The History of Wandsworth Common


of Wandsworth Common


"Then October adds a gale,

Wind and slush and rain and hail."

Flanders and Swann,
A Song of the Weather

This month's stories

— Spot the barrage balloon, 1941  . . . 

— Starving boy runs away with the gypsies, 1866  . . . 

— Pedestrianiam and running races — a suspicion of match fixing, 1847  . . . 

— Malicious damage of trees, 1897  . . . 

— Signals between the Common and Belleville School, 1941  . . . 

— Mysterious assault upon a Gentleman, 1866 — was it the one-armed Watchman?  . . . 

— The great British Pet Massacre, 1939  . . . 

— Scavengers wanted to deal with "SCRAPINGS of the roads, and for collecting and removing all DUST, dirt, ashes, rubbish, ice, snow, and filth, in the parishes of Battersea, Clapham, Putney, and Wandsworth", 1856  . . . 

— Bolingbroke Grove / Chatham Road change names, 1866  . . . 

— Please can we dump our street sweepings on the Common again? 1887  . . . 

— Mr Bonham's Prize-winning potato, 1887  . . . 

— UFOs over West Side, 2008  . . . 

— The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854  . . . 

and more . . . 

A while ago I was looking at an aerial view of Wandsworth Common in 1941 when I noticed something odd. (Actually, there are lots of odd things, but let's discuss them another time.)

What I saw was a balloon far below me.

Can you find it?

Aerial view of the north of Wandsworth Common, 1941. To get your bearings, notice Wandsworth Prison at the bottom point.
Can you spot the balloon?
(Click on image to enlarge)

Click here for the answer, and (much) more about barrage balloons on Wandsworth Common.

Pall Mall Gazette — Wednesday 10 October 1866

The curious story, widely reported nationally, of a starving boy who runs away to join the Gypsies on Wandsworth Common . . . 

John Hobbs claims he is an orphan, "that his father was a policeman, and on going out to New Zealand he died on the passage, and that his mother died three months afterwards of a broken heart."

But is he telling the truth?

(Click on image to enlarge)

Some time ago a boy, who gave the name of John Hobbs, was charged at Wandsworth police-court with throwing missiles at trains on the Brighton Railway, near New Wandsworth Station, and in the course of the inquiry it transpired that he had taken up his abode with a gipsy family of the name of Lee, in their encampment.

One of the gipsies came before Mr. Dayman, and stated that he found the boy in a starving condition on Wandsworth-common, when he and his wife took compassion on him, and nursed him until he recovered.

The boy stated that his father was a policeman, and on going out to New Zealand he died on the passage, and that his mother died three months afterwards of a broken heart.

The boy was discharged after being remanded, and Lee expressed his intention of receiving him back in his family and treating him as his own child. The particulars of the case were published in the newspapers, and that led to the police receiving several applications from persons in different parts of the country claiming the boy.

After inquiry, and much correspondence in the matter, the real mother of the boy came forward to claim him.

Inspector Usher this morning informed the magistrate that the mother was in attendance, and wished for his worship's assistance to recover possession of her son. The inspector stated that the boy's father was an ex-policeman of the D division named Hobbs, but lost his life through a fire.

The boy's story was not true of his mother having died of a broken heart, for she was still alive.

Mr. Dayman was of opinion that the boy, who is sixteen years of age, had a right to remain with the gipsies. He was with them by his own voluntary act, and if he chose to stay there was no power to take him away. The mother, he added, was not obliged to maintain him unless he was disabled.

I've been trying to find out more, but with little success — "John Hobbs" is a common name (assuming that's what it was). And the age given here, 16, is contradicted by his mother in another report. (She says he is just 14.)

I hoped I might have more luck finding his father — an "ex-policeman" with the surname Hobbs in D Division (the Marylebone area) who had died in a fire. How many can there be? But no answers yet. (Wandsworth, by the way, was V Division.)

I've checked the Return of Deaths in the Metropolitan Police Force at the National Archive but I can't find him. Also the Register of local constables sworn in to act within the Metropolitan Police. Again nothing.

