Royal Tunbridge Wells (often shortened to Tunbridge Wells) is a large town and Borough in west Kent, England, about south-east of central London by road, by rail. The town is close to the border of the county of East Sussex. It is situated at the northern edge of the High Weald, the sandstone geology of which is exemplified by the rock formations at the Wellington Rocks and High Rocks.
The town came into being as a spa in Georgian times and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Beau Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. Though its popularity waned with the advent of sea bathing, the town remains popular and derives some 30% of its income from the tourist industry.
The town has a population of around 56,500 and is the administrative centre of Tunbridge Wells Borough and the UK parliamentary constituency of Tunbridge Wells. In the United Kingdom Royal Tunbridge Wells has a reputation as being the archetypal conservative "Middle England" town, a stereotype that is typified by the fictional letter-writer "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells".
Evidence suggests that during the Iron Age people farmed the fields and mined the iron-rich rocks in the Tunbridge Wells area, and excavations in 1940 and 1957–61 by James Money at High Rocks uncovered the remains of a defensive hill-fort. It is thought that the site was occupied into the era of Roman Britain, and the area continued to be part of the Wealden iron industry until its demise in the late eighteenth century – indeed, an iron forge remains in the grounds of Bayham Abbey, in use until 1575 and documented until 1714.
The area which is now Tunbridge Wells was part of the parish of Speldhurst for hundreds of years, but the origin of the town as it is today, however, came in the seventeenth century. In 1606 Dudley, Lord North, a courtier to James I who was staying at a hunting lodge in Eridge in the hope that the country air might improve his ailing constitution, discovered a chalybeate spring. He drank from the spring and, when his health improved, he became convinced that it had healing properties. He persuaded his rich friends in London to try it, and by the time Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, visited in 1630 it had established itself as a spa retreat. By 1636 it had become so popular that two houses were built next to the spring to cater for the visitors, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen, and in 1664 Lord Muskerry, Lord of the Manor, enclosed it with a triangular stone wall, and built a hall "to shelter the dippers in wet weather."
Until 1676 little permanent building took place – visitors were obliged either to camp on the downs or to find lodgings at Southborough, – but at this time houses and shops were erected on the walks, and every "convenient situation near the springs" was built upon. Also in 1676 a subscription for a "chapel of ease" was opened, and in 1684 the Church of King Charles the Martyr was duly built and the town began to develop around it. In 1787 Edward Hasted described the new town as consisting of four small districts, "named after the hills on which they stand, Mount Ephraim, Mount Pleasant and Mount Sion; the other is called the Wells..."
"They have made the wells very commodious by the many good building all about it and two or three miles around which are lodgings for the company that drink the waters. 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. 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 two large coffee houses for tea, chocolate etc and two rooms for the lottery and hazard board (i.e. for gambling)." —Celia Fiennes, 1697
By the early nineteenth century Tunbridge Wells experienced growth as a place for the well-to-do to visit and make their homes. It became a fashionable resort town again following visits by the Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and benefited from a new estate on Mount Pleasant and the building of the Trinity church in 1827, and improvements made to the town and the provision of facilities such as gas lighting and a police service meant that by 1837 the town population had swelled to 9,100. In 1842 an omnibus service was set up that ran from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells, enabling 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. During this time Decimus Burton developed John Ward's Calverley Park estate.
In 1889 the town was awarded the status of a Borough, and it entered the 20th century in a prosperous state. 1902 saw the opening of an Opera House, and in 1909 the town received its "Royal" prefix. Due to its position in South East England, during the First World War Tunbridge Wells was made a headquarters for the army, and its hospitals were used to treat soldiers who had been sent home with a "blighty wound"; the town also received 150 Belgian refugees. The Second World War affected Tunbridge Wells in a different way – it became so swollen with refugees from London that accommodation was severely strained. Over 3,800 buildings were damaged by bombing, but only 15 people lost their lives.
Edward Hasted made the assertion that although the wells were originally named the "Queen's-Wells", they soon took on the name of Tunbridge Wells due to their proximity to the town of Tonbridge (then known as "Tunbridge"):
In compliment to [queen Henrietta Maria's] doctor, Lewis Rowzee, in his treatise on them, calls these springs the Queen's-wells; but this name lasted but a small time, and they were soon afterwards universally known by that of Tunbridge-wells, which names they acquired from the company usually residing at Tunbridge town, when they came into these parts for the benefit of drinking the waters —Edward Hasted, 1797
The prefix "Royal" dates to 1909, when King Edward VII granted the town its official "Royal" title to celebrate its popularity over the years among members of the royal family. Royal Tunbridge Wells is one of only three towns in England to have been granted this (the others being Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Wootton Bassett, which became a Royal town in 2011).
Although "Wells" has a plural form, it refers to the principal source, the chalybeate spring in the Pantiles (where the waters were taken).