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 Friendly Fishmonger

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.

The roof of the Fish Market building.  Thomas’s shop was just behind.

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.

Fish photo

Fish in Sankeys Fishmonger’s today

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.

Thomas Tolson picture

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.

Notes

  • 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.

1864. The Argumentative Surgeon

Riots have not exactly been a common occurrence in the history of Tunbridge Wells, but in 1864 surgeon William Webber provoked a storm amongst local residents.

In the summer of 1864 William wrote to the Home Office accusing the Town Commissioners of neglecting their duty – they had allowed an old drain near his home to be opened up and left exposed. As a result, he claimed, he and some of his patients had contracted fevers. The Board of Health promptly dispatched an inspector to check out William’s allegations, who reported that there was no cause for concern. However in the mean-time rumours had spread, including the alarming suggestion that the town’s poor drainage was causing typhus and scarlet fever. Many visitors upped and left.

William’s home. In 1864 it was 1 Sion Terrace, today it is 7 Mount Sion.

Local traders and lodging-house keepers, dependant on summer visitors for business, were furious with William for meddling. At around 9 o’clock on the evening of Saturday July 2nd a crowd of a thousand or more people gathered outside his home at the foot of Mount Sion and in the surrounding streets. There were catcalls, insults were yelled and fireworks were let off. A straw effigy of William, in the form of a pig, was burnt and stones, potatoes and other missiles thrown at his house, breaking many of the windows. The police could do little to halt the rioting, although they did make four arrests. It was only when heavy rain came on that the crowd dispersed.

The rioters who had been arrested – a fly-proprietor, a billiard marker, a labourer and a butcher’s son – came up before the Tunbridge Wells magistrates a few days later, in a packed court. After the police had given evidence, solicitor Mr Cripps appeared on their behalf. His clients just happened to be on the spot, he claimed, along with many other persons holding a high position in the town. (It is quite possible that one or more of the magistrates had also been present). William did not appear in court and no evidence was presented. Nevertheless the men were committed for trial by a jury at the Maidstone Assize. When they were tried at the end of July, the judge described the disturbance as a scandalous affair, but released all four, requiring only that they pay £5 each towards the cost of the broken windows. (This added up to less than half the £45 William claimed repairs would cost).

Cartoon thought to be of William Webber in a donkey cart

Meanwhile William had brought a private prosecution against a number of others who had been present at the riot. including two butchers, a watchmaker, a chemist and a grocer. In a volley of words he accused them of ‘unlawfully, riotously, wantonly and tumultuously’ making a ‘great noise, riot, tumult and disturbance’. However, once again he did not appear in court to give evidence, claiming in a letter that he felt intimidated. The Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells magistrates dismissed the case, to thunderous applause from those in the packed courtroom and hundreds more waiting outside. After enjoying a celebratory dinner at the Camden Hotel (whose landlord had been one of the accused) the defendants drove through the town, waving their court summonses in the air like flags. The Town Band lead the way and, as the procession reached Mount Sion, they struck up an Irish jig called ‘The Rogue’s March’.

William still would not let it lie. In June 1865 he appeared in the Court of Exchequer in London, as plaintiff in a case against publisher Henry Colbran, who had printed and distributed several thousand leaflets around the time of the riot, containing verses written by local cobbler and poet Reuben Gibbs.  These mocked William, in one case likening him to a wild boar:

William Webber snippet

In this instance the jury decided in William’s favour, awarding him £50 in damages.

Then in March 1866 William launched a civil prosecution for trespass and damage during the 1864 riot against a further 8 defendants. This time the case was tried in Maidstone. William subpoenaed 50 witnesses but, before their evidence could be heard, the case was decided, with two of the defendants ordered to pay him damages of £25.

He was less successful in his dispute with Charles Trustram, another surgeon living in Tunbridge Wells, whom he accused of making improper use of his position on the Town Board. Trustram responded by suing William for libel. This case was decided in Trustram’s favour and William was ordered to pay damages of £25, plus £168 in costs. Unable, or unwilling, to pay Trustram the money he owed him William spent five months in a debtors’ prison in the second half of 1866. He applied repeatedly to the court to be released, complaining of unfair treatment and claiming that imprisonment was endangering his health and might end his life. He was finally released in December 1866.