However, there was a report in Bell's Weekly Messenger (5 March 1859) of the exceptional bravery of a "Constable Hobbs, 216 D" who attempted to save people in a fire in Marylebone in March 1859. He was on an upper floor of the blazing house when some fool opened the downstairs door, causing an up-draught that fanned the flames. The roof collapsed, Hobbs fell and was severely injured, though not (at that time at least) killed.

The story, which is vividly told, can be viewed here.

Is this John's father?

Was Constable Hobbs perhaps forced by his injuries to leave the police (hence "ex-policeman"), and did he die later as a result?

And of "John Hobbs" himself, and his future life with the gypsies, as yet nothing.

Here's a gratuitous but not uninteresting image of gypsies on Wandsworth Common. They are welcoming to outsiders:

From David Severn, A Cabin for Crusoe, 1944.
"My family used to live in London," continued the gypsy. "Wandsworth Common. Aye, there were tents as far as the eye could see. That were in my father's father's day . . .  things are changed today."

On a related subject, Geoff Simmons (of Summerstown182) writes:

October will be a momentous month for anyone with an interest in Romany Gypsy and Traveller heritage in London. It climaxes with the placing of a blue plaque in Wandsworth's historic Wardley Street on Saturday 22nd October 2022:

Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 10th October 1847

"Matches at Wandsworth Common"

(Click on image to enlarge)

Pedestrianism and running races on Wandsworth Common

Bell's reported that "many hundred persons" assembled on the Common to witness a number of races, and "were delighted with the satisfactory manner in which they were brought to a conclusion." There was a "walking match of six miles for £5 a side", and a "200 yards race for a silver watch".

(Click on image to enlarge)

The article also covered a race on the following day. Unusually "no betting took place to our knowledge, the spectators being of the 'rough and ready' sort". There is also more than a hint of race-fixing:



The 400 yards race, for £5 a side, between J. Wigzell and C. Mallin (both of Somers Town), the latter receiving five yards start, came off on Tuesday last on Wandsworth Common. No betting took place to our knowledge, the spectators being of the 'rough and ready' sort. The start was delayed until past five o'clock, and at the second attempt they set off but before they had run one hundred yards Wigzell led the way, and looked a certain winner.

When near the finish, however, he turned round to his opponent, and bade him follow, which he did, and to the surprise of every one Mallin was proclaimed a winner by half a yard. A row took place, we left them at it, many declaring that Wigzell had a conference with Mr. Barney.

We have received several letters concerning this race, from which it appears that the affair was a "barney" altogether. The conduct of John Bryant of Maiden-Lane [who he?] is spoke of in very strong terms; and it seems this is not the first affair has concerned in. It was got up to deceive one Mr G. Price [who he?]. If really be true, B's society should always be shunned by honest men.

"A Lover of Fair-Play" also writes, and accuses two pedestrians of being the getters-up of the "barney". We have seen them, and they deny the accusation in strong terms, and challenge the writer to meet them at any place he may choose to name. They say it can only done in spite by some back-biting fellows.

[BNA: Link.]

The last few paragraphs are tantalising. What had John Bryant done? How was he hoping to deceive Mr Price? What exactly is meant by the phrases "a conference with Mr Barney, and "the affair was a 'barney'" ? Collusion? An argument? A contrived argument? Match-fixing?

In the same paper, notice is given that:

Marshall and Jenkins are matched to walk 4 miles on Wandsworth Common, on Monday, the 18th inst, for £3 a side.

They are to meet at the Plough at two, and start at three.

The Plough was (and still is) situated where Plough Road meets St John's Hill — before the enclosures of the 1860s, on the very edge of the Common.

Who are Wigzell and Mallin, "of Somers Town"? Are they local runners, from that what we today would call "Summerstown", Garratt Lane? Or from the (notoriously impoverished) area near King's Cross — where "Somers Town" was (and is) the usual spelling? I think the latter is more likely. Perhaps surprisingly, both "pedestrians" and spectators came from all over London (and indeed the country as a whole) to attend races on Wandsworth Common.

[So far as I can tell (after a quick skim) that Kevin Kelly mentions neither man in his outstanding history of Robert Sadler and the Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds . . . . This adds weight to the idea that they were not local men.]

