The Clapham Society Local History Series — 6

The Oldest Inhabitant
by the Revd Henry Whitehead

(with Editor’s introduction and notes by Peter Jefferson Smith)

Editor’s Introduction

On 15 April 1859, Henry Whitehead, a curate at Holy Trinity Clapham, delivered a lecture on the history of Clapham, which he called The Oldest Inhabitant. He had stepped in at short notice to replace the scheduled speaker; and although he had had only a week to prepare it, the talk was deservedly popular. Such was its popularity that it was printed as a one penny pamphlet.

Whitehead had two sources for his lecture. He frequently refers to a book, and this was a guide to Clapham published by the local printer David Batten. It had a street directory and map; but the greater part of it consisted of A Topographical and Historical Description of Clapham, Surrey. No author was named, but it is believed to have been the work of George Hyde Wollaston, a City businessman who lived on the West Side of the Common. The other source is the recollections of older parishioners. The result is a mixture of the solid facts from Wollaston, and the recollections of the many older people Whitehead had been talking to.

Whitehead was a good if voluble speaker and knew how to entertain an audience. So The Oldest Inhabitant is a light-hearted look at Clapham over the previous couple of centuries, history with a heavy seasoning of anecdote. The lecture does show some signs of haste — it is discursive at first, and by the end, the lecturer is clearly running out of time. So he ends in a rush, with a tantalising list of matters which have to stand over. It is a shame that we never had Part Two — what did happen to David Skinner’s horse and cart?

The lecture is reproduced here exactly as it was in the printed pamphlet, with one exception. Many of the paragraphs were excessively long, and these have been broken up for ease of reading.

Henry Whitehead

Henry Whitehead was born in 1825, son of a headmaster of a school at Ramsgate. He graduated in 1850 from Lincoln College Oxford, and a year later took Holy Orders in the Church of England. Thereafter, he served as curate in several London parishes. One of these was St Luke’s Soho, during the 1854 cholera epidemic. It was in this epidemic that Dr John Snow, believing that the disease was being spread by contaminated water, had the handle removed from the Broad Street pump. After the outbreak, investigations were set up. Whitehead at first disbelieved Snow’s theory, but in the first half of 1855 made a detailed house by house enquiry into the circumstances of everyone in the area who had died of cholera, and concluded that Snow had been right. By persistent enquiry, he even traced the means by which the Broad Street well had been contaminated to the washing of a nappy worn by a child who had died from cholera. His published findings were the final link in the chain of evidence proving Snow’s hypothesis that cholera is a water-borne disease, and therefore a significant contribution to medicine.

From Christmas 1856 to August 1864, Whitehead was the senior curate at Holy Trinity Clapham, a very different world from Soho. He was plainly a man of enormous energy: as well as his parochial duties, he wrote for the monthly Clapham Gazette, helped with a philanthropic lending library, and organised and gave lectures at the Literary and Scientific Institution, of which this is an example. He was also active with the Gardeners’ Club, the Mechanics’ Institute, the Working Men’s Society and the Benefit Club. One gets a clear impression that the comfortable life of respectable, wealthy Clapham meant little to him, whilst he valued the company and friendship of ordinary working Londoners. He was keen to work with young people, and took an interest in what used to be called ‘juvenile delinquency’. It was while visiting a Reformatory in north Lambeth that he met a young lady visitor, his future wife. The daughter of an army officer, her social beliefs seem similar to his, and when they married, she was working as a nurse at the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.

On their marriage, the couple left Clapham for Highgate, but Whitehead was drawn to the East End by the cholera outbreak of 1866, working as a volunteer and bringing to bear his experience of 1854. He later took up a post as a Vicar in Limehouse, until in 1874 he left London for Brampton in Cumbria. He served in three parishes in the Carlisle Diocese, and died in 1896, aged 70. His life was commemorated by a biography by Canon HD Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust.

Rawnsley’s book, the main source for this note, can be viewed on line at www.archive.org/stream/henrywhitehead00rawniala#page/n9/mode/2up.
For a detailed description of Whitehead’s role in the investigation of the 1854 cholera outbreak, see SPW Chave, Henry Whitehead and Cholera in Broad Street, in Medical History 1958, available on line at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/pmc/articles/PMC1034367/.

The Oldest Inhabitant


THE gentleman who was to have lectured here this evening on “Microscopic Physiology” having unfortunately fallen ill, it has become necessary for me to appear as his inefficient, but not unwilling, substitute — not unwilling, because I have now had sufficient experience of the kindness and sympathy of this audience to feel quite sure that you will charitably bear with the inevitable shortcomings of a lecture, the very idea of which, to say nothing of the plan of its execution, had not entered into my head until last Friday morning.

Now some of you may have been wondering in your own minds who is the particular individual whom I have taken for the subject of my lecture. It is just as likely as not that suspicion has already fastened upon some person or other — perhaps, for instance, on our venerable friend Mr. Jones, especially as I was seen in his company one evening last week at the quarterly meeting of the Benefit Club, which I had the pleasure of attending as a visitor at his special invitation. Mr. Jones, as you all know, was one of the founders of that most excellent Society, and I confess that I did upon that occasion both see and hear enough to furnish me with a good deal of matter for reflection, about which sooner or later I shall certainly endeavour to philosophize from this platform. But it will not be to-night. Well then, who is this “oldest inhabitant,” if he is not Mr. Jones? I am sure I don’t know any more than you do — and if I did, I could not possibly find out enough about him to make him the subject of a lecture — and if I could, perhaps you would not care to hear it — and if you did, most likely he wouldn’t care to have it told. So I think, upon the whole, we had better leave him alone — which indeed we must do if we don’t know who he is.

