The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 8 Commons and Open Spaces

Clapham Common

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Due west of Peckham lies Clapham, the largest of the South London Commons, 220 acres in extent; although, being flat and compact in shape, it does not appear larger than Tooting, which is really only 10 acres less, but of more rambling shape. The Common has suffered much less than most of its neighbours from enclosures. It was shared between two manors, Battersea and Clapham, and the rival lords and commonalities, each jealous of their own special rights, were more careful to prevent encroachments than was often the case. At one time Battersea went so far as to dig a great ditch to prevent the cattle of the Clapham people coming into its part of the ground. The other parish resisted and filled up the ditch, and was sued for trespass by Battersea, which, however, lost its case-this ended in 1718. The Common has an air of dignified respectability, and is still surrounded with some solid old-fashioned houses, although modern innovations have destroyed a great number of them. A nice old buttressed wall, over which ilex trees show their heads, and suggest possibilities of a shady lawn, carries one back to the time when Pepys retired to Clapham to "a very noble house and sweete place, where he enjoyed the fruite of his labour in great prosperity"; or to the days when Wilberforce lived there, and he, together with the other workers in the same cause, Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and Zachary Macaulay, used to meet at the house of John Thornton by the Common. There is nothing wild now about the Common, and the numbers of paths which intersect it are edged by high iron railings, to prevent the entire wearing away of the grass. The beauty of the ground is its trees. They proclaim it to be an old and honoured open space, and not a modern creation. Only one tree has any pretentions to historical interest, having been planted by the eldest son of Captain Cook the explorer, but only a stump remains. The ponds are the distinctive feature of the Common, and there are several of them dotted about, the joy of boys for bathing and boat-sailing. The origin of most of them has been gravel pits dug in early days. There is the Cock Pond near the church, the Long Pond, the Mount Pond, and the Eagle House Pond, some of them fairly large. The Mount Pond was at one time nearly lost to the Common, as about 1748 a Mr. Henton Brown, who had a house close by, and who kept a boat on the water, obtained leave to fence it in for his own private gratification. It was not until others followed Mr. Brown's example, and further encroachments began to frighten the parish, that it repented of having let in the thin end of the wedge. A committee was formed to watch over the interests of the Common lands, and took away Mr. Brown's privileges; but in spite of their vigilance other pieces were from time to time taken away. A little group of houses by the Windmill Inn are on the site of one of these shavings off the area, for a house called Windmill Place. The church was built on a corner of the Common in 1774, and has a peaceful, solid, dignified appearance, standing among fine old elms and away from the din of trams, which rush in all directions from the corner hard by. It was built to replace an older parish church, which was described as "a mean edifice, without a steeple" by a writer of the eighteenth century, who admired the "elegant" one which took its place. The present generation would hardly apply that epithet to the massive Georgian edifice, but it seems to suit its surroundings: substantial and unostentatious, recalling memories of the evangelical revival, it seems an essential part of the Common and its history.