The History of Wandsworth Common


TO BE ADDED: Unknown date in summer, Thomas Hardy runs out of his house to quiz an organ grinder what the name of his tune was. Very vividly described in Thomas_Hardy_Life_pp112-154.pdf page 125

Morning Chronicle — 1 July 1858

"Melancholy Death of a Child on Wandsworth Common"




Yesterday Mr. Carter, coroner for East Surrey, resumed and concluded an inquest at the Nag's Head Inn, York-road, on the body of George F. Milne, aged seven years, whose death was caused by being struck down by a horse on Wandsworth-common.

It appears that the deceased was the son of Mr. Milne, a surgeon residing in the York-road, Battersea. At the first inquiry the father of deceased had made a charge that the horse in question was the property of Mr. Churchwarden Picken, and through this Mr. P. A. F. Reynolds, of 67, Chancery-lane, attended to watch the case on behalf of that gentleman.

After the empanelling of the jury a long dispute arose, relative to the choice of foreman, but ultimately Mr. S. Day, of the George and Dragon, York-road, was selected.

From the evidence adduced it appeared that the deceased on the day of the occurrence left his home and went on to Wandsworth Common. While seated on the grass a horse suddenly rushed upon him, and before he could get out of the way was knocked down, the horse passing over him.

He was as soon as possible conveyed to his father's home, where he received every attention, but, strange to say, for some time, owing to his distorted features, was not recognised by him. The deceased lingered a short period, but gradually sank and died. According to the testimony of Mr. Weston, surgeon, the deceased died from the injuries received.

From some further evidence it was however proved that the horse did not belong to Mr. Picken, it being shown that he was out with his horse from two o'clock until nearly five, thus proving that the horse could not have been on the common when the accident occurred.

This being the conclusion of the evidence, Mr. Reynolds in addressing the father of the deceased, said he hoped that after what had been stated he would not say that the horse was Mr. Picken's.

Mr. Milne (the deceased's father) said he was perfectly satisfied that it was not.

The court was then cleared of strangers, and after a short time the jury returned a verdict of accidental death, but also remarking that no blame whatever could be attached to Mr. Picken, as it was satisfactorily proved that is was not his horse by which the deceased was killed.

[BNA: Link.

Incidentally, a curious final paragraph suggests that Mr Churchwarden Picken (or should it be Picking?) had been blamed for the death of the boy for political reasons — because there were profound conflicts within the vestry. Notice the presence of the rogue lawyer Reynolds, attending "to watch the case on behalf of that gentleman".

It may be but right to mention that throughout the inquiry a deal of interest was manifested in the parish, owing to the present difficulties which the vestry are in, as regards that body not being yet completed in consequence of the difference of opinion of the inspectors of votes at the election as to whom were elected, and likewise owing to the cburchwardens not having published the list on the proper day. It was therefore rumoured that the charge at this inquiry against Mr. Churchwarden Picken was made through party feelings, but whether or not, it has fallen to the ground. [meaning?]

[BNA: Link.]

[WC: 1858.]

[PB note: this must relate to conflicts between Buckmaster and Reynolds. I wonder how?]

Thursday, 14 July 1870

The Great Mansion House Meeting

On Thursday afternoon a meeting was held at the Mansion-house, under the presidency of the Lord Mayor, to invoke the sympathy and assistance of Londoners in preserving the rights of the public over Wandsworth-common. Among those present were Mr. Cowper-Temple MP, Professor Fawcett MP, Mr. Mundella MP, Mr. Andrew Johnstone MP, Mr W.H. Smith MP, Mr. Holms MP, &c.

Mr Cowper-Temple MP, moved the first resolution — "That the preservation of Wandsworth-common as an open space is highly desirable in the interests of the people of London."

...whatever might be the benefit from enclosures of waste lands in remote ports of the country, enclosures near towns were a national misfortune, for there they only added to the weary wastes of brick and mortar...

We are are requested to state that subscriptions to the Wandsworth-common Preservation Fund of £5000 can be paid in to the London and Westminster Bank, Lothbury, or to the local treasurers.

[The Times, 16 July 1870, p. 10.]

Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle -Saturday, 15 July 1871

A great Victorian enigma...

The Black Sea on Wandsworth Common, 70 feet above the Thames, surrounded with roads, and supplied by a windmill pump, is famous for its eels.

The European eel is a critically endangered species. But 150 years ago, eels could be found everywhere, including Wandsworth Common. But how had eels got there in the first place? And since they occurred in such numbers, surely they must breed there prolifically? Yet for centuries nobody had ever seen eels reproduce anywhere on earth. So how was it possible for eels to be present in such numbers in the Black Sea, Wandsworth Common?

