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.

1806 the Impressario and the Actor

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

Edmund Kean

Edmund Keant

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

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


The Corn Exchange

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

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

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

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

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


1768. The Religious Countess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



1918. The Lady Voter

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

Town Hall Calverley Road c1920

Town Hall, Calverley Road. c1920

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

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

Sarah Grand in c1916. (Source National portrait Gallery)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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