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


1916 The Ordinary Soldier

Price of the Big Push. Casualties of the Great Advance.’ This was a headline in the Courier newspaper on 11th August 1916, above a gallery of photographs of soldiers killed, injured or missing in action in the Great War. Their subjects are representative of the ordinary men who were caught up in the conflict, and of the gaps they would have left in the town’s life, as well as that of their families. They include gardeners, shop assistants, domestic servants, a book dealer, a print worker, a blacksmith and milkman George Quinnell.

Quinnell George Kent Messenger August 1916George was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1885, the son of a grocer’s warehouseman. In 1901, aged sixteen, he was working as a grocer’s porter (possibly in the same business as his father). Ten years later (at the next census) he was a milkman, working in Tom Carter’s dairy at the foot of St James’ Road. George was an active member of the local branch of The Ancient Order of Forresters, a Friendly Society.

When war broke out in August 1914, large numbers of men enlisted (including 1,300 from the Tunbridge Wells area in the first six months). However, as time went on, voluntary enlistment was not happening on the scale required. Under the Derby Scheme, which was in operation from October to December 1915, all men between 18 and 40 were given the opportunity to volunteer immediately, or to ‘attest’ their willingness to serve when called on. In Tunbridge Wells the scheme was operated by the Council. Canvassers went from door to door with registration forms and around 1,600 local men attended the Drill Hall (in the Corn Exchange on the Pantiles) and signed up. George was one of them. Having attested, he probably went straight back to his work as a milkman, wearing a grey armband with a red crown, to signify that he had volunteered.

In March 1916, 31-year-old George was called up to the 7th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. The Battalion had been raised in September 1914, done their training in Colchester and on Salisbury Plan and travelled to France in July 1915. However, George had only three months’ training before he joined them overseas. Just a couple of weeks after that he was fighting in the Battle of Albert, the first of the Somme battles. The 7th Battalion were deployed to capture Trones Wood. An account published in the Sydney Morning Herald described what they faced there:

‘Meanwhile the West Kents were fighting in a blazing furnace. Their trenches were pounded to dust by high explosives, flame jets and gas were turned on at intervals and constant bomb attacks were made.’

The conditions George experienced – cramped trenches, acres of mud, barbed wire, machine gun fire, constant shelling and injured, dying and dead men all around him – were very different from the life he had left behind in Tunbridge Wells. They are inconceivable to us today.

DSC02641 (2)

George’s name on the Tunbridge Wells War Memorial

Meanwhile at home, George’s father and sisters Ellen and Edith waited for news. As reported in the Courier, they were informed in August 1916 that he was missing in action. One of his sisters appealed for information in the columns of the Kent Messenger around that time. But it was not until March 1917 that they learnt George had died on  13th July 1916, the final day of the Battle of Albert. George was an ordinary man, whose life left little trace. But it seems that he was a good man – the Courier’s report of this death said that he was respected and loved by all who knew him.





  • In a Friendly Society, such as the Ancient Order of Forresters, members contribute to a fund to be used for the welfare of the members or for their assistance when in need or distress.
  • George is buried in Serre cemetery, which was created in Spring 1917 when the Somme battlefield was cleared. The names of more than two thirds of the soldiers buried there are unknown.
  • On Saturday 9th July 2016, the Friends of Tunbridge Wells Cemetery, held a moving ceremony to commemorate the Tunbridge Wells men who gave their lives at the Somme.
  • Details of the impact of the First World War on Tunbridge Wells can be found in the Civic Society’s publication ‘The Shock of War.’

Wreaths laid at the Somme commemoration service

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).


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

1913. The Ticket Inspector

Colleagues of 71-year-old railway worker James Baigent thought he seemed in good spirits and health at his retirement do. This event took place on 20th June 1913 at the Bridge Hotel on Mount Pleasant. James was presented with a writing desk, in recognition of 45 years’ service, letters were read out from those who had not been able to attend and entertainment was provided by several ‘artistes’ brought down from London. The Chairman of the South Eastern Railway Company made a speech, expressing the hope that James’s retirement would be filled with happy days, and gave him an inscribed gold watch. James said he was looking forward to spending time with his books and his friends.