Further information about the eel, and the whole of the Bell's article, largely unedited, is here.

20 July 1908

"Grand Old Man" John Buckmaster's death announced

"A Grand Old Man: Full of years, full of honours...", Surrey Comet, 22 July 1908

(Click on image to enlarge)

A Grand Old Man.

Full of years, full of honours, John Charles Buckmaster, Justice of the Peace and District Councillor, has, after a life of nearly ninety years, spent in the following of honourable callings, and the pursuit of great ideals, passed to "that bourne from which no traveller returns."

If to leave the world better than one found it is a joy at the end of life, then that joy must have been Mr. Buckmaster's; for from the time of his early manhood he was engaged as a practical and active worker in social and political efforts for the betterment of the condition of the people, and was privileged to continue his activities until within a few days of the end of his long life.

When he came to reside in this neighbourhood [i.e. Teddington, c. 1890] Mr. Buckmaster was already well stricken in years; but though an old man in years, his wonderful energy and vitality, his remarkable mental activity declared him to still be young — younger than many men twenty yean his junior.

The story of his public life in this locality would fill a volume.

We find him engaged as a Justice of the Peace, regular at the weekly meetings of the Spelthorne Bench, and daily hearing cases, when the police required, aaaat the local police station.

Anon, at the Licensing Sessions, we see him descending into the arena of the Court to plead with his unwilling colleagues to exercise their powers for the reduction of the number of public-houses. We observe him in the last two decades of his life fighting several contested elections for a position on the local District Council.

In season and out of season see him contending for the establishment of a Free Library at Teddington, or pouring out the vials of his wrath upon jerry builders and district councillors who palliated their sins against society.

A keen controversialist, he had attained great facility in speech and writing, and his flow of language was remarkable. He was a picturesque speaker, and carried conviction to his hearers by his transparent honesty, earnestness and persuasive eloquence. Had Mr. Buckmaster been trained for the Bar, he must inevitably have achieved distinction.

It is difficult for those who have known this veteran only during the past twenty years, to realise that before he rose upon the local horizon he had already spent half a century in social and political work.

The late Mr. A. J. Mundella said of Mr. Buckmaster's early life that "some parts may read like romance." Those who are interested in the story his life may find it in "A Village Politician: The Life-Story John Buckley."

Left motherless at the age two, and his early years served in sufferings beyond the ordinary, the child's character stiffened and formed, and wrought in him the mettle and the courage that enabled him to give practical sympathy and assistance to the moral force section of the Chartist movement and throw himself unflinchingly into the Anti-Corn Law agitation, in spite of the fact that his relations were chiefly agriculturists, who in consequence disowned him.

Through the enthusiasm and ability displayed in this agitation he attracted the attention of Lord Morpeth, who advised him give up politics and turn his attention to the growing cause of public education.

Says Mr. Mundella, "This was the turning — and perhaps the saving — point of his future life." Anon we see him at training college, and subsequently as a Government official as the head teacher at juvenile convict establishment; after that science master at a new trade-school, and finally as a professor of science and art, and lecturer upon cookery, under the Science and Art Department, South Kensington.

It remarkable career, and Mr. Buckmaster was remarkable man. He had clear convictions, and the ability and the courage to stand up for them at all times and in all places. By his consistency and straightforwardness no less than by the force of his ability, he won the admiration of men who were firmly opposed to him in their convictions.

Teddington and Hampton Wick are the poorer for the of this devoted life from their midst; and in a wide district around kindly, well esteemed presence will be missed and mourned among men and women in all classes of society.

Cross and plinth in Teddington Cemetery commemorating Emily Anne Buckmaster (1831-1890) and John Charles Buckmaster (1908)
[PB: I am not sure of the date of the photograph. The cross has since been reinstated on top of the plinth. Recent photographs to follow.]
(Click on image to enlarge)

"Master Bruce" plays Hare-and-Hounds on Wandsworth Common...

A SMALL BOY LABORIOUSLY WRITES letters to his sisters from his boarding school at Wandsworth Common. He starts one: "Dear Sister, We hunt upon the Common and one of the great Boys is the Hare, and the middle Boys hunt it..."

"Dear Sister, We hunt upon the Common..."
(Click on image to enlarge)

Written almost two hundred and fifty years ago, this is the first reference (that I know of) to sports or games on the Common. Who is Master Bruce ? Who is he writing to? Where was the school?