I may as well then tell you at this stage of the proceedings that no single individual is the subject of this lecture, although I shall doubtless have occasion, as I go on, to press many individuals into my service to do duty for a moment or two as “the oldest inhabitant.” First one and then another of our neighbours and fellow-parishioners will for a brief space of time appear as a kind of representative man in whom is embodied for some special purpose the spirit of the oldest inhabitant. I do not promise in all cases to mention his name, neither in all cases to withhold it. That I shall be quite justified in dealing with him thus vaguely will be evident to any one who considers how frequently we do in common conversation appeal to the experience of the oldest inhabitant without feeling it at all necessary to decide who it is of whom we are speaking. For the most part, however, he cuts but a sorry figure in these appeals, for it is far less frequently to his knowledge than to his want of knowledge that we do appeal. He generally turns up when something very novel and unusual occurs, and then he is invariably made to express his astonishment and amazement. “No such thing,” we say, “has ever previously happened in the memory of the oldest inhabitant!”

Now if we really did upon such occasions take the trouble of seeking him out, and pay him the compliment of asking his opinion and letting him speak for himself, I dare say we should discover that he is not always so astonished as we are ready to believe. “You young folks,” he might say, “take too much upon yourselves in supposing that you have the monopoly of things wonderful. I have seen and done in my time things a good deal more strange than it ever enters into your heads to dream of. Why I remember” — You all know what happens directly he gets to that. We look at one another as much as to say, “What a bore this old fellow is,” and then we straightway set about thinking of something else, and he talks to the air. In a few short years he passes away, and presently we discover that the memory of very many things which we would gladly recal is for ever buried in his grave. Let us deal more kindly than this with the old man, and the benefit received shall not be all on his side. If it gives him pleasure to talk, it shall give us profit to listen. At least it shall profit any amongst us who have a soul to reverence the past. For my own part I have no sympathy with the man who has no love for the past. Not that I believe that any former days were on the whole better than our own. I differ on first principles with all who systematically disparage the present day in comparison with “good old times.” But I am quite sure of this, that no one can really understand the true principles of progress, still less lend effective aid to their advancement, who does not attentively and intelligently study the history and to some extent sympathise with the traditions of the past.

I claim then for the oldest inhabitant a respect and attention quite apart from his individual merit. Let us reverence him, even in the silence or unmeaning garrulity of his second childhood, as a link which binds us to the past; and by all means let us give heed to his reminiscences in his green old age, even though he should at times prove a little tedious.

I must not however be understood as implying that the oldest inhabitant, according to my view of him, is as a matter of course an aged person, or indeed necessarily a person at all. I have met some very young oldest inhabitants during my inquiries within the last few days. In every one, of whatever age, who is preserving from oblivion a tradition of his fathers I see an oldest inhabitant. Nay, as far as Clapham is concerned, I have met with him in the form of a book, compiled from many sources with evident enthusiasm by one now no more, but whose spirit — the true spirit of an oldest inhabitant — still lives and breathes in every page. [i]

This book will serve me this evening as a kind of text-book on which to base an hour’s talk with you about local matters, interspersed with many oral traditions which have been communicated to me by certain oldest inhabitants of various ages and various stations in life.

Perhaps I cannot give you a livelier notion of what sort of changes any aged person has seen in this parish than by telling you that in eighty years the population has increased from 1600 to 16,000. [ii] You must all know some person or persons of eighty years of age who have passed all or nearly all their lifetime in this parish. Last Wednesday evening, when the pensioners came to receive their money from the Committee of the Pension Society, I happened to ask one old lady how long she had lived in this parish. “Lived in this parish, sir? why, I was born in it eighty years ago, and never slept out of it more that two nights together ever since.” Of course this is a state of things which the railways must tend to do away with altogether. But only think of such persons being the living links which connect us with the time when there were not more than 1600 inhabitants in the parish of Clapham. This statement about the population I take from the book, from which I also learn that eighty years ago there were about 240 houses in the parish. How many houses there are now I do not happen to know. Some of you may perhaps think that there are a great deal too many, and may sigh over the disfigurement or destruction of much that was beautiful and picturesque, or at all events dear to you from many a cherished recollection. But it is no use sighing very deeply over what is inevitable. You must try and take comfort in some such reflection as brought consolation to one who had a soul to appreciate the beautiful and had also a peculiar affection for Clapham. When Mr. Wilberforce was one day passing by the then unfinished houses which now form the Crescent, he said “To be sure it is very sad, but it is like cutting up a haunch of venison into mutton chops.” [iii]

Of course Mr. Wilberforce’s reputation for benevolence is so unimpeachable that he could but have meant to rejoice in the thought that the mutton chops are the dinner of the many, whereas only the few luxuriate over the haunch, otherwise I might have been tempted to regard his saying as the lament of the epicure instead of the consolation of the philanthropist. Some years ago I had occasion to call at three o’clock one afternoon upon a well-known gentleman. He sent out word that he was at dinner but I was to come in. He pointed in silence to a chair and to the table, and immediately proceeded to help me from a 47-lb haunch of venison. There was but one other man at the table. I shall never forget those two men. They were both old men, and there they sat, each with a napkin tucked round under his chin, engaged in what was evidently to them a very great solemnity. Very little conversation indeed, and all about the venison! I remember helping myself to potatoes, and then perceiving that the other guest had none on his plate I ventured to pass them to him. “Potatoes? No! no! Take up room!”

