1928. The Disgusted Resident

The best-known resident of Tunbridge Wells was (and still is) an anonymous one. Many people, even if they know very little about the town, have heard of the newspaper correspondent signing themselves ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. The picture this conjures is of an irate and red-faced retired colonel taking up his fountain pen to fire off a letter to the newspapers, in which he rails against poor public services, or declining standards of behaviour.

In the nineteenth century and the first half of the 20th century it was common practice to use a pseudonym when writing to the local newspaper. Some correspondents indicated their status – ‘A ratepayer’, ‘A resident’, ‘A customer’, or ‘A pedestrian’. Others added a bit more detail – ‘An indignant mother’, ‘A lover of waifs and strays’ or, in one case, ‘Another who would bathe regularly’.

Disgusted signatureIn the 1920s and 1930s a number of people writing letters to the Kent & Sussex Courier signed themselves ‘Disgusted’, a signoff which had been used occasionally before, but now became more frequent. Their disgust was aimed at a wide variety of targets. One letter criticised the design of new houses being built at Hawkenbury, which were ‘a blot on the landscape’. Another complained of the din and racket made by three Salvation Army Bands playing across the town on Sunday afternoons, more suited to ‘a typical Bank Holiday on Hampstead Heath’. And a third, from someone claiming be an animal lover, complained of dogs – ‘Dogs in the highways, dogs in the bye-ways, dogs in lanes, dogs in ditches, dogs in the recreation grounds – dogs everywhere. Dogs yapping around all day and sometimes all night’.

In a letter printed in the Courier on 7th September 1928, the subject was traffic. In the period since 1895, when Sir David Salomons organised Britain’s first ever exhibition of motor vehicles at Tunbridge Wells (in the area of town now known as Showfields) the number of cars on the roads had increased rapidly, a development which was not welcomed by everyone.

Traffic in Tunbridge Wells. Still a problem today

The correspondent was clear that the Council were to blame for the problem. ‘It passes my comprehension’ they wrote ‘how our civic rulers have tolerated – I was going to say condoned – the almost daily growth in the nerve-wracking traffic which thunders over our roads’. They had two specific complaints. Firstly the Council had granted over a hundred licences for ‘heavy passenger-carrying buses’ to run on roads that had not been built for such traffic. Secondly they had taken too long to fix a speed limit, and had then set it too high – ‘Thirty miles an hour…is fifteen too much’.

The letter-writer began by thanking Mr Editor ‘for giving so much publicity to the din’ and ended with a request to ‘keep up the agitation……then perhaps the Council will be roused from its slumber’. They signed off – ‘Disgusted, London Road, Tunbridge Wells’.

It is said that during the 1950s the editor of the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser instructed his reporters to fabricate readers’ letters on controversial subjects, because not enough real ones were coming in and the paper was losing ground to the Courier, its main competitor. Some of the reporters signed their letters ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.

The phrase became more widely known in the early 1960s when it was used as a letter-writing character’s name in ‘Take it From Here’, a popular radio comedy show starring Jimmy Edwards, and in 1978 when the BBC used it as the title for their new viewers’ feedback programme.

Gradually it became fixed in popular culture and it is still widely known. These days any concern expressed by local residents – whether it is the traffic (still a problem), Southeastern’s poor train service, the noise from low-flying Easyjet planes on their way to Gatwick, or even the arrival of Poundland rather than Waitrose in the town – still generates headlines with ‘Disgusted’ somewhere in them. Some of the town’s residents would like to shake off the label, but ‘Delighted of Tunbridge Wells’ doesn’t have the same ring about it.


  • An account of Advertiser reporters being instructed to concoct letters is included in Frank Chapman’s book ‘Tales of Old Tunbridge Wells’.
  • Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ by Nigel Cawthorne, published in 2014, includes examples of (real) letters written to the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser by local residents, including several who signed themselves ‘Disgusted’.

1915. The Man with the Beard

‘Octogenarian with 18 ft beard’ read the Courier headline when Richard Latter died in 1915. The article that followed described him as a ‘noted character’ in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding district.

