The History of Wandsworth Common


of Wandsworth Common




I've divided this month's Chronicles into two. Part One (posted a few weeks ago) was devoted to Neal's Nursery. You can read more by clicking on the image below or on this link: Whatever Happened to Neal's Nursery?

Neal's Nursery in 2023.

This month:

— "Wandsworth Common: Written on a sand-dune in the Sahara, near Timbuctoo" [Can you guess when?]  . . . 

— "In texture it rivals velvet of the richest pile" —lush grass on Wandsworth Common, 1930  . . . 

—  We don't want to keep off the grass: petition to remove the hurdles, 1896 . . . 

—  Sport v. Nature: the LCC defended, 1927 . . . 

—  "We like the bowling green best when there are no bowlers and no spectators", 1931 . . . 

— The newly laid cork pitch worries cricketers, 1951  . . . 

— George the Giraffe (not eating grass), 1954  . . . 

— Singer jeered: "Wandsworth Common in the neighbourhood of the bandstand may become as bad as Clapham", 1930  . . . 

— When Wandsworth Common Youths Make Whoopee, 1939  . . . 

— Throwing stones, 1916  . . . 

— Two small girls rob eleven children in one day, 1892  . . . 

— Twelve-year-old boy killed by a stray horse, 1874  . . . 

—  "The death of Sarah Tonks, aged 18, who was found on Saturday morning sleeping on Wandsworth Common," 1909  . . . 

— Cycleplane tragedy, 1909  . . . 

—  Wandsworth Common's "Seven Different Kinds of Air", 1927 . . . 

—  The Dunmow Flitch, 1899  . . . 

— The Bolingbroke prefabs receive their first residents, 1947  . . . 

— Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson to star in new film about Wandsworth Common's inspirational Cook sisters?  . . . 

— Pam Alexander  . . . 

"Written on a sand-dune in the Sahara, near Timbuctoo", a poem about Wandsworth Common.

Sand dunes

Dunes in Namibia, 3000 miles away from Timbuctoo. But too good a photograph not to use as a proxy.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps surprisingly, quite a number of poems feature Wandsworth Common. You may recall poems written in defence of the Common in the 1860s by Mr Punch's finest, Tom Taylor (he published at least three on the subject), or the cockney ditty "The Bride and Her Groom" of 1865? (And in November I'll discuss a more recent one by David Bromwich.)

Probably uniquely, this poet (hiding behind the pseudonym "The Baron") is recalling the Wandsworth Common he yearns for from a great distance —"a sand-dune in the Sahara, near Timbuctoo".

If you read it (and I hope you will), perhaps you can try to work out when it was written.


Written on a sand-dune in the Sahara, near Timbuctoo, August, [year].

Oh! would I were in Wandsworth Common,
Where the Trees
Are Green.
No place on Earth can compare to Thee,
Here I sit on the arid banks
of a river
Almost dry.
Ye in Wandsworth Common,
Give Thanks!
Ye are not
Like I.
How much would I give
To be
With Ye now!
And see
Once again
The sign of "The Plough."

 *    *    *    * 

Home of my birth!
Your greens I see.
Sweeter than Timbuctoo!
Far o'er the sea. Here
Stubby palms,
And coarse rough grass,
Ugly Cacti,
But where, Alas!
Are the cabbages
Do Love?
Where are the Onions?
Where the Leeks?
That do not grow
On Sahara creeks.
Red-roofed houses,
And blue ones too.
Nothing like that
In Timbuctoo.
There on the hill-top
The Church!
All around Elms,
And birch.
The winding High Street,
With Shops,
Smelling Of Beer
And its constituent Hops.
There's no Beer,
But only Bananas.
May sing
Of their
"Sunny Havanas, "
I've had by now
Of hot places;
I will return
To familiar faces.

 *    *    *    * 

Farewell hot sands!
Ukelele Bands!
Cocoa-nut palm!
I return!
I return!
To the land of my youth,
To live
Like a Christian,


So, when do you think it was written? And is it "for real"?

For a while, I wondered whether the poem was "true". Is it possible that "The Baron" was an Old Emanuel working on a West African plantation? (Not inconceivable for a young Englishman from a minor public school pre-world war two)

Preposterous, I know. My friend Nick Pruce pointed out to me that it's much more likely to be a playful take on the Victorian poet Robert Browning's nostalgic "Home Thoughts, from Abroad" (1845) —with lines cut into fragments to ape modernist poetry. (Thanks, Nick!)

The green green grass of home . . . 

"In texture it rivals velvet of the richest pile; in colour it is a delight to the eye . . . The new grass on Wandsworth Common looks so nutritious and appetising that any morning we may wake up to find it nibbled to the bare earth . . . "

According to the author of the South Western Star article, the new growth of grass on the Common "looks so nutritious and appetising" that it will have to be protected from covetous humans by a high fence, crested with spikes and barbed wire.