Now these men did astonish me very much. But I should have been infinitely more astonished if my fellow-guest had turned out to be a William Wilberforce. It needs not a very old inhabitant of Clapham to remember Mr. Wilberforce. But there is an aged woman in Wirtemberg Street [iv], whom I have often occasion to visit, who has talked with a Clapham worthy who, I should imagine, cannot be personally remembered by any one else now resident in Clapham — “the merchant” so pleasingly described by the Edinburgh Review, in the celebrated essay on the Clapham Sect [v], as “renowned in his generation for a munificence more that princely; one of those rare men in whom the desire to relieve distress assumes the form of a master passion; and if faith be true to tradition, he indulged in it with a disdain, alternately ludicrous and sublime, of the good advice which the eccentric have to undergo from the judicious. Conscious of no aims but such as might invite the scrutiny of God and man, he pursued them after his own fearless fashion, yielding to every honest impulse, relishing a frolic when it fell his way, choosing his associates in scorn of mere worldly precepts, and worshipping with any fellow-Christian whose heart beat in unison with his own, however inharmonious might be some of the articles of their respective creeds.” The particular “honest impulse” which brought him in contact with my friend, leaving an impression upon her mind which seventy years have failed to efface, was one which displayed itself in plentiful distribution of sugar plums from capacious pockets among the children who would eagerly gather around him.

Such was Mr. John Thornton who, as you may learn from an inscription in the old churchyard, was born in 1720 and died in 1790. So that my venerable friend has held converse with one who in his childhood may have known those who had talked with Oliver Cromwell when he was living down here in the old Manor House now unfortunately pulled down. [vi] The demolition of Oliver Cromwell’s house to make way for Cromwell Cottages is cutting up the haunch of venison into mutton chops with a vengeance. It is quite conceivable that “the circumstance of Queen Elizabeth’s dining at Clapham in 1583 (probably at this Manor House) as recorded in the Churchwardens’ Accounts of Lambeth” may have been among the reminiscences imparted to the above-mentioned contemporaries of Cromwell by “the oldest inhabitant” of their own boyish days. It would take but fourteen of such generations to carry us right back to Alfred the Great, in whose time one “Œlfrid a duke gave thirty hides of land in Cloppeham to Worburgh his wife for life, remainder to Ald’hdryth his daughter and her issue.” Twenty-six such generations suffice to connect us with the commencement of the Christian Era, and, bearing in mind that Methuselah must have talked both with Adam and Noah, not more than sixty even with Adam himself.

I sometimes think that there are a good many old persons with full use of their mental faculties in Clapham as compared with other places. Very recently a woman whom I was accustomed to visit died in the High Street in her hundredth year. She was deaf and blind but very shrewd in her way. Mr. Greenwood tells me that he had a patient a few years back in this neighbourhood who died a hundred and five years old. There is an old lady in Bromell’s Road in her eighty-fourth year who is a wonderful reader. She will read a long work, of the smallest print, and it may be requiring considerable thought to understand, in a very few days, and will give a very good account of its contents. Unfortunately she was not brought up in this place, or I doubt not I should have had many of her reminiscences to entertain you with. A lady now eighty years old, well known in this parish, whose remembrance of bygone events is surprisingly accurate, was at school at the Manor House when it was occupied by Mrs. Castlefranc, who, as I learned from a tablet on the north outside wall of St. Paul’s Church, was born in 1720 and died in 1790, the dates of her birth and death thus exactly corresponding with those of Mr. Thornton. Upon this tablet I read the following epitaph, “The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon her, and she caused the orphan’s heart to sing with joy.”

Upon inquiring of my friend, the former pupil of Mrs. Castelfranc, what this inscription meant, I learned that two very young girls were once brought to Mrs. Castelfranc’s, just as any other girls might have been brought, to be placed there at school. It was stated by the person who brought them that they were from the West Indies, and an address purporting to be the address of their friends out there was given. From that hour to the day of her death Mrs. Castelfranc never saw or heard from any one concerning these girls. No letters written to any one whom the girls could mention were ever answered. This however did not make Mrs. Castelfranc any the less kind to them. She cheerfully taught, fed, and clothed them, and in every way treated them as she did her other pupils; and to the honor of human nature let it be told that to the day of their deaths these two forsaken beings found a home with Mrs. Castlefranc and her successors, and were always welcomed as visitors for considerable periods of time at the houses of very many ladies who had known them as fellow-pupils. In this way they were sometimes staying with the lady who told me their mysterious tale. This lady remembers sitting in Church, with the rest of the young ladies of the school, in the centre of the gallery where the organ now stands. They were displaced by the organ in 1794. [vii] She has attended the balls in the Assembly Rooms at the Plough [viii] . She has a distinct recollection of Mr. Moses Porter, the curate in Dr. Stonehouse’s time, being carried up into the pulpit because he was paralytic and unable to ascend the staircase. This must have been a very long time back, as Mr. Porter first became curate in 1763.

