The History of Wandsworth Common


of Wandsworth Common

November 2022

The man who eats grass on Wandsworth Common


"Dark November brings the fog,

Should not do it to a dog."

Flanders and Swann,
A Song of the Weather

November 2022 stories

— The Man Who Eats Grass, 1939

— Clive Branson, radical Battersea artist

— Shepherd fined for driving 36 sheep to Wandsworth Common after 10 in the morning, 1920

— The death of Edward Archer, 1826

— The "primitive wildness" of Metropolitan Commons under threat, 1863

— Women Munition-Makers at Battersea Polytechnic, 1916

— Edward William Mountford

— A Bridge for Wandsworth. 1863

— Boys begging on Wandsworth Common, and cholera, 1866

— "Dr Livingstone, I presume . . .  " 1871

— Armistice Day, 1920

— "Pincher", a black terrier, lost. One guinea reward.1822

— Mayhem in Battersea Cemetery, 1873

— Grimm views of Wandsworth Common and Battersea Rise in the 1770s

— Walter Besant and the Black Sea's killer Pike   . . . 

— A bizarre death at "Wandsworth Common" station, 1849

— "Dig for Victory" competition, 1942

— Fog and ice, 1920

— Photographs by Lewis More O'Ferrall, 2022

and more . . . 

Give chance a chance (my mantra)

One of the many reasons for writing these Chronicles in such a rambling, semi-random way — same month (but often centuries apart), with no attempt at a continuous narrative thread (let alone an "argument") — is to enable stories to make their own connections.

I do it in the belief that when enough different chemicals are dissolved in a primordial soup, an organism will assemble itself, and then draw breath . . .  (You can tell that I'm writing this on Halloween.)

"Turf Wars: How Sport Transformed Wandsworth Common"

I'm currently working on a talk (to be given twice in November) on sport and Wandsworth Common. (I had intended to give the talk earlier this year as part of May's Wandsworth Heritage Fortnight, organised by the Local History and Heritage Service at Battersea Library, but to my shame I couldn't complete it in time — so this is my attempt to make amends.)

Saturday 26th November (all-day): 42nd West London Conference By Zoom. (Download a pdf here).

Tuesday 29th November, Friends of Wandsworth Common, 7pm. Live at the Naturescope (hey, doesn't that sound fab). Please email Stephen Midlane/FoWC Heritage Group to book a place.

"Places are limited, so please make sure you book your ticket without delay by following the details on the accompanying publicity flyer."
(Click on image to download a pdf)

The talk is not so much about the sport as such as about the conflicts over how the Common should be used and experienced, and the radical transformation of the Common that resulted. These conflicts include inter- and intra-sports rivalries, and the perennial issue of different modes of enjoyment — sporties versus (among others) strollers, picnickers, dog-walkers, freely playing children, and nature-lovers.

My case is simple. Without sport — mainly cricket, but tennis, football and other sports too — the Common would almost certainly be much smaller than it is now (indeed, it might have disappeared altogether), and probably a very different shape.

But even if it had survived, without sports the Common would be utterly changed. It could still be rough, undulating, freckled with pools and ponds and puddles, and covered in furze and ferns. There would be a scattering of trees and bushes all over the surface, rather than mainly alongside hard paths (of which there may have been very few). There would be no lattice of underground pipes to drain off water. Large areas would not be dead flat and lawn-like, and it would be wet wet wet.

To give just one example, the Common as a whole would doubtless still be covered in a wide variety of sedges, rushes and rough grasses, such as the Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea — now confined to about twenty or thirty square yards of the "Scope", and soon to become extinct even there.

The Purple Moor Grass, Molinia caerulea
(Click on image to enlarge)

Here's a photo of the Scope. Notice how open it is. It was like this when I played here as a child in the 1950s.

The Scope, view across to Lyford Road. Notice the openness, and the ubiquitous Molinia. Any guesses when the photo was taken? (I know the answer.)
(Click on image to enlarge)

In researching Turf Wars: How Sport Transformed Wandsworth Common, I've picked up a number of stories about grass that probably won't make it into the talks, but definitely earn their place here.

The Bystander — Wednesday 1 November 1939

The Man Who Eats Grass

"Every morning at 6am Mr Branson runs round Wandsworth Common. Though he is the first man seriously to try a full grass diet, he is not the pioneer of the possibilites of grass as a human food: Eustace Miles used to make a jam of it."
(Click on image to enlarge)

"The Minister of Agriculture says 'plough up your grass'. Mr JRB Branson says 'eat it!' "
(Click on image to enlarge)

The Man Who Eats Grass

The Minister of Agriculture says 'plough up your grass'; Mr JRB Branson says 'eat it!'

Harvesting: Mr Branson creates the appetite for his grass by mowing it first. The sweepings are then bagged and taken indoors for preparation.