(Click on image to enlarge)

South Western Star —Friday 1 August 1930

We have before poured out our soul, or a portion thereof, in praise of the grass grown under the auspices of the Council on a portion of Wandsworth Common.

Having little soul left, we cannot continue its outpourings, greatly as we desire to. The new grass is now lovely. In texture it rivals velvet of the richest pile; in colour it is a delight to the eye.

The County Council do well to surround it with a fence of the unclimbable variety. In our opinion it would be advisable to increase the height of the fence, and to crest it with spikes and barbed wire.

There are people in Battersea who follow the practice set by Nebuchadnezzar, and there are other vegetarians who, while not so austere as the Chaldean king, yet believe that a little young grass is a wholesome addition to the daily diet.

We mention this in order that the County Council may take measures accordingly.

The new grass on Wandsworth Common looks so nutritious and appetising that any morning we may wake up to find it nibbled to the bare earth.

[BNA: Link.]

At the time, the idea of eating Wandsworth Common grass was doubtless intended as a joke; but as we saw in last November's Chronicles, nine years later the retired lawyer JRB Branson took it literally.

The man who eats grass.

And if humans don't consume all the grass, Canada Geese will seize their chance. Photographs by Lewis More O'Ferrall — thanks, Lewis!

[Incidentally, when were the first Canada Geese seen on the Common? Surely it's quite recently, because I'm sure there were none in the 1950s and 1960s. (And when did Grey Squirrels arrive?)]

Petition to remove the hurdles . . . 

South London Press —Saturday 8 August 1896


The Wandsworth District Board Wednesday resolved to petition the London County Council requesting them to remove the hurdles on Clapham and Wandsworth Commons, as they impeded the public from the free use and enjoyment of the commons.

[BNA: Link]

Nothing much happened, but the local Board was persistent and a few months later:

South London Press —Saturday 28 November 1896

On the motion of Mr. Manser, the vestry agreed to request the London County Council remove a good many of the iron fences which now obstruct the pathways on Clapham and Wandsworth Commons.

[BNA: Link]

I'll monitor and report on this story as it develops.

The LCC — Sport v Nature.

The case for the defence . . . 

As I've recounted several times before, there is always a tug-of-war between the interests of "sport and recreation", on the one hand, and "natural aspect and state" on the other. The London County Council was routinely vilified for stressing the former at the expense of the latter.

But in August 1927, Mr. T. W. Cole, of "'Normanhurst', Routh-road", took the opportunity to defend the LCC.

[I wonder which number that is?]

Chelsea News and General Advertiser —Friday 26 August 1927

(Click on image to enlarge)


Policy of the London County Council.

Respecting criticisms of the London County Council with regard to Wandsworth Common . . . Mr. T. W. Cole, of "Normanhurst," Routh-road. Wandsworth Common, gives the following explanation:

"The policy of the London County Council in regard to Wandsworth Common rate is carefully thought out and consistent, and has the fullest regard to the interest of every class of the public.

It follows the principles laid down by Parliament in the 'Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act, 1871.' which are contained in the injunctions that the conservators shall (1) preserve the commons for purposes of exercise and recreation, and (2) at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the commons, and to that end shall protect the turf, gorse, heather, timber, and other trees, shrubs, and brushwood thereon.

"On Wandsworth Common the London County Council are trying to balance these two. The big open spaces are most carefully levelled, drained, and turfed for cricket, football, and school games. (To get proper and durable turfage it is necessary, at times, to fence off temporarily the portion under reconstruction).

All this space is, of course, available for walking for the general public, although there are low railings, mostly round the boundaries, mainly to prevent the grass being trodden down in regular trackways.

In the case of games as tennis, bowls, and putting, where the grass is costly to prepare and readily injured, provision is made, as far as possible, for the reservation of angles or corners where the public normally would not be walking. All the hard courts and netted courts are certainly in these "out-of-the-way" situations.

"Then as to the second point, preserving the natural beauties of the common. Here again the London County Council are acting under a most careful policy. New plantations, where saplings are planted, together with hawthorn etc., are placed in positions unsuitable for games or bordering pathways, etc., so that as the trees in the undergrowth in the open spaces die down or are removed, the new saplings will take their place, but in another position.

Naturally these new small plantations must be fenced in.

The public, in return for being debarred the right of walking inside, have the present added picturesqueness to the common, together with the assurance that the common will year by year be improved, which ought to be a great satisfaction to those who own property round the common.

"I do not think the public at all adequately realise what they owe to the County Council in the work they have done on this and other commons, nor do they fully appreciate the forestry skill, inventiveness, and artistry of the executive officers of the Council, who year by year beautify these commons."

[BNA: Link]

"We wish the bowling green at Wandsworth Common were less beautiful and attractive . . . 