Richard Latter postcardRichard Latter was born in Pembury in 1830. When he was 23 he married Sarah Collins and the couple went on to have 12 children. His employment history can be tracked in the censuses. In 1851 and in 1861 he was a farm labourer. It was in around 1861, when he was 30 years old, that Richard started to grow a beard. Two small curls formed beneath his chin and, as they became longer, he took to tucking them into his waistcoat.

When the census enumerator called in 1871 Richard was a traction engine stoker and by 1881 he had been promoted to driver. His employer at that time was Jesse Ellis, a Maidstone-based contractor whose company did haulage and road-building across Kent.

Meanwhile Richard’s beard had continued to grow. He started keeping it in a bag, which he replaced each birthday. Since it was hidden away no-one apart from friends and family was aware of its length.

In 1886 Richard appeared in the Malling magistrates’ court and was found guilty of infringing a county by-law which said there must be two men walking on the road in front of a traction engine. He was fined the significant sum of 50 shillings, as a warning to other drivers.Jessie Ellis

The beard became too large to store in a bag and so Richard took to plaiting it and winding it round his waist. He claimed it made an excellent chest protector, keeping him warm in winter. By 1894, when he was in his 60s, the beard had become public knowledge. An advertisement in the Leeds Times stated that, with a ten foot beard, Richard Latter was one of at least of two people in the world who did not require Mrs Allen’s Hair Restorer.

In 1896 Richard was driving for a different employer, George Brotherwood of Tonbridge, when he was involved in an accident. One his fellow workers fell under a steam roller which he was driving and died. Thankfully Richard was cleared of all blame at the inquest.

Richard changed job at some point around 1900 and in the 1901 census he was listed as a corn thrasher (miller). A newspaper article in 1906 claimed that Richard’s beard, now said to be more than 16 foot, was the longest in Europe. He was quoted as saying he would not part with it for a cartload of money. It seems that by this time Richard was enjoying the celebrity that went with the beard – he would exhibit it with great pride to friends and to anyone who was curious. On one occasion he even exhibited it to the general public on the Common.

By the time Richard died, at the age of 84, the beard had supposedly reached 18 feet, but sadly he did not win a place in the records books. The 1973 edition of the Guinness Book of Records referred to him, saying that there was no contemporary independent corroboration of the beard’s length and that photographic evidence (presumably the postcard shown above) indicated that 18 feet was an exaggeration. But he did have more than his fifteen minutes of fame.

1806 the Impressario and the Actor

24th September 1806. As they queued to buy tickets for the evening’s performance at the Tunbridge Wells Theatre, the woman who took their money provided theatre-goers with almost as much entertainment as the play would later on. Sarah Baker, an elegant, elderly lady, wearing a bonnet and shawl, sat behind a table cluttered with silver candlesticks, trumpets and tankards, and a large silver inkstand. She teased and scolded customers, regardless of their age or class, saying ‘Pass on Tom-Fool’ impatiently to any who were too slow.

Edmund Kean

Edmund Keant

When they had taken their seats the audience enjoyed a performance of Samuel Foote’s play ‘The Mayor of Garrett’. They laughed at henpecked husband Jerry Sneak, trying but failing to stand up to his domineering wife, with no idea that the diminutive 18-year-old playing him would go on to become one England’s most famous actors.

In around 1788 Sarah Baker, who had previously been a travelling performer, established a theatre called The Temple (nicknamed ‘Temple of the Muses’) on Mount Sion, Tunbridge Wells. She had competition at first from a Mr Glassington, who ran a theatre on nearby Castle Street; the two showed plays on the same nights and competed enthusiastically for audiences. However, after a year or so Sarah prevailed. She had The Temple demolished and used some of the materials from it to build a small theatre at a prime site on the Lower Walk, next to the Sussex Tavern. In 1802 she replaced this with a larger and more elegant building, notable for the fact that, due to the theatre’s location on the county boundary, the stage was in Kent and the auditorium in Sussex.


The Corn Exchange

Sarah, who also ran theatres in Faversham, Rochester, Maidstone and Canterbury, was a hard-working and shrewd businesswoman, who made substantial savings by selling tickets personally and by channelling customers for the box, pit and gallery all through a single entrance. She distrusted banks and, once the evening’s performance was over, stored the takings in a set of large china punchbowls. As she travelled from town to town she would carry large amounts of gold in her pockets, although eventually she was persuaded to invest with the county banks and a few respectable tradesmen.

