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Trinity Theatre
Church Road
Tunbridge Wells
Kent, TN1 1JP

Georgian Beginnings: 1820 to 1837

Act 1: The Need for a Church….

In the Beginning….

Our story truly begins in the 1820s, when Tunbridge Wells was experiencing a startling population boom. However, to understand the need for the church at that point, it is important to travel back a further 200 years, to the town’s origin.

In 1606 a young, possibly hungover, nobleman called Lord North ‘discovered’ the Chalybeate spring while riding in the Wealden woodland. The mineral-rich water that Lord North drank appeared to cure him of all his ailments. As rumour spread of its restorative properties, the area began to be frequented by his peers – Royalty and the aristocracy.

picture of Dudley Lord North who discovered the Chalybeate Spring that would lead to the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent being built
Portrait of Dudley, Lord North

As its popularity and reputation grew, visitors graduated from camping on the common to staying in purpose-built houses, and  buying their provisions from permanent shops. A settlement therefore grew up around the spring, creating the area we know as The Pantiles today.

It became an increasingly fashionable and popular resort in the 1700s as great numbers of people came to take the waters (and enjoy all sorts of less wholesome pursuits, although that’s another story). To accommodate the visitors, a town (then more of a village) began to slowly spread out as you can see in this wonderful map by Jan Kip. It eventually included the area’s first hamlets such as Mount Sion, Mount Pleasant and Mount Ephraim. However, the town was still a seasonal hotspot.

The Need for a Church

That changed in the early 1800s when sea-bathing became en vogue. Suddenly, the fashionable set moved to seaside towns for the benefits of the saltwater and sea air (and other pursuits, as above), and the demand for the spring dwindled. However, rather than the town fade away, people sought to live permanently in Tunbridge Wells instead, and made their living outside of tourism.

This was so popular that the town’s population soon outstripped its infrastructure, both practically (for example, there was a separate campaign for adequate drainage) and spiritually. There was no Parish church. King Charles the Martyr, then a chapel, was the only public place of worship, and could only accommodate a certain number of people. The Spring that Lord North discovered also lay on the cusp of three ancient – relatively distant – Parishes (of Tonbridge, Frant and Speldhurst) and so the town that now surrounded it did not have its own.

This was a problem. Beyond needing a conveniently local place that was big enough to allow everyone to pray, residents also needed somewhere official to be married, and christen their babies. And in the time of cholera, smallpox and other horrors, they also needed somewhere to bury their dead: for Tunbridge Wells also lacked a cemetery.

The Bigger Picture

These local issues were pressing enough. In addition, the political and spiritual landscape of England, (and indeed Europe and America), was changing. Since the late 18th century, revolutions of monarchies and industry were transforming how people lived. This era arguably saw the greatest intellectual and technological leaps since Ancient Greece. Those developments (along with international trade and colonial exploitation) were about to make England the richest country in the world.

Many people made a fortune, making luxury accessible not just to those who inherited their wealth, but to those who had triumphed through entrepreneurship. However, at the same time, poverty was rife, and many traditional ways to make a living were being undermined by machinery.

Uprisings and demand for social reform followed the victory of the Napoleonic Wars – and England’s monarchy and government did not want a return to the Turbulence of the Interregnum years. Religion was seen as the antidote to revolution, leading to the Prince Regent (later George IV) to declare in 1818 the need for more churches. This in turn led to the first Church Building Act being passed in Parliament the same year, making money available for exactly that.

The Building Committee

This convergence of national and local interest therefore saw, on 25th August 1824, the great and the good of the town come together in a public meeting to discuss the need for a new church. From this meeting a ‘Building Committee’ was formed.

You might recognise the names of some of its members today, who left a mark which is still easy to spot, such as The Marquess Camden and The Earl of Abergavenny. Others might not sound instantly familiar, but have a legacy which is central to Trinity and other parts of the town. These include the landowner John Ward (who was the proprietor of Calverley Estate among lots of other areas) and Dr Thomas Thomson, who sold the land for the church to be built on.

A Commissioner’s Church

The Committee also set about fundraising from the community – the first example of many since Trinity’s existence! Books of subscription were opened at the libraries on the Pantiles. The Committee also went to the Church Building Commission (the administrative body for the Church Building Act mentioned above) for exchequer funds, who supplied the majority of the budget for the work (£8,059 of £10,591). Due to this, Holy Trinity (or ‘the New Church’ as it was imaginatively first known) is part of a group of churches nationally known as ‘Commissioners Churches’.

The Architect

Decimus Burton, original architect of Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Decimus Burton

With money in hand, the Building Committee then needed an architect to realise their vision. They chose (and the Church Commission duly appointed) wunderkid Decimus Burton. Decimus (1800 – 1881) was barely 24 at the time of his appointment, but he had already achieved great things since his practice began in 1821. Some of his public works included the Wellington Arch, the Ionic Screen at Hyde Park Corner, some of the layout of London Zoo and the Athenaeum Club. You can read more about him in the coming weeks on our ‘People of Trinity’ page.

Decimus was also fairly local, having grown up at Mabledon House, near Tonbridge. He was probably known to the Committee because he designed a mansion for John Ward the year before. John would later also commission him to design the ground-breaking Calverley New Town plan, which began in 1828 and made a huge impact on the look and feel of Tunbridge Wells forever more.