Washing: the mown grass is carefully washed and dried, and a few dandelions — flowers and leaves — put aside as bonne bouche.

Mixing: the ration is weighed out and mixed with sugar: though grass contains everything necessary to the human organism, its carbohydrate (cellulose) is unassimilable. Mr. Branson changed his diet gradually to 100 per cent. grass; he was eating 25% other vegetables when these pictures were taken.

Consuming: he eats in appropriate syrroundings, keeps moving while he masticates.

Mr. Branson's food bill for the week is reckoned at 2s. but the rental on a decent-sized grass-producing garden in London is not included, nor depreciation of lawn mower and so on. The grass-eater, at sixty-seven, declares he has never felt better than now.

Storage is effected in carefully labelled boxes "Bowling green short 1938", "Long topped 1939", and "Dried grass 1938". In the winter these rations are very necessary to a grass-eater. Will the gourmet of the future speak reverently of such vintages as "Centre Court 1941" or "Berghof lawn 1937"?

(Click on image to enlarge)

 . . .  Mr. J.R.B. Branson, a thoughtful and distinguished retired lawyer, swears by grass as a human food, in what manner as we here illustrate.

Mr. Branson, who lives in Battersea, is a brother of Sir George Branson, a judge in the King's Bench Division. He is a graduate of Trinity, Cambridge, an ex-captain and coach of the First Trinity Boat Club. He practised as a solicitor in Madras, was G.C. clothing at Aldershot in the last war.

Now he he retired to think out his philosophy, which is belief in God but opposition to religion. The grass diet is a sideline

"The same hour was the mug fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen  . . .  " [Daniel, 4, 33J

We hope German propagandists don't see this picture.

Every morning at 6am Mr Branson runs round Wandsworth Common. Though he is the first man seriously to try a full grass diet, he is not the pioneer of the possibilites of grass as a human food: Eustace Miles used to make a jam of it.

[BNA: Link]

While I was writing up this story about J.R.B. Branson, I kept dimly recalling someone with the same surname, the Communist artist and poet Clive Branson who died in Burma in the Second World War.

I had come across Clive's powerful paintings of wartime Battersea when I was researching last month's stories about barrage balloons on Wandsworth Common. Here are two:

Clive Branson, Bombed Women and Searchlights (1940/1). Tate Britain/ArtUK website.
(Click on image to enlarge)

A pierced, deflating wartime barrage balloon over Battersea — the escaping gas (hydrogen) turned the air green.
(Click on image to enlarge)

I vaguely noted that they both had connections with India. According to the Bystander article above, James had "practised as a solicitor in Madras"; and Clive's middle names were "Ali Chimmo". Vague and circumstantial, but could they possibly be related?

Indeed they could. An hour or two spent the genealogy website Ancestry and I found they were both born in India (James in Calcutta, Clive in Bombay). It turned out they were first cousins (once removed). Both were in effect children of the Raj.

Clive Branson, self-portrait [from Andrew Whitehead's blog]
(Click on image to enlarge)

There's a lot to be said about Clive Branson, but perhaps not now. If you're impatient and want to find out more, or want to see further paintings of Battersea, you can start here:

A Communist Plan for Wandsworth, 1936 (probably November). A remarkable pamphlet, focusing on high (and rising) child and maternal death rates in the borough, and slum housing — at a time when an immense new Town Hall was being built at great expense.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Some more grass-related stories . . . 

South Western Star — Friday 5 November 1920

Shepherd fined for driving 36 sheep to Wandsworth Common after 10 in the morning.


A fine of 5s was imposed on William Appleton, Park Farm, Finchley, for driving 36 sheep at West Hill after 10 o'clock in the morning.

Defendant said it was 10.20 am, when he was stopped on his way to Wandsworth Common. He could not have reached there quicker without overdriving the sheep.

Mr. Boyd, when imposing the fine, said defendant was liable to a penalty of 10s. for each sheep.

[BNA: Link]

Sheep on what is now the cricket area, near the Skylark. The Royal Victoria Patriotic Building on the left, Emanuel School on the right.
[It would be good if someone took a photo of this same view today.]
(Click on image to enlarge)

This photograph was probably taken in the early 20s — just after the huts (used as wards for the 3rd London General Hospital) had been removed and the LCC had built (at great expense) the wall between the RVPA and the Common, but before the pointy bit of the top of Emanuel School was taken down (c.1931).

But why had the grass been allowed to grow so long? If the area had been seeded for pitches, surely shorter-leaved grasses would have been planted? A puzzle.

In the nineteenth century, Wandsworth Common — particularly its air — was widely known for its healthfulness.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 11 November 1826

The death of 16-year-old Edward Archer . . . 

