The History of Wandsworth Common


July 2024

Gordon Bradley, London from Wandsworth Common, 1835.

(Te Papa Tongarewa / Museum of New Zealand)

We'll look in more detail at this gorgeous watercolour later, but first here's a literary challenge for you. Who wrote this, in which novel, and when — it's July but in which year, give or take a few?

I went out for a walk one evening, at the end of the second week in July . . .  for a solitary ramble amongst the quiet Surrey suburbs, in any lonely lanes or scraps of common-land where the speculating builder had not yet set his hateful foot.

It was a lovely evening; and I, who am so much a Cockney as to believe that a London sunset is one of the grandest spectacles in the universe, set my face towards the yellow light in the west, and walked across Wandsworth Common, where faint wreaths of purple mist were rising from the hollows, and a deserted donkey was breaking the twilight stillness with a plaintive braying.

Wandsworth Common was as lonely this evening as a patch of sand in the centre of Africa; and being something of a day-dreamer, I liked the place because of its stillness and solitude.

It's one of my favourite evocations of the Common and Wandsworth. It continues:

My thoughts were pleasant, as I walked across the common in the sunset; and yet, looking back now, I wonder what I thought of, and what image there was in my mind that could make my fancies pleasant to me. I know what I thought of, as I went home in the dim light of the newly-risen moon, the pale crescent that glimmered high in a cloudless heaven.

I went into the little town of Wandsworth, the queer old-fashioned High Street, the dear old street, which seems to me like a town in a Dutch picture, where all the tints are of a sombre brown, yet in which there is, nevertheless, so much light and warmth.

The lights were beginning to twinkle here and there in the windows; and upon this July evening there seemed to be flowers blooming in every casement. I loitered idly through the street, staring at the shop-windows, in utter absence of mind while I thought . . . 

And while we're in the neighbourhood, I can't resist quoting some more:

"The town of Wandsworth is not a gay place . . . 

The town of Wandsworth is not a gay place. There is an air of old-world quiet in the old-fashioned street, though dashing vehicles drive through it sometimes on their way to Wimbledon or Richmond Park.

The sloping roofs, the gable-ends, the queer old chimneys, the quaint casement windows, belong to a bygone age; and the traveller, coming a stranger to the little town, might fancy himself a hundred miles away from boisterous London; though he is barely clear of the great city's smoky breath, or beyond the hearing of her myriad clamorous tongues.

There are lanes and byways leading out of that humble High Street down to the low bank of the river; and in one of these, a pleasant place enough, there is a row of old-fashioned semi-detached cottages, standing in small gardens, and sheltered by sycamores and laburnums from the dust, which in dry summer weather lies thick upon the narrow roadway.

Having set the scene so vividly, we are finally introduced to our young heroine, Margaret Wentworth:

In one of these cottages a young lady lived with her father; a young lady who gave lessons on the piano-forte, or taught singing, for very small remuneration. She wore shabby dresses, and was rarely known to have a new bonnet; but people respected and admired her, notwithstanding; and the female inhabitants of Godolphin Cottages, who gave her good-day sometimes as she went along the dusty lane with her well-used roll of music in her hand, declared that she was a lady bred and born.

Perhaps the good people who admired Margaret Wentworth would have come nearer the mark if they had said that she was a lady by right divine of her own beautiful nature, which had never required to be schooled into grace or gentleness.

She had no mother, and she had not even the memory of her mother, who had died seventeen years before, leaving an only child of twelve months old for James Wentworth to keep.

So, who wrote this, in which novel, and when?

The answer is given somewhere below.

If there's a theme common to all of the items in this month's Chronicles, it's donkeys.

You will have noticed in a quotation above that on Wandsworth Common a "deserted donkey was breaking the twilight stillness with a plaintive braying" This is the animal most frequently associated with the Common. There are articles in the local press i the nineteenth century about the theft of donkeys from the Common, donkey racing was a popular sport at Wandsworth Fair, and we know that donkey rides were regularly on offer on Wandsworth and Clapham Commons in the 1870s.

