1785. The Talkative Playwright

By the 1780s Tunbridge Wells’ heyday as a popular spa is over and it seems that the town is in decline. Master of Ceremonies Beau Nash is long gone (his last visit was in the mid-1750s) and seaside resorts such as Brighton are proving more attractive to summer visitors. However, in 1785 a new resident arrives – a short, stout, red-faced and neatly dressed gentleman. Dramatist Richard Cumberland is a well-known public figure, and his presence will help attract visitors back to the town.

by George Romney, oil on canvas, circa 1771-1776

Richard Cumberland. Portrait by George Romney. National Portrait Gallery

Richard, the son of a clergyman, was born in Cambridge in 1732 and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge. A career as a government official took him to Nova Scotia, Ireland and Spain. However, when the Board of Trade and Plantations was abolished in 1782, Richard lost his job as its Secretary and he was unable to find an alternative. In 1785, 53 years old, on half pay and with a family to support (he had six children and numerous grandchildren), he decided to move to Tunbridge Wells as a way of retrenching. He rented a spacious house at the top of Mount Sion from the landlord of the Sussex Tavern. To the front of it was a fenced area which he cultivated as a flower garden, with a sand walk around it.

In his memoirs Richard said of Tunbridge Wells:

‘It is not altogether a public place, yet it is at no period of the year a solitude  a reading man may command his hours or study and a social man will find full gratification …..Its vicinity to the capital brings quick intelligence of all that passes there…..the country is on all sides beautiful, and the climate pre-eminently healthy, and in a most peculiar degree restorative to enfeebled constitutions.’

Richard had another career in addition to politics; by the time he came to Tunbridge Wells he was a well-known dramatist, whose plays had been performed at Covent Garden and Drury Lane.  His plays were sentimental, moral and sometimes gave unusually positive portrayals of people on the margins of society. An example of this was his play ‘The Jew,’ with its sympathetic lead character, which was performed for the first time at Sarah Baker’s theatre ‘The Temple of the Muses’ also on Mount Sion. Now he had the opportunity to do more writing.

Richard was generally considered to be kind and good natured. However he was acutely sensitive to any criticism of his plays – actor David Garrick described him as ‘a man without skin’ – and most people thought him a colossal bore. Friends’ hearts would sink as he embarked on yet another account of one of his titled acquaintances, or produced a manuscript and prepared to read aloud a play. On one occasion he promised two visitors a treat on the final evening of their stay. His servant brought in a large dish and they anticipated a delicious meal. But under its cover was the manuscript of Richard’s five act tragedy Tiberius. ‘I am not vain’ he said ‘but I do think it by far the best play I ever wrote.’ He began reading and continued for three acts, until he became aware that his visitors had fallen asleep, upon which he finally allowed them to have their supper.

cumberland-claret-plaque-jpgIn 1792, while Richard was living in Tunbridge Wells, England went to war with France. A few years later Richard recruited and trained local volunteer troops, to provide a defence against potential invading forces. He would drill his men, who were ‘artisans, mechanics or manufacturers of Tunbridge Ware,’ by moonlight or torchlight each evening after they had finished work. An overweight playwright made an unexpected commander, but Richard took on the role with great enthusiasm and it was observed that he ‘gave the word of command with all the ardour of an experienced veteran’. His men loved marching through the town in their smart uniforms and most of them refused to disband when they were told their services were no longer required.

Towards the end of his life. Richard lived mainly in London, which was where he died in 1811 at the age of 79. He was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

In the late 18th century, Tunbridge Wells began to attract visitors once again (partly at least due to the presence of well known residents such as Richard Cumberland), although they tended to be rather less aristocratic than in the past. Many were military and naval men, who began settling permanently in the town. They needed homes, and as a results there was a building boom in the early nineteenth century. A new phase in the town’s history had begun.


