The History of Wandsworth Common


of Wandsworth Common

Whatever happened to Neal's Nursery?

(and the origins of the "Prison Banks")

Neal's Nursery in 2023.




Here's a recent aerial view of Neal's Nursery on Heathfield Road:

Neal's Nursery Garden Centre, 2023

(Click on image to change view)

Neal's is now about one and a quarter acres (half a hectare), but it wasn't always so small. Here it is in the 1890s:

Possible extent of Neal's Nurseries in the 1890s, marked on an OS map of c.1893 — about 40 acres in total.

Impressive, but until the 1870s Neal's may have been larger still — perhaps 70 acres in total. At that time it probably also included much of today's "Toast Rack", together with land south-east of the prison sandwiched between Heathfield/Lyford Roads and Trinity Road (on which the South London Bowling Club now sits).

To illustrate this, let's have a look at tree nurseries in the area (for reasons that will become clear in a minute):

Tree-nurseries c.1870, probably all part of the Neal's Nursery empire.

It's very frustrating but the northern part of Wandsworth Common is poorly served for high-resolution, large-scale maps (e.g. the OS First Edition 25-inch map LXXIV is missing from the National Library of Scotland's fabulous collection). However, I have cobbled this together from the best bits of two faded, rather fractured "Historic Maps of Wandsworth": London 1869-1874 and Surrey 1868-1881. Not perfect, but not too bad.

(Click on the image to see a recent map.)

In 1866, Robert Neal appealed to "Noblemen and Gentlemen" to buy from his large and varied stock, which included "some very large trees". He gave as a reason, "some of my nursery grounds being required for building purposes". This was probably a reference to the area that we might call the Toast Rack but was then being branded as "College Park".

In 1874, a Neal's advert lists in detail a great many plants for sale, including several different tree species:

"10,000 Pines and Spruce, 1000 Cedrus Atlantica and Deodara...Cupressus of sorts...200,000 Ligustrum ovalifolium [privet], 500 specimen Weeping Trees, 5000 fine Limes, 6 to 10 feet, 10,000 planes, and 10,000 other Ornamental and Forest Trees, 10 to 12 feet".

[South London Press, 24 October 1874.]

[I wonder how many descendants of these plants still flourish in local gardens?]

Notice there's also a substantial area on the west side of the railway line (opposite Heathfield Cottages), through which Earlsfield and Westover Roads now pass) may also at one time have been part of the Neals' fiefdom.

[This had previously been owned by one or both of the Potter twins, Thomas and William, born 1801. Indeed, the Potters, also nurserymen, may have owned nearly all of the land to the west of Heathfield Road. In the 1830s they sold off a slice to make way for the London and South-Western Railway, and then much of the rest to the Surrey Justices for the prison itself. The likely extent of their nurseries feature prominently on Milne's fine map from 1800. Further research is called for.]

Let's return to the 1870s, since when rather a lot has happened:

(Click on image to enlarge)

nn — Neal's Nursery
a — Wandsworth Common — the Cricket Pitches
b — Wandsworth Common — Prison Banks
c — Prison car park
d — Paradise Cooperative Community Garden
e — Prison Quarters
f — Magdalen Park Lawn Tennis Club and Bowling Club
g — Houses on former Carmichael's site and along Magdalen Road
g — Block of flats

[See OpenStreetMap or Google.]

The personal is historical . . . 

When I was growing up around here (I've lived in 5 different homes on this map), Neal's was still a real nursery (not a "garden centre"). It actually grew plants. And it stretched the entire width from Heathfield Road to Trinity Road, not just to half way across.

Here's an aerial view from 1949, the year I was born:

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Aerial photograph taken 12 August 1947 showing Neal's Nursery shortly after the end of World War Two.

Notice how Neal's is subdivided into the proverbial patchwork quilt of smaller plots. I wondered whether the whole of the nursery had been given over to allotments during the war, but clearly not — real allotments on the Cricket Pitches (middle right) are much smaller.

