Tonbridge History

The Children family

Click for larger version

The Childrens (the name may indicate a connection with the Chiltern hills) were a family established in Kent since at least the 14th century, with an estate called ‘Childrens’ near Stocks Green, Hildenborough. An early George Children (1606-70) was educated at Tonbridge School and became curate at the parish church.

Richard Children lived at Ramhurst Manor, Leigh until his death in1753 (and was allegedly still haunting it a hundred years later). His memorial in Tonbridge parish church, shown here, is by the noted sculptor Roubiliac, and carries verses by James Cawthorne, the headmaster of Tonbridge School at the time.

Ferox Hall brick

Richard’s son John (1706-71) was the first to live in Tonbridge town, moving to Ferox Hall in about 1750 and adding the present brick frontage to the existing house a few years later. The picture on the left shows his initials (I.C.) which can still be seen carved into bricks on either side of the front door.


George Children

Click for larger version

George Children at the age of 64

John Children was succeeded at Ferox Hall by his son George (c1742-1818), the first member of the family to play a major part in the town’s affairs. A barrister who never practised, he was a JP for half a century, under-sheriff for Kent and Sussex, a proprietor of the Medway Navigation Company, and one of the founders of the Tonbridge Bank.

He was also a close and devoted father to his only son, John George, whose mother died six days after giving birth to him. George was a kindly and much-loved Tonbridge figure, as his memorial in the parish church attests (picture here ).

John George Children

Click for larger version

John George Children in 1826

John George Children (1777-1852) was a scientist at a time when science was still largely a pursuit for gentleman amateurs. He was well-known in London scientific circles, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 30 and later became its Secretary. His particular interests were in electricity and the chemistry of minerals.

The young John George has been described as a man of exceptional intelligence, greatly spoilt as a boy. Following his education at Tonbridge School, Eton and Cambridge, he married, but like his father soon became a widower when his wife died a year after the birth of their only child, Anna. After a period of foreign travel, including a visit to the United States and Canada which was cut short by ill-health, and a rock-collecting trip to Cornwall and Wales, John George returned to Ferox Hall and began to devote himself to his scientific pursuits, working in the purpose-built laboratory in the grounds of Ferox Hall. Father and son worked together to construct what Humphry Davy described in 1808, after the first of his many visits, as their ‘magnificent experiments and apparatus’. Davy wrote that his days with the Childrens were some of the pleasantest of his life.

In 1808 John George was involved in an accident when a sudden conflagration during an electrical experiment threw caustic alkali into his eyes. Luckily the damage was not permanent, but he advised anyone involved in similar work always to wear goggles. Undaunted, the Childrens went on to construct the famous giant battery of 1813.


Let me from noise and tumult fly

To quiet and obscurity;

Pleas'd let me quit the cares of wealth,

Content with competence and health ;

Title, ambition, glory, pow'r,

Obtrude not on my secret hour;

Fair science cheer my humble lot,

And virtue, tenant of my cot,

With pure religion guard my soul

From passion's dangerous, blind control ...

(Part of a poem by J. G. Children)

In 1811, John George was involved in setting up the Tunbridge Gunpowder Company, together with his father, on whose land at Leigh the Powder Mills were built, and other backers. Davy was also briefly involved in this enterprise.

By 1813 the Tonbridge Bank was on the point of collapse, bringing financial ruin to the Childrens. Ferox Hall eventually had to be sold, and they moved to London, where John George had to start earning a living. A post was found for him at the British Museum, and he served there in various capacities for more than 20 years.

Like his father, John George was a good-tempered and generous man, and like his father, he wrote poetry. He died in January 1852 at his daughter Anna's home in Halstead and is buried at St George's, Bloomsbury. His name is commemorated in an Australian snake‚ Children’s Python‚ and a mineral, childrenite. A 313-page Memoir of J. G. Children was published privately by his daughter in 1853; a copy of it can be read on the web here.

Anna Children (Anna Atkins)

Click for larger version

Anna Atkins photographed at the age of 62.

John George Children’s only child, Anna (1799-1871) was brought up by her father and grandfather in the lively family home at Ferox Hall. From her father, to whom she was particularly close, she gained practical skills and a love of science unusual in a woman at that time. She was a botanist and also an excellent illustrator who contributed more than 200 drawings to a book on shells which her father had translated from the French.

In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins, who would later become Sheriff of Kent, and it is as Anna Atkins that she is best known – better known in fact than her father or grandfather. There were no children and Anna devoted much of her later life to photography, a field in which she is a notable pioneer.

Click for larger version

Cyanotype produced by Anna Atkins for her book on British algae.

The Childrens were friendly with two other important figures in the history of photography, W. H. Fox Talbot and the astronomer John Herschel. Herschel devised a photographic technique known as the cyanotype process, in which paper was impregnated with a material which turned blue when exposed to light, producing what were later known as blueprints. Anna Atkins used this technique to create shadow images of botanical specimens, a pioneering application of photography to science. Over ten years she was personally responsible for the production of the more than 400 cyanotype plates needed for each copy of her book ‘Photographs of British Algae’, based on her own seaweed collection. This book was the first ever produced wholly by photographic means. The pictures in it are of artistic as well as scientific interest and some of them survive today in the collections of museums and galleries around the world.

One of Anna’s close friends was Anne Austen, a second cousin to Jane Austen, who lived with the Childrens as a child. In later years the two sometimes co-operated in producing cyanotypes of other natural objects, more for aesthetic than scientific purposes.

Click for larger version

Anna died in 1871 at her home, Halstead Place, between Knockholt and Chelsfield in Kent, and is commemorated there by a blue plaque.

>You can read more about Anna Atkins' photographic work on the Royal Photographic Society website.

The portraits and cyanotype on this page are out-of-copyright images from Wikimedia Commons.