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Written By; Edward James Gilbert-Thunder Bay,Ontario,Canada

Date: July 25,2014   

If I asked you to think of a town in Kent which, having regard to its past history, one would expect to have had a racecourse, I suspect that Tunbridge Wells would rank high on the list of responses. And if that had been your response, how right you would have been.

The Old Racecourse,shown on Bowra’s map of 1738 shows a racecourse situated right in the centre of Tunbridge Wells Common. What is now the Higher Cricket Ground is the original site of the winning post, stand and enclosure. Today, the car park, which is located half-way down Fir Tree Road, is where the original course began.

Accounts of visitations to Tunbridge Wells  in the 1730’s refers to a number of entertainments in the town including horse racing where there was an admission fee of half a crown for each gentleman and one shilling for each lady.Sir George Kelly (1700-1771), a long time resident of Tunbridge Wells and Lord of the Manor of Rusthall from 1758 onwards, took a great interest in horseracing and supported it by awarding a silver cup. The grand home he had built in Bishops Down later became the Spa Hotel. For more information about Sir George Kelly and the Spa Hotel see my article 'Bishops Down Grove/Spa Hotel' dated September 26,2011.

Other than a diary entry to the effect that cricket and racing took place on the Common in 1750, records do not reveal much evidence of horse racing there before 1824 but continued uninterrupted until 1836. Usually there were two meetings each year. There was an interregnum for two years before racing recommenced in 1838. It then continued until 1849 with the final meeting being recorded as having taken place on September 11, 1851.  After that, despite the course remaining extant, racing was no more. Racing did  resume in 1856 however but that was in the town of Tonbridge and racing continued there until September 11,1874.

The race of 1824 was carried off Tuesday August 20 to Wednescay August 11, with Lord G. Lennox as the patron. There three races in all.The first was The Freeholders Plate over 2 miles won by the horse Irene owned by Mr Waller. The second race, called the Tunbridge Wells Sweepstate over 2 miles had a number of entries and finishing the race from first to third was (1) Duckling owned by Mr Coleman (2) Fortune Teller, owned by Mr Whyte (3) My Aunt owned by Mr A. Braithwaite. The third race was called the Tunbridge Wells Town Place over 2 miles. The winners of this race were (1) Fortune Teller owned by Mr Whyte (2) My aunt owned by Mr A. Braithwaite (3) Mortimer owned by Mr Jones. I wonder if the owner of “Fortune Teller” knew ahead of time if his horse would win, for it certainly had the good fortune of finishing in the money in two of the three races. Shown opposite is a view of the common from 1850 showing part of the old racetrack.

The races were well attended by town residents and visitors, and the race in 1834  The Dutchess of Kent and Princess Victoria were present. One might have expected the races in 18th and 19th century Tunbridge Wells to have been genteel affairs. Not a bit of it! And this was the reason that the good burghers of Tunbridge Wells saw to it that it was brought to an end. With one notable exception, the races were no Kentish equivalent of Royal Ascot. They attracted the 'wrong sort' and with them drunkeness, rowdiness and crime.Two of the town's MPs were charged with organising that 1834 meeting and were determined that Princess Victoria should not go away muttering that 'we are not amused'! Purveyors of alcohol were banned. Gambling premises were closed. Camping on the Common was forbidden. It was even ordered that stray dogs should be destroyed! Finally an injunction was issued to the ladies and gentlemen of the town to set a good example to all those attending and, generally, to raise the tone above that of the previous year (when one meeting was abandoned due to rowdiness).

At the end of the 'Royal' meeting, the MPs, the burghers and all the decent people of Tunbridge Wells were able to breathe a deep sigh of relief. All had passed without problem or embarrassment. Perhaps the involvement of the Tunbridge Wells Yeomanry had something to do with this? Anyhow, the meeting was declared to be a resounding success. 16,000 people had attended. The Duchess of Kent (the future queen's mother) presented a gold cup to the winner of one of the races. And Princess Victoria is reputed to have described the event as 'very amusing'!

The book ‘On the Laws and Practice of Horse Racing’ by Henry John Rous  1866 gives the following; Tunbridge Wells 1838-The Stewards Stakes of 3 pounds each with 40 pounds added, a winner in 1838 to carry 3lb; twice;5lb extra. The horses in this race were (1) Mr Cassidy’s (f) Maid of Hertford 2,1,2,1, (2) Capt. Pearson’s (g) Manchausen 4,3,1,2 (3) Mr Shelly’s Magnolia 1,2,3,3, (4)Mr Bacon’s Elizabeth 3,4,4,0. An objection was made against Maid of Hertford, that she only carried 3lb extra instead of 5 on the basis that the horse had won a plate at Norwich and a handicap race at Hertford. Mr Cassidy in reply disagreed and the stewards agreed with the horses owner after a review of the complaint and the facts.

James Whyte’s History of the British Turf notes that racing took place in Tunbridge Wells “on common land on which a tolerable course has been found”. It merely records the August 1839 races as: “Tunbridge Town Plates for 50 pounds”.

Shown opposite is an announcement of the Tunbridge Wells Races for 1849, with six events scheduled. Records show that on Wednesday August 22 and Thursday August 23,1849 that a two day meet took place, starting each day at 1 o’clock. The first day saw the Eridge Stakes, the Steward’s Plate and the Visitors Stakes. On the second day the Manor Stakes, The Town Plate and The Railway Stakes took place. The runners for the Eridge States were “Eridge Stakes (10 sovereigns to enter) (1) Gisalla 68st 9 lb F.R. Clark (2) Bekbara, 68 st, 4lb, Mr Ho5rnsby (3) Tit-Tat, 68 st, 0lb, Mr Baleham (4) Rosalinda, 57 st, 10 lb, Mr Tubbs (5) Lovelace, 47 st, 10 lb, Mr Land (6) Grist, 47 st, 10 lb, C. Formby (7) The Northern Eagle, 47 st, 6lb, Mr. Masser (8) unnamed horse, 47 st, 4lb, Mr Formby (9) Second Sight, 36st, 8lb, Mr Cowley (10) Telegraph, 36st, 4lb, Mr Cowley (11) Camson, 36st, 0 lb, Mr Cowley.

Despite racings populatity it however was not to last. In the absence of royal patronage, the following year's meetings reverted to their bad old ways. This was to be, for the people of Tunbridge Wells, the final straw to break the camel's (or the thoroughbred's) back. They petitioned for the closure of the town's racecourse on the grounds that:“We consider that they [the races] foster a spirit of gambling; that they bring together a number of disorderly characters; and that although any serious disturbance on the race course may be repressed by the vigilance of the police, they too often lead to riot and drunkeness elsewhere. On these grounds we determine to discourage the continuance of them by every means in our power.” And finally, in 1851, they got their way.

The final race took place on September 11,1851. Being on common land, the racecourse did not disappear after racing ceased. Apart from the section which crossed the Cricket Ground, it was preserved as a footpath and bridleway which can still be followed today. The winning post, stand, and enclosure stood on the north side of the present Higher Cricket Ground. However these have long since disappeared. Numerous photos of Tunbridge Wells Racecourse, as it is today, can be found on the web.

Finally it seems that, in 18th century, horse racing often was a side attraction to cricket matches at Tunbridge Wells.

The RSPCA report of 1883 remarks on the increase in horseracing in the country and complained about the mistreatment of horses and the practice of Docking which they state ‘was once almost abolished, but has become fashionable again”.

The annual Agricultural Fair, which I reported on in my article entltled ‘The History of the Agricultural Fair’ in 2014, gave details about the various events  at the fair, and as noted in that article horses always played a large part. Although there were no horse races at this event there was always a good showing of draft horses, jumpers, etc. A photo of horses at the fair is shown opposite. Throughout the area of Tunbridge Wells were a number of riding stables and several horse breeders, and so horses have always played an important part of the town’s history. As an aside shown opposite left is a painting by artist John Frederick Herring Sr (1795-1865), who specialized in painting horses. Mr Herring family moved to Meopham Park , near Gravesend,Kent in 1853 and while there produced this painting, with the title 'Southborough Horse Fair'. The fair at Southborough was an annual event,held in March and the horse ring is believed to have been near the intersection of Victoria Road and Modest Corner.Tunbridge Wells has always been a "horsey" town and no doubt this fair was well attended. If you look at the examples of this artists work you will find many paintings he did of racing horses, such as the horse  Priam, which won the Derby in 1830.Had he been in Tunbridge Wells earlier he no doubt would have done paintings of some of the horses that participated in he local races.

Moving ahead to the 21st century, the Kent & Sussex Courier of March 8,2013 gave the following article about the towns horse called “TUNBRIDGE WELLS” and what could be a more fitting name. Shown here are three images. Photo 1 shows the horse Thunder Bay running its first victory at Plumpton April 19,1963 ridden by jockey Paul Kelleway. Photo 2 shows Tunbridge Wells racing fund chairman Norman Pearson inspecting the towns new purchase. Photo 3 shows horse Thunder Bay with Gillian Kellaway . All photos were taken in 1963.

