The Playground of London

The Playground of London

By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign almost every corner of Surrey was within easy reach of London. Not only was the populace of the city on the move into the Surrey countryside, but also many of its institutions such as orphanages, hospitals and lunatic asylums as well. A number of asylums in particular were built in the Epsom and Banstead area. Many schools also moved to Surrey or were founded in the county during Queen Victoria’s reign. For example, Epsom College was opened by Prince Albert in 1855 as the ‘Royal Medical Benevolent College’, principally for the sons of medical men. St John’s School for the sons of clergymen was founded in 1852 and moved to Leatherhead 20 years later, whilst the famous Charterhouse also removed itself from the smog of London to Godalming in 1872.

Many writers, artists, and men and women of eminence found a retreat amongst the hills and heaths of the county. The scientist and mountaineer, Professor John Tyndall, discovered Hindhead as an English substitute for his beloved Alps. He was soon extolling the health giving properties of the clean air of the Surrey ‘mountains’ and others followed him there. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had temporarily moved to Switzerland for the health of his first wife, who suffered from TB. Upon hearing of Tyndall’s discovery of Hindhead ‘ozone’, he arranged for a house, Undershaw, to be built there. Although his wife was not cured, Conan Doyle always claimed that she had gained several more precious years of life as a consequence of their move to Hindhead. George Bernard Shaw came to nearby Woolmer Hill on his honeymoon in 1898. Apparently, he did not particularly enjoy the experience and ended up with a broken leg. Later, he rented a house at Hindhead called ‘Blen-Cathra’ but he soon got bored with life in the country and returned to London.

Many other writers who were famous in their day but are now almost forgotten also took up residence at Hindhead. These included the Canadian, Grant Allen, who in 1895 wrote a controversial book about social and sexual problems called The Woman Who Did. Indeed, at one time there were so many writers and thinkers at Hindhead that one wag nicknamed it ‘Mindhead’. Tyndall was appalled by this invasion of his precious ‘English Switzerland’. He built a huge artificial screen, disguised as a clump of trees, to hide the other houses that had destroyed his view.

Many more in the county were to suffer as Tyndall had. The tide of building which followed the railway began to engulf thousands of acres of farmland and market gardens. By 1900 ribbons of houses had reached the foot of the Downs in a number of places. Historian, Dorothy L. Powell wrote of Caterham at this time, ‘the whole of the valley and the slopes on either side are now full of houses of various sizes, from small estates to cottages. Only south of the old village, on the highest part of the chalk . . . the parish is distinctly rural still.’

Some writers appeared to welcome this smothering of the countryside, such as a certain Arthur Henry Anderson who commented that ‘human beings are more important than scenery, and if it came to a choice between no houses and ugly houses, I should plump for the houses … even at the cost of ugliness.’ This view was not shared by a famous resident of Epsom, Lord Rosebery, who, when asked to write the introduction to a guide of Epsom began starkly: ‘I am desired to write a few words of preface … And, when one comes to think of it, one must write it soon, for there will soon be little material for a preface or guide. When I first came to live in Epsom . . . it was a sleepy town, surrounded by long stretches of down and common. Its perennial slumber was broken twice a year by race meetings. . . . Now all that is changed. . . the builder. . . has come and cut into the lanes and hedges. A gaunt asylum shrouds the misery of hundreds or thousands of the mad patients of London. One or two commons are enclosed. The stray edges of greenery, which were the heritage of the wayfarer, are gradually being fenced in. . . The new Epsom is only a fragment of the past, and only a fragment of the future.’

A large fragment of that past and future was, of course, the racing on Epsom Downs, ‘when the followers and camp followers of the Turf stormed the neighbourhood during a few agitated days, then struck their tents and left the town, sodden and exhausted’. Increasingly, in the Victorian period much more of Surrey became the playground of London, just as Epsom had been since the day when the Derby was first run in 1780. This flat race for three year old colts and fillies was named after Lord Derby, whilst the course’s other famous race, the Oaks, first run in 1779, acquired its name from Lord Derby’s house near Carshalton.

