The Garden Guide

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

History of Tooting Common

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Tooting Common consists of two parts, belonging to two ancient manors. The smallest is Tooting Graveney, which derives its name from the De Gravenelle family, who held the manor soon after the Conquest, on the payment of a rose yearly at the feast of St. John the Baptist. The larger half, Tooting Beck, takes its name from the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, which was in possession of the Manor from Domesday till 1414, when it came to the Crown. Both manors can be traced through successive owners until the rights were purchased in 1875 and 1873 by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The avenue of elms which runs right across the Common divides the two. Tooting Beck is more than twice the size of Graveney, and has the finest trees. One of the oldest elm trees, now encircled by a railing, was completely hollow, but now has a young poplar sprouting out of its shell. Tradition associates this tree particularly with Dr. Johnson, and though he did not compose his Dictionary under it, it is more than likely he often enjoyed the shade of what must have been a very old tree in his day. For fifteen years he was a constant visitor at Thrale Place close by. "He frequently resided here," says a contemporary guide-book, "and experienced that sincere respect to which his virtues and talents were entitled, and those soothing attentions which his ill-health and melancholy demanded." The house stood in 100 acres of ground between Tooting and Streatham Commons, and has since been pulled down and built over. During these years, no doubt, Tooting as well as Streatham Common was often trodden by the brilliant circle who drank tea and conversed with the accomplished Mrs. Thrale -Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith-to all of them the woodland scenes of both Commons were familiar. To prevent the too free use of the turf by riders, a special track has been made for them, skirting the Common, and passing down one of the finest avenues. It may save the grass from being too much cut up, but to those who don't feel called to gallop across the Common, the loss of the green sward under the tall feathery elms is a cause of regret. It is such, perhaps necessary, alterations which spoil the delusion of genuine country, otherwise so well counterfeited on Tooting Common. A charming time is when the may is out and the gorse ablaze with bloom, the chestnuts in blossom, and birds are singing all around; or if one happens to be there on a winter's day, when it is too cold for loungers or holiday-makers, there are moments when the nearness of streets and trams could be forgotten. The frosty air, and dew-drops on the vivid green grass, the brown of the fallen leaves, the dark stems clear against an amber sky, with the intense blue distance, which London atmosphere produces so readily, combine harmoniously into a telling picture, which remains photographed "upon that inward eye, which is the gift of solitude." The dream is as quickly dispelled. A sight, a sound, recalls the nearness of London, which makes its presence felt even when one is trying to play Hide-and-seek with the chimney-pots. How well Richard Jefferies, that inimitable writer on nature, describes his feelings in the neighbourhood of London, in spots only a little further from Hyde Park Corner than Tooting Beck:- "Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pine-woods, on the hills of purple heather, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumbrous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks."