When the country went to war in August 1914 there was an immediate impact on Tunbridge Wells. Uniformed troops, marching in formation with rifles over their shoulders, became a familiar sight. Army lorries thundered through the town. Large numbers of soldiers from all over England assembled here before heading to the western front. Initially bell tents and a field kitchen were erected on the Common, but soon more substantial billets were provided in public buildings and in empty private houses. Food kitchens were opened and entertainments organised.
At Christmas many of the men were given leave and headed home. However two and a half thousand of them enjoyed a lavish dinner in the town, organised and paid for by wealthy local couple, the Alves.
New Zealander Duncan Elliott Alves was an oil magnate, with interests in New Guinea and Venezuela. In around 1905 he moved to Tunbridge Wells, together with his parents, and in 1911 he married Hazel Wilson, a Canadian who was around twenty years his junior. Duncan involved himself in the life of the town, especially sport – he was president of the Tunbridge Wells Football Club and of the Grove Bowling Club. At his home, a house called ‘The Braes’ on Boyne Park, he had an extensive collection of pictures, an aviary with many rare and exotic birds and large garage which housed his collection of motor cars. Duncan would later be described as ‘tall, debonair and nattily dressed’ and as someone ‘who does everything on the grand scale wherever he goes’.
The dinner Duncan envisaged for the troops was certainly on a grand scale. The Courier commented ‘most minds would have shrank from the colossal task of carrying it out, but Mr Alves is not a man to be appalled by the magnitude of an undertaking’. At only two weeks’ notice detailed arrangements were delegated to the Tunbridge Wells Tradesmen’s Association, who recruited around 1,000 men and women to act as stewards, carvers, waiters and entertainers. (Such was the town’s enthusiasm for the event, they could have had double that number of volunteers). The catering was carried out by Messrs. Parker and Hammick of the Pantiles, whose manager Mr Coles had to call on all his experience of providing ‘colossal dinners’ for 3,000 or more. Under his direction cookers were installed at each of the venues and huge volumes of food prepared.
At 5.45pm on the day itself the troops marched through the streets to eight locations across the town, including the Corn Exchange, King Charles the Martyr church and Skinners School. Each had been decorated with a colourful profusion of greenery, flags, bunting and streamers. The men tucked into roast turkey, beef and pork, followed by plum pudding and mince pies. There was mineral water to drink, together with a pint of beer for each man that wanted it (apart from at teetotal venues such as the YMCA). Accompanied by Brigadier General McFie, Duncan and Hazel Alves drove round town, visiting the various venues. They were greeted with great enthusiasm by the troops, who drank to their health. In his reply Duncan Alves said that the cheers the men had given that night were no less than they themselves would receive when they went to the Front and had the Germans on the run.
After-dinner entertainment was provided by ‘the leading lights of the local musical world’, who performed songs likely to appeal to the audience. At the Skating Rink on Culverden Down, 600 or so soldiers showed their appreciation of a performance of ‘She’s a Lassie from Lancashire’, by roaring out the chorus. They also contributed performances of their own – even the Brigadier General sang a well-received song. Repeated choruses and encores filled the time there and elsewhere until proceedings closed at 9.30pm.
‘Well, short of getting home, we couldn’t have had a better time this Christmas” said a sergeant of the 4th South Lancs regiment. The Courier reported that the event went down well and ‘the generous and rollicking spirit of Yuletide reigned supreme’.
Everything ran like clockwork and the occasion seems to have fully achieved the aim of Mr Alves and of the whole town – to treat the soldiers as honoured guests and show them a good time before they left to fight for their country.
- For further information on Tunbridge Wells and World War One take a look at the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society’s 2014 publication ‘Shock of War’.
- Duncan Alves left Tunbridge Wells in the 1920s, moving to Tidebrook Place near Mayfield and then to south Wales, where he bought and renovated a castle and served six years as the Mayor of Caernarvon.