Cover of Kevin Kelly, Robert Sadler and the Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds of Garratt Lane, Wandsworth — a Study of Pedestrianism and Athletics in South London (2013).
The image at the top of this story is from the Illustrated Sporting News, 23 December 1865 — race between James Miles of Brixton and Joseph Oliver of Chelsea — hand-coloured by Fay Whiting (presumably in 2013, to enhance the cover).
(Click on image to enlarge)

Original image from the Illustrated Sporting News, 23 December 1865 — race between James Miles of Brixton and Joseph Oliver of Chelsea.
(Click on image to enlarge)

South London Press — Saturday 16 October 1897

"The prisoners were seen to damage the tree deliberately . . .  [the magistrate] said commons would become a barren waste if that kind of thing was allowed . . . 

(Click on image to enlarge)


George Street (26), a plumber, of 328 Earlsfield-road, Wandsworth, and Herbert Vanden (23), French polisher, 108 Earlsfield-road, were charged with damaging a tree growing on Wandsworth Common and belonging to the London County Council. The prisoners were seen to damage the tree deliberately. They both expressed their regret. Mr. Denman said commons would become a barren waste if that kind of thing was allowed. Mr. Denman fined each prisoner 40s [i.e. £2], or 14 days [in gaol].

[BNA: Link]

South Western Star — Friday 17 October 1941

Signals between Wandsworth Common and Belleville School

Signalling by Aldis lamp.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Signalling Practice at Wandsworth Common

To-morrow (Saturday) at 3 p.m. a small Party of the Battersea Squadron Air Training Corps will signal by hand from Wandsworth Common to their headquarters in Belleville-road School. The signal lamps to be used are the latest type supplied by the Air Ministry, and, although they are of low voltage messages may be read at very long distances.

The signals officer of the Battersea Wing will be in charge of the party on the common, and will be pleased to allow an inspection of the lamp after the exercises.

Classes are held in navigation, Engine fitting, machine guns, morse, wireless, mathematics, and every other subject required in the Royal Air Force.

Men on deferred service with the RAF are invited to attend the classes, and recruits in the ATC [Air Training Corps] will be made welcome.

[BNA: Link]

(Click on image to enlarge)

London Evening Standard — Thursday 18 October 1866

Mysterious Assault Upon a Gentleman crossing the Common — was it the one-armed watchman?

(Click on image to enlarge)


Mysterious Assault Upon a Gentleman

Daniel Shettle, one-armed watchman, was finally examined on charge of violently assaulting Mr. Nicholas L. Steppings, of South Fields, Wandsworth.

Complainant stated that between one and two o'clock the morning of the 2d inst. he was returning from the new railway station [this must have been "New Wandsworth", Battersea Rise] to Wandsworth Town, when he drove a dog out of his way with an umbrella.

A voice immediately said, "What did you knock my dog for," and he then received a blow at the back of his head that forced him on to the railings. He turned to defend himself, and blow was struck at his face, and that be received on his arm. He tried to catch the person who struck him, but found he had disappeared.

Witness also found that he was wounded, and that he was bleeding from the side of his throat. He ran and called out for the police. A watchman from the other side of Wandsworth Common came his assistance.

Witness returned with him to the place where he had been attacked, but found the man and the dog gone. He went the station and gave information, and about three o'clock the prisoner was brought in. Witness bled considerably, and was unable to appear for several days. The dog was a large black one. He could not identify the prisoner as the man.

Servant Dudley proved going to Wandsworth Common after the complainant came to the station, where he saw the prisoner, who was watchman at a sewer there.

[PB: "A watchman in a watchbox at a sewer there" — what can this mean?]

Stanford map, 1866. New Wandsworth Station on the right (red). The French Horn Pub is at the top of East Hill, next to the ("Huguenots') Burial Ground, mid-left.
(Click on image to enlarge)

He told witness that he heard shouting, and ran to see what it was, but could see no one. The witness also proved seeing a large black dog in the prisoner's watch-box. He asked the prisoner why he was off the works, and said he had been down to the French Horn public-house and back.

Witness said he had been from one end of the works to the other, and could not find him. He had been in the habit of wearing a hook on his arm, and seeing he had none he asked him where it was. He replied that he broke it a few days before, and he had thrown it into the river.