Actor Thomas Dibdin, a member of Sarah’s Company for some years, said that she ‘owned an excellent heart, with much of the appearance and manners of a gentlewoman’, although he also commented that her language was sometimes more appropriate to the Peckham fair.

In addition to running the box office, Sarah used to cut and paste programmes, recycling old ones and getting an actor to write the names in as her writing was poor. In the early days she would help actors dress, do sound effects and act as prompter. She was also a poor reader, which made prompting difficult. On one famous occasion, when she was unable to help an actor who called for a word, and the next, and the next, without receiving any response, Sarah finally threw the book onto the stage, saying ‘There, now, you have ‘em all; take your choice’.

DSC00832In autumn 1806 Sarah employed actor Edmund Kean, who stayed with her company for around a year. He played a range of minor parts, entertained the audience with comic songs between acts and did general work such as carrying messages. All this for a salary of 18 shillings a week. His big break came eight years later at the Drury Lane Theatre, when he played Shylock, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello in a single season. From then on he was a celebrated actor, performing Shakespearean roles all over the world, for payments of £50 a night or more, although with a turbulent personal life and wild lifestyle which led to his death at the age of 44.

After Sarah’s death in 1816 the Tunbridge Wells Theatre was taken over by her son-in-law, actor William Dowton. Business gradually declined and it closed in 1843, at which point the Corn Exchange was constructed behind the theatre’s façade.


1834. The Royal Visitor

On August 5th, the day fifteen-year-old Princess Victoria arrived in Tunbridge Wells, the town had a holiday atmosphere. From early morning the streets were packed. Flags flew above many buildings. Church bells rang out. Bands played the national anthem and other patriotic tunes. Finally a troop of yeomanry (volunteer soldiers) rode into town, followed by the royal carriage. Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, nodded and smiled as a the crowds waved and cheered and a long line of young girls in white dresses scattered flowers on the road in front of them.

Calverley Hotel, previously Calverley House, in 1840. These days it is the Hotel du Vin.

The royal party had rented Calverley House, a large property overlooking Calverley Park, which had been furnished especially. Within an hour of their arrival there was another chance to get a good look at the visitors as they headed out in an open-top barouche, to drive round the town and take a look at the changes since they were last here, six years earlier. In the evening the town was lit up by coloured lamps and illuminated signs, depicting the royal arms and welcoming messages, outside hotels, shops, public buildings and private homes.

Victoria’s diary shows that her time in Tunbridge Wells was taken up with a full programme of horse-riding, music, taking the waters, walking (in the town and in the surrounding countryside), shopping, attending church services, entertaining and paying visits.

Princess Victoria and the Duchess of Kent 1834

Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834

This was a period when her life was strictly regulated by her mother and her mother’s private secretary Sir John Conroy, both of whom hoped to continue controlling her once she became Queen. They made sure she was never alone – everywhere she went the Princess was accompanied by a group of people, usually including her mother, Conroy, one of his daughters, her governess (referred to as ‘dear Lehzen’ in her diary) and Lady Flora Hastings (whom she was not so fond of). Only when she became Queen three years later would she escape this sort of supervision.

Circling the Common was a racecourse, where a meeting was held over two days each summer. On the 21st and 22nd August Victoria attended this year’s event. An awning, decorated with the royal arms, was provided to stand over 1834 Race adverther carriage, protecting her from the hot sun. Around it was an arrangement of shrubs and a roped-off enclosure, to prevent curious locals from getting too close. Victoria made a pretty picture in a white muslin pelisse (coat) lined with primrose-coloured silk and a white bonnet trimmed with roses. She stayed for around four hours on each of the two days, giving her a good chance to observe a wide range of her future subjects – including streetsellers, beggars, musicians and actors – relatively close at hand.


Most of the racecourse’s route is still visible as a broad footpath or bridleway.

In recent years there had been drunkenness and fighting at the races, but in 1834 Victoria’s presence meant that they were policed more thoroughly; no gambling booths or encampments were allowed on the common and booths selling food or drink could only be set up by local people. It was also announced that any dogs who strayed onto the course would be destroyed. The event passed off well; over 16,000 people attended and there was little trouble. According to her diary, Victoria was ‘very much amused’.