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And here's a view from the top of one of the newly completed "skyscrapers" in the Fitzhugh Estate c.1960 (which you will have noticed were absent in the 1949 photo):

View across Neal's Nursery towards Wandsworth Prison, c.1960

The caption "Fitzhugh Estate, Trinity Road" is rather misleading — we are looking towards Earlsfield from the estate (I think it must be Woodhall House) .

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Until the early 1850s, this stretch had all been part of the Common, but it was bought by the Surrey Justices as a cordon sanitaire in front of their brand new Prison (the Surrey House of Correction, opened 1851).

[I'm not certain of the detail but it appears that the land was intended to be kept open in perpetuity — yes, rented out for market-gardening or nursery purposes, but with the stipulation that no houses or other permanent structures were ever to be built. And so it remains: hence, so far as I can tell, Neal's buildings are fairly flimsy and could be removed quite easily.

I wonder why, exactly. Was this to guarantee that the prison would always be a prominent feature of the landscape? Perhaps awe-inspiring? terrifying? (Perhaps Mayhew provides some hints?).]

A single-carriageway Trinity Road looking south-east towards the County Arms and Tooting, pre-World War One.

Until 1912, Neal's Nursery occupied both sides of the road. After 1912 the area behind the railings on the left (which are still there) was returned to the Common as the "Extension" or "Cricket Pitches". Some people continued to call it "Neal's Farm".

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In the late 1960s, a swathe of Neal's Nursery was taken to build a second (north-bound) carriageway for Trinity Road, and part was returned to the Common as the "Prison Banks".

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Having been a nursery for more than a century, at the end of the 1960s the stretch along Trinity Road was dead flat and bounded by hedges. (I used to map the birds' nests along Alma Terrace and Heathfield Avenue.). Fifty years later, having been opened up, banked and landscaped and sown with varied grasses and wild flowers (plus new self-sown plants), in Spring and Summer the Prison Banks can be lovely, with a surprising number of species flourishing there.

Roy Vickery leading a Friends of Wandsworth Common walk along the Prison Banks, 2023.

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The area in front of Alma Terrace, which had grown food during the war, was by the late 1950s marvellously overgrown, and strictly out-of-bounds. We loved it. It was the best place ever to build camps and run around with no clothes on.

It's now called the "Paradise Cooperative Community Garden", about which I know very little. It has a website — — on which there is a charming video introduction that refers to its origins on semi-derelict ground, and appears to be part-funded or supported by Wandsworth Council.

YouTube: "A Peek into Paradise"

"A short film about Paradise Cooperative, and some of the activities we get up to. The piece was created by London Irish Centre for their St. Patrick's Day 2021 virtual event."

(Click on image to view video.)

[Incidentally, I notice the Paradise Coop's address is "Dobbins Field" on Heathfield Road. That's a new one on me. I wonder when/where the name came from?]

South London Press — Saturday 21 August 1897

Here is a remarkable account of Neal's Nursery in the 1890s. It reads like an advertising puff, but there are some curious and interesting descriptions:

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When "The Mayor of Garratt" paraded in a little brief authority near Wandsworth Common, Battersea, Wandsworth, Tooting, and Streatham, were covered with market gardens and nurseries. Battersea could still produce such bundles of asparagus as had roused enthusiasm of "Dick" Steele and inspired the pen of Dibden, and Wandsworth had still acres and acres of cornfields, cabbage grounds, and tree plantations.

The country was yet open and delightfully rural when, in 1820, "old" Mr. Neal [this was the first Robert Neal] started the great nurseries which flourish in Wandsworth to-day; but Neal's great nursery grounds have been quite hemmed in by the modern builder, and no one walking down Trinity-road can possibly imagine that, in spite of the invasion of the builder, Mr. R. Neal, the present head of the firm, has some 40 acres still devoted to his huge horticultural business.

The little old cottage so long associated with the founder of the firm has gone. Mr. Robert Neal does not, like his father, wear the broad-brimmed white hat, striped waistcoat, and top-boots of the old school, but he still cultivates the broad acres with which he has been associated from his birth, and, with his sons, he keeps up the splendid reputation of a name which has been known to all horticulturists for more than 60 years — which is now the fashionable period of retrospection.

