Great War Recollections and Two Great Mayors

by Philip Whitbourn

At Royal Tunbridge Wells Corporation’s meeting on Wednesday 7th July 1920, a unique ceremony took place. Two very special former Mayors, together with their respective Mayoresses, were presented with gold jewels, bearing the Borough Arms, as a souvenir of their terms of office. Between them, these two Mayors had held office throughout the anxious times of the First World War, together with the run-up to hostilities and the immediate aftermath. Both men were also the recipients of Belgian honours for their activities during the war. Charles Whitbourn Emson served as Mayor for four consecutive terms, from 1913 to 1917, while his successor, Sir Robert Gower, served two terms, from 1917 to 1919.

In the autumn of 1914 all was not quiet on the Western Front, and Belgium was right in the firing line. A treaty by Britain, France and Germany had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium, but to the Kaiser it was a “mere scrap of paper”. Ghent, Bruges, and Ostend had quickly fallen to German forces, and Antwerp was under siege and bombardment. The Belgian Government fled to France, and it was reported that some seven thousand Belgians faced starvation. However, a number of Belgian refugees found a safe haven in Tunbridge Wells.

Their appreciation found expression in the great parade that marked the end of WWI, when they marched through the town with a banner reading “Long live England. We thank you all”. A further expression of appreciation came in the form of a portrait bust of Mayor Whitbourn Emson. The bust was by an accomplished Belgian scupltor, and proudly took its place in the Council Chamber of the somewhat cramped Old Town Hall. In the present more spacious Town Hall the authorities have so far failed to find room for it.

Whitbourn Emson was also President of the Record Committee, which kept a record of everyone from the town who was killed or wounded. With 776 dead from Tunbridge Wells, very many families lost relatives, friends or neighbours. The late Joan Burslem, of the local stonemason family and an ardent member of the Civic Society, remembered standing at the top of Mount Pleasant and watching a march past of the Highland Regiment, then billeted in the town, led by their Pipers. As a small child she could not understand why so many of the women in the crowd were in tears. They, of course, knew that their men-folk were on their way to the Somme, probably never to return. Joan’s father, like mine, served in WWI. Fortunately for me, my father returned safe and sound in 1919. Very many others were not so lucky.

As well as men being recruited to Lord Kitchener’s Army, horses were requisitioned. They seem to have been assembled on the Lower Cricket Ground. Joan Burslem remembers seeing a pair of horses taken from a phaeton at Carr’s Corner, leaving its shafts down and the luckless owner with the problem of getting his horseless carriage home. From her school Joan was periodically taken to events in the Great Hall including the showing of a film about the horrors of fighting in the trenches.

By the time I knew Joan she was living in the Decimus Burton house where she was born, at 77 Calverley Road. From her window there she remembered seeing, over Calverley Park Crescent on a clear moonlit night, the Zeppelin that dropped its bombs on Calverley Grounds. Later on in WWI she lived, as I do now, in Beulah Road where the family almost always had a soldier billeted on them while training. For a little girl, Joan had a remarkably clear memory of the outbreak of WWI. It was, she recalled, a warm fine day, and her nurse had taken her down to The Pantiles to listen to the Band. However, all that they found on arrival was a notice on the Old Bandstand announcing that the Regiment had been called up. So, later on, she was taken to the Town Hall to hear the Official Declaration read by the Mayor.

In a tribute to Charles Whitbourn Emson, the ‘Courier’ said of him, “No Mayor worked with more untiring energy than he did”. Of his work during the war, it said, “They were four years of noble sacrifice in doing everything possible for the good of his fellow men... From 1913 to the latter part of 1917 he carried out his duties in a manner which earned for him the unstinted praise of his colleagues, who marvelled at his insatiable appetite to do more and more for everyone.” A Borough Magistrate for twenty years and a County Magistrate too, Charles was also keenly identified with the General Hospital in Grosvenor Road, where many of the wounded soldiers returning from the front were treated. The walking wounded were a familiar sight in the town, wearing bright blue trousers and coats.

Whitbourn Emson’s long stint in office was followed by the Mayoralty of Alderman Robert Vaughan Gower. To him fell the more pleasant task of announcing the signing of the armistice on 11th November 1918, and leading three cheers for King George V. The indomitable Joan Burslem remembered the final day of WWI with her customary clarity. She was sitting in the laboratory at the High School in Cambridge Gardens, off Camden Hill. From there, overlooking Poona Road, flags could be seen being put out of the windows, and it was clear that hostilities were over. The pupils were summoned to the Assembly Hall to be told the news that an armistice had been signed, and were warned to go home as quickly as possible for fear of drunken revelry.

On the following day, Alderman Gower addessed a crowd on the Lower Cricket Ground, not mincing his words as he decried “The Beast of Berlin” to huge applause. Then, on 30th July 1919, he finally switched off the engine of a tank, brought home from the Western Front, as it stood on the triangle of grass between London Road and Vale Road. It had arrived by rail at the old Goods Station, and clattered its way, via York Road, to The Common . It remained as a tribute to Allied victory until it developed an image problem as the spectre of WWII loomed.

Robert Vaughan Gower was knighted in 1919 for promoting a scheme to maintain the businesses of tradesmen while they were serving in the forces. As Sir Robert Gower, he was MP for Hackney from 1924, and then for Gillingham from 1929 until 1945. The eldest son of Councillor Joshua Robert Gower, young Robert had, by the tender age of 16, already become Assistant Hon. Secretary of the Tunbridge Wells Ratepayers Association. From there, his next steps were, first qualification as a Solicitor in 1904, followed by election to the Borough Council in 1909, then elevation to the Aldermanic Bench in 1917, and a KCVO in 1935. He died at his home, Sandown Court in 1953 at the age of 72. A portrait of his father, Cllr. J.R.Gower, hangs in the vestibule to the present Council Chamber, but the two illustrious WWI mayors are commemorated only by their names on the boards in the Council Chamber.

Over the years, I have spent more hours in that Chamber than I care to remember, appearing for the Society at Planning Inquiries of various sorts. Sometimes these have been enthralling, and sometimes very tedious. During those tedious periods, boredom was sometimes relieved by pondering the personalities behind the pictures and names around the walls. Charles Whitbourn Emson was “tall, upright and of striking appearance”. A keen sportsman, he took pride in the Nevill Ground and served as Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Cricket, Football and Athletic Club. Resident in Broadwater Down, he was a Churchwarden of St Mark’s, and Chairman of its Finance Committee. His Great-Aunt and Uncle were my kinsfolk Silvia Ann and Francis Whitbourn. His fine and historically interesting portrait bust, however, which once adorned the Council Chamber in the old Town Hall, now languishes in the cellars. Surely it might be possible to display it, with a suitable explanation about the town’s hospitality towards the Belgian refugees, if only on Heritage Open Days.

Nor has the hand of time dealt too kindly with commemoration of the Gower dynasty. The Gower fountain at the prominent Quarry Road/Albion Road junction, presented to the Council in 1896 by Sir Robert’s father, now lacks its right-hand column. It has that uncaring “grot-spot” look that really ought to be unacceptable in this historic town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Happily, there has been some promising news of interest by two nearby businesses in contributing to a restoration project. Let us hope that this may serve as a catalyst for some long overdue positive action.

* For an earlier reference to the Gower fountain see the Cause for Concern paragraph in the Introductory Notes to the Winter 2004 Newsletter.

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