By now William no longer lived Tunbridge Wells. Soon after the 1864 riot he had fired off a letter to the town’s residents, which was published in several local newspapers, informing them that he was acquiescing with the wishes of the ‘mob-dictators’ and moving away. He said he had been astonished to see people he had treated amongst his assailants and concluded:

My parting words to the town – which I shall leave with one regret, namely that I ever entered it – will be Peace to it and may it cease to look for a crop of prosperity from seeds sown in the hotbed, tyranny and wrong’.

It is not clear exactly when William left Tunbridge Wells, but when he did, it does not seem that there many in the town who regretted it.

Notes

  • William Webber’s home is now 7 Mount Sion.
  • There is a full account of ‘the Webber riots’ in Roger Farthing’s ‘History of Mount Sion’ (2008)

1864. The Counterfeit Count

In the summer of 1864 a new figure appears on the Tunbridge Wells scene and attracts a great deal of attention. He is around 30 years old, tall, slim and well dressed, with a dark complexion, dark hair and grey eyes.

Pantiles 1864 Illustrated London News

The Pantiles in 1864 (Illustrated London News)

The exotic newcomer would walk along the Parade (Pantiles), absorbed by melancholy thoughts. Frequently he would pay the band to play the Polish national anthem. When approached he introduced himself as Count Sobieski, son of the King of Poland. He claimed to have been exiled on account of his criticisms of the Russian government. He also said that he had fought a duel at Heidelberg, escaped to Paris and then travelled by ship to Bristol.  His agent was sending him regular sums from his estates in Poland, but he could not return home. Many felt pity for him in such a sad situation, which obviously weighed on him heavily.

Sobieski 1870s

Sobieski/Ostreg in the 1870s

The count was very engaging and was quickly welcomed into fashionable society. It was rumoured he ‘enchanted more than one young lady’s heart’. The ladies showered him with presents and local tradesmen and hotel keepers were happy to extend him credit.

However, after a few months the count suddenly disappeared from town. Soon news reached Tunbridge Wells that he was not what he had seemed. He was Russian not Polish, his real name was Michael Ostreg and he was certainly not a count. In December 1864 he appeared in court in Exeter accused of larceny and was sentenced to eight months hard labour.

Ostreg seems to have been a habitual, but very inept criminal. Over the following years the newspapers reported that he was arrested and charged with theft or fraud in various places across the country, including Maidstone, Chatham, Woolwich, Burton-on-Trent and Eton. He served several prison sentences and was committed to a lunatic asylum on two occasions.

Perhaps the counterfeit count did not stay in Tunbridge Wells long enough for his crimes here to be uncovered. However, his deceptions may have been a warning to some residents about the danger of judging people on the basis of appearances alone.

Note

  • Ostreg used a range of other aliases, as well as Sobieski, including Max Gosslar, Monsieur Orlof, Bertrand Ashley and Ashley Nabokov.
  • In 1894 Ostreg was listed as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case. Recent research has shown that it is highly unlikely he was the Ripper; there is no evidence that he committed any crime other than fraud or theft, he did not match the physical descriptions given of the Ripper and there is evidence that he was in prison in France when the murders were committed.

1876. Rinkomania Arrives in Town

December 2015. For a few weeks over Christmas and New Year children of all ages enjoyed skating at the Calverley Gardens Ice Rink. Blue lights shone down on the ice. White tents around the edge conjured up snowy peaks above a valley. Festive songs sounded out from speakers. Skaters circled round – crawling or racing, careful or reckless. There were near misses, tumbles and lots of laughter.

Skating Rink Courier Jan 5th 1876December 21st 1875. 140 years ago a roller skating rink opened on Grove Hill Road, only a short distance away. On that first day several hundred people entered the large, plain building through a long, covered arcade decorated with mosaic tiles. Having paid a shilling for admission and sixpence to hire skates, they headed onto the smooth asphalt floor, where they skated by gaslight, to music from Mr Johnson’s band. Experts from London were on hand to give demonstrations and assistants to help anyone who fell over. Just as now, there were crawlers and racers, near misses and tumbles, plenty of laughter.