  • Sarah Baker and her theatre were the subject of an earlier blog post.
  • The house Richard lived in was named Cumberland House in his honour, by a subsequent owner, but has since been knocked down.
  • Although Richard was a well-known dramatist in his life-time, his reputation has not survived and his plays are not performed today, unlike those of his contemporary Sheridan.


Cricket in Tunbridge Wells

On an usually sunny day in July 2016, Kent Cricket Week is underway in Tunbridge Wells, with the County team playing Sussex at the Nevill Ground. Cricket Week has a long history here. In the early 20th century it was marked by major celebrations. The town would be festooned with bunting and lit up by gas and electric illuminations. Shops would decorate their windows with elaborate and inventive displays of flowers, fruit and produce. Amateur theatrical groups and brass bands would provide entertainment. At times it seemed as though the matches were of secondary importance, although they drew large crowds, of both locals and visitors.

Cricket on the Higher Common Ground, currently home of Linden Park Cricket Club

Cricket has not been confined to one week in the year, however. Past events have included the following:

  • As far back as 1750, Lady Jane Coke referred in a letter to cricketing as one of the amusements available for visitors to Tunbridge Wells.
  • 1782. The Tunbridge Wells team were narrowly defeated by Groombridge. (According to Groombridge Cricket Club’s website, this match was played in their village, although elsewhere it is reported as the first match to have been played on the Common).
  • 1787. The Marquis of Camarthen bet 500 guineas on two Tunbridge Wells players, Hoskins and Young, beating any six men in England at cricket, two at a time. The first match took place in Tunbridge (Tonbridge) on August 11th and the pair were defeated, losing the Marquis his bet.
  • 1828. In a field near Tunbridge Wells a cricket match was played between eleven old ladies of Tonbridge and eleven young ladies of Southborough, the prize being three bottles of gin and three pounds of the best gunpowder tea. The older ladies won by 52 runs.
  • 1844. A First Class cricket match was played on the Common for the first time, between a team of the best married players in England and a team of the best bachelor players in England. A section of the Common was fenced off, booths and marquees were erected and a large crowd arrived to watch, including celebrities and members of the nobility. The married players won by nine runs.
  • 1845. The Kent County cricket team played on the Common for the first time, against Sussex. (County matches were played on the Common for around 40 years).
  • 1862. A new gentlemen’s cricket club was founded, known as the Blue Mantles.
  • 1863. A match between a ‘Handsome’ team and an ‘Ugly’ team drew a large crowd of spectators, especially ladies. The Handsome team won by an innings and 36 runs.
  • 1876. The Linden Park Club was founded, as the Tunbridge Wells Juniors. The following year they moved to play at the Lower Ground on the Common and adopted the name by which they are still known.
  • 1882. In July renowned cricketer W G Grace played for a United Eleven of England against a touring Australian side, on the Higher Ground. He was cheered as he took to the crease, but scored only 23 runs. The Australians suffered a batting collapse in their second innings, scoring only 49 runs, but time ran out and the match was declared a draw.
  • In 1885/6 the lower cricket ground was levelled, enlarged and enclosed. However, from 1885 County matches were no longer played on the Common, due to concerns over the quality of the pitch.
  • 1898. The Nevill Cricket Ground opened, on land purchased from the Marquis of Abergavenny.
  • In 1901 Kent County cricket club played their first match at the Nevill Ground. Cricket week resumed the following year and the Kent County team have played there most years since.
  • 1913. On the night of April 11th, just three months before Cricket Week was due to take place, the Nevill Pavilion was burnt to the ground. A suffragette newspaper was found at the scene and, since the suffragettes currently had a country-wide arson campaign in full swing, it was assumed that they were responsible. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle addressed a meeting at the Great Hall, held to protest at the outrage committed by these ‘female hooligans.’ Funds were raised, the pavilion was quickly rebuilt and Cricket Week went ahead as planned.
  • 1983. On June 18th Kapil Dev scored 175 runs in India’s World Cup victory over Zimbabwe, at the Nevill. India went on to win the tournament.