(Click on image to enlarge)

Late on Tuesday evening last, at Wandsworth Common, to which place he had been removed, in the hope of deriving benefit from change of air, died Edward Archer, the eldest son of Sir Edward Archer Wilde, of College Hill, Solicitor, after an illness of eighteen months, sustained without complaint or murmur.

This youth, 16 years old, was endeared to a large circle of relations and friends the possession of very considerable talents, most successfully cultivated; as well by temper and general principles equally praiseworthy and amiable.

He had been compelled to leave Winchester College 12 months since, where he had very honourably distinguished himself, and obtained those prizes for scholastic merit, which now remain to embalm the memory of one so deserving and beloved.

[Source: BNA: Morning Chronicle, 11 November 1826. Also Morning Chronicle, 10 November 1826 [check].]

Express (London) — Wednesday 11 November 1863

" . . .  the common remained intact in all its primitive wildness under the Spencer rule until about a quarter of a century since, when the work of enclosure, without any parliamentary formalities, began . . . 

Here's an interesting account of Wandsworth Common from the very start of the agitation that saved the Common in 1871. It may not be accurate in every detail, but it vividly expresses the mood of the time. (Notice, once again, its "healthful breeze".)

(Click on image to enlarge)


 . . .  Close to Battersea-park lies Wandsworth-common, one of the most beautiful, healthful, and romantic of all our suburban wild lands; but Wandsworth-common is rapidly becoming the prey of the spoiler. It stretches from the high road to between London and Wandsworth on the one side, down to Tooting and Wimbledon on the other, with a noble breadth of heath-covered land all the way, over which a healthful breeze continually plays.

Wandsworth-common is now within a few minutes' distance of London-bridge, of the Waterloo-road, and the Victoria stations, in fact of the most thickly peopled centres of London population. It would, if drained and levelled, make a splendid recreation ground for the toiling millions, and also, what we want most sadly, a noble Champ de Mars for our volunteer army.

The Clapham Junction station, which is situated at about a quarter of a mile distance from the common, is passed by the almost incredible number of 550 trains per diem [PB: it's now more than 2000], the Brighton line has a station close upon its verge, and the South Western Company has secured twelve acres of land within the common itself.

By these means, fifty or a hundred thousand men could at any time be brought to the ground with the greatest facility, as well as ten times that number of spectators, who would be only too proud to see their volunteer army of defence thus turn out some half-dozen times in summer within stone's throw of the great city.

But Wandsworth-common is in imminent peril. The enclosure demon has been nibbling at it during these last twenty years, and it was only a few days since that the copyholders laid their grievances at the feet of Earl Spencer, the lord of the manor.

We are happy to add that the result was so far satisfactory that his lordship promised that no further encroachment should take place during his lifetime; but then a matter in which the public has so deep an interest should not be left dependent on the will of any individual, however influential, whose power to carry out his good intentions ends with his life.

The manorial rights over Wandsworth-common were vested some century or so ago in no less a personage than the famous Lord Bolingbroke; and there is a tradition in the neighbourhood of their having been won from St. John by the Lord Spencer of the period whilst the two were riding across Clapham-common into town, in the highly exciting game of pulling halfpence out of a haystack.

However that may have been, the common remained intact in all its primitive wildness under the Spencer rule until about a quarter of a century since, when the work of enclosure, without any parliamentary formalities, began.

First twenty acres were taken for St. James's School.

Then certain persons leased a large portion, with powers merely to cut turf and cart gravel, and undertaking to apply their profits to the drainage and other improvements of the land in their immediate neighbourhood. They made large profits, but forgot the improvements, and one of their body secured and inclosed about forty acres on his own account, which, on his death, very recently, were sold by auction.

The South Western Railway Company have secured twelve acres in the very centre of the common and enclosed it, having given the copyholders £80 for their right of "tetherage," and of course satisfied the claims of the lord of the manor.

The London, Brighton, and South Coast Company have a station just as its edge [PB: "New Wandsworth Station"], and four acres of surrounding land, and their line runs right through to Wimbledon [no, that was the other line, the South-Western Railway]. This encroachment would seem to have been a must beneficial one, for it enables people to get from London-bridge or Victoria station to the common in a few minutes, and has wonderfully stimulated building speculation in the adjoining (not common) land.

Stanford 1862: "New Wandsworth" and "Clapham Common" stations
Clapham Common station opened 21 May 1838 and closed 2 March 1863. New Wandsworth station opened on 29 March 1858 and closed on 1 November 1869, when Wandsworth Common station opened.
(Click on image to enlarge)

On the right hand side of the high road, from Clapham to Wandsworth town, an extensive settlement has sprung up, called New Wandsworth, consisting of hundreds of handsome villas and cottage, and so great is the demand for these residences consequence of the railway facilities for getting to town, that no sooner is the foundation of a new house dug than the contractor is pestered with applications from intending tenants.

This thriving colony is deeply interested in the preservation of the common rights, and its numbers increase every day.

