A donkey carrying a young girl hurtles across the Common, with several smartly dressed servants in pursuit. As it reaches the Mount Edgcumbe rocks a boy comes to the rescue, grabs the reins and brings the donkey to a standstill. The girl, who is laughing despite her adventure, is Princess Victoria. The boy, who is rewarded by one of her equerries with a shilling and a thank you letter, is apprentice butcher Thomas Tolson. He will continue telling people the story of how he rescued a princess for the rest of his life.
Thomas was born near the Frant Road in around 1812. He soon switched from butchery to working in the fishmongers run by Henry Hook at 25 The Parade, an old wooden building on the south side of Market Square, behind the Fish Market. In 1837 Thomas married his employer’s daughter, Harriet, and at some point after this he took over the business. By 1861 he was employing four men and two boys.
In the early days fish were transported in small carts drawn by dogs from Hastings to Pembury, where Thomas would meet them and collect his stock. Presumably after the train line opened between Tunbridge Wells and Hastings in 1852 this was no longer necessary.
Each Christmas the Courier would report on elaborate displays in shop windows across the town and they often picked out Tolson’s shop for particular praise. In 1877 for example:
‘Messrs Tolson and Co…….had one of the finest shows of fish we have ever seen in the provinces and it commanded much attention. In addition to cod, turbot, oysters, and soles, there were grand salmon…..which weighed between twenty and thirty pounds each. So great was the stock, that on Wednesday evening, when closing time arrived, it was found to be impossible for the premises to contain it, and consequently closing was dispensed with, and a watch kept all night’.
In their 1884 report the Courier noted that the Tolson’s display included cod caught in the Dogger Bank fisheries, transported by fast ocean-going steamships to Grimsby and dispatched from there to the South of England, where it was still as fresh as any fish caught off the south coast. In 1886 they noted that Thomas seemed to be getting younger and jollier as each Christmas came round.
Thomas’s wife Harriet had died back in 1851, leaving him to bring up their four children (aged between 13 and 6) on his own. He remained single until 1880 when, aged 67, he married 52-year-old shop assistant Charlotte Field. Both Thomas and Charlotte were active members of St Charles the Martyr and were kind and generous in helping those in need.
In 1888 Thomas finally retired from the shop and moved to a house on the opposite side of Market Square. He continued to be a familiar figure on the Pantiles, taking his daily constitutional – smartly dressed, with a tall hat and a ready smile – and sprinkling crumbs on the pavement for sparrows who flew down from the Common when he whistled.
Thomas seems to have been universally popular. When the weather was cold enough he would allow young people to skate on a pond he owned on Patty Moon’s Walk, not far from the Pantiles, and each year he would entertain his friends, mainly fellow tradesmen, to an ‘oyster feast’. In 1888, the year of his retirement, they returned the favour by organising a complimentary dinner in his honour at the Mount Ephraim Hotel.
Always a sociable character, Thomas enjoyed telling and retelling anecdotes of Tunbridge Wells history, especially where he had been personally involved. At the end of his life, The Advertiser wrote of him:
‘Mr Tolson was a man of many parts and good in all. He was never, so to speak, an old man, for he was equally at home in cheery gossip and chat with everyone, being naturally humorous and singularly amiable and pleasant in converse. No word of irritation or impatience did we ever hear pass his lips; if he ever used a protesting word, there was always a bright twinkle in his eye to belie it, and in another moment his sunny temperament again shone forth in hearty laughter or some facetious remark……….. the old gentleman was always entertaining, by reason of his informing conversation, his pleasantries, and his entire absence of egotism.’
Over a long life. which included fifty years in trade, Thomas witnessed many major events in Tunbridge Wells. As a young boy in 1820 he enjoyed the celebrations for the coronation of King George IV. In 1879 he attended a dinner to mark the opening of the new Pump Room and in 1889 he walked in the long procession which marked the town being given municipal status. Thomas died in 1900, at the age of 88, missing by one year the events held to commemorate the long reign of the princess he had rescued all those years earlier.
- Fish were sold on Market Square from 1745 onwards, although the present building dates back to 1895. In recent years it was home to the town’s Tourist Information Bureau and it is currently occupied by Sankeys Champagne and Seafood Bar.
- Originally there were the Walks (Upper and Lower). After they were repaved in 1700 the area became known as the Pantiles. In 1793 the paving stones were replaced and for most of the nineteenth century it was called the Parade. In 1887 the Pantiles name was revived and continues to be used today.
- Patty Moon’s Walk is now Cumberland Walk.