“Once upon a time, Tunbridge Wells owned a racehorse.Bought in January 1963 by 700 local subscribers who had each purchased shares of £5 or £10, the handsome chestnut gelding with its distinctive white flash raced in the town's colours of blue and gold at Kempton, Plumpton and many other famous tracks.The notion of a town buying a horse was a novel idea – Tunbridge Wells was the first in the country – and brought the nation's press to the town in droves, keen to sniff out the story behind it.It began, like many strange tales, in a bar. Courier sports editor Frank Rushford, a self-confessed "racing nut", was chatting to Eridge trainer Britt Gallup when he began to wonder why towns did not buy their own racehorses and compete against each other.When Gallup pointed out National Hunt rules decreed horses must not be owned by more than four people, the pair quickly came up with a plan to dodge the rules – they would set up a scheme allowing townspeople to buy shares under the stewardship of four "official" owners.It didn't take long for Rushford to persuade his editor, Frank Chapman, to leap into the saddle, and he was joined by racing fanatics Norman Pearson, landlord of the Rose and Crown in Grosvenor Road, company director Charles Judd and Stanley Hart, owner of Skinners decorating business in Camden Road.The Tunbridge Wells Racehorse Fund was launched just before Christmas 1962 and brought an immediate response from punters, many registering using the Courier's special coupons.Within a month, Gallup was hot-footing it to the Ascot Bloodstock Sale with 525 guineas – £561 – in his pocket to cast a seasoned eye over the racehorses on offer. He returned home with Harwins First, and the Courier front page announced: Tunbridge Wells Gets Its Horse.Standing tall at over 16 hands and boasting two recent wins, the five-year-old hurdler was rapidly re-christened Tunbridge Wells – alternatives like RTW or The Wells were rejected – and began to train at Gallup's Eridge stables.A thrilled Norman Pearson told the Courier: "He could be the town's lucky horse", while Rushford simply noted: "Win or lose...the town is going to get a lot of fun out of this horse."Tunbridge Wells was ridden by the late Paul Kelleway, a National Hunt jockey who had worked for Gallup since marrying his head "lad", Gillian Porter, a cup-winning horsewoman herself.The first signs were not good – he began his new career with a fall, sending waves of despair through the town's unusually crowded betting shops – but by Easter the champagne was flowing at the Rose and Crown after he romped home to victory at Plumpton, cheered on by 500 local supporters.Mrs Kelleway, who now lives in Spain, said this week: "It's always a risk when you buy a horse – you can't look inside and see what the engine's like – but he was a reasonably good hurdler. He didn't compete at Cheltenham, but he won his races and everyone enjoyed it, which was the main point. I've no idea what became of him."In fact, the scheme had only ever been permitted as a trial run, and at the end of the year the National Hunt stewards decided it set a dangerous precedent; they ordered the horse's sale, and shareholders reimbursed.However the impact had been felt way beyond the town. In a report thousands of miles away in the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Charles McCabe said: "Newspapers picked up the tale, wire services sent it to the ends of the earth. The name of Tunbridge Wells and its healing waters got identified with an old human dream. Its magics were on lips in Hong Kong clubs, Miami bars and pool halls in Hamtramck."Perhaps it's time we bought another horse!

The current website of The Calverley Groves Bowls Club reported ‘We have some social events combined with the Grove Bowls Club including horse racing evenings,crib evenings…..”

I close off my account of horseracing in the town with the following article by Ian Beavis of the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery entitled ‘Run Its Course’ which appeared in the ‘Common Ground’ winter 1997. “Horse racing makes another of the varied amusements of this place," writes Thomas Burr in the first town guide of 1766, "and, although these races are not so famous as those of Newmarket, yet they will generally afford some diversion to those who, for the sake of the sport or the company, may be inclined to attend them." It is not known when racing first began on Tunbridge Wells Common, but the course appeared on the earliest map of the town, publishedinl738. Burr says that in his day the races were principally supported by Sir George Kelley, Lord of the Manor of Rusthall from 1758, and his descendants continued to offer prize money in subsequent years. Race posters from 1796 - 7 refer to a "new course , which must mean some improvement of the existing one, since the course as seen today follows the same pear shaped track as sown in 1738.Races were held for two days each year, in August or September. The winning post, stand and enclosure were on the site of the present Higher Cricket Ground. Kidd's guide of about 1830 reports that they "attract a vast assemblage of the fashionables from the adjoining neighbourhood". In 1834 the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria attended, watching from their carriage under a specially erected canopy decorated with flowers.There was, however, another side to the races. Gambling booths and stalls for the sale of alcohol sprang up all over the Common at race time, and there were complaints of drunkenness and riotous behaviour. Following 'disgraceful scenes' in 1833, new regulations were instituted in time for the Royal visit of the following year. Gambling booths were forbidden and sale of drink restricted to innkeepers licensed by the Race Committee. But the old problems soon reasserted themselves, and the rules were persistently disregarded. From 1838 we find the Police Committee agreeing each year to waive normal shift arrangements on race days, making all their men available for duty, and to employ two temporary assistant constables. In 1845, 185 residents printed a signed document pledging themselves to campaign for the suppression of the races, arguing that they "bring together a number of disorderly characters, and that, although any serious disturbance on the Race Course may be repressed by the vigilance of the Police, they too often lead to riot and drunkenness elsewhere." Even the vigilance of the police was not beyond question: in 1851, for example, P C Grover was "reported for having been the worse for liquor while on duty on the Race Course." By 1855 the Tunbridge Wells Races had passed into history, but the course (apart from the section crossing the Cricket Ground) was preserved as a footpath and bridle-way and can still be followed today.”



Written by: Edward James Gilbert-Thunder Bay,Ontario,Canada

Date: January 21,2015


In 1912 a two sty red brick home was constructed on Sandhurst Road, on what is today the north west corner of Birken Road and Sandhurst Road. At the time the house was built, and occupied by Arthur Wilkinson, a mining engineer, Birken Road did not exist. Birken Road, named after the house ‘Birken’ was constructed in 1957 and ran north off Sandhurst Road for some distance and in that year, and afterwards, a number of homes were constructed along it. The road ran along the east property line of the grounds upon which ‘Birken’ had been built. Before 1957 Birken was listed in directories as being on Sandhust Road but after that time it took on the address of No. 1 Birken Road, until 1971 when it reverted back to being referred to on Sandhurst Road.

The name Birken is derived from the Olde English pre 17th century word ‘bircen’ meaning ‘the birch grove’ and it may also be related to a place near Knottingley,West Yorkshire called ‘Birkin’.The selection of the name Birken by its first occupant obviously had an important meaning to him particularly since he was from West Yorkshire.Arthur Wilkinson died at Birkin in 1913 and most likely worked in the coal mining industry that Yorkshire was famous for.

Birken was  occupied in the period of 1918 to 1922 by Miss Maxwell, who’s full name was Matilda Elizabeth Maxwell,a spinster, and daughter of the successful printer and stationer family of Henry Maxwell of Blackpool,Lancashire , who founded the business of Maxwell and Company. In the early 1900’s Matilda was the proprietor of a sussessful dressmakers shop in London.For a time her spinster sister , Mary Wilkinson Maxwell, lived with her. Matilda died in 1932 while a resident of Oakdene in Langton Green, and her sister Mary died 1940 at 1 Linden Gardens, Tunbridge Wells.

After the Maxwells left  Birken it became the home of Miss Anna Delcomyn (1859-1935), an independently wealthy spinster, and daughter of Ernest Adolph Joseph Delcomyn (1828-1913) who’s family were from Denmark. Her father was a successful corn merchant and Honorary Consul General in H.M. Service to Denmark. Anna died at Birken in 1935.

After WW II the home was divided into two units and became the residence of the families of Henry Edwards and Alvin Pryor  and in the period of 1952 to 1956 by both families of Alvin Pryor and Raymond H. de G. Matley.  In the late 1950’s and up to about 1969 it was occupied by F.T.W. Payne and George A. Figgett and their families.

In 1971 the property was sold and the home converted into a pub called the Robin Hood, a name derived from  Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame, and the connection the site has to the Sherwood Estate. As noted in the files of the Planning Authority, the old house was altered and added on to at the time of its purchase and in subsequent years ,but today the eastern end of the old house can still be seen, as shown in the photograph above. The pub has changed owners over the years and has been run by various licenced victuallers.

In 1997 for example it was owned by Whitbread Medway Inns , but in 2007 was owned by Enterprise Inc PLC. In 1997 Planning Authority approval was given for various alterations and refurbishments of the pub. In 2007 a major project was undertaken involving a complete overhall and enlargement of the premises which resulted in a predominantly 3 sty structure on an overall site of 2,987 square meters.

