What follows is ‘work in progress’ on the history of the Tongswood Estate. If any reader has any bits of the jigsaw to offer or corrections to make, I would be delight to hear from them. In that way we may gradually build up a complete record.
The first record of Tongswood is in 1273 when it is mentioned in the ‘Hundreds Rolls’ of Kent and the land was held by Simon de Tonge, who took his name from his fief. The Rother was at one time navigable up to Northiam, for in 892 two hundred and fifty Viking ships landed there. Tonge (Anglo-Saxon twang or tang) means fork, and the estate was so called from the junction of the Rother with the river Beault, which still forms the school’s north-eastern boundary.
Sacrilegiously, this river has been known to generations of Saint Ronan’s families as the ‘Euphrates’! Its official name is Beault is probably a corruption of Beau Holt- literally, ‘the stream of the beautiful wood’. The beauty of the wood is still with us but the glory of the river is no more. It is now nothing but a rather dingy little stream which reminds itself of past magnificence by flooding after heavy rain.
The next chapter of the history of the estate is linked with the cloth trade. In 1328 Edward III married Philippa, daughter of the Count of Hainault, who held the title of ‘Over Lord of the Netherlands’. This connection to Flanders impressed on him the immense wealth to be gained from the cloth trade.
In 1331 he set about inviting clothiers from Ghent in Flanders to come to England and establish their trade here and teach others the weaving trade. John Kemp (Kempt), a Flemish master clothier, settled at Norwich and was soon appointed by the King to oversee this process.
In about 1338 he brought over another Flemish clothier, one Doncke, Duncke, Dunke, or Dunk to England and he settled a short distance east of Hawkhurst in Hinksden. The Cloth Hall he built is now known as ‘Paper Mill House’.
Between them, these two Flemish or Dutch weavers are considered to be the founders of the cloth industry of England, which itself is founded upon the wool trade. Led by the Dunks, the Weald of Kent became a particularly popular destination for further immigrant Flemish clothiers – wool was abundant, there was plenty of water and plenty of wood. The clay soil was also an advantage as the clay extracted was highly absorbent and was used to cleanse finished cloth. In all, about seventy Flemish families settled in the Weald.
Quickly Cranbrook became a centre for the industry, although it did spread to the nearby villages of Benenden, Biddenden, Staplehurst, Tenterden and Hawkhurst. In May 1337, the exporting of wool was forbidden, except by licence, and there was a ban on imports. Clothes were only to be made of English cloth. This measure led to a rapid increase in the population of these villages as people sought work. Much of the cloth produced was loaded on to boats at Bodiam or Salehurst and transported to London via the port of Rye.
The Dunks clearly diversified into iron and there is evidence of early iron workings on the estate, from at least the end of the fifteenth century, with charcoal pits and a hammer ponds. These ponds were created so a head of water could turn the waterwheels used to power the furnace bellows and trip hammers. As competition from imported iron increased, the iron workings on the estate increasingly concentrated on gun founding. Guns and shot where made, for example, at Furnace Mill, owned in 1670 by William Penn, the famous founder of Pennsylvania. The hamlet of houses at the front gate is called Gun Green and originally ‘our’ stretch of Water Lane was known as Gun Lane.
The early Dunks made a great deal of money. At some stage they built a house on the present site of Tongswood, which is recorded as the seat of the family when Simon Dunk died in 1512. Little is known about the Tudor house, where the school now stands, or what happened to it.
Tongswood passed through several generations of the Dunk family to Simon Dunk, who died in 1617, and on to his heir, Thomas Dunk. During the inter-regnum following the execution of Charles I (1649) and the Restoration of his son, Charles II in 1660, Oliver Cromwell stationed some of his Ironsides to suppress religious trouble among the sturdy folk of Hawkhurst. Indeed the immediate environs around the house became known as ‘Barrack Fields’.
A century later it was owned by Sir Thomas Dunk Kt. (1657-1718) who died in 1718. Over this period the estate grew to c. 1200 acres.
Sir Thomas Dunk is the most famous member of the family. He was born into riches but achieved fame through his own merits. He served an apprenticeship in London as an ironmonger and was given the Freedom of the City to set up in business. As a Freeman of the City, he joined the Guild of Ironmongers who, along with the other City Guilds, had the power to elect the two Sheriffs of London. In 1709 Thomas was elected by his fellow liverymen to be one of the two Sheriffs and, on the 18th January 1710, knighted by Queen Anne. He died at Tongswood in 1718 and is laid to rest in pride of place in St Laurence’s Church, Hawkhurst.
Sir Thomas’s executor was William Richards who, by the terms of the will, eventually inherited the estate in 1733. He married Anne Davis, daughter of Sir John Davis. In due course their daughter Anne inherited Tongswood, but to do so she had to change her name to Dunk.
She married the Hon. George Montagu in 1741 who in turn added the name Dunk to his surname. Anne brought an enormous fortune (£110,000) to her husband but died prematurely in 1753, at the age of only 28.
George Montagu-Dunk was the son of the 1st Earl of Halifax. He was styled Viscount Sunbury until succeeding his father as 2nd Earl of Halifax in 1739. He was educated at Eton College and at Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1742, Halifax became Lord of the Bedchamber in the Prince of Wales’ Household. In 1745 he was appointed a Colonel in the Army and, in 1748, Chief Justice of the Royal Forests and Parks south of the Trent.
