In Peace and War

In Peace and War

The county of Surrey has played a surprisingly important role in the development of the motor-car. A Farnham man, John  Henry Knight, is credited with building the first British car in 1895. The county has been the birthplace of a large number of different makes of vehicle propelled by the internal combustion engine – at Farnham it was the ‘Pilgrim’ motor-car, at Egham they built Lagondas and even Godalming had its ‘Victoria’ model.

At Guildford, John and Raymond Dennis set up their business, making and selling bicycles, in 1895. By 1898 they were manufacturing motorised tricycles which could ascend the bumps of Guildford High Street at the then breath-taking speed of 16 mph. It was not long before the brothers very successfully turned their attention to the production of four-wheelers. By 1900, business had expanded so much that they began the construction of a factory in Onslow Street, Guildford. This building is still standing today and has claims to be the oldest surviving purpose-built car factory in the world. However, by 1905, with business still growing rapidly, the Dennis brothers began a second factory at Woodbridge. Later the firm ceased the production of cars and turned its attention to the manufacture of the commercial vehicles for which it became so famous. These included buses, lorries, dustcarts and fire engines.

The motor-car was not well received by the Surrey authorities, who attempted to limit its speed on the open road to 20 mph. In towns the limit was half that and many Surrey magistrates soon gained a reputation for the swingeing fines they imposed upon those who dared to use the full power of their motors. Some Surrey towns were infamous amongst the motoring fraternity for the efficiency of their speed traps. The newly formed Automobile Association, whose staff traversed the roads by bicycle, often stationed themselves at the entrance to towns like Godalming and Reigate to warn their members when a trap was in operation! These restrictions were damaging to motor manufacturers seeking somewhere to test their products. There were no such restrictions in operation on the Continent and British car makers were obviously at a disadvantage.

All this was to change, thanks to the foresight of one Surrey man – Hugh Locke King. He lived in a large house near Weybridge station on the edge of St George’s Hill and for generations his family had been major landowners in the area. Locke King was a confirmed car enthusiast and he was particularly concerned that British car makers should be given every facility to develop vehicles as good as their counterparts in Europe. He recognised that Britain needed a purpose-built track on private land, where cars could be tested and raced flat out without their drivers facing arrest and heavy fines.

Below St George’s Hill, the Locke King estate included a large tract of damp and marshy meadowland astride the meandering river Wey. Locke King was determined that this was the spot where his motor track should be built. In 1906 plans were drawn up, and in a mere eight months the meadowland was transformed. It was a colossal undertaking which employed 2,000 men working almost non-stop. The river was diverted and bridged in two places; massive concrete banking nearly 30 ft high was constructed on the bends and 350,000 cubic yards of soil and sand excavated.

The new track was named Brooklands and the motor course was officially opened on 17th June 1907. It was the first in the world. In just a few short months peaceful meadows had been turned into 2/4 miles of oval, 100 ft wide concrete track, with a separate finishing straight in the middle. The first race meeting was held on 6th July 1907.

The competing cars carried no numbers and spectators were expected to identify them by means of the racing colours worn by the drivers, rather like jockeys. This similarity with horse racing extended to the entry fees and prize money, which were in sovereigns, whilst the results of each race were put up on a board, just like those still seen today just a few miles down the road at Sandown. It was no coincidence that the starter at this first meeting just happened to be a member of the Jockey Club! Modern motor racing circuits still have a paddock but the original was at Brooklands.

Once the teething problems had been ironed out, Brooklands.became an extremely popular track not only for cars but also for motorbikes and cycles.

In the same year that motor racing commenced at Brooklands, a certain Alliott Verdon-Roe arrived there to experiment with that new wondrous invention, the heavier than air flying machine, first flown by the Wright brothers in 1903. In the early morning of a fine day in September 1907 the intrepid Verdon-Roe succeeded in launching his newly built machine off the embankment of the motor track and he glided a distance of 79 ft, just 10 ft off the ground. Verdon-Roe’s exploit was not officially witnessed and, like the successful powered flights he made the following June, did not go down in the record books as the first in Britain. The company that Verdon-Roe founded was called Avro and was to become famous for many successful aircraft over the years. However, the official honour of the first flight in Britain went to an American, Colonel Samuel Cody, who successfully flew for just over 1/4 mile at Farnborough, just over the border in Hampshire, on 16th October 1908.

