The Industries of Surrey

The Industries of Surrey

The improvement in communications in Surrey during the reign of George III was not confined to the turnpiking of the county’s roads. Several canals were also constructed, which gave producers of a variety of bulk goods and foodstuffs access to greatly expanded markets. Guildford and those places along the lower reaches of the river Wey had experienced the advantages of water transport since 1653, when the Wey Navigation was opened. This linked the county town with the Thames, giving access not only to London but also upstream as far as Oxford. The driving force behind this pioneering waterway was Sir Richard Weston of Sutton Place. He had witnessed the operation of pound locks and sluices in the Netherlands and is credited with introducing the system to England. As a result of this remarkable feat of engineering, Guildford developed into an important centre for the supply of corn and timber, mainly oak from the Wealden woodlands, to London. Guildford beer was also much in demand in the capital and barges laden with barrels were a frequent sight upon the river.

In the spring of 1764 this waterway was extended to Godalming, with the opening of the Godalming Navigation. The Wey Navigation had brought barges only as far as the downstream side of Guildford’s Town Bridge. The central arch of the medieval bridge was now enlarged and a further series of locks constructed, to enable barges to proceed to a wharf at Godalming. Here a busy centre for the bulk shipment of corn, timber, iron and stone was quickly developed.

In 1794 the Basingstoke Canal was opened, which, leaving the Wey a short distance downstream from Byfleet, ran north of the old settlement of Woking and Pirbright to Frimley and Ash. Its course then went out of the county into Hampshire, south of the small village of Aldershot and thence to Basingstoke. The Surrey section of the canal required 28 locks and a cutting through Frimley Hill 1,000 yards long and up to 70 ft deep. The cutting gave the name of Deepcut to the adjacent area. It was intended that the canal should then link up with the Itchen, giving an inland waterway to Southampton, but this extension was never built. Thus, traffic on the canal was limited and it never made a profit, despite receiving a boost when Aldershot was developed as a military base in the late 1850s. A small amount of commercial traffic continued on the Surrey section of the Basingstoke Canal until 1949, when a last load of timber was carried to Woking. The canal was then left to decay until 1966 when a group of enthusiasts formed the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society to press for restoration. Surrey and Hampshire County Councils purchased the canal during the 1970s. Since then, a workforce consisting mainly of volunteers has restored the canal through much of its length, aided by money from the councils, local companies and private donations.

The Wey and Arun Junction Canal was opened in 1816 to provide a link between the Godalniing Navigation near Shalford and the Arun Canal at Newbridge, near Wisborough Green in Sussex. It thus completed the inland waterway linking London with the English Channel and ran via Bramley to Alfold, then into Sussex at Loxwood. The Surrey section required 15 locks and a small aqueduct at Bramley. Barges on the canal carried a great variety of goods – seaweed, for use as fertilizer, coal, groceries and provisions were brought from Littlehampiion, whilst timber, flour, bark and farm produce were carried away. Very occasionally, barges passed through under heavy guard, carrying bullion to the Bank of England. Like so many canals throughout Britain, it was the coming of the railways which killed off this waterway and in 1871 it closed. Since 1970 there have been valiant efforts to restore it and some sections have been reclaimed but, as parts of the canal bed are now built over, it seems unlikely that it can ever be returned to its former glory.

It would be easy to believe that, apart from these interesting canals, the county of Surrey has little to contribute to the industrial heritage of Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth. The industries of the county are worthy of a substantial history of their own, but here there is space for only a brief résumé, with examples, to give a hint of a complex and varied past.

During the medieval period, the south-west of the county developed into a centre for the production of woollen cloth. It is said that the monks of Waverley Abbey, founded in 1128, were responsible for the beginnings of the industry, which was centred on the three main settlements of Farnham, Guildford and Godalming. The hills around the area, with their mainly light soils, were ideal for the folding of sheep, and the chalk downs in particular offered good grass upon which the animals thrived. The river and streams provided a steady head of water to drive the fulling mills, fulling being an important process in the manufacture of the cloth, when the raw woven material was cleansed and thickened in a mixture of water and fuller’s earth. Fuller’s earth occurs as a natural substance in geological deposits of the Cretaceous age, especially at Nutfield near Reigate. In modern times the earth has been dug for a great variety of other uses, with 40% of it being used as cat litter. The deposits have now been worked out and the last pit closed only recently.