Surrey had several other famous racecourses to challenge Epsom in the early days. Racing started at Egham in 1734 and it was a popular meeting often attended by royalty, particularly William IV. The course was actually just outside the town at Runnymede. There were races at Reigate, Croydon and Guildford, where huge crowds would gather on Merrow Downs. All these courses were open meetings. As the 19th century progressed they attracted an increasing number of unruly characters, who used the races as an excuse for robbery and riot. As a result, in 1875, the first enclosed park course in Britain was opened at Sandown near Esher. Sandown was much patronised by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and its most famous races are the Eclipse Stakes on the flat and the Whitbread Gold Cup over the jumps. Nearby at Molesey, Hurst Park opened in the 1880s on the site of the open Hampton racecourse. It closed in 1962 and a housing estate now occupies the site. After Hurst Park came Kempton Park, then in Middlesex, opened in 1889 and now famous for the King George VI Steeplechase run on Boxing Day. Lingfield Park was opened in 1890 and now boasts, in addition to the turf course, an ‘all weather’ track, which enables flat races to take place even in the middle of winter.

A prerequisite of the success of these park courses was that they were all within easy distance of a railway station, and therefore a short train ride for Londoners. Being enclosed courses, the ‘calibre’ of the racegoers could be controlled at the gates and the end of most open courses soon followed. Guildford and Reigate races had already ceased but those at Egham survived until 1884. Here large gangs would routinely descend upon the crowd, robbing and assaulting racegoers at will, with the police almost powerless to intervene. Matters reached a head after the races of 1884 when the police refused to attend any further meetings. It was the end of the Egham Races.

Croydon Races transferred to a park course at Gatwick, now in West Sussex, in 1891. Gatwick was a popular course, especially for jump racing – under wartime conditions the Grand National was run here from 1916 to 1918. Gatwick developed a small aerodrome in the middle of the course which was eventually to spell the end of its racing! Thus, by 1900, only Epsom continued as a mainly open course, reliant on that national institution, the Derby, for its survival. Today, although television has contributed to a decline in racegoers, who once blanketed the Downs in their tens of thousands, the Derby is still the most important flat race in Britain.

Many other sports played a part in Surrey life down the years, none more so than cricket. The county can claim the first known reference to the game. It occurs in a document of 1598 relating to a dispute over a piece of land, which refers to events at least 50 years before: ‘John Derrick, gent, one of the Queen’s Majestie’s coroners of the county of Surrey, aged fifty-nine, saith this land before mentioned lett to John Parvish, inn holder, deceased, that he knew it for fifty years or more. It lay waste, and was used and occupied by the inhabitants of Guildford … When he was a scholler in the Free School of Guildford, he and several of his fellows did run and play there at crickett and other plaies.’ This was not of course quite the game as it later evolved, but the tradition of cricket in Surrey surely stems from that time.

Surrey County Cricket Club was founded in 1845 and has had numerous famous players who made their mark on the game over the years. Fine players, too numerous to mention more than a few – William Caffyn of Reigate and Henry Jupp of Dorking in the early days, Surridge, Fender, Bedser, May, Laker, Lock and Barrington in this century – all were players of the highest calibre. Then there was the enigmatic Julius Caesar of Godalming, who joined the Surrey club in 1849. Caesar was chosen for the first England team to tour abroad which, remarkably, went to Canada and the USA, where it was unbeaten even when playing against teams of 22 men. In 1863-64 he was in the team which toured Australia and again returned home unbeaten. Unfortunately, his life was dogged by misfortune – he accidently shot dead a beater whilst on a pheasant shoot near his home. The tragedy profoundly affected his game and he retired soon after.. In 1872 he became cricket coach to Charterhouse School but two ‘years later his wife died and in 1876 his eldest son committed suicide. These two further tragedies pushed Julius Caesar down the slippery slope to alcoholism, which eventually killed him. It was a sad end for such a brilliant and well respected Surrey cricketer. But Julius would have been pleased to know that his game still thrives today on numerous, and often still rural, cricket greens the length and breadth of his county.

Although the present administrative county of Surrey cannot boast a football league team, two highly successful teams, Wimbledon and Crystal Palace share a ground at Selhurst Park in the London Borough of Croydon. Wimbledon’s rise from non-league status to victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup Final of 1988 is legendary. They were not, however, the first Surrey team to win the cup – a team of ex-Charterhouse pupils, the Old Carthusians, won it in 1881, the last amateur team to do so. Many have hopes that Woking may soon follow the same path as Wimbledon. Woking FC was founded in 1889 and the club includes the FA Amateur Cup of 1958 amongst its successes. Most recently Woking are remembered for their FA Cup run in the 1990/91 season, which included a 4-2 defeat of West Bromwich Albion, and the crowning glory of their 1993/94 season – victory over Runcorn in the FA Trophy final at Wembley.

