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.

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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’.

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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.

Notes:

  • 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.

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.

Note

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.