The 1860s was a defining moment for the Common. The railways, the expansion of London and the 4th Earl Spencer selling off parcels of the Common resulted in a public ground-swell of opinion to preserve it, resulting in the Wandsworth Common Act of 1871, which secured its future.
The detailed legislative path since then is complicated, but most significant was the creation of the London County Council (LCC) in 1890 which became the owner of the Common, beginning the transition from rubbish-strewn unkempt space to today’s island of tranquillity. The LCC became the GLC in 1965 and ownership of Wandsworth Common devolved to Wandsworth Borough Council on the demise of the GLC in 1986.
The Commons Act 2006 is the best subsequent safeguard the Common has had.
Of the twelve separate sections of the Common, the largest contiguous piece runs from Bellevue Road in the southwest, follows the railway line past the main lake to The Skylark Café and on to the edge of the Fitzhugh Estate, John Archer Estate and Emmanuel School. Just beyond is the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building — built in 1857-9 to house, educate and train orphan daughters of military personnel who died in the Crimean War. During WW1 it was used as a hospital with numerous additional huts and tents on the Common. In WW2 it became an internment camp for aliens and an interrogation centre for refugees from Europe. There’s a display of the building’s rich and varied history inside.
Bolingbroke Fields runs along the other side of the railway, past the Three Island Pond up to Chivalry Road.
A third distinct area is the Scope — managed as a more wild area — named after an enormous telescope constructed near Lyford Road in 1852 by the Rev. James Craig. At the time it was the largest reflecting telescope in the world.
However, problems with the lens and increasing pollution meant it lasted only a few years. It was dismantled, with little trace remaining, save for a few bricks used in the construction of the buildings on the corner of Bellevue Road and Trinity Road.
Northside Field is actually in the north-west corner of the Common, between Trinity Road and Spencer Park, and with the remains of the so-called windmill — the Common’s only listed building (see photo) — between Windmill Road and the railway line. Technically a wind pump or smock mill, it dates back to 1837 and was used to pump water out of the railway cutting into the Black Sea, a disused gravel pit and reservoir in the grounds of the Wilson’s House, of Price’s Candle Factory, in Spencer Park.
Northside is the site of the annual funfair — one of only very few events permitted on the common.
Next to Northside is Westside, where some of the houses are decorated with bricks from the old London Bridge.
In the opposite corner of the Common is St. James’s Triangle, earmarked for passive recreation, in the far south west of the Common. On a quiet sunny day you really could be on a village green.
Another six smaller pieces of land make up the rest of the Common, including the St Marks Area, where you are only a hundred metres or so from Clapham Junction’s Platform 13.
Further aspects of the Common’s history can be read in this article by Harvey Heath in the Winter 2017/18 issue of Battersea Matters (pages 6 and 7).
Much of the historical information contained in this section was collected and researched over a number of years by the late Shirley Passmore, a former chair of the MAC and an esteemed expert on all things relating to the Common. Further content was contributed by Charles Walton and Ian Cunningham