The Patriotic school took a tremendous slice, fifty-two acres, the school buildings forming a conspicuous feature in the prospect, and the great telescope requires some twelve or fifteen acres for its accommodation.

These are a few of the greater encroachments, but there are, in addition, numberless smaller ones of which there is no very distinct record as to how they came about; but there they are, and their tendency is to spread until the whole common is swallowed up if steps be not taken to preserve it for some public use, either a park, a recreation ground, a volunteer review field, or some arrangement which shall answer all these purposes.

There is, for example, a row of houses called Heathfield*, running across the centre of the common, of which the history is a little curious. In the year 1832 the spot was occupied by a few tumbledown old houses, mere squatters' huts, and when the first visitation of the cholera broke out in that year the huts were used as a sort of suburban cholera hospital. When the pestilence ceased, the present row of handsome houses rose mysteriously in their place, but their very situation shows them to be nothing but as encroachment on the common.

The condition of the ground, which is still left intact, is not satisfactory. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood complain that it the resort of bad characters, and the scene of a great deal of profligacy and immorality.

One of the large prisons impinges on the common — we are not sure whether it is not also an encroachment — but it has a custom which renders it a great nuisance to the neighbourhood. The male prisoners whose time has expired are all let loose at nine in the morning, and the females at ten, and they generally spend the day on the common, surrounded by their friends from town, making holiday in a manner which does not at all conduce to the tranquillity of the vicinity.

A small patch near the western boundary is used as a cricket ground, but the tenant of a neighbouring villas making strenuous efforts to have the cricketing suppressed, on the ground that when the cricketers are tired of their game they are apt to seek variety in the less genteel pastime of "knock 'em downs," a practice to which this gentleman and his family have, it appears, a decided aversion. Should he succeed in banishing the cricketers, another enclosure will most probably follow, and thus, one by one, on one pretence or another, the whole common will be enclosed.

Lord Spencer has, we understand, the right to let, but not for enclosure or building purposes; and on the other hand, the copyholders, who claim exclusively the common rights, can only insist on "tetherage," and the right to cut turf and dig gravel. It is therefore obvious that it is in just such a case that the government ought to step in, purchase the slender rights of both parties, and secure the common for the general public.

Clapham-common is protected, so is Streatham, and Battersea-fields have been purchased. There still remain Wandsworth, Wimbledon, and Tooting, all which are now brought by the railways within a few minutes' ride of the centre of the town, and the opportunity is most favourable for securing them for ever for that portion of the public who are the head landlords of all English ground, but who can show no title-deeds for their ancient patrimony.

[BNA: Link

[PB: Heathfield Cottages, so far as I know, had no particular relationship with cholera, and was never a cluster of "tumbledown old houses, mere squatters' huts" and was never "used as a sort of suburban cholera hospital". As Keith Bailey has shown, these essentially Regency houses were constructed before the cholera epidemic of the 1830s. See for example his fine essay in the Wandsworth Historian, an excerpt from a larger unpublished study, "Heathfield, Wandsworth Common" (2020).,

But I wonder if there is a kernel of truth here, in that some parts of the Common were indeed squatted, and may have housed cholera victims? But if so, where? ]

Illustrated London News — Saturday 11 November 1916

"Women Munition-makers: Workers of whom more are needed"

"Drawn  . . .  at the Battersea Polytechnic"

(Click on image to enlarge)

[BNA: Link]

The connection between this and Wandsworth Common may not be obvious, but in the 1880s "Bramblebury" (on West Side), one of largest houses round the Common, was the venue for a number of "Polytechnic Bazaars" — immense garden parties to raise funds for a new "Battersea Polytechnic Institute" aiming to provide access to further and higher education for "poorer inhabitants" of London.

A catch-phrase of the day was "The youth of Battersea want a Polytechnic, and won't be happy till they get it . . .  " I wrote briefly about this in the Chronicles for October 2021.

"Bramblebury" house and grounds, West Side, early 1900s. Wandsworth Heritage Service.
(Click on image to enlarge)

The Polytechnic, located in Battersea Park Road, was founded in 1891, and its first students were admitted in 1894. The architect, Edward William Mountford, also designed Battersea Library (1889-90) and Battersea Town Hall (now Battersea Arts Centre, 1891-93) — and the Old Bailey.

Edward William Mountford
(Click on image to enlarge)

A bridge for Wandsworth . . . 

London Evening Standard — Saturday 21 November 1863

Wandsworth Bridge, completed in 1873. Notice its lattice structure. This postcard is c.1921.
(Click on image to enlarge)
(Click on image to enlarge)


lncorporation of a Company for making a New Bridge across the Thames . . . 

