Change in the Countryside

Change in the Countryside

As the influence of London spread further out into Surrey there was one problem which hampered the growth of prosperity in the towns and villages – the poor condition of the roads, especially across those areas of clay both to the north and south of the Downs. In winter these unsurfaced tracks were reduced to a quagmire unless set hard by a sharp frost. When the Duke of Richmond travelled through Surrey to his country seat at Goodwood he needed eight horses to pull his coach, in order to be certain of getting through. For the Duke of Somerset the average speed of the trip to his seat at Petworth was less than two miles an hour. Little surprise, therefore, that in each town and village along these routes there developed a plethora of stopping places in the form of inns and taverns. The Duke of Somerset would break his journey with a stopover at his own town house in Guildford. The Duke of Richmond often did the same at Godalming.

The improvement of the road system throughout the county was an important feature of the second half of the 18th century and the early part of the following century. It was achieved by the establishment of turnpike trusts responsible for the upkeep of the roads in return for the payment of tolls by those using them. Tollgates, with their cottages for the collector, soon became a feature of these turnpike roads.

There were several important main routes which traversed the county. They included the road from London to Portsmouth by way of Kingston, Esher, Cobham, Ripley, Guildford and Godalming and out over the heights of Hindhead and into Hampshire. At Cobham there was a mile stretch of road running straight and true across a well drained gravel plateau. Here the coaches got up a good speed, perhaps 20 miles an hour, and for this reason the stretch became known as the Fairmile, a name which has survived to this day. The route from Kingston to Sheet, near Petersfield was turnpiked in 1758 and further improved in 1826. Turnpike improvements such as these often left sections of the old road abandoned, which can still be traced where the former route has survived as a bridleway or track. Thus, at Hindhead, the old route went right over Hind Common on the very lip of the Devil’s Punchbowl. To remove the steep climb which considerably slowed down the coaches, a new road was constructed in 1826 some way down the slope. It is this route which the A3 follows at the time of writing. However, the ultimate in road improvements is soon scheduled for this area, where it is planned to put the road through a tunnel dug under the hill. The original road traversed by the likes of Samuel Pepys is now nothing more than a rough track between the gorse and bracken.

In East Surrey the most important route ran through Croydon and then up the Caterham Valley and over the Downs to Godstone. The road then went straight over Tilburstow Hill and down into Sussex, where it gave access to the ancient ports of Lewes and Shoreham. Later, when sea bathing became popular, the route was improved to provide a good road to Brighton, by the removal of difficult sections such as the steep climb over Tilburstow Hill. Another route to Brighton came over the Downs at Tadworth to Reigate. Most of this route was turnpiked for carriages in 1755 and further improved in 1820 – improvements which considerably eased the gradient of Reigate Hill and also gave travellers coming from London that abrupt entry into the town of Reigate via a tunnel, an excitement lost to the car driver only in recent years.

In the mid-1750s a new turnpike road was built connecting Epsom with Guildford, which for much of its route ran along the edge of the Downs on well drained land. For some time it was a more popular road for travellers from Kingston to Guildford via Leatherhead than the more direct but poorer road via Esher and Ripley.

These improvements to the roads were potentially a great boost to the prosperity of Surrey’s farmers, for the rapidly expanding markets of London were now much more readily accessible. The 18th century saw many improvements in the county’s agriculture. Market gardens were established in the northern parts of the county to supply fresh vegetables to the capital. In the Woking and Chertsey areas the soil proved highly suitable for the cultivation of root crops such as parsnips and carrots. Potatoes also became a popular crop, which found a ready market in London. New studies of farming methods led to the introduction in many parts of Surrey of a better system of crop rotation. In medieval times perhaps one third of the land would be lying fallow, but the planting of new varieties of grass and root crops such as turnips removed the necessity of this wastage. These crops also provided better fodder for cattle and sheep, especially through the winter, enabling farmers to keep more animals into the following year, thus expanding the size of their herds and flocks. Some areas on the North Downs, particularly Banstead, were famous for the quality of the mutton from the local sheep. However, over the greater part of the county, arable predominated over pasture and the growing of wheat, barley and oats was the main farming activity.

