I’ve lived in the area of Woking since 1986 but moved there more specifically, to Horsell, in 2003. I too was fascinated by the Sandpit on the Common – fancy all that sand, like a beach, in a town that isn’t by the sea side or even a river. My aim for this exploratory Project for Assignment 5 has been to endeavour to put myself into H.G. Well’s place as a person who has moved to live in a new area, Woking, and is inspired to place the beginning of a new story, The War of the Worlds, on Horsell Common. As a way of placing myself in his mindset, I decided to have a look at what he might have seen as he cycled around the area. This is only an overview and, in most cases, a brief reminder of what I already know about the area.
Bronze Age Barrows on Horsell Common
These Barrows, just a short walk from Maybury Road are probably over 4,000 years ol and would have covered the cremated remains of tribal leaders. Such barrows are unusual in Surrey and it is possible they commemorate leaders who migrated from Wessex to colonise new land. There are three barrows – two bell barrows and one disc barrow, although some people think there may have been four of them see here
Horsell Common and the Sand Pits
The sandpits are a very small part of the Bagshot Beds which were formed in the Upper Eocene era (around 33 to 56 million years ago) of the Paleogene Period when the “Great Bagshot River” deposited thick sands. From very early times much of southern England was covered with forest. Early inhabitants gradually removed the timber for fuel and building and used the land to grow crops and rear livestock. The faint remains of Bronze-Age field boundaries have been revealed through aerial photography and field surveys (A. Crosby 2003:3) Once exposed to the weather, the sandy soil became poor and acidic and only low-growing plants such as heather and gorse that were able to survive in these conditions, were left. By the Iron Age, large areas like Horsell Common would have been open heathlands.
The Common was originally part of the Great Park of Windsor, in a section called King’s Waste. It passed into private ownership eventually, and by 1805 the owner was the Earl of Onslow, the Lord of all four separate manors of Horsell, Pyrford, Woodham and Woking. He ensured that Horsell Common was exempted from Enclosure as agricultural land , although he was forced by an 1852 Act to sell all of (Old) Woking’s common land to the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company (see below)
In the mid 1890s the local “commoners” had a right to graze their animals thus helping to maintain the heath land and the Common would be more open with less trees than now. The then Earl of Onslow sought to transfer the land into public ownership and eventually instigated a Trustee management scheme (the Horsell Common Preservation Committee) which held its first meeting in 1910. A newly formed Horsell Common Preservation Society leased the Common from Lord Onslow in 1947, becoming a registered Charity in 1959, purchasing the site for £1 an acre in 1966. The Common covers 855 acres, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and, in 2005 gained international status as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the European Birds Directive.
The Society works hard to protect the Common and manage it in order to prevent trees an other unwanted vegetation from becoming dominant and so maintain the Common as heath land. Grazing animals have also been placed there from time to time.
This independent website has many articles on Woking’s history and also includes a section on “War of the Worlds” with each article looking at a different chapter and using contemporary illustrations and notes on the history behind the places featured in the story. There is also a section on “Woking on Film” with links that have free access to historic film featuring the area.
The Basingstoke Canal
See here for an earlier blog post (linked with Assignment 2 where I walked along part of the canal) which includes a PDF of notes made on the history of the Canal past and present and its relationship with Woking. Briefly:-
1793 Basingstoke Canal was opened through the Woking area following promotion of a scheme to link Basingstoke with the Thames via the Wey Navigation Canal at Byfleet to allow agriculture produce to be sent to ‘the voracious appetite of London’. The canal had helped to shape the growth of Woking but development was constrained due to there being only two of its bridges in the area of the town centre, with a further six between Byfleet and Brookwood. By the end of the 19th Century this canal was largely disused for commercial traffic above Woking. The canal remained there of course although it slowly became weed choked and silted.
1838 the first section of London and Southampton Railway (L&SR), authorised in 1834, was opened between its London terminus at Nine Elms and Woking Common, which became a through station with the opening of the next section of the line. The Railway itself was renamed the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1839.
1843 Woking Common station assumed its current name of Woking around 1843 and it became a junction with the opening of the Guildford Junction Railway (GJR) which was absorbed by the LSWR in 1845. All the development in Woking after 1850 could be said to be a consequence of the presence of a main-line railway although the physical form of Woking was fundamentally controlled by the geography of the railway and the road pattern which it influences. G. Wells and his fiancée lived on Maybury Road which runs alongside the Railway line and so only a short walk to the Station thus creating an easy access for him to London.
