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Tonbridge Castle
Grid reference: TQ591468
Location: 51°11’55"N, 0°16’35"E
Population: 30,340  (2007 est.)
Post town: Tonbridge
Postcode: TN9-TN12
Dialling code: 01732
Local Government
Council: Tonbridge and Malling
Tonbridge and Malling

Tonbridge is a market town in Kent. Its name is pronounced Tunbridge, which is the former spelling of the name. Tonbridge stands on the River Medway, some 4 miles north of Tunbridge Wells and 12 miles south west of Maidstone.

Name of the town

The town was recorded in the Domesday Book 1087 as Tonebrige, which may indicate a bridge belonging to the estate or manor (from the Old English tun), or alternatively a bridge belonging to Tunna, an Old English man's name. Another theory suggests that the name is a contraction of "town of bridges", due to the large number of streams the High Street originally crossed.[1]

Until 1870, the town's name was spelt Tunbridge, which spelling is still to be seen on older maps and literature. In 1870, the Post Office insisted on a change in the name to Tonbridge,[1] due to confusion with nearby Tunbridge Wells, notwithstanding that Tonbridge is a much older town, and the Post Offic version eventually prevailed. Tunbridge Wells has always maintained the same spelling.


Normans and Tonbridge Castle

The motte of Tonbridge Castle
Tonbridge Castle gatehouse

Tonbridge stands on spur of higher land where the marshy River Medway could be more easily forded. Ancient trackways converged at this point. There is no record of any bridge before 1191.[2] For much of its existence, the town remained to the north of the river, since the land to the south was subject to extensive seasonal flooding.[3] One part of the town is called 'Dryhill'.[4] Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare founded the Priory of St Mary Magdalene in 1124.[5]

A castle was built here in the 11th century by Richard Fitz Gilbert,[6] a half brother of William the Conqueror. Richard was responsible for governing England in William I's many absences.

The town was besieged by William Rufus, soon after his accession to the throne, because the Earl had pledged allegiance to William's brother, Robert. The arrow that killed William Rufus a few years later in the New Forest was loosed by Walter Tirel, a Tonbridge man and a relation of Earl Richard.

The Castle was seized by King John only a few months after the signing of the Magna Carta. Later it was besieged by Prince Edward, son of King Henry III. On this occasion the besieged garrison burnt the town rather than see it fall. The town and Tonbridge Castle were rebuilt after this and in the 13th century became an official residence and records repository of Edward II.

The castle fell to the crown in the sixteenth century, when its owner, the Duke of Buckingham, was executed for treason and when King Henry VIII took possession of the forfeiture.


At this time, Tonbridge was considered an important strategic settlement. The King intended it to be a mediæval walled town and a charter was issued allowing for walls to be built, a market to be held, court sessions to be held and two members of the town to attend parliament. Walls were never built however, probably because the castle's large outer bailey could have easily accommodated the town's populace in times of strife. A surrounding bank and ditch known as The Fosse was erected. Today only traces of this encircling defence now remain.[7] The historic core of the town still contains a large number of working buildings dating from the 15th century; the oldest being Portreeves on East Street.[8]

Tonbridge School, the famous public school, was set up in 1552 under the letters patent of Edward VI, to educate the male children of locals gentry and farmers (there was already a nearby school in existence for poorer boys, now Sevenoaks School).

During Queen Mary's reign Tonbridge was involved in an unsuccessful uprising against the Queen's marriage to the King of Spain resulting in 500 people of the town being involved at the Battle of Hartley in 1554.[9] Mary had a subtle but cruel revenge; when she persecuted Protestants she chose Tonbridge as a place of execution; in 1555 James Tutty[10] and Margery Polley were burnt at the stake in the town. A memorial to Margery Polly is to be found on the green at Pembury.

17th and 18th centuries

During the Civil War, the town was garrisoned by the Parliamentarian side who refortified the castle. Royalist sympathisers made several attempts to take the town but were repulsed.

The Wharf on the Medway Navigation

In 1740 an Act of Parliament was passed to make the River Medway navigable to Tonbridge by the Medway Navigation Company,[11] allowing such materials as coal and lime to be transported to the town, and gunpowder, hops and timber to be carried downriver to Maidstone and the Thames. For a hundred years the Medway Navigation Company was highly profitable, paying out good dividends to its investors but after the arrival of the railway in 1842 the company went into a steep decline and all commercial traffic ceased in 1911 when the company collapsed. Some of the original warehouses and the wharves are still recognisable today, downstream of the town's main bridge.

Later, the town and its surroundings became famous for the manufacture of finely inlaid wooden cabinets, boxes and other objects called Tunbridgeware, which were sold to tourists who were taking the waters at the nearby springs at Tunbridge Wells. Another speciality in the town was until recently the making of cricket balls and other sports goods.