11 July 1857

Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum for Girls, Wandsworth Common...

An event stage-managed to "sparkle" that turned into a dull farce.

The ceremony represented in the Illustrated London News, 25 July 1857.
(The engraving as printed was monochrome.)

THE LAYING OF THE RVPA'S FOUNDATION STONE in July 1857 was intended to be a lavish public spectacle. Great structures were erected to create an amphitheatre on land that had recently been a wild tract of Wandsworth Common. There was a promise of exciting military entertainments, and of course the presence of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Princess Royal, Princess Alice, his Royal Highness the Prince of Prussia, the Princess Charlotte of Belgium, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke of Wellington (and so on and so on).

Inevitably Earl Spencer was there too — not John Poyntz Spencer, the "Red Earl" who would later relinquish his rights over the Common after the 1871 Act (but continue to charge £250-a-year rent), but his father Frederick, the 4th Earl (who died five months later in December 1857).

As Lord of the Manor Frederick had sold a large area of Wandsworth Common to the Royal Patriotic Fund for a very reasonable £50 an acre. So reasonable, in fact, that the Fund upped its purchase from 50 to 65 acres — a snip at £38,000.

(If only it had been his to sell, said Spencer's critics, and the people of Battersea and Wandsworth had received any compensation for their loss. The dirt-cheap sale may have been for "charitable purposes", but it was the local inhabitants who were the true benefactors, not Earl Spencer.)

"Many thousands" of spectators were expected to attend — as they had done on Hyde Park a fortnight earlier when Victoria presented the first Victoria Crosses. But it didn't work out that way.

Some newspapers cheerfully ridiculed the expense and grandiosity of the stone-laying ceremony (given its inevitably dull nature). For one thing, there is only so much joy that can be engendered by the sight of a monarch ascertaining a level with a plumb line and trowelling some mortar on a slab.

And for another, entrance to the stands was by ticket, but Wandsworth Common was so far from Town (and the day so hot) that few of the ticket-holding great and good could be bothered to turn up.

As the hour of her Majesty's arrival approached, therefore, the platforms and stands presented a sad array of empty benches, and the police were empowered for once to render themselves popular by selecting the most respectable among the crowd to occupy the vacant seats in order to make a decent appearance, which was really wanting.

This was fine as far as it went, but quite a number of Battersea and Wandsworth's hoi polloi — perhaps not quite so "respectable in appearance" — also wanted to have a good look, but they were kept at a distance by sturdy palisade barriers and numerous policemen.

The diminutive Queen (scarcely 5 feet tall) was so hidden by her acolytes and the scaffold-like mechanism (to lower the foundation stone into place) that the standing spectators became restive / more [to follow]...

Saturday, 9 July 1870

Samuel Sullings, Wandsworth Common martyr, released and feted. "Three cheers for Mr Buckmaster, three groans for those who had enclosed the common"

And the Oscar goes to... Wandsworth Prison / Part I

The personal is historical...

The Main Gate, 1950s
Gangster Johnny Bannion (played by Stanley Baker) leaves Wandsworth Prison at the start of Joseph Losey's classic The Criminal (1960).
(Click on image to enlarge)

I'VE RECENTLY BEEN EXPLORING the phenomenal Reelstreets website for visual evidence of change in our area — particularly the roads and open spaces around Wandsworth Prison.

Reelstreets is devoted to the locations used in films, and includes innumerable stills. It has an excellent search function, which makes it potentially very useful for local historical research. (I grew up literally in the prison's shadow, so there's a touch of nostalgia involved too.)

The Criminal (released in the USA as The Concrete Jungle) (1960)

Perhaps the finest dramatic use of the physical presence of the prison — particularly of the prison's gates — occurs at the start of Joseph Losey's stunning neo-noir The Criminal, released in 1960. Its full-on depiction of the violence of life inside led to bans in some countries.

Thanks to YouTube, you can view some of these (literally) opening scenes — highly recommended:

(Click on image or here to play the scene in YouTube)

The Criminal, whose cast includes Stanley Baker, Sam Wanamaker, and Jill Bennett, can be summarised baldly as: "An ex-con gets caught after taking part in a robbery at a racetrack but he won't tell his fellow gang members where he's stashed the loot." But that says nothing about its explosive language and sensibility. Or indeed its relevance for the Wandsworth historian.

