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The earliest known inhabitants of what are now the Commons were the Mesolithic hunter gatherers of c.4500 BC who led a nomadic lifestyle and employed the various rock outcrops in the Tunbridge Wells area as regular encampment sites. The rocks were prominent landmarks in the vast Wealden forest, and their sandstone cliffs had convenient overhangs which could be used to provide shelter and protection. These people probably encouraged the development of heathland in the vicinity of the rocks by maintaining open areas through burning in order to attract grazing deer. The characteristic flint implements of the Mesolithic period have been found on Rusthall Common, near the rocks at Happy Valley and Denny Bottom.
The Commons first emerge into recorded history in Saxon times, when the earliest known mention of Rusthall occurs in a charter of 765 AD in which Egbert king of Kent grants to Diora bishop of Rochester property at Halling along with its associated swine pastures including Speldhurst and Rustwell. The old spelling 'Rustwell' is thought to refer to the chalybeate springs in the area (even the famous Pantiles spring was originally on the Common). Swine pastures were carved out of the Wealden forest in considerable numbers from the 5th century onwards and were known as 'dens'. Bishop's Down, the ancient name of Tunbridge Wells Common may originally have been 'Bishop's Den'. Such pastures were in use for about seven weeks in the autumn when pigs were driven onto them from the settled areas north of the forest to be fattened for slaughter by feeding on acorns and beech mast.

Over the years these forest pastures gradually began to attract a permanent population, and many developed into the Wealden towns and villages of today. But although there was some settlement at Rusthall it never grew into anything large enough to be dignified with the name of a village. Until the development of Tunbridge Wells as a spa resort, it remained no more than a scattering of dwellings in an outlying corner of Speldhurst parish. With settlement would have come more extensive clearance of tree cover and the spread of heathland vegetation over a much wider area. Before the development of the Pantiles in the late seventeenth century, the Common was continuous with the heathland of Waterdown Forest, the landscape of the future town being described in 1656 as 'a valley compassed about with stony hills, so barren, that there groweth nothing but heath upon the same'.

By the mediaeval period, Rusthall had become a manor, with a Lord, Freeholders, and Wastes. The Freeholders or Freehold Tenants were inhabitants who had been granted portions of land within the Manor boundaries by the Lord in perpetuity, although still owing certain feudal dues. The Wastes of the Manor, which we know today as the two Commons, were available to the Freeholders for grazing their animals and as a source of what was later described as ‘marl, stone, sand, loam, mould, gravel or clay’ as well as ‘furze, gorse or litter’.

In 1606 Dudley Lord North, in poor health due to over-indulgence at Court, was staying at Eridge Castle with Lord Abergavenny, whose estate was contiguous with the Manor of Rusthall. While riding along what we now know as Eridge Road, he spotted some orange coloured water on the edge of the Common which he recognised as coming from a chalybeate (iron bearing) spring similar to those at Spa in Belgium which were already famous for their supposed health giving properties. Subsequently, Lord North began to drink the spring water regularly and claimed that it restored him to perfect health. News of the discovery spread rapidly, and in 1608 Lord Abergavenny obtained permission from the Lord of the Manor to sink the first well on the site for the convenience of visitors.

In 1664 Lord Muskerry, having acquired the Manor of Rusthall, improved access to the spring by building a new enclosure with an ornamental arch. In 1682 his widow sold the Manor to Thomas Neale, who negotiated an agreement with the Freeholders allowing him to build shops, lodgings and other facilities for visitors on a strip of the Common adjacent to the spring. After a fire in 1687, he constructed the colonnade which we now know as the Pantiles. The Freeholders received an annual payment in compensation for loss of grazing rights. In 1732, by which time the Manor had changed hands twice, a lawsuit broke out between Maurice Conyers, the new Lord, and the Freeholders over the question of continued compensation after Neale's original agreement had expired. The Freeholders were successful in asserting their rights over the Pantiles site, and the resulting settlement was embodied in the Rusthall Manor Act of 1739.

Page last updated: 13/02/2007