Read my blog post for the Museum of English Rural Life on my Open Spaces Society fellowship:
Wednesday 8 September 2021, 2pm-5pm , online
Hosted by The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading
The Open Spaces Society is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society. https://www.oss.org.uk/
The OSS collection at The Museum of English Rural Life includes over 1000 lantern slides from the period 1900 to 1940, and late 19th century legal case material from their campaigns to keep footpaths and access open to commons and other sites of natural beauty. For more information on the collection, go to: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/open-spaces-society/
As 2020-21 OSS Fellow at MERL, Dr Katrina Navickas is working on the contexts and connections of this archive material.
These are some of the central themes arising from the images: ● Access to river and waterway towpaths ● Woods and sylviculture – ancient woods and Forestry Commission plantations ● Amenity and natural beauty in landscape preservation ● A North-South divide in preservation priorities? ● Prioritising people or nature in preservation? ● Rural modernism, urbanism and infrastructure
Symposium and call for submissions:
This half-day symposium will explore these themes and sources from the OSS collection. It will offer a range of short talks, discussion, and an opportunity to engage with the images in a ‘find the location’ challenge. It will be of interest to historians, cultural geographers, landscape conservationists, and anyone seeking to know more about the OSS collection. Contributors can draw on a wealth of related material in the MERL Library and Archive.
We are now calling for short papers or creative submissions, especially in response to the themes outlined. The focus is on countryside preservation and access in 20th century Britain, but comparative and international perspectives are also welcome.
There is space for up to 5 papers of 15 minutes each, plus practical and creative workshop sessions on the image collection.
To offer a paper or creative response, contact:
Dr Katrina Navickas, firstname.lastname@example.org by 1 July 2021. For more information on the project, see https://historyofpublicspace.uk/my-oss-fellowship-at-merl-2021/
For updates, follow @katrinanavickas on Twitter. Booking details will be available via The MERL and Eventbrite soon.
I’m gathering together the main themes of the lantern slides in the OSS collection for the forthcoming exhibition.
The boxes are organised by type of landscape, but this also lends to geographical regions too:
- Boxes A and B – mix of North Downs, especially Box Hill and Leith Hill, and Surrey commons
- Box C – metropolitan parks and commons, especially Brockwell Park and Peckham Rye
- Box D – parks and commons in London continued, mainly commons, especially Wimbledon and Streatham commons and Kenwood/Hampstead
- Box E – Burnham Beeches, Hampstead Heath and Kenwood in bulk, mostly of trees
- Box F – Rivers, predominantly the Thames, mainly Berkshire, some of the river Avon, Wye, Lea, Dee and then individual pictures of other rivers
- Box G – more Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common
- Box H – Pilgrim’s Way through Hampshire and Kent, including many of Canterbury Cathedral; mostly street scenes and buildings
- Box I – Ancient Forests – mainly New Forest and Epping Forest, also Ashdown, Hainault, Savernake and Sherwood
- Box J – Examples of obstructions, stiles, fences, signposts, and a few examples of the work of the CFPS in removing obstructions and mass trespass
- Box K – random pictures, from old paintings to bridges – not sure there is a theme
- Box L – county landscapes from B to Y – examples of type of landscape for each county, though not all counties are represented
- Box M – stock types of landscape, village scenes and nature, including some that look posed by actors? Several posed at Castle Combe, Wiltshire and St Mary’s abbey, East Malling, Kent. Also portraits of the leading figures in the preservation movement, including Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter.
Many of the Surrey commons images are of sites that had been preserved, and I suspect the purpose of the slides were to illustrate talks celebrating the work of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation society in their campaigns, showing their main successes. There are many in the ownership or conservatorship of the National Trust or the City of London corporation commons.
These are some of the main themes emerging:
- riparian access to the Thames
- a changing landscape and the intrusion of the modern
- ancient woods and forests
- the materiality of obstruction
I’m also compiling a list of archives in other repositories related to the OSS collection at MERL. Here are some of the most relevant so far – if you know of any others for the period 1900-40, do let me know.
Surrey History Centre:
FCP – the main collection of the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, forests and commons papers (link)
for example FCP 2/382-386 – Surrey commons – Coulsdon and Banstead, 1930-3
London Metropolitan Archives:
CLA/077/B – Epping Forest conservators papers
CL/PK/1/131 – LCC Green Belt scheme – Surrey, 1936-7
I am also reading this book, which has a chapter on the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society and the National Trust:
Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, Marketable Values: Inventing the property market in modern Britain (Chicago University Press, 2018): https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo28907929.html
I’ve now categorised and geo-located the majority of the c.1000 lantern slides in the Open Spaces Society collection at MERL.
