Give me to view the wonders at my feet;
For such another scene the eye may never meet.

W. C. Smith


Capel: Lost in Time

With the rapidity and convenience of transportation today, we can scarcely imagine how isolated a village located less than fifty miles from London could be in 1800. Even with the construction of the turnpike roads in the 1750s, most who dwelt in the parish of Capel would dwell there always, rarely straying farther than the nearest market towns of Darking and Horsham. Nevertheless, the changes afoot in the land as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth were starting to have some effect on this sleepy village.

     The first records of settlement in Capel date to the eleventh century, though the Iron Age hill fort of Anstiebury and the Roman road known as Stane Street indicate that the area was not entirely devoid of human life before. The place flourished during the High Middle Ages until the Black Death left it nearly deserted in the fourteenth century. its population would not fully recover till the seventeenth.

     There was a church in Capel by the late twelfth century, originally a chapel of ease (a satellite church to the parish of Darking) but Capel was its own parish by 1361—which must have helped matters during the Plague years because families no longer had to haul coffins all the way to Darking. The church was originally dedicated to St Lawrence but was rededicated to St John the Baptist after the Reformation. In 1800—according to William Stevenson’s agricultural survey—it was apparently served only by a curate. In the image by William Girtin below, it is clear that in Harry Steer’s day the church was poorly maintained, in almost ruinous condition.
Thomas Girtin, Chapel [sic] Church, Surrey (ca. 1799), watercolour. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.1200.

     The land roundabout, so close to the Sussex border, is heavy Wealden clay, hard to work though fertile if managed properly. At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, farming practices were backward. William Stevenson, author of General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (1809), is inclined to severity: ‘An adherence to the grand principle of a good rotation, is less frequently met with in the Weald than in any other party of the county. Where farmers have an inadequate capital (as is too often the case in the Weald), they are too apt, and indeed, too much under a strong and tempting necessity, to prefer a small, and often only an apparent advantage, to a greater distant good that must be under an immediate expense, which they can little afford to defray’ (p. 193). In practical terms this meant that the farmers had to grow a cash crop most years, with little rest for the soil; they mostly grew oats, wheat, and pease (legumes), and improved their soil by marling (adding loam), liming (adding chalk), and spreading dung from their cattle and outhouses. The seven-year rotation discussed by Harry Steer’s father and his kinsman, Lee Steere Steere, in Coldharbour Gentlemen would have been a luxury available only to the holder of such a large property as Jayes Park.

     The reasons for this backwardness lie deep in Capel’s history. For centuries there was only one great house in the area, Temple Elfold, and by 1800 there were only two more—Jayes Park (home of the Lee Steeres) and Lyne House, partly in Newdigate parish and held by a newcomer family, the Broadwoods, successful makers of pianofortés in London. In later years the Broadwoods contributed greatly to the prosperity of Capel; but in 1800 they were only just settling in.

     The Lee Steeres, by contrast, had roots in the neighbourhood going back hundreds of years, rising from villein to yeoman status and profiting from the Black Death by taking control of abandoned farms. They were the most successful of a small group of yeoman families that held much of the neighbourhood as freeholders: the Steeres, Constables, Youngs, Stones, Cowpers, Gills, and Baxes. Their freehold status gave them a sure foothold on the land but in most cases denied them the capital necessary to rise in status. Their produce rarely went farther than the local markets. The few major landlords had rent rolls and timber to sell, but overall the parish remained a subsistence economy. People built their houses from bricks manufactured by digging clay on their own property; only a few basic trades were practiced by specialists, such as the blacksmith and the shoemaker; and there was no resident physician.
     After the turnpike was built a handful of taverns opened in the late eighteenth century, serving travellers, but there was not even a post office till 1845. So little law enforcement was available that a nearby settlement formed, around the turn of the century, the Beare Green Society for the Prosecution of Thieves.
Thousand-year-old yew tree in Capel churchyard. Photo by the author 2018.

     This atmosphere of ‘work hard and keep to yourself’ was perhaps enhanced by the prevalence in the area of Quaker families. Temple Elfold had been bought by Gill family of Quakers (like the Steeres, local yeomen made good) in 1728, a few years after the Friends meeting-house was built in Capel. One of the farmers, Richard Bax, had established a Quaker burial ground as early as 1673, and records show many of the local Quakers suffered persecution, including imprisonment and crushing fines, in the early years of the Society of Friends. It is perhaps not surprising, however, that an area so dominated by the yeoman farmer, with few gentry and relatively few tenant farmers or labouring poor, should prove fertile ground for Nonconformists. By 1800 the Quakers were more accepted, even respected for their quiet ways and work ethic.

     In 1801, according to Britain’s first general census, fewer than seven hundred souls inhabited the far-flung parish of Capel, which extended from Coldharbour in the northwest to the Holmwood in the northeast (including Harry Steer’s home of Henfold), bordering Newdigate to the southeast and the county of Sussex to the south. There were only 99 houses, sheltering 130 families.

     This seeming stability in the Capel community was soon to be shattered. Prices for agricultural goods remained high throughout the Napoleonic Wars but crashed after the Battle of Waterloo brought an end to hostilities in 1815. Small-scale farmers lost most of their income and were forced to take out mortgages on their land; a single bad harvest then could drive them into default, and their land was snapped up by the new gentry (often successful business men like the Broadwoods or retired military officers) pushing into Surrey as roads improved and, a little later, railroads were built. Many of the local farmhouses were expanded into gentlemen’s properties that relied little on what could be coaxed from the soil, and the children of the old yeoman farmers were reduced to being servants in the new households.

     Some local people profited for a while: one of the sons of the notorious smuggler John Tilt of Coldharbour Gentlemen fame—the bookish William Tilt—became schoolmaster at Capel’s first school, established by the Broadwood family in 1826. But his security was shortlived, and when a second wave of economic distress struck the countryside in 1832, he emigrated with his family to Canada.

     In 1800 Capel could be seen as a corner of the old England, hardworking, insular, and set in its ways, seemingly eternal; but that image was to prove all too fragile and transient.

Church of St John the Baptist, Capel, today. Wikimedia Commons.
7 September 2021


Crop and population data from the 1801 census: Dorking Museum Archive, 332/2.

Mary Day and Vivien Ettlinger, Capel: The Chapel by the Spring (Godalming, 2015).

William Stevenson, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (London, 1809).

Bernard Thistlethwaite, The Bax Family: An Account of the Early Quaker Baxes of Capel and Ockley in the County of Surrey (London, 1936).

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