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Trinity Theatre
Church Road
Tunbridge Wells
Kent, TN1 1JP

Victorian Heyday: 1837-1900

Act II:

The Dawn of a New Era

Just eight years after Holy Trinity formally opened its doors, Queen Victoria acceded to the throne. She would reign from 1837 (just three years after her Trinity visits) until her death in January 1901.

Her time as Queen oversaw an astonishing period of British history. Building on the boom in industry and technology from the century before, England was (briefly) the richest country in the world.

Alongside homegrown achievements, the country was also accruing staggering wealth by pillaging colonised countries of their treasures and labour. Through modern eyes, the expansion of the Empire is a morally troubling chapter. However, its impact has undeniably shaped a huge portion of the world.

Victorian administration was also transformative, with regulations and organisation imposed, and information collected en mass. Enterprise was flying, and the middle class was established – further reinforcing a society governed by social status.

However, poverty was also rife. Such is the popularity of the work of Charles Dickens – perhaps the best-known author and social commentator of this time – that it’s easy for most people to picture the sharp contrasts of Britain then. His novels reflect the chasm between street urchins and their jewellery-laden targets; between upright moral guardians and a shady underworld.

The highs and lows of this era – the morals, perspectives, and opportunities – are reflected just as clearly in Trinity’s own records. Who was at Trinity during the 19th century and why also gives us a glimpse into other societal shifts – of new ways to make money, to spend leisure time, and of the hardships and illnesses that plagued this era, too.

Victorian bureaucracy (thank you, census!), means that this period is one of the most well-documented in our history. And, despite the many changes to the building, the impact of the people who were involved with Trinity in this era very clearly remain. So, who were they?

The Upper Echelons

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘if only walls could talk’. Well, here’s the good news – Trinity’s can! Or rather, the memorial tablets placed there do. Often exquisitely carved, these love letters to the dead were set austerely in granite and marble to ensure that their message of remembrance would last.

And boy, have they. Some have even managed to remain in their original position, despite the world and building changing drastically around them. Of course, others have been moved completely. Please check back in our blog section in the near future for details on these and what we plan to do for them. Equally, please spare a thought for Harry, Trinity’s technical manager, who will have the Herculean task of working out those logistics!

We’ll also be posting up on the ‘People of Trinity’ pages about the people memorialised. We promise it’ll be worth the wait to read about our arctic explorers, fallen heroes, dissolute poets, strong women, and – sadly inevitably in this time – tiny babies.

In a time when many people left at best a fragile paper footprint, these memorials are valuable clues about the lives of Trinity’s wealthier congregants. They also reflect the spectrum of people that made up local high society.

Many people still came to Tunbridge Wells for their health and were just travelling through; otherwise lived here permanently. Others died abroad, seeking a fortune in the East Indies or other colonial hotspots.

Lots of the wealthy in ‘new’ Tunbridge Wells were not aristocracy but people who had made their fortune through trade or profession. For example, many of the residents of the flagship ‘suburb’ of Calverley Park were self-made merchants and doctors. We know that many of them worshipped here, including John Newton, the father of Charles Newton and the commissioner of his memorial.

Artistic Merit

The memorial tablets can also be admired in terms of their sculptors. We’re lucky enough to showcase work by Richard Westmacott the Younger (Lieutenant Charles Newton) and William Behnes (Maria Thomas), whose own lives are fascinating in themselves and just as revealing as their subjects’. Will we be writing more about this soon? How did you guess?

Patrons and Power

How eminent the sculptor was also gives a sense of the power of the family that commissioned them. For example, Maria Thomas came from the distinguished Woodgate family (her brother Henry was the first vicar here, and her father owned Summerhill and Tonbridge Castle).

But Trinity was not just for the wealthy, as its quota of free seats indicates. All kinds of people worshiped within its walls. Those with the most money and power left the biggest mark. As well as the memorials, outdoors the largest tombs indicate the most noteworthy individuals. These include that of Major General Elias Walker Durnford (the designer of the citadel at Quebec), the poet and author Horatio Horace Smith, and the Beeching family’s tomb. The Beechings founded the bank that is now Lloyds TSB, then called Beeching’s Bank (taking a marketing tip from Ronseal there).

However, our surviving graves plus the parish records give a glimpse of the cross-section of Tunbridge Wells society during those times, and reveal all kinds of lives. For example, one beautifully written marriage Banns record shows Baronets marrying next to basket makers.

The Churchyard

We cannot see Trinity’s cemetery as it was then, but we know from plans like the below that thousands were buried, all vying for space long before the car park was built.

annotated map of graves from 1830, Holy Trinity Church, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
A graveyard plan from the 19th century, showing the volume of burials at Holy Trinity Church

This scale of burials contained in this map really underlines the extent to which Trinity was also filled with local working families. Professionals, tradespeople, servants and the poor all rubbed shoulders (or crinolines) with the elite. These included the makers of the much sought-after Tunbridge Ware, and the founder of the M Saltmarsh art shop (which still thrives today). All of their lives were just as intrinsic to the fabric of the town.

What Lies Beneath

In a society shaped by class and wealth, what we can read on the headstones today varies greatly according to how much the deceased person’s family could afford. How much was written, and what stone it was carved upon, both have an impact.

