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The sandstone outcrops which are so conspicuous a feature of Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons were employed as camp sites by Tunbridge Wells’ earliest known inhabitants in the Mesolithic period. These nomadic hunter-gatherers may have been the first to encourage the development of heathland by maintaining open areas through burning in order to attract grazing deer. The Commons first emerge into history in Saxon times as Wealden ‘dens’ or swine pastures which over the years acquired a small permanent population. By mediaeval times, 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, known today as the two Commons, were available to the Freeholders for grazing their animals and as a source of “marl, stone, sand, loam, mould, gravel or clay” and “furze, gorse or litter”. The original form of the place name is Rustwell, thought to be derived from the chalybeate springs in the vicinity. The name change to Rusthall, occurring between 1180 and 1264, is probably a corruption due to the building of the first dwelling on the site. Another ancient place name, first attested in the thirteenth century, is Bishops Down, now little more than a road name but formerly the title of Tunbridge Wells Common as a whole. It derives from the fact that Rusthall Manor was originally a sub-manor within Wrotham Manor, belonging to the archbishop of Canterbury until 1538.

Following the discovery on the edge of Tunbridge Wells Common of the chalybeate spring which gave rise to the eventual development of Tunbridge Wells, Lord Abergavenny obtained permission in 1608 from the Lord of the Manor to sink the first well on the site for the convenience of visitors. Around 1660 the manor was acquired by Lord Muskerry, who improved access to the spring in 1664. He was killed in a sea battle against the Dutch in 1665, and his estates passed to his widow (later Viscountess Purbeck), who sold the Manor to Thomas Neale, master of the royal mint, in 1682. Neale made an agreement with the Freeholders which allowed him to build the colonnade later known as the Pantiles on a strip of the Common adjacent to the spring. 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. The 1739 Act legislated against further encroachment on the Commons without the mutual consent of both parties and thus provided a solid legal foundation for their survival as an open space to the present day. In 1758 Conyers’ son John sold the estate to (later Sir) George Kelley, whose descendants have held it ever since. Kelley was a medical doctor who eventually rose to become Sheriff of Kent and had lived in Tunbridge Wells since the 1740s. The house which he built on the edge of Tunbridge Wells Common in 1765 still survives in the enlarged form of the Spa Hotel.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the management of the Commons was in the hands of the Freeholders, who were responsible for regulating the use of the Commons for grazing and other purposes, collecting rents for permitted encroachments, and general management such as maintaining ponds and drainage channels. The growing population of the town put increasing pressure on the Commons, and the Freeholders took steps to establish active policing and thus “check the many trespasses and depredations that are constantly committed”. When John Colbran published his New Guide for Tunbridge Wells in 1839, the new regime had made the Commons much more well-ordered, the Freeholders executing “very summary justice on those who attempt to invade their rights”. It is Colbran who tells us how the Freeholders, on account of their enthusiastic tackling of abuses, had acquired the nickname of Hogpounders, a term which “although originally applied in derision, is now rather courted than rejected by them”. It alluded to the impounding of offending animals, which were not returned to the owner until a fine had been paid.

The policy of the Freeholders was not in fact entirely altruistic. As well as protecting their own grazing and other rights, many of them were tradesmen and lodging house keepers and so had an interest in maintaining the Commons as an attraction for visitors. The first deliberate attempts to beautify the Commons took place in this period, beginning with the planting of Royal Victoria Grove in 1835 to commemorate the visits of the young Princess Victoria. In 1858 representatives of the Freeholders met with Rev William Law Pope’s Poor Fund Committee, set up to provide work for unemployed labourers. They agreed upon a programme of works which included the creation from a swampy hollow of what is now known as Brighton Lake, and the levelling of a terrace walk on the slope above.


Page last updated: 13/02/2007