Baigent pictureJames had joined the station’s staff as a 22-year-old back in 1868. He had an early experience of dealing with customer complaints; a new line to London had just been opened, via Sevenoaks rather than Redhill, and passengers were indignant that the same fare was being charged, even though the journey now took less time. Throughout his long career passengers would continue to have many complaints – as well as excessive fares, there was dissatisfaction with matters such as being unable to book through tickets to stations on other lines and the condition of third class carriages.

During his first two years in the job James and his wife Elizabeth had two children, Douglas and Lottie, born in 1869 and 1870. Sadly Elizabeth died soon after Lottie’s birth and James was left to bring the children up alone. Glimpses from the following two censuses indicate that he probably had help from his mother Mary and his sister Sophia.

James was happy with his work and with life in Tunbridge Wells so, although he was appointed as a Platform Inspector in around 1886, he never looked for further promotion. He became a well-known figure to passengers. In reporting his retirement the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser said: ‘The duties appertaining to the post of Platform Inspector are not always pleasant ones, as can well be imagined, but Mr Baigent’s tact and invariable courtesy always pulled him through, and it is not an exaggeration to say that during his long period of service he has not made a single enemy. On the other hand he has made many hundred friends….’. According to the same article he was an exceptionally well-read man and passengers ‘of all grades of thought and opinion’ enjoyed chatting with him; whatever the subject, he always had something to say that was worth listening and expressed his views with ‘kindly shrewdness and cheerful philosophy’.

James witnessed the arrival and departure of a number of famous visitors, including royalty and politicians. In 1876 Queen Victoria travelled by train for her final trip to the town, to visit her daughter Princess Louise at Dornden in Langton Green. The Queen’s grey horses and carriages arrived by train early in the morning and shortly after 11am the station was closed to the public and a crimson carpet laid for her to walk on. Despite this being a private visit, the Queen was cheered by a crowd of several thousands as she arrived and transferred to her carriage.

Early in 1891 82-year-old William Gladstone (leader of the opposition at that time), travelled to a meeting in Hastings by a special train, which made a planned stop at Tunbridge Wells. The platform was jammed full with Liberal supporters, plus a few Conservatives, all of whom fortified themselves with beer as they waited. When Gladstone finally arrived, the Professional Military Brass Band, who were seated in a truck on the opposite siding, began to play ‘A Fine Old English Gentleman’ and the crowd surged forward. Chaos ensued, but Gladstone was unfazed and gave a short speech through the train’s window.

It was not just human passengers James had to deal with. Another of his duties was managing the transportation of cattle during the annual Agricultural Show, which became a larger and larger event over the years.

In May 1913 James had a medical, arranged by his employers, the result of which led them to retire him from the service immediately. At the presentation event the following month it was announced that a collection was being held for a testimonial fund and contributions should be sent to Mr Baldwin, the local excursion agent (whom he had assisted many times). Over the following week donations were received from the Marquess of Abergavenny, Sir David Salomons and many others.

Sadly James did live long enough receive the money, or enjoy his retirement.DSC01514 Only a week after they reported the presentation at the Bridge Hotel, the newspapers informed their readers that James had died. This could have been down to the condition identified in his medical or, it was suggested, to a chill he caught while reading a book in the Grove. However some were convinced that in truth he had died of a broken heart, due to the shock of being asked to leave his job with no notice. A person signing themselves ‘A Passenger Who Knows the Facts’ wrote to the Advertiser, claiming that James’s feelings had been crushed when ‘he was instantly dismissed like a felon receiving a well-deserved sentence’.

James was buried in the Borough Cemetery, amongst the graves of many whose tickets he had checked over the years and many who had enjoyed talking with him and hearing his views. His plain stone, with plain words stating briefly his service to the railway, does not convey the affection which it seems was widely felt for him.


  • The rail line between London and Tonbridge was completed in 1842 and extended to Tunbridge Wells in 1845. Initially the station was where Goods Station Road is now, although a year later, after tunnelling work was completed, Tunbridge Wells station was opened at its present location. The line to Hastings was completed in 1852.
  • The town’s other station, Tunbridge Wells West, opened in 1866 with services to Brighton, Eastbourne and London Victoria. It was closed to mainline passenger services in 1985.

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.

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