The History of Wandsworth Common

75th Anniversary Special !


March/April 2024

Happy birthday to me. Here I am in 1949, with my mother.

The personal is historical  . . .  and geographical

Wandsworth Common in 1949

I suppose you could say I owe my existence to war — wars in the Aegean, Anatolia and the Caucasus, in Palestine, in North Africa, and throughout Europe.

My mother, Lemonia Asnay, was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She was ethnically Greek. Her parents, born in the 1880s in the Ottoman empire, had made their way to Egypt as teenagers, separately and alone, from Smyrna (Izmir) and the mountainous Aegean island of Ikaria. My grandmother was fleeing poverty, my grandfather conscription in the Ottoman army (in effect, a death sentence for ethnic Greeks).

My father, Edward James Boys, was a prison officer, a farmer's son from Sussex. He was athletic — a keen racing cyclist — and adventurous. They had met before the war after he volunteered to serve with the Coldstream Guards in Mandate Palestine. He had landed at Alexandria, and mostly returned there between tours of duty for "rest and recreation". This involved visiting the sites . . . 

My parents in front of the Great Pyramid at Giza, Cairo, c.1939. My father is tightly belted and ramrod straight, my mother leans against him in a floaty white cotton dress.

[You've got to smile at how the top of the pyramid has been chopped off in this photograph. Universally revered, massive, many thousands of years old, but its presence behind them is incidental to the main point of the pic., which is to record their togetherness, and perhaps to suggest the durability of their love. ]

Statue outside of the Mortuary Temple of Khufu, Giza, Cairo [I think]. Cocky. My father was blue-eyed and blond, but very proud of his tan.

Seeing the sites, and seeing as much as possible of my mother:

Once World War Two started, my father spent long periods in the North African Desert. My parents couldn't see one another very often, and in 1941 he was captured at Tobruk, so they were separated for the next five years. He spent several years as a prisoner of war (or as an escapee on the run) in Italy and Germany. In short, by 1945 he was no stranger to confinement.

It took a while for him to recover from malnutrition and jaundice, and perhaps other things too, but eventually he wrote to my mother, asking her to come to England to marry him. And she agreed. (Without doubt the worst decision she ever made, she always said.)

She travelled (alone) to London in 1947 just in time to face the worst winter anyone could remember. Given her paradisal pre-war life in Alexandria, it must felt like she had been expelled from Eden.

I imagine my father felt very differently about the experience. For him, the main thing was that he was still alive (unlike most of the men he had joined up with), and anything was better than Stalag IV-B. He had survived his season in Hell.

Stalag-IV-B, near Muhlberg. Having escaped from his POW camp near Arezzo in north-east Italy, my father had been on the run for more than 3 months when he was recaptured, taken into Germany, and incarcerated here.

(Click on image to enlarge)

With difficulty, my parents found a flat to rent for a while in Pimlico; but if they were to have a child (i.e. me) they needed a more permanent home; and that is why my father joined the prison service and was sent to Wandsworth.

Liberated through one gate, he had chosen to enter another. But at least it was one he could escape through every single day.

Leaving through the gates of Wandsworth Prison, 1940s. The view is down Heathfield Avenue, with Wandsworth Common beyond.

[Heathfield Avenue: for more than a century a broad avenue of (lime) trees stretched out from the prison gates, and led to Trinity Road and Wandsworth Common. Inside v. Outside. Dark v. Light. Captivity v. Liberty. When Trinity Road was "dualled" in the late 1960s, the Avenue was cut short, and all that engineered symbolic power was lost.]

Oblique view of Wandsworth prison and its environs, 1949. Circles 1—4 show where my parents lived for the next fifty-four years. I now live in circle 5 (Loxley Road).

Click on the image to see a higher-resolution image, without circles.

All four of the homes we shared were practically in sight of one another, and it was never more than a couple of hundred yards from one to the next.

Home #1 — 1949, 13 Heathfield Square.

So, after all their trans- and inter-continental travels, my parents rooted themselves permanently in Wandsworth. In 2002, after 54 years in the area, they died within a few weeks of each other. Their last home was on Trinity Road.

These are the homes in which I lived for the first twenty years of my life. And after various spells away (including twenty years as far away as Calbourne Road in Balham) in 2004 I moved to Loxley Road, which is where I live now.

Here is a slightly wider view of the same area today:

Vertical aerial view of Wandsworth Common and environs, 2023. The magenta line indicates the limits of the 1949 oblique view above.

(Click on image to enlarge)

What's changed?

Not very much. Perhaps the strangest thing to notice is how similar the two scenes are. They were photographed seventy-five years apart but you will have to look twice to see any differences between then and now. There can't be many parts of London that have been less altered.

[Compare the stability of the Common and its surrounding streets with, for example, the radically transformed Thames-side Wandsworth and Battersea — where factories, gas works, power stations and Victorian housing (some but not all of which were slums) have been swept away to make space for "luxury apartments", office blocks, and the Thames Path. This process continues at pace, of course, but not generally around the Common.]

Let's have a look at some of the remaining physical signs of the recent war, which had ended only four years earlier. I'll start with bombs and bomb-sites.