Trinity was not an official part of Decimus’s Calverley New Town vision, but its proximity and its style have always made it an essential component of the estate’s concept. Viewed in this way, it is doubly interesting. As the famous architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner put it, Trinity is ‘of exceptional importance both from the point of view of its sitting with the Calverley Estate and also in respect of its architect Decimus Burton.’ You can’t argue with that…

Map of Decimus Burton's Calverley Park and Plain, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, from the 1820s
The map of the original Calverley Park site


The Architecture

Like many of his peers, Decimus drew inspiration from a variety of architectural styles throughout his career. Some of his work was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Others, like Trinity, were drawn from the increasingly fashionable revival of interest in the gothic architecture of the medieval era. This style is often referred to as ‘Georgian Gothick’.

Many of the most interesting points of Trinity’s design, from its window arches to its sculpted heads are very similar to examples shown in a seminal architectural text on ‘Gothick’: Augustus Charles Pugin’s Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1822). Pugin’s examples came from various 13th and 14th century buildings including Westminster Abbey. Due to their similarities, it’s very likely that this book was a point of reference. You can read more about it in Dr. Philip Whitbourn’s excellent monograph, available at Trinity.

Burton’s design for the church was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827 (and again in 1829), showcasing the elements that we can admire today. We believe that the below watercolour, of Holy Trinity Church, was actually by Decimus Burton himself. It not only looks like his work, but contains details that were designed but never built such as the additional part of the Priory.

watercolour of Holy Trinity Church, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Probably by Decimus Burton, the architect of the building.
Watercolour of Holy Trinity Church, most likely by Decimus Burton

It’s worth noting that while it was celebrated at the time, Decimus’s style fell out of favour for a period, when Gothick became unpopular. Luckily those days are long past, and the building is respected and enjoyed again as an excellent example of Burton’s work and an important part of the town’s architecture.

Decimus’s Design

The church was designed to seat 1,500 people, with 800 of those seats being free. The rest were paid for by wealthier patrons.

The church’s layout was relatively simple: a rectangular body with a small projection on the Eastern side for an altar, with porches on either side, and a western tower between two vestibules.

In addition to the many examples of Decimus’s architectural flair in its details listed above, the building’s showstoppers include its spectacular stained glass window by Joseph Hale Miller. This can be found on the Eastern Wall (and was actually added in 1839) and is a rare example of the artist’s work.

The other landmark is, of course, our magnificent tower! Interestingly, it looks as though the this was originally an uncertain addition to Burton’s plans. Records from the time show that the Church Commission agreed it could be built, but wouldn’t fund it. As such, when the Building Committee sent out tenders for the building work they provided two figures – one with and one without the tower.  (The ‘terminal cross’, which tops the Eastern side of the building, was also an extra).

However – spoiler alert – as the eagle-eyed may have noticed, the money was found and the tower was funded! Its ‘battlemented’ pinnacle has been a Tunbridge Wells landmark for almost two centuries. Visitors will be able to see the tower up close from the autumn of 2022, when the public will be able climb and enjoy the tower’s view for the first time.

Finally, the church was completed by its much-needed graveyard. Burial plots flanked it on all sides except the South, which had a big sweeping driveway to let the carriages deliver the wealthy to church. Unfortunately, the churchyard was soon full – but we’ll come to that later.

More than just bricks and mortar…

And on the subject of the brick, the stone that the church is built in was also sourced locally. It came from John Ward’s Calverley Quarry – the same stone was used to build the Calverley Estate. The stone would originally have been a creamy colour, but weathers to the shade that it is today. The quarry was where Quarry Road is now – so if you live there, you should know that our building and many others came from right under your feet!

The builders were a local firm – Messrs Barrett and Sons – which consisted of Henry and Aaron Barrett, with Aaron leading the charge. Aaron worshipped in Holy Trinity, which we know because, tragically, his two children are buried here. You can find out more about Aaron and his family in our ‘People of Trinity’ segment soon.


And – finally! – a Church is Born

On the Duchess of Kent’s birthday, 17th August 1827, Trinity’s foundation stone was laid. We know that The Duchess and the Princess Victoria (later Queen) were in Tunbridge Wells that summer, and while we don’t know if they attended this ceremony,  the stone was laid in the Duchess’ honour.

This royal link was continued in future years as Victoria and her mother worshipped at Trinity several times during a visit to Tunbridge Wells between August and October 1834. As you can see from the below picture, the Royal standard flew whenever the royal party was in town.

Engraving of Holy Trinity Church, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, dedicated to Princess Victoria and her Mother the Duchess of Kent
Holy Trinity Church with Royal visitors

Holy Trinity Church opened to the public two years later, on 3rd September 1829. In what was definitely Trinity’s first ticketed event, the Bishop of Rochester consecrated the building. Trinity’s first vicar, Henry Woodgate, was in attendance, along with all of the town’s most respectable families.

The building was soon put to good use. The first baby, Charles Seamer, was christened on 11th April 1830. Less joyfully, the first burial soon followed.  Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Coxhead was interred on 30th April 1830, followed just days later by her brother.

The ‘New Church’ soon found itself at the heart of Tunbridge Wells life, especially as Decimus Burton’s ‘New Town’ suburb rose up next to it. Many more new buildings – and in the 1840s, the town’s first train station – would follow. With them came the whole spectrum of life and livelihoods that made up society at that time.

Like Britain around it, Trinity would peak in power within the next few years. Please read our next section to find out more!