The London Necropolis Railway and Brookwood Cemetery
1854 This Railway was opened to move as many burials as possible to the newly built Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey, which is not far from Woking (indeed, Brookwood is now a part of Woking Borough) and Woking as a town owes its origins to the overcrowding of the churchyards in early 19th Century London. Brookwood Cemetery was built as a reaction to the overcrowding in London’s existing graveyards and cemeteries, particularly after a cholera epidemic in 1848-49 which killed 14,601 people in London and overwhelmed the burial system completely. The Burials Act was passed in 1851 under which new burials were prohibited in what were then the built-up areas of London. The former Woking Common, owned by the Earl of Onslow at Brookwood was chosen as the site for the new Cemetery and the Necropolis Company took possession of 2,268 acres of the former common lands of Woking parish, leaving 150 acres in that area as common land together with another 60 acres which were also excluded from the sale so that they could be used in perpetuity by the people of Woking for recreation and as common land. However, Crosby states that although the cemetery scheme was laudable it was, “merely the route to land speculation” (A. Crosby 2003:74) as the Company soon sold large portions on for development, including a new town called Woking to distinguish it from the earlier one now called Old Woking. The Cemetery itself opened on the 13th November 1854.
The aim was to use the Necropolis Railway to move as many burials as possible to Brookwood which was within easy travelling distance but distant enough for the dead not to pose a risk to public hygiene. It had its own branch line into the Cemetery but most of its route ran on the existing LSWR line. Mourners and the deceased could travel by either first, second or third class with accompanying classes of funerals. There was no Crematorium near London and The London Necropolis Railway (LNR) had an arrangement with Woking Crematorium by which Necropolis Railway Stations and trains could be used by mourners attending cremations at Woking Crematorium which was first used for Cremation in 1885.
The Cemetery fulfilled its intentions at first but the rate of burials slackened after 1880. Other cemeteries opened nearer London and cremation was also becoming an acceptable alternative to burials by 1914. The London Necropolis Railway was officially declared closed on 11 May 1941 after the London Terminus building was struck by bombs and incendiary devices. with the branch line itself being in very poor condition. More information about the London Necropolis Railway can be found here and information on Brookwood Cemetery can be found here . Woking as a town actually owes its origins to the Necropolis Company’s 1855 Act which authorised land sales.
The County Asylum, Brookwood, Surrey
1867 this Asylum was established in 1867 as the second County Asylum being the leading mental hospital for the western half of Surrey. It became known as Brookwood Hospital in 1919 (although actually being located in close-by Knaphill). Its archive is located at the Surrey History Centre, Woking and online information can be found here . The hospital was closed in 1994 with the land being sold for housing development and the clock tower and central building being converted into luxury apartments. The hospital’s chapel still exists and is now a Buddhist temple with the former mortuary providing living accommodation for the temple’s monks.
1878 This crematorium was the first in the country and founded in 1878 when a piece of land close to St John’s Village was bought by Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria and founder of The Cremation Society. The land was purchased from the London Necropolis Company.
The Shah Jahan Mosque
This Mosque was built in Woking in 1889, being the first purpose-built one in the UK and Northern Europe. It was built by the Hungarian-British Orientalist Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (who was born into a Jewish family) who, in 1881, had established the Oriental Institute in order to promote oriental literature. The building of the Mosque was partly funded by Sultan Shah Jahan Begum of Bhopal as a place for students at the Oriental Institute in Woking to worship at. It is unclear whether Dr Leitner was actually a Muslim although on his travels in Muslim countries he adopted a Muslim name of Abdur Rasheed Sayyah.
The Mosque was closed after Leitner’s death in 1899 and fell into disuse between then and 1912 when it was repaired and revived by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, founder of the Woking Muslim Mission. The mosque became a centre of Islam in the United Kingdom but its influence had declined by the 1960s, being seen more as a local mosque. It revived as an important place of workship when it was transferred into Sunni hands in the 1970s.
Chapter IX of H G Wells’s “War of the Worlds”, contains a description of the Mosque being set on fire.
Crosby, A (2003) A History of Woking. Chichester. Phillimore & Co.Ltd.