Several Surrey towns, including Kingston and Dorking, were renowed for the traditional mass game of Shrove Tuesday football. At Dorking the teams consisted of ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Westenders’, depending on which end of the town a ‘player’ came from. On the day of the game many people were up early, especially the shopkeepers – there would be no trade for them today and the morning was spent boarding up the windows of their shops. Only the pubs would do well on this particular Tuesday. A band then appeared, marching slowly along the High Street, its members strangely dressed, a cacophony of noise coming from whistles, pipes, triangles and drums. This was the ‘Taffer Bolts Band’. At the front of the march came a man carrying a cross from which were suspended three coloured footballs – a blue and white one, a larger one painted gold, the other red and green. Some followers of the band carried a collection box to raise money to pay for the inevitable broken windows and other damage which was to come.

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, play commenced with the town crier or a leading inhabitant kicking off with the red and green ball at the gates of St Martin’s church. There was no limit to the size of the teams and often spectators and players seemed indivisible. The object of the game was to retain the ball in your own half of the town, but this seemed immaterial to most of the players. Throughout the afternoon the battle for the ball raged up and down the street. Then at 6 o’clock, with one last shout, the game came to an end, the players and most of the spectators retiring to the nearest pub.

Unfortunately for exponents and fans of this annual riot, during the 1890s there were a rising number of objections. Some shopkeepers complained about the damage and the loss of trade, whilst Surrey County Council claimed the game illegal, as an obstruction to the highway. The local Dorking Urban District Council were in favour of continuing the tradition, but in 1897 the County Council drafted in extra police and posted notices banning the game. However, a large crowd still assembled on Shrove Tuesday and a local councillor, John Maybank, did the honours at the kick off. The police now joined the players in the scrummage for the football, but to confuse them a number of footballs appeared to be in play at the same time. By the end of the match the constables had captured eight of them and also arrested 52 players! Each of those arrested was fined a shilling with four shillings costs by the local magistrates, for being in breach of the Highways Act of 1835. In 1898 the ban was broken again and there were 60 arrests, but the crowds attending were noticeably smaller. The decline was rapid from then on, until in 1907 not one brave soul turned up at 2 o’clock on Shrove Tuesday to carry on the game.

Many other sports have proved an attraction to both Surrey inhabitants and Londoners seeking relaxation. The county has always been well provided with a number of excellent golf courses, particularly Walton Heath, where the British Open has been played. Unfortunately, such is the popularity of the game today that the rash of recently built courses poses a real threat to the character of the Surrey countryside. Lawn tennis is one of a large number of games invented during the Victorian period. Surrey provides the headquarters of the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, where the best in the world gather each year to play in the oldest and most prestigious tournament on the international circuit.

For many middle class Londoners and suburban dwellers at the turn of the century the highlight of their leisure time was a boat trip or scull upon the Thames or Wey. In the summer the queues for Molesey Lock Often reached M25 traffic jam proportions. Many more took the train into the still rich countryside of Surrey for a day’s rambling, aided by the plethora of guide books published to cover every nook and cranny of the county. This movement was particularly inspired by the writings of the likes of ‘Walker Miles’ and Anthony Collett. Armed with their books, ramblers entered Surrey with a pioneering spirit akin to that of an African explorer – the goal might be Victoria Falls or simply the top of Leith Hill. It was clearly the first stage in the colonisation of a backward country. One guidebook entitled Country Rambles round London majestically proclaimed: ‘By great good fortune the world’s vastest city is within an hour’s journey of some of its most beautiful scenery. Business travellers carry the seeds of London with them; wherever they plant their feet, a new suburb springs beneath them, like the daisy – “the white man’s footstep” – which followed the caravans across the American plains.’ But there were still undiscovered places to explore down ‘green paths … secretly threading the quieter fields like a hare’s trail across a village hillside.’ Those who sought the Surrey countryside at weekends often ended up as Surrey inhabitants.

The 1880s saw the invention of the safety bicycle, which quickly replaced the cumbersome and often dangerous ‘ordinary’ or penny-farthing. Now not even the train was needed to take the smog-choked city dweller deep into Surrey. The county became the mecca for the capital’s thousands of cycling enthusiasts heading down the Portsmouth road to Ripley or beyond. The Devil’s Punchbowl at Hindhead or Box Hill were favourite Surrey targets for the intrepid rider. Many of the county’s inns, hotels and cafés catered especially for those who had found the new freedom of the open road. It was not to last, for upon the horizon there came a drone like a bee. By the mid-1900s the cyclist was often forced to watch this destroyer of the peaceful scene from the depths of a roadside ditch, and Kenneth Grahame’s description of its coming must have seemed singularly appropriate: ‘It was on them! The “poop-poop” rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment’s glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass and rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance.. ‘Another major player upon the stage of change had arrived in Surrey.