Perhaps one of the most curious, as it sounds to us, of pulpit reminiscences connected with this parish is the following. A gentleman assured me last Wednesday evening that many years ago, in one of the stage coaches which then ran to London, he was told by an elderly man that he had seen the clergyman in the old Clapham Parish Church with a glass of brandy and water in the pulpit. Of course this seems strange enough to us. But it does not at all follow that it either seemed or was strange then. An anecdote taken from the Clapham Gazette of last April, may throw some light on this matter. Its author is a member of this Institution, who I do trust will some day prove from this platform that he can tell with the same exquisite humour and pathos with which we all know he can write the reminiscences of his youthful days. “Before I lay down my pen,” he says in the essay alluded to, “let me note another phase of society that has passed away. Every Sunday morning my uncle and myself went to Charlton Church, two miles and a half distant, dined at the inn close by, attended afternoon service, and walked home in the evening. The path lay through green fields; but there are no green fields there now. The old church still stands, and the tattered banners still hang from the walls, but bricks and mortar and the railway whistle have taken all the poetry out of dear old Charlton. The clergyman and my uncle were great friends, and it was their custom to sit upon the tombstones in the churchyard, and drink brandy and water together before service commenced. The congregation lingered about the door — some to tell of their crops, others to look over the wall, and gaze upon the valley stretching away to the Thames. But when the clock gave warning the good old man would put down his glass, and say, Ring the little bell, John; and when John, the sexton, had rung the little bell, all would go quietly in.”

Some persons do recollect bygone scenes and events astonishingly well. I was one day reading to my friend, the contemporary of Mr. Thornton, the 2nd chapter of the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, when she stopped me at the 3rd verse, and said, “That was Mr. Venn’s first text.” [ix] Mr. Venn was appointed Rector in 1792. I wonder how many there are here this evening old enough to remember the texts of last Sunday. Two or three days ago I read to her some extracts from the book which I hold in my hand. This was one “1804 — one guinea each given to the persons who ventured their lives in endeavouring to rescue John Hunter [x] , who accidentally broke through the ice, while sliding on the Cock Pond, and was drowned.” “My brother,” she said, “was one of those persons.” Some of the other ponds have a like melancholy tradition connected with them. Indeed every pond, past or present, seems to have its own traditions of various kinds. You see, a pond is sure to have its traditions, as every little boy likes a pond. There are boys here to-night who sixty years hence will be telling their grandchildren of the days when it was rare sport to bathe in the Mount Pond, to sail boats in the Long Pond, to fish in Mr. Wilson’s Pond, to watch the horses and carriages in the Cock Pond, and to slide upon the ice within the forbidden circle of the Windmill Pond. [xi] Let us hope that their story will not then be a mere tradition of the past.

I know a pond has its drawbacks. I am not prepared to regret “the filling up, in 1853, of a pond, nearly opposite the end of Wix’s Lane, which had long been complained of as unsightly, dangerous from its situation, and the source of malaria,” still less to withhold sympathy from the Lessees [xii] when they “have the gratification to state that in the course of the past year, 1848, one of the most serious and long-standing nuisances which polluted the Common, (the open cesspool at Mr. Haigh’s corner, with the filthy streams which issued from it,) has been effectually and permanently removed.” At the same time I confess I should be very sorry to see the ponds all filled up. There is one comfort; it seems to be an expensive matter filling up a pond. I don’t know how other persons feel upon the subject, but I call the Mount Pond a great ornament to the Common. I remember how delighted I was when I first unexpectedly came upon it, having never before heard of its existence. It burst upon me as they say that the ruins of Palmyra do upon the traveller in the wilderness. Not that I mean to call the Common a wilderness — though it seems it is not so very many years ago that it was little better than one.

“Within the last century,” says our text-book, the Common was little better than a morass, and the roads over it were almost impassable, till the late Christopher Baldwin, Esq., by his influence as a magistrate, and laudable exertions as a resident admirer of the spot, forwarded it to its present state by planting, draining, and improving the roads. The planting is so disposed as to give it the appearance of a park.” This park-like appearance is nowhere more striking than from the drawing-room windows of the House called “The Cedars,” as the sloping mound, surmounting the ditch between the road and the lawn, hides the road from the view of persons looking out from the lower windows, and makes the turf appear continuous. This interesting house was built by Sir Christopher Wren. [xiii] We must not however permit even Christopher Wren to divert our attention for more than a moment from doing honour to the memory of Christopher Baldwin. I hold that the man who takes pains to plant trees is a very genuine philanthropist, because he benefits posterity more than he does himself. It is pleasant therefore to read that in 1788 the inhabitants of Clapham “return their thanks to C. Baldwin, Esq., for the great assistance he hath given them in his judicial capacity.” But they innocently give some colour to the cynical statement that gratitude is mainly a lively apprehension of further benefits, by appending to their thanks a “request that he continue that favour when they may have occasion to apply to him.”