The population of England is estimated to have been about six million in 1760 but by 1831 it had more than doubled. With such a rapidly expanding market for their produce the landowners and farmers of Surrey were under pressure to improve their methods to increase production. However, there were still factors which considerably hindered the improvement of the county’s agricultural output. In many parts of Surrey the inefficient medieval system of strip cultivation in common fields survived into the 19th century. For example, there were 300 acres of such fields in Egham parish, 250 acres in adjacent Hythe, 2,000 in Sutton and Cheam and the same number in Leatherhead. Enclosure was seen by many as the panacea.

Those intent on improvement also looked avariciously upon the county’s 17,500 acres of commons, where farmers and villagers exercised their ancient commoners’ rights to graze their animals, dig peat and turf for fuel and cut wood. William Stevenson in his 1809 report on the state of the county’s agriculture wrote of ‘the situation and extent of wastes, commons and common fields in Surrey, the nature of the soil of each, the loss and disgrace attending their present state, and the advantage that would result to the landed proprietors, the farmers, and the country at large, if they were brought into proper cultivation.’ It was often the nature of the soil that limited agricultural development, but even the county’s 48,000 acres of acid heathlands came under Stevenson’s scrutiny and were deemed suitable for the growing of fir trees. So gradually, the remaining common fields were enclosed and the more fertile commons fenced off, leaving those of limited income and resources bereft of rights which had once kept them just above the poverty line. For many people, as these oft quoted lines from The Tickler Magazine of February 1802 made clear, enclosure was nothing short of legalised robbery:

‘The fault is great in man or woman

Who steals a goose from off the common,

But what can plead THAT man

Who steals a common off a goose?’

A champion of the dispossessed farmer was William Cobbett, who was born in 1763 at Farnham and died at Normandy, near Ash, in 1835. Cobbett was a prolific writer and political commentator who spent a number of years in America. When he returned to England he was appalled to find the dramatic changes which were taking place in the countryside he loved. He particularly hated to see the growth of London, the ‘great wen’, as he called the capital, and he spent much of the latter part of his life in outspoken criticism of those who saw the countryside only as a source of profit.

Cobbett is best remembered for his book Rural Rides, which resulted from a tour he made on horseback through substantial areas of England, mainly in the 1820s. Cobbett wanted to see for himself how the people of the countryside were faring, to use his travels as a vehicle for his political views and often to comment on the farms and crops which he passed by on his route.

In September 1826 Cobbett was at Worcester, where the hop harvest had recently been completed. There he met a man who claimed that he would never use Farnham hops in brewing, even if they were a gift. Cobbett, uncharacteristically not wishing to get into an argument on this score, simply noted that ‘Farnham hops always sold at about double the price of the Worcester; but if he had said the same thing to any other Farnham man that I ever saw, I should have preferred being absent from the spot: the hops are bitter, but nothing is their bitterness compared to the language that my townsman would have put forth.’

Cobbett did not exaggerate the comparison between the Farnham and Worcester hops, for those grown on the sheltered hillsides around his home town were considered by brewers to be amongst the very best. Hop growing was well established around Farnham by the beginning of the 18th century, when there were an estimated 300 acres of gardens. Towards the end of the century, paler, bitter beers began to become fashionable and the lighter coloured Farnham hop became particularly favoured. This popularity was reflected in a rapid increase in the extent of the gardens, which had reached nearly 1,000 acres by 1841. From 1774 all hops were required by law to be packed in special bags or ‘pockets’ marked with the year of growth, the place and name of the grower. In Farnham the pockets were stamped with a great variety of insignia identifying individual growers. The hops were sold each October at the great hop fair at Weyhill in Hampshire, where the Farnham sellers had their own stand and where, as Cobbett noted, their hops invariably obtained the best prices. One place in Surrey which Cobbett does not seem to have visited, perhaps because it was too close to his hated ‘great wen’, was the ‘physic’ gardens of Mitcham. Which is a pity, because they were once a particularly fascinating part of the county’s agricultural scene.