The Nevill Cricket Pavilion after the 1913 Fire


The Bluestocking Visitor

1753. Late one Friday night, after a ball in the Public Rooms, a coach and horses turn at high speed into a narrow, poorly lit lane behind the Walks. The footmen are thrown to the ground and the coach topples to one side, close to falling right over. Fortunately there are several people standing nearby who run forward and hold it up while the occupant extricates herself. She is unhurt, but agitated and distinctly unamused.

Elizabeth Montagu, engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1792, after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The lady in question was Elizabeth Montague, who had been a regular visitor to Tunbridge Wells since 1733, when she was 15. Elizabeth was a hypochondriac, who travelled to spas across England in search of a cure for migraines and other ailments. She spent around five weeks each summer in Tunbridge Wells, which was a particular favourite. She described the town’s country air as ‘incomparable.’

Elizabeth was not a great beauty (she had a sharp face and a long nose), did not dress in the latest fashion and was not especially intellectual. But she was vivacious, witty and could speak entertainingly and at length on subjects about which she knew very little. She enjoyed flirting and had many admirers. After she married Edward Montagu, grandson of the second Earl of Sandwich, when she was 24, she had wealth to add to her attractions.

In London Elizabeth became a leading hostess; her friends included writer Samuel Johnson, actor David Garrick and painter Joshua Reynolds. She was also a founder-member of a group of women and men who became known as the ‘blue stocking philosophers’.

Elizabeth was an active letter-writer and often wrote about Tunbridge Wells. She was dismissive of many of the people she met there, who talked ‘of little but water, bread, butter and scandal’. She said that one particular lady ‘looked like a state bed running upon castors; she has robbed the valance and tester of a bed for a trimming’.

The Walks in 1748. From an engraving by Samuel Richardson

Most of Elizabeth’s visits were in the era of Beau Nash. Throughout the summer months Tunbridge Wells was filled with visitors who danced, gambled, gossiped and took the waters. They were a cosmopolitan crowd. French, Germans, Hungarians and Italians mingled with Londoners. Physicians, clergymen, musicians and tradesmen rubbed shoulders with nobility. Elizabeth described the town as the parliament of the world and observed: “Next to some German, whose noble blood might entitle him to be a Grand Master of Malta, sits a pin-makers’ wife from Smock-alley; pickpockets, who are come to the top of their profession, play with noble dukes at brag’. This mixture amused her. ‘I am diverted by the medley;’ she wrote ‘the different characters and figures are amusing, especially at the balls, where persons of every age, size and shape step forth to dance’.

The entertainment on offer was generally not very refined. In one of her letters Elizabeth recalled a concert ‘where the fiddles squeaked, the bass viol grumbled, the trumpets roared, and the bassoon did what is not fit to be mentioned and the musicians, after having stunned us in this manner for two hours, took it ill we desired to be entertained with some country dances’.

Elizabeth Montagu by Joshua ReynoldsOn the whole Elizabeth lived a simpler and quieter life than most visitors, avoiding the ‘busy haunts’ as much as  possible and locating herself on Mount Ephraim, well removed from the bustle of the Walks. Her main activity, apart from taking the waters, was making excursions on horseback to places such as Penshurst, Tonbridge and High Rocks.

Following her coach accident Elizabeth Montagu was shaken and angry. She was in no doubt as to who was responsible and sacked her coachman, who had certainly been drinking and may have been drunk. Elizabeth became the centre of attention for a while and had many enquiries about her wellbeing. The proprietor of the Public Rooms, who was anxious not to lose such a high profile visitor, promised to have the road levelled immediately. However, her experience did not put Elizabeth off Tunbridge Wells and she continued to visit until at least 1879, over 40 years after her first visit.


  • On most of her visits, Elizabeth stayed at Stone House on Mount Ephraim. Montague Terrace is now on this site.
  • Beau Nash, Master of Ceremonies from 1835 onwards, was the subject of an earlier post in Tunbridge Tales.

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!



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!