Several  photographs are given later in this article as well as architects plans showing the pub before and after this work was undertaken.

In September 2012 the pub closed and was boarded up and then Green King, a major brewery and pub company purchased the premises from Enterprise PLC for 800,000 pounds. On January 20,2013 the pub reopened as the Robin Hood Hungry Horse.

Those who patronised the pub described it as a rough place but since the time of refurbishment and the change in ownership and management it has become a very pleasant place for family dining and drinking, with a full program of entertainment and events, and even includes a children’s menu and  an outdoors enclosed childrens play area. ,and for several years previously ,the pub manager has been  Dave Gardner, a former army sergeant. This article traces the history of Birken from the time of its construction up to 2014.


In 1912 a two sty red brick home  with a tile roof was constructed on Sandhurst Road, on what is today the north west corner of Birken Road and Sandhurst Road.Shown opposite is a map that dates after 1931 showing what the area of Sandhurst Park Looked like at that time. Birken Road, which derives its name from the house ‘Birken’ did not exist at the time the map was made and it was not until 1957 that construction of the road was begun,and the first homes built,but it was not until 1959 that it was completed. Birden Road  ran up the east property line of the property on which the house was constructed.  Birken was built towards the rear of the plot with its curved drive running from Sandhurst Road, at a point right across the street from the five unit terrace block called Colebrook Cottages, to a courtyard located at the eastern end of the house. The grounds were triangular in shape measuring approximately 330 feet by 310 feet along the sides with a frontage on Sandhurst Road of about 400 feet, with an overall area of about  1-1/2 acres.

The year in which the house was built is based on two factors. Firstly, the house was not listed in the 1911 census, and secondly the Kelly directory of 1913 listed it. An examination of the 1909 OS map showed the plot of land on which the house was built but at that time no house was shown on the plot. Who designed and built it are not known. Due to the absence of a 1911 census, which gives the number of rooms of homes numerated, it is not known exactly how many rooms it had, however by comparing the footprint of the house on the map, and photographs, to other homes along Sandhurst Road , for which records exist, it is estimated that Birken had 12 rooms with an area of about 750 square feet per floor. Homes in Sandhurst Park built up to 1912 ,typically Victorian or early Edwardian in style,  ranged in size from 9 to 21 rooms with the majority being about 12 rooms, and so Birken was in size and style quite typical of the majority of homes in the area. From examining the available photographs of the house it can be seen that the roof over the east end of the house was Mansard in style and originally was covered in tile. The front elevation facing Sandhurst Road had two gables below which each had a bank of bay windows, a typical Victorian era design feature, that lit the rooms on the ground and upper floors, between which was the main entrance to the house. The attic space was lit by a dormer on the west elevation and may have been lit by another dormer on the rear elevation. Unfortunatley the researcher did not have a photograph of the rear of the house. An onsite inspection of the building would be necessary to be more precise in describing its architectural features.

The grounds of Birken would have been nicely landscaped and set out with a selection of trees,shrubs and flower gardens. As was typical of most homes built in Sandhurst Park, there was no gardeners cottage, entrance lodge or coach house constructed on the site.

After WW II ‘Birken” was divided up into two residential units and continued this way until 1971 when the property was sold and it was enlarged, and altered and converted into the Robin Hood Pub, a pub which after several changes in ownership still operates today.

Before 1957 Birken was listed in directories as being on Sandhust Road but after that time it took on the address of No. 1 Birken Road, until 1971 when it reverted back to being referred to on Sandhurst Road.


Below is a table showing the known occupants of Birken from 1912 up to the time of its conversion into a pub in 1971. The last section of this article provides information about the history of the building as a pub called the Robin Hood from 1971 to 2014. This list was compiled based upon an examination of census records , death records,local directories and other records in which the occupants were listed. It should be noted that since directories for every year were not available for review, that some occupants who were residents for a short period of time may have been missed. Below the table are some details about the occupants of Birken from 1912 to 1935.

1912-1913…………….Arthur Wilkinson (mining engineer)

1918-1922…………….Miss Maxwell (spinster living on own means)

1924-1935…………….Miss Anna Delcomyn (spinster living on own means)

1950-1950…………….. H. Edwards

1950-1952……………...Alvin Pryor

1952-1956……………… Raymond H. de G. Matley

1957-1967……………… F.T.W. Payne

1961-1969……………… George A. Figgett

1971-2014………………The Robin Hood/Hungry Horse Pub

1)      ARTHUR WILKINSON…………Arthur was the first resident of Birken and he died there in 1913.His probate record gave him born in 1858 and died September 29,1913 at ‘Birken’ .The executor of his 16,606 pound estate was his solicitor. Arthur was buried in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery on October 3,1913.  The Gazette of December 19,1913 gave an notice by the solicitor to submit claims against the estate and in that record Arthur Wilkinson was described as being a mining engineer. Given the origin of the name Birkin to West Yorkshire  and the history of that area in connection with the coal industry, Arthur was no doubt a mining engineer connected with coal mining in Yorkshire. The Kent & Sussex Courier gave but a few lines about Arthur in their obituary column and gave no details about him or his life except to state he was an engineer.

2)      MATILDA ELIZABETH MAXWELL………Matilda was born March 23,1867 at Kelton, Kirkudbright,Scotland. Matilda was one of nine children born to Henry Maxwell, born 1845 in Edinburgh,Scotland, and Margaret Miller Maxwell, born 1855 at Castle Douglas, Kirkudbright,Scotland. Based on the 1911 census, Matildas parents had nine children, of which only 6 survived. Henry married “Maggie (Margaret) Miller Wilson on April 9,1866 at Kelton,Kirkcudbright.Scotland.

Henry Maxwell was a successful compositor,stationer, printer and bookbinder in Blackpool,Lancashire, who founded the firm of Henry Maxwell and Co, which his son Wilson later took over.Shown opposite is an example of work by Henry Maxwell and Co , a poster of the wreck of the HMS Foudroyant.

The National Archives holds a large collection of records relating to this business for the years 1892 to 1925 and notes that the business operated from premises at 68 Church Street in Blackpool .

Henry died at 213 Hornby Road in Blackpool on May 17,1821. An image of Hornby Drive is shown below (right).The executors of his 6,183 pound estate were Ivie Wilson Maxwell, customs officer and Wilson Maxwell, printer and bookbinder. His executors were his daughter and son.

The 1871 census, taken at 62 Horsedge Drive in Oldham,Lancashire recorded Henr as a binder and compositor. Living with him was his wife Maggie and his two daughters Matilda Elizabeth Maxwell and Mary Wilkinson Maxwell, born 1869 in Oldham,Lancashire.

In the 1881 census Matilda was living with her parents and four siblings in Lancashire. By the end of the 19th century Matilda and some of her other siblings had left the family home.

The 1901 census, taken at 61 Beckenham Road (photo below)recorded Matilda as a boarder with the occupation of dressmaker. Trade directories for her list her as operating a dressmakers shop in Beckenham,Kent.The 1901 census, taken at 3 Railles Parade in Blackpool recorded Henry Maxwell as a general printer, book binder, lithographer. Living with him was his wife Margaret, four of his children and one servant.

The 1911 census, taken at 213 Hornby Road in Blackpool gave Maxwell with the same occupation as above.Living with him was his wife Margaret, three of his children and one servant.

Directories of 1902 and 1903 gave “Miss Matilda Maxwell, dressmaker 61 Beckerham Road.It is expected that Matilda moved into ‘Birken’ soon after the death of Arthur Wilkinson in 1913 but she is found there in the local directories of 1918 and 1922. Sometime before 1924 she left Birken but remained in the Tunbridge Wells area. Her younger sister Mary Wilkiinson Maxwell also lived with Matilda at Birken. Probate records show that Matilda Elizabeth Maxwell of Oakdene, Langton Green,spinster, died July 19,1932. The executor of her 7,815 pound estate was her brother Wilson Maxwell, a master printer.Probate records also give Mary Wilkinson Maxwell of Caxton House, Mount Sion, Tunbridge Wells passing away on March 8,1940 at 1 Lindon Gardens, Tunbridge Wells. The executor of her 3,816 pound estate was her brother Wilson Maxwell, master printer. For details about Caxton House see my article ‘The History of Caxton House” dated January 21,2015.

