For the Georgian man who has everything…

Just as today we might lust after luxury leather handbags or purses, so too did the Georgians.
For much of the 1700s and into the 1800s, the epitome of luxury for a fashionable gentleman was owning a red Moroccan leather pocket-book. This wallet which carried banknotes, immediately signified wealth due to its materials of soft leather, silver thread, and fine workmanship. It might also have suggested sophistication, as surely only a cosmopolitan, man of the world could get his mitts on such a luxurious and exotic product?
Within the collection at Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery, is a 1724 embroidered Moroccan pocketbook with silver metallic threads.
This pocket-book has been customised with the name of the owner, Williams Winder, also the place of its manufacture Tetuan (Tétouan in northern Morocco) – famed for its leather workers.

Pocket book closed
Embroidery under flap

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has a very similar example, marked Tetuan, 1727, clearly these pocket books were also objects of desire in the colonies.

Pocketbook from the collection at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1727

From the Jasper Sprange collection of printers’ proofs at Tunbridge Wells Museum, we can also spot when a pocket-book has been ‘lost’ along with its contents in 1801.

Five Guineas Reward.
On Thursday, June 4, 1801, between the Hours of Eight and Ten o’Clock in the Morning, and betwixt Brenchley Town and Lamberhurst Quarter
A Red Morocco Pocket Book,
Bank of England, Hastings and Tonbridge Notes to the Amount of Twenty-one Pounds
The Owner’s Name wrote on the Inside in German text
Whoever will cause the said Book, with its Contents, to be returned to the Owner, shall receive the above-mentioned Reward of FIVE GUINEAS.
Sprange, Printer, T. Wells.

pocket book 3
Reward poster, printed by Jasper Sprange of Tunbridge Wells, 1801

From the reward poster we can see that these pocket books might have carried paper money issued from the Bank of England. However, if used in towns, they were equally likely to carry money issued by provincial banks. If you’re curious about what these paper notes would have looked like. Here is also some paper money issued by Tonbridge Bank in 1816.

These bank notes were circulated in a local area, where people trusted the bank. However, if provincial banks went bust, the owner would be left with near worthless money. In this scenario, the beautifully made Moroccan pocketbooks might have retained more of their value than their contents – a true fashion investment piece!

God rot Tunbridge Wells! Handel and the Occulist

Handel portrait

George Frideric Handel

We love culture in Tunbridge Wells. Galleries, art centre, music venues – we can’t get enough. So, it’s with a hushed tone that I ask, did one of the greatest composers of his age, George Frideric Handel eventually meet his demise because of a charlatan eye doctor in Tunbridge Wells?

1735 was a good year for Tunbridge Wells. Richard ‘Beau’ Nash arrived in the town and managed its summer entertainments. It was also the year that Handel took a trip down from London to Tunbridge Wells, for the first of many visits.

The drinking of the spa waters might have attracted earlier health tourists in the late 1600s but it was the good company and entertainment that brought high society and Handel to the town over the summer months. Handel visited and dined with nearby friends in Kent, and kept company with fellow musicians, with many private concerts being promoted by Nash. It was also during this time, Handel purportedly had a run-in with Tunbridge Wells’ Ladies’ Music Society and was to have exclaimed, God Rot Tunbridge Wells! A slogan that somehow hasn’t caught on in local tourism literature.

Towards the end of his life Handel was in poor health and experiencing nervous disorders and failing eyesight but found seclusion away from London, back in Tunbridge Wells.

Enter: the flamboyant oculist, John ‘the Chevalier’ Taylor. Was he a charlatan and quack medicine man? 18th century medicine is generally objectionable to modern sensibilities, with its blood-letting and purgative treatments. However, Taylor was also undoubtedly a showman and cute self-promoter who knew how to both announce his arrival in a wagon painted with a giant eye, and make a hasty exit:

He practiced in the most flamboyant way, drawing crowds to watch procedures in the town square – and then getting out of town before the patients took their bandages off…

John Chevalier Taylor

John ‘Chevalier’ Taylor

In 1758, both Handel and Taylor were in Tunbridge Wells. The [really, really, terrible] poem, On the Recovery of the Sight of The Celebrated Mr Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor, dated Tunbridge Wells 15 August 1758, was printed and also published in the London Chronicle on 24 August. The poem is stuffed full of classical allusions and proclamations of Taylor’s greatness, culminating in him single-handedly restoring Handel’s eyesight.


Courtesy: U.S. National Library of Medicine

There is no other evidence to support that Taylor did actually operate on Handel, apart from this poem. At any rate, Handel’s eyesight did not recover and he died after his surgery with what was described as a painful eye condition.

Without a post-mortem it’s impossible to say if Taylor’s treatment did in fact kill Handel. Interestingly, Taylor allegedly went on to treat the composer Johann Sebastian Bach who also died with an eye complaint. Maybe we should focus on the fact that Handel was a repeat visitor of the town, even becoming a donor to King Charles the Martyr chapel in 1755, and it was the good company, musical diversions and seclusion from London that kept him coming back, not the dodgy, potential fatal medical treatments?

Hello world

This blog is a place to share the unexpected and surprising history of Tunbridge Wells in a constructive way (because my family/friends/pets can only humour me for so long.)

Working with the Museum collections since 2013, the surprises and questions have just kept on coming. Why do we have a taxidermy dog?  Who stole a hive of bees and vandalised a sedan chair in the 1800s? And more seriously, what do we know of the history of working class Tunbridge Wells? What is the connection between slavery and  the spa town? Who were the inspiring women of the past that this generation can look up to now? These topics will soon be explored but see below for an image of our beloved Minnie the Lu Lu terrier, forever entombed in a Tunbridge ware cabinet.

Exploring the hidden past of Tunbridge Wells means focussing on all those unsung histories that have been previously overlooked or ignored. It also means questioning the myths and assumptions that are often made about local history. I hope that you find my research interesting and it provides you with an insight into the wonderful collections of the Museum – all views my own.