 . . .  for carriages, carts, horses, and passengers, across the River Thames, with road approaches thereto, on both sides, and with all convenient and necessary abutments, piers, landing stairs, and works, to commence in the York-road, Wandsworth, 250 feet or thereabouts to the eastward of the junction therewith of Jews-road, in the parish of Wandsworth, in the county of Surrey, and to terminate in the King's-road, in the parish of Fulham, in the county of Middlesex . . . 

Dated this 11th day of November, 1863.

[BNA: Link]

Investors expected to make a profit by extracting tolls — pedestrians were charged a halfpenny, carts 6d — but Wandsworth Bridge was too narrow (only 30 feet/9 metres) and too weak to take much traffic. This together with the lack of a direct approach road on the Surrey side meant it lost money. Along with Putney and Hammersmith Bridges it was made toll-free in a grand ceremony in July 1880.

In the 1920s and 1930s plans were made to build a new bridge and improve access by driving a road north from the Common, which implied demolishing several streets and many houses. However, Trinity Road was not extended from Wandsworth Common to the Thames until the late 1960s.

The contract for the bridge went to the Holloway Brothers (a local company that had previously built most of the houses in the area enclosed by Lyford/Ellerton/Burntwood and Magdalen Roads on the southwest of the Common). But steel was in such short supply in the run up to the Second World War that the new bridge was not completed until September 1940. To offer a degree of camouflage against aerial bombardment, the panels of the bridge were painted in various shades of blue (as now).

1941 — The German Luftwaffe were so interested in this bridge that they photographed it, and noted details of its structure.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Barefoot boys begging on Wandsworth Common, gypsy tents, and cholera . . . 

South London Press — Saturday 17 November 1866

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Gipsy Life as it is

On Saturday, Abraham Smith (12), whose feet were naked, and who appeared destitute of underclothing, and Edward Cherry (13), both living in the gipsy encampment near the Wandsworth Railway Station, were brought up on remand charged with soliciting alms off foot passengers on Wandsworth-common.

In answer to questions, Police-constable Smith, who took them into custody, said he had made inquiries about them.

He went to the tent in which Cherry lived, and found his sister in it with a child, which was "stiff" from cholera. There was a man in the tent, also suffering from cholera.

Prisoner had a father, but not a mother. The father had four children, and they all lived and slept in the tent.

In the case of the other boy he found 10 persons, consisting of two families, all sleeping in one small tent. There was a piece of canvas in the tent used to separate the families, but it was full of holes.

Mr. Dayman: How do they get their living?

Constable: By making a few pegs and selling them.

The father of Cherry came forward and stated that he was employed on the sewer works, and that he was obliged to live in the tent, he was unable to obtain lodgings.

Mr. Dayman said there were great complaints about little boys, who, under the pretence of sweeping crossings, made it a means of begging, and they had become quite a nuisance to the inhabitants.

He would have to send some of those children to reformatory, and make an order upon the parents to contribute towards their maintenance, if the nuisance continued.

He told the father of Cherry that it would be better to send his children to school than for them to go out sweeping crossings.

Smith's mother said if his worship would let her boy go this time she would send him to school.

Mr. Dayman remarked that the time for boys to to school was when they were young. It was their only opportunity, for when they grew older they would be expected to earn their own living.

Prisoners were then discharged with caution.

[BNA: Link]

And while we're talking about boys and schools . . . 

"10 November 1871" — Henry Morton Stanley finally meets Dr Livingstone . . . 

(Click on image to enlarge)

In March 1871 the 30-year-old journalist Henry Morton Stanley set off to find the renowned explorer Dr Livingstone, missing for some years somewhere in Central Africa. After a dreadful journey of nearly nine months, he found him in the village called Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania.

Stanley thought their meet'n'greet was on the 10th of November (and this is the date usually given in subsequent accounts), but his record-keeping may have been out by up to a fortnight. Some sources say it was in fact the 21st of October, others the 27th. But for our purposes, let's call it the 10th of November

This scene was illustrated in a similar way many times in the 1870s, nearly always featuring a young boy carrying a rifle. This was his servant "Kalulu" (real name Ndugu M'hali), who in a sense Stanley adopted.

(Click on image to enlarge)

When Stanley returned to England in 1873, he brought Kalulu with him. The boy was photographed many times, both in "native" and "English" dress, and in re-enactments of the meeting with Livingstone:

(Click on image to enlarge)

(Click on image to enlarge)

The connection with Wandsworth Common?

When Stanley returned to Africa, he sent Kalulu to a small boarding school — Halbrake, on Park (now Elsynge) Road near Wandsworth Common (where else?). The headmaster was the remarkable Revd John Conder, a central figure in the campaign to save Wandsworth Common.

(Click on image to enlarge)

While Kalulu was at Halbrake, he was photographed by Henry Morris, who had a studio on "Battersea Rise, New Wandsworth".