On November 3rd, after a stay of almost 3 months, the royal party moved on to take in the sea air at St Leonards. In her final diary entry Victoria wrote: ‘As we came down the common we took a sad parting look at dear Calverly House where we passed such pleasant days. How quickly the pleasant time has flown! I hope the time may not be far distant when we shall revisit dear Tunbridge Wells again. The country is so beautiful about it; and the rides are so delightful and so are the walks’.


Royal Victoria Grove

The following February the people of Tunbridge Wells decided to honour their royal visitor; 132 Elms, Limes and Sycamores were planted in three rows twelve feet apart and named The Queen’s Grove (later known as the Royal Victoria Grove). Victoria was able to inspect it when she made another visit to the town in 1835.


  • Tunbridge Wells, which had a resident population of 5,929 in 1831, was not a large town at the time of Victoria’s visit. However its population was expanded by large numbers of visitors during the summer months.
  • In 1845 the town’s inhabitants petitioned for the annual race meeting to be discontinued, due to drunkenness and rowdy behaviour, and races ended in 1851.
  • Victoria’s diaries are available at http:www.queenvictoriasjournals.org.

1768. The Religious Countess

Early on an autumn evening in 1768, a crowd gathers outside a large house on Mount Ephraim. Behind them open heathland extends down towards the wells and the shops, coffee houses and taverns beside them. However, all eyes are fixed on the house’s front door. Eventually it opens and two nervous-looking young men emerge, ushered out by a stern lady in a lace cap.

Selina_Hastings_Countess_of_Huntington_npg_4224The formidable Selina Countess of Huntingdon, a wealthy widow who had founded her own branch of the Methodist church, was on a mission to convert the heathen in spa towns such as Bath, Brighton and Tunbridge Wells. Visitors came to these fashionable watering places for a good time as much as for health reasons (if not more) and there were plenty of activities for a lady with strict views to disapprove of. In Tunbridge Wells these included horse racing, cards, dancing and gaming, as well as the general ‘unrestrained gayeties’.

Colbran’s ‘New Guide for Tunbridge Wells’ (published in 1840) said of Selina:

‘She was rather above the middle size; her presence noble, and commanding respect; her address singularly engaging; her intelligence acute; her diligence indefatigable…..During forty-five years of widowhood, she devoted time, talents, and property to the support of the diffusion of the gospel’.

In the summer of 1763 the Countess had visited the town, accompanied by a Mr Venn who preached to a crowd of several thousand drawn from all classes, in the open air outside the Presbyterian meeting house on Mount Sion. (Open air preaching seems to have been a new phenomenon in the town and the event generated a great deal of interest).  As Mr Venn spoke on the words ‘Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden’ a man standing close by cried out and dropped down dead. This caused a general sensation and provided a ‘heaven sent’ opportunity for the preacher, who exhorted his audience to seek the lord while he was to be found. The Countess observed that ‘many were melted to tears and seemed resolved to fly from the wrath to come’.

Five years later the Countess leased Culverden House on Mount Ephraim (at a site that would later be occupied by the Kent & Sussex Hospital). Mr Shipman and Mr Matthews, the two young men in her doorway that autumn day, were students who had been expelled from Oxford University (for ‘leanings towards Methodism’) and who hoped to study at the theological college she had set up in Wales. Thinking that preaching experience would be useful for them (neither had preached a sermon before) she sent word round, assembled a crowd and, without any advance warning, opened the door and pushed the two men forward. Shipman rose to the challenge (even managing to make a convert), whilst Matthews (rather understandably) was more diffident.

Countess of Huntingdon's CHapelThe following year the Countess had a chapel built beside her house. Early one morning another large crowd gathered for the dedication. They sang hymns and said prayers until the time arrived for the service. The doors of the weather-boarded and tiled building, were opened and the place was quickly packed out. After the service had been read they moved outside and George Whitefield, the well-known Methodist preacher, addressed the thousands who had gathered. By this time he was frail and elderly. However, according to a later account, despite being ‘infirm, asthmatic, corpulent’ he ‘thrilled the vast congregation, riveting the eye, piercing the conscience and holding strong men breathless before the resistless might of his oratory’.