South Western Star —Friday 14 August 1931

"People would not then flock thereto in troops and multitudes . . . We like the Wandsworth Common bowling green best in wet weather or on one of the cold and frosty mornings that we have experienced of late, because then there are no bowlers and no spectators."

(Click on image to enlarge)

It grieves us to write the words, but write them we will. They are these: One of the prettiest and most restful spots open to the public is the bowling green at Wandsworth Common.

The green, itself so smooth, so trim and perfect, is in itself a delight to look upon.

Its chief charm lies in its surroundings. A broad garden of flowers bounds it on every side, and beyond, looking to the west, is apparently the open country, with the towers and battlements of Wandsworth Gaol set therein like a medieval castle.

The flower beds are gorgeous just now and the lavender diffuses a delightful perfume.

A recent photograph of the Bowling Green. Not quite as gorgeous as its pre-war best, perhaps, but improving all the time thanks to the Friends of Wandsworth Common. New players very welcome.

(Click on image to enlarge)

We wish the bowling green at Wandsworth Common were less beautiful and attractive. People would not then flock thereto in troops and multitudes. Formerly, in its solitude, it was like a lodge in a garden of cucumbers. Now on a fine Sunday afternoon it is as populous as a city; gone is the charm of solitude it once possessed.

Even aliens resort thereto, Chinamen to wit, who presumably pay no rates and are not on the voting list. A band of them foregathered at the bowling green one evening last week, and with derisive smiles on their faces watched a game of bowls. No doubt it appeared ridiculous to them that even foreign devils, if grown up, should try to amuse themselves by trundling balls over a level stretch of grass.

Given a set of bowls the average Chinaman would set himself down and juggle with them, using not his hands but his feet. The game of bowls, as practised at Wandsworth Common and elsewhere, would no more appeal to him than solo whist appeals to the man who can break the Bank at Monte Carlo.

We like the Wandsworth Common bowling green best in wet weather or on one of the cold and frosty mornings that we have experienced of late, because then there are no bowlers and no spectators.

[BNA: Link]

The Bowling Green, 1939.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Who needs grass when you can play on cork?

Fulham Chronicle —Friday 31 August 1951

New-type pitch worried Regency

Amid such distracting disturbances as a scratch game of football, youthful cowboys chasing still younger Indians, and flashing London-Brighton expresses regularly passing through the station behind the bowler's arm, Fulham Regency drew with Andrea on a newly laid cork pitch on Wandsworth Common.

Regency lost three wickets for four runs, but Cockle drove hard and high for 25 valuable runs.

Pollard adopted Cockle's tactics, and contributed a not out 30. With valuable support from skipper Smith, Regency were able to play out time.

Andrea: 129 for 5 dec.

Regency 73 for 5 (Pollard 30, Cockle 25).

[BNA: Link]

"Glamour Boy" George the Giraffe visits Wandsworth Common . . . 

George the Giraffe eating a "Do Not Feed The Giraffe Sign", 1957.

(Click on image to enlarge)

South Western Star —Friday 6 August 1954.



GLAMOUR BOY number one in the Circus is definitely George the Giraffe, you only have to see him flutter those long silken eyelashes to realise why.

Complicated Neck

His transport is difficult. He is the only giraffe too tall to travel by rail. A horse box is out of the question —George is quite a big boy, and that neck of his creates complications.

All was solved when someone had a good idea —buy a double-decker bus and take out the top deck.

[BNA: Link.]

"[I'd love to see a photo of George in his bus, but I have yet to find one.]

(Click on image to enlarge)



200 Animal Show



AUG. 16th —For One Week Only . . . 

[BNA: Link.]

"Unbridled hooliganism — Wandsworth Common in the neighbourhood of the bandstand may become as bad as Clapham . . . "

You will know that several among us are interested in bandstands on Wandsworth Common. Here is a story supporting the view that there was indeed a bandstand near the passage between the Common and the corner of Routh and Baskerville Roads.

The story also suggests why we no longer have a bandstand.

I recall that a month or two back there was a hint of panic at London theatres because people were enjoying themselves a little too much —singing along with hit songs, calling out comments, jeering performers, and so on.

It was ever thus, perhaps.

South Western Star —Friday 8 August 1930

"Wandsworth Common has a well-deserved reputation for quiet; its beauty is unrivalled. It would be a pity if so lovely a place should be vulgarised . . . by the presence of mobs of young people who are never so happy as when they are interfering with the pleasures of others."

(Click on image to enlarge)

The bandstand on Wandsworth Cornmon is not an unmixed blessing. On band nights and on entertainment nights some of the elements composing crowds who are drawn together are not in keeping with the atmosphere of Wandsworth Common, which is an atmosphere of reposeful rurality.

