Social Life In Tunbridge Wells
From 'Tour of London and the Provinces ' by Daniel Defoe (1724-1726)

When I came to the wells, which were five miles nearer to me than the town, supposing me then at Battle to the south-ward of them; I found a great deal of good company there, and that which was more particular, was, that it happened to be at the time when his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was there with abundance of the nobility, and gentry of the country, who to honour the prince's coming, or satisfy their own curiosity, thronged to that place; so that at first I found it very difficult to get a lodging.

The prince appeared upon the walks, went into the raffling shops, and to every public place, saw every thing, and let every body see him, and went- away, with the Duke of Dorset, and other of his attendance for Portsmouth; so in two or three days, things returned all to their ancient channel, and Tunbridge was just what it used to be.

The ladies that appear here, are indeed the glory of the place; the coming to the Wells to drink the water is a mere matter of custom; some drink, more do not, and few drink physically: But company and diversion is in short the main business of the place; and those people who have nothing to do any where else, seem to be the only people who have any thing to do at Tunbridge.

After the appearance is over at the Wells, (where the ladies are all undressed) and at the chapel, the company go home; and as if it was another species of people, or a collection from another place, you are surprised to see the walks covered with ladies completely dressed and gay to profusion; where rich cloths, jewels, and beauty not to be set out by (but infinitely above) ornament, dazzles the eyes from one end of the range to the other.

Here you have all the liberty of conversation in the world, and any thing that looks like a gentleman, has an address agreeable, and behaves with decency and good manners, may single out whom he pleases, that does not appear engaged, and may talk, rally, be merry, and say any decent thing to them; but all this makes no acquaintance, nor is it taken so, or understood to mean so; if a gentleman desires to be more intimate, and enter into any acquaintance particular, he must do it by proper application, not by ordinary meeting on the walks, for the ladies will ask no gentleman there, to go off the walk, or invite any one to their lodgings, except it be a sort of ladies of whom I am not now speaking.

As for gaming, sharping, intriguing; as also fops, fools, beaus, and the like, Tunbridge is as full of these, as can be desired, and it takes off much of the diversion of those persons of honour and virtue, who go there to be innocently recreated: However a man of character, and good behaviour cannot be there any time, but he may single out such company as may be suitable to him, and with whom he may be as merry as heart can wish.

The air here is excellent good, the country healthful, and the provisions of all sorts very reasonable: Particularly, they are supplied with excellent fish, and that of almost all sorts, from Rye, and other towns on the sea-coast; and I saw a turbut of near 20 pounds weight sold there for 3 shillings: In the season of mackerel, they have them here from Hastings, within three hours of their being taken out of the sea, and the difference which that makes in their goodness, I need not mention.

They have likewise here abundance of wild-fowl, of the best sorts; such as pheasant, partridge, woodcock, snipe, quails, also duck, mallard, teal, etc. particularly they have from the South-Downs, the bird called a wheatear, or as we may call them, the English ortolans, the most delicious taste for a creature of one mouthful, for 'tis little more, that can be imagined; but these are very dear at Tunbridge, they are much cheaper at Seaford, Lewis, and that side of the country.

In a word, Tunbridge wants nothing that can add to the felicities of life, or that can make a man or woman completely happy, always provided they have money; for without money a man is nobody at Tunbridge, any more than at any other place; and when any man finds his pockets low, he has nothing left to think of, but to be gone, for he will have no diversion in staying there any longer.

And yet Tunbridge also is a place in which a lady however virtuous, yet for want of good conduct may as soon shipwreck her character as in any part of England; and where, when she has once injured her reputation, 'tis as hard to restore it; nay, some say no lady ever recovered her character at Tunbridge, if she first wounded it there: But this is to be added too, that a lady very seldom suffers that way at Tunbridge, without some apparent folly of her own; for that they do not seem so apt to make havoc of one another's reputation here, by tattle and slander, as I think they do in some other places in the world; particularly at Epsom, Hampstead, and such like places; which I take to be, because the company who frequent Tunbridge, seem to be a degree or two above the society of those other places, and therefore are not so very apt, either to meddle with other peoples affairs, or to censure if they do; both which are the properties of that more gossiping part of the world.

In this I shall be much misunderstood, if it is thought I mean the ladies only, for I must own I look just the other way; and if I may be allowed to use my own sex so coarsely, it is really among them that the ladies characters first, and oftnest receive unjust wounds; and I must confess the malice, the reflections, the busy meddling, the censuring, the tattling from place to place, and the making havoc of the characters of innocent women, is found among the men gossips more than among their own sex, and at the coffee-houses more than at the tea-table; then among the women themselves, what is to be found of it there, is more among the chamber-maids, than among their mistresses; slander is a meanness below persons of honour and quality, and to do injustice to the ladies, especially, is a degree below those who have any share of breeding and sense: On this account you may observe, 'tis more practised among the citizens than among the gentry, and in country towns and villages, more than in the city, and so on, till you come to the mere canail, the common mob of the street, and there, no reputation, no character can shine without having dirt thrown upon it every day: But this is a digression.

« START » « The Tour » « Defoe's Works » « Biographies » « Library » « Home »