John Thomson, "Clapham Common Industries: Waiting for a Hire", 2 April 1877, from Street Life of London.

(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Mathew Wolf)
(Click on image to enlarge)

Why so many donkeys? I suppose for the obvious reason that in the days before cars, vans and lorries, donkeys were the most valuable beast of burden, whether laden with panniers or pulling a cart:

The London Costermonger: “Here Pertaters! Kearots and Turnups! Fine Brockello-o-o!”

(from a Daguerreotype by Beard in Mayhew).

And even well into the twentieth century:

Costermonger in his donkey cart at Covent Garden Market, unknown date (1930s?).

(Postcard colorised by PB.)
(Click on image to enlarge)

In his London Labour and the London Poor (1861-62) Henry Mayhew writes marvellously, and at length, about the costermongers' carts and barrows, their habits and beliefs, and their close relationship with their donkeys. (See e.g. vol. 1.)

The costermongers almost universally treat their donkeys with kindness. Many a costermonger will resent the ill-treatment of a donkey, as he would a personal indignity. These animals are often not only favourites, but pets, having their share of the costermonger's dinner when bread forms a portion of it, or pudding, or anything suited to the palate of the brute.

But donkeys were not always so cosseted, as we can see in this court case, where two boys are sent to prison for abusing donkeys on Clapham Common in 1856.

Now back to donkeys on "Wandsworth" Common . . . 

I was intrigued by a reference in a letter from "Fusbos" published in the Naval & Military Gazette, April 1841, about what might happen if a court of arbitration were created to replace duels:

People...will be more cautious; they will not go to skirmish among the donkeys of Wandsworth Common, and if they see the ghost of the dusty miller, with a blue truncheon in its hand, they will adjourn to some uncommon common, or find a place of more secrecy.

[BNA: Link.]

"Donkeys on Wandsworth Common... ghost of the dusty miller ... a blue truncheon" — what on earth could this be about?

I think I know.

Duels were not uncommon on the Common in the early nineteenth century. I've written and talked about some of them, for example in "Two duels" (1807, 1832), and "Alias Wilkinson, Jones and Smith" (1839), and Alias Wilkinson, Jones and Smith — again.

And you may recall that Oscar Wilde referred to a duel on the Common in his comical short story, The Canterville Ghost, 1887:

"Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common, and Lady Barbara died of a broken heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out, so, in every way, it had been a great success."

(Click on image to enlarge)

But I couldn't help thinking that Fusbos was referring to something else, and here's my theory. That his "Wandsworth Common" is in fact what we would now call Wimbledon Common; and he was not wrong.

How so?

I'm pretty sure Fusbos was alluding to the duel recently fought (12 September 1840) between the Earl of Cardigan (later the ambiguous "hero" of the Charge of the Light Brigade) and Captain Harvey Tuckett near the windmill on Wimbledon Common.

But the pair had faced one another on an area of common that was technically part of Wandsworth Parish (hence "Wandsworth Common"), of which the miller, Thomas Hunt Dann, was also a parish constable. It was the fact that they were standing in Wandsworth that empowered him to act. If they had stepped over the parish boundary into "Putney Common" or "Wimbledon Common", Constable Dann couldn't touch them.

A section of a map of Wimbledon Common showing how it was composed of commons ("wastes") of three parishes (Wimbledon, Putney and Wandsworth). The parishes meet at a point marked by a boundary stone ("B.S.") close to the Windmill — which was itself in Wandsworth Parish.

(This explains why the miller-cum-constable, Thomas Dann, was able to apprehend the duellists Cardigan and Tuckett, along with their seconds, and other members of their parties.)
(Click on image to enlarge)

Hearing the reports of the pistols and seeing that Tuckett was seriously wounded, Dann took Cardigan and others into custody. The duellists and their friends were brought before the Wandsworth magistrates (including local landowner William Nottidge and the owner of Price's Candles, William Wilson).

