Local History

A Brief History of Wandsworth

  Carl Evans

Set on the southern banks of the River Thames, the London Borough of Wandsworth offers us a rich and varied history. As I own a HMO letting agency that lets HMOs across the Borough, I thought I’d pen an article on its fascinating past.

Archeologists have found evidence of human farming settlements in Wandsworth that date back to at least Roman times, however, since no surviving Roman writings on Wandsworth exist, the first documentation of Wandsworth comes from an Anglo-Saxon chronicle written in 693. It states a man named “Waendel” owned a farm in the area and the seminal Norman Domesday Book of 1086 lends more credence to this point, referring to the area as “Wandesorde”, meaning “enclosure of Waendel’s land”.

From the late 1000s onward, Wandsworth slowly developed milling, textile, and metallurgy industries. The River Wandle, which flows from the Thames through Wandsworth all the way to Caterham and named after Waendel, supported these industries. All down the river there could be seen Medieval waterwheels harnessing it’s energy to power grain-mills, looms, and iron smelting air-pumps.

It was during this period in the mid-13th Century that saw the construction of the first church in Wandsworth, All Saints Church. The church still stands in Wandsworth to this day, although major reconstruction occurred in the mid-1600s, which expanded the church to accommodate more attendees.

River Wandle Wandsworth

The River Wandle today

Thomas Cromwell
During the end of the Middle Ages/beginning of the Renaissance, a key figure of English history emerged from Wandsworth. Thomas Cromwell, born in 1485 in Putney, became a key member of King Henry VIII’s inner circle in the mid-1500s. Working as a lawyer for the King, Cromwell drafted Henry’s request for divorce from Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn. Since the Pope did not grant Henry’s request, Cromwell took the issue to the English Parliament, who in turn decreed Henry VIII as “Head of the Church of England”, thus starting the English Reformation, and annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

After Henry became disenchanted with Anne Boleyn, Cromwell decided to add matchmaker to his career skillset, setting Henry up with the German Princess Anne of Cleves. Ultimately, this marriage, Henry’s fourth, ended in disaster. When Henry first saw Anne, the plainness of her appearance immediately sapped his libido. Because of this, the marriage lasted only six months. The botched matchmaking attempt ended in disaster for Cromwell as well, as Henry ordered him beheaded after a brief stay in the Tower of London. Somehow Henry spared Anne of Cleves and she ended up outliving him. The date of Cromwell’s beheading, July 28th 1540, was the same day Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Henry executed Howard two years later.

The Putney Debates
In 1642 King Charles I of England marched into the Houses of Parliament with his soldiers. The goal was simple; arrest certain MPs who had been opposing him and ensure that MPs in future do as he demanded. The plan didn’t work and as a result of this, amongst other things, the English Civil War erupted. The war was between those who believed the King held a divine right to rule, and those who believed in a Parliamentary form of government which nullified the power of the King and emboldened the rights of citizens.

After a few years of fighting, it became clear that the Parliamentary forces, also known as roundheads from the spherical shape of their helmets, led by Oliver Cromwell, would triumph. Thus, in 1647, the Parliamentary leaders gathered in Putney, Wandsworth at St. Mary’s Church to discuss governing principals to apply to the new government.

Known as the Putney Debates, the resulting ideas had a profound effect on democratic theory, which echo the basic rights citizens of the free world enjoy to this day. The debates held by Oliver Cromwell discussed the important elements of a democratic government, including that the democratically elected Parliament’s governing power should supersede that of the King: All men, regardless of rank or class, are equal.

The Putney Debates

St Marys Church, Wandsworth

One of the members of the Putney Debates, Hugh Peter, had a particularly interesting life. Born in 1598 in Cornwall to an affluent family, Peter attended Trinity College in Cambridge as a young man. Gradually converting to Puritanism, he left England and spent a few years helping establish the colony of Massachusetts. There, he worked as a co-founder of Harvard University, America’s oldest university, which opened its door to aspiring clergymen in 1636.

He returned to England in the early 1640s, siding with Cromwell during the Civil War. During the Putney Debates in St. Mary’s Church, Peter argued for the right for people to have their own religious beliefs, known as the ‘freedom of conscience’. He believed the government should not favor only one religion, which was Anglicanism at that time, but should favour none. In Peter’s view, people should have the right to practice Presbyterianism, Puritanism, Catholicism, or Anglicanism.

