How the High Street was saved from property developers
Article by Philip Shaw
Parish News - Tenterden with St Michaels and Smallhythe - February 2018
In 1964 Tenterden High Street suffered the loss of one of its greatest architectural treasures. The demolition of the 16th century Eastwell House and the vulgarisation of the site with the present monolithic structure, now housing Boots the Chemist, Master Cutters and the Gun Shop. Only a year or two earlier, the Town had suffered another serious loss with the destruction of the historic Manor House at the western end and its replacement with the present mediocre building, now housing a furniture shop, two cafes and the Gateway Post Office. In 1957, a row of Georgian cottages adjacent to the White Lion was demolished to make way for a branch of the Midland Bank, later HSBC and currently unoccupied. How was this all allowed to happen?
Statutory listing of historic buildings generally had started in 1947, but its scope was limited and many important buildings remained unprotected. The loss of the Manor House and Eastwell House, in particular, spurred Tenterden Borough Council into action. In conjunction with Kent County Council a study was sponsored into the merits of each and every property in the High Street. Conducted by Frederick McManus & Partners, Chartered Architects, and Gordon Cullen, Townscape Consultant, the report entitled "Tenterden Explored" was published in 1967. As a result, an additional 70 properties were recommended for listing to give statutory protection from demolition. This farsighted action has resulted in Tenterden High Street remaining the pleasant place that it is today. It means that even when a property is badly damaged by fire, as was the case with Webb's and Cafe Rouge (Eight Bells) two years ago, it has to be restored exactly as it was.
Eastwell House, originally known as Brickwall House, is believed to have had 15th/16th Century origins but was refaced with brick and sash windows and a Georgian door-case in the 18th Century. For most of its life it was a private residence and its history after 1843 has been reasonably accurately recorded. It was then that Mr George Curteis, of Summerhill, Smallhythe, acquired a lease of the property for his son William. From then on, the Curteises remained in occupation until Auctioneer and Property Agent, Harry Judge, acquired it in 1914. Judge subsequently rented the property to Hugh WiIIsher, his brother in law, to accommodate his grocery and fruit business, except for two offices which he wished to retain. Hugh Willsher acquired the property outright in 1920 and ran the business up to his death in 1943. His sons Harry and Hugh junior then continued it, whilst his widow remained in occupation until her death in 1961. After the death of Harry Judge in 1942, the property agency was run under the management of Ernest Page for a number of years, before it was acquired by E J Parker & Sons of Maidstone. Harry and Hugh inherited the entire property on the death of their Mother, which they sold in 1964 to Lawlands, a property company for £30,000, who immediately demolished it.
Hugh Willsher Senior's Grand Daughter, Beryl Booth, who still lives in Tenterden recalls that it was a massive house with attics, a wash house and a conservatory to the rear. Behind the shop there were greenhouses which were part of a market garden of about 6 acres. Fruit and flower produce was sold through both the shop and sent to various markets. This area is now covered by modern housing known as Eastwell Meadows.
In April 1964, during demolition, early 16th century wall paintings of a floral design including a pomegranate device, were discovered behind panelling, a small section of which (right) was removed and is now preserved in the Tenterden Museum
The loss of this important house was a milestone in Tenterden's history. If statutory listing had not been extended in the early 1970s Tenterden would have undoubtedly suffered further decimation of its High Street heritage. However, I still feel a certain amount of nostalgia every time I enter Boots the Chemist, when I think of what might have been.
The author would like to thank Beryl Booth, Jack Gillett, Debbie Greaves and John Weller for their guidance and help in producing this article. A copy of ''Tenterden Explored'' is kept in the reference section of the Tenterden Gateway Library.
Some archive photos of Eastwell House, Tenterden High Street