"Lord Cardigan on His Charger Ronald Leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, 1854."

(The original is at the Deene Park,Northants, the home of James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.)
(Click on image to enlarge)

This is a cracking story that I really must write up some time, but I've probably said more than enough for today.

Let's turn back to the image at the top of this page, from Gordon Bradley, painted in 1835 just a couple of years before work began on cutting railways across the Common. (Can you spot the donkey?)

Some time ago I stumbled across this extraordinary watercolour. A caption says that it's a view of London from Wandsworth Common, but more importantly for us it's a view of Wandsworth Common — and of these we really do not have very many.

I traced the image to the Museum of New Zealand. Thanks to the generosity of the Museum, a high resolution scan is available free of charge. (In the USA, the Smithsomian and the Getty do likewise. I wish more British museums and libraries did the same. And as for hideously disfiguring watermarks across photographs — get rid of them — they're an abomination!)

Gordon Bradley, London from Wandsworth Common, 1835.

(Te Papa Tongarewa / Museum of New Zealand —

I hoped that I could "restore" this image digitally — mend some rips and tears, brighten it up a little, bring out some more detail — and this is my first attempt. Nice, isn't it?

(Click on image to enlarge)

In the distance, on either side of the midline, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey (including the remains of Houses of Parliament, destroyed by fire the previous year — this is well before the Victoria Tower/Big Ben were built). We are on an elevated position looking across and down towards Westminster and the City. Smoke rises from a number of tall chimneys. How close they are, and yet up here things are very different from the City in the distance.

(Click on image to enlarge)

(Click on image to enlarge)

But up here on the Common is another world entirely.

The air is clear and the landscape scarcely peopled. There are some contented cows, a solitary horse, a few sheep, and (on the right) what must surely be a donkey — a clump of elms on a knoll, two slender silver birches, some clumps of a straggly shrub (probably gorse, but it doesn't look much like that to me). There are suggestions of a few houses in the distance (the one on the far left may be quite a mansion) — the grass seems thin and possibly overgrazed — the ground is stony and barren — to the right, we see broken ground — evidence of small-scale gravel or sand digging, with pools in worked-out pits.

And an enigmatic couple — she is almost certainly bare-foot, in a bonnet and red cloak (a sure sign of a "gypsy", and holding a baby — he carries a sack on a stick over his shoulder, he wears a wide-brimmed hat, pale (possibly canvas) trousers, and a blue top. Is he perhaps a sailor? Is there some transaction taking place between them? Perhaps he intends to seek his fortune in the City and she promises to tell his fortune, if he crosses her palm with silver?

Who knows?

Where was this image "taken" from?

Images such as these are not like photographs. There is no single "point-of-view". We have no idea how much the artist changed things to suit his purposes. But assuming for a moment it was indeed a fairly literal image, where might the artist have positioned himself?

I have some theories, but they will have to wait for an airing. In the meanwhile, what do you think?

At this point, I had intended to tell in full Cornelius Webbe's story of Sir Isaac, the donkey who flew a kite on Wandsworth Common in 1841 (from the chapter "Parks for People," Glances at Life in City and Suburb, 1845); but for the moment here's a short extract:

The story begins:

STROLLING OVER WANDSWORTH COMMON in the ever-memorable year 1841, we observed in a corner of that wide waste a solitary donkey. No uncommon sight to be seen on a common, it will be said. True, but this donkey was seen under uncommon circumstances, as we shall relate.

Before we came up to him we had been puzzling our little wit to account for a large kite floating high in the air in that open spot, without the usual accompaniment to a kite – a boy at one end of it, to conduct its ascent and descent.

We looked all over the long, level flat, and devil a boy was there to be seen anyhow – not even the whistle or whoop of a boy to tell us of the whereabout of one.

Much marvelled we at this miracle of an effect seemingly without a cause as we went leisurely towards the spot over which the kite was hovering.