NB not all the slides are represented on this map because some can’t be geo-located
Here are some statistics:
- Urban commons and rivers are the two most common types of landscape represented in the images, at 137 ( 13.8%) and 135 (13.6%) of the total.
- Downland 65 (6.5%) and buildings 61 (6.1%) were the next common type.
- Surrey was by far the most common county location – 255 images (30%)
- London, Buckinghamshire and Kent were the next common counties.
What’s surprised me:
- Castles: There is a large proportion of pictures of castles and other ancient ruins/old buildings among the slides. As a society mainly concerned with footpaths and open spaces, one would expect that buildings wouldn’t be a main focus of their campaigns. I would have thought they would have left campaigning about ancient buildings to the National Trust and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (founded by William Morris in 1877).
- Churches: Ditto, the same with churches. There are many pictures of churches, abbeys and cathedrals. Some of the small churches reflect the general theme of an idyllic unchanging village life, but there are also many images of statues and monuments in cathedral interiors.
- Geographies: The focus on the south east of England is not surprising, given the Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society’s origins, but I was surprised that there were very few photos of the Lake District. There are none of Dartmoor. There are only a few in the Peak District. The Midlands is very sparsely represented.
The Open Spaces Society have now uploaded their lantern slides images to their website: http://images.oss.org.uk/
You can purchase hi-resolution copies of the images from their website.
I’m still working my way through them all, classifying them and geo-locating them. The images are collated in themes, presumably in different boxes that were taken along to illustrate different talks and campaigns.
There is a whole ‘box’ for example on the Pilgrim’s Way in Hampshire.
I will be doing the stats on which places are represented in the collection as soon as I’ve finished geo-locating everything, but it seems that the 1000 or so slides focus mainly on southern England, and are often records of places just after they had been preserved or bought by the National Trust and other bodies for the benefit of the public – e.g. Kenwood and Hampstead Heath figure highly. There are hardly any slides from northern England or Wales. The focus is also on large areas, and long-distance footpaths.
These are the main themes I am going to explore:
a) rivers and waterways – riparian access issues
There is a whole section of images of rivers and waterways, in connection with various campaigns to open up towpaths and access to embankments etc. Riparian access is still an issue today.
b) Woods and forests
There are many slides showing woods, and particularly individual trees and broad-leaved deciduous. This derives from contemporary concerns about the impact of new plantations of conifers and sylviculture, both by 19th century estates and by the 1919 Forestry Commission.
One could refer to the historic symbolism and uses of the ‘old oaks’ (for perambulations, boundaries, etc)
Burnham Beeches is a large section of the collection, and I have been in contact with a conservator from the City of London about the trees.
The impact of the 1987 great storm on the trees that are pictured in the collection would be an interesting side-project.
c) trespass and access campaigns
There is one ‘box’ of lantern slides showing a of the OSS’s campaigns. These include a few images like this:
I’ll write a future blog post about the Sunnyside Bradford trespass campaign in 1930.
There is another slide showing the society removing obstructions at Ribchester, Lancashire, 1930, but very little about this, so this is something I will look into more. If anyone has any information about this, let me know.
And more individual actions such as ‘removing an obstruction, Otterburn, Northumberland, February 1936’. Also actions against farmers ploughing up of footpaths, e.g. between Banstead and Woodmansterne, Surrey.
d) Rural modernism and infrastructure
The changing landscape of roads, petrol stations, telegraph poles and power lines.
Ewell was the first public petrol station: http://mk1-forum.net/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=3602&start=320
My Rural Modernism network has been working on these themes, so there is much material on the impact of energy and transport infrastructure on landscapes, and the role of preservationist campaigns in e.g. public enquiries.
Militarisation and requisitioning of landscapes during and after World War I is also a related theme. See the excellent studies by Marianna Dudley on this topic for the post WWII period.
The closest locations of the OSS lantern slides to where I live are Waddon Ponds and the ones marked ‘Wandle Mill’. The images are a bit vague, so I am still working out exactly from where they were taken.
Wandle Mill was the manorial corn mill. Looking on the OS map, a large corn mill, with watercress beds, alongside the river Wandle just downstream from Waddon Ponds. It no longer exists but is the site of an industrial estate, including a pomo multi-storey carpark full of cars stored by a second hand car dealer, and various small workshops.
A court case was pursued in 1854 by the owner of Wandle Mill, about the rights to use and divert the water to power the mill. The 1849 Public Health Act had enabled the local Board of Health to dig a well as part of the major improvements in sanitary and water provision for Croydon. Indeed, Croydon became known as the first town to implement a comprehensive sewage system and water supply under the powers.
