1273 – 1903
From knights to clothiers and smugglers to Sheriffs, things have not always been as peaceful at the Walled Nursery as they are today. However, the first 600 years were a time of flourishing growth for the land then known as ‘Tongs’.
The Walled Nursery and neighbouring St Ronan’s School once combined to create the Estate known as Tongswood. The place name derived from the fact that two streams of the river Rother flows through the original Estate. Twang or tang is old English, meaning fork of two river streams.
The first record of 'Tongs' was found in the Kent Hundred Rolls: 'Simon held land in Kent in 1273 - Simon de Tonge'. However, it was the birth of the English Cloth Trade in the 14th Century that really put Tongs on the map. A Flemish Clothier by the name of Dunk was invited over to England to share his skills and he settled in Kent. It was the early generations of the Dunk family who built the first house on what became known as Tongswood.
Tongswood passed through generations of Dunks, who expanded from cloth to ironworking until, under the watch of Sir Thomas Dunk Kt., the Estate grew to around 1200 acres. Sir Thomas (Sheriff of London, 1711) was a great entrepreneur and highly respected man, given the Freedom of the City of London. He was also a great benefactor and when he died in 1718 he left six almshouses, a school and a school master’s house to the village of Hawkhurst.
The executor of Sir Thomas’ will, William Richards, inherited the Estate in 1733 on condition he change his name to Dunk. This condition passed down to future heirs and when his daughter Anne inherited the Estate, she therefore became Anne Dunk.
In 1741, Anne married the Hon. George Montagu (2nd Earl of Halifax), bringing with her the princely sum of £110,000. Montagu, in keeping with the condition of the will, changed his name to Montagu-Dunk. Anne sadly passed away at the tender age of 28 in 1753.
George conveyed Tongs to be leased to Mr Jeremiah Curteis of Rye for 1000 years at the yearly rate of sixpence. Rumours have been whispered about Mr Curteis for years: that he was involved in the Hawkhurst Gang – the notorious smugglers terrorising southeast England at the time; that he fled England for France after the murder of a young labourer; that he died of smallpox several years later on a boat returning home.
All these things were almost certainly true of a Mr Jeremiah Curteis of Rye, but was he our Jeremiah Curteis? Our research has recently revealed another Jeremiah Curteis in Rye at the same time. Perhaps less colourful, he was (on the surface at least) infinitely more noble - a lawyer and a town clerk. We are endeavouring to establish which Mr Curteis is ours, but until we prove otherwise, we know which story we prefer!
Whether he be smuggler or lawyer, Mr Curteis moved on from Tongswood and conveyed his interest to William Jenkin (d.1784). From this point until 1841, Tongswood passed through numerous families, but was already becoming noted for her beauty. In 1839, a sale advertisement for a section of the Estate described a farmhouse with outbuildings as a ‘complete ferme ornée’. Ferme Ornée Gardens were inspired by the Romantic Movement and sought to emulate Arcadia, a pastoral paradise, combining working farms harmoniously with the beauty of nature.
The first glasshouses were built by Foster and Pearson Limited of Nottingham during the mid to late 1800’s. There are no records of the exact year that they were built, but research suggests it may have been around 1870. In 1865 a tea broker named William Cotterill bought the main house and surrounding land for £8750. From this time until 1874, Cotterill carried out extensive work on the house and gardens on a scale not seen before, so it is most likely during this period that the glasshouses were built.
The Estate continued changing hands quite rapidly until 1903 when it was bought by Mr C E Gunther. It was a new century and things were about to change for Tongswood.