But shortly a light broke in on our darkness.

It was the donkey we had seen, and no soul else, that was flying the kite!

The sagacious Sir Isaac (named after Newton, of course) is, I believe, a definite maybe for the inspiration behind A.A. Milne's Eeyore, but perhaps that narrative is a little too long for you right now. Better to leave the rest for another time.


Last month I told the story of Charles Knight, transported to Australia on board the Isabella for stealing a mare (though a horse, not a donkey) from Wandsworth Common. In 1841 he was tried and sentenced to 15 years' transportation.

I asked if anybody would like to help research his story. And just look what happened (more or less by return). One of our readers, Diane Oldman, who lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, replied that she had researched the Isabella, and some of its crew and prisoners. And indeed she has, in the greatest detail. I am very thankful to her for sending links to her research.

Charles Knight must have been held at Portsmouth in rotting prison hulks — many of them Royal Navy vessels left over from the French wars — for nearly a year before setting off on the Isabella for Australia.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Isabella — a 427-ton merchantman built in 1818 that made six voyages transporting convicts (including Charles Knight) to Australia.

(Click on image to enlarge)

19 Jan — departed Portsmouth
19 May — arrived Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land
Passage 120 days.
Disembarked 266 convicts.

Read all about it on Diane's marvellous "Redcoat Settlers in Western Australia 1826-1869" website.

Oh, yes. I nearly forgot to reveal anything about the novel that began this month's Chronicles.

You will recall that it included the line: "Wandsworth Common was as lonely this evening as a patch of sand in the centre of Africa":

[I] went out on this particular evening for a solitary ramble amongst the quiet Surrey suburbs, in any lonely lanes or scraps of common-land where the speculating builder had not yet set his hateful foot . . . 

The phrases "scraps of common-land ... speculating builder ... hateful foot" sets the story firmly in the 1860s — it's very much in the rhetorical style of the defenders of the Common (such as John Buckmaster) when it was still "owned" by Lord Spencer.

The novel is Henry Dunbar (aka The Outcast), by Elizabeth Braddon — often called "Miss Braddon" or "Mrs Braddon". She is best known today for Lady Audley's Secret and other "sensation" novels.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Henry Dunbar — the Story of an Outcast (1864)

(Wikipedia: Mary Elizabeth Braddon b.4 October 1835, London, d. 4 February 1915, Richmond. By an odd coincidence, "Dunbar" was also the surname of the man who owned the Isabella.)

Henry Dunbar was adapted successfully for the stage by Tom Taylor, the editor of Punch who lived in Lavender Sweep, Battersea, where Mrs Braddon was a frequent visitor (hence, presumably, her intimate knowledge of Clapham and Wandsworth). Tom Taylor was also prominent in the movement to preserve Wandsworth Common. It could be argued that Mary Braddon too was defending the Common through her evocation of its qualities (and her contempt for the "speculating builder" and his "hateful foot").

Strongly recommended.

(Click on image to enlarge)

— Wikipedia: Mary Elizabeth Braddon]

Henry Dunbar — the Story of an Outcast: there is a good online version here, and an excellent modern print edition, with notes etc by Anne-Marie Beller, has been published by Victorian Secrets, here.

— The Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association website includes an excellent biography and bibliography.


Here's a map of Wandsworth Town as the novelist would have known it:

The "little town of Wandsworth, the queer old-fashioned High Street, the dear old street, which seems to me like a a town in a Dutch picture, where all the tints of are of a sombre brown, het in which there is, nevertheless, so much light and warmth", as mapped by Stanford, c.1861.

(Click on image to enlarge)

I would love to see images from the period — they must surely exist — but for now we'll have to make do with this photograph probably taken about 30 years after Mary Braddon's novel:

Wandsworth High Street ( late 1890s?), some years after the events of the novel, but probably suggestive of its feel.

(Photograph colorised by PB.)
(Click on image to enlarge)

Do you know of any earlier or better images of the High Street? Do say.

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July 2024