Between 1748-60 he was the President of the Board of Trade and was styled ‘The Father of the Colonies’ and Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, which was founded in 1749 and named after him. In 1757 he joined the Cabinet, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1761-2), First Lord of the Admiralty (June 1762-), the Secretary of State to Lord Bute (Oct 1762-) and Lord Privy Seal (1770-) but he died on the 8th June 1771. A monument by Bacon to his memory was erected in the west aisle of Westminster Abbey.
Lord Halifax conveyed a lease on Tongswood to Jeremiah Curteis of Rye, for one thousand years, for a yearly rent of six pence. Curteis was, in fact, one of the leaders of the notorious gang of smugglers (The Hawkhurst Gang) – something that I doubt Lord Halifax would have known or, at least, admitted to! In 1767, Curteis conveyed his interest to William Jenkins who died in 1784. The Estate was then sold to Mr David Langton and it then passed through the Wilson and Cole families.
In 1839 the house was purchased by auction by the Hon Felix Tollemarche, whose name appears on the 1841 census. It records him being aged forty and married to a lady called Frances, ten years his junior.
The 1851 census shows that the ownership of Tongswood had passed to George Stevenson. Major George Robert Stevenson, late of the 7th Dragoon Guards, was married to Anna Maria and, by 1851, they had six children. It is assumed that George Stevenson bought the house in the July 1848 auction managed by Messers Farebrother, Clark and Lye.
The 1861 census records show that the house was now lived in by Mr Valentine Elwes (? Cary-Elwes) and his wife Henrietta and their family but, by 1868, the estate had been bought by William Cotterill for £8,750.
William Cotterill (1828-1898) was a successful tea broker and the son of a Birmingham millionaire, Thomas Cotterill (1780-1860), who had made a very considerable fortune (over £1m) from the ‘America trade’. This was one of the largest mid-19th-century fortunes not deriving from land.
The 1871 census records the name of his wife (Mary Anne Stapledon, married 1852) and their four children (Ernest, Annie, Clement and Daisy) and various servants. It also states that William’s income was derived from ‘dividends from the railways’ and from landowning.
William Cotterill’s name remains on the census records for Tongswood in both 1881 and 1891. In 1874, he extended the main house adding a wing to the north which can be seen on the earliest photographs we have of the Tongswood. Annie and Clement Cotterill both married into the Neame brewing family, who continue to have an association with Tongswood to this day.
In 1891 the estate was sold to Capt. John Julian Newton-Spice, who seems to have quickly sold it on in 1892 to ‘Misses Goldsmid of Portman Square’.
The ‘Misses Goldsmid’ mentioned in the 1892 sale details are assumed to be Isabel, Flora and Emma, three unmarried of the sisters of Sir Julian Goldsmid Bt of Somerhill in Tonbridge, because land on Tongswood Drive are still held by the Trustees of the Goldsmid Settled Estates.
In 1849 the 6,500 acre Somerhill estate was bought by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Bt. (1778-1859). Sir Isaac was the grandson of Aaron Goldsmid, a Jewish merchant from Amsterdam who settled in this country with his family in 1763. Sir Isaac passed the house to his second son Frederick in 1859 and then it went to Frederick’s elder son (Sir) Julian in 1866.
The more recent history of Tongswood is very well-documented. In May 1903, Charles Eugene Gunther purchased the house and 319 acres through Tuckett & Son (auctioneers, London EC) and subsequently bought up a number of outlying farms. Charles Gunther had made his fortune as chairman of the parent company of OXO.
Charles Gunther set about remodelling the interior of the house and by 1908 had had built a three storey extension to the building, adding on what we now know as the Great Space and all the rooms above. The work was done by Messrs Davis of Hawkhurst, a company still going strong today.
Charles and Leonie had four children: Edith (b. 1887), Charles (b. 1890), Herbert (b. 1894) and Norman (b. 1897), but soon after moving tragedy struck. Firstly, Leonie died of an illness in 1910 and then two of Charles’ three sons were killed in northern France in The Great War. Herbert died at the age of 51 whilst Edith, who married Mr Alexander of Wilsley in Cranbrook, lived to 84.
In 1912, Charles remarried an heiress called Helen Bell, and they went on to have two sons, James (known to the family as Jimmy) and William (known as Billy). Helen was largely credited with the development of the gardens, which by 1927 were considered one of the top 50 gardens in England. The enormous Rockery, designed by James Backhouse, was featured in a 1935 issue of Country Life.
Charles Gunther died of a heart attack at Paper Mill House in 1931, at the age of just 68. In October 1936, at the Queens Hotel, Hawkhurst, Mrs Gunther sold by auction the outlying portions of the Tongswood Estate. In total 670 acres were sold, including a Wealden clothworker’s hall, six farms , eight cottages and a number of building sites. The auctioneers were Geering & Colyer, Hawkhurst.
The house was requisitioned by the Army soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and Mrs Gunther moved to a newly-built house called Little Tongs at the junction of Water Lane and the Rye Road. She died in 1963, at the age of 83. Tongswood and its contents were finally sold in 1945. W.B.Harris, Saint Ronan’s third headmaster, bought the house, together with c. 260 acres of land, including the Walled Nursery, Orchard House (the Baliff’s House), as well as the Model (or Home) Farm and had the lease transformed to a freehold. He then moved Saint Ronan’s across to it from its wartime home, Bicton Park, Devon. The contents were sold by auction (once again the auctioneers were Geering & Colyer, Hawkhurst) in a sale held in September 1945.
In 1958, W. B. Harris died and the estate was placed in trust for the benefit of Saint Ronan’s School.