After the roundheads emerged victorious over the royalists, Peter emphasized the importance of executing King Charles I and there is some evidence that Peter acatully swung the axe. Unfortunately for Peter, he met a more painful fate when Charles II, Charles’ I son, took back the throne and ordered him to be hung, drawn, and quartered. He was first choked (hung), then stretched and had his intestines pulled out (drawn), then they severed his body into four parts (quartered), he finally bled to a painful death. Perhaps Peter should have advocated for an end to torture and execution during the Putney Debates.

Overall, The Putney Debates had a major effect on political thinkers in the future. Many of the issues debated, influenced Thomas Jefferson who states in the Declaration of Independence:
“All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

Haven for Huguenots
The freedom of conscience debate was not just limited to Putney. During the 1500-1600s, new religious ideas uprooted the millennium-old Roman Catholic status quo across Europe. The crux of these ideas exploded in the early 1500s when monk Martin Luther protested against Roman Catholic Church authorities. On 31st October 1517 Luther nailed the now famous ‘Ninety-five Theses’ to different church doors across Wittenberg, Germany. The fallout from Luther’s influence, aided by the newly invented printing press, had affected nearly every European country by 1600, resulting in a new type of Christianity, Protestantism, from which many denominations derived.

Naturally, Catholic Church leaders did not welcome these ideas and instead they tried to stamp them out which resulted in bloody conflict that engulfed Europe. France, in particular, experienced the catastrophic 36-year French War of Religion between French Protestants, known as Huguenots, and the Roman Catholic establishment.

In 1598, after the loss of over 3 million people, and recognizing Protestantism’s permanence within his country, King Henry IV of France proclaimed the Edict of Nantes which legalized Protestantism and ended the bloodshed. However, the authoritarian minded French nobility, coupled with the Roman Catholic Church, gradually chipped away at these rights until finally, in the 1680s, King Louis XIV of France decided to permit only Roman Catholicism, equivocating Protestantism to heresy which would result in being executed.

As a result, all French and Dutch protestants, known as Huguenots, found themselves in a precarious situation; either convert to Louis’ preferred belief system or die. As devout Protestants the Huguenots had no intention of converting to a form of Christianity which they saw as inherently corrupt.

Luckily for the Huguenots, England exercised a policy of religious toleration, and it shined as a beacon of hope across the channel. Thus, some 200,000 Huguenots fled to the shores of England. One of the many places they settled was Wandsworth, on which they had a profound impact. Many Huguenots were skilled artisans, especially in hat-making and metallurgy. Their presence therefore boosted England’s fledgling textile industry. Building mills that harnessed the energy of the River Wandle, like many had done before them, they powered their looms, set up metal ware shops and flourished.

Eventually, the Wandsworth Huguenot hatters became world-renowned, and ironically their descendants produced hats for cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church a few centuries later. The influence of these 17th-century industries is still apparent in Wandsworth today, as many streets and buildings now pay homage to the Huguenots foregone era.

Huguenot Cemetery

Former Cemetery for Huguenots in Wandsworth

Literary Genius
Shortly after Huguenots began their exodus from the continent, the renowned French thinker and playwright Francois Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, arrived in London in 1726.

French authorities had recently released Voltaire from a two week incarceration in Bastille, Paris, on condition that he leave to England for exile. Voltaire was in jail because he challenged nobleman Chevalier de Rohan to a duel after de Rohan insulted him. Since Voltaire was not a high-ranking nobleman and de Rohan had close connections to King Louis XV, successor to Louis XIV “Hammer of Huguenots”, the challenge resulted in imprisonment and exile. For the 30 months that Voltaire lived in England, he resided with his good friend Evererd Falkener in Wandsworth.

It was in Wandsworth that Voltaire wrote his first known letter in the English language, and further developed his English speaking, reading, and writing ability to such point where a publication hired him to write two essays: one about the civil wars in France, and the other about epic poetry. Voltaire also met and befriended the legendary Irish writer Johnathan Swift and became acquainted with the works of Shakespeare, which were surprisingly unknown in France at that time.