Here, for example, is a series of stills ("captures") from an early sequence:

Stills from Joseph Losey's The Criminal, 1960
(Click on image to enlarge)

The director, US-born Joseph Losey, knew the area well — he'd already featured the prison (and the officers' quarters around the back of the prison) in his 1957 film Time Without Pity (on which more below). Blacklisted as a Communist by Hollywood in the early 1950s, Losey had moved to London to work. But mustn't grumble: Hollywood's loss, Wandsworth's gain / more...

Monday, 29 July 1879

Kate Webster executed for the murder of Julia Martha Thomas.

[Wikipedia: Link]

Monday, 29 July 1844

26-year-old Amelia Alfery attempts to drown herself and her two youngest children in the Black Sea, Wandsworth Common.

Twenty-six year-old Amelia was tried at the Old Bailey on 19 August 1844. Her son William was the first witness called. His stream-of-consciousness account, recorded almost verbatim, is extraordinarily evocative. The Black Sea was a large ornamental lake now covered by Spencer Park.

(Click on image to enlarge)


I do not know how old I am — the prisoner is my sister — I live with my father, by the White Horse, on the water side, Wandsworth. On the 29th of July I was on Wandsworth-common — I saw the prisoner there by herself, at a place called Black Sea — there was plenty there — she had her children with her, a little girl and a boy — their names were Henry French and Mary French — she has lived with a man of the name of French, and the children were called by his name — I went away for some time, and came back to play at cricket — I did not see her then — when I went over in the afternoon, I saw her walking about, and the children with her — I do not know what time it was — I did not see her do anything — I heard her scream — she was then in the water, in a pond there — the children were with her — I do not know whether they were tied to her — I went in — it was very shallow water — I held up the children's heads, and tried to hold her head up too — I kept the children's heads above water till somebody came — I saw her before I saw her in the water, and asked her to go home with me, and she told me to go home — I did not see her sitting on a bench, I saw her walking about — I did not hear her say anything to the children — I saw them with her before I saw them in the water — I did not hear her call to them — I did not see her do anything with a shawl before she went into the water — I did see her go into the water — I do not know how the children were taken into the water — I was not watching her — I saw her go in — I think the children walked in — nobody has talked to me about this since I was before the Magistrate — I think the children walked into the water — I did not see them go in — I did not see her carry them — I was looking another way when she went in.

[Old Bailey Online: AMELIA ALFERY indicted for feloniously attempting to drown Mary Sarah French, with intent to murder her.]

Monday, 30 July 1827

The Gypsey Party pitch their tent among the cedars on Wandsworth Common...

(Click on image to enlarge)

THE GYPSEY PARTY, on Friday last, pitched their tent among the cedars on Wandsworth Common, at five p.m. The viands were brought by the Duchess Leinster, Dowager Marchioness Salisbury, Marchioness of Tavistock, Lady Caroline Stanhope, and Mrs. Parnther. The wines, by Lord Tullamore and a number of bachelors.

At the hour of eight the carriages were ordered; at nine they were in town to attend the fete at Chesterfield House. The supper was laid in the grand banqueting hall, with covers for between three and four hundred persons; all served off a new and massive service of plate. The dancing was kept up with great spirit till half-past five o'clock.

[BNA: Link.]

Monday, 31 July 1871

The Wandsworth Common Act 1871 is passed...

Agreement was reached between the houses on Friday, 28 July and the bill was enacted (after Royal Assent) on the following Monday. From this day forward the Common must be kept "at all times open uninclosed and unbuilt on".

A Message was delivered by Colonel Clifford, Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod...

Accordingly, Mr. Speaker, with the House, went up to the House of Peers: And being returned;

Mr. Speaker reported, That the House, at the desire of the Lords, authorised by virtue of Her Majesty's Commission, had been at the House of Peers, where a Commission under the Great Seal was read, giving, declaring and notifying the Royal Assent to the several Acts therein mentioned; and that the Lords, thereby authorised, had declared the Royal Assent to the said Acts, as follow...

Wandsworth Common Bill

An Act for vesting the Management of the Open Space known as Wandsworth Common, in the County of Surrey, in a Body of Conservators, with a view to the preservation thereof, and for other purposes.

Clause 33 of the Act:

The Conservators shall at all times keep the Common open uninclosed and unbuilt on, except as regards such parts thereof as are at the passing of this Act inclosed or built on, and except as otherwise in this Act or in the agreement scheduled thereto expressed, and shall by all lawful means prevent, resist, and abate all encroachments and attempted encroachments on the Common, and protect the Common and preserve it as an open space, and resist all proceedings tending to the inclosure or appropriation for any purpose of any part thereof.

[Source: Journals of the House of Commons vol 126 p382.]

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