Roller skating dates back as far as the mid 18th century. However its popularity grew after 1863, when American George Plimpton developed four-wheeled skates which allowed the wearer to glide, turn and go backwards much more easily. Rinkomania swept America and soon crossed the Atlantic; by the mid-1870s rinks were opening all over England.

The Tunbridge Wells rink proved very popular – it attracted visitors to the town, brought together people from all sections of society and offered young men and women the opportunity to escape their chaperones and get close to each other. In May 1877 The Courier reported that a local clergyman had preached against ‘the demoralising influences of the evening assemblies at the rink’. However, the newspaper commented that naughty people would be naughty anywhere and behaviour at the rink was no worse than at the theatre or music hall. (Apart, that is, from one ‘repeated instance of somewhat advanced courtship’!).

If skaters wanted to take a break, they could watch from the spectators’ gallery, or enjoy refreshments in the buffet. From autumn 1876 these included including beer, cider and wine, provided by local greengrocer William Meggy. (The magistrates refused to issue him with a licence which would have also allowed him to offer spirits and porter).

John HoltumIn addition to skating competitions and fancy dress soirees, a wide variety of entertainments were held in the large hall. These included band concerts and attractions such as ‘The African Blondin’, who performed on the high rope, and Herr Holtum, ‘The Cannon Ball King’, who balanced cannon balls on his head and even caught one that was fired straight at him.

By the mid-1880s the popularity of roller skating was in decline. In 1884 the Tunbridge Wells Skating Company went into liquidation, the rink was sold at auction and the building taken over by the Kent & Sussex Courier, who housed their printing machinery there. However interest in the sport revived some years later, both nationally and locally, and in 1909 the ‘American Skating Palace’ opened on Culverden Down in St John’s. The proprietor was American entrepreneur and former horse breeder Louis Napoleon Schoenfield, whose company also owned rinks in St Leonards, Plymouth, Exeter, Maida Vale and on the Aldwych.

American Skating Palace

In advertisements it was claimed that the new rink was the largest outside London. Its maple floor, imported specially from America, covered 16,000 square feet (a much larger area than the earlier rink) and there was seating for several thousand spectators. Admission was still one shilling, but there was electric light instead of gas, and skates now had ball bearings, making them even more manoeuvrable. “Tunbridge Wells has succumbed to Rinkomania as badly as any town in the kingdom” reported The Courier in November 1909. As well as regular skating sessions, to music from military bands, there were speed skating races, exhibitions of fancy skating and rink hockey matches.

However, once again roller skating was not as profitable as had been hoped and in 1911 Mr Schoenfield appeared in the bankruptcy court in London. The main reason he gave for finding himself in this situation was that he had been ‘over confident’ in running his rinks.

The Tunbridge Wells rink continued to operate under local ownership for another couple of years, although in 1913 skating gave way to the Cinema de Luxe. Early in the First World War 250 soldiers were billeted in the building before they headed overseas and local recruits were drilled there. In December 1914 it was one of eight venues where solders were entertained to a lavish Christmas lunch. (This was the subject of a previous blog post).

Notes

  • The 1875 Skating Rink was designed by architect Henry H Cronk, who was also responsible for the Great Hall (completed in 1872).

1826. The Three Craftsmen

[For much of the nineteenth century articles of Tunbridge ware – wooden objects with elaborate mosaic inlays – were popular with tourists and collectors. William Fenner, Edmund Nye and Thomas Barton, three of the best-known makers, operated from the same location on Mount Ephraim].

The desk was a spectacular piece of craftsmanship. It was made from expensive king-wood (imported from Brazil) and decorated with a veneer of woods from other trees – holly, yew, plum, cherry, blackthorn and many more. The lining was rich, gold-coloured satin. The top was covered with purple velvet and held cut glass containers mounted in silver. One drawer was fitted out as a sewing box, the other as a drawing box.

