Anyone searching for the Holmwood Common described in Coldharbour Gentlemen and other Darking Hundred stories would find few traces of it today. Changes in economics and society have transformed it from what it was in 1800. But anyone who lived in 1700 would have been surprised by what they found there a century later as well.
At the start of the eighteenth century Holmwood Common was a remote place, locked in obscurity by mud and poor soil. A few farms scratched out a meagre existence around its edges and on its higher ground, but they were mostly subsistence enterprises because there existed no decent roads for transporting produce or livestock to market. Eking out a yield from the clay soil required heavy applications of lime every two to three years, which was expensive and didn’t usually justify the result.
Those living on or near the common who rented their homes from the lord of the manor usually had certain traditional rights to use the common land written into their leases: turbary (cutting turf for fuel), estovers (cutting branches from small trees or bushes), herbage (pasturing livestock on parts of the common), piscary (fishing in the streams), and pannage (allowing pigs to forage for nuts in the wooded areas). The lord of the manor retained all other rights and the rights of common issued to tenants were highly regulated, but these privileges nevertheless made the difference between subsistence and starvation. This had been the status quo for centuries.
Among the uses of the land was digging for clay suitable for making pottery, which resulted in the common being riddled with large holes that filled with water and became ponds and bogs. Farmers dug marl pits, burrowing down to the chalk layer under the clay to obtain lime for their fields. Digging turf for fuel also pitted the landscape, making it treacherous to cross. Its remoteness also made it appealing for those who would illegally take from its natural resources, so it became known as a haunt of criminals.
The area had originally been forest, part of the primeval woodland that stretched all across the heavy clay soils of the Weald. Over the years, the trees retreated where people carved out fields, and where cattle and sheep grazing on the land kept wide areas open. But because the soil was not well suited to agriculture, much of Holmwood Common was still forested, primarily in oak.
It was in 1755 that change began to come to Holmwood Common. Parliament approved a plan for the construction of a turnpike road along the western side of the common, connecting London to Sussex. The project was funded by local landowners, principally Sir John Evelyn (father of the Sir Frederick in my stories), Lord Howard of The Deepdene (father of the 11th Duke of Norfolk), and Lee Steere of Jayes (grandfather of Lee Steere Steere in Coldharbour Gentlemen). Suddenly markets for produce, timber, and other goods opened up for people living in remote communities. The road was far from perfect—it was still muddy in winter and rutted in summer—but it made the crucial difference between impossible and difficult.
Access led to an increase in the land being put to a variety of uses, many of them illegal. Kathy Atherton, the principal chronicler of the area, writes of the late eighteenth century that ‘Furze, wood, holly, turf, leaf mould, dung, brick earth and gravel were pillaged without consent; animals were run by those with no entitlement; sheds, lime kilns and wood houses were unlawfully situated and fences surreptitiously moved’ (The Lost Villages, p. 26). On the more constructive side, the increased traffic on the turnpike led to the development of businesses along the route—inns, alehouses, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and more could now make a living in the Holmwood as well as the farmers. Swan’s windmill, which plays a role in Coldharbour Gentlemen, was built in 1772, and Elizabeth Wood converted her cottage, conveniently situated beside the turnpike near a toll gate, into the Nag’s Head hostelry before 1799.
The road traffic, passing as it did by swatches of woodland and open heath, attracted those who turned to a life of crime for reasons of greed or desperation. The Nag’s Head was a notorious hangout for criminals, as was the beer hall known as the Bottle and Glass on the eastern side of the common. Atherton writes that ‘the isolated Holmwood was ideal for smuggling. . . . Contraband goods were brought up from the Sussex coast through Surrey. Smugglers travelled by night and by isolated tracks through the sparsely populated Redlands woods [on the western side, where John Tilt’s farm is located] or over the Common, no doubt aided by impoverished commoners’ (The Lost Villages, p. 24). Coldharbour Gentlemen imagines what this trafficking might have looked like.
The Holmwood Common depicted in that story is probably a little wilder and emptier than it was in real life, but we must make allowances for the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy addicted to adventure, who may have exaggerated matters to suit his imagination. In 1800 he would have seen large open stretches dotted with furze (a sign of overgrazing), alternating with scattered farms and wild patches of woodland, with most human activity clustered close to the turnpike road.
The nineteenth century brought enormous changes to the area. Although William Cobbett in 1820 could still describe ‘fine fields of wheat’ along the eastern side of the common, they were about to disappear. In the 1820s and 1830s economic crises led to an exodus of poor people, who could no longer make a living on the land. They moved to cities or emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The cottages they vacated were taken over by middle-class and minor gentry folk, who expanded them into comfortable or sometimes grand houses—among them Stumblehole, where I have located Harry Steer’s cousins. It had been a farm since the thirteenth century, but in the nineteenth it became a mini-villa known as The Poplars.
This gentrification transformed the area in a variety of ways. A series of villages grew up where none had been before, clustered around the railway, built in the 1860s. As farming and grazing declined on the common, the woods grew back so today the Holmwood is a combination of suburbs and forest. The post mill built by Henry Swan is long gone. Although a few of the farmhouses still exist, nearly all modified beyond recognition, it is now impossible to trace the ancient paths followed by Harry Steer and the smugglers.
16 October 2021
Kathy Atherton, The Lost Villages: A History of the Holmwoods (n.p., 2008).
William Cobbett, Rural Rides (London 1830).
Memories of Old Dorking, edited by Margaret K. Kohler (Dorking, 1977).
Frances Mountford, A Commoner’s Cottage: The Story of a Cottage through the Ages (Stroud, 1992).
William Stevenson, General View of the Agriculture of Surrey (London, 1809).