I don't know how many buildings were destroyed or damaged in Battersea and Wandsworth but Jim Slade has estimated that about 2,729 high explosive bombs and mines, 160 V1 flying bombs, 8 V2 rockets, and roughly 50,000 incendiaries were dropped here. Around 1800 people were killed and 8,900 injured as a result.

[See Jim Slade, "WWII Air Raid Casualties in Battersea and Wandsworth", Wandsworth Historian no.82, 2006.]

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945.

The meticulous LCC bomb damage maps show an almost random spread of destruction:

The maps are detailed and accurate. Colours show the extent of damage.

Large circles mark the centres of explosion of V-1 flying bombs ("Doodlebugs"). These fell between the night of 17 June 1944 and 6 March 1945. Eight such circles are shown on the north of the common, or within a few streets, and six on the south.

Black — Total destruction
Purple — Damage beyond repair
Dark Red — Seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable
Light Red — Seriously damaged, repairable at cost
Orange — General blast damage, minor in nature
Yellow — Blast damage, minor in nature
Green — Clearance areas
Small circle — V2 Rocket
Large circle — V1 Flying bomb

It's worth checking where the bombs fell, and match the locations with what has been built on the site.

V-1 Flying Bomb (cutaway). They were propelled by an early form of jet that pulsed, making a characteristic noise — hence their colloquial names, "Buzz bomb" or "Doodlebug". They could not be aimed with any precision, so they dropped more or less at random.

Wikipedia: V-1 Flying Bomb.

Here's an example of the destruction caused by a V-1 Flying Bomb on West Side. The row of houses that were destroyed had been built around 1900 on the site of the Bevington family's Ivy House:

According to OS maps from the early-1950s, the bombsite remained empty for some years.

Notice also the single row of prefabs along Marcilly Road and the double row along Spencer Park.

And here's Alexander Court, the block of flats built on the site of the V-1 flying bomb explosion. Any idea of the date of construction, anyone?

Alexander Court, Wandsworth Common West Side.

View the area today on Google StreetView.

[Hugh Betterton, 29 March 2024: "I believe that Alexander Court was built in the 1950s, as I had a couple of friends who lived there and I played with them when I was still at Swaffield Primary school (mid/later '50s). I can't recall flats being built though. "]

Smaller (and less numerous) circles represent V-2 rockets. These fell in the period 8 September 1944 to 6 March 1945.

V-2 Rocket (cutaway).

Wikipedia: V-2 Rocket.

I'll return to the V-2 after a short intermission.

Seeing these wonderful cutaway images of the V-1 and V-2 reminded me of the Eagle comic  . . . 

Dan Dare — born and bred in Battersea?

Well, not quite. But there is a connection . . . 

Although its first edition did not appear until 1950, Eagle comic was conceived and developed in 1949 in part by the Revd Chad Varah, a young vicar at St Paul's Church on St John's Hill.

In 1949, the Revd Chad Varah moved into the vicarage at 68 North Side, Wandsworth Common — "by our standards a rather small house, with only thirteen rooms".

Chad Varah described himself as the "Scientific and Astronautical Consultant" to Eagle, supporting the superb artist Frank Hampson and working closely with his friend the publisher Marcus Morris (himself also a vicar). Varah wrote many of the stories that appeared in the Eagle, and also in other comics that appeared at this time, including those with a mainly female readership such as Girl (1951), Robin (1953) and Swift (1954).

Chad Varah and Marcus Morris were attracted to comics as a means of promoting the work of the church to the young (it seems they had more or less given up on the old) and combating what they saw as the pernicious influence of US comics. (Morris described them as "deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems".)

Their initial idea for an all-British comic-strip superhero was Lex Christian, "a tough, fighting parson in the slums of the East End of London". But they soon saw sense and Dan Dare was born. At its height the Eagle comic sold more than a million copies a week.

[Wikipedia: British comics, and Eagle (British comics).]

But this is not all that was gestating on the edge of Wandsworth Common in 1949. Chad Varah was also developing an idea for an emergency telephone service to help people who were contemplating suicide and had nowhere to turn — Samaritans.

A Samaritans' notice at the end of a platform of Earlsfield Station, March 2024. There are similar signs at Wandsworth Common Station.

(Click on image to enlarge)

["Varah began to understand the problems facing the suicidal when he was taking a funeral as an assistant curate in 1935, his first church service, for a fourteen-year-old girl who had taken her own life because she had begun to menstruate and feared that she had a sexually transmitted disease."]

The Samaritans launched a few years later, in 1953, after Varah had moved from Wandsworth to a City church where he had more time to devote to the project.

See also Wikipedia Samaritans (charity).]

Dan Dare stamp, 2012.

[Peter Farrow emailed to wish me happy birthday - thanks, Peter! - and to say he believed he had been baptised at St Paul's by the Revd Varah.]

[PB, 6 April 2024: Since writing about Chad Varah and Dan Dare last week, I've discovered that two short articles about him were published in the Wandsworth Historian (WH 93 Spring 2012, and WH 94 Autumn 2012). The first featured a monochrome image from "The Red Moon Mystery". Here it is again, now in glorious in colour.]

