Edwardian Tunbridge Wells
A Lady's Town
By the turn of the twentieth century, the transformation of Tunbridge Wells from spa resort to residential commuter town with a reputation as bastion of genteel manners was well under way. This reputation is reflected in the Daily Telegraph’s romanticised 1913 description of ‘old clinker-built houses, Isabella-coloured and slated’, ‘palatial modern streets’ which offered ‘the combination of the town and country’. Tunbridge Wells was imagined as ‘the most English part of England’ and inhabited, according the Standard of the same year, by ‘that happy class of Londoners who have not quite given up being business-men and have not completely retired and settled down’.
The town had experienced population growth in the final decade of the nineteenth century and when the census was taken in 1901, 59% of the town's population was shown to be female, compared with 51% for the rest of Kent and 52% for country as a whole.
This general picture was reflected on a smaller scale in many individual homes where widowed and single women, both those of private means and those who supported themselves by taking in boarders, headed all-female households formed of relatives, boarders and domestic servants. Six adjacent households in Mount Pleasant Road, for example, were home to twenty-seven women but not a single man. This sex-ratio amongst the local population had implications for all aspects of the town's life and could be seen reflected in economic, social, philanthropic and political arenas. Boarding houses provided living accommodation for single working women, employment agencies placed domestic servants seeking positions and a vibrant retail area catered for all pockets.
The 1890s was the decade of the ‘new woman’. The 1890s saw the invention of the safety bicycle and a resulting boom in cycling amongst women. The bicycle became, in some eyes, the symbol of women’s emancipation. Bicycles offered independence, an escape from the home, and the clothing required for comfortable cycling likewise offered freedom. American suffragette Susan B. Anthony claimed the bicycle had ''done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.''
Unaccompanied women eating a fish and chip supper at night on the street, as illustrated in a contemporary post-card, likewise suggests freedom for women at the other end of the social scale.
Large numbers of women were active in the wide range of voluntary organisations and agencies that reflect the social and political concerns of the time. These women were well placed to respond to the social change and the tumultuous events of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Page from Census Enumerator's Book, 1901; showing the all-female households at numbers 40-52 Mount Pleasant Road
source: National Archives
Page from Census Enumerator's Book, 1911: 49, Lime Hill Road, Tunbridge Wells. A boarding house offering accomodation to single, employed women
source: National Archives