(Click on image to enlarge)

I don't have a scan of the reverse of this image, but here is one from another photo by Henry Morris:

(Click on image to enlarge)

If you want to know more about Kalulu, and what happened to him when he returned to Africa, here is an extract of a video-talk I gave earlier this year:

Video: Kalulu
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Armistice Day, November 2020

South Western Star — Friday, November 12, 1920

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At Battersea the two minutes' silence on Armistice Day were minutes of intense solemnity. A siren gave the signal for the cessation of all movement. Instantly a great hush prevailed. The rumble of traffic, the crunch of tram wheels, the sound of multitudinous footfalls ceased instantly. Then from the tower at Messrs. Arding and Hobbs the "Last Post" was sounded by Boy Scout buglers.

Numbers of people crowded at the of Battersea's great highways. Every man took off his hat and everyone who had served the country stood at the salute. It seemed that the life of the district was suspended. Nothing stirred or moved except a couple of pet dogs that gambled for a moment on Lavender Hill.

Just before the two minutes expired a man, whose watch might have been fast, brought his lorry slowly down St. John's-road. Two policemen, who had been standing like statues at the entrance to the road, raised their hands. The lorry stopped.

Cessation of all activity was complete. It seemed that nature joined in the act of homage to our dead; the very air was still.

At a signal from the police movement was resumed. Buses and trams resumed their journeys. Vans, lorries, motor-cars, and the lesser things on wheels set forward again. The spring of life reasserted itself. Men and women went about their individual business.

But there remained a sense of reverence, a solemnised frame of mind that in many instances will never entirely pass away. No demonstration took place outside the Municipal Buildings.

["No demonstration"? Of unemployed people? Probably.]

Stamford Mercury — Friday 12 November 1897

Serious Bicycle Accident.

On Monday, while a man named Selwood, living in the New Kent-road, was riding his bicycle along Trinity-road, Wandsworth Common, he was thrown from his machine by a runaway horse, the rider having lost complete control of the animal. When picked up Selwood was found to have sustained concussion of the spine and injury to his ribs and side. After being medically treated he was removed to his home.

[BNA: Link]

Morning Chronicle — Wednesday 13 November 1822

Pincher lost. One guinea reward.

LOST, on Friday Evening last, at the entrance of Wandsworth Common from Upper Tooting, a little BLACK TERRIER, with tanned feet, and a small mark over each eye of the same colour, answers to the name of Pincher.

Any person sending information where he may be found, or bringing him to Collins's Livery-stables, George-street, Sloane-street, may receive ONE GUINEA Reward.

[BNA: Link


Mayhem in Battersea Cemetery . . . 

Overall layout of the plots (1988)
(Click on image to enlarge)

I must say this story surprised me. I've always assumed that Victorians were very sober, very formal at funerals. But it seems I was wrong. I have collected a number of accounts in the local press of trouble at the graveside, including overt hostility by preachers to those in different denominations, and even fistfights among undertakers.

South London Press — Saturday 22 November 1873

The attention of the authorities of the Battersea Cemetery should be called to the utter disregard of the surrounding tombs on the occasion of large funerals like that of Saturday.

A gentleman well known in New Wandsworth was on that occasion keeping guard over the grave of his father, in order to prevent the demolition of a slab, which on a similar occasion, seven years since, became fractured by those assembled heedlessly clambering over it.

Not far from the same spot was a beautiful marble slab erected by a gentleman whose wife is recently deceased, which was ruthlessly trampled upon. The poorer parishioners, whose loving hands had decked humble graves with flowers, were likewise sufferers.

Surely arrangement is possible to prevent this sort of thing? On special occasions a few policemen might at least be spared to see that no wanton damage was done.

[BNA: Link]

Graves in plots L, N, and 12 (1988)
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Grimm views of Wandsworth Common and Battersea Rise in the 1770s

How interesting that the ILN should be running a feature like this during World War Two . . . 

Illustrated London News — Thursday 12 November 1942

"Unfamiliar Aspects of Greater London: Grimm's Drawings of the 18th Century"
(Click on image to enlarge)
"A View of Wandsworth Common in the 18th Century"

"Another view of Wandsworth Common"

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ENGLAND in the 18th Century

The most fascinating and picturesque period in the history of our country, and one which has proved an inspiration to count less authors and artists. Among the latter was Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, a Swiss, who arrived in England in 1768 and who, for 26 years, with pen and brush, moved ceaselessly about the land of his adoption, recording for posterity the social life and scenes of the period.

He had a real enthusiasm for nature, and took delight in drawing peaceful corners of urban and rural districts, everyday scenes and every day people, and buildings of historic interest.

The examples of his work reproduced on this page show parts of London and its environs: Wandsworth, for example, which derives its name from the Wandle and the Anglo-Saxon worth, signifying a village or shore, was then a thriving village with the famous common a wide and beautiful expanse known chiefly for the pike-fishing in its Black Lake.