In 1826, when the people of Tunbridge Wells wanted to give seven-year-old Princess Victoria a present, it seemed obvious that it should be a piece of Tunbridge ware. A subscription of five shillings per person was requested and a total of twenty-five guineas collected. Lots were drawn to choose which of the town’s manufacturers would have the honour of making the present. William Fenner was selected and produced the desk in his workshop on Mount Ephraim. There is no record of what the Princess thought of this lavish gift, but on later visits to the town she bought many pieces of Tunbridge ware, both for herself and as presents.

Tunbridge Ware Box. Image by Anne Carwardine courtesy of Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery

Tunbridge ware was made and sold to visitors to the town from the 17th century onwards. At first it consisted of plain wooden objects. As time went on these were painted and then inlaid with patterns and pictures. In around 1830 a new technique was developed, known as ‘tessellated mosaics’. Working from paper drawings, narrow strips of different-coloured woods were glued together in small bundles, so that the design could be seen across the end (like the words in a stick of rock). Slices were taken and set into boxes, trays, tables, desks and a wide range of small items. Woods from trees in England and all over the world provided a palette of colours and, with enormous skill, manufacturers such as William Fenner produced amazingly intricate designs – including geometric patterns, birds, butterflies, flowers, and local scenes sometimes copied from guidebooks.

When William retired in 1840, his nephew Edmund Nye acquired the Mount Ephraim workshop, known as The Chalet, and moved his business there from the Pantiles. In his designs he favoured pale backgrounds with flowers, foliage and geometric borders set into them. In 1851 Edmund was one of three Tunbridge ware manufacturers who exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park, where he displayed two tables, a work-box and a bookstand. His work was commended by the judges.

Detail of Tunbridge Ware candlestand. Image by Anne Carwardine courtesy of Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery

Much of the design work for Edmund’s successful exhibits –including a galleon in full sail which was said to be composed of 110,800 pieces of wood – was the work of his employee Thomas Barton. The most highly regarded of all the manufacturers, Thomas’s work was known for its artistry and skill. His preferred style was dark backgrounds, of mahogany or coromandel (similar to ebony), and inlays incorporating oak which had been stained bright green by a fungus.

The Chalet, Mount Ephraim. Photograph Anne Carwardine

Thomas worked for Edmund Nye for many years, was appointed as his factory manager and later went into partnership with him. In 1862 Edmund made a will in which he stipulated that on his death Thomas should be given the option of purchasing the lease on his properties at Mount Ephraim and the Parade (Pantiles) for the low price of £400. When that event occurred the following year, Thomas took advantage of the opportunity and he continued producing high-quality Tunbridge ware at the Chalet for the next 40 years. Like William and Edmund before him, he sold the finished articles through a shop on the Pantiles, although purchasers were welcome to visit the workshop by appointment.

In 1899 Thomas helped organise an exhibition of Tunbridge Ware at the Town Hall aimed at reviving and promoting the industry, which had declined considerably by that time. A design competition was held and the results put on display, together with articles of inlaid wood from all over the world, loaned by the South Kensington Museum, and pieces of Tunbridge ware, loaned by local owners. The star exhibit was a Tunbridge ware backgammon board, believed to date from the 1640s and therefore one of the earliest pieces ever made. The Kent & Sussex Courier reported that one of Thomas’s workmen ‘was present with a turning lathe to illustrate, by ocular demonstration, some of the mysteries of the manufacture’.

Thomas Barton. Image courtesy of Tunbridge Wells Art Gallery and Museum

When he died in 1903, aged 84, Thomas’s obituary described a man who, as well as being a gifted and successful manufacturer, had played an active part in the life of the town. At various times he had been an alderman, a magistrate, chair of the Water Board and chair of the Tradesmen’s Association. The obituary-writer said that Thomas ‘had the rare good fortune by his kindly geniality and transparent honesty of purpose, to have never made a single enemy, or had an ill word spoken of him’.

Disappointingly the 1899 exhibition did not succeed in its aim and the manufacture of Tunbridge ware declined further after Thomas’s death, with the one remaining factory closing in 1927.

Notes

  • Tunbridge ware was manufactured by a small number of family firms, who also included the Wises, Burrows and Sharps.
  • The Tunbridge Wells Museum has a large collection of Tunbridge ware, including pieces by all the main manufacturers.

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.

SONY DSC

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.

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