If you wander around you can make out many of the faded inscriptions – with the largest tombs mostly in the best condition. Changes to the building and the plot in the 20th Century have meant that many headstones were moved and placed against the walls. Along with physical grave restoration one of our key future projects will be to move some of these stones to look at what’s behind them and add to our knowledge of who is buried where.

It’s impossible to decipher the paupers’ graves, many of whom would have come from the workhouse at Pembury. These were unmarked to begin with, and now lie deep beneath our car-park. It’s another (huge and potentially impossible) future project to try to identify those buried here. However, their stories are just as important, however unhappy.

As of 2022, in conjunction with Friends of Trinity Cemetery (who have an excellent website with information on lots of our graves and memorials) we’re also looking to uncover the stories of the many lives that intertwined with this building. You can read more about them in the coming months. However, even with what we know now, markers of the dead give a fascinating cross-section of Tunbridge Wells society.

Some people buried at Trinity have descendants still living in the area today. If you are one, please let us know! Some we know about already, including the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, whose great-grandfather is buried in the churchyard. Did your ancestor rub shoulders with him?

Last But By No Means Least

We haven’t yet addressed one utterly central type of person involved with Trinity: those running the church itself! The Reverends and Curates all guided and assisted their ever-growing Parish. Yet one man would elevate this role to incredible proportions, and have an impact on the town we can still feel today. Prepare to meet Canon Edward Hoare. SWOON!

Tunbridge Wells’ Spiritual Heart(throb)

Outside Trinity one Sunday, you join crowd of hundreds who have been queuing for hours to enter the building. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a member of rock, Hollywood or traditional Royalty was visiting (or that Johnny Depp had pre-publicised a follow-up visit to Folly Wildlife Rescue). However, between the years 1853 and 1894, you would in fact have been jostling to listen to the sermons of Canon Hoare.

Photograph of Canon Edwrad Hoare, vicar of Holy Trinity Church Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Canon Edward Hoare

You might recognise Canon Hoare’s name from the quote on our Heritage home page, which showed the depth of his influence upon the town. As we’ve discussed, Trinity was built as part of a wider campaign to boost religion to prevent revolution. It enjoyed some excellent vicars – all of whom played an admirable part in making Trinity a successful Parish and in banishing the looser morals of former centuries (well, at least on the surface).

However, it was Edward Hoare, appointed at the peak of Victorian piety, who became the most outstanding Anglican pin-up – the John Lennon to the rest of the Beatles if you will – or, in Victorian speak, the ‘Protestant Pontiff’ of the town.

As well as multiple testimonies from his contemporaries and peers, Canon Hoare’s memoirs and letters give a fascinating insight to what made the man so special. He is not completely exempt from some of the now outdated social views of his time – and be warned that he was not a fan of the ‘Church of Rome’. However, his gentleness, humbleness, empathy and humour shine clearly from each page. They create a picture of warmth and dedication that transcends any era.

It has been said that if Decimus Burton influenced the design of Tunbridge Wells, Edward Hoare shaped its character. Canon Hoare deserves (and will get) a blog post all to himself. Suffice to say that this cricket-loving, single-parenting, pro-abolition, sermon-smashing, highly philanthropic individual is well worth a read.

Some of the local achievements made by Canon Hoare included the building of new churches, the building of the girls’ school (which he also taught at), and the founding of a women’s Bible study group. He also did a lot of fundraising for those less fortunate than himself. Philanthropy was in his blood, as the nephew of Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer. He touched thousands of lives, and the outpouring of grief at his funeral was immense.

He is not buried at Trinity (by that time the popularity of the town had ensured the churchyard was already full) but in the nearby Woodbury Park Cemetery. You can also view his memorial on St. John’s Road.

Edward Hoare memorial vicar of holy trinity church tunbridge wells kent
Edward Hoare memorial

Here’s the Canon’s summary of his time at Tunbridge Wells – which also neatly describes Holy Trinity in the second half of the 19th century:

‘I can scarcely imagine a better sphere for the ministry than that which I have been permitted to occupy for nearly thirty-six years. I have had a large Parish, which, after four parochial districts have been taken from it, still contains more than six thousands persons, the population consisting of a well-proportioned mixture of gentry, tradesmen, and poor.

… I have had an excellent church, which, though I do not suppose it would satisfy the ecclesiologist, I have found to be the most commodious for the worship of God. There are three things in it quite at variance with modern fashion: instead of an open roof to generate cold in winter, heat in summer, and echo at all times, we have had a flat ceiling to protect us from the climate; and instead of having the people spread far and wide on the ground floor, there are deep galleries along three sides of the church, containing nearly six hundred persons, all within ear-shot; and instead of a low pulpit scarcely raising the preacher above the heads of his hearers there is an old-fashioned “three decker” of sufficient height to enable the preacher to see the whole of his congregation.’

Canon Hoare only retired from preaching two months before his death, by which time he was severely ill and blind. By the time of his death he’d left a profound legacy, not in the least the enthusiasm of his successor. Beneath him Trinity had thrived so much, and Tunbridge Wells’ population increased so much, that he had instigated and overseen the development of new parishes.

Surely, in this position of power as the nineteenth century drew to a close, nothing could go possibly go wrong.

Could it?

Was that a distant thunderclap we heard? Gulp!