Near the Common is Battersea Rise, which Grimm shows as a quiet country lane with a solitary cottage lost amongst trees . . . 

Notice the reference to pike in the Black Sea, which I'll pick up again below.

I would very much like to show a portrait of Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, but I haven't been able to find one. Very odd. If you know of one, do pass the info. on.

The reason Grimm made several studies of Wandsworth Common (and there may be more by him in an archive somewhere, but I haven't been able to look further) is that he was a close associate of the antiquarian Francis Grose (1731-1791), who lived facing Wandsworth Common in Mulberry Cottage (where East Hill meets North Side).

Grose was famously corpulent:

Francis Grose, by James Douglas, etching and aquatint, published 1785. (c) National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D16518).
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Now to Walter Besant and the menace of the Black Sea pike . . . 

In a recent talk on the Black Sea I mentioned his recollection from the early 1850s of his walks to the Black Sea from his school in Stockwell:

There were many curious and pleasant places within reach of Stockwell. Clapham Common, on the south, the first of the Surrey heaths. It was surrounded by stately mansions, sacred to the memory of Wilberforce, Thornton, and Macaulay, standing amidst broad lawns with splendid cedars.

The common itself was left absolutely untouched; winter water-ways made little ravines; there were ponds, there were no roads, there was gorse and fern. It was our playground.

Beyond lay Wandsworth Common, another wild heath with a lake called the Black Sea, wherein, it was rumoured, gigantic pike attacked and bit great holes in the boy who ventured to swim across.

Here's a marvellous photograph of Walter Besant in later life:

Walter Besant (1836—1901), the great memoirist, novelist and historian of London. Notice the thick glasses. Liberated by his poor eyesight from having to play cricket, he spent his free-time roaming throughout London, to our great benefit today. Photograph by Herbert Rose Barraud, c.1880.
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And here is a pike:

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As a child a century after Walter Besant had passed our way, I knew (and believed) the same story about the great Wandsworth Common pike. Indeed, I recall getting up at dawn one morning in the 1950s to try to catch it.

At the edge of the lake nearest to the Routh Road/Baskerville Road passage there were thousands and thousands of tiny silver fish-fry flapping in terror, or stranded and already dead.

Ten yards out was a massive pike looking as much like a crocodile as two-foot-long freshwater fish possibly could.

I cast my spinner towards the pike . . . 

Not a flicker of interest.

I cast again . . . 

And again . . . 

Eventually I left the Common in despair and was back home for breakfast by eight, in time for school.

There must have been quite a tradition of pike-related stories in south-west London commons. Here's another, this time from the Mount Pound on Clapham Common (where we also fished from time to time):

"Sporting Corner: Frank Pringle stalks the killer pike of Clapham Common", The Independent, 18 December 1993. Illustration by Ian Pollock.
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PS. You can view a video of the complete talk on the Friends of Wandsworth Common website: The Black Sea: Birth, Life, Death (video of my Talk to/for the Friends of Wandsworth Common, 18 October 2022).

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An account of a bizarre death at "Wandsworth Common" station (presumably "Clapham Common" station — see the map above) . . . 

Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser — Saturday 24 November 1849


On Tuesday morning Mr. D. M'Arthur, aged about forty-five, a baker at Wimbledon, died at that place from the effect of injuries received from being run over by a train at the Wandsworth-common station of the South-Western Railway on the day of the Thanksgiving.

It appear that on that evening the deceased left Waterloo station by the seven o'clock down train for Wimbledon. On the train reaching Wandsworth-common station, which is in a deep cutting, the deceased, and a gentleman named Buckley, who resides at New Kingston, took advantage of the temporary stoppage of the train to alight.

Mr. Buckley first returned to the carriage, and the train had been set in motion, when he observed the deceased, who was a very portly man, endeavouring to step on the foot board.

To enable him to do so, Mr. Buckley held out his hand, which the deceased grasped and held so firmly that, not having effected his footing on the board or step, he dragged Mr. Buckley out of the carriage and that gentleman literally rolled over the deceased on to the platform, at the same time releasing himself from the deceased, who fell between the carriage and platform; a portion of the carriage passed over his body, and so injured the spine as to produce instant paralysis, which continued until death.

Some other portion of the carriage, probably the step, caught the unfortunate man's head, both sides of which were all but scalped, the skin and hair barely being retained on the skull. Mr. Buckley, as soon as lie could recover himself, set about removing the deceased from the line, and with further assistance he was carried into the station.

Mr. Howell, sen., a surgeon at Wandsworth, attended, and Mr. Buckley, who acted throughout the matter with the greatest humanity, proceeded as quickly as possible with the deceased in a fly to Wimbledon, he being propped up by pillows, and perfectly incapable of any action except that of speaking. He was seen the same night by Mr. Fennell, who continued to attend him until his death.