3)      MISS ANNA DELCOMYN………..Anna is given on local directories as occupying Birken from 1924 to 1935 and moved in when the Maxwell sisters vacated the premises. Anna had been born 1859 in London and was one of nine children born to Ernest Adolph Joseph Delcomyn (1828-1913)(photo opposite) and Anna Delcomyn, nee Comb, born 1834 at East Chinnick,Somerset. Ernest had been born 1828 in Denmark , a country in which the family originated. Ernest was the son of Henrich Carl Delcomyn and Johanne Rebecca Dorothea Volkens. Ernest was one of 16 children born in the family Ernest and his wife were married in 1856. Ernest passed away in 1913. The 1861 census, taken at ‘Enfield’ on College road at Dulwich,Camberwell,London recorded Anna living with her parents and siblings and three servants at 17 Bickland Cres. In Hampstead,Middlesex, where her father ran a successful corn merchants business. The 1871 census, taken at the same residence, recorded Anna with her parents and siblings and five servants with her father a corn merchant. The 1881 census, taken at Enfiled House in Camberwell,London recorded Anna with her parents and five siblings and five servants. Her father was still running his corn merchants business at that time. The 1901 census, taken at ‘Enfield’ recorded that Ernsest was absent from the family home but his wife was there as well as her daughter Anna and Ernest and seven servants. Both Anna and her brother were living on own means. The 1911 census, taken at ‘Enfield House’ in Camberwell recorded Ernest as an Honorary Danish Consul General. Living with him was his wife Anna as well as his children Anna, Agnes and Lucy, as well as six servants. The families residence was a large one, being 16 rooms.  Anna left the family home in the first quarter of the 20th century and moved to Tunbridge Wells, where she took up residence at ‘Birken’. Probate records show that she was a spinster when she died at ‘Birken’ on Sandhurst Road May 30,1935. The executor of her 17,225 pound estate was her sister Lucy Maria Delcomyn, spinster.


In 1971 ‘Birken’ was sold and converted from a residence into a pub called the Robin Hood, a name derived from Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest and the proximity of the pub to the local Sherwood Estate. Also to be found in the Sandhurst Road area are two other similar referecnes, one being the road Sherwood which runs north of Sandurst Road and there is also a road called ‘Friar’s Way’.

Shown opposite is a map from the files of the Planning Authority (1985) showng the location and footprint of The Robin Hood public house. As can be seen by this map, an extension had by that time been erected on the front left corner of the old house. As is to be expected the old house was extensively renovated and altered internally for conversion into a pub but fortunately the exterior of the house was retained with some alterations which did not destroy the original character of the building.

Initially the pub was well patronized and was well run but those who remember being in the pub state that it became a rather run down and was a rough place.

The pub has had several owners over its history and several licensed victuallers running it and a complete record of them has not been determined.

An application was made in 1997 for Planning Authority Approval for alterations and refurbishment including a new door, entrance ramps for handicap access and a new playing equipment area for children. This application was made by then owner Whitbread Medway Inns.

In 2007 an application was made by then owner Enterprise Inc PLC for work on the premises. The application stated that the public house “was set over 3 stys with an overall site area of 2,987 sq meters on the corner of Sandhurst Road and Birken Road”. The application was for the provision of 8.3m by 2.3 m building with a flat felt roof. Approval for the work was given. The deputation report from this file stated the building was 2 stys in red brick and tile hung that had various extensions. Shown above and below  is a set of architects plans of the building from the 2007 application.

In September 2012 the pub closed and was boarded up and then Green King, a major brewery and pub company purchased the premises from Enterprise PLC for 800,000 pounds. An application for Planning Authority approval was made in 2012  for “a new prefabricated walk in fridge/chiller/dry goods store and covered walkway; alterations to existing timber decked area to the front; new entrance doors to side elevation; new paved area; extensions to remaining timber decked area; timber covered pergola; new timber pergola;alterations to existing steps and widows and other openings; rendering of front gable; replacement/erection of new childrens play equipment and safety surface to existing play area with replacement timber palisade enclosure”.Shown below is a set of architects plans that accompanied the 2012 application.

On January 20,2013 the pub reopened as the Robin Hood Hungry Horse and continues in operation today.Details about the pub can be found on their website. The pub today is a very pleasant place for family dining and drinking, with a full program of entertainment and events, and even includes a children’s menu and  an outdoors enclosed childrens play area. The pub has a restaurant (Hungry Horse), licensed bar beer garden, conservatory,gated patio area. There is a pool table and games area and offers Sky Sports and free Wi-Fi and in all respects is a modern up-to-day establishment catering to family dining and a place where one can get a good pint. Today and for several years previously the pub manager has been  Dave Gardner, a former army sergeant.



Written By; Edward James Gilbert-Thunder Bay,Ontario,Canada

Date: January 18,2015


The Armstrong & Brown nursery was founded by Thomas Armstrong (1869-1944), in 1901, and was located on a large plot of waste land he had purchased in Sandhurst Park,Tunbridge Wells,  a residential development of the 1870’s onward. The nursery was located on a lane leading north east off Liptraps Lane which today can be found by the presence of a road called ‘Orchidhurst’ at the end of Milton Drive.The “Brown” in the company name was that of Thomas’s wife Catherine Isabella Armstrong, nee Brown. Both Thomas and his wife had ancestral roots in Scotland but Thomas’s family had settled in the county of Northumberland and lived in the villages of Coanwood, Plenmeller and Haltwhistle, known for both coal mining and agriculture. Thomas’s father was both a blacksmith and a farmer and Thomas’s wife was the daughter of a coachman who worked at the large Glen House estate in the county of Peebleshire, in the south of Scotland.

In the early 1890’s Thomas was living in Wylam,Northumberland and  in 1893 he married Catherine Isabella Brown. Their first child Clara was born at Wylam in 1894. In a visit to Traquair, Pebblesshire ,Scotland  in 1897,to visit the Brown family, Catherine gave birth to a son Thomas Batey Armstrong.

In 1900 the Armstrong’s moved to Tunbridge Wells and took up residence at a home in Sandhurst Park called ‘Homeview’ but soon after  took up residence in a 9 room home in Sandhurst Park called ‘Orchidhurst’ . Thomas died at ‘Orchidhurst’ in 1944 but his wife and daughter remained there until the 1950’s .

According to Dillion, G. Orchid Growers of England -1.  American Orchid Society Bulletin, Vol. 27. No.11.  November 1958. Pp734-741.”Armstrong and Brown was founded by Thomas Armstrong in 1901 with just two greenhouses. By 1958 it had 16, 500 square feet of glass. Thomas Armstrong pioneered albino strains of Orchids producing Cymbidium Dorchester, Cymbidium Tityus, Cymbidium Madonna and Cymbidium Clare Armstrong. In 1938 Mr Armstrong was joined by Mr J. L. Humphreys who gradually took over the running of the business.After the death of Thomas Armstring Mr Clint McDale of the USA, an orchid grower, purchased the business and orchids. In 1946 Mr  J. L. Humphreys was in charge of the business  and when Clint McDale retired Humphreys took over the business. It appears ,based on directory listings ,and other sources that the business ended circa 1970. Thomas Armstrongs wife and daughter still lived at ‘Orchidhurst” up to about 1951.

Armstrong & Brown became world famous among orchid enthusiasts , for the reputation of the company in the orchid business was soon established. On their property they constructed Orchid Houses where an extensive selection of award winning orchids were grown. Many of these orchids were created by the company,and registered with the Royal Horticultural Society, with one of them named the ‘Catherine Armstrong’ after Thomas wife, and other ‘Clare Armstrong’ after his daughter .At least eight other orchids include in their name “Armstrong” .The company advertised  themselves as “orchid raisers, growers, importers and exporters, and had a very successful business. As time marched on the orchid trade became very competitive within England, as these once exotic foreign  flowers became widely grown locally and cheap prices of imported orchids ate into the business. As a result many nurseries closed down in the 20th century.

This article reports on the history of the Armstrong & Brown business activities and premises and provides information about the Armstrong and Brown family and others associated with this unusual  and famous local business. Shown above is a map dating 1931 or later which in the top right hand corner shows ‘Orchidhurst’ as a house and a range of glass orchid houses.


Thomas Armstrong  was born 1869 in Coanwood, Northumberland. Coanwood is a small village in Northumberland and part of the parish of Haltwhistle, located about four miles south-west of the village of Haltwhislte. Coal mining and to some extent agriculture play an important part in this areas history.

Thomas was baptised July 18,1869 at Haltwhistle with his parents given as Thomas and Margaret Armstrong. Thomas Armstrong senior (1832-1882) was born August 21,1831 at Haltwhistle, Northumberland and  was one of 9 children born to Francis Armstrong (1795-1832) and Mary Teasduk (1800-1868). Thomas senior was both a blacksmith and a farmer.He died November 26,1882 at Gilsland,Cumberland. When a boy Thomas junior lived on and worked at his father’s farm and attended the local school. Thomas Junior  came from a very large family, consisting of 6 boys and 6 girls. His mother Margaret Batey (1837-1904) had been born in Henshaw, Northumberland  and died  in the 3rd qtr of 1904 in Northumberland.

