The History of Wandsworth Common


of Wandsworth Common

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[Part Two to follow shortly.]

Early in June I became pretty obsessed with trying to find out more about the people named on two benches on the Common. I'd never really looked at benches before, but it soon became a compulsion.

It all started when local resident Jenny Sheridan emailed the Friends of Wandsworth Common about some inscriptions she'd seen:

Do you know anything about Bella and Benny Spanier and their daughter Ruth? They are mentioned on two benches on the Common. One says Bella and Benny were killed in Auschwitz, the other that they contributed to the life of the area. Ruth apparently came to England on Kindertransport.

Who could resist a challenge like that?

Stephen Midlane took photographs, transcribed the texts, and established exact locations:

Cherished memories of Robert and Ruth Wing and Benni and Bella Spanier
whose lives and work enriched and brought happiness to so many.
'And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest'
With our love, Anna and Ben

Location near the fishing lake: What3Words: hooks.gender.slug.

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All love for Benni and Bella Spanier who were killed in Auschwitz in 1944
and Ruth, their daughter, who escaped Nazi Germany
on kindertransport, arriving in England, aged 11, in 1939
and for those who have lost their lives or been impacted by war.

'Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'

Location between the railway line and the lake: What3Words: stable.fuzzy.shakes

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It took a little while, but I think I've established some useful information. The couple lived in Berlin, where Bella was an actor and Benni a theatre director.

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I have found a number of helpful references, including Wikipedia Ben Spanier, Gedenken9nove38: Ben Spanier, and Wikipedia: Stolperstein ("Stumbling Blocks").

Where these are in German, I have used Google Translate: (See English texts here).

Here lived
Born 1887
Deported May 18, 1943 to
Murdered October 1944 in

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Here lived
Born Schottelfels
Born 1899
Deported May 18, 1943 to
Murdered October 1944 in

See BezirksamtCharlottenburg-Wilmersdorf — Stolpersteine Prager Straße 10
[English translation here.]

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And what of Benni and Bella's daughter Ruth?

Having come to England on the Kindertransport in 1939, Ruth Spanier continued to live in London — I've found likely addresses for her in Sussex Mansions, Old Brompton Road, SW7, and in Battersea. I believe she married Robert Wing in 1975.

I'm still not sure why Wandsworth Common was selected as the site of the benches — either it had a special significance for Ruth (though she didn't live locally, unless perhaps she moved in later years to Nightingale House, on Nightingale Lane), or for Anna and Ben. (I have emailed Enable, who supervise all the benches on the Common, in the hope of making contact with Anna and Ben.)

Given that Benni and Bella were deeply involved in the theatre, I've speculated that there could possibly be a connection with the wonderful Cook sisters, Ida and Louise, who lived for 60 years on Morella Road. Before WWII they travelled to Germany to  . . .  Their inspiring story was outlined in The Wandsworth Common Story (pp.183—4). I don't know yet but it's possible.

Undated picture of Ida and Louise Cook. Photograph: Courtesy of V & A.

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There may be more information about the Spaniers in Ida Cook's own account, We Followed Our Stars (1956 — there are several subsequent editions with different titles), or the recent book by Isabel Vincent on the sisters (Overture of Hope: Two Sister's Daring Plan That Saved Opera's Jewish Stars from the Third Reich, 2022), but I haven't read either yet.) There a number of excellent articles online — just search for "Ida and Louise Cook".

Perhaps you know something more about Benni, Bella and Ruth Spanier? Or Anna and Ben? If so, do let me know and I'll pass the news on.

[A bit of a wild surmise this, but could the "Ben" in the inscription be the "Ben Higlett" who left (virtual) flowers for Benni and Bella on a memorial website? Twitter and LinkedIn tell me that a Ben Higlett lives in Wandsworth and attended Dulwich College, so it's not impossible. If you know (or are yourself) Ben, do please get in touch.]


Just as I was about to send out July's Chronicles I chanced upon another source: Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation, edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schutz, from which the following is taken:

"Now I remember that my parents could not come to the train but had to remain . . .  behind a barrier. And I recall that as I turned and waved I saw my mother crying.