I suppose then, judging by the date of this vote of thanks, that many of the trees on the Common are about 70 years old, especially as there follows soon afterwards an entry to the effect that “a standing Committee was appointed to regulate and improve the Common, making walks and planting trees.” At any rate you may judge (by comparison) of the age of at least the elms on the Common, from the fact, communicated to me by Mr. Muskett, that his grandfather planted the nine elms and also the six elms about seventy years back. Not that every tree even of the same kind grows at a uniform rate. The nine and the six elms are I think tolerably equal as to size. But there are four elms planted by the late Mr. Harrison, of which two are now more than twice as large as the other two. On my asking Mr. Muskett the reason of this, he very sagaciously answered that neither do human beings grow equally fast or in the end equally tall. I confess that I was not aware till I made these inquiries how fast some trees do grow. I was ignorant enough to suppose that such trees as Mr. Harrison’s two large elms were nearer two hundred than one hundred years old — which ignorance I attribute to my having been brought up in a part of the country, the Isle of Thanet, where trees grow very slowly and never attain any great size. In 1795 there is a record that “Mr. Hibbert is allowed to fence in a piece of ground from the Common, opposite his house, and to plant trees for the ornament of the Common.” [xiv] These are the trees just beyond the Buildings Pond. Obviously there was just about that time a general enthusiasm about the planting of trees. No doubt however there are several trees here of older date than this, as for instance the lyme trees in St. Paul’s churchyard, which were planted, seventeen in number, in 1718, i.e., 140 years ago. Of these seven only now remain. I am told by Mr. Valler, to whom also I am indebted for much information, that the Scotch firs on the Mount are about seventy years old.

I have long been of opinion that if any one competent to the task would but take the matter up, a very valuable as well as interesting lecture might be delivered about the trees on the Common. One object which I have in view in thus alluding to them is to stimulate inquiry, and if possible to inspire the said competent person, whoever he may be, with the laudable desire of entertaining us with such a lecture. Once let there grow up amongst us a habit of our own friends and neighbours talking from this platform as much as possible about local subjects, or at least upon matters relating to real life, and the success of our Institution is placed beyond a doubt. I believe that the trees and ponds of the Common would supply ample material for a very good lecture — such a lecture as every inhabitant of Clapham would care to hear.

There is a species of poplar on the Common, some very graceful specimens of which stand opposite Mr. Parrott’s house a little to the North of the Parish Church. Of late years they have suffered considerable injury, having lost many of their top branches in gales of wind. They are beautiful even now, but I am told that about twenty years back they presented so picturesque an appearance that a gentleman, well known for his aesthetic taste, was in the habit of driving down from London once a week and stopping his carriage near the Polygon for the express purpose of admiring them. They appear to be of a kind that very quickly decays. People about here call them the cotton trees, and are under the impression that they were first brought here from the islands of the Pacific by Captain Cook. There is even a tradition that the great tree (another species of poplar) once known as the seat tree, so called from the seats which were formerly round it, was brought here by that celebrated navigator. [xv] I should be sorry to believe that the tradition that Captain Cook had any connection with Clapham has no solid foundation. At all events Mr. Wright, in whose possession the house known as Cook’s House now is, assures me that he never lived there, but that it was occupied after his death by his widow, who died at a very advanced age about twenty-four years ago, of whom I doubt not that many here present this evening have distinct recollections. Her memory is perpetuated in this parish by her bequest, known as Cook’s gift, to poor widows.

As for the great tree I confess that it seems to me too old to have been brought here by Captain Cook at any time of his life, though, as I have said, trees evidently grow much faster than I once supposed; and Captain Cook, although his widow died so recently, was born in 1728. Mr. Cooper, of the Wandsworth Road, who is now about ninety years old, informs me that when he first came to Clapham, in 1790, the seat tree was about as big round as his body — I forgot to ask him though whether he meant his body as it was then or as it is now — and that it formed one of an avenue between the two rows of which he used to hear the Clapham fair was formerly held. Mr. Cooper is an “oldest inhabitant” indeed, the sole survivor, I should imagine, of the original occupants of the Polygon, built in 1792. He was married on the day of Lord Howe’s celebrated victory, Sunday, June 1st, 1794, in honour of which coincidence a print of that memorable sea-fight still hangs upon the wall of his parlour. The Clapham fair, the glories of which were still fresh in the remembrance of some whom Mr. Cooper knew in those days, was abolished in 1781, it being at that time “the opinion of the vestry, that the fair, for some years held at this place, is a great nuisance to the inhabitants, and being illegal, the parish authorities have authority from the lady of the manor to put it down.”

It is a tradition in the family of Mr. Comley, in whose family the sextonship has been for just a hundred years, that in the year when the last fair was held, the fat boy and his friends, who were here for the purpose of exhibition, lodged with his great-grandfather, Mr. John Taylor, parish clerk and sexton. I have been told that the immediate cause of putting down the fair arose from an attempt to bait a bull, contrary to a recorded decree of the vestry in 1693, “Bull baiting forbidden in the Parish, by order of the vestry” — to say nothing of the law of the land. However, bull baiting, and the fair, fat boy and all, have long since disappeared, and alas, the avenue of trees, as if disconsolate for their loss, has refused to survive them. The one solitary, majestic tree alone remains, patiently awaiting, to judge by precedent, its death blow in some violent gale of wind. There can be no one who would not be heartily sorry at such a catastrophe, but if it is to happen, I dare say some of us would be sorry to miss the spectacle of its fall. A late well-known marquis is reported to have offered a large sum of money to see two locomotives let loose with the steam full on to run into collision, which request was very properly refused. Far less excusable was the morbid desire to see Van Amburgh torn to pieces, which is said to have taken a gentleman night after night to witness his exhibition with the lions. [xvi] But, excusable or inexcusable, if this tree is to be blown down, why then, may we be there to see — i.e., from a reasonable distance. Nevertheless let us hope that it will not be blown down.

