Ward and his supporters were able to win round enough of the opposition to sponsor the Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act, passed by Parliament in 1835. This was described as ‘an Act for lighting, watching, cleansing, regulating and otherwise improving the town of Tunbridge Wells’, and it set up a body of Town Commissioners, Tunbridge Wells’ first formal government. And one of the first Commissioners was none other than Decimus Burton who had a house in the new Calverley Estate at that point.

Thanks to the vision of John Ward and Decimus Burton, Tunbridge Wells found itself well-placed to meet the challenges of the forthcoming Victorian era. Although work on the Calverley Estate project had stalled somewhat by 1840 – and Decimus Burton had gone on to other projects like the Palm House and the Temperate House at Kew Gardens – there was only a temporary lull in the growth of Tunbridge Wells. When the railway came in 1845, opening up the possibility of commuter culture, this provided a huge boost to the local property market. At that point John Ward and his son Arthur were able to get going again on Decimus Burton’s original grand plan for developing the town. With Decimus having moved on, they appointed William Willicombe as their town planner and architect. William Willicombe was in fact the same age as Decimus Burton; he had worked his way up from the ranks in John Bramah’s building company, and he had become a protégé of Decimus Burton who had taught him a lot of what he knew about architectural design. Willicombe developed estates like Calverley Park Gardens and Lansdowne Road through the 1850s. From that point on, the town continued to expand and prosper throughout the rest of the Victorian era and beyond.

Curator Talk Podcast: Episode 2, Reinventing Tunbridge Wells Transcript

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