Memorial to the opening of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel

The Countess, like many evangelicals at the time, believed the end of the world was approaching, which gave urgency to her endeavours. Almost 250 years later, it hasn’t happened yet. If she was in Tunbridge Wells today, she would no doubt still think there were plenty of ignorant and profane people to save!



1918. The Lady Voter

In just under four weeks’ time, I will take a short walk from my home to a local primary school, stand in a wooden booth and make a cross on a ballot paper.  Almost 100 years ago, the women of Tunbridge Wells (or at least those aged over 30) were able to vote for the first time.

Town Hall Calverley Road c1920

Town Hall, Calverley Road. c1920

The 1918 general election took place on a grey, rainy December day, in a country which was just beginning its recovery from the Great War. In Tunbridge Wells the event was marked by a procession of women, some carrying banners, who walked through the streets to the Town Hall on Calverley Road. At the front was an elegantly dressed lady, with grey hair, a pale complexion and grey-blue eyes, holding a red, white and green bouquet.  64-year-old novelist Madam Sarah Grand had been actively involved in the local Votes for Women campaign, right from its beginning in 1906.

NPG Ax39227; Sarah Grand (Frances Elizabeth Bellenden McFall, nÈe Clarke) by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons

Sarah Grand in c1916. (Source National portrait Gallery)

Sarah was born in Ireland in 1854, but spent much of her childhood in Yorkshire. Income from the sales of her first novel enabled her to leave an unhappy marriage and the success of subsequent ones (such as Heavenly Twins, which dealt with sexual double standards and the fact women alone were blamed for the spread of syphilis) meant that she was well known by the time she moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1898.

In June 1908 Sarah had a prominent position in a huge parade of over 10,000 women who marched from the Embankment to the Albert Hall, calling on MPs to give them the vote. When a local branch of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) was established in Tunbridge Wells later that year, Sarah agreed to be their president. She subsequently chaired and spoke at numerous Votes for Women meetings, wrote articles and took part in campaigning activities.

Sarah believed in campaigning by peaceful means and was strongly opposed to the militant suffragettes and their tactics. In 1913, when members of the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union) were suspected of burning down the Tunbridge Wells cricket pavilion, she co-signed a letter to the newspaper disassociating the NUWSS from their actions. A few weeks’ later a national suffrage organisation of women writers which she belonged to took part in the funeral procession for Emily Wilding Davison (who died after jumping under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby) and Sarah resigned in protest.

There were around 16,000 women in the Tonbridge constituency (which included Tunbridge Wells) eligible to vote on 14th December 1918 and a high proportion of them did so. They arrived at the polling stations early in the day, in twos or threes and in the company of female neighbours rather than husbands. Being unfamiliar with the process, some had to be reminded that voting was a private action and they could not help each other in the voting booths. ‘Is that all’ said one, reflecting general surprise at the simplicity of the activity women had been excluded from for so long. Then as now there were party activists waiting outside the polling stations to ascertain who was voting and it was observed that many women, suspicious of their motives, responded to the request for a voter number with a withering look and no reply.Voting in 1918

When Sarah emerged from the Town Hall, having cast her vote, she was received with cheers. The Courier reported that the faces of the ladies gathered there ‘showed how profound was the satisfaction felt by them that the long struggle for political freedom was over, and that women had at last entered into citizenship’.

In 1918 the Conservative candidate, war veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Spender-Clay, was elected with a substantial majority. The same party’s candidate will undoubtedly win in 2015 and my vote, for a different party, will make no difference to the outcome. Yet I believe strongly in the importance of exercising my right to vote, especially in the light of the campaign by women such as Sarah, in Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere. I will be thinking of her and other Tunbridge Wells campaigners on May 7th.


  • Following an extended stay at the Spa Hotel in 1896, Sarah Grand lived in Tunbridge Wells from 1898 to 1920, at Langton Green and then on Grove Hill Road.

1914. The Generous Businessman

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.

First Battalion Mid-Kent Volunteers marching up Mount Pleasant in 1914

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.

Elliott Alves pictureNew 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.

Corn Exchange. One of the Christmas Dinner venues

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.