And there is a special reason why we should hope to lose none of our fine trees, as I am sorry to hear, both from Mr. Muskett and Mr. Valler, that for some cause or other trees will not grow on the Common now as they used once to do. There seems to be some reason for their not growing very well near the road, as their proximity to the gas pipes injures them. But I hear that they do not now grow even on the Common as they once did. Perhaps the trees are resenting the encroachments of the bricks and mortar. Or may be the modern Clapham trees are like the modern Clapham boys. “Never were such bad boys” — we hear on all sides. Weren’t there though? Then I should like to know who it was in time past that was always breaking the railings of the Cock Pond. For my own part I believe that boys were always much the same sort of fellows as they are now, even if we could trace back to the extreme recollection of Mr. Greenwood’s patient of 105 years old.

It does not appear however that this venerable lady left behind her any traditions respecting the boys of her day. The circumstance which seemed to have made the deepest impression on her mind was that of her having seen the army of the Duke of Cumberland encamped on Clapham Common in 1745, the year when the Pretender was expected to attack London. In that year the Pretender, after defeating Sir J. Cope at the battle of Preston Pans in Scotland, marched into England, and after taking Carlisle advanced unopposed to within a hundred miles of London. “The people of the metropolis,” we read in history, “were filled with perplexity and consternation. Had he proceeded in his career with that expedition which he had hitherto used he might have made himself master of London.” If there were “perplexity and consternation” in Clapham, at least there are no traces of any in the parish records. No mention is even made of the Duke of Cumberland and his army upon Clapham Common. The entry for 1745 is all about “poor’s rates and surveyor’s rates. John Killicks proposal to build the workhouse for £161 accepted. Elizabeth Jefferson chosen mistress of the workhouse at a salary of £10. Fines paid for not serving parish offices.” They go on, you see, much as usual. [xvii]

A very different tale is told in the parochial annals when, in 1798, there is war with France. Then we read — “An act of Parliament having passed for encouraging associations for the defence of the country, at this alarming crisis of public affairs, a committee was formed to consider some plan for that purpose in this parish. Armed association formed for the protection of the parish: to consist of housekeepers, or servants recommended by two housekeepers; to be composed of cavalry, infantry, and pikemen; the arms and accoutrements to be furnished by the committee appointed to arrange the association; also to provide a uniform at as small expense as possible. The whole expense to be defrayed by subscriptions among the inhabitants of the parish.” In 1803 there are threats of French invasion. The men of Clapham are equal to the occasion. “Resolved — that the armed association of this parish, under the dangers which threaten us, be renewed with as little delay as possible, and that its object be the local defence of this neighbourhood against an invading foe, whose malice and vengeance are so openly declared, and whose formidable power is now wholly devoted to our destruction; all its members to serve without pay or reward. The association engages to march when called upon by government to any part of Great Britain, in the case of actual invasion, or the appearance of an enemy on the coast. October 23rd, sermon preached by Mr. Venn to the volunteers. 2000 copies ordered to be printed, and circulated through the parish, at the parish expense.” Nine years later, in 1812, there is mention of “a sword presented to W. Prescott, Esq., Colonel Commandant of the volunteer corps, of the value of 30 guineas, for his valuable services for thirteen years, with the thanks of the parish; also the thanks of the parish to the officers and men, for their regularity, discipline, and good order.”

All this is very refreshing; for we see in it the guarantee of what Englishmen can and will resolve to do in defence of their country. Sometimes we hear talk of invasion even now. Whenever it is seriously apprehended, it is certain that all you men will be found animated with the spirit of your fathers. You see over my head the colours of the volunteers of 1803. The ladies of Clapham presented them. The ladies of Clapham will again present colours if necessary. Our President will preach an invigorating sermon. And my friend, Mr. W. Warren, of whose ability and vigour we have had such recent and gratifying experience, will be unanimously summoned by the voice of public opinion to the post of conductor of the band. And I can assure him, from the result of my inquiries respecting the volunteers of 1803, that his department it will be that will live in the memory of our children’s children. Very little have I been able to learn concerning the cavalry, the infantry, and the pikemen — not a copy could I procure of Mr. Venn’s sermon — but on all sides have I met with traditions of the band. Imperishable seem to be the recollections of George Winter and James Hayman with the French horn, Jacob Winter and William Arden with the drum, Andrew Hatfield with the bassoon, Richard Hatfield with the clarionet, one Steel with his fife, and last, though it appears to me very far from least, Thomas Hobbs with the cymbals. Somewhat perplexing at first to me was the mention of one Skinner as playing the bass viol and another man the fiddle. I couldn’t picture to myself at all the idea of an Englishman marching to battle to the sound of the fiddle. However one fact was very clear — that the memory of the Clapham Volunteers principally survives through the band.