Originally, fulling was done by men treading or walking the cloth in wooden tubs filled with the fuller’s earth and water. It is from this occupation that the common surname of ‘Walker’ is derived. Sometime in the first half of the 13th century the power of the waterwheel was harnessed to drive large wooden mallets which pummelled the cloth, thus making Mr Walker redundant. Many watermills in Surrey were used for fulling at some point in their history – one of the earliest in England was built at Guildford in 1251. During the 14th century there was a fulling mill at Catteshall, near Godalming, and Rake Mill at Milford was recorded as one in 1577.

Cloth manufacture in south-west Surrey was well established by 1252. In that year it was recorded that ‘Chalons of Guildford’, a type of cloth named after Chalon-sur-Marne in France, was bought for Henry III at Winchester Fair. By the reign of Elizabeth I production was concentrated on a type of course cloth called ‘Kersey’ from the town of that name in Suffolk, where it originated. The cloth was commonly dyed blue with woad, and became known generically as ‘Guildford Blue’, although much of it was made in adjacent places, particularly Godalming, Wonersh and outlying villages such as Horsley.

After the fulling process was completed, the lengths of cloth were stretched and dried on racks or tenter-frames, being fixed to the device by tenterhooks. This process has left its legacy in the English language with the phrase ‘to be on tenterhooks’. Racks were to be found in various places in Godaiming, whilst in Guildford the industry is still recalled by the name of Racks Close, near the Castle. The process gave the unscrupulous clothier the opportunity to make larger profits by over stretching the cloth during drying, thereby producing greater lengths for the same original amount of material. The buyer would not, of course, be aware of the trick until the cloth next got wet! In 1391 Parliament passed a statute in an attempt to combat the abuse, but the problem continued to regularly occur. In 1565 twelve Godalming clothiers were accused of using various instruments to strain and stretch their cloth.

It was this dishonesty which many saw as the main cause of the rapid decline of the industry during the reign of James I. Although it was, perhaps, partly to blame, the real reason was that this rather coarse cloth had simply become unfashionable in the face of competition from finer weaves. By the end of the 17th century the cloth industry had died out completely in Farnham, Guildford and Wonersh, but John Aubrey, writing in the late 1670s, was able to say of Goclalming, ‘This town is eminent for Clothing, the most of any Place in this County: Here they maked mix’d Kersies, and blue Kersies for the Canaries, which for their Colour are not equall’d by any in England.’ The curious destination of the cloth is probably explained by the fact that the Canary Islands acted as a staging post for distribution throughout the Spanish Empire in the New World. Clothmaking survived on a much reduced scale in the town until well into the Victorian period.

In Godalming, as the cloth industry fell from importance it was replaced by the framework knitting of hosiery. The town become a major centre for the production of stockings and other knitted items in wool, silk and cotton. A major development occurred in 1788, when George Holland was granted a patent for the manufacture, from specially prepared wool, of ‘Fleecy and Segovia Hosiery’. Godalming was quickly established as the centre of production for Holland’s hosiery, which was described in the patent as a ‘new invented method of making stockings gloves, mitts socks caps, coats waistcoats, breeches cloaks     and other clothing, and linings for the same, for persons afflicted with gout, rheumatism, and other complaints requiring warmth, and of common use in cold climates and of making false or downy calves in stockings, a thing never before put in practise.’ Production of George Holland’s invention continued in Godalming until about 1890 but other branches of the knitting industry continued to operate in the town until very recently. Two Victorian hosiery factory buildings survive today, as does a fine example of a frameshop in Mint Street – reminders of a once important Surrey industry.