Duncan Elliott Alves as Mayor of Carnarvon


1851. The Crooked Clerk

The people of Tunbridge Wells put a great deal of trust in Benjamin Lewis. Not only was he Clerk to the Commissioners, he also acted as secretary and collector for the gas and water companies, as vestry clerk for the Parish of Speldhurst and as collector for numerous other organisations. In total he held around 14 different appointments. Then on 13th June 1851 50-year-old Benjamin left town and it became apparent that this trust had been misplaced.

Bedford Terrace, where Benjamin and his family lived

In the first part of the nineteenth century retired army and navy officers and East India Company officials began making Tunbridge Wells their permanent home. (Previously the town had a large number of summer visitors, but only a small resident population). A building boom took place to create homes for these new occupants, and for the servants, shopkeepers and other workers who moved here too. This in turn placed demand on the town’s infrastructure, which now required more effective management. In 1835 a new Board of Commissioners took responsibility for matters such as lighting, water, cleaning and law and order. Around seven years later Benjamin Lewis was appointed as their Clerk. The job involved many administrative duties – for example when new regulations were drawn up for the local Fire Service in 1845, it was he that signed them. But his main role was the collection of local taxes and other payments. He proved very good at this and over time he was appointed as collector for more and more local bodies.

When, at some point, Benjamin began to siphon off a large proportion of the money he was collecting, he did it with such confidence that most people suspected nothing. However, members of the Speldhurst Vestry realised that something was wrong and at a meeting on 11th June one of them made allegations of dishonesty against him. These were withdrawn when he agreed to give up the Vestry books, retire from office and never seek employment at any other parish. However, the event seems to have made him fearful that other misdemeanours would be uncovered (one of the vestry members was also a proprietor of the gas company) and so two days later he fled.

ILN on Benjamin Lewis

Even the Illustrated London News reported that the Tunbridge Wells Town Clerk had absconded, although they got the name wrong and called him Sears

It was quickly established that Benjamin had left Tunbridge Wells by the 5 o’clock train. An employee of the Gas Company encountered him the following morning on a train from London Bridge and reported that he got off at Godstone in Surrey. After that the trail went cold and there was no further clue to his whereabouts, although he was rumoured to have sailed to America. The story of his disappearance was reported in newspapers across the country and a reward was offered for his apprehension.

When the Speldhurst Vestry’s books were examined it was found that £500 was missing. The gas and water companies reported that they had each lost a similar amount and shortfalls were found across all the organisations Benjamin had worked for. It was reported in the press that he had embezzled as much as £4,000 in total (around £400,000 in today’s money).

Word spread rapidly round the town as the extent of the thefts became apparent and there was general amazement that such a well-respected man had turned out to be a thief. Given that his annual income had been as much as £400, people wondered why he had taken this course.

In early July the Commissioners, rather surprisingly, appointed Benjamin’s son William as temporary clerk in his place, the Chair having testified to his good character. Arrangements were made for the appointment of a permanent new clerk, with the Commissioners clear that, whoever was appointed, they would not be paid the same generous salary as Benjamin. William applied for the position, but was unsuccessful, receiving 25 votes compared to 45 cast for bookseller John Elliott, who was duly appointed.

You might assume that Benjamin would not think of showing his face in town again. However, the following February the West Kent Guardian reported that one of his sons had written to the Tunbridge Wells gas company on his behalf, asking their permission to return from ‘a foreign clime’ and offering to cash in a life insurance policy so that he could, on some future occasion, ‘make a grateful return for their leniency’. Unsurprisingly this offer was refused and the message was sent back that, while they would not pursue him, if he did return to Tunbridge Wells the law would be allowed to take its course. There is no evidence that he ever ran the risk of that happening.

1871 Census entry for Benjamin Lewis

By the time of the 1871 census Benjamin was back in England.  Now 70 years old, he was described as a Gentleman and recorded as living in Lambeth, at the home of son William. His wife Sarah and two of his other children were at the same address, so it seems that his family at least had forgiven him.


The 1835 Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act entrusted the town’s running to a Board of Commissioners, who were responsible for ‘lighting, watching, cleansing, regulating and otherwise improving the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent and Sussex, and for regulating the supply of water and establishing a market within the said town’. All men who owned or rented a property worth more than £50 a year were entitled to sit on the board and members were a mixture of gentry, professionals and tradesmen.

