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THE MANOR OF RUSTHALL

Extracted from the booklet Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons - Past and Present, published by Tunbridge Wells Museum. The booklet is out of print, although the museum has since published a revised and much expanded edition.

(c) Copyright 1993 and 1996 Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery


As a placename, Rusthall first appears in a charter of about AD765 as a swine pasture given to Deora, bishop of Rochester by Egbert, king of Kent. The original form of the name is Rustwell, thought to be derived from the chalybeate springs in the vicinity. The name change to Rusthall, occurring between 1180 and 1264, is probably a corruption due to the building of the first dwelling on the site. Another ancient placename, first attested in the 13th century, is Bishops Down, formerly a name for Tunbridge Wells Common as a whole: this relates to the fact that Rusthall Manor was originally a sub manor within Wrotham Manor, belonging to the archbishop of Canterbury until 1538.

The early history of the manor is very obscure, since its population was not large enough to constitute a village and, until the development of Tunbridge Wells, it was simply an outlying part of Speldhurst parish. But is appears to date from the 13th century. The first known holder of the manor, and probably the first in reality, Hilary de Sutton, is mentioned in the document of 1268 by which his successor Elias de Rusthall gives half his properties to Groombridge church.

The antiquity of the manor explains the existence on the edge of Rusthall Common of at least one building predating the foundation of Tunbridge Wells in the early 17th century. Two Yews Cottage in Lower Green Road bears a date of 1571 and would have been a farmhouse belonging to one of the 20 or so freehold tenants occupying the manor lands at this period. Early 19th century guides and drawings provide evidence of other antique buildings now lost.

It is not known where the mediaeval Lords of the Manor lived, although Colbran's town guide of 1839 mentions the site of a lost moated house behind the present houses on Bishops Down and three structures on Rusthall Common demolished some 50 years before, all of which were claimed to have once been the manor house. The lords of the period after 1606 never had one fixed residence, and some did not live locally at all.

The descendants of Elias de Rusthall are said to have continued in occupation until c.1450 when they sold the manor to Richard Waller of Groombridge Place. His descendants are said to have sold it to George Stacey in 1583/84, who in turn sold it to Robert Byng some time before 1595. His descendent George Byng still held it in 1658. It was during the Byng family's period of ownership that Lord Abergavenny obtained leave in 1608 to sink the first well over the chalybeate spring on the Common by Lord north two years later.

Around 1660 the manor was acquired by Lord Muskerry, who already owned (through his wife) the contiguous manor of South Frith. He improved access to the chalybeate spring, building a new enclosure with ornamental arch in 1664. He was killed in a sea battle against the Dutch in 1665, and his estates passed to his widow (later Viscountess Purbeck), who is better known as the developer of the Mount Sion and London Road areas, part of the manor of South Frith, leasing out parcels of land for development from 1684.

In 1682 Viscountess Purbeck sold Rusthall manor to Thomas Neale, master of the royal mint, who immediately set about building the first permanent wooden structures on the Pantiles site, persuading the freehold tenants to accept an annual payment in compensation for the loss of their grazing rights over what was strictly part of the Common. After these first buildings burned down in 1687, he rebuilt the Pantiles in its present form.

In 1689/90 the manor was acquired by Thomas Dashwood, who immediately sold it to his brothers, Sir Samuel and (later Sir) Francis Dashwood. They held the estate jointly until the former's death in 1705. In 1720 Sir Francis sold it to Maurice Conyers, an Irish gentleman with the alternative name of O'Connor. Conyers in well-known in local history on account of his lawsuit with the freehold tenants which broke out in 1732 after the original agreement over development of the Pantiles site expired. The tenants demanded continued compensation for loss of part of the Common, and were led by none other than William, Lord Abergavenny, the largest freeholder, whose own Eridge estate adjoined the manor at the county boundary and whose family had for many years owned land within the manor. Maurice Conyers as unsuccessful in resisting these demands, and the resulting settlement was embodied in the Rusthall Manor Act of 1739, by which the properties on the Pantiles were divided into three lots, one to go to the tenants and the others to the lord. The Act also guaranteed the Commons against further encroachment without mutual agreement of the lord and the majority of freeholders, and is the foundation for their survival today.

On Maurice Conyer's death in 1740/1, the manor passed to his son John O'Connor who, perhaps because the estate was 'vastly out of repair', decided to dispose of it. In 1758 he sold the estate to (later Sir) George Kelley, whose descendants have held it ever since. He was a medical doctor who eventually rose to become Sheriff of Kent and had lived in Tunbridge Wells since the 1740s. In 1743 he married Joanna Cock of Tunbridge Wells, who is probably to be identified with the owner of a house on the site of the present Spa Hotel indicated on Bowra's map of 1738; it is deduced that it was there that the couple settled. In addition to the manor, George Kelley also acquired the strip of land with houses now known as Bishops Down: this included the property now called the Manor House, although it was never used as such. In 1765, having acquired his knighthood and the position of Sheriff, he pulled down what is presumed to have been his old residence and replaced it by the more grandiose Bishops Down Grove.

On Sir George's death in 1771 the manor and the property at Bishops Down passed to his three sisters, Hannah Tanner, Martha Spragg and Anne Shorey. None of them chose to occupy Bishops Down Grove and it was sold to Major Yorke in the following year. Hannah died in 1780 and after the other two sisters' death in1796 the estated was inherited by Anne's daughter Elizabeth Shorey, who though unmarried was known as Mrs Shorey according to the convention of the period. She lived in a house on Bishops Down no longer surviving and is best known for building the Bath House behind the chalybeate spring at the Pantiles in 1804.

After Mrs Shorey's death in 1823, her nephew Major Thomas Gardner held the manor, passing it in 1840 to his nephew Captain Francis Weller (who is said to have been a descendant of Thomas Weller, steward of Viscountess Purbeck's manor of South Frith). On his death in 1853 the manor was inherited by his brother Lt Col Thomas Weller (West Kent Militia), who renewed the basins of the chalybeate spring in 1865. He died in 1888.

The subsequent succession to the present day is as follows:-

1888: Mrs Mary Anne Weller
1889: Miss Emma Rosamund Mary Suart
1890: Frank Osborne Baird
1891: Daisy Evelyn, Lady Harcourt
1892: Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt, Mrs Griselda Kentner and Mrs Diana Menuhin
1893: Mrs Kentner and Mrs Menuhin
1972/6: Mrs Kentner, Messrs Jeremy and Gerard Menuhin


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