19th century to present

A map of Tonbridge from 1946

During the March 1880 parliamentary elections, Tonbridge was the scene of a riot.[12] On the announcement of the results, several thousand people started to hurl stones and cobbles at each other in the High Street near the Rose and Crown Hotel. The county's Chief Constable Captain Ruskin together with in excess of a hundred policeman charged the crowds many times during the night only to end up being the crowd's target who started hurling stones and cobbles at them instead of each other. Many people including twelve policeman were seriously injured before the crowd finally dispersed at midnight.

The United Kingdom's first[13] speeding fine was handed down by Tonbridge petty Sessions court in 1896. The guilty driver was a Mr Walter Arnold of East Peckham who was fined one shilling for speeding at eight miles an hour in a two-mile an hour zone in Paddock Wood, in his Karl Benz powered car. Mr Arnold was eventually apprehended by a policeman who had given chase on his bicycle.

During Second World War a POW Camp was built on the junction of Tudeley Lane and Pembury Road on land belonging to Somerhill. It was used to house both German pilots who had been shot down, and also captured Italian soldiers. After the war the camp was used as temporary housing for people made homeless by the Blitz. The site is now occupied by the Weald of Kent Girls' Grammar School.

Ruth Ellis, the last woman in the United Kingdom to be hanged, was married at the registry office in Tonbridge on 8 November 1950.

Securitas depot robbery

Tonbridge was the location of the largest cash theft in British criminal history.[14] On 22 February 2006, over £53.1 million was stolen from the Securitas cash-handling depot in Vale Road to the east of the High Street. During the following police investigation, around half of the money was recovered. On 28 January 2008 five people were convicted at the Old Bailey.[15]


The Oast Theatre

Major industries include light engineering, printing and publishing, distribution and financial services.

The town has largely retained its 'market town' atmosphere and has many attractions to visitors and residents alike, including the well-maintained Castle Gatehouse, a large country park and activities based around the river.

Most of the town's shopping facilities are concentrated on The High Street, which runs for about one mile through the town centre. There has been increasing criticism from local residents that there is a relative abundance of restaurants, estate agents, banks and 'cheap' shops, and a lack of major high street retailers. However, there are far fewer empty high street premises than in the mid-1990s reflecting the town's increasing prosperity. The town does inevitably suffer from its proximity to large shopping centres such as Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone and Bluewater. The Borough Council has published proposals to improve the town's shopping and leisure facilities.[16]

During the early 20th Century Tonbridge became the ‘South East Hub’ for Plastic Moulding / Engineering and Printing with many well known companies such as The Crystalate Gramophone Record Company who claimed to be the oldest record producer in Britain who later bought out The Vocalion Gramophone Company in 1932 when the principal labels included Rex, Nine-Inch Broadcast, and Ten-Inch Broadcast. From the early postwar years, Crystalate was very much involved in producing the 1 mini-disc', some of which were sold in Marks & Spencers, Woolworths and probably other stores for sixpence [21/2p] each between 1930 and 1937, with labels such as Crown, Embassy and Eclipse. In 1937, Crystalate was absorbed in Decca which itself was purchased by Polygram (Philips). To this date there still remains a manufacturing presence within Tonbridge, with Enalon Limited founded in 1946 being last remaining plastic moulder and toolmaker based within the town.

The River Centre

In 1999, Harvester Trust Tonbridge bought a derelict site on Medway Wharf Road, in the centre of Tonbridge – ideal for a building that would be a church, a centre for community activity and a conference centre. The £4 million building was granted planning permission in March 2000. Amazing offerings were received to make building possible and the work began in 2001. The River Centre was officially opened in January 2003 to the town and wider community, its award winning design offering adaptable, high-quality and modern facilities. Working with businesses and community organisations, The River Centre hosts a wide variety of events including commercial launches, awards ceremonies and international church conferences.

A former oast house on the road to Hildenborough has been converted to a small theatre, called the Oast Theatre.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Tonbridge)


  1. 1.0 1.1 - TUNBRIDGE or TONBRIDGE
  2. "Tonbridge Timeline". Tonbridge Historical Society. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  3. "Tonbridge – a brief history". Tonbridge Historical Society. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  4. "Martin Hardie". Tonbridge Historical Society. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  5. "The Priory". Tonbridge Historical Society. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  6. "Tonbridge Castle history - 11th & 12th Century". Retrieved 2007-12-29. 
  7. "History of Tonbridge: introduction". Tonbridge Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-09-03. 
  8. "Tonbridge History - The Port Reeve's House". 
  9. Hartley-Kent: The Battle of Hartley 1554
  10. Brenchley Kent - (A beautiful Kent village) - an English Village (UK)
  11. History of the River Medway
  12. Kent Police Museum - Past Times - Articles on Kent Police History
  13. Winn, Christopher (2005). I Never Knew That About England. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0091902070. 
  14. "Record £53m stolen in depot raid". BBC. 27 February 2006. 
  15. "Five found guilty of £53m robbery". BBC. 28 January 2008. 
  16. "Our Work - Tonbridge Town Centre". David Lock Associates. 2007.