["The little old cottage so long associated with the founder of the firm has gone" — where was this? Was it among the scattered buildings shown on what has become the Toast Rack?]

To catch Mr. Neal and his sons, and induce them to show visitor over their glasshouses and grounds, one must be at Wandsworth Common Nurseries early in the morning. The dew was scarcely off the grass of Wandsworth Common, and the milkman had only got half through his matutinal rounds, when a representative of the South London Press found himself on Trinity-road, bent on a walk through tomato houses, vineries, and among extensive flowers and wide plantations of young trees.

Early as it was (writes our representative) Mr. Neal, jun., had his beautiful horse already in harness, and he was ready to go on some business expedition. After a brief chat on the antiquity and development of the great business with which he has all his life been associated, Mr. Neal, with the remark, "See the place for yourself," handed me over to an admirable guide, Mr. Best, who was soon piloting me through the extensive glasshouses, and discoursing with learned vivacity on the beautiful flowers and shrubs which were all around in glowing profusion.

The old Maypole had "more gables than a lazy man would count on a summer's day," * and Neal's Nurseries have more houses made of glass than I stopped to number on a delightful morning, after a splendid rain had made the gardens so bright and sparkling that the beauty of the flowers drove away all thoughts of statistics.

[* a reference to the imposing 1Maypole Inn in Charles Dickens's Barnarby Rudge.]

I paced each glasshouse, and found about 100 feet long was the average, and then proceeded no farther in computing how many hundreds of thousands of beautiful plants were around me.

Neal's Nursery greenhouses clustered together on an OS map c.1893 — at the corner of Heathfield Road and Magdalen Road. By the 1950s this area was covered with flat-roofed garages, on which we played.

The purple dot marks where I lived c.1957—1968 in the then brand-new Heathfield Court. Until recently it had been a bombsite. The large houses shown on this map, and the buildings opposite (part of the prison), were utterly demolished by a V-2 rocket in 1944.

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The site of Neal's greenhouses today — Clifford Court — on the corner of Heathfield Road and Magdalen Road. Heathfield Court can just about be seen on the left.

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I soon found out from Mr. Best that just now great preparations are being made for the rose season, and for roses Neal's Nurseries have a great reputation.

I learned a few facts which go to show that Londoners have an increasing love of flowers. Mr. Neal sells many hundred of thousands of roses, clematises, and bedding plants, and South London alone can account for an enormous output. To get rid of 30,000 or 40,000 pelargoniums in a year is quite a common thing. The popular blue lobelia, and stocks, and china asters are likewise sent out in equally large quantities.

As for roses, the trade done in these is enormous. Neal's "Marechal Niel" and "Gloire de Dijon" are favourites with all rose-growers.

"Marechal Niel" and "Gloire de Dijon"

Perhaps somebody would like to comment on the choice of the different plants on sale in Neal's Nursery then and now? Have tastes changed?

(Click on image to enlarge)

Climbing plants are something of speciality at the Wandsworth Common nurseries. Those who wish to decorate wall, bower, and garden, can select from some 60 species of clematis, and Neal's "Ampelopsis Veitchie" [i.e. Virginia Creeper] is known — and grown — everywhere.

All plants are in pots, and so readily moveable and saleable all the year round, and are thoroughly hardy. The ferns in the glasshouses were beautiful, and it was easy see very quickly how it is that Neal's Nurseries have such a reputation for decorative plants.

It was not until I had tasted a delicious tomato, fresh gathered — with the bloom on it — that I left courteous Mr. Best and with equally courteous Mr. Boxall proceeded the nursery grounds.

Mr. Boxall has been years with the firm. He has seen the beautiful landscape hemmed in, but yet knows where to find a good view from the nursery, and standing by the corner of Wandsworth Cemetery I was able to cast my eyes over Wimbledon Park, the distant Surrey hills with a glimpse of Epsom Grand Stand in the background.

