1903 – 1945 The Gunther Years
As a new century dawned, Britain was in the throes of the second phase of the Industrial Revolution. Scientific invention was at its height and the economy was thriving. Unemployment was relatively low and Liberal Welfare Reforms were on the way. Britain – and Tongswood - were moving into a bright, hopeful future, unaware of what was waiting around the corner.
Charles Gunther bought the Tongswood Estate in 1903. At this time the estate stretched up to Benenden taking in Park Farm, Tilden, Great and Little Ninevah, Woodsden, Forest Farm, Diprose, Hinksden, Stevens Farm and Tongswood Home Farm.
Gunther was High Sheriff of Kent from 1926-1927 and a distinguished businessman. He was Chairman of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company (founded by his father) as well as Director of OXO, which celebrated 100 years of the OXO cube in 2010.
In 1903, gardening and horticulture was still benefitting from the excitement of the daring Victorian Plant Hunters and it was the height of fashion to have grand houses to show off one’s exotic plants. So when Gunther took over the Tongswood Estate, he built more glasshouses. He also added cold frames and made adjustments to the Vinery by adding the Fernery and raising the roofs. Determined to make his mark, he then raised the walls of the gardens.
Tongswood Gardens, as the Walled Nursery was then known, required nine men to tend to the two acre garden and its glasshouses. There were now 13 glasshouses in total, including a vinery, peach house, melon house, fruit house and carnation house. The garden produced beautiful flowers, fruit and vegetables, providing for the main house, their house in London and even surplus produce for the Hawkhurst Cottage Hospital.
It took a fine man to manage such a large concern and that man was Mr Ernest Hardcastle, Head Gardener 1914-45. Mr Hardcastle also worked alongside renowned Quaker botanist, James Backhouse, in designing and building an acre of spectacular rock gardens for Mr Gunther.
While Tongswood was thriving, tragedy was not to spare the Gunther family. In 1910, Charles’ first wife, Leonie, died of an illness and in 1914 The Great War darkened their doors. In 1917, Charles and Leonie’s son, Norman, died in Northern France aged just 19 and was awarded the Military Cross. Norman’s brother, Charles, died only a year later also in the fields of Northern France, aged 28. 12 other men from the Estate did not return from the War and the Gunthers erected a memorial in honour of those they had lost.
Mr Gunther re-married in 1912. His new wife, Helen Bell, took a great interest in the gardens of the Estate and brought them great acclaim. In 1925, their sub-tropical gardens appeared in Gardeners’ Chronicle. By 1927, Tongswood Gardens were considered among the top 50 in the country and in 1930, their Rockery was featured in Country Life Magazine.
Unfortunately tragedy was to strike again when Charles Gunther died of a heart attack at his shooting lodge at the Paper Mill in 1931. He was 68 years old. Helen then auctioned 670 acres of the outlying portions of the Estate.
In 1939, war returned and the house at Tongswood was requisitioned by the army. Helen moved to a new house, Little Tongs, at the end of Water Lane. After the war in 1945 the estate was sold to St Ronan’s School and as for many estates at that time, it was the end of an era.