Clapham-common bandstand used to be a rallying place for unbridled hooliganism. It looks as though Wandsworth Common in the neighbourhood of the bandstand may become as bad as Clapham has been.

Last Sunday witnessed a deplorable manifestation of bad manners. The band performance varied by vocal solos. A lady vocalist was loudly cheered by a crowd of young people, whose purpose was not to applaud the singer, but to make as much noise as possible.

Presently jeering laughter mingled with the ironical cheers as a parliamentary journalist would call them.

The lady stopped and left the bandstand. Shortly afterwards, with her friends who included a couple of gentlemen, she left the common. It was an unpleasant experience.

We sympathise with the lady, and hasten to assure her that her singing was fully appreciated by all the decent people who were in the vicinity of the bandstand.

One naturally asks whether the County Council is promoting the public weal by bringing together crowds who do not know how to behave themselves.

Wandsworth Common has a well-deserved reputation for quiet; its beauty is unrivalled. It would be a pity if so lovely a place should be vulgarised, not of course by good music, but by the presence of mobs of young people who are never so happy as when they are interfering with the pleasures of others.

[BNA: Link]

Like an alien space ship from an H.G. Wells novel. Clapham Common's bandstand, London's largest, was constructed in 1890. It is seen here after a glorious renovation in 2006. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

I'm sure the various Wandsworth Common bandstands were never so grand.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Clapham Common's bandstand is in Wandsworth(just) — a few yards west of the boundary between the old Battersea and Clapham parishes. (OpenStreetMap.)

(Click on image to enlarge)

More bandstand news: When Wandsworth Common Youths Make Whoopee . . . 

South Western Star —Friday 11 August 1939

(Click on image to enlarge)


Frolic at Wandsworth Common

At the South Western Police Court before Mr. Wilson on Friday William James Lewis, (17), bottler, 36 Dempster—road, Wandsworth, and three boys, respectively aged 15, 15, and 14, admitted using insulting words and behaviour at Wandsworth Common on Thursday evening. They denied damaging two deck chairs, the property of M.W. Shanty (Park Chairs). Ltd.

P.C. Hunt, 426 W, said that at 8.15 p.m. on Thursday he saw the four youths pushing about on a footpath at the rear of Baskerville-road. They ran a barrow, used by chair attendants, up and down the path. Pedestrians had to get out of their way.

The lads next threw down deck chairs which had been standing in a field. Two of the younger youths jumped on deck chairs and broke them. All four climbed to the bandstand and danced and sang. When a Park-keeper approached they ran away, shouting insulting remarks to him.


Witness and another officer stopped them.

Lewis said, "I shall be turned out of my home for this."

One of the younger youths said, "We made fools of ourselves."

Another said, "I threw a chair up, but I didn't think I broke it."

Lewis took no part in running the chair barrow up and down. Lewis did not challenge the evidence in any way. He said he did not wish to give evidence or make a statement.

One of the other youths said. "I picked up a deck chair and put it above my head and put it down again. I didn't break it at all."

Mr. Wilson dismissed the charge of damage against Lewis, but fined him 5s. for using insulting behaviour. "You had no business to behave like this," the magistrate said. His worship remitted the three younger youths to the juvenile court.

[BNA: Link]

"Throwing missiles to the public danger . . . "

South Western Star —Friday 18 August 1916


Edward Amis, 2 Strath-terrace, Battersea, was summoned by P.C. Saunders, 714 V, for throwing missiles to the public danger on a footpath at Wandsworth Common on the evening of July 28.

The constable said three or four boys were throwing stones. When spoken to defendant said they were seeing who could throw the furthest. A number of children were about at the time.

The boy pleaded guilty, and admitted the truth of the officer's evidence.

The magistrate ordered defendant to pay the costs of the summons —2s.

[BNA: Link]

"Detective Lenman, who had charge of the case, said that 11 children were robbed on Saturday in the neighbourhood of Wandsworth-common . . . "

Morning Post —Tuesday 16 August 1892


Two girls, named Annie Miller and Margaret Hyatt, aged 13 and 10 years, were charged with robbing a number of children of small sums of money entrusted to them by their parents.

Detective Lenman, who had charge of the case, said that 11 children were robbed on Saturday in the neighbourhood of Wandsworth-common.

The prisoners, although very young, were considered expert thieves. Their habit was to stand outside the shops of pawnbrokers and accost young children as they were about entering to redeem articles, taking the money, which was invariably wrapped in paper, from their hands, and after substituting copper coins for silver ones, returning them wrapped up in the same way.

The children only ascertained that they had been robbed when they opened their small paper parcels to pay the pawnbroker or the tradesman, as the case might be.

The mother of Hyatt attended, and said that her daughter had been led away by the other girl.

Mr. Plowden thought that was, perhaps, true, and ordered her to be discharged. He remanded Miller to the workhouse, remarking that it was most difficult to know what to do with a girl so young.