Apart from this, they had done everything to make it seem as if I was going on vacation.

Throughout the war years it never entered my head that I would never be together with my parents again."

Ruth Spanier Wing

[From an interview by Beate Meyer in 2009.]

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The Kindertransport

In Great Britain and other countries, the pogrom of November 9, 1938, unleashed a wave of indignation at Nazi brutality as well as a wave of sympathy for those persecuted.

The British government, bowing to public pressure, announced in late November 1939 that it would take in 10,000 Jewish children from Germany. British aid organizations arranged the rescue operations in cooperation with the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reich Association for Jews in Germany).

The first Kindertransport reached Great Britain on December 2, 1939. Jewish organizations arranged for the accommodation, board, and education of the children and teenagers aged up to seventeen.

Most of the approximately 11,000 children and teenagers who arrived in Great Britain between December 1938 and November 1939 during this campaign never saw their parents again. The Kindertransport was the last farewell. Only a few of the desperate parents who had entrusted their children to strangers in a foreign country survived the Nazi killing machine.

Ruth Wing, née Spanier, was the daughter of the actor Ben Spanier and his wife Bella. Her parents had asked her if she would like to go to England for a vacation to learn English and told her that they would join her soon.

At the end of August 1939, at the age of eleven, she left for England on the final Kindertransport from Berlin. Ruth and her parents maintained contact through Red Cross letters — brief messages limited to twenty-five words in length.

Letters from home were restricted to 25 words.

"Little heart! Happy with September letter. We are healthy, together again soon. Greetings Uncle Jacob and Grandma. We're constantly thinking of you. Million kisses, Daddy and Mummy."

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One note she received (shown here), dated January 24, 1942, simply stated: "Herzele!* Happy with September letter. We are healthy, together again soon. Greetings Uncle Jacob and Grandma. We're constantly thinking of you. Million kisses, Daddy and Mummy."

Contact ceased in May 1943 when her parents were deported to Theresienstadt.

Ben and Bella Spanier were subsequently deported to Auschwitz and murdered there. Along with the numerous documents and photos that Ruth Spanier has gathered over the years, she still has two silver spoons that she had been allowed to take with her as mementos.26

Ruth was taken in by the family of a London rabbi, although he did not bother much with her once she was evacuated with her school from London to Windsor.

As a German and with no means of her own, she had to drop out of school at age fourteen and was sent to an institution similar to a kibbutz in Scotland.** This institution prepared young German and Austrian Jews for emigration to Palestine. Ruth Spanier had no wish to go to Palestine.

After the war she returned to London, where she has lived ever since.

[From Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation, edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schutz (2009), pp.42-3.]


* Herzele— probably a colloquial version of "Herzelein", "Little Heart".

** It is not impossible this was Whittinghame Farm School — links to a remarkable article.]

Evacuee Suitcase, about 1940. (Card, 110x325x240mm.)

"In 1939, at the beginning of World War 2, children in London and other major cities were evacuated to the countryside or to small towns like Windsor. Children were only allowed to take a few items with them on their journey and small affordable cardboard suit cases like this were popular."

[Windsor & Royal Borough Museum: Evacuee Suitcase, about 1940

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Ruth "was evacuated with her school from London to Windsor" (where she was billeted at 2 Gosswell Cottages). Hmm, girls from Clapham County School were evacuated to Windsor — surely she wasn't a pupil there?! That would certainly help to explain a connection with Wandsworth Common. But isn't that too much to hope for?

(In any case, Clapham County was a grammar school, and Ruth is unlikely to have been sufficiently fluent in English. On the other hand, it is not impossible that schools gave places to Kindertransport children.)

I asked Cathy Rowntree (archivist for Clapham County as well as Honeywell School) if she had any records for the war years.

