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A History of Southborough
How old is the town? The answer in brief: "Older than you might expect". The area under the remit of present day Southborough Town Council, between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, has a very long history. But like other settlements in this part of West Kent it developed very gradually, making the answer to the question "How old is the town?" a difficult one.
The prehistoric remains discovered in the former brickworks pit, in Chapman Way in High Brooms led to the location being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The most notable find to date is the remains of an iguanodon from some 135 million years ago. The creature, would have been swimming or splashing around a watery High Brooms during the Lower Cretaceous period, as other fossils indicate it was a marshy or watery area.
Other early archaeological finds include Stone Age flints, discovered on Southborough Common and during the construction of the Ridgewaye School. Powder Mill Lane has been a key site for discoveries with an Iron Age axe and both Iron Age and Bronze Age burial remains found at various sites along the road. The existence of burial remains hints at the possibility of some kind of settlement, rather than just an itinerant population.
Some of the town's road network also dates from a very early period, most notably London Road and Powder Mill Lane, which are sections of routes linking the ancient hill forts at Oldbury near Shipbourne, Saxonbury at Frant and Castle Hill near Tonbridge.
Little is known of the area during the first millennium AD, when the landscape was heavily forested. During the Dark Ages, farmers from the North Downs came for seasonal pasture in locations called "dens", eventually forming permanent settlements here. It is thought that Southborough Common may be mentioned as one of five dens, south of an unnamed river (the Medway presumably) in a tenth century Saxon charter connected with ChristChurch, Canterbury. The Common is certainly documented from the thirteenth century by its old name the Shirthe - meaning an area cut off from the rest. This ancient name continued in use until the nineteenth century. Before the Norman invasion, this area came under the local government jurisdiction of the Hundred of Wachlingstone. Generally each Hundred met at the green with its name. It is very likely that the people of Wachlingstone met at Wachlingstone Green, around the junctions of London Road, Speldhurst Road and Powder Mill Lane.
After the Norman invasion, this area came within the domain of Tonbridge Castle, in part of its South Borough, one of four boroughs. Even at that early period, the area occupied by the present day town was a settlement of two halves. The western part was under the Manor of Southborough at Great Bounds, which was also the seat of the Manor of Bidborough. The eastern part was in the domain of the Manor of South Frith, later based at Somerhill.
Architectural or documentary evidence from the fifteenth century indicates that farmsteads and hamlets were scattered in Vauxhall Lane, Pennington Road, Powder Mill Lane, London Road, Speldhurst Road and Holden and Modest Corners. The nearest churches - buildings which often provide a focal point for a settlement to grow - were at Bidborough or Tonbridge. But Southborough was not always notable for its tranquility. The constable of Southborough, one John Kipping, along with "all the people of the town", is named in an official pardon of 1450 after Jack Cade's Rebellion, a failed uprising against Henry Vl.
In Tudor times a number of very distinguished people were Lords of the Manor of Southborough: Sir Thomas More, George Boleyn - Earl of Ormonde and brother of the Queen - and Henry Carey, son of George's less well known sister Mary. He became well known as Shakespeare's patron, giving his name to the theatre company "the Lord Chamberlain's Players". The Tudor period brought heavy industry, with iron manufacture along the river tributary between Vauxhall Lane and Powder Mill Lane. Several former farms of the Tudor period survive, of which the best known is the Weavers restaurant on London Road. For much of the seventeenth century Southborough provided accommodation for holiday makers taking the waters at the Wells. Special attractions included Friday dance nights. The most notable visitor to Southborough was Charles II's Queen Catherine, whose thirteen week visit to Bounds in 1663 is documented in the Royal Household's financial archives.
From this period onwards Southborough was noted for its fine mansions, but sadly many have now disappeared under later housing development. Those surviving to the present day are seventeenth century Little Bounds, eighteenth century Holden House and nineteenth century Bentham Hill House, and Mabledon, both the work of Decimus Burton. Most unusual is Salomons, its fine stable block, like a miniature chateau, was later the garage for some of the earliest cars in Britain. Sir David Salomon's Science Theatre designed for musical and scientific functions is now used for many community and private functions.
For many centuries the people of the town were engaged in industries associated with agriculture, textiles and transport. Later industries included gunpowder production for several decades around the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, cricket ball manufacture was a major source of employment, very fitting for a town where competitive cricket has been played on the present ground since 1794.
Southborough began to change from a small scattered settlement on the outskirts of the ancient parish of Tonbridge to a village in its own right around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the opening of St Peter's Church in 1830, Southborough became an independent ecclesiastical parish. The railway between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, built in the 1840's, soon attracted commuters working in London, although the town had to wait half a century for its own station. Stretching beyond the growing number of cottages around the common, houses and shops began to reach down London Road to link up with the settlement of Nonsuch Green near the present day Speldhurst Road junction. In the next few decades whole streets of new houses sprang up as large houses sold off their associated land. The changes began at the corner of London Road and Speldhurst Road, to be followed by development in the Park Road and Pennington Road area. Soon houses for all social classes were springing up all across Southborough. At the end of the nineteenth century, brick making on an industrial scale in High Brooms was responsible for the development of that part of town in only two or three decades. The number of places of worship, schools and places of work increased to cope with the needs of the burgeoning population. Over the time of Queen Victoria's reign the small and scattered settlement which had existed for so many centuries had been transformed into a thriving town.