[BNA: Link]

["Remanded Miller to the workhouse"? This implies the workhouse is being used as punishment. How so?]

This is the "Kinshin Lay" —a scam with a name and a history. Here's how it works, from 1940:

The "Kinshin Lay" coin scam described in the South Western Star, 23 February 1940.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Twenty years ago unscrupulous persons would have tried to work the "kinshin lay" in Battersea.

Few people now know what the kinchin lay is, or was. It was a particularly despicable method of robbing little children, and it was imported from the East End.* That that was not the place of its origin is clear enough from the fact that "kinshin" is a corruption of the German word "Kindchen," a little child, and is associated with our now respectable words "kid" and "kiddies."

The practitioner of the kinshin lay was usually a plausible sort of woman. She hung about the smaller streets until she spotted a child who had been sent on an errand by an overworked mother.

Not unnaturally, the child, if entrusted with a two-shilling piece or half-crown, looked admiringly at the gleaming coin from time to time. That gave the woman her opportunity.

"My dear," she would say to the child. "You must be very careful. There are a lot of thieves about. Let me wrap your money in paper and then see what you have got."

 *    *    *    

The confiding child handed over its half-crown and received a coin wrapped in paper, but the coin was only 1 penny.

At one period there were several cases of this kind every week in Battersea. Unfortunately, the thief usually got clear.

There's a very interesting coda to this article, implying that (girl) children in Battersea are so much cannier now:

She would get nothing from the children of to-day. Among the groups who have lately been endeavouring to buy coal there have been a good many youngsters who carried a two-shilling piece in their hand and who were proud to show it as evidence that they were prepared to pay for what they asked for.

No kinshin lay worker, however expert she might he, would have got hold of any of that money.

The children, especially the little girls, knew how to speak up for themselves. The language some of them used to the coal porters is even now ringing in our ears.

It was not bad language; on the contrary it was very good, but it most emphatic.

[BNA: Link]

[* Beware leaping to easy conclusions about historical origins from presumed etymology. The author underestimates the age (and over-simplifies the origins) of the words "kinchin" and "lay". See e.g. Jonathon Green's remarkable Dictionary of Slang: kinchin and lay.]

"Attacked by a stray horse . . . "

Globe —Thursday 13 August 1874

DANIEL CLARKE LAWRENCE, aged 12 years, the son of a gentleman residing at 37, Heath-road, Wandsworth, was crossing a field near Wandsworth Common when he was attacked by a stray horse, kicked in the head, and so seriously injured that he died shortly afterwards. A verdict of accidental death was last night returned by a jury.

[BNA: Link]

The Register of Burials for Old Brompton Cemetery record that 12-year-old Daniel was buried there on 15 August 1874. He had died at St Thomas's Hospital.

It seemed unlikely he was indeed the son of a "Gentleman" since his was a "Common Grave", 9 1/2 feet deep. On checking the 1881 Census it transpired that his father was a Carpenter and his mother probably a "Monthly Nurse".

Heath Road is in Clapham, north of Clapham Common — it is not related to "Heathfield Road", as I had assumed.

"A shocking story of neglect . . . 

"The death of Sarah Tonks, aged 18, who was found on Saturday morning sleeping on Wandsworth Common . . . "

This is a difficult story to write about. It concerns a young woman, Sarah Tonks, who has been living rough on the Common for some time. She is found asleep. When she wakes, she speaks of an intense headache. A policeman takes her to the local police station and then to Wandsworth Infirmary.

Sarah speaks very little, but gives her name and age (19). She says she has no family or friends, and has been brought up in an institution —but she doesn't say which. The Coroner searches the metropolitan area but can find no record of her.

She appears to be improving but suddenly burns with fever and dies the following day.

"Death was due to heart failure while suffering from the effects of privation and self-neglect."

Sheffield Evening Telegraph —Friday 30 July 1909

(Click on image to enlarge)



A shocking case of privation and self-neglect was inquired into at Battersea to-day. On Saturday a police-constable on Wandsworth Common found a young woman asleep on the grass. He awakened her, and she said her name was Sarah Tonks, 19 years of age, and she was homeless.

The officer took her to the police station, and afterwards to Wandsworth Infirmary, where she died on Monday.

Dr. Mills said the girl was in a terrible condition. Her hair required surgical appliances for treatment. He learned that her parents died seven years ago, and that she was brought up in an institution.

Death was due to heart failure while suffering from the effe«s of privation and self-neglect

A verdict accordance with medical evidence was returned.

[BNA: Link]

Sarah is buried, probably in Magdalen Road Cemetery, in a common or public (often called a "pauper") grave.

I imagine there were no mourners. It seems likely that her family (for she had one) knew nothing of what had happened. For them, she had just disappeared.