It was not long before Brookiands developed as the pioneering centre of aviation in Britain and many famous names flew here, including Tommy Sopwith, Harry Hawker and John Alcock. Alcock learnt to fly at Brookiands and was trained by Mrs Hilda B. Hewlett, wife of the then popular novelist, Maurice Hewlett. In August 1911 Hilda Hewlett had became the first woman to be granted a pilot’s certificate. Alcock went on to become the legendary aviator who, with Arthur Whitten Brown, was the first to fly the Atlantic in 1919.

The aircraft in which Alcock and Brown so bravely crossed that vast ocean was a Vickers Vimy. It was built by Vickers at their aircraft factory, which had been established at Brookiands in 1915. Many famous aircraft were to emerge from this factory over the years, including the Wellington bomber, which played an important part in the victory over the Germans in the Second World War, especially during the early part of the war. The frame of the Wellington was designed by Barnes Wallis who carried out many of his researches at Brookiands. It was here that he designed the famous ‘Dambusters’ bouncing bomb which was used to attack the Mohne and Ruhr dams in Germany in May 1943.

The potential of the aircraft in wartime had been recognised during the First World War. This was a conflict where, for the first time, some of those left by the firesides at home became directly involved. The threat did not, however, come from German aircraft, whose range at the time was far too short. In 1915 the Germans really brought the war to England, when the long shadow of the Zeppelin airship was cast across the towns and villages of England and German bombs brought death to places like Lowestoft. On the 13th October 1915 a Zeppelin appeared over Surrey and flew towards Guildford, where it dropped several bombs. If the target was the town, the Germans missed and some of the bombs came clown at St Catherines where they claimed their only Surrey victim – a swan paddling innocently along the river Wey.

The First World War brought massive army activity to Surrey, not only at the existing barracks, but also at huge temporary camps set up, for example, at Witley and Woodcote. At Witley, as at most of these places, local tradesmen benefited from the thousands of extra customers, including troops from Canada. Shops built of galvanised iron and wood sprang up along the Portsmouth road, which passed through the camp, and this commercial settlement, with cafés and a cinema as well, became known as ‘Tin Town’. These camps were the slickly operated factories for the cannon fodder of the Western Front, where thousands of Surrey men were included amongst the dead.

The end of the First World War came in November 1918 when the enemy was finally hammered into submission, but a more deadly foe was already stalking the homes of Britain. The Spanish flu, nicknamed ‘the plague of the Spanish lady’, was to claim more lives throughout Europe than had perished in the fighting. The epidemic was at its worst during the autumn of 1918 and into early 1919 and many of Surrey’s schools were closed for the duration.

Following the victory, the giant ‘war machine’ took a long time to run down and many Canadian troops stationed in Surrey spent a frustrating time waiting to go home. Matters came to a head in June 1919 when the Canadians at Witley rioted and burnt down ‘Tin Town’. At Epsom they wrecked the local police station and, it is said, killed a policeman, although that matter seems to be missing from the records.

This ‘war to end all wars’ left every community in Britain bereft of so many of its menfolk. Every part of Surrey felt the loss and today we have those long lists of names upon too many memorials to remind us of that tragic waste of life.

Several of the those war memorials were designed by Surrey’s most famous architect, Edwin Lutyens, including those at Abinger and Bus-bridge, near Godalming. Lutyens was also responsible for the nation’s principal memorial, the Cenotaph in Whitehall. He was born in London in 1869 but much of his early life was spent at Thursley. He is best remembered for his fine country houses, built mainly around the turn of the century. In many cases the gardens of these houses were laid out to designs by Gertude Jekyll, the talented gardener, embroiderer, artist and photographer.

Gertrude Jekyll was also the author of numerous books, mainly on gardening, but including Old West Surrey published in 1904. In this book Gertrude Jekyll faithfully recorded all she could about the rapidly vanishing way of life in this rural corner of the county. It was a book many years ahead of its time and included the significant plea, ‘Even from the point of view of commercial convenience and well-being it would be well if there could be some strict censorship exercised in the matter of the removal or rebuilding of houses in such conspicuous positions as the streets of country towns.’ It was a plea which went unnoticed throughout much of Surrey until the introduction of town conservation areas in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, some steps were being taken to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Surrey countryside, and these were spearheaded by the work of the National Trust. A major victory for preservation was won when Leopold Salomons of Norbury Park, Mickleham, presented the summit of Box Hill to the National Trust in 1914. Colley Hill above Reigate had been saved two years before, thanks to an appeal run by The Spectator to raise money for its purchase. Thus the Downs became a bulwark against the invasion of bricks and mortar, a defence now bolstered by post-Second World War planning laws and the ‘green belt’ policy.