At the station he said he was not the man, and the prosecutor said, "Yes, you are."

The Prisoner, having declined to make an apology to the complainant, who was willing to forego the charge on his admitting the assault, he was fully committed for trial.


[PB: Since the case was committed to trial, I wonder if we can pick the story up again?]

South London Press — Surrey Tavern, 20 October 1866

(Click on image to enlarge)

Norwood News — Friday 20 October 1939

The British Pet Massacre . . . 

In the first few weeks of the war in the Wandsworth area over 1000 pets were destroyed. A few weeks later, the RSPCA reported that their owners are now feeling "great regret".

(Click on image to enlarge)

At the start of the war, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) published a pamphlet titled "Advice to Animal Owners." The pamphlet suggested moving pets from the big cities and into the countryside. It concluded with the statement that "If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed." Tastefully, the pamphlet also contained an advertisement for a captive bolt pistol that could be used to kill the animals.

It caused panic.

Nationally, over 400,000 pets were destroyed in just one week in September 1939. Thousands more were dumped on the doorsteps of the RSPCA or PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals). Animal welfare organisations tried to restore confidence, but were short of resources:

(Click on image to enlarge)

Don't Have Your Pets Destroyed

The hon. secretary of the Balham and Tooting branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals writes in support of the statement made by the hon. secretary of a neighbouring branch and others, deploring the large number of dogs, cats and birds destroyed on the outbreak of war, and of the great regret now being felt by the owners.

It was most unfortunate that many people appeared to think there was a compulsory order for destruction, but this was merely a humane measure advised in the case of the evacuation of whole families, so that pet animals should not be left to starve in the streets.

The hon. secretary appeals to all owners of domestic animals to spare them as long as possible, taking care to keep them within call, especially in the event of an air raid, also to keep them indoors at night.

There were over 1000 animals humanely destroyed in the Balham and Tooting branch Had its auxiliaries (Wandsworth Common, Streatham Vale and Long Thornton) during the first few days of September.

The question of finance is now a very serious one, as heavy extra expenses have had to be incurred, and several arrangements made for raising fonds during the autumn and winter have had to lie abandoned owing to the black-out, and so many supporters leaving the neighbourhood. Any donations towards the special wartime work of the society will be most gratefully received by the hon. secretary, Mrs. Lee, 4, Bushnell-road, Tooting Bec Common, SW 17.

If it becomes unavoidably necessary to have animals humanely destroyed, the branch inspector is ready at all times to give help and advice. New address: Inspector Taylor, 12, Devereaux-road, Thurleigh-road, S.W.11. Telephone Batt. 6082.

[BNA: Link. Wikipedia: British pet massacre. WW2 Civil Defence: National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee — NARPAC. Many more articles online.]

From Joseph's Virtual Museum of Militaria and the Home Front. A treasure trove.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Morning Advertiser — Thursday 23 October 1856

"To scavengers and others . . .  "

(Click on image to enlarge)


The Board of Works for the WANDSWORTH DISTRICT, will, at a meeting to be held at the Offices of the Board, Bolingbroke-grove, Wandsworth Common, WEDNESDAY, the 12th day of November next, at Quarter-past Three o'clock in the Afternoon, be prepared to receive TENDERS for REMOVING the SCRAPINGS of the roads, and for collecting and removing all DUST, dirt, ashes, rubbish, ice, snow, and filth, in the parishes of Battersea, Clapham, Putney, and Wandsworth, in the said District, for a period of twelve months from the first day of December next.

Forms of tender may be had on application, and the conditions upon which the tenders are to be made, may be seen at the Offices of the Board. No other form tender will be accepted. All tenders are to be left at the said Offices of the Board on or before Tuesday, the 11th day of November next. The Board do not pledge themselves to accept the lowest or any tender. By order of the Board of Works for the Wandsworth District.


Bolingbroke-grove, Wandsworth Common, 21st October, 1856.