It was like "a day in the country" to walk with active Mr. Boxall and inspect the groves of trees and plants which he knows and loves so well . . . 

"Standing by the corner of Wandsworth Cemetery I was able to cast my eyes over Wimbledon Park, the distant Surrey hills with a glimpse of Epsom Grand Stand in the back ground . . .  "

Notice, incidentally, the skinny plane trees lining Magdalen Road. Just look how much plane trees grow in a century or so. Walking to school (first to Beatrix Potter Infant School, than Tranmere Road Junior School) every day for 6 years, I must have touched every one of these wonderful "camouflage trees" at least once. I still treasure their presence.

(Click on image to enlarge)

London has been beautified with trees in many places lately, and at Neal's Nurseries a special study is made of trees fit for London growth. Eaton-square and many other charming squares and public gardens are placed under Mr. Neal's care, and made to look beautiful all the year round.

Eaton Square, said to be the most expensive street in Britain. Were its fine plane trees born on Wandsworth Common? I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

(Neal's also laid out or tended Euston Square, and probably others.)

(Click on image to enlarge)

I saw an enormous number of deciduous shrubs in all stages of growth, groves of plane trees — so useful for London streets were there and I learned how by "home growing" and careful selection even London smoke can be set at defiance. Robinias, lilacs, Laburnams, thorns, &c., were in thousands, and if London is not made beautifully green it is not because there is any lack of material.

Mr. Neal does an enormous business in fruit trees, and though it may sound like sending coals to Newcastle, it is a fact that country orchards by the thousand are stocked by Neal.

Leaving the beautiful grounds, after quite a "constitutional," and surprised that so near to busy London can such paradise of arboriculture be found I thanked Mr. Boxall for hour such as Evelyn would have enjoyed, and then after inspection of a great array of horticultural implements, came away, convinced that Mr. Neal is capable of making every Londoner's home beautiful with shrubs and flowers the very minimum of cost and trouble.

[BNA: Link.]

Well, that's all for now, folks. I'll probably write in more detail about "Neal's Farm" — the buildings and roughly 20 acres of land now called the Cricket Pitches — in a future post.

On the 1916 Ordnance Survey, the "Extension" is still named Neal's Farm. Many of the old farm buildings are still there, behind the Skylark cafe.

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The Neal Family in previous Chronicles . . . 

Evening Standard, 28 August 1857.

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— Early days of Neal's Nursery, March 1827  . . . 

— Robert Neal declared bankrupt, October 1848  . . .  [I may not have published this story yet.]

— Coroner's Court at the County Arms pub: Neal's farm worker dies "by the Visitation of God", July 1852   . . . 

— Two fine Brahmin cows for sale — from A.J.Ashman, opposite Neal's Nursery Ground, September 1860   . . . 

— Two men and four women in court for sleeping rough in Robert Neal's shed "in a gravel pit near the Windmill", September 1864  . . . 

— Nurseryman Robert Neal appeals to "Noblemen and Gentlemen" to buy his plants, to make way for the Toast Rack, January 1866  . . . 

— The twenty acres of the Common leased to the Neal(e) family are being trashed. Buckmaster senses skulduggery — a private deal, aimed at selling off the land for building? [Find this story and add.]  . . . 

— Stealing Robert Neal's Horsebeans, February 1877  . . . 

— Neal's win contract to build Earlsfield Road, April 1879  . . . 

— The funeral of Robert Neal, January 1880  . . . [Have I published this story? If so, where is it?"]

— 23 October 1886 —Damage is being done by the Neal family to "one of the prettiest corners of the Common", where "a couple of real full-grown willows stand, as if to weep over the spoliation going on under their shadow", October 1886  . . . 

—  The new "George Neal & Company" announces sale of shares, July 1887 [I haven't published this story yet.]  . . . 

— George Neal jailed for the manslaughter of Lottie Crump, March 1900  . . . 

— Appeal for donations to buy the 20 acres of "Neal's Farm", June 1912  . . . 

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

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