By the 1920s the spread of London had reached as far as Merton, but from there the land to the south was still predominantly rural. Then, in 1926, the Northern Line of the Underground reached Morden. At first, the steps of this terminus led out into a world of green fields and hedgerows, where small streams like the Beverley Brook and the Hogsmill meandered, crossed by country lanes at shallow fords, or watersplashes as they were known. Adjacent to Morden Park with its Georgian mansion, small weather-boarded cottages were scattered along the edge of Lower Morden Green, where the lane led past Peacock Farm and Hatfield Farm. The scene was now to change – replaced by streets of semi-detached and terraced mock Tudor houses with names like Aragon Road, Cardinal Avenue and Cranmer Close.

From Morden through Maiden to Kingston and down to Ewell, Epsom, Cheam and Sutton there came this extraordinary outburst of home building. Britain was becoming a nation of home owners and many of them wanted to live in Surrey. Newspapers, magazines and guidebooks bulged with advertisements extolling the delights of this or that suburb and happiness was yours for a £25 deposit.

At weekends those from the suburbs came out in their Morris Eights, Austin Sevens and Ford Eights and Surrey began to experience serious traffic problems. The first jams had begun back in the early 1920s on the Portsmouth road through Kingston. The solution was a new road, opened in 1926, which cut across the countryside to the east of the town. It was Britain’s first traffic bypass. Similar roads were constructed in the 1930s to avoid Guildford, Godalming, Mickleham and Caterham among others. A road across open commons was built as a link to the new Hampton Court Bridge, designed by Lutyens. A seemingly unstoppable process had begun which continues to eat away at the Surrey countryside to this day.

In the inter-war period Surrey not only had an important role in aircraft manufacture but, at Croydon, a public airport, which opened in March 1920, was developed. Croydon Airport is best remembered for the part it played in the pioneering exploits of early long distance aviators, including Amy Johnson. In May 1930 she flew a de Havilland Moth biplane solo from Croydon to Darwin in Australia. The journey, which, of course, required regular refuelling stops, took three weeks to complete. In December 1932 she flew from Cape Town to Croydon in a week. An interesting flight took place in April 1937 when two Japanese airmen, Masaaki linuma and Kenjii Tsukagoshi, landed at Croydon, having taken just under four days to fly from Tokyo.

By 1938 Croydon Airport was proving to be too small for the rapidly increasing number of civil flights and British Airways (a different airline from the modern BA) transferred their day flights to Gatwick. But, along with several other airfields in Surrey, Croydon still had an important role to play in the events which followed the declaration of war in September 1939.

In the spring and summer of 1940 the threat of invasion was very real. On the evening of 14th May the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, broadcast to the nation. He called for ex-servicemen and those exempt from military service to take up arms in defence of their threatened country. Many hundreds of Surrey men queued outside their local police stations the following day to sign up for service in the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to he known as the Home Guard. Surrey had no shortage of resident ex-army officers to lead these volunteers. Typical of them was Colonel G.C. Hodgson, who was appointed commanding officer of what later became the 53rd Surrey Battalion of the Home Guard. Hodgson had joined the Indian Army in 1897 and was severely wounded during the Younghusband Expedition, which had fought its way through Tibet to Lhasa in 1904. As a result he had been awarded the DSO. The men of Hodgson’s Home Guard covered the Dittons, Molesey and Esher areas and their responsibilities included guarding Hampton Court Bridge.

The dangers of 1940 also prompted the construction of a chain defences along the North Downs and in the river valleys. This ‘GHQ Stopline’ consisted of anti-tank ditches, anti-tank concrete ‘pimples’ and a variety of different types of pillboxes, strategically placed. Many of these defences can still be seen today and are now receiving much warranted interest from military historians and archaeologists. It was only by luck and courage that these defences were never used and that the Home Guard were never called to fight in earnest. After the war it was discovered that one of the German invasion plans involved landing a large force on the Sussex coast, with the initial spearhead then driving north for the Guildford gap, in a movement to outflank the defenders of London. Had the invasion ever come about, Surrey towns and villages like Godalming, Bramley and Shalford might have given their names to crucial battles of the Second World War.