At the time of the 1871 census, Thomas and his siblings were living with their parents in Coanwood. Sometime before 1881 the family moved to the village of Plenmeller, Northumberland (photo above). Plenmeller was located only mile south-east of the village of Haltwhistle (shown opposite)and like Coanwood, coal and agriculture played an important role in the communities history. The 1881 census, taken in Plenmeller Village recorded Thomas Armstrong, age 50, with his wife Margaret and eight of their children, including Thomas junior. Thomas senior at this time was a blacksmith and farmer of 36 acres. Thomas juniors brother John , born 1863, was working as a blacksmith and his sister Esther,born 1865, was working as a teacher.

Where Thomas was at the time of the 1891 census was not determined but most likely in the same area of Northumberland. It is known that he was living in Wylam, Northumberland in the 1890’s and that in 1893 he married Catherine Isabella  Brown.

Catherine had been born  November 17,1865 at Traquair,Pebbleshire, in the southern part of Scotland. She was one of seven children born to Robert Brown (1834-1904) and Jessie Dickson Brown, nee Ross (1838-1909). A review of Scottish census records reports that the Brown family were living on the grand Glen House Estate in Pebbleshire and working on the estate for its owner.The 1871 census gave Robert Brown as a coachman and living with him in a cottage on the estate was his wife Jessie and his children Catherine Isabella Brown,and her younger sister Clara. Catherine’s brother  William Robert Brown (1879-1934) (photo opposite) lived his entire life on the Glen House estate and was a factor of Lord Glenconner’s Glen Estate. He died on the estate in 1934 while grouse shooting.He was married and had three children.

Robert Brown had been born 1834 in Kilconquhar,Fifeshire and died at Traquair,Pebbleshire July 30,1904.Shown opposite right is a photo of his grave  on which is inscribed ‘In loving memory of Robert Brown for 45 years coachman at the Glen who died 30.7.1904 aged 67 years.Also his wife Jessie Dickson Ross who died at the Glen 21.4. 1907 aged 71 years. Also his son Robert Smith Brown who died 2.4.1871 aged 6 months. Also his son Robert Andrew Brown who died 6.6.1958 aged 85 years.Also Catherine Dickson who died at the Glen 20.11.1880 age77 years”.  The grave is located in the Traquair Church (photo opposite left).

In 1894 Thomas Armstrong and his wife Catherine were living at Wylam,Northumberland, and in that year the couple had a daughter Clara, named after Catherines sister Clara, In 1897 the couple had their second child Thomas Batey Armstrong, who was born in Traquair,Pebbleshire while the Armstrongs on were on a trip back to Scotland to see the Brown family. It is known from reviewing the history of the Glen House estate that it was a vast estate and is considered today to be “one of the most lovely and beautiful places in the south of Scotland. Now owned, and for over twenty years previous, by the Tennant family, Charles Tennant, esq., undertook extensive work on the estate, replacing the house and many of its cottages and related buildings. It is known from a description of the early history of the estate, that on the grounds was an Orchid House. When this Orchid House was built Is not known .

A question that comes to mind is why Thomas Armstrong and his wife got into the orchid business, and having looked at the history of Northumberland, there was no information found to suggest that Thomas’s interest in these plants originated while living in Northumberland,but of course there were nurserymen and gardeners in that country.However since his wife grew up on the Glen House estate), and since it had an orchid house, one can speculate that Thomas’s interest in orchids arose from that connection in Scotland.  Of this there is no certainty, but it is a possible explanation.Shown below  is a photo on the Gen House Estate.Standing on the right side iw William Robert Brown, Catherine Armstrong, nee Brown's brother who was working as a games keeper.

After the birth of their son Thomas Batey Armstrong in 1897 the Armstrong family returned to England, presumably to Northumberland, but it is known from the obituary of Thomas Armstrong that he had settled in Tunbridge Wells in 1900. The  1901 census  confirms that the family was in Tunbridge Wells.


The 1901 census, taken at 224 Upper Grosvenor Road (photo opposite) recorded Thomas Armstrong as a nurseryman and gardener on own account. Living with him was his wife Catherine (no occupation given) and their children Clara and Thomas Batey Armstrong. Also present was a lodger by the name of George Little, a nurseryman and gardener on own account born 1854 in Haltwhistle ,Northumberland, who was single. Taking the census at face value Thomas and George Little appear to be operating their own nursery and gardening business, but details about it could not be found. It is interesting to note that both Thomas Armstrong and George Little were both from the county of Northumberland; both from Haltwhislte, and shared the same profession. Could the two men have known one another,or perhaps worked together, back in Northumberland ? It is very likely. George Little is found in the 1881 census at Plenmeller, Northumberland  where he is a gardener domestic and living with his sister Elizabeth Ann and his widowed mother Cybil Little(1807-1889). George Little was one of 9 children born to Thomas Little (1802-1877) and Cybil Little. The 1891 census recorded just George and his spinster sister living together at Plenmeller West Lodge in the village of Plenmeller. His sister was a laundress and George was an employed gardener. Whatever the relationship was between George Little and Thomas Armstrong, it did not last  long in Tunbridge Wells, for the 1911 census recorded George and his sister living in a four room house at 1 Myrtle Cottage in Groombridge,where George was a market gardener. What became of George after 1911 was not determined. Haltwhistle is a small town and parish in Northumberland located 10 miles east of Brampton, noted for its coal mining. The villages of Coanwood and Plenmeller, where Thomas Armstrong Lived before moving to Tunbridge Wells were just a few short miles from the town of Haltwhistle (photo opposite).

A review of local directories showed that in 1903 Thomas Armstrong was living at ‘Homeview’ in Sandhurst Park. This residence must have changed names later 1903 for no record of it is found in directories or census records after that year,and no occupation for Thomas was given in the directory. It is known from Thomas’s obituary that Thomas arrived in Tunbridge Wells in 1900 and purchased “waste land” in Sandhurst Park and founded the company Armstrong & Brown, with Brown being his wifes maiden name. It is to be expected that Catherine Isabella Armstrong took  an active role in the business and that the inclusion of her maiden surname in the company name had a greater meaning than just Thomas love for his wife. Her role in the business was most likely in business administration rather than in the propogation of orchids but there are no facts in this regard and nothing has been written about Thomas’s wife.

Sometime before 1907 Thomas and his family moved to ‘Orchidhurt. Sandhurst Park’. The date of 1907 is based on an orchid registered with the Royal Horticultural Society in that year by “Armstrong and Brown of ‘Orchidhurst” by the name of “C. Prince John”.Also registered in the same year was an orchid called “Lc Daffodil (Lc Mercia x Laelia Jungheana)”.  Armstrong & Brown also registered the following orchids “ C. Claesena “ (1916), “LC. Calligula” (1913) and “Oncidium Kadee”(1936).These are but only a few of several orchids that Thomas’s nursery  registered, as the researcher did not undertake an exhaustive search of all orchids registered.

A review of the orchid list with the Royal Horticultural Society gave the following list of eight orchids with the name Armstrong attached to them and it is likely that many more could be found.

1)      E.pigeneium Coelagyne var. armstrongee

2)      Cattleya Armstrongiae gx ‘Magnifia’

3)      Cymbidium Clare Armstrong gx ‘Greensleeves’

4)      Cymbidium Bidmin Moor gx ‘Catherine Armstrong’

5)      Cymbidium Dorchester gx ‘Catherine Armstrong’

6)      Cymbidium Clare Armstrong gx ‘Springtide’

7)      DCymbidium Clare Armstong gx ‘Sunrise’

8)      Dandrobium Merlin gx ‘Armstrongiae’

9)      Odontoglossum Armstrongii

In addition to orchids bearing the name of Armstrong, the company propagated, imported and exported an extensive selection of orchids, being in addition to those produced and registered by the company as being varieties or species of their own creation. Shown above is one of Armstrongs orchids which today has been turned into a small art print . The orchid shown is called “Odontoglossum Armstrongii” and is an art print by Nellie Roberts based on a watercolour on board of the flower painted by artist Nellie Roberts.It is stated on the website that “this orchid was given a first class certificate by the Orchid Committee in October 1921 and was shown by Messrs Armstrong and Brown, Orchidhurst,Tunbridge Wells. Roberts was appointed by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1897 to paint orchids and was awarded the NMM in 1953”.

The 1911 census, taken at Orchidhurst,Sandhurst Park recorded Thomas and an “orchid grower employer”. Living with him was his wife Catherine and their daughter Clara, who was an art student, and Thomas Batey Armstrong who was at school. Also present in, what was a described as a 9 room house, was one domestic servant. The census noted that the couple had three children but one of them did not survive infancy. Also of note is the incorrect entry by the census taker that the couple had been married 3 years (1903) which would have been nine years after the birth of their first child. Later in this article I provide ,in a separate section, more information about ‘Orchidhurst’.

