Spa Town Tunbridge Wells: Its History

The spa town Tunbridge Wells is located in western Kent and is the oldest watering place next to Bath. In the late 1700s it was known to offer pure air and healthy waters of the chalybeate type. It was alleged to have been discovered by Dudley Lord North during the reign of James I. However, it did not become popular until the time of Charles I when his physicians sent his wife, Henrietta Maria, to the springs to “re-establish her health” after she gave birth to Prince Charles in 1630. She remained there six weeks. Because of her visit the area was called “Queen Mary’s Wells,” but the name did not stick. It was followed by various other names that included Kilburne, Survey of Kent, and Frant Wells before these and all names were lost to history and it became known as Tunbridge Wells.

Tunbridge Wells did not become popular until the time of Charles I when physicians sent his wife, Henrietta Maria, to the springs to “re-establish her health.” Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the springs were first discovered they began to draw “the young and the gay, as well as the diseased and the old.”[1] Thirty years after its discovery, the first buildings erected in the area were two small cottages, one for ladies and the other for gentlemen, with the gentleman’s house being more like an eighteenth-century coffee-house:

“[It being named] ‘Pipe-office’, because there the gentlemen usually met to converse over a pipe, and a dish of coffee, when they had drank their proper quantity of water. It was customary for them to pay half-a-crown subscription to this house, for the use of pipes, the privilege of reading the newspapers, and other little conveniencies of the same kind, instead of which the present coffee-house subscription is five shillings; but, thro’ the prevalence of ever-varying fashion, pens, ink, and paper, are now substituted instead of the discarded pipe.”[2]

Changes continued to happen such as the green bank that was paved and called the “Upper Walk.” However, the area was still lacking:

“In a short time after this, they had an assembly-room, a bowling green, and other places appropriated to public diversions at Rusthall; and at Southborough too, they had a bowling green, a coffee-house, and a great number of good houses for lodgings. … Its advantages were certainly much increased; but many things were wanting to make it convenient either to the company, or the inhabitants, and many more to compleat it for a place of public entertainment.”[3]

Spa town Tunbridge Wells

Spa town Tunbridge Wells with its Upper Walk. Courtesy of British Museum.

Accommodations were also built for visitors in the nearby villages of Southborough and Rusthall but they were too far away from the springs. This inconvenience was especially noticeable in bad weather. For instance, when rainstorms struck, the springs were useless because visitors had no shelter and were forced to leave. This created much confusion as they attempted to escape the downpours and then to make the situation worse, they had to travel several miles in the rain.

In 1664, more improvements happened. Rails built earlier around the wells by Lord Abergavenny were removed and a strong stone wall was put in their place. The crumbling stone pavement was also renewed and a “handsome bason” was placed over the main spring. However, as changes continued in the area, they proved to be more favorable to Mount-Sion, which then became the site of popularity. Mount-Sion’s rise in favor was further aided by houses being “wheeled on sledges” from Southborough, Rusthall, and Mount-Ephraim and rebuilt there in what was called the new “seat of favour.”

With these changes, the area that would become known as the spa town Tunbridge Wells began to attract “low company” and because “indecencies [were] encouraged, it soon became disreputable for any of the ladies to be seem there; which as a natural consequence, very quickly reduced it to … [a] ruinous condition.”[4] Still the waters in the area continued to be known to cure both animals and people, and this encouraged visitors and an influx of residence to the area for health reasons.

With all the visitors and new residents, it was decided that a chapel had to be built “lest the distance from every church, together with the various amusements and continual dissipations of a public place, should entire suspend the attention due to religious duties.”[5] Using subscriptions, it was completed and later a charity school for poor boys and girls was finished nearby.

Spa town Tunbridge Wells detail from 1719

Detail from a 1719 engraving of the spa town Tunbridge Wells, including the Chapel. Author’s collection.

As the area became more proper with its chapel and charity school, it drew royals to visit. In 1688, a Danish princess appeared there and in 1698, Queen Anne brought her 9-year-old son Prince William, Duke of Gloucester for a visit. The prince unfortunately fell on a slippery surface while there and so before the Queen left, she provided money to pave the walks. The person given the money decided the Queen would never return and delayed the paving. However, she did return and when she found the walks still uncompleted, she found a more reliable person, who then completed them as requested.

Royalty continued to sporadically visit the area after Queen Anne. For example, in 1739, Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, appeared at the spa town. The second daughter of King George II of Great Britain and Queen Caroline, Princess Amelia, visited in 1762 with her young brother William, Duke of Cumberland. More visits by royalty followed in 1765 when the Duke of York and the Duke of Gloucester visited at the same time and were welcomed with a triple discharge of eighteen pieces of cannon.

