Maybe only its biggest fans would claim that the town hall and civic complex at Tunbridge Wells make a truly beautiful ensemble but they do possess a striking dignity and presence. Above all, they tell the story of our civic culture’s rise and fall, from a time when once local government stood proudly at the heart of its community to the present when it seems we must live in thrall to the market and its values.
You wouldn’t expect to look to Royal Tunbridge Wells – that descriptor is important to some of its citizens – as a prime exemplar of municipal progress but, in fact, the town is a good example of the growth of local government’s functions and status. The town grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century and, typically, acquired the trappings of necessary self-government – initially the ‘night-watchman’ duties of policing and rudimentary sanitation – in 1835. By the end of the century, the town’s population was approaching 30,000 and in 1889, these Town Commissioners applied for incorporation as a Municipal Borough.
The new councillors were conscious of their civic duties. Public baths (demolished in 1974) were opened on Monson Road in 1898, a Technical School (built by the Council, administered by the County Council) opened four years later. But the town hall – an adapted market hall – was makeshift. Only belatedly, in 1928, did the Council acquire land on Calverley Terrace for new municipal buildings worthy of its role.
Although the town’s first scheme (submitted in 1931 and designed by the architect Vincent Harris in fairly standard neo-Georgian style) was scuppered by the Ministry of Health’s refusal of borrowing powers, this was an opportune moment – an era when the expanding functions of local government were justifying a new heyday of civic architecture.
In the later 1930s, economic recovery and increased spending allowed Tunbridge Wells – and other authorities – to revisit their building plans. But the Council remained cautious: the architectural competition announced in 1934 stipulated that the entire scheme should cost no more than £120,000 and achieve dignity ‘without elaborate or unnecessary features’. (1) In this, however, the conservative burghers of Tunbridge Wells were in accord – unwittingly perhaps – with the modernist functionalism coming into vogue.
The winning entry was submitted by the architectural partnership of Percy Thomas and Ernest Prestwich. (Thomas would also design the Swansea Guildhall and Swinton and Pendlebury Town Hall – now the Salford Civic Centre.) It conformed to a still prevailing neo-Georgian aesthetic but in a stripped-down form reflecting a contemporary transition to more modernist forms.
Compared to the path-breaking schemes of the same period at Hornsey and Poplar, for example, it is, according to Architectural History Practice, ‘a weaker design in an outdated style’ but to municipal dreamers it is impressive, not architecturally perhaps but certainly through the civic ambition it marks.
The centrepiece of the complex is, appropriately, the town hall itself, its main entrance occupying a commanding hilltop and corner position, flanked by municipal offices on each side. It was opened, with little fanfare at a time when more pressing matters occupied national attention, in 1941. The overall scheme is faced in brown brick laid in Flemish bond with dressings of Portland stone. The sash windows are traditional Georgian. There’s a light-touch Art Deco in some of the external fittings; it can be seen more opulently internally.
To the right-hand side, lies the Assembly Hall, the first component opened to the public, in 1939. It’s of similar style but distinguished by three carved stone reliefs representing Dance, Drama and Music – a nod to the gaiety and culture within its portals.
Further right lay the police station and courtroom. The interior has a number of Art Deco features; the main entrance boasts an impressive carved stone relief above (created – like the Assembly Hall reliefs – by Gilbert Seale and Sons of Camberwell) representing the majesty of the law and the administration of justice and including, in this case very aptly, the town’s motto ‘Do Well Doubt Not’.
Back around to the left, fronting Mount Pleasant Road but like the ensemble as a whole located on the newly-created thoroughfare Civic Way, is the Borough’s relocated Library and Museum, its construction halted during the war and not finally opened until 1952.
It is, in all, a commanding presence at the very heart of the town – a signifier of the authority and service of the local authority within its community – and one that might deserve respect. The buildings were Grade II listed in 1995.
Naturally, therefore, in 2008 it suggested that the complex – now seen by some as a ‘barrier’ between the top and bottom ends of the town rather than as a buckle joining the two – might be ‘regenerated’ and the Council formed the Tunbridge Wells Regeneration Company (a ‘local authority asset backed vehicle’ – the terminology perhaps tells you all you need to know) with the developers John Laing. (2)
The plan was relatively straight forward. A joint 50/50 partnership it was set up to bring forward civic, retail, commercial, community or residential property opportunities by redeveloping or regenerating assets in the council’s portfolio.
The Council claimed that the buildings were no longer fit for purpose – and they did, of course, require modernisation and upgrading – and suggested it might move to a recently vacated office site on the outskirts of town. What was needed in the centre was a revamped shopping precinct.
The local civic activists were – and, as they adopted the term themselves, I’ll lapse into the expected cliché – ‘disgusted’: (3)
The philosophy that apparently underpins the scheme should be of concern to us all: that shopping and shopping alone is all that is required to make a successful town centre. As libraries, education centres and assembly rooms don’t offer significant commercial value, they should be ‘regenerated’ and replaced by chain stores.
I don’t suppose – although I might be doing it an injustice – that the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society is a politically radical body but, in this, it might (and I hope it does) speak for a much broader section of the population disquieted by a current politics which trashes ideals of public service and reduces everything to money and the market.
The commercialisation of the NHS, the marketisation of education, the financialisation of housing, the sale of public assets, the privatisation of public functions to an oligopoly of large private contractors…a world, in short, which knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
But here, it appears – unlikely though it may seem – that the citizens of Tunbridge Wells have begun a successful fight-back. Popular opposition and a palace coup removed an unpopular Tory Council leader in 2010 and a more refined – and more civic option – has emerged.
A study commissioned by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and English Heritage has mooted ideas that might provide a regeneration worthy of the name – a new civic square, for example, and a ‘cultural hub’ based on the Library, Museum, Art Gallery and Adult Education Centre. (4)
There remains concern that current proposals don’t include the Town Hall and Assembly Hall. Both are listed, both – particularly the latter – are in need of modernisation. The temptation to gut them and adapt them for some commercial purpose is strong. The Civic Society has produced its own imaginative suggestions to retain the space for public use and value. (5)
If you visit Tunbridge Wells, you’ll naturally want to see the town’s beautiful Georgian centre in all its historic splendour but do take a walk up the hill to view the town’s proud Civic Complex. It represents a more democratic and progressive history and one which we must ensure does not become ‘merely’ historic.
(1) Quoted in Architectural History Practice, ‘Conservation Statement: Tunbridge Wells Civic Complex’ (ND). Most of the historical and descriptive detail of this post is drawn from this source which also contains an excellent overview of the civic architecture of the period.
(2) ‘A look at the controversial Tunbridge Wells Regeneration Company’, Eastern Daily Press, 17 February 2011
(3) Ptolemy Dean, Tunbridge Wells: ‘”Disgusted” with good cause’, Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, Newsletter, Autumn 2010
(4) See, for example, Mary Harris, ‘Tunbridge Wells town hall site all set for major makeover?’, Kent and Sussex Courier, 24 May 2013 and ‘Masterplan revealed for “new vision” of Tunbridge Wells’, Kent and Sussex Courier, 15 February 2015
(5) Philip Whitbourn, ‘Towards an Exciting Vision for Tunbridge Wells Civic Centre’, (Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, 2013)