The soil of the area around Mitcham was described as a ‘rich black mould’ and was particularly favourable for the cultivation of a variety of important herbs, of which lavender and peppermint were the most important. ‘Mitcham mints’ have remained popular well into the 20th century, but the plant was also used in the manufacture of peppermint water or cordial. Lavender growing at Mitcham possibly dates from medieval years and was well established by Cobbett’s time. Rapid expansion took place in the early 19th century and, by the 1850s, there were over 800 acres of ‘physic’ gardens in the area. Here many other plants with a variety of uses, especially in medicines, were also grown. These included camomile, poppy, liquorice, rhubarb, mint, aniseed and wormwood. Such was the demand during Victorian times that the gardens, especially for lavender, soon spread out from Mitcham to take in many acres of fields around Carshalton, Beddington, Wallington and Sutton.

The harvesting of the various herbs required a great deal of extra labour. Often the children were kept home from school, according to the season, to help in the gathering of the camomile, peppermint or lavender. As a result, absenteeism was a serious problem in many Mitcham schools and prizes were offered for record attendance as an encouragement to put school first. Many Irish families would come to help when the lavender and peppermint was harvested, afterwards travelling on to Kent for the hop-picking. Lavender oil was extracted in distilleries and these usually two-storey wooden buildings were once a common sight around Mitcham. The stills themselves were huge copper vessels. Schoolboys were often employed to tread down the flowers in them and sometimes paid danger money in a good season for bees! Apparently, after a few days of treading, the boys became oblivious to the pain.

The decline of this remarkable industry around Mitcham belongs to a later phase of Surrey’s history, when the flower-covered fields were smothered by suburban housing and the once perfumed air replaced by the smoke of a mass of domestic chimneys.

By the 1850s, when the physic gardens of Mitcham were in their prime, the lot of those who toiled in the fields of Surrey was still one of hard labour and an uncertain future. Matters had improved a little from the bad times of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. In those days the poverty of the farm labourer and his family had been inextricably linked to the quality of each corn harvest and the resultant price of bread, their staple food. When the harvest was poor, the labourer found his wages cut or he was laid off without any pay at all. At the same time, food shortages, against a background of rapidly rising population, pushed up demand, causing higher prices. Therefore, the gap between what the labourer had to spend and the price of the food he needed to buy, to avoid starvation, widened dramatically. Even men in full employment often failed to earn sufficient to feed their growing families.

The Poor Laws instituted towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I had worked reasonably well whilst the population remained relatively stable. There had been changes over the years – in 1723 parish officers were empowered to set up workhouses in which to lodge the poor and set them to useful employment. Many Surrey parishes established workhouses as a result and in 1782 parishes were allowed to operate joint workhouses. However, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the demands of the poor rate, levied on the owners of property and land for the upkeep of the parish poor, began to place a heavy burden upon the more well-off parishioners. This is well illustrated in Shere, which in the late Georgian period was still a fairly isolated rural community. In 1780 only 88 out of a total of about 820 inhabitants of the parish were receiving poor relief. By 1818/1819 the population had risen by a little over 200, yet 554 were being supported from the poor rate. However, the Shere overseers did not shirk their responsibilities in looking after the health and welfare of their less fortunate parishioners – as this entry in their accounts dated 14th October 1821 proves:

‘James Tickner, for sea bathing at Margate, £5’

Sea bathing was at the time, of course, considered highly beneficial for the cure of a great variety of ailments. In James Tickner’s case it seems to have worked, although there is no record of what he was actually suffering from. Such care cost money, which in 1780 in Shere had amounted to £155 but this had risen to £1,138 by 1818/1819.

Clearly economies of scale were what was called for. The result was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which grouped large numbers of parishes together in ‘unions’ with a single workhouse. The affairs of the poor were now to be looked after by a ‘board of guardians’ and efficiency and a reduction in the poor rate was the main objective, not an improvement in the lot of the poor. Shere found itself in the Guildford Union, whose workhouse in Warren Road, Guildford, was opened in 1838. For the poor of the village, especially those suffering the infirmity of old age, it was a long way from home.