By Tim Lambert


The town of Tunbridge Wells began with a chalybeate spring. Chalybeate means it contains iron. Rainwater fell on ground containing iron deposits, soaked through them then rose in a spring. The iron deposits in the spring water stained the ground around the spring a rusty colour. The spring stood by a common where local people grazed their livestock.

In the early 17th century people believed that they would be healed from diseases if they bathed in or drank from certain spas. In the year 1606 a nobleman, Lord North, who was staying at Edridge was out for a ride. He came across the spring with rust coloured edges and wondered if it had health giving properties. (At the time he was suffering from tuberculosis or some similar disease). He drank some of the spring water and was, he said, healed from his illness. When he returned to London he told all his rich friends about the spring and soon many people flocked to drink from it.

After 1608 wells were dug and a pavement was laid but there were no actual buildings until 1636. In that year 2 houses were built, one for ladies and one for gentlemen. In the late 17th century these developed into coffee houses. A coffee house was a place where you could drink coffee (a new drink at the time) or chocolate and read a newspaper. You could also socialise with other visitors.

In 1638 a walk was laid out with 2 rows of trees on either side. Local tradesmen began setting up stalls and selling goods between the trees.

Tunbridge had its first royal visitor in 1630 when Queen Henrietta Maria, came after the birth of her son, the future Charles I.

In 1632 a book was written praising the wells and their supposed health giving properties. It was called 'The Queens Wells, that is a treatise of the nature and virtues of Tunbridge Water'. In 1663 Charles I and his queen came and camped near the wells.

In 1678 the Chapel of King Charles the Martyr was built. But Tunbridge Wells did not start to develop as a town until about 1680. From then on houses were built at Mount Ephraim. In 1682 land near the common was sold. After 1682 houses were built in the area of Mount Sion. In 1687 the shops were burned in a fire but the owner rebuilt them, this time with a colonnade in front of their entrances.

At the end of the 17th century a travel writer named Celia Fiennes visited Tunbridge. She said: 'The water I have drunk for many years with great advantage. It is from the steel and iron mines'. She also said 'They have made the wells very commodious by the many good building all about it and 2 or 3 miles around which are lodgings for the company that drink the waters'. Also 'All the people buy their own provisions at the market, which is just by the wells and is furnished with great plenty of all sorts of fish and foul.' She also described 'The walk which is between high trees on the market side which are shops full of all sorts of toys, silver, china, milliners and all sorts of curious wooden ware besides which there are 2 large coffee houses for tea, chocolate etc and 2 rooms for the lottery and hazard board (i.e. for gambling). 'At the lower end of the walk you go straight along to a chapel (King Charles the Martyr). Furthermore: 'There are several bowling greens about the wells'

In 1698 Princess Anne (she became Queen in 1702)) was visiting Tunbridge and her son fell over while playing. The Queen commanded that the walk where he fell should be paved. This had not been done by her next visit in 1699 much to her annoyance. The offended princess left. After she had gone the authorities quickly paved the area with pantiles but the Princess/Queen never returned. The pantiles were later replaced with stone but the name has remained.


By the early 18th century the present street plan of the town centre had been laid out. The little town may have had a population of about 1,500 in 1725. In 1703 The Grove was donated to the town by a landowner as a public park. But Tunbridge changed little in the 18th century. In 1736 Richard 'Beau' Nash, a rich dandy and socialite came to the town and appointed himself master of ceremonies. He arranged balls and other social events. Tunbridge reached its peak in the early and mid 18th century. Then in the late 18th century a new fashion began for visiting the seaside. This drew visitors away from the town.

Tunbridge Wells had a fire brigade as early as 1794. It was one of the first towns in England to have an organised fire brigade.

Nevertheless during the 19th century Tunbridge prospered. In the early 19th century a theatre was built. It was later converted to a corn exchange where grain was bought and sold. In the early part of the century a new estate was built around Mount Pleasant Road. The church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1829. The new buildings included a terrace called Calverley Park Terrace, built in the early 1830s. By then the population of the town had reached about 6,000.

In 1826 a water company was formed to provide piped water, but no sewers were built till the early 1870s. In 1829 a dispensary was founded where the poor were given free medicines. In 1884 a general hospital was formed. In 1835 a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners was formed with powers to pave, clean and light the streets. They also had authority over markets and the water supply. In 1836 Tunbridge gained a police force. In 1846 the railway reached the town.

By the early 1880's the population of Tunbridge had reached 25,000. It reached 20,000 only 10 years later. In 1889 Tunbridge was made a royal borough. In 1894 the boundaries were extended. In 1897 a Technical Institute was opened in Tunbridge.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the town was famous for Tunbridge Ware. This consisted of boxes and other wooden goods. They were inlaid with other woods.


In 1900 the boundaries of Tunbridge were extended again to include Rusthall. At the beginning of the 20th century the population of Tunbridge stood at about 33,000. Growth then levelled off for the next 60 years. By the 1930's the population was about 35,000. Growth then levelled off for 30 years. In the early 1960's it stood at about 38,000. Growth then became more rapid.

In 1909 Edward VII allowed the town to add the prefix 'Royal' to its name. In the 1920s the manufacture of inlaid wooden boxes known as Tunbridge ware came to an end.

In the 1920s a council house estate was built at Rusthall. After 1945 other estates were built at Sherwood and High Brooms and at Ramslye.

During World War II some 15 people were killed in Tunbridge by bombing. Many more were injured. In the town 13 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged.

The museum opened in 1952. In the 1950s an attempt was made to attract light industry to Tunbridge and in the 1950s an industrial estate was built at North Farm. However Tunbridge in the late 20th century was largely a dormitory town with a large retired population.

Royal Victoria Place shopping centre opened in 1992.

Today the population of Tunbridge Wells is 61,000.

To read a history of Maidstone click here.

To read a history of Canterbury click here.