Because of all the royal visits and continual improvements, the spa town Tunbridge Wells became popular and it resulted in Jasper Sprange writing an eighteenth-century guidebook about the area. Of the Tunbridge area he stated:

“The place itself is now in a very flourishing state, with a great number of good houses for lodgings, and all necessary accommodations for company; its customs are settled, its pleasure regulated, its markets and all other conveniences fixed, and the whole very properly adapted to the nature of a place, which is at once designed to give health and pleasure to all its visitants.”[6]

Of course, the health benefits achieved from the chalybeate waters was the greatest draw. These medicinal waters were claimed to be beneficial for digestion, circulation, and nervous female complaints, along with supposedly aiding anyone in a delicate or weakened state. The water was said to be extremely “bright” and “clear” and it was reported to have a pleasing taste with no perceptible odor and no “sort of colour.” Moreover, supposedly because the Tunbridge spring was placed so deep in the “bowels” of the earth neither scorching sunlight nor severe frosts could affect the temperature.

The waters were stated to be at their “highest perfection” between the months of May and October, which did not necessarily mean that their health benefits were confined to these months. Sprange’s guidebook stated, “it is an allowed fact that in hard frost, the Tunbridge-Water is stronger than at any other time … and the water consequently rendered more pentetrative and active … from whence arises an encrease of efficacy in many cases.”[7] However, it was not the just the water that was said to be beneficial because the air was said to “most certainly excel,” and, in fact, its beneficial properties were touted in the following ways:

“The country is not so low and moist as to be subject to thick fogs, or any marks of a vaporous air; neither is it raised to such an exalted height as to have its atmosphere too much rarified, or be too much exposed to the bleak norther or eastern winds. … The soil of the country in general is tolerably fruitful, and even the most barren parts of it are easily cultivated, which evidences that the air, though naturally dry, is not too sharp and rigid for the human constitution; and the multitude of sweet herbs, as wild thyme, &c, with which the whole country is overspread, affords a solid proof of its sweetness and purity. …

And in all probability the air of Tunbridge-Wells has the additional advantage of being in some degree, impregnated with the effluvia of those healthful ingredients with which the water so eminently abounds; and, if this is the case, it must of course not only render the fruit, the herbs, and the other aliments of the country, more wholesome, but also by this means, as well as by function of the lungs, and regular drinking, convey the salutary properties of the water into the minutest vessels of the body.”[8]

The spa town Tunbridge Wells was claimed to abound within its immediate neighborhood with all sorts of springs filled with mineral water. However, only two of these springs were “adjudged the best” in 1786:

“[These two springs were] inclosed with a handsome triangular stone wall; and within this wall, are surrounded by a well paved area, into which you descend by a few steps, thro’ a handsome gateway. Over the springs are placed two convenient basons of Portland stone, with perforations at the bottom, through which they received the water, and with an opening on the edge to discharge the overflowings.”[9]

Spa town Tunbridge Wells frotispiece to Thomas Rawlins' book

Frontispiece to Thomas Rawlins “Tunbridge-Wells: or, A day’s courtship” that shows twelve figures drinking around a well. Courtesy of British Museum.

When describing the area in 1786, Sprange stated:

Tunbridge Wells … is partly built in Tunbridge parish, partly in Frant Parish, and partly in Speldhurst parish; and consists of four little villages named Mount-Ephraim, Mount-Pleasant, Mount-Sion, and the Wells; which, all united together, form a considerable town; whole boundaries are Tunbridge on the north, Lamberhurst on the east, a large and partly uncultivated Forest on the south, and East-Grinstead on the west.

The Wells, properly so called, is the center of business and pleasure, because there are the Markets, the Medicinal Water, the Chapel, the Assembly-Rooms, and the Public Parades.

These parades are usually called the Upper and the Lower Walk; the first being neatly paved with square brick, raised about four steps above the other, and particularly appropriated to the company; the second remains unpaved, and is chiefly used by country people and servants.

On the right hand of the paved walk in the way from the Wells is the Public Parade, whereon is one of the Assembly-Rooms, the Library, the Coffee-House, the Post-Office, Tunbridge Ware, Milliners and different kind of Toy-shops, &c. A portico is extended the whole length of the parade, supported by Tuscan pillars, for the company to walk under occasionally: on the left hand is a row of large flourishing trees, in the midst of which is a gallery for the music; and the whole is separate from the lower walk by a range of neat pallisadoes.