There were many other industries in Surrey which, like clothmaking, had need of a good water supply and power from the waterwheel. These included, for example, papermaking and tanning. There were papermills on several of the county’s rivers including the river Wey and the Tillingbourne, where high quality paper for banknotes was manufactured. Tanneries were also to be found in a number of places along these rivers. Calico bleaching and snuff manufacture were amongst many industries active on the river Wandle, but perhaps the most fascinating industry of all was the manufacture of gunpowder, especially on the river Tillingbourne.

William Cobbett, referring to one of his numerous rides along the Tillingbourne valley wrote, ‘I came over the high hill on the south of Guildford, and came down to Chilworth, and up the valley to Albury. I noticed, in my first Rural Ride, this beautiful valley, its hangers, its meadows, its hop-gardens, and its ponds … This pretty valley of Chilworth has a run of water which comes out of the high hills, and which, occasionally, spreads into a pond . . . This valley, which seems to have been created by bountiful providence, as one of the choicest retreats of man; which seems formed for a scene of innocence and happiness, has been, by ungrateful man, so perverted as to make it instrumental in effecting two of the most damnable of purposes; in carrying into execution two of the damnable inventions that ever sprang from the minds of man under the influence of the devil! namely, the making of gunpowder and of bank notes!’

In Surrey the story of the first of these ‘damnable inventions’ begins well before Cobbett’s time. In 1589 the Evelyn family of Wotton were granted patents by Elizabeth I for the manufacture of gunpowder. It is thought that their original powdermill was at Long Diuon and later at Godstone, whilst at Abinger a mill was operated by one of the Evelyns’ partners, Richard Hill. In 1625 the first powdermill at Chilworth was established by the East India Company. The Company had the advantage of a supply of natural saltpetre, that essential ingredient of gunpowder, which they imported from the sub-continent in large quantities. Here, beside the rippling, clear waters of Surrey’s most picturesque stream, there developed one of the nation’s most important centres of gunpowder manufacture.

Martin Tupper, the Victorian poet and author who lived nearby at Albury, described the Chilworth powdermills and their visual effect upon the countryside in a poem written in the 1840s:

‘Mammon, from those long white mills

With foggy steam the prospect fills;

Chimneys red with sulph’rous smoke

Blight those hanging groves of oak.’

Down in the ‘long white mills’ precautions were stringent and workers wore special clothing and shoes without metal studs – and with good cause, for the slightest spark could blow everything to kingdom come. And at Chilworth, with ominous regularity, it did. There were fatal explosions at the works in 1864, 1874, 1879 and 1883, but the worst tragedy was the loss of six men in the ‘Great Explosion’ in 1901.

At twenty minutes to nine on that frosty morning in February, the chill air above the village of Chilworth was rent by two tremendous explosions. Smoke shot high into the sky and bricks, sheets of corrugated iron, baulks of timber, machinery and the remains of the unlbrtunate workers were tossed in all directions. Three men had been loading a tramway trolley outside a building known as the black corning house, where gunpowder in cake form was crushed and granulated into powder. Three more men were working inside the house. It is thought that a spark ignited the powder on the trolley, which exploded and set off a further blast that demolished the adjacent building. The recovery of the bodies was a grisly affair, for they had been scattered over an area up to 150 yards away from where the men had been working.

The memory of this tragedy lingered long after the closure of the powdermills in 1922. Some ruins remain of this hellish place, now tranquil and green, and in the village itself there still survive some workmen’s cottages, their front doors opening straight out onto the pavement, reminiscent of industrial towns of northern England.

Surrey has a varied geology and, as a result, a long history of quarrying and mining for stone, clay and gravel. In addition, the county has a tradition of iron working, which possibly goes back more than 2,000 years, but reached its zenith during the reign of James I. The Wealden iron industry existed along much of the southern border of’ the county by medieval times and extended well into Sussex, where it was much more extensive. The iron ore came from small opencast pits dug into beds of the Lower Cretaceous age and was mainly in the form of a clay ironstone. At some places in the county the ground is still pockmarked with the collapsed remains of these ‘bell’ pits. Other low grade ores were also sometimes used, such as an ironstone known locally as ‘carstone’, which occurs in the ‘Folkstone Beds’ of the Lower Greensand.