A review of Kelly  directories beyond 1911 , right up to 1944 all gave “Thomas Armstrong, Orchidhurst, Sandhurst Park” and in the business listings for the same period is to be found “Armstrong and Brown,orchid growers,Sandurst Park”. It is also interesting to note that references to the company in various trade journals and society records refer to the business as either “Armstrong & Brown” or “Armstrong and Brown” or “Messrs Armstrong & Brown”. The last description is obviously based on the understandable assumption that “Brown” was a Mr Brown and not Thomas Armstrong’s wife, indicating in itself the lack of knowledge about the basis upon which  the company derived its name. In all fairness, one must recognize that in the early 1900’s very few women took a prominent role in the operation of a business, even when they were “partners” with their husbands and if they took an active role in the business it was one subservient to that of their husband. In these situations, the wife, although active in some capacity in the business, often carried on her work receiving little attention or recognition for her efforts. Like most husband and wife businesses, if it was not for the participation and support of the wife, the business might not have been the success it was. No doubt Thomas was very greatful for the support of his wife and  apart from including her name in the company name, perhaps the best demonstration for his love of his wife and children is from him naming certain varieties of orchids he created after his wife and daughter , as can be seen from the list of orchids I gave earlier ( ie Catherine Armstrong and Clare (Clara) Armstrong).

The Orchid Review of 1917 referred to the award of a Gold Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society to Messrs Armstrong & Brown for one of their orchids. The same publication of 1919 referred to an “exceptional specimen of Ccelognne by Armstrong & Brown”. The Orchid Forum for the Uk and Europe, listed “ Armstrong and Brown,Tunbridge Wells” and there is a reference in this publication to “the original C. Prince John, orchid, made by Armstrong and Brown in 1913”. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi published a report on orchids in Indian  (London 1910) in which they referred to orchids by “Armstrong & Brown,Tunbridge Wells, Kent”.

In 1927 the following advertisement appeared in an  orchid trade journal “ Armstrong & Brown-Winners of the Coronation Cup for the most meritorious exhibit at the Chelsea Show 1919, and numerous Gold and Silver Medals-Orchid raising, growers,importers and exporters. We have a large selection of choice orchids always on view. A cordial welcome given to all visitors, who will be much interested in our unique varieties, as well as the general vigour and cleanliness of the plants. Our scientific germinations of orchid seed are conducted in a well- equipped and up-to-date laboratory under the direct supervision of Mr. E. Clement, the pioneer of the Asymbiotic Process. Located at ‘Orchidhurst’, Tunbridge Wells,Kent.Nearest station in High Brooms-Southern Railway. Visitors can be met by private car if desired”.  The publication Orchid Biology of 2002 referred to the above advertisement w.r.t. the reference made to “Mr. E. Clement” and stated  “Edward Clement was germinating orchid seed in 1924 and became associated with the orchid firm of Armstrong and Brown and referred to his method as the Clement-Armstrong process of seed raising. Armstrong and Brown capitalized on the whole idea and stated that their scientific germination of orchid seed are conducted in well-equipped and up-to-date laboratory under Clement’s supervision. Clement gained financially from this association”.

The Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists had little information about Armstrong and Brown and simply gave “ Thomas Armstrong (   - 1944) died July 8,1944. Founder Armstrong and Brown,Tunbridge Wells, orchid nursery”. They did not even record when he was born, and for a world famous orchid establishment one would have expected a more detailed record of this business.

The Cambridge Orchid Society reported ,from a review of their records, that “the society made coach trips on Sundays to leading nurseries of the area including Armstrong and Brown, Tunbridge Wells. The majority of these nurseries are sadly gone, their rich clients of yesteryear have also gone and their collections broken up.Cheap imports of orchids from Thomas Trading Company did not help the established nurseries”.

The Orchid Review of 1929 refered to Armstrong and Brown noting that Thomas Armstrong was Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society (F.R.H.S.) and that he was an” orchid specialist,raiser, grower, importer and exporter, and an advertisement for the company gave “ Expert advice and estimates given for the erection of model orchid houses which are acknowledged to be perfect in every detail and give the most satisfactory results.Hybrids and rare and choice species a specialty.Materials for orchids, the best insecticide “Orchidhurst’, Tunbridge Well”. So it is clear from this advertisement that apart from the growing, and trading in orchids the company had also expanded its business to include products people could purchase to grow and care for their orchids and that they were also in the business of selling and erecting orchid houses.

In the late 1920’s a Mr Thomas Dickson Boyd  became “the  nursery manager at Orchidhurst, Tunbridge Wells,Kent for Messrs Armstrong and Brown,Nurserymen”. This statement comes from a biographical sketch of Mr Boyd which I give in its entirety below, along with a photo of him shown opposite.

    “THOMAS DICKSON BOYD……….It is with great sorrow that we have to record that Mr. Thomas Dickson Boyd died suddenly in hospital on 27th April, 1969, aged 69. Mr. Boyd, who was Superintendent of Parks for Accrington for 29 years, was a native of Ayr, Scotland. He had a long and varied horticultural career. This started with an apprenticeship at Haigh Hall, Wigan, under his father who was head gardener to the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. After service in H.M. Forces during the latter half of the first World War, Mr. Boyd was appointed Chief Plantsman and Decorator to the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, Prescott, and subsequently he was awarded a studentship at Kew. In the words of Sir Arthur Hill the Director, as written on his Kew Certificate—" He entered the service of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as a student gardener on 24th September, 1923. He proved so capable at his work that he was promoted to be foreman in the herbaceous department in February, 1925, which position he held until leaving Kew in August, 1928. From Kew he was appointed to the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham Royal for the Council of Industrial and Scientific Research. His next position was that of nursery manager at Orchidhurst, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for Messrs Armstrong and Brown, Nurserymen. Mr. Boyd moved to Accrington in 1931 as Chief Assistant to Mr. Hugh Boyd, the then Park Superintendent, and in 1935 succeeded him as Superintendent. During his term of office the playing fields and public gardens greatly increased in number and a crematorium was established. He was held in the highest esteem by the staff and Corporation officials alike and it was a measure of the Council's gratitude for his service that on his retirement the presentations were made at a full Council meeting and tributes were paid from every side of the house. Mr. Boyd left the Council Chamber to a standing ovation. He was extremely diligent in the training of apprentices and there are today quite a few young men, holding prominent positions in Parks Departments, who owe their good start to him.” From my own research Thomas  is found in the 1901 census at Greenfield Avenue in Ayr,Ayrshire Scotland born 1900 at Alloway,Ayr,Scotland. In this census he was living with his parents William Boyd,age 33 and Clara Boyd,age 31.A review of birth records has him born November 13,1900 and death records gave him passing away June 1969 at Haslingden,Lancashire. Accrington, referred to in the above account is a town in the Hynburn Borough of Lancashire, a former centre of the cotton and textile machinery industries.

According to Dillion, G. Orchid Growers of England -1.  American Orchid Society Bulletin, Vol. 27. No.11.  November 1958. Pp734-741.”Armstrong and Brown was founded by Thomas Armstrong in 1901 with just two greenhouses. By 1958 it had 16, 500 square feet of glass. Thomas Armstrong pioneered albino strains of Orchids producing Cymbidium Dorchester, Cymbidium Tityus, Cymbidium Madonna and Cymbidium Clare Armstrong. In 1938 Mr Armstrong was joined by Mr J. L. Humphreys who gradually took over the running of the business. By 1946 Mr  J. L. Humphreys was in charge of the business which was now owned by American orchid enthusiast Mr Clint McDade.The last listing for the business in local directories was 1955, but as the above quotation notes the business was still there in 1958..

Thomas Armstrong passed away on Tunbridge Wells in 1944. Probate records gave him of ‘Orchidhurst’, Sandhurst Park, Tunbridge Wells as the time of his death on July 8,1944. The executors of his 9,565 pound estate were his wife Catherine Isabella Armstrong and Percy Wickenden,chartered accountant. Thomas was buried in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery on July 12th. His wife died in Tunbridge Wells in 1951. Her probate record gave her of ‘Orchidhurst’ Tunbridge Wells, widow, who died May 29,1951 at the Tunbridge Wells and District General Hospital (with will ) (limited). The executor of her 5,962 pound estate was her spinster daughter Clara Armstrong. Catherine was buried in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery on June 2,1951.