1735. The Master of Ceremonies

Beau Nash in 1745

A scene is repeated each year in Tunbridge Wells from 1735 onwards: a large carriage rolls into town, pulled by six grey horses and followed by footmen, servants on horseback and a band of musicians blowing French horns. When the carriage pulls to a stop, a man emerges from it who has a stout figure, a red face, a long nose and a double chin. His clothes are showy, although not in the latest fashion, and on his head he wears a three-cornered white hat. From the manner of his arrival an onlooker might suppose that a royal visitor has arrived in town, but local residents know that he is not a royal, or even an aristocrat. He is Beau Nash, the Master of Ceremonies and this is his usual manner of arriving in town for the summer season.

Tunbridge Wells in 1748. From an engraving by Samuel Richardson

More than 100 years after Long North discovered the spring, the location’s popularity had grown. The Walks (Upper and Lower) had been built alongside the wells, consisting of lodging houses, separate coffee rooms for ladies and gentlemen, a circulating library, shops and the Assembly Room. Further accommodation was available close by on Mount Sion and up above the common on Mount Ephraim. However, only a small number of people lived in the town permanently and their houses were scattered through woods and commons. The place still felt more rustic than urban – something which was attractive to visitors from London.

When 61-year-old Welshman Richard ‘Beau’ Nash declared himself Master of Ceremonies in 1735, residents of Tunbridge Wells (as the place was now known) were delighted, especially traders who were aware of the boost his presence had given to Bath over the past 30 years. While he was not handsome, or from a noble background (his father was a glass bottle maker), he was supremely confident and his wit and abundance of small talk made him popular, especially with ladies.

Beau Nash, who called on all new visitors to the spa, set a programme that was to be followed each day which included promenading, taking the waters, attending the chapel of King Charles the Martyr, tea drinking, gaming and (twice a week) public balls. He also prescribed a code of behaviour which visitors were expected to observe, including a ban on men carrying swords.

Sarah Porter by William Pether (in the National Portrait Gallery)

Dippers, musicians, bellringers, waiters, clergy, booksellers the sweeper and others all had to be paid and Nash set subscriptions to be levied from visitors. He employed Sarah Porter, who became known as the ‘Queen of the Touters’, for this task. She would stand at the door of the ballroom and greet each new arrival, enquiring after their mother, sister, brother or aunt, as though she was intimately acquainted with them. The visitor would then be expected to pay up. If they refused, Sarah would follow them round the room, with paper and pencil in hand, until they did so. However annoyed people became, however rude they were to her, she never lost her cool or became uncivil.

For most visitors the gaming part of Nash’s schedule, which included dicing, cards and lotteries, was of more interest than the healing properties of the spring water and huge sums of money were won and lost. However, in 1739, 1740 and 1745 successive acts of parliament reduced the number of legal forms of gambling, putting this form of entertainment in jeopardy.

To get round a ban on games involving numbers, local resident Humphrey Cook invented ‘Evens and Odds’, a game which involved a roulette wheel with letters. EO was played at the Assembly Rooms, but it was not long before a dispute arose between Cook and the manager there over how profits should be shared. Beau Nash intervened and negotiated a resolution, after which it was agreed that he would receive a portion of the profits. In return he undertook to encourage people to play, while making out that he was just a fellow gambler. Nash kept no records, but after a while he became convinced that he was being cheated out of his share; he reckoned he could have lost out by as much as 20,000 guineas here and in Bath. He took legal action, but it brought him no benefit and the only real consequence was that his deceit in misleading visitors was revealed and his reputation damaged irreversibly.

Nash remained Master of Ceremonies in Tunbridge Wells for a further period, but suffered from increasingly poor health. His final visit seems to have been in 1755, after which he remained in Bath, where he died in 1761


  • The wonderful writing group I belong to meets at Nash House on Mount Sion, which is currently home of author Sarah Salway, but said to have at one time been Beau Nash’s home, where he enjoyed illegal gambling sessions!


1606. The Ailing Aristocrat

Dudley Lord North. (Source V&A)

He played music, he composed poems, he danced gracefully and excelled at jousting. Dudley, the third Baron North, was a man of many talents. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the  life at the court of King James I and was popular with most courtiers, although his hot temper alienated some of them.

