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The difference between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, after BBC get town name wrong in Interior Design Masters presented by Alan Carr

The age-old confusion between the name of two neighbouring towns resurfaced again earlier this week, after a prime time show embarrassingly mixed up the two names.

The Alan Carr-presented BBC Two show Interior Design Masters had contestants tasked with refitting three shops in The Pantiles, in Tunbridge Wells, also known as Royal Tunbridge Wells.

The BBC appeared to mix up Royal Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge during its Interior Design Masters show. Picture: BBC
The BBC appeared to mix up Royal Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge during its Interior Design Masters show. Picture: BBC

But as the episode cut to a drone shot of the town, it plastered three words across the screen which left people fuming - Royal Tonbridge Wells.

The amalgam of Royal Tunbridge Wells and nearby Tonbridge - two completely different places - had social media furiously correcting the BBC for their faux pas.

But they're not the first to confuse the two towns - and let's be honest, they probably won't be the last.

Firstly, both are pronounced to rhyme with sun, so you can see why people living outside the area might get confused.

But those getting loose with the vowels O and U are unwittingly not so far from the truth.

The towns were once spelt the same way
The towns were once spelt the same way

It transpires that Tunbridge - with a U - was an historic spelling, with references dating back to the 16th century and beyond.

'Tun' is an ancient word for farm or manor. The 'bridge' may simply be a reference to the the town having a bridge over the River Medway, or it may be a corruption of an older word 'burig' meaning a fort.

For reasons unknown, from around the early 1800s the name began to be spelt both ways.

Perhaps the townsfolk wanted to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, who may have been growing ever-so slightly pretentious due to their regular royal and aristocratic visitors.

Several local manufacturers who originally sold their wares as being from Tunbridge began changing the spelling to Tonbridge.

A centuries-old bottle with the old spelling. Picture: Stuart Jeffery
A centuries-old bottle with the old spelling. Picture: Stuart Jeffery

Among them was the mineral water manufacturer John Salkeld Horsely, based at the Masonic Buildings near to the Great Bridge. Some of his B Mineral Water bottles survive with both spellings.

Another was Thomas Pawley, the proprietor of the Rose and Crown pub in the High Street. He sold his wines and spirits from earthenware jars and again examples survive with both spellings.

In 1870, Mr Pawley was a member of the board of commerce who decided that in future the tradesman would adopted the O spelling exclusively.

Most followed their example, but the Post Office held out.

It wasn't until February 7, 1893, that it was recommended to the Postmaster General that he grant the town's request for its name to be officially spelt with an O.

The Postmaster's letter. Picture: Shaun Jeffery
The Postmaster's letter. Picture: Shaun Jeffery

A copy of the letter reads: "I submit Memorials from the Tunbridge local board and the Ratepayers Associations, asking that the spelling Tonbridge may be adopted by the department.

"As it appears to be from the Surveyors report that the form of the name is commonly adopted by public bodies and the residents in the town generally.

"I think the request should be granted and if you approve I will issue instructions for the Name to be spelt on the date stamps and on all official documents."

The request was officially approved a month later.

However, Southern Railway didn't change the spelling of its station in the town until 1929.

And just to add to the confusion, Pigots 1839 town directory gave the spellings of the two towns as Tonbridge and Tonbridge Wells - perhaps they misread the memo.

Read more: All the latest news from Tunbridge Wells

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