The police and the Coroner's officers had failed to find out anything about her. But I began to wonder whether, with our easy access to so many digitised records, we could do a little better for Sarah now. And I think we can.

All being well, I'll continue this story soon.

Death of a cycle aviator . . . 

"Deceased, who suffered from heart disease, left home in the early hours to try a cycle-plane which he had made, and the exertion brought on heart failure."

Cycle-plane, 1909

I have no idea what Frederic Taylor's own cycle-plane was like, but there was quite a craze for human-powered flight at this time — here is a Puiseux model from the same year as Frederick's death.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Dublin Daily Express —Saturday 21 August 1909

A verdict of death from natural causes was returned at inquest at Wandsworth yesterday respecting the demise of Mr. Frederic Taylor, aged 78, a retired physician, and formerly Coroner and Magistrate for Woodstock, Oxfordshire, who expired whilst cycling on Wandsworth Common early on Thursday morning.

Deceased, who suffered from heart disease, left home in the early hours to try a cycle-plane which he had made, and the exertion brought on heart failure. He was found dead by a constable.

[BNA: Link]

[In 1901, Frederic(k) Taylor was living with his wife and one of his three sons, and a female servant, at 43 Beauchamp Road (between Arding and Hobbs and Lavender Sweep).

Wandsworth Common's "seven different kinds of air" . . . 

I'm often intrigued by odd expressions, references or figures of speech that I come across in articles. The author will have taken it for granted that the reader would "get" them, and a century or so ago they might have. But for most of us now, we don't.

Fortunately, what we lack in cultural capital we can make up for with an awesomely powerful search engine.

In a newspaper article I quoted recently on the glasshouses on Neal's Nursery, there was a reference to the old Maypole Inn having "more gables than a lazy man would count on a summer's day".


It turned out this was a reference to the impressively massive Maypole Inn that features in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge:

The many-gabled Maypole Inn visualised by George Cattermole. The frontispiece of Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841).

(Click on image to enlarge)

Recently I came across an equally perplexing phrase in a 1927 article expressing the powerful resentment many people felt that Wandsworth Common was being entirely reshaped (for the worse) by sport:

"Wandsworth Common's seven different kinds of air".


Fulham Chronicle —Friday 26 August 1927

Are we going going mad?

Many Fulham people will sympathise with a correspondent who strongly objects to the L.C.C. filching more and more of Wandsworth Common for the playing of games. Such a large portion of Fulham Park has been railed off or reserved for games that the general public begin to feel like trespassers when they enter the Park. We hope the Council will keep a tight hand against the further encroachment of organised games.

We are not so much concerned with Wandsworth Common, although many Fulham people regard that area, with its "seven different kinds of air," as their own by adoption.

The argument adduced against the L.C.C. railing off more of the common for games is the same ventilated at Fulham.

The Council, it is urged, are in the position of trustees for the benefit of the public. As beneficiaries a large number of residents are being sacrificed for the advantage of one class.

How often we have heard this brought forward at Fulham!

[BNA: Link]

It's hard to be certain, but I think "seven different kinds of air" is a reference to late-eighteenth-century experiments on the composition of air that demonstrated it was not one gas but a mix of seven distinct gases (now called nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide etc).

Although this discovery is generally attributed to the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier, a local man Henry Cavendish ("The Newton of Chemistry") played a big part in early experiments.

Henry Cavendish, possibly on a walk between Wandsworth Common and Clapham Common.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Cavendish lived in Clapham (in a large house more or less across the road from today's Clapham South Tube Station, next to the start of today's Cavendish Road). Intriguingly, his daily ritual was to walk from there to Wandsworth Common and back.

"Perambulation of Clapham Common", 1800. From C.Smith's Actual Survey of the Road from London to Brighthelmston, 1800.

The map has been rotated 90 degrees clockwise, hence west is shown at the top. Henry Cavendish's home is near top left.
There is no equivalent map (that I know of) for Wandsworth Common. It would be good to construct one (e.g. for 1841 etc), wouldn't it.
(Click on image to enlarge)

"His favourite, and, indeed, his only walk at Clapham, was down Nightingale Lane, nearly opposite his house, from Clapham Common to Wandsworth Common, and so round the road back to his own house. This walk he always took in the dusk of the evening, and he always walked in the middle of the road, never on the side path.

He was never known to speak to any one, or to touch his hat to any one who took off his. In short, his desire seemed to be alone and to be left alone.”

[George Wilson, The Life of the Honble Henry Cavendish, London, 1851, p.170.]

I like to think that on his walks to and from Wandsworth Common our "seven different kinds of air" inspired Cavendish to think about its constituents (he discovered hydrogen), and to devise a remarkable method of weighing the world.

[Hmm. I have a distinct memory of another Wandsworth Common-related story involving Henry Cavendish — something to do with being mocked by a woman en route? But I can't recollect any more detail, or where I read it. (If indeed I did.)]