Notice the speech bubble: "Gosh, Sir — it's like Clapham Junction."

(Click on image to enlarge)

While the chief pilot of the Interplanet Space Fleet, Dan Dare, is on a skiing holiday in North Mars with his loyal batman, Albert Digby, he is requested by his controller to investigate a mysterious asteroid nicknamed the Red Moon which is ominously heading towards Earth.

Dare makes for a nearby satellite space station where he finds that a full-scale evacuation of Mars is already under way. Hence the remark appearing here out of Digby’s mouth as they attempt to manoeuvre their ship through the other spacecraft: "Gosh, Sir – it’s like Clapham Junction," that locale being a metaphor for traffic congestion.

That's the interlude over, now let's get back to the main theme . . . 

A car! Not a common sight in 1949.

A V-2 rocket fell on the SE corner of Wandsworth Prison, near Heathfield Road. This is where our Home #3 was built c.1957.

It had previously been one of the large "turret houses" that stood at each corners of the prison wall. All the others have since been demolished, but you can get an idea what they were like fro the houses on each side of the main gate.

By 1949, some of the bomb sites had been cleared, but little rebuilding had taken place. Many continued to function as informal playgrounds for children, offering limitless opportunities for creative (and destructive) play. They certainly did for me.

One of the bomb-sites we played on as children is at 9 o'clock. I recall someone had painted "42a Looksee Villas" on one of the piles. Why has this stuck with me? ]

The longer the site remained undeveloped, the more it filled with "Fireweed" (Rosebay Willowherb aka "Bombweed"), Ragwort, Buddleia ("Bombsite plant", "Butterfly bush"), and Brambles.

"The Proud City" - a rather decorous bombsite painted in 1944 for London Transport by Walter Spradbery. The scene is naturally enhanced by the "Fireweed" in the foreground.

[Incidentally, Marjory Allen (nee Gill, later Baroness Allen of Hurtwood) was inspired by seeing children hard at play on these bombsites to create numerous "adventure playgrounds". One is sited on the Common near Chivalry Road, where it provides adventurous play for children with disabilities living in the Borough of Wandsworth.

You can learn more from Sue Demont's talk for the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, "An uneducated lady? Marjory Allen and the Adventure Playground Movement" (31 May 2023) — the video's available on the Friends of Wandsworth Common's website, or YouTube.]

Heathfield Court, and other blocks of flats nearby, 2024. These were all built on the site of a V-2 rocket explosion.

The circle indicates more or less the same view as the 1949 image, above.

Having lived for a decade in small Victorian flats in the shadow of the prison, my parents were thrilled to move into a brand new "maisonette" (a living room and small kitchen downstairs, three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs).

[I spent my last few months at Beatrix Potter School here (it was then infants-only), I moved aged 8 to Tranmere Road (Earlsfield) Junior School, and on to Emanuel at 11. It was from this home that I started at university, but by the time I'd graduated my father had retired and my parents had moved to Chesham Court, on Trinity Road (on the edge of the circle, at 2 o'clock).]

Google Location.

Meanwhile, on the Common, prefabs grew like mushrooms...

Prefabs on the north of the Common — a single row along the old Marcilly Road (grassed over in the late 1960s), and a double row facing Spencer Park.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Ordnance Survey, early 1950s. Prefabs around the Common, and nearby. Their construction was delayed to 1947 (see e.g. Chronicles July 2023), and their demolition brought forward, even though there was still a pressing need for the housing they provided (see e.g. Chronicles August 2022.

(Click on image to enlarge)


Let's look briefly at the allotments, still much in evidence over nearly half the Common in 1949. (Food was of course still scarce in 1949, expensive, and rationed, so many people chose to continue "growing their own"). But it was only a matter of months before the Common would be restored, principally to make way for sports.

You can see the extent of the allotments clearly on this 1947 view:

Ordnance Survey aerial photograph of central Wandsworth Common, 1947, showing areas turned over to allotments during the war that were probably still being worked, and prefabs along Bolingbroke Grove.

The bowling green and tennis courts are, of course, sacred ground, untouched by the war.

The Bridge

There are SO many more signs of the war in this image, but one of my favourites — and it's still visible today — is the railway bridge on Heathfield Road. Notice the white stripes, presumably painted to help drivers during blackouts.

The railway bridge on Heathfield Road. The white stripes are still visible in 2024.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Since it's my birthday, and since I can safely assume that nobody is still reading this far down the page (if indeed anyone ever started), I'll indulge myself with yet another photograph of me me me with my parents. It was taken on Wandsworth Common in 1949.

On the Common, 1949

(Click on image to enlarge)

I hope you've enjoyed this month's Time-Traveller's Tour of Wandsworth Common. I think I'll probably continue the 1949 story next month because I've had to pass over some quite big stories — for example, what people were watching at the Granada cinema, Clapham Junction, what happened to the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, and to local education, and the imminent (and appalling) fate of Trinity Road). Let's see.

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

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Enjoy Spring!

Philip Boys ("History Boys")

30 March 2024

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