Cathy's response:

"I am sorry to say that I have no pupil lists for any Clapham County year. I can glean lists of exam results, sports team members etc. and names of contributors from the annual magazines, but after 1941 the magazines were suspended due to paper shortages, so wouldn't reveal anything about Ruth Spanier. The next one I have is from 1947.

I have lots of information about the evacuation, from the official school history of 1959 (the 50 year jubilee) and more interestingly from personal reminiscences in contributions to the newsletter, including photos.

In 1999 a group got together with boys from the Windsor County Boys School, whose building they shared, for a 60-year reunion. There is also an illuminated certificate of thanks to the people of Windsor who made the girls welcome."

For Benni, Bella, and Ruth.

This has been Part One of July's Chronicles — I plan to send out Part Two within a week.

If you would like to receive occasional notifications of new Chronicles, let me know.


I've made a rough-and-ready index of all stories in the Chronicles so far.

Or click on the links to the individual months below.

Plus there's a SEARCH box at the top of this page, and here:

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A new video from The Friends of Wandsworth Common


Life on & around Wandsworth Common, 1930s-1980s

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COMMON MEMORIES — Life on & around Wandsworth Common, 1930s-1980s

6/2023 — Over the past year, members of the Friends of Wandsworth Common Heritage group, led by Ros Page, have interviewed lifelong residents of the Common to explore their life and experiences and how the Common used to be.

The interviews were all filmed by John Crossland and the more than 20 hours of footage beautifully and sensitively edited down into this 'charming and engaging' film by Rosa Navas, a local film maker and Friend.

The film is interspersed with old images and film clips, bringing alive the narrative of the interviewees. The result is a fascinating insight into how life on Wandsworth Common has changed over five decades.

With special thanks to the production team led by Ros Page, including Stephen Midlane, Henrietta Gentilli, Louise Murphy, John Turner, cameraman John Crossland and editor Rosa Navas.

The film was launched on 6 June 2023 in the Fiennes Theatre, Emanuel School, and special thanks are due to Lisa Irwin and the school for their very generous support.

The video is now available to view via the Friends of Wandsworth Common website or on YouTube .

Premier of Common Memories at Emanuel School, June 2023.

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As one of the twenty people interviewed, I'm obliged to state I have a special interest in this film. And here we all are:

Norma Barwis

Philip Boys

Christine Brown

Dean Clarke

Avril Crossland

Hazel Elam

Pam Jones

Jennie Kramer

Barbara Littlechild

Dora Littlechild

Karly Olsen-Haveland

Ed Potter

Cathy Rowntree

Phil Rowntree

Barbara Streek

Joan Taylor

Michael Taylor

Aviva Walton

Charles Walton

Barbara Windsor

The interviews (each up to an hour long) were filmed and transcribed in full (though only short extracts appear in the film, of course). They have been archived in the Wandsworth Heritage Service at Battersea Library, Lavender Hill.

I hope people will explore the interviews, and perhaps use them to inform and inspire further historical work. Perhaps above all, I hope people will record their own memories of the Common — on paper or computer, on film, or on audio tape. Imagine if we could read the recollections of the countless people who have spent time on the Common in the last few thousand years.

July 2023

June 2023

May 2023

"Some matters arising from May 2023's Chronicles

April 2023

March 2023

February 2023

January 2023

December 2022

November 2022

October 2022

September 2022

August 2022

July 2022

June 2022

May 2022

April 2022

March 2022

February 2022

January 2022

December 2021

November 2021

October 2021

September 2021

August 2021

July 2021

June 2021

Incidentally, a couple of years ago I made a short video (my first) from Edwardian postcards and photographs of the lake, set to music by Claude Debussy, which you can view here. Utterly self-indulgent.

HistoryBoys | Magic Lantern Show #1 | The Lake, Wandsworth Common . . .  also known as the Dog Pond, the Long Pond, or just 'the Pond'.

And here's one on the Three-Island Pond:

HistoryBoys | Magic Lantern Show #? | The Three-Island Pond

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Send me an email if you enjoyed this post, or want to comment on something you've seen or read on the site, or would like to know more — or just want to be kept in touch.

Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")