This did not happen, because of those brave ‘few’ who risked, and often gave, their lives over the fields of southern England in that warm late summer of 1940. On 15th August German aircraft attacked Croydon aerodrome. However, most of their bombs fell on factories on the fringes of the target but 63 people, mostly civilians, were killed. The squadron of Hawker Hurricanes based at Croydon had their revenge and only a few of the raiders managed to get back across the Channel.

Sunday, 18th August 1940 was a fine, sunny day with a little enemy activity, but at 1 o’clock a substantial flight of nearly 60 German aircraft crossed the southern coast. There also came a small group of nine Dornier 17s flying as low as 50 ft above the ground, avoiding radar. Their target – RAF Kenley. The Germans had intended that these nine aircraft should come in low over Kenley after the other aircraft had bombed the airfield from a higher altitude. In the event, the Dornier 17s got there first, flying over Bletchingley, then almost scraping the roofs of Caterham. One of them dropped a few small bombs over the town, hitting three cottages in Oak Road and killing a woman. Several other inhabitants were wounded and a horse pulling a milk float was also hit. The unfortunate animal was found dead between the shafts.

Over Kenley airfield the German aircraft did their worst – hangars were bombed with ease and various other buildings, including the hospital block, badly damaged or reduced to rubble. A little later bombs rained down from those aircraft flying in at altitude. However, the Germans came under heavy fire both from the ground and from defending Hurricanes. One Dornier was hit and crashed into a bungalow. All the crew were killed but the five occupants of the building miraculously escaped from the burning ruins. A second Dornier was hit and crash-landed in a field near Biggin Hill, the crew surviving. At Kenley, ten British servicemen had not been so fortunate and were either killed or died later of their wounds.

Meanwhile, the attacking Hurricanes were also taking casualties as they chased the retreating German aircraft. During a dogfight over Worcester Park, a Hurricane was badly damaged but the pilot, realising that if he bailed out his aircraft might crash on the homes below, stayed with his machine. He attempted a landing in Morden Park but hit some trees and was killed. The author well remembers as a child being shown the spot where this brave young man gave his life for others. In 1971 Merton Technical College was built there, but the Hurricane pilot was not forgotten – on a wall of the building a commemorative plaque carries the inscription, ‘. . . erected by public subscription to honour the memory of No. 819018 Sergeant P.K. Walley, Battle of Britain pilot of 615 Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 20 years old. Shot down by enemy raiders August 18th 1940. It is recalled with pride that, knowing he was about to crash, Sergeant Walley bravely managed to guide his badly damaged aircraft over nearby houses. Thereby safeguarding the lives of the residents.’

Sergeant Walley is remembered in Surrey today, just as are over 20,000 British and Commonwealth airmen who perished in the war but have no known grave. The impressive memorial to them stands on the hill overlooking the meadows of Runnymede, where over 700 years earlier the first step was taken towards the democracy which they died trying to preserve.

The German raid on Kenley was one small but significant incident in a long and painful war. On 4th September there was a terrible raid on the Vickers Aircraft Works near Brooklands which resulted in a large number of casualties. There were to be many more raids before the war was ended and, just as peace seemed within grasp, there came the fearful raids of the ‘doodlebugs’. A large number of flying bombs dropped on Surre – five fell on Guildford and two on Godalming, twenty came down in the Dorking area killing a total of three residents. On 6th July 1944 one fell on County Hall at Kingston, but the council’s staff carried on phlegmatically as usual. In August 1944 another came straight down on Abinger parish church. Under the headline ‘Bomb destroys Church’ the local paper reported succinctly, ‘A flying bomb fell on a country church in Southern England just before morning service was due to begin yesterday morning. As the bomb was falling the Rector was on his way to church. He was not injured. Rescue men, firemen and soldiers searched the rubble in case people had got to church early for the service, but no one was found.’

For all Surrey civilians the war meant the blackout, the fearfñl wailing of the air raid sirens, the hasty retreat to shelters on the playing fields, in the back garden or under the stairs, and rationing. Long after the war had ended the rationing continued and it was 1954 before the last of it was gone. The year before, in celebration of Coronation Day, most Surrey school children received a gift. For the author it was a cup and saucer, printed with a picture of the new queen, and the largest orange ever seen. The crockery was flung into the school bag to take its chance, the orange borne home like treasure from the East.