The names of the performers were given to me by different persons; but there was one name which not one of my informants omitted, Thomas Hobbs. The first person who spoke to me about the band mentioned him immediately — “Mr. Hobbs played the cymbals — I remember that. And then there were some of the Winters.” Hearing of the Winters I went to a surviving relative of theirs. “Yes,” she said, “George played the horn and Jacob the drum — and then there was Tom Hobbs played the cymbals.” I remarked to a friend, in the course of my inquiries at that time, “It is quite clear to me that one Thomas Hobbs was a notable man in the past history of this parish; it will be altogether impossible for me to give this lecture without first discovering the reason or reasons of the celebrity of Mr. Hobbs.” I was not destined to remain long in ignorance upon this point, as the mystery was soon solved to my complete satisfaction by an oldest inhabitant whom I presently encountered. — “Do you know anything,” I said “about the Volunteers?” — “Oh yes!” — “And the band?” — “To be sure!” “Who were in it?” “Why, there were the Winters, and Steel, and the Hatfields, and Tom Hobbs!” “That’s enough!” I said, “Now then, who and what was this Tom Hobbs? I am satisfied that he was a remarkable man.” — “Ah that he was, sir.” “Well, but what was he remarkable for?” — “Why, sir, he was a very handsome man, and went by the name of The Lady-Killer. And then his attitudes in playing the cymbals were very fine.” — “Ah! I see now! I see now! But how about the fiddling? I hear talk of so and so playing the fiddle, and another the bass viol. What on earth did they want with such things in a military band?” “Fiddle, sir? Fiddle in the Volunteers’ band? No such thing! nothing of the sort!” “Yes, yes, there must have been a fiddle somehow or other. I can trust the memory of my old friends for the fact; only the fact wants explanation. What possible connection could there be between the British soldier and the fiddle?” “Fiddle? Fiddle? Don’t remember! Oh yes — yes. No fiddle in the band. Nothing but drums, fifes, horns, trumpets, and so on, out on the Common, when the band was playing — but in the evening some of the band would take to the fiddle, and there used to be fiddling and dancing out in front of The Cock.”

The Cock [xviii] , I am told, was in those days a very rural sort of place. It has evidently played an important part in the history of the parish. I have not been able to ascertain its exact age; but its first appearance in the parochial annals is in 1722, “Ordered, that the parish officers do audit their accounts at The Cock.” A few years later it loses its monopoly of parochial favour, as it is recorded that in 1729 “the vestries were held alternately at the Cock, Plough, and Windmill.” Towards the close, however, of the 18th century, or at the beginning of the 19th, the Plough seems to have gained the ascendancy in this triumvirate. I have already mentioned the balls at the Plough at the end of the last century, and I suppose that an order issued in 1807, permitting the attendance of the beadles at the balls at the assembly rooms, may be regarded as a sort of parochial decision concerning the seat of empire. I have likewise in the course of my researches met with traditions of a celebrated smoking club which used to sit every afternoon at the Plough, the most prominent member of which is said to have been a magistrate whose cocked hat and pigtail have struck terror into the hearts of some now living. He was a stern man, and is reported to have had a very summary way, when fetched for the purpose out of the Plough, of sentencing offenders to be whipped or sent to prison.

As a set-off against him tradition tells of another magistrate whose unvarying habit it was merely to remonstrate with offenders and let them go. I have not been able to learn that this other was a member of the smoking club at the Plough. But an unrelenting foe was at hand to terminate the glories of the Plough — “1816, The Plough entirely consumed by fire.” If I had not been so pressed for time I would certainly have sought out some spectator of this fire. It has so happened that not one of the persons with whom I have held converse within these few days was present at this great parochial occurrence. The nearest approach I have made to an eye-witness was in the case of a gentleman who slept through it all at a distance of about forty yards across the way. I can only liken him to the celebrated philosopher Archimedes, who was so busily engaged solving a difficult mathematical problem during the taking of Syracuse that he was wholly unable to pay any attention to the trifling circumstance of a soldier killing him contrary to the special orders of the hostile commander that his life was to be spared. Our friend, upon waking in the morning and hearing a great noise, concluded that they were going unusually early and in unusual numbers to Epsom, seeing that it was only the first day of the races.

I have not heard in what year the original Plough was built — neither the Windmill. It seems at least certain that neither of these celebrated taverns nor the Cock could have been in existence in 1665, as it appears that in that year “several complaints having been made of the great increase of alehouses in this parish, it was ordered and agreed, that letters be sent from the parish to the justices, to suppress all the alehouses except the White Hart and Thomas Crencher’s.” I have not been able to find out where the White Hart was. I wonder whether Mr. Crencher was a member of the Vestry.

The Vestry seem to me to have been rather arbitrary in those days. Not content with this suppression of alehouses, their zeal for the parochial morality pursued the tippler even into the seclusion of private life. One “John Pether was convicted, in 1699, of drinking and tippling for several hours in the house of Richard Newman. Each was fined 3s. 4d. and the fines given to the poor.” An entry in 1724 seems to set this fining of tipplers somewhat in the light of robbing Peter to pay Paul, inasmuch as there was “paid to Edward Pether” (doubtless some relation of the said John Pether) “paid to Edward Pether for his trouble in going to London and bringing a coffin for a child, and for drinking money among the women, 8s. 6d.

The next two entries are curious. “Paid to Thomas Bryan for carrying Silly Moll to Lambeth 1s 6d. To ditto for clearing the parish of a Dutchwoman at the George 5s.” A note in our book states that “the George was situated at the Balham Hill corner of the Common.”