[BNA: Link]

Where did it all go? Good question, which I'm looking into. In the middle of the nineteenth century next to nothing was wasted — an inspiration to us all today. Henry Mayhew analyses in great detail how all "dust" was sieved and scrupulously sorted, because money could be made from just about every component. (You may remember Mr Boffin, the Golden Dustman of Somer's Town, in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864-65).) Things had changed greatly by the end of the century, and continued to get worse.

Wandsworth's rubbish

In the mid-1800s, was there an area on or around the Common on which dust could be sorted? Was much of it shipped out by sailing barge? Did it mainly fill old ponds and gravel workings, or was it spread more or less evenly across the surface of the Common?
(Click on image to enlarge)

Mayhew states that "The rubbish of Wandsworth is shot in Potters-hole, Wandsworth-common." Where was "Potter's Hole"? A likely spot is at the top of what is now Earlsfield Road, but I'm not certain yet. More on this soon.

By the way, in the 1850s the "Bolingbroke Grove" that Corsellis wrote from was what we call Chatham Road. Our "Bolingbroke Grove" was called (some version of) "The Five Houses". Here are two maps showing the change of names between 1866 and 1872:

(Click on image to enlarge)

South London Press — Saturday 29 October 1887

Please can we dump our street sweepings on the Common again?

Move on thirty years from Corsellis's advert of 1856, and "dust" is an even bigger problem. Towards the end of the century an increasingly "consumerist" society was simply throwing more and more away.

It seems as though Wandsworth Common was considered by some to be the obvious (cheapest, nearest) place to dump everything. But once the Conservators took over control of the Common in 1871, they were understandably sniffy about the practice, and put a stop to it.

So when the Metropolitan Board of Works took over from the Conservators (after a contrived "ratepayer revolt" after 1875), not surprisingly the question of once again using the Common as the local Tip was quickly raised:

(Click on image to enlarge)


It was agreed that the View Committee of the Battersea Local Committee be appointed a deputation to wait upon the Parks and Open Spaces Committee of the Metropolitan Board of Works, to urge upon them the desirability of allowing the board to deposit road sweepings on a portion of Wandsworth Common, as hitherto.

[BNA: Link]

If anybody would like to help sort all this stuff out about rubbish, please get in touch. A really interesting research project, don't you think?

Wandsworth Guardian 23 October 2008

UFOs over Wandsworth Common West Side
"They're here: Strange lights reported from across the borough . . . "

"Visitors: An artist's impression of UFOs over Wandsworth Common West Side"

[Source: Wandsworth Guardian 23 October 2008, reprinted UFO Newsclipping Service 2009 01 no.474.]
(Click on image to enlarge)

Charge of the Light Brigade, 25 October 1854

(Click on image to enlarge)

I've written already about the grave of the Charge-veteran John Breeze in Battersea Old Cemetery — see last year's Chronicles, October 2021, and John Breeze and the Charge of the Light Brigade (well worth a read, I think). But there are many more Chargers associated with Battersea and Wandsworth, including John Scarfe, William Freestone, William Bird, James Lamb, and George Wombwell.

Illustrated Police News — Thursday 25 October 1917

Mr Bonham's prize-winning potato, grown on Wandsworth Common . . . 

The prize-winning potato in a competition among 12,000 members of the Vacant Land Cultivation Society for the largest potato grown on an allotment this season weighed 2 lb. 13 1/2 oz. It was grown on Wandsworth Common by Mr A. Bonham.

[BNA: Link.

I knew nothing about the Vacant Land Cultivation Society. A quick search shows it was founded in London by the American Joseph Fels in 1908, see e.g. C. Osborn, "The Town Labourer and the Land", Charity Organisation Review, July 1913 (here). A biography of Fels is easily accessible (pdf). A question in the House of Commons in July 1916 suggested that there were 14,000 acres of vacant uncultivated land in and around London.

Which started me wondering how big such a potato would be. Here's my estimate (I'm showing my working, so even if I get the answer wildly wrong, somebody can correct me. And who knows, I may get a mark or two for effort.)

2 lb 13.5 oz = 1.2899 kg or about 1300g.

The density of potato is about 1.1g/ml.

1300g = 1430ml = 1.43 litres.

Which converts to a sphere with a diameter of about 14 cm.

In short, not much smaller than a football:

(Click on image to enlarge)


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