The iron was smelted using charcoal produced in the Wealden woods. Charcoal was known as coal in those days and those who produced it were colliers, which introduced another fairly common English surname. The name was later transferred to those who mined ‘sea coal’, as mineral coal was then called. The demand for charcoal was so great during the 16th century that the woodlands were seriously threatened. It is safe to say that today there are more trees in the Surrey countryside than there were in 1600.

Until about 1500 the iron was smelted using small furnaces or ‘bloomeries’ which produced irregular masses of iron bloom, which were then beaten with hammers. Originally, the hammering was done manually, but during the 15th century the power of the waterwheel was first used to drive mechanical hammers, which pounded the iron into solid bars. Bloomery sites have been discovered at Lingfield, Godstone, Leigh and Thursley. There is documentary evidence for other sites at Chariwood, Newdigate and near Horley. The name ‘Abinger Hammer’ is a reminder that the industry once existed there. Numerous attractive ponds in other southern parts of the county are thought to have originated as hammer ponds. Here the water was penned up to provide the fall to drive the waterwheel, which powered the hammers.

About 1600, the blast furnace was introduced from the Continent and the waterwheel was additionally used to drive mechanical bellows, which replaced the inefficient foot bellows of the bloomeries. Ironworks were established at many places, like Imbhams, near Haslernere, where guns and shot were being cast at the start of the Civil War. Throughout south Surrey the woodlands were being rapidly consumed by the insatiable demand of the furnaces and pressure was increasing to prevent further growth of the industry. Several statutes were passed by Parliament in an attempt to control the felling of woodland, which the government saw as an important source of timber for ship building. These pressures, coupled with the fact that the best ironstone deposits were becoming worked out, brought the heyday of Surrey’s iron industry to an end. In addition, better grades of ore had been found in the Midlands, near to good supplies of coal, which had first been used in smelting in 1620.

Another important Surrey industry, which also consumed large quantities of timber, was glassmaking. Glassmakers were working in the woods of south-west Surrey soon after 1300, and possibly even earlier. Some of the makers were local people, but there were also foreigners who, certainly from the mid-16th century, introduced improved methods of manufacture. These glassworks produced domestic vessels, phials, apothecaries’ wares and window glass. In 1352 John de Alemaygne of Chiddingfold supplied large quantities of glass for St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster. In 1356 the same maker also supplied glass for the windows of St George’s Chapel at Windsor. These glassmakers made use of local materials – sand, potash produced from coppice-wood and bracken, and oak to fire the furnace. Local malmstone, also known as firestone, was used for the furnace floor because of its heat resistant properties. The clay for the all important crucible was probably brought in from elsewhere.

A glasshouse site near Hambledon has been excavated by archaeologists and dated to about 1330. The remains of two crude furnaces were uncovered – the larger was interpreted as a melting furnace, whilst the smaller one was probably used for other processes such as annealing. Both furnaces had been housed in a wooden building roofed with tiles, of which only a few postholes and broken tiles remained.

In the mid-16th century glass production was greatly expanded and, whilst it continued in Surrey, the main centre seems to have shifted slightly south to Wisborough Green, across the border in Sussex. Several glassmakers from France came to work in the area, including John Carré from Arras and Isaac Bougard, or Bungar. The remains of a glasshouse of this period were discovered in Sidney Wood near Alfold in the mid-1960s. Here archaeologists led by Eric Wood excavated a series of rectangular furnaces, including a sophisticated double chambered annealing furnace, so far unique in Britain. The products made here included window glass, drinking glasses, bottles, distilling apparatus, domestic ware such as bowls, plates and hour-glasses, and medical ware including urinals (so called because physicians of the time determined the state of health of their patients by studying the colour of their urine in these bottles). The high cost of fuel in Surrey, mainly due to the competition for the limited supply from ironmakers, brought about a rapid decline in the Surrey glass industry during the reign of James I. The last glassmaker in the area was Isaac Bungar, who finally gave up the struggle in 1618. Sir Robert Mansell had obtained the monopoly for a coal-fired glassmaking process and it was this which finally drove poor Isaac out of business.

