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THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
 
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Although the 1739 Act was primarily concerned with dividing ownership of the Pantiles between the Lord and the Freeholders, it also 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 earlier times, manorial courts had attempted to control the problem of unauthorised building on the Commons, but with limited success. Working buildings, as opposed to dwellings, were given retrospective permission in some instances. In other cases fines were imposed on offenders, but the buildings involved remained in place. John Bowra's map of 1738, produced in connection with the Rusthall Manor Act, shows a number of encroachments on Tunbridge Wells Common that had become established by that date. There are two forges overlooking London Road, two lodging houses and a cottage on Mount Edgcumbe, and some buildings on the triangular portion of the Common where London Road and Mount Ephraim meet. The latter probably began as workmens' sheds associated with the quarrying of stone and sand from the rock outcrops on the site, gradually evolving into permanent dwellings.

As Tunbridge Wells developed as a fashionable holiday resort, the Commons came to be perceived as more than a purely functional landscape, since they provided a picturesque backdrop to the organized amusements provided for the benefit of visitors. The original Assembly Room for public entertainments was established in 1655 on Rusthall Common, with an adjacent bowling green, since due to lack of accommodation near the chalybeate spring many lodged in the vicinity. Although these facilities were moved to Mount Ephraim a decade later, Rusthall remained of sufficient importance for a Cold Bath and associated pleasure grounds to be opened in 1708 in the area later known as Happy Valley. Some eighteenth century residents and visitors believed that the Commons would benefit from tree planting and other embellishments, but the planting of Queen’s Anne’s Grove in 1702 (along with Queen Anne’s Oak a couple of years earlier) is the only reported example prior to 1835. A race course was established on Tunbridge Wells Common from an early date, and in 1801 the popular pastime of donkey riding was introduced. Clifford’s Tunbridge Wells guide (1818) reports that “The Common, on which are walks, rides, romantic rocks, the race ground, &c. has become a favourite place of resort with the visitors to the Wells. The turf is covered, during the summer, with flocks of sheep; and pedestrians, equestrians, and asinurians, of all ranks, sexes and ages amuse themselves on it”. In a subsequent edition (1823) he encourages his readers to explore Rusthall Common, where “the views over various parts of Kent and Sussex are the most delightful and extensive” and the rocks are “very remarkable for the singular shapes which many of them present”.

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 began to realise that some active policing was necessary in order to "check the many trespasses and depredations that are constantly committed". As well as the old problems of unauthorised encroachment, they now had to contend with dumping of rubbish, firing of the gorse, extensive destruction of the soil by persons digging for marl and sand, and over-grazing. It was discovered that local residents were acquiring tiny pieces of land within the manor boundaries so that they could claim the right to pasture large numbers of animals on the Commons, greatly outnumbering those of the legitimate Freeholders. In 1824 the Freeholders formed a committee to act as executive between their annual meetings, and from 1827 they began to employ a Common Driver and Pound Keeper to oversee the Commons on a day to day basis.

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. At their annual meeting the Freeholders used to perambulate the manor, inspecting any unauthorised buildings or fences, after which they held a dinner known as the 'Hogpounders' Feast'.
 



Page last updated: 13/02/2007