History of Royal Tunbridge Wells
Visitors have been coming to Royal Tunbridge Wells since the discovery of the Chalybeate Spring in 1606. Over the subsequent years the town grew in popularity and gained its reputation as the place to see and be seen.
It became a favourite destination for fashionable society who needed accommodation and wanted places of entertainment such as coffee houses, gaming-rooms and an assembly room for dances and balls.
In 1684 the widow of Viscount Purbeck, Margaret , whose love of fashion and dancing had gained her the nickname of “The Princess of Babylon”, provided the land on Mount Sion for the earliest lodging houses and the ground at the northern end of the Pantiles, where the Church of King Charles the Martyr was built. And so the town began to spread.
Visitors who had come to “take the waters” required a place for worship and generously donated a substantial amount of money so that a church could be built. Sir Christopher Wren sent his chief plasterer Henry Doogood to create its magnificent ceiling. It was here that Princess Victoria attended church services with her mother, the Duchess of Kent.
The Grove is the oldest park in Tunbridge Wells, in 1703 it was given to the towns people to provide “a shady place or walk” and seclusion from the hustle and bustle of the town. A deed of endowment was drawn up to ensure that the trees in the Grove were protected. To this day the Grove continues to provide a haven of tranquility for local residents and visitors.
Amusements and Riotous Behaviour in Tunbridge Wells
From 1800 the town grew rapidly, in 1831 there were 5,929 inhabitants and in 1841 this had risen to 8,302. It was the fastest growing town in Kent! The town became increasingly popular with people seeking the enjoyment of retirement and began to attract an influx of permanent residents.
The cost of living was cheaper than in London but it was possible to get to London as stage coaches ran a reliable service from Tunbridge Wells to London with the journey only taking five hours!
The environment was a great asset to the town “romantic, rural, rugged with a vast variety of different views….” The surrounding countryside was ideal for walks and rides and early guide books of the town described the country houses that could be visited in the area. High Rocks was a favourite attraction and a popular excursion.
Entertainment for residents and visitors took place on the Common including firework displays, cricket matches, archery and horse racing. In 1750 Lady Coke wrote to her friend Mrs Eyre describing a typical day in Tunbridge Wells. “The outward amusements are cricketing, horse races and other diversions, such as walking, riding and airing in carriages.”
Residents petitioned for the abolition of the races in 1845 on the grounds “that they were a cause of drunkenness and riotous behaviour.” Once the race meetings were stopped, the race course was conserved as a footpath and bridle-way which can still be followed today.
A new town in the making
Northern developments of the town began in the early 1800’s when plans to create a new town, complete with gardens, features and services “suitable to the reception of genteel families” on the Calverley Estate.
This extensive undertaking was to be designed by a brilliant young architect Decimus Burton who had made his name designing and building the innovative residential Regents Park.
He designed and built the private residences in Calverley Park and Calverley Park Terrace. Calverley Park, overlooking 20 acres of meadow and park grounds, known today as Calverley Grounds, contains twenty-four villas, chiefly of the Italian and Grecian style of architecture.
Using local stone from the quarry on the Calverley Estate, he also remodelled and extended Calverley House, a Georgian mansion, now the Hotel Du Vin, it was here that Princess Victoria stayed as a young girl.
The new town springing up included villas, a terrace, a parade, rows of shops, a market place, the gothic Holy Trinity Church and the Calverley Mews, which afford extensive accommodation for horses and carriages. All this was completed in 20 years “so that the residents upon this estate might enjoy the same advantages as those who lived nearer the springs.”
The Great Hall (1870 – 1872) at the bottom of Mount Pleasant was designed by a local architect in a contemporary French style with a large hall which was to supply the demand for public rooms for cultural activities including lectures, concerts and social events.
There was also a library and reading room in The Great Hall which was eventually destroyed in a mysterious fire.
The purpose built Opera House opened in 1902, originally it was planned for the opening to coincide with thecelebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1931 the Opera House converted to a cinema which had to compete with the large newly built Ritz cinema, once described as “Kent’s most luxurious cinema” which opened its doors in 1934.
Today the Opera House is a popular pub, it still retains the stage and grand balconies and occasionally transforms back into an Opera House for a night or two.
Royal Tunbridge Wells - 100 Years of Being 'Royal'
In 1909 King Edward VII officially recognised the popularity of Tunbridge Wells with its many royal and aristocratic visitors - including his mother, Queen Victoria - over the centuries by granting the town its "Royal" prefix.
Today, Royal Tunbridge Wells, or Tunbridge Wells as it is more commonly called, remains a popular place to live and to visit as it maintains much of its original charm and elegance.
Surrounded by beautiful countryside and just a short distance from London it is an ideal destination for a short break.
Want to learn more about the colourful history of Royal Tunbridge Wells? Then why not take up the option of our Guided Walking Tour!
With so much to discover why not stay for a few days? Check our accommodation pages to find the perfect place to stay.