A Wandsworth Common couple's matrimonial bliss is attributed to where they live — and wins them a portion of the Dunmow Flitch . . . 

The Dunmow Flitch. —The ancient custom of presenting a flitch of bacon to each of those married couples who could swear that in a twelvemonth and a day they had "repented not in thought or in any way" of their married state was observed with all the old amusing ceremonial at the small village Dunmow, Essex, Monday. The ceremony was held inside marquee erected a field about half a mile from the railway station.

There were two couples for trial by the jury of six maidens and six bachelors. One couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, of Heathfield-house, Wandsworth-common, were quite youthful; in the case of the other —Sergeant and Mrs. McCulloch, of Norwich —there was a marked disparity of years between husband and wife.

The maidens in the jury were attired in white dresses, and the bachelors were also dressed in their best.

The presiding judge, Mr. James Mackenzie, was attired in scarlet robes, and wore full-bottomed wig. Mr. W.G. Linsell acted counsel for the claimants; and Mr. T. Gibbons was entrusted with the task of "saving the bacon in his capacity as counsel for the imaginary donors of the bacon. Mr. James Hamilton was marshal and clerk of the court.

After the customary mock trial the flitch was awarded to Sergeant. McCulloch and his wife; but the jury also decided to give a portion of the bacon to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett.

[BNA: Link]

The South London Press's correspondent attributed the Bennett's success to where they lived:

"Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, of West Side, Wandsworth Common, convinced the Dunmow jury that for a year and day they had lived in state of matrimonial bliss, and as a result bore away the flitch in triumph. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have had trials and troubles, but have not allowed things to spoil their tempers or cloud their happiness.

I think the idyllic surroundings of Heathfield House may have had something to do with the prolonging of love's young dream.

[BNA: Link]

[Where is Heathfield House?

The first residents move into the pre-fabs along Bolingbroke Grove, 1947 . . . 

Aerial photograph taken 12 August 1947 showing the completed pre-fabs along Bolingbroke Grove.

On the left, Trinity Road, the Toast Rack, and the RVPA (though no Fitzhugh "skyscrapers" yet). Diagonally through the middle, the railway line between Wandsworth Common station and Clapham Junction, crossed by the Cat's Back Bridge. On the right, Bolingbroke Grove (and beyond it Northcote Road).
Notice how much of the Common was still covered in allotments, two years after the war had ended.
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South Western Star —Friday 30 August 1946


Happy Tenants in L.C.C. Arcons



They were told how the various labour saving devices in the kitchen worked. The purpose of the various concealed cupboards and drawers in the all-metal enamelled kitchens were explained.

Without exception all the tenants interviewed by our reporter expressed their complete satisfaction with the houses, one going so far as to say that this type. the "Arcon." is the best she has seen.


Mr. and Mrs. Edwards have been allocated No. 6 in what is to be known in the future as Bolingbroke Bungalows. Mrs. Edwards was setting out her home when our reporter called. She was not too busy to show him over the kitchen, of which she is very proud. Carried out in cream and green enamel, this room and its fittings are better than many found in pre-war houses built for purchase.

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There is ample space to "move around in" as Mrs. Edwards put it. There are waist-high cupboards and containers the full length of the kitchen, with a gas cooker built in half way along. At one end there is a gas refrigerator, but the continuity bf the equipment is not interrupted. The whole gives an enamel table top working space. In addition there is a small built-in kitchen table, and an airing cupboard. Other facilities include an electric bath heater, electric kettle and iron points.


The bathroom is self-contained, and includes a pedestal wash basin, and there is a separate indoor W.C. There are two bedrooms, the larger one comfortably accommodating the largest of everyday bedroom suites.

Mrs. Edwards had some large carpets she anticipated having to discard or fold under, but was agreeably surprised to find they easily fitted into the larger bedroom and large sitting-room. The latter is fitted with a slow combustion stove. The rent of the bungalows is 18s. 3d. per week.

For five years Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, who have one young son, have occupied one room and a small kitchen at West Norwood.


Another happy tenant is Mrs. D. West, a young housewife, who, together with her husband, young child, and invalid sister, has been living with her parents in police quarters at Brixton Hill.

Apart from overcrowding. Mrs. West has recently been worried about the prospect of finding another home. Her father, a policeman, is shortly retiring from the force, giving up his quarters, and taking a situation including accommodation, in the country. The County Council letter inviting her to inspect the Bolingbroke Bungalows reached Mrs. West at just the right moment.


"I thought I had been hard pressed for living space, but some of some of the stories I heard from other tenants whim we inspected the bungalows on Friday were pitiful," she told our reporter. "There are some people who have had as many as 15 homes in just over two years. They have only been in some places a few weeks when they become unwanted because of their children."