Voltaire began with much appreciation of Shakespeare but his attitude towards the English playwright got very bitter as Shakespeare’s popularity soared throughout Europe. He said: “My blood boils in my own veins while I speak to you about him … And the terrible thing is that … it is I myself who was the first to speak about this Shakespeare (in France)

Shakespeare aside, Voltaire became heavily acquainted with English culture and appreciated the personal liberties granted to English citizens, liberties not afforded under the totalitarian tyrants of France. Moreover, he monetized his trip after publishing his famous work, Henriade, an epic poem about the French King Henry IV in English. English audiences loved the work, earning Voltaire a small fortune of over £12,000, or just under £1,500,000 today.

After 3 years in the UK, King Louis XV permitted Voltaire to return to France, extricating him from exile. Thus, he departed in 1729 with newly created wealth, experience of freedoms in a liberal country, and fluency in the English language.

Fewer than 10 years after Voltaire left Wandsworth for his French homeland, one of the most important historians of ancient history came into the world, Edward Gibbon. Born in the Wandsworth area of Putney in 1737, Gibbon authored the 6 volume, highly informative The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire between 1776-1788.

Gibbon’s work gives modern readers and scholars keen insight into the multiple dysfunctions of many Roman emperors in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Centuries. Furthermore, Gibbon highlights how external pressures, such as the rise of barbarians, plagues, and Christianity also contributed to Rome’s demise. Ultimately, this Wandsworth born historian’s opus magnum has inspired or served as a source for scholars, authors, filmmakers, and even video game producers since its publication in the late 18th Century.

Iron Rails and Iron Bars
Wandsworth boasts being the site of the first iron railway in England, possibly the first in the world. After an Act of Parliament in 1801, builders laid the final lengths of the 9-mile iron track and the Surrey Iron Railway commenced operations. This railway allowed horses to pull carts along the tracks unencumbered by unleveled dirt roads that were common at the time. By the late 1840s, steam locomotives had fully replaced horsepower, which resulted in the closure of the Surrey Iron Railway.

About a decade after the closure of the Surrey Iron Railway, another iron-rod bearing structure opened its doors, Wandsworth Prison. Opened in 1851, the prison housed many notorious inmates, the most famous being Charles Bronson, dubbed by many as “Britain’s Most Violent Criminal”.

Wandsworth Prison

Wandsworth Prison

Bronson, whose real name is Michael Peterson, arrived at the Wandsworth Prison in 1974, after a court found him guilty of armed robbery. Upon release in 1987, he began a career as a bare-knuckle boxer. During this time, he took the name “Charles Bronson”, after the famous, tough-as-nails American actor. Not long after his release, Bronson found himself re-incarcerated after conspiring to plan another armed robbery.

A long string of violent outbursts while in prison tacked on more and more years, gradually earning Bronson a life sentence. During his first week back at Wandsworth Prison, Bronson physically assaulted six guards. Then, after spending several months in solitary confinement, Bronson attempted to dig his way out of prison, but a fellow inmate foiled this plan by tipping off the prison staff. After serving more time in solitary for conspiring to escape, Bronson tracked down the snitch and almost beat him to death.

Though Bronson spent a good portion of time in Wandsworth solitary confinement for violence, it was at Wandsworth where Bronson learned how to play both chess and bridge. Bronson also formed close and meaningful friendships with other notorious prisoners like the Krays, the Richardsons, and Freddie Foreman. Transferred out of Wandsworth Prison for the last time in 1986, Bronson quoted Dickens declaring that it was “the best of times, and the worst of times”.

Prime Ministers
Wandsworth has been home to three very well-known English Prime Ministers. The first, although originally from Manchester and born to Welsh-parents, is David Lloyd-George, who moved to Wandsworth in 1903. Serving as Prime Minister from 1916-1922, Lloyd George helped lead the allies to victory in World War I, played an instrumental role in creating the Irish free state, and also created several initiatives that paved the way for the creation of the NHS. Interestingly enough, Lloyd George is the only Prime Minister to speak English as a second language; Welsh was his mother-tongue.

The second, born in 1883, was Clement Atlee, who served as PM from 1945-1951. Atlee is well known for having created the NHS. Finally, Tony Blair spent a large part of the 1970s in Wandsworth, during the early portion of his career when he was still a young lawyer.

Over the Centuries historic figures, bad-guys and world changing ideas emerged from Wandsworth. If you think I have missed anything feel free to contact me here. Alternatively if you have a HMO in the Borough of Wandsworth and need any assistance call the office on 0208 895 6195 and ask for me, I may be able to help.

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live just down the road from Wandsworth and am the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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