The Kent and Sussex Courier gave the following revealing obituary for Thomas Armstrong, from which much can be learned about the significance of the Armstrong and Brown nursery. “ Death of Mr Thomas Armstrong-A Famous Orchid Grower- By the death of Mr Thomas Armstrong of Orchidhurst,Tunbridge Wells, which occurred on Saturday, the horticultural world has lost one of its most famous orchid growers, whose wonderful flowers of unrivalled perfection have attracted many distinguished personalities to Sandhurst Park, where for so long he had carried on the cultivation of rare and valuable species. Pottentates,ambassadors and other outstanding men and women from many nations, as well as notable people of this country, have frequently visited Mr Armstrong’s displays. Even since the war distinguished visitors have snatched a few moments off duty to admire the rare and lovely specimens in his spacious orchid houses. It was only two years ago that the visitors included King Peter of Yugoslavia and his mother; Queen Marie,Dr. Benes, President of Czechoslovakia, and Mrs Benes; and General Sikorski, President of the Polish Republic.Herself an authority on orchids it was not the first time Queen Marie had visited Mr Armstrong’s orchid houses, but she had never before been accompanied by King Peter.Before the war she had purchased plants from Mr Armstrong to take back to her own country. Other visitors at various times were Mr Neville Chamberlain, Mr Hore-Belisha and Sir John and Lady Anderson. Mr Armstrong had been studying orchids for over 60 years. When he came to Tunbridge Wells in 1900 he bought what was then more or less a waste plot or ground and planned his own orchid houses, which soon became examples of what these should be. He built up a flourishing export trade to America and was a particularly successful competitor at the leading shows, including Chelsea.In 1912: at the International Exhibition, he not only won the large gold medal for the best group of species and their varieties in the show, but also Baron Bruno Shroder’s silver cup for the best collection of hybrid orchids. At Chelsea in 1919 he secured the Coronation Cup for the most meritorious exhibit, and in 1938 won the Royal Horticultural Society’s gold medal for a magnificent group. The funeral at the Borough Cemetery on Wednesday was conducted by the Rev. Evan J. Hopkins, and the chief mourners were the widow, Miss C. Armstrong; Mr R.A. Brown, Miss N. Brown, Mrs Fever, Mrs Sherry,Mr P. Wickenden, Mr and Mrs Perry, Mr Rubenstein, Mr Fernes, Mr E. Powell and Mr Clarke.” The article ended with a list of who provided wreaths.

The death of Thomas Armstrong made international news, and among the various reports were several in the USA, a place in which Thomas Armstrong had exported thousands of orchids, and made his mark in the industry. As a result, wealthy gentleman in the USA by the name of Clint McDade of Richmond Orchids arranged to purchase the entire collection of orchids of Armstrong and Brown. A  reference to this is found in an announcement of the “Heritage Plant Auction of the American Orchid Society “ which was to be held at the Hotel Du Pont October 17,2008 with particular mention of “this famous red cattleya breed which came to America through Clint McDade  as part of the orchid collection he had purchased from Armstrong and Brown in Tunbridge Wells. The auction announcement goes on to state “Its impossible to study the breeding of red catteyas in America as abroad without focusing upon Laurie Humphreys (of Armstrong and Brown) famous remake of the original cross mad by Charlesworth……..” from this, and other records,  it is known that that Laurie Humphreys began working with Armstrong and Brown in 1938 and that upon the death of Thomas Armstrong in 1944 the business was acquired by Clint McDale and that Humphreys (J.L. Humphrey’s) took over the management of the business for Mr McDale. In an article entitled “Orchids left to the Royal Horticultural Society it was stated “ Many years ago a then vice-chair of the Orchid Committee (the late Laurie Humphries, who ran a splendid little orchid nursery called Armstrong and Brown at Tunbridge Wells) was telling a story…………” A 2007 publication entitled “Orchid Talk” referred to Laurie Humphries running “a fine orchid nursery called Armstrong and Brown in Tunbridge Wells” and that he had been the vice-chair of the RHS in the late 1960’s. Very little is recorded about Mr Humphreys and as one can see from the references given his name is given variously as J.L. Humphreys or Laurie Humphries, his full name most likely being John or James Lawrence Humphreys. The last reference found for him was an obituary written by “ J.L. Humphreys” dated March 1975 about a fellow orchid enthusiast Mr David Fearnley Samder who like Laurie had been a member of the  RHS orchid committee, and no doubt a good friend of his.

Continuing with the sale of the Armstrong Brown collection, The Rotarian of October 1946 reported that “Clint McDade, a member of the Rotary Club of Tennessee began dabbling with orchids as a hobby about 1936. He collection was declared to be the “foremost in the world”. A few months ago he flew to Britain to purchase the world famous Armstrong and Brown collection at Tunbridge Wells. Her purchased approximately 25,000 plants in England and will have some 65,000 mature plants and even more seedlings. It will take two more seasons before all the English plants and seedlings can be packed and shipped to Tennessee.They can only be moved during April-May and must be packed as carefully as a fine Swiss watch”.

The publication called The Bee from Dunville,Virginia, USA dated March 1,1946 reported “ Mr McDade is here to close a $100,000 transaction for the purchase and shipment to America of the world famous Armstrong-Brown orchid plant collection at Tunbridge Wells”.  So in 1946 $100,000 was paid for the collection, presumably to Thomas Armstrongs widow, and yet her probate record only valued her estate as being 5,962 pounds, prompting the question-Where did all the money go?. The answer may be found in revealing what became of the children of Thomas and his wife, which I give some details below.

Thomas’s daughter Clara was living with her parents in 1911 at ‘Orchidhurst’, Sandurst Park and at that time she was a 17 year old art student. When her mother died in 1951 she was the executor of her mother’s estate and she was still a spinster, age 57. Clara never married . The probate record for her gave her of 3 Farmcombe Road in Tunbridge Wells when she died in September 1965. The executor of her 17,840 pound estate was the Westiminster Bank Ltd.Clara was buried in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery in October 1,1965 indicating that she must have died the end of September.

Thomas’s son Thomas Batey Armstrong had been born in 1897 and at the time of the 1911 census at ‘Orchidhurst’ Sandhurst Park, he was only age 4. Later he attended a local school and at some point married Violet Ella Blanche Armstrong (maiden name unknown). Thomas Batey Armstrong and his wife likely had children although no details in this regard were established. Thomas’d eath was registered in Tunbridge Wells in the 4th qtr of 1938.His probate record gave him of Gaythorn,Hastings Road, Pembury and that he died October 26,1938 and that the executor of his 850 pound estate was his widow Violet Ella Blanche Armstrong. Thomas was buried in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery on November 2,1938, indicating that he must have died around the end of October that year. Based on the above the answer to where all the money went from the sale of the Armstrong & Brown Collection is not evident but it is obvious that the bulk of the money ended up in the hands of Thomas’s daughter Clara.

The packing and shipping of the orchid collection to the USA was still going on in 1946 and as noted above Thomas’s wife was still a resident of Orchidhurst in Sandhurst Park at the time of her death in 1951. Also of interest is a somewhat puzzling account from the Cambridge Orchid Society regarding trips made buy Society members to Armstrong and Brown by coach on Sundays  by the founder of the Society Mr Jim Swainland in March 2006 in which was stated “ The Society was formed 50 years ago, which would make the year 1956 and which if correct would indicate that a nursery growing orchids called Armstrong and Brown was still operating in Tunbridge Wells. If in fact this is true, it would be by name only and operated by someone other than the Armstrong family,perhaps as I noted earlier Mr McDade. Also of note, from the Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists is an entry for John Ezra Woodhead in which it is stated “He was a cultivator of orchids for Messrs Armstrong and Brown at Orchidhurst,Tunbridge Wells 1901-1957. It also states he was born at Wyke Yorkshire April 3,1883 and died September 22,1967 and that he got his BSc in London in 1922 and was a pharmaceutical chemist.This report  also shows that the company of Armstrong and Brown was still in operation in 1958 and still producing orchids.

A review of a local directory of 1939 showed  under the heading of Sandurst Park ten listings including the following two “ Thomas Armstrong, Orchidhurst” and “Armstrong and Brown, orchid growers. Interestingly  there was also a listing for “R. Giles (E.P. Burnand, prop. )nurseryman” and “George I. Adams Ltd, nurseryman”, indicating that three nurseries operated in Sandhurst Park at that time. A 1922 and 1930  directory also gave a listing under the heading of Florists, “G.I. Adams 21 Grosvenor Road, 71 Queens Road and Sandhurst Park”. A 1934 directory gave the listing “ Robert Giles, florist, 126 Camden Road and Sandhurst Park. Details about the nurseries of Robert Giles and G.I. Adams can be found in my articles ‘The Adams Family of Tunbridge Wells’ dated January 24,2015 and ‘Robert Giles-Florist and Nurseryman’ dated January 20,2015.

Shown above is a postcard view of Sandhurst Park (date unknown) in which Gordon’s Nursery is shown, being the nursery of Robert Giles, whos name is given in the top right hand corner. Details about this nursery can be found in my article ‘Robert Giles-Florist and Nurseryman’ dated January 20,2015. Note the large homes in the background and the amount of open land in Sandhurst Park then existing.

