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THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
 
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Colbran, himself a Freeholder, is keen to remind his readers of their public spirited attitude, describing them as "a body of men to whom the visitors and inhabitants of the Wells are greatly indebted, inasmuch as they are the means of protecting the beautiful Commons". In 1861 the Freeholders decided that their role as guardians of the Commons required some legal backing. With the support of the Manor they sought a new Act of Parliament to supplement the legislation of 1739. The result of their efforts was the Rusthall Manor Act of 1863, which established a formal register of Freeholders and empowered the Freeholders' Committee to make byelaws.

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 (apart from the 1700-02 plantings) took place in this period, beginning with the planting of Royal Victoria Grove in 1835 to commemorate the visits of the young Princess Victoria (who had greatly enjoyed her rides on the Common on her donkey called 'Flower'), and to supersede the dying Queen Anne's Grove. 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 'greensward terrace walk' running parallel with Eridge Road on the slope above the new lake. In 1867 the Freeholders agreed to collaborate with the Tradesmen's Association in planting trees on various parts of Tunbridge Wells Common, whose open heathy landscape appeared to many to be somewhat barren. The newly formed Association for Promoting the Interests of the Town of Tunbridge Wells approached the Freeholders in 1874 with a scheme to create a turf walk or Promenade on the top of the Common along Mount Ephraim. This was finally put into effect in 1881, providing a pleasant stroll for fashionable visitors, from which they could obtain panoramic views of the town.

The last decade of the Freeholders' supremacy over the Commons was marked by controversy, beginning in 1882 with claims on the part of the Local Board (the town's original government) and other prominent townsfolk that the Freeholders were becoming too lax in permitting encroachments. There had long been a practice of permitting the occupiers of property on or adjacent to the Commons to take over small portions of land on payment of an annual rent, but now there were requests for larger enclosures. This resulted from the fact the dwellings situated on the Commons originally owned only the land on which they stood. This had not been a problem when they were mere workmen's cottages, but when they were rebuilt as desirable Victorian residences the owners became unhappy that the general public had a right to walk up to their property and peer through their windows.

The most heavily criticised incident occurred when the Freeholders' Committee gave permission to the owner of St Helena Cottage to "enclose a portion of the rocks and Common with an iron fence". The Local Board protested that "the recent enclosures and obstructions were illegal", while local solicitor Frank William Stone, along with his brother Frederick, launched a personal campaign to change the Freeholders' policy. The brothers owned land within the Manor boundary and so were entitled to register as Freeholders. Gathering together sixteen eligible supporters (including the Tunbridge ware maker Thomas Barton), they submitted their names to the Freeholders' Committee in October 1882. Initially there was resistance, the meeting resolving that "the claims of the above ... have not been made out to the satisfaction of the Committee". Several of the campaigners appeared at the Annual Meeting of the Freeholders a month later, but were ejected.

By the time of their meeting in February 1883, the Freeholders' Committee had been forced to concede that there was no legal reason to exclude the eighteen new applicants, and they were registered without further argument. In May a further list of twenty names was submitted and accepted, including prominent members of the Local Board. The newcomers now had a clear majority over their opponents, and the stage was set for a takeover of the Freeholders' Committee.



Page last updated: 04/02/2009