Over time the excesses of Lord North’s lifestyle harmed both his finances and his health and in around 1606 he developed a lingering, consumptive disease, which sapped his energy and lowered his spirits. He was only twenty-five years old, but he felt like an old man at the end of life. A few years earlier, while travelling in Europe on military service, he had consumed copious amounts of hot treacle to protect himself from the plague and he later decided that this (rather than the manner in which he had been living) was the cause of his ill health.

‘Get away from court’, Lord North’s friends and physicians advised. ‘Country air will benefit your health’. So he travelled to Earage in Sussex (now called Eridge) to visit his friend the Earl of Bergavenny (now Abergavenny) and, hopefully, recuperate.

His host’s property, a gothic hunting lodge, was certainly in the country. A good distance from London, it was surrounded with dense, dark forest, broken only by occasional sandstone outcrops, clearings in which iron was smelted over charcoal fires, a few scattered houses and some poor quality roads. The closest town, nine miles or so away, was Tunbridge (present day Tonbridge), with its castle, market and school.

Plaque to Lord North beside the wells

Rural life soon proved too quiet and restrictive for Lord North and the fresh air seemed not to be making any difference to his health. So after just a short time he set off to ride back to London, feeling more despondent than ever. He had only gone a short distance when, as he was passing through a wooded valley, he caught sight of water bubbling up from a spring. The shiny scum on its surface, and the rust-red trail it left as it flowed into a nearby brook, reminded him of a spa he had visited while abroad. Perhaps this water would have the same healing properties?

The story goes that he borrowed a bowl from the occupant of a nearby cottage and drank some of the water. Its iron taste seemed to indicate mineral content and so he had several bottles filled and took them back to London. The physicians he consulted there analysed the water and concluded that it contained ‘vitriol’ – a substance thought to be able to cure ‘the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours’. In addition to this it was said of it: ‘it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain’. [Note: I have found a number of places where these words are quoted, but nowhere that cites the original source.]

The following year, once winter was over and the roads were in a better state, Lord North returned to Earage and stayed for three further months, drinking the waters regularly. When he appeared at court again, looking in the best of health, the contrast with his previous sickly condition made other courtiers curious as to what had brought about his recovery. Soon many of them were heading into the country in the summer months each year  to visit the spring. To accommodate them Lord Bergavenny had the site cleared, wells dug, paving laid and the area enclosed with wooden railings. A Mrs Humphreys was appointed as the first in a long line of ‘dippers’ to extract water from the spring and pour it out for visitors to drink. (She was said to be the person who had drawn water for Lord North on that first occasion).

Although he had benefited from the water, Lord North was evidently not completely healed. Suffering from both ill health and financial difficulties, he spent most of the rest of his life quietly at his home in Cambridgeshire, occupying himself with his family, music and writing.

The Spring in 1664 (Source: Colbran’s Directory)

The Chalybeate spring, meanwhile, continued to grow in popularity. In the early years visitors had to find accommodation in the nearby hamlets of Rusthall and Southborough, or further away in Tonbridge. However, when Charles I’s French wife, 19-year-old Queen Henrietta Maria, came in 1629 to convalesce after the premature birth and death of her first child, she opted for a different solution and set up camp on nearby Bishops Down for six weeks. As many as forty tents were required to accommodate the Queen and her entourage, who were entertained during their stay by masques and dancing. A further royal visit in 1663, by Henrietta Maria’s son Charles II and his wife Catherine, secured the spa’s popularity.


Over 400 years later…..

In the summer of 2014 the Chalybeate spring ran dry for the first time since Lord North discovered it. Despite various investigations it seemingly has not been possible to discover the reason.

Meanwhile at my home, on the other side of the Common, the rusty spring water that soaks the ground around my bins shows no sign of drying up. A pity that a covenant on the house (which was built in 1901) says I am not permitted to pump water out of the ground!

The Wells


  • This version of the discovery of springs at Tunbridge Wells is the most generally accepted one. However, there is a lack of original sources to confirm it. The earliest account is in Benge Burr’s ‘History of Tunbridge Wells’, published over 100 years’ later in 1766. Even he acknowledges the lack of concrete evidence available to him.
  • A ‘Chalybeate’ spring is one whose water contains iron salts. It is pronounced Ka-lee-bee-at.