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As part of our 40th birthday celebrations, we commissioned local historian, Chris Jones, to investigate the history of our building.

As part of our 40th birthday celebrations, we commissioned local historian, Chris Jones, curator of the Salomons Museum in Southborough, to investigate the history of our building, Napier House in Tunbridge Wells (14-16 Mount Ephraim Road). His fascinating research uncovered something of the lives of the people who have lived and worked in our building over the years.

Here is just a small part of his research:

 Napier House, as its address indicates, was originally two houses: Napier House, at number 16, and Havelock House, at number 14. They were built in 1865, and their original function was as lodging houses (rather than two large houses, that we always imagined). This sounds a little down-market, perhaps, but the visitors to Tunbridge Wells, whom the houses were intended to serve, were a wealthy and cultured lot, who would have expected the highest standards. The houses might be thought of, rather, as exclusive private hotels.

The names chosen for the houses were part of the branding, designed to appeal to a nationalistic customer base, proud of the developing British Empire. Napier, Gen. Charles James, had captured the Indian province of Sindh some 20 years earlier. Havelock, Gen. Sir Henry, had raised the siege of Lucknow, in the 1850s during the Indian ‘Mutiny’. Statues of both men can be seen in Trafalgar Square.

The unusual layout of numbers 14/16 seeks to make best use of a restricted site and yet present an imposing symmetrical façade. The layout on all four floors is very similar. Had these been normal houses we might have been able to identify the likely uses of individual rooms, but it is more difficult in a lodging house. The basement probably held the kitchen and accommodation for the lodging housekeeper and her staff.

The ground floor may have had a dining room and drawing rooms shared by guests, while the top two floors held the rooms/suites taken by the visitors. Obviously, changes have been made over time, perhaps most noticeably in the position of the stairs.

The reason that we can date Napier House to 1865, is that the local Tunbridge Wells paper, the Gazette, provided regular lists of residents and visitors. Napier and Havelock House appear on those lists in 1865 but not earlier. Of the five visitors to the house in that 1865 list we can positively identify only one: Lt Col Penton, who was probably Henry Penton (1817-1882). He was from a landowning family in north London (thus Pentonville).

Further details of visitors are available from the Maidstone Journal which provided lists of visitors to Tunbridge Wells. In October 1870 we find the Rev F and Mrs Vidal staying at Havelock House. He was an Anglican clergyman, born in Jamaica who taught at Eton, and had a parish for a while in New South Wales. Mrs Vidal was Mary Theresa, who has been described as ‘Australia’s first female novelist ‘ – she published about a dozen books.

The visitors appear to be of a certain type: wealthy, cultured, established. What was the attraction? William Thackeray was staying less than 100 yards away when he wrote this of the Common in the early 1860s: ‘What an admirable scene of peace and plenty! What a delicious air breathes over the heath, blows the cloud shadows across it, and murmurs through the full-clad trees! Can the world show a land fairer, richer, more cheerful?’

By the end of the century the visitor economy was changing. There were more hotels, which offered direct competition to the lodging houses. One response was to offer longer-term accommodation, to more permanent residents rather than just visitors. In the 1911 census Mrs Foote described her occupation as ‘private apartments’ rather than ‘lodging-house keeper’.

Edith Augusta James was probably one such resident, who seems to have been at Napier Mansions from 1894 to the end of 1898 (though it may be that she actually spent each winter in Paris). Edith was an artist and she seems to have concentrated on pictures of flowers and young children.

Her work in Tunbridge Wells was rather different though. In 1892 she did a portrait of Henry Crundwell, Chairman of the Southborough District Council; and in 1894 was commissioned by the Tunbridge Wells Tradesmen’s Association to paint one of Thomas Fox Simpson, legal advisor to the recently-established Borough of Tunbridge Wells.

Nothing is known of the houses during the First World War. Classified adverts in the local paper advertising for staff, and for items lost and found, suggest that life there continued as before. But life after the war was very different.

There were changes in the type of resident. In 1922 Mr Alban Gall, Cambridge graduate at no.1 Napier Mansions, was offering tuition in elementary subjects (and claiming to be ‘successful with backward boys’). He was active in the YMCA and Toc H, and in debating societies and amateur dramatics (dressing up as ‘an exquisite’ from the time of Beau Nash on one occasion).

Francis Foote advertised himself as ‘Professor of Music’, offering tuition in violin and singing, and listing all the famous performers under whom he had trained. He was very active in the music life of the town and had set up the Choral Society in 1904.

In 1947 the freehold was advertised for sale at auction – by Bracketts. It was described as a ‘Pair of spacious residences, approached by a semi-circular carriage drive, and containing about 20 Bedrooms, etc, 3 Bathrooms, 5 Reception Rooms and spacious Domestic Offices’.

There were still some residents in the 1950s but the ‘tone’ of the building had changed. In 1959 a Mrs EM Curtis opened a chiropodist’s surgery at number 16, and Bernard Knitwear was selling woolens from New Zealand at number 14.

The Tunbridge Wells Chamber of Trade had an office in number 14 throughout the 1960s and possibly longer; while a ‘commercial college’ opened at number 16 in 1965. Constables Commercial College taught shorthand and typing.

Through the 1970s, the building was associated with finance and insurance; National Mutual Life of Australasia were the landlords when the then partnership of Cooper and Burnett took the new lease of the converted building, commencing 3 November 1984.

If you’d like to discover more about the history of our building, please contact us.

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April 13, 2021
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