In this place are three principal Taverns, viz, the Sussex, the Kentish, and the New-Inn and Tavern; which are improved on every occasion, with a becoming spirit, by the proprietors, insomuch that they are remarked for their great conveniencies and good accommodations. … a whole site of new and handsome apartments, both for dining, and bed rooms, have been built lately, in addition to the tavern, and are pleasantly situated. The Assembly Room have likewise been beautified and ornamented in an elegant neatness, agreeable to the present taste.[10]

As the area improved visitors in the late 1700s included elite Londoners like Jane Austen‘s Aunt Philadelphia and her daughter Eliza de Feuillide, who went there often for the benefit of her ill son. Another visitor was Lady Elizabeth Cumberland. She had married Lord Edward Bentinck, a British politician who sat in the House of Commons. William Pitt the Younger, a prominent British Tory statesman of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries who became Prime Minister, also visited the spa town Tunbridge Wells hoping to alleviate his gout issues that plagued him.

In the early nineteenth century, although the area in large part remained much the same, by 1824 there were some noted changes in Tunbridge Wells. A guidebook written at this time reported:

“The wells are a hundred yards above the sea; and the position of the hamlet proves very inviting, the houses appearing like a large town in a wood. The turf on the common is covered during the summer with flocks of sheep, and pedestrians, equestrians, and assinarians, of all ranks, sexes, and ages; asses being first brought into fashion here. …

The parades, usually called the Upper and Lower Walk, run parallel to each other, and are much frequented. The former was once covered with pantiles … but in 1793 it was paved by subscription with Purbeck-stone. … There are two assembly-rooms; the one on the Public walks, which was formerly conducted with prodigious success under the auspices of Beau Nash; the other adjoins the Sussex Tavern. … A species of portico, supported by wooden Tuscan pillars, runs the entire length of the principal walk, and affords and agreeable shelter from the sun and rain. Below this are shops of jewellery, Tunbridge wares, &c. …

Private balls, too, are frequently given by people of fashion in the height of the season; and on these occasions elegant suppers are generally superadded. Another species of Tunbridge amusement consists in parties to the High Rocks [consisting of numerous ‘eminences’ that average about forty feet although several were above seventy feet high] … Excursions to the noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, and many remarkable places in the adjacent country, some of which will be particularised, furnish another pleasurable employment of time at Tunbridge Wells. … Above all, the more serious and reflecting part of the company will perhaps find the Circulating Libraries, replete with the most rational amusement. … The bookseller’s shop has, indeed, one advantage over the coffee-house, because there the ladies are admitted to enhance the charms of society, and to diffuse a softer polish over the manners of the company.”[11]

Entrance to the pantiles at Tunbridge Wells. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

The population in and around Tunbridge Wells continued to grow. Improvements made to the town such as gas lighting and a police service meant that by 1837 the town population had swelled to 9,100. An omnibus service was set up in 1842 that allowed Victorian era visitors to arrive from London within two hours, and in 1845 the town was linked to the railway network via a branch from South Eastern Railway’s London-Hastings Hastings Line at Tonbridge. Thus, with easier access, more people visited.

Spa town Tunbridge Wells with an 1860 engraving of the Calverley Hotel

An 1860 engraving of the Calverley Hotel, on Decimus Burton’s Calverley estate. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The spa town Tunbridge Wells was still going strong during Victorian Times. Like the late 1700 and early 1800s, the public parade remained a favorite walk although now it was more likely filled with nursemaids and children rather than the fashionable or the elite. Jewelry boutiques, millinery shops, and books stores remained but now were added the latest photography shops. Tunbridge toys were still being sold but wares were now more popular and consisted of “writing-desks, dressing cases, work-boxes, and a great variety of small articles, executed in mosaic work by the use of various woods.”[12] In addition, a new guidebook about the area was published in 1881. It focused more on rambles that could be taken in the local area, and of the spa town Tunbridge Wells it stated:

“All that is now changed, … from being the favourite resort of aristocratic profligacy, [is that] Tunbridge Wells has become one of the most orderly and thriving towns in England. ‘The erection, within the last forty years, of about twenty churches and chapels … has had a large share in the settlement of many quiet and religious families.’”[13]


  • [1] J. Sprange, The Tunbridge Wells Guide … Or, An Account of the Ancient and Present State of that Place (Tunbridge Wells: J. Sprange, 1786), p. 20.
  • [2] Ibid, p. 21.
  • [3] Ibid, p. 26.
  • [4] Ibid, p. 32.
  • [5] Ibid, p. 35.
  • [6] Ibid, p. 44.
  • [7] Ibid, p. 63.
  • [8] Ibid, p. 46.
  • [9] Ibid, p. 49–50.
  • [10] Ibid, p. 81–83.
  • [11] A Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places in England and Wales, with a description of the Lakes; a sketch of a tour in Wales, and Itineraries … Illustrated with maps and views. By the Editor of the Picture of London (London, 1824), p. 35, 37, 40, 41.
  • [12] Round Tunbridge Wells: A Handy Guide to Rambles in the District (London: T Fisher Unwin, 1883), p. 11.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 14.

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