THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
The Freeholders' Annual Meeting in November 1883 was a stormy affair at which the chairman John Stone Wigg (later the town's first mayor) had considerable difficulty keeping order. Frank Stone's supporters arrived in force and succeeded in electing an entirely new Committee from among their number. The vote was greeted by shouts of protest from the opposition, who tried to argue that it was technically invalid, but the chairman overruled them. A vote was also carried to the effect that "all obstructions, posts and rails, and chain fencing between Onslow House and Romanoff Lodge and Mount Edgcumbe House be forthwith removed".
In later years Frank Stone was credited with 'saving the Commons', which was doubtless an exaggeration, but the election of the new Committee did mark a return to the stricter policy of earlier times. However, what were seen as positive developments were not ruled out. In 1885-6 the Lower Cricket Ground was levelled to relieve pressure on the older ground on Tunbridge Wells Common, and Rusthall Common was provided with a formal cricket ground for the first time. The Lower Cricket Ground had earlier been used informally as a playing field by the boys of Romanoff House School in London Road, and it was also the site of the annual bonfire on November 5th which the Freeholders had permitted since 1860 in an effort to eliminate the traditional custom of indiscriminate firing of the gorse bushes. In 1886 a scheme was brought forward to purchase the old forge and associated buildings at Fonthill, to demolish them, and to return the land to the open Common, but due to the change of administration four years later the project was never brought to completion.
The present system of managing the Commons, under a body of twelve Conservators, was established by the Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act of 1890, a lengthy piece of legislation which laid down the powers and responsibilities of the new Borough Council established in the previous year, and which contained a thirteen page section on the Commons. The history of the Act, and particularly the provisions relating to the Commons, is complex. The parliamentary process was originally set in motion by the old Local Board, one of whose prime objectives was to gain as much control as they could over the management of the Commons, as they had been frustrated by their impotence in the affair of the enclosure of St Helena. The Manor and Freeholders, who felt strongly that they had managed the Commons perfectly satisfactorily since time immemorial, objected to the Board’s ambitions and petitioned Parliament in opposition to the original version of the Bill. Negotiations were opened between the three parties, and eventually a compromise was reached establishing that the Conservators should consist of four persons each appointed by the Manor, the Freeholders, and the Council, with the duty to "maintain the Commons free from all encroachments". Accompanying the Act was the first definitive map of the boundaries of the Commons, with the permitted encroachments to date. The Conservators now took over the day to day management of the Commons from the Freeholders' Committee, as well as the power to frame byelaws. The Act also stated explicitly for the first time that "the inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells and the neighbourhood shall have free access". Although the 1890 Act as a whole is no longer in operation, its essential provisions relating to the Commons were re-enacted in the County of Kent Act of 1981.
In the late Victorian and Edwardian period, the Commons were probably to be seen at their best. They were much frequented by residents and visitors, as can be seen from the numerous postcard views entitled 'Sunday Afternoon on the Common' which depict crowds sitting on the grassy slopes overlooking London Road. The old problems of digging and quarrying that made parts of the Commons unsightly, and of excessive numbers of grazing animals, had now come to an end. As belief in the efficacy of the Pantiles spring declined, so the town's claim to be a health resort began to be focussed on the local environment in general, with walks on the breezy Commons being highly recommended to promote recovery from sickness. According to the 1903 town guide, "On the hottest day in summer there is always a cool, scent laden breeze, sweeping over the glorious Common, and to breathe this air is to take in new life and enjoy a feeling of stimulated vitality and buoyancy such as only a pure and salubrious atmosphere and pleasant surroundings can arouse".
Page last updated: 13/02/2007