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).

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.

Notes

  • 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.

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.

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.

Notes

  • 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.

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.

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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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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.