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The Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act of 1890 provided new arrangements for the administration of the Commons which have continued to the present day. It was accompanied by the first official map of the boundaries of the Commons. The management of the Commons was now vested in a body to be known as the Conservators, consisting of twelve persons, a third each appointed by the Lord of the Manor, the Freeholders and the local Council.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian period, the Commons were strongly promoted as beauty spots in local guidebooks. Pelton’s guide, which ran through many editions from 1871 declared that “To our modern taste its natural and wild condition renders it far more attractive than the artificial parks which it is the fashion to provide for the healthful recreation of the dwellers in large cities. The furze bushes and the brake are the most noticeable ornaments; but the whole expanse abounds with other plants and blossoms — ling and heath, chamomile and thyme, milkwort and wild violets, being among the most abundant. In April and May the golden bloom of the furze, which is unusually profuse in this spot, delights the eye, and its rich perfume scents the breeze”. The Commons were much frequented by residents and visitors, as can be seen in the numerous postcard views entitled ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Common’ and depicting crowds sitting on the grassy slopes overlooking London Road.

As well as being charmed by the beauties of the heathland vegetation, visitors were also fascinated by the remarkable forms of the rock outcrops. Some even believed that Rusthall Common’s famous Toad Rock, in fact produced by wind erosion during the Ice Age, was ‘the remains of an ancient sphinx’. A guidebook from c.1895, speaking of the rockscape around the Toad, describes how “When as visitor you explore this locality you will soon discover that you are an object of mercenary interest, and almost before you are aware of it you are under the guidance of a self-appointed cicerone, and from his lips will learn that well nigh every rock has its name derived from a fancied resemblance to the things mentioned. A very strong fancy is required in most cases. But if you make believe hard enough, you can almost see a resemblance between the rock which you are told is the Pulpit Rock and a pulpit; and the same may apply to the Little Toad, the Elephant, the Fox’s Hole, the Footsteps, the Cottage Loaf, the Parson’s Face, the Cradle, the Bloodstain, the Lion, and the Pig’s Head Rocks, and we believe there are a few score more”.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Commons consisted mainly of open heathland which had established itself after the primeval forest cover had been cleared for grazing. Grazing of sheep and cattle on the Commons declined after World War I and ceased altogether some time between 1928 and the outbreak of World War II. By this time a considerable number of trees were in evidence, since apart from commemorative plantings to celebrate royal and civic events, the Freeholders had in the 1870s authorized a more informal programme of planting, which was continued under the Conservators. Heavy grazing had prevented these plantings from reproducing themselves, but as the number of animals declined seedlings were increasingly able to grow up and a process of reversion to scrub and, ultimately, mature woodland began. By the 1960s much of the original heath and grassland had been lost.

Little notice was taken of this change in the landscape until the Great Storm of 1987 which blew down a large number of trees. In considering how to repair the damage, the Conservators were prompted to investigate what the Commons had looked like in times past and ultimately to commission the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation to conduct an environmental survey and prepare a detailed management plan. The plan as adopted in 1992 aims to reverse some of the worst effects of scrub growth by restoring areas of heath and grassland, to properly manage those areas of established woodland planned for retention, to restore ponds, expose overgrown rock formations, and reopen some historic viewpoints.

Page last updated: 22/01/07