[BNA: Link.]

Another WWII allotment story. This one hints at intense rivalry, in which Wandsworth Common beats Battersea Park . . . 

South Western Star — Friday 27 November 1942

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Bramfield Road Allotment Holder Wins Silver Cup.


We are informed that on re-checking the list of competitors in the recent "Dig for Victory' contest it was found that a mistake had been made in the award of the silver cup for the best allotment in Battersea Park.

The winner was given by the Ministry of Agriculture at the beginning of this month as Mr. George Biggs, of 220 Battersea Bridge-road, who cultivates Allotment 104 in Battersea Park. The mistake was discovered about a week after the results were originally announced.

The allotment holder who should have received the cup in the first place is Mr. H.J. Freeman, of 90 Bramfield-road. He also cultivates Allotment 104 — but his plot is on Wandsworth Common, not in Battersea Park.

Our reporter was told this week that the position has been explained to Mr. Biggs. "He was very disappointed, but took it very sportingly," said a Council official.

"There is no doubt about Mr. Freeman's plot being the best in the borough. In the summer judging he was awarded 92 points, and in the autumn 96 out of 100. When the mistake was discovered we thought the only thing to do was to correct it, and this was done after the matter had been brought before the Open Spaces and Cemeteries Committee."

[BNA: Link]

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And finally . . . 

We started this month's Chronicles with a quotation from the marvellous Flanders and Swann song drawing attention to fog in November. Let's finish with fog and ice in 1920.

Thick thick fog was common when I was young in the 1950s. It was made worse of course by the smoke hanging in the air. All homes were heated by coal, and there were a number of coal-fired power stations within a mile of two of the Common: including Battersea on our side of the Thames, and Lot's Road and Fulham on the other. Hence the vile poisonous yellow-brown mix of smoke and fog was called smog,and caused a "pea-souper".

I used to carry a large white pocket handkerchief. If you tied it across your mouth as a pathetic attempt at a gas mask, it would end up filthy with soot.

The derelict Fulham power station, just across Wandsworth Bridge from us.
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South Western Star — Friday 26 November 1920

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This week we had weather enough to fill an almanac. "It may be remembered" — it may also be happily forgotten — that Monday opened with a fog, the like of which has seldom been felt or tasted in daylight. Nothing could be seen but a blank mass of dark grey, seemingly impenetrable. You had to push your way through it, risk the consequences. Fortunately these were not disastrous, thanks to the care taken by everybody and to the restraint of the people who took pains not to walk unperceived into shops and there serve themselves with bargains on credit.

Trains, tram, and bus services were for the most part suspended or held up. The roads were almost empty. At Battersea Rise we heard a voice condoling with a horse — " Jimmy, my boy, we've got out. Goodness knows how we shall ever get back the stable again."

At wide intervals buses went forth — by companies — four 77's at a time, 308 in all. Though the sun struggled out at noon and after a while drove the fog away, the entanglement of traffic continued. At night the 19 buses lost themselves and were not for a season.

"At night the 19 buses lost themselves . . .  "

[We still have the 77 bus, but the 19 has been renumbered the 219. Confession: I have tweaked this image in Photoshop — the original bus was a number 15, heading for Kew. But this is how I remember fogs in the 1950s and later.]
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From Monday on frost and mist have prevailed. The frost has bitten deep. It has coated the paths and roads with crystally rime so thick that it crunched pleasantly under one's foot and made one think of the joys depicted on the pre-war Christmas cards. Ponds on the commons were coated with ice as early as Sunday morning and as late as Thursday night.

In anticipation of Christmas the County Council have stocked some of these ornamental waters with feathered fowl, ranging from gulls to swans.

The frost was a great surprise to the pheasant-coloured ducks [PB: presumably female mallards]. They stood moping on the ice, their necks drawn down between their shoulders and their sheeny green heads held on one side. The leader of the tribe has for aome dove been pondering over the riddle of the universe and has not solved it. A gull silently derided the profound thinker.

To the swans the ice on Wandsworth Common pond was a personal affront. It prevented them from getting at the policeman who stood by the rails and smiled provokingly. Again and again father swan, swimming across a square yard of open water, tried to act as ice-breaker but each time he pulled up with a thud.

One of the unemployed — unfeathered and nestless — made remarks.

"You'd go for him if you could, wouldn't you, old man? You've got a grudge against the pleece."

He explained why.

"When they (the swans, not the police) was anesting on the island the night duty men used to shine the bull's eye on 'em. Lumme he ain't never forgot it."

[BNA: Link]

[Interesting: notice the facetious reference to an unemployed man, and the presence of police on the Common day and night.]

As a special treat, here are some wonderful photographs by Lewis More O'Ferrall of birds on the frozen Lake :

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Aren't they wonderful. Thank you, Lewis.


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