(Click on image to enlarge)


Mrs. West had had her name down on the County Council list for two years when she heard the good news. Other tenants have come from as far afield as Holborn. The Ministry of Works, which is responsible for the erection of the bungalows, announced a few weeks ago that they hope to hand over for occupation six additional homes each week. There are to be 107 bungalows on the estate.

[BNA: Link]

[See also:

Prefabs: Chronicles August 2022.

Prefabs: Chronicles July 2023.

Is it my imagination, or was there far more press coverage of Bolingbroke Road prefabs than those on any other part of the Common? And if so, why?]

Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson to star in new film about Wandsworth Common's inspirational Cook sisters?

Last month I wrote about Benni and Bella Spanier, two actors who were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Along with their daughter Ruth, who came alone to London at the age of 11 in 1939 on the Kinderstransport, their lives have been commemorated on two benches overlooking the lake. The benches were placed there by Ruth's daughter Anna and her son Ben.

Before I knew why Wandsworth Common was chosen, I speculated (wildly) that there might possibly be some connection with the 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).

Undated picture of Ida and Louise Cook. Photograph: Courtesy of V & A.
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Overture of Hope: Two Sisters' Daring Plan That Saved Opera's Jewish Stars from the Third Reich, by Isabel Vincent. The hardback came out last year, but the paperback is due on 17 August 2023.

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The publisher's puff:

"Schindler’s List meets The Sound of Music as best-selling New York Post investigative journalist Isabel Vincent delves into pre-World-War-II history to recover the amazing story of two British spinsters who masterminded a plan to spirit dozens of Jewish stars and personnel of the German and Austrian opera to England and save them from a terrible fate under the Third Reich.

Will resonate with readers of The Nazi Officer’s Wife and The Dressmakers of Auschwitz."

[I've got to say that this is one of the tackiest blurbs I've ever read. But then, what do I know about promoting books?]

Support Independent Bookshops —buy in store or online from

So what's the connection with Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson?

See EyeForFilm: Heritage, opera and war —Don Rosenfeld on the Cook sisters.

Pam Alexander

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I would like to record my appreciation of Pam, who died in May. I didn't know her at all well but we corresponded occasionally about local historical matters. We first met at the County Arms at an early meeting of the Friends of Wandsworth Common's Heritage Group. She had studied Geography at university, hence she did "love a good map".

Above all, I was amazed by her ability to get things done. If you read the Guardian obituary, you will see that she was extraordinarily effective on very large stages (the Housing Corporation, English Heritage, the South East England Development Agency, Peabody Trust, the Covent Garden Market Authority, Crossrail and probably many more besides).

But I knew nothing of these achievements. I was gobsmacked by something much closer to home — and to Wandsworth Common. This was the incredible speed with which she found a perfect site for a memorial plaque to John Buckmaster, at the top entrance to Clapham Junction Station.

The 150th anniversary of the saving of Wandsworth Common was looming, and sites had to be found for two plaques. One was the Friends' plaque on the Common itself. But the Battersea Society wanted to have one too. (JCB was a key figure in all sorts of Battersea-related political activity in the middle of the nineteenth century, not "just" the saving of the Common.)

The location found was perfect not only because JCB had lived nearby for many years (indeed, his old house was demolished to make way for new lines to be built), but because he had spent much of his working life travelling the entire country — by train, of course.

Clearly Pam had made a couple of phone calls and the Battersea Society got the site for new plaque completely sorted. The Chair of Network Rail even came along to give a (very witty) speech.

Thanks, Pam.

[See The Guardian, Obituary, Pam Alexander.]

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Wandsworth Council's bid for Borough of Culture 2025

Neil Robson of the Wandsworth Historical Society (which everyone should join) has emailed about London Borough of Culture 2025:

Plans are afoot for Wandsworth to apply to become the London Borough of Culture for 2025. This would be a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase the diversity of our community through the arts and heritage associated with our area. So do take a look at, and lend your support to the campaign by filling in the "Tell us what you love" questionnaire in the green box to the right of that page.

Sean Creighton has sent a link to his very interesting post on the Wandsworth Council to bid for Borough of Culture 2025.

SO many more stories to tell. But that's all for now, folks.

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.

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

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")

Chronicles etc so far...

— "The death of Sarah Tonks, aged 18, who was found on Saturday morning sleeping on Wandsworth Common", 1909  . . . 

August 2023 —part two

August 2023 —part one —Whatever happened to Neal's Nursery?

July 2023 —part two

July 2023 —part one —In search of Benni, Bella and Ruth

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

Some more videos, talks etc...

New videos from The Friends of Wandsworth Common

P.Y. Betts: The Movie. Superb. Don't miss.
(Click on image to view the video on the Friends of Wandsworth Common website.)

"COMMON MEMORIES: 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 .

A DVD is also available, at £5.

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

  Back to the top of this page . . . 

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")