Wimbledon Park Heritage Group
Wimbledon Park Heritage Group

Historical Notes Regarding Wimbledon Park

by Douglas Gardiner & Timothy Ball

For centuries, the area around Wimbledon has been popular because of its close proximity to London, but more so because of the beauty of the landscape and particularly this lovely valley that makes up Wimbledon Park. As a result, Wimbledon Park has been owned by a succession of wealthy landowners who have built great houses and lavished their money on the landscape.
From about 1280 there was a manor located in Wimbledon. The grapes from Vineyard Hill were used to make wine for the Archbishop of Canterbury, possibly made by the monks from Merton Priory. Horse Close Wood also dates back to the earliest maps and may have formed part of the ancient woodland that once covered this part of London.
Sir Thomas Cecil built the first great house in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. The house was built of brick in the Elizabethan style and had extensive formal geometric gardens recorded on a plan made by Robert Smythson in 1609. Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter, was the son of William Cecil, Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I.
The park was enclosed and deer grazed amongst the woods. It extended from Wimbledon Common down to Durnsford Road and covered about 400 acres. There was no lake at this time but there were eight fishponds. James I hunted in the park.
In 1638 Charles I bought the manor for Queen Henrietta Maria. She commissioned Andre Mollet to soften the Cecil geometric garden design.
During the Civil War [1640s], many of the park trees were cut down for Cromwell’s ships and poaching depleted the deer. However, after the war, the manor was restored to Queen Henrietta Maria who sold it in 1661 to George Digby, Earl of Bristol.
He employed John Evelyn to redesign the gardens and to add grottoes, fountains and statuary and by the 1670s the gardens were laid out on a magnificent scale.
In 1678 the estate was bought by the Earl of Danby, chief minister to Charles II, and then acquired after his death in 1712 by Sir Theodore Janssen, director of the South Sea Company. He tore down the original house and started to build a new one, but this was never finished, presumably due to the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720.
As each owner changed and improved to his or her tastes, there unfolds a history of landscape design, and of patronage of the eminent or fashionable landscape architects of each generation.
By the time Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, purchased the Park in 1728, there was a great avenue leading towards Putney from the house. She demolished the beginnings of Janssen’s house and constructed a new house, set higher up on the crest of Vineyard Hill to take advantage of the views both to the north across the Park and across the southern lawns towards Epsom Downs.
Upon her death in 1744 the estate, which was now about 1,200 acres, passed to her son, John Spencer.
Point 4 on the Heritage Trail is the closest we can get to the view from the Spencer House, which was positioned approximately where Ricards Lodge High School is now located.
Earl Spencer wanted to improve the view northwards across the valley and so in 1764 employed Capability Brown to change the Renaissance gardens and park into a more natural landscape, known as the Serpentine Style. This is often regarded as the classic English garden.
Brown is the most famous of English landscape designers. He was born in Northumberland and served an apprenticeship with Sir William Lorraine. Having moved to Buckinghamshire he was employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe until 1741. This gave him the opportunity of working with William Kent and John Vanbrugh, so developing his talents as landscape designer and also as an architect. In 1764 he was appointed by King George III as H.M. Surveyor of Gardens and Waters with a large house at Hampton Court.
The Serpentine Style developed by Capability Brown was a reflection of the taste of the time for less formal and more natural shapes in landscape. The essential features were always a view from the house across well kept parkland, to a lake with picturesque clumps of trees, but never enough trees to block the view.
Encircling the park would be dense woodland to frame the views and to conceal the carriage drive.
At Wimbledon, Brown cut down the long straight avenues of trees and laid out a new winding carriage drive from a lodge at Tibbet’s Corner, following the line of modern Victoria Drive and Church Road. Across the valley he built a dam, converting a marshy stream into a thirty-acre lake.
In 1790 Hannah Moore wrote "I did not think there could have been so beautiful a place within seven miles of London. The park has so much variety of ground and is as un-Londonish as if it were a hundred miles out."
A contemporary newspaper article noted that "The grounds about the Lord Spencer’s place at Wimbledon are perhaps as beautiful as anything near London. Nature has done much of it and Brown made it much more."
The Spencer’s sold their Wimbledon Park estate to John Augustus Beaumont in 1846. He was a property developer and started building on the area between Parkside and Wimbledon Park Road. In 1847 he continued with Arthur Road, Leopold Road, Lake Road and Home Park Road.
However, by 1872 the development had not progressed as quickly as he had hoped so he retired. After his death in 1886 his daughter Augusta inherited the estate but took no interest in its beauty and thought only of the potential for developing as much of the land as possible in order to maximise profit. She in fact drew up a plan to drain the lake, build a road to extend Revelstoke Road across the park and build houses upon the whole area.
In the meantime, the railway had arrived and houses started to be built on Kenilworth Avenue and Dora Road. However it was not until 1905 that developers started building on the grid, amongst them being Ryan and Penfold, whose name combined to form Ryfold Road. By 1910, the area was largely developed and there are pictures in the Wimbledon Museum of the roads with nothing more than a milk cart, a far cry from the parking congestion of today! In Bernard Rondeau’s book about Wimbledon Park, there are estate agent details of a house for sale for £600 freehold!
In 1914, Wimbledon Corporation decided to buy what remained of the Wimbledon Park Estate which had escaped development. This was largely in response to the proposal by Augusta Beaumont to completely develop the Park. Parliament had to approve the purchase and there were many in the borough who saw it as a waste of public money, but thankfully for us the purchase of the park was completed.
During the first world war, the area of the park that had been used for polo near Horse Close Wood, was converted to a piggery to help the war effort. There was great hilarity when in 1918, Queen Mary was presented with a pig when visiting the park. There is a photograph of the occasion in the museum, and both are smiling!
Following the move of the All England to Church Road in 1922, the Council decided in 1925 to sell off the area of the Park knows as Banky Field, which is to the east of Home Park Road, to provide the money for the building twenty public twenty tennis courts and the Home Park Road pavilion. This caused an outcry at the time with many objections being raised by local people. However the Council proceeded despite the objections and the houses we now see along Home Park Road were built as a result. The Home Park Road pavilion and the tennis courts were opened to the public in 1926.
To bring us right up to date, Merton Council decided in 1993 to sell off the freehold of the golf course land. Despite strong opposition from local residents, the sale went through and the All England Lawn Tennis Club bought the land for £3.2 million. The golf club lease remains until 2041. At the moment, it is agreed by all parties that the use of the land by the golf course is perfectly suited for the continued maintenance of the views and space created by Capability Brown.
It was because of the threat of possible development of the golf course land by the new owner, that a number of local residents agreed to form the Wimbledon Park Heritage Group with the object of preserving this historic landscape for the future and provide improvements to the London Borough of Merton sector to the park; all of which has created a closer relationship between the stake holders, the Council and the local residents.
For more information regarding the history of Wimbledon Park, you might wish to read:
Wimbledon Park, from private park to residential suburb. by Bernard Rondeau, published by the author, and available from the Wimbledon Library.
The Spencers in Wimbledon (1744-1794), by Richard Milward MA, published by The Milward Press, and available from the Wimbledon Library and Wimbledon Museum.
Wimbledon, A Surrey Village in maps, by Richard Milward MA and Cyril Maidment, published by The Wimbledon Society Museum, and available from both the Museum and Wimbledon Library.
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