See this analysis of the Croydon sewage improvements by Nicholas Cambridge: https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Sewage-Treatment.Dr-Nicholas-Cambridge.pdf
Also the parliamentary report on the Board of Health improvements:
The river was diverted at the end of the 19th century, creating watercress beds, and later allotments. The corn mill closed in 1928.
From a Croydon council leaflet: https://www.croydon.gov.uk/sites/default/files/articles/downloads/waddon-ponds-history.pdf
“In 1910 records show that Waddon Ponds belonged to two estates, Waddon Court, which was owned by Mr Crowley, and Waddon Lodge which was owned by Miss Mary Waterall. When the two owners died the Corporation bought part of both estates in 1928 following a vigorous campaign by Mr Pescott Row an author of books about the beauties of England. To commemorate the efforts of Row another local author H.M. Tomlinson donated a sundial to the park. The rest of both the estates was sold to developers and new houses were built in Waddon Court Road, Lodge Avenue, Limes Avenue and Wandle Side.”
The mansion house is Waddon Court. It is on the 1914 map but gone by the 1936 map.
The Ridgeway and other streets were built on the new streets in the 1930s:
One view that hasn’t changed much since the lantern slide is this one of the cottages and snuff mill by the Wandle as we cross into Beddington.
History of the Snuff Mill: http://www.wandle.org/mills/beddingtonmill.pdf
John Hassell in 1817 described what had previously been a pleasant walk along the Wandle:
For an introduction to the OSS lantern slides project at MERL, read: https://historyofpublicspace.uk/my-oss-fellowship-at-merl-2021/
13 February 2021 – Another of the more obvious locations in the lantern slides was listed as ‘Warlingham steps, Surrey’. This is Jacob’s Ladder, near Whyteleafe South station, Surrey.
This is the same image on the lantern slide, a postcard titled ‘Field Surrey series 224’. This one is off Ebay:
Here is the location, a steep climb of around 200 concrete steps, leading from Well Farm Road (round the back of a new looking Travellodge and flats) through a deep railway bridge, up to Westview Road.
It’s marked on the 1912 OS map 25″ to the mile:
The Bourne Society leaflet on the area states that it was built in the 1880s on the route to Westhall Farm: http://bournesoc.org.uk/bslivewp/wp-content/uploads/Warlingham_history.pdf
It was very slippy and icy underfoot!
Lantern slide and 2021 compared:
As with many of the slides, there isn’t much information on the photo, not even a date.
Jacobs Ladder was built on the route of a public footpath from Well Farm to Westhall Wood. Here’s the OS map from 1871, showing the route starting from an embankment and railway tunnel, although the railway line had not yet been laid:
An obituary notice from 1912 gives the life history of one of the occupants of the farm:
The District Council in 1903 sent the surveyor to check the condition of the steps:
It’s a very suburban middle-class area, with large villas perched on terraces overlooking the steep drop into the Whyteleafe and Warlingham villages. The Victorian OS maps from 1897 show huge houses on large plots spread across the hill. I was intrigued by the street name Kooringa, and comparing with the 1912 map, you can see large houses named Kooringa as well as Kumara and Keilawarra.
Looking the houses up in the census shows the Australian connection. Kooringa and Keilawarra were occupied by coal factors or agents who had evidently made their fortune in the copper mines of south Australia. This 1849 map from the State Library of Australia shows the basic plan of the town built on the Aboriginal site for the settler colonists to live and exploit the natural resources: https://digital.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/nodes/view/815
“The town of Burra began in 1846 as the company town of Kooringa, surveyed and built for the South Australian Mining Association. It was the first such company town in Australia and remained so until the closure of the mine. An Aboriginal word Kooringa (kuri-ngga) means ‘in the locality of the she-oak’. The neighbouring hills of Kooringa and the mine were stripped of their trees for the mine works.”
Let’s look in the census. The first entry I can find for Kooringa is 1901:
By 1911, the Church family had been replaced by the Johnson family, but the head of the household was also a coal agent, who had married the daughter of the previous occupant.
Looks like the Church family had moved next door from Keilawarra house. Here’s the entry from 1891.
Here’s an account of their wedding from the Croydon Chronicle, 29 Sept 1906. Worthington Church is described as the ‘owner of considerable property in Surrey and Essex’. According to another report in the Daily Mirror, the house was worth £300 a year, with extensive ornamental grounds.
On the other side of Jacob’s Ladder is the White House, still there and of some local notoriety as the site of a naturist retreat since the 1930s.
Joseph Lindley’s Survey of 1793 records there being a White House off Godstone Road. The Huguenot Society’s proceedings, vol 7, 1905, record a Huguenot descendant living in the White House.