Up until 1948 Armstrong and Brown were listed in directories as Armstrong and Brown,Sandhurst Park. Directories for 1950,1953 and 1955 gave Armstrong and Brown, Liptrap’s Lane.As can be seen from the maps the business did not change location, it is the name if the roads that changed. The north-west end of Sandhurst Road was renamed Liptraps’s Lane, which derived its name from the presence of the historic Liptraps Farm that the road ran past.

I close off this section with the following information provided by Jenny Auton  of the Library Enquiries Team at the Royal Horticultural Society, to whom I am very grateful.Her reply was in response to my inquiry about J.L. Humphreys (photo opposite). She stated “ According to Sander, David Fernley, J.L. Humphreys: forthcoming retirement. The Orchid Review, Vol 81. No. 962 dated August 1973 Pages 227-228. J.L. Humphreys was known as Laurie Humphreys and joined the staff of Charlesworth & Co in 1925, he left in 1933 to join Armstrong and Brown. By 1967 Mr Humphreys owned a half share in Armstrong and Brown and he bought out Clint McDade who wished to retire. For nine years he was president of the British Orchid Growers Association and served on the RHS Orchid Committee from 1949.He received the “Award of Honour” from the Australian Orchid Council in 1969. According to The RHS Garden Magazine, Vol P.57 in 1973 the RHS awarded Mr Humphreys the VMH (Victoria Medal of Honour) for his work with orchids. An obituary to Mr Humphreys appears in Orchid Review, Vol 91, No. 1077, July 1983 p. 217. It states we regret to report the death on 30th March last of Mr Laurie Humphreys. Her served on the RHS orchid committee up until his death and was a long term director of The Orchid review and had his own monthly column during the 1950’s and 60’s giving advice to readers. He was a founding member of Bristol and West of England Orchid Society which he helped to start in 1949”.


The house and its related nursery was at ‘Orchidhurst’ in Sandhurst Park. Sandhurst Park was initially conceived as a residential development at the north west end of Sandhurst Road past the intersection of Sandhurst Road and Ferndale Road.

In the 1870’s Sandhurst Road was nothing more than a track leading off Pembury Road, providing access to farms and lodges in the area, such as Liptraps Farm and the Great Lodge, to name but two. In the late 1870’s John Smith Were , the founder of the High Brooms Brick and tile company and a wealthy gentlemen who had been actively involved in part of the Ferndale Road Development as a builder and developer built a grand home on the south east corner of Sandhurst Road and Ferndale Road, which he names Sandhurst. In 1875 he sold a large plot of land to Edward Townend across the street, on the south west corner of Sandhurst Road and Ferndale Road which Townend had a grand home called ‘Springhead’ constructed. In the following years additional homes were built along Sandhurst Road to the west, details of which can be found in my article ‘A study of the Original Homes in the Sandurst Park Development’ dated January 16,2015.

The name of ‘Orchidhurst’ does not appear in the 1901 census, and it is known that in 1903 Thomas Armstrong was residing in Sandhurst Park in a residence called ‘Homeview’. It is also known,from the orchid registry, that by 1907 Armstrong was at ‘Orchidhurst’ . Based on this and absence of more concrete evidence it can be estimated that the home ‘Orchidhurst’ was constructed sometime between 1904 and 1906.

The original development plan of Sandhurst Park was based on its original name of ‘Liptraps Park” .This development was a joint effort by financier Francis Peek and the local architect William Barnsley Hughes (1852-1927). When Francis Peek died in 1899 the funding for this development dried up and later under the name of Sandhurst Park the development of this land was eventually completed, but much of it was after WW II. The Peek/Hughes collaboration did result in the creating of plots in the development and homes were constructed on those plots. A review of the homes on the roads Sandhurst Road and Sandhurst Park show that some 13 homes were built by 1911, among which was ‘Orchidhurst’.

Show at the beginning of this section is a 1909 OS map of the Sandhurst area and marked in red on the map and labelled as such is the property identified as ‘Orchidhurst’. Although not labelled on the map the road marked in yellow became Liptraps Lane and Birken Road did not exist at this time. As can be seen from this map the building ‘Orchidhurst’ establishment was very large in comparison to those along the roads of Sandhurst Road and Sandhurst Park, with exception of the most westerly buildings on the road Sandhurst Park which werecomparable in size. One of these establishments was the nursery business called “Gordons Nursery” consisting of a residence of typical size and a range of glass greenhouses. The second nursery on Sandhurst Park was that of George Israel Adams Ltd and was located next door to Gordons Nursery.As can be seen from this map ‘Orchidhurst” consisted of a large range of glass orchid houses ,and according to Chris Jones, in a reply to my inquiry, he stated that “Orchidhurst’ is pretty much where the present Orchidhust cul-de-sac is today. The nursery shown on the road Sandhurst Park is Gordons Nursery. I believe Armstrong bought the land about 1899/1900 and built the glasshouses and probably his own house. It was probably still there in the 1960’s, people think that they remember it and describe it as constructed of red brick, being 2 sty’s with four bedrooms. It may be that there was an earlier house there called Homeview and that Orchidhurst replaced it. It may be that Homeview refers to a view of Home Farm, which is shown on an 1849 map. A Miss Armstrong is shown living at Orchidhurst in a 1953 Kelly directory”.

Today one can find in Sandhurst Park a short road called ‘Orchidhurst’ leading off the end of Milton Drive, which itself connects to Liptraps Lane at the north western part of the development and it is the opinion of the researcher, and that of Chris Jones  that the use of the name Orchidhurst in naming this road is not coincidental, and that the land upon which this road was built was the former grounds of Armstrong & Browns orchid nursery and residence.. It is known from examining the roads Orchidhurst and Milton Drive that the old ‘Orchidhurst’ building no longer exists and was demolished sometime after 1960 but before 1975 and the area became a new residential subdivision. The date of 1975 was established based on a review of Planning Authority applications from 1975 onwards and there is no mention in the records of Orchidhurst in the records, indicating that if the development had taken place from 1975 onwards there would be record of a planning application pertaining to it. Shown opposite is one of the homes built in the Orchidhurst development.

CLINT McDADE             

Clint McDade was the son of Martha Jane Walker(1873-1911) of Bradleyville, Taney County Missouri, and Corneilous "Niel" McDade (1861-1914)also of Missouri.He was born August 8,1897 at Forsyth Taney County,Missouri. He was married twice namely (1) Greace Everest McDade (1891-1967 (2) Bess W. McDade (1909-1999).

Clint McDade turned his hobby of growing Orchids into huge world wide business and became the founder of Rivermont Orchids in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.When Clint traveled to England he bought the  Orchid nursery Of Armstrong and Brown in Tunbridge Wells. During the WWII he brought most of the valuable and rare orchid breeding plants from England to the United States to save them from destruction by Nazi buzz bombs and freezing from lack of coal and heat.

In 1941 when Queen Elizabeth married the Orchids she carried were provided by Clint McDade.By 1958 he was operating a successful orchid business under the name of Clint McDade and Sons.

He was also successful in renaming the The Cattleya General Patton Orchid he had originally registered this hybrid as Cattleya Joseph Stalin after the Russian dictator. Stalin's exploits against his own people became known during World War II, McDade realized his mistake in naming a beautiful orchid after him. In an attempt to rectify his mistake, McDade contacted the Royal Horticultural Society and begged the society for permission to change the registration name on the hybrid.

In this single, unique case, the RHS agreed and Rivermont was allowed to change the name of the orchid to Cattleya General Patton in honor of the great American general.

In 1975 Clint McDade donated to The College of the Ozarks in Missouri, in which he was one of the School's first students; the nucleus of his collection, which today numbers more than 7,000 plants.

Clint McDade died September 30,1986 at Semmes Mobile County,Alabama. He was buried in the Pine Crest Cemetery in Mobile,Alabama. Shown above is a photograph of him.


Subsequent to finalizing this article I received the following information from Lorna Cahill Assistant Archivist Library, Art and Archives Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,Richmond,Surrey “I have searched our collections for material relating to Armstrong & Brown, and I'm afraid we do not have a great deal.

I found two articles about Armstrong & Brown published in Orchid journals. The first was an obituary for Thomas Armstrong, published in Orchid Review 1944 folio 124. The second was a report on a tour of British Orchid nurseries, including Armstrong & Brown from the American Orchid Society Bulletin 1958 folios 736-737. This report gives a brief history of Armstrong & Brown, but does not mention a Mr Brown at all. You may be able to find access to these journals in Canada, or elsewhere online. However, if you cannot find them locally, you can order copies from us.

The only records relating to Armstrong & Brown that I could find in our Archive collections, are in ledgers which record plant material sent to and from Kew Gardens. Armstrong & Brown is listed several times c.1908-1934. I have not checked these individually, but the record typically includes a date the material arrived at Kew, a brief description of the plants or seeds (sometimes a detailed list), and a note on the condition of the plants. If you would like more information about these, please let me know.

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