This “clearing the parish” of all poor persons who did not belong to it is a fertile source of many of the most noticeable parochial phenomena of the 17th and early years of the 18th centuries.[xix] It would be wholly impossible for me to do justice to it this evening. Sooner or later you shall hear all about it. I would only observe upon the present occasion that, from 1692 to about 1723, the Vestry appear to have waged a thirty years war against certain alien invaders who are styled “inmates.” In the earlier years of this protracted struggle the victory seems to have been invariably on the side of the Vestry. But the hosts of the invader triumph in the end; and it appears to me that the conquest of Clapham by what must have been then considered as a horde of barbarians dates from 1723.

And then there are plenty of other matters to talk about, which for the present must inevitably stand over. The old churchyard — the Parish Church on the Common — the old stage coaches — the nightly watchmen and horse patrol — the Clock house and its bell — the Plague and the Pest House — the spring well with David Skinner’s horse and cart tumbling into it — and, above all, the Beating the Bounds. [xx] I have very great satisfaction in announcing, upon the authority of the Churchwardens, that the time has now come round again for the celebration of this great parochial festival, which will take place, according to immemorial precedent, on Ascension Day, i.e. the 2nd of June. Boys! do you hear that? We shall go beating the bounds on the 2nd of June.

Editor’s Explanatory Notes

  1. Back – A probable reference to George Hyde Wollaston — see Editor’s introduction.
  2. Back – The first of these figures is the population in 1774 (1,625, according to Wollaston).
  3. Back – The Crescent is the south side of Crescent Grove; the houses were built between 1825 and 1827. William Wilberforce, the great campaigner against the slave trade, had moved from Clapham in 1808 and at this period was living at Mill Hill. Most of his contemporaries were dead, but he still had younger friends in Clapham.
  4. Back – Renamed after the First World War as Stonhouse Street.
  5. Back – An article published by Sir James Stephen in the Edinburgh Review in 1844. In this article, Stephen coined the term ‘Clapham Sect’.
  6. Back – The old Manor House, which stood at the junction of Rectory Grove and Turret Grove, was demolished in 1837. The Manorial family supported the Parliamentary side in the Civil War: but it is unlikely that Cromwell ever lived in the Manor House.
  7. Back – This is the west gallery of Holy Trinity Church. The organ was removed after the Second World War.
  8. Back – The pub at the junction of Clapham High Street and The Pavement, opposite the entrance to Clapham Common Underground Station, now (2009) renamed as O’Neill’s. Not to be confused with the pub still called The Plough in Wandsworth Road.
  9. Back – “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” Venn had been appointed to this important post when he was only 33, and was full of doubt whether he was up to its demands.
  10. Back – A misquotation: the book says Charles Hunter.
  11. Back – The Cock Pond is now the paddling pool next to Holy Trinity Church; the Windmill Pond and Mr Wilson’s pond have gone.
  12. Back – Between 1837 and 1877, the Common was managed by a group of local people who leased it from the two Lords of the Manor (of Clapham and of Battersea and Wandsworth). The Lessees raised funds for maintenance and issued reports to their subscribers, from which Whitehead is probably quoting. When they took over, there were numerous small ponds created by gravel digging, and the Lessees filled many of them in.
  13. Back – The Cedars was demolished in 1860 to allow the development of Cedars Road. It was a Georgian building, but not by Wren.
  14. Back – George Hibbert MP lived at 30/31 Clapham Common North Side.
  15. Back – JW Grover, in his lecture Old Clapham, delivered in 1885, said that the person who really planted the rare trees on the Common was the great navigator’s eldest son, Captain James Cook, RN. The seat tree stood near the present site of the temperance fountain. It was destroyed by a gale in 1893, and its surviving stump replaced some years later by the large black poplar which is just to the west of the fountain.
  16. Back – Isaac A Van Amburgh was an American wild animal trainer who had an act in which he put his arm and head into the jaws of his lion and tiger. He toured Europe between 1838 and 1845.
  17. Back – Many Clapham historians have accepted this paragraph uncritically, and an 18th century map, showing a military encampment on the Common, has been assumed to show the Common in 1745. In fact names of residents on the map prove it to be later. Could the old lady have been alive in 1745? It depends on what Whitehead meant by her having died at 105, ‘a few years back’. The Duke of Cumberland was Captain-General (i.e. Commander-in-Chief) of the British Army from 1745 to 1757. During the winter of 1755-6, when forces were being gathered in England to be sent to America, the Duke is said to have reviewed every unit. Is it possible that one of the units was encamped on the Common?
  18. Back – Now (2009) The Frog and Forget-me-not.
  19. Back – This was a brutal consequence of the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Parishes were responsible for support of the very poor who could not maintain themselves, and it was normal to try to remove poor people not born in the parish, to avoid them becoming a burden on the rates.
  20. Back – Whitehead’s references would have been known to most of his audience, though obscure to us. Beating of the Bounds was an ancient ceremony, in which the officers of the parish led a procession round the boundaries. To preserve clear memories of exactly where the boundaries ran in the days before accurate maps, at the turning points the boundaries – and in many cases, the small boys – were beaten with sticks. By the time of Whitehead’s lecture, the ceremony was unnecessary, but was preserved as a community occasion, as in some parishes it still is. Whitehead makes it sound fun – as no doubt it was!