The best outcrops for firestone are in East Surrey, where there exist in many places labyrinths of underground tunnels and caverns excavated over several centuries for the stone. Although much used where a heat resistant stone was required, such as in furnaces and fireplaces, it was also extensively employed as building stone. Known also as Reigate Stone, there is evidence for its use in Saxon churches. Later, in 1259, stone from Merstham and Reigate was supplied in large quantities for the building of the Royal Palace at Westminster. It was used in the 14th century at Windsor Castle and also at Hampton Court and Oatlands Palace two centuries later. The stone could be intricately carved and was much used inside buildings and for window tracery. It was not so successful for external work, being prone to frost scaling, as can be clearly seen on the outside walls of Reigate parish church. Another product of the mines was a soft friable sandstone called hearthstone, which was used to whiten hearths, doorsteps and stone floors. The latter was the sole output of the three mines still working in 1931, but the last mine closed in 1961, thus ending over 1,000 years of mining history.

A large number of other mineral resources have been extracted from beneath the soil of Surrey over the centuries. In the Godalming area there are Lower Greensand deposits of Bargate Stone, which were once extensively quarried. This stone was used during the Iron Age, the Roman period and in a large variety of buildings from the medieval period onwards. It occurs as large masses, called by the quarrymen ‘doggers’, in an otherwise soft sand, and was extracted from the quarry face using a unique method known as ‘jumping a stone’. An iron block was used as a pivot for a long crowbar, which was placed under one end of the stone to be dug out. A plank was then placed at right angles on the opposite end of the crowbar. Several men, using long poles to balance themselves, then jumped up and down on the plank in unison. This process gradually loosened the ‘dogger’ from the quarry face. Like the firestone mines, all the Bargate Stone quarries have now closed. In later years the stone was crushed for use as road metalling, but proved too soft for the wear and tear of modern traffic.

The various clays of Surrey have been the raw material for the manufacture of pottery since prehistory, and also for bricks and tiles since Roman times. Roof and hypocaust tiles were made during the Roman period at Ashtead, whilst beautiful medieval floor tiles were produced at Chertsey Abbey. Medieval pottery was manufactured in several places in west Surrey, and at Kingston, Cheam and also at Limpsfield on

the east side of the county. The Jumping a stone’ in Shacksteacl Lane Bargatc production of Surrey ware continued into the 17th century, especially at Ash and other places straddling the border with Hampshire. Pottery production has continued at Wrecclesham to this day, where the pottery founded by Absalom Harris in 1873 became famous in the 1890s for ‘Farnham Green-ware’, which was developed using designs produced by the Farnham School of Art.

It was at Farnham in the last century that gravel was dug by physical labour from small pits along the Wey valley. Throughout the county, wherever there were patches of the stuff, small pits would be worked as and when the material was needed locally. But in recent years gravel extraction has been carried on in the county on a massive scale, using mechanical diggers and dredgers. The demand from road builders and contractors throughout Britain has seen the transformation of many parts of Thameside Surrey. Large areas of fertile farmland on the well-drained river gravels have been turned into vast lakes. This has proved a great boon to watersport enthusiasts, anglers and to aquatic wildlife, but has changed the character of villages like Thorpe for ever.

The chalk of the Downs has also been heavily quarried, as witnessed by the many large white scars visible on the south facing scarp from the Hog’s Back in the west to Oxted in the east. The chalk was mainly used to produce lime for building-mortar and fertilizer. The largest chalk quarry in the county was at Betchworth, with a working face 1/4 mile wide and 300 ft high. It is still a major landmark, visible for miles. Until 1960 this quarry had its own narrow gauge railway, where special wagons loaded with chalk were hauled to the kilns by steam engines. This was but one small task for an invention which had begun to change the face of Surrey over 100 years before.