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Explore our learning offer for schools, families and community groups
Uncover the rich history of Elmbridge with our latest online exhibitions
Want to discover more about your local area?
During the Medieval period, the land in Elmbridge was divided into manors owned by Norman lords or religious houses such as Chertsey Abbey. Villagers had to work on their lord's land, but they also grew their own crops and pastured livestock in 'Common Fields'.
Elmbridge was not particularly prosperous at this time. It was made up of small, isolated communities who lived by farming. The nearest markets were at Chertsey and Kingston. The rivers were important for trade and transport, as well as providing the power for milling corn. There were mills at Esher, Cobham, Molesey, Walton, and Thames and Long Ditton.
In 1348 the bubonic plague, or Black Death, affected the area badly. All the monks of Sandon Priory in Esher died. So many peasants were killed by the plague that those who remained were able for the first time to demand wages for their labour. This gave them more economic freedom from the lords. Some of them grew wealthier as a result and the 'manorial' system began to break down.
The Tudor period was a time that saw many changes in English society. Henry VIII (who reigned from 1491 to 1547) played an important part in the development of Elmbridge. He also built Oatlands Palace at Weybridge in 1537. It formed part of a group of royal palaces and was intended as the queen's palace, with Hampton Court as the king's palace and Nonsuch as the prince's palace. The presence of Oatlands Palace attracted other courtiers to live in Elmbridge and build properties such as Ashley House in Walton.
During the Civil War (1642-51), Charles I occasionally used Oatlands as a base. At the end of the war, Parliament took over the Palace and it was demolished in 1650. The bricks were used in the building of the Wey Navigation - a 25km stretch of river that was made navigable in 1653, allowing barge loads of heavy goods to travel between Guildford and London.
From the 1650s, the area started to become wealthier, in part due to the increase in river trade. After the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, gentry moved to the area because of its close proximity to London. There was more government traffic on the Portsmouth road, leading to the growth of inns along it, like The Bear at Esher.
During the 1700s, Elmbridge was still primarily an agricultural area. Improved transport made it an attractive area for wealthy aristocrats to build their country homes, while the building of Walton and Hampton Court Bridges in the middle of the century encouraged more people to settle in the area.
Most local people made their living from the land. Each village would also have had its own blacksmiths, innkeepers and millers. There was little heavy industry apart from mills producing iron, copper and brass. Villagers would spend much of their leisure time drinking at local alehouses, and inns such as The Ship in Weybridge provided entertainment like cock-fighting and bull-baiting.
The Church was important for local government. Local officers (the 'Vestry') were elected to help run the parish at meetings in local church vestries. Their main duty was to collect rates to help the poor. Workhouses were set up where poor people had to work in return for food and shelter. The Vestry also helped keep the peace. Parish constables put those breaking the peace in lock-ups, until Justices of the Peace took them away to be prosecuted.
Education for poor children was left to the charity of concerned individuals. Elizabeth Hopton founded a charity school in Baker Street, Weybridge, in 1732. Local landowners often supported such schools financially.
During the 1700s, many rich and powerful people settled in the Elmbridge area. They built themselves fine houses with large estates around them. Painshill Park at Cobham was probably the most famous of the great estates in the local area. From 1736 onwards, Charles Hamilton created one of the most beautiful landscapes in England. It included a 'ruined abbey', Gothic pavilion and a spectacular grotto.
Esher had two great estates, Claremont and Esher Place, owned by the brothers Thomas and Henry Pelham, both of whom were Prime Ministers in the early 1700s. The largest estate of Thames Ditton parish was Ember Court, which was owned in the 1700s by Sir Arthur Onslow, the Speaker of the House of Commons for over thirty years.
Retired military men also settled in the area. Thomas Hopson, who won the battle of Vigo Bay against the Spanish fleet in 1702, resided at Orchard House in Weybridge until his death in 1717. In Cobham, Viscount Ligonier, the Commander in Chief of the British Army in 1757, owned Downe Place, later Cobham Park.
By the end of the 1800s, more people in the Elmbridge area were working in trades and industries than as agricultural labourers. Boys who took up a trade typically did seven years' training (an apprenticeship) before qualifying in their trade. Girls usually worked in domestic service, laundries or cottage industries.
Brickmaking was an important local industry in Claygate and Oxshott. James Early Cook applied industrial techniques to the manufacture of bricks at his Little Heath brickworks in Oxshott from 1866, and from 1885 the bricks were transported by train to London.
From the middle of the 1800s, utilities (water, gas and electricity) began to be established in the area. The Lambeth Water Company opened waterworks at Thames Ditton in 1851. The Walton-On-Thames and Weybridge Gas Company formed in 1869 to provide residents with gas lighting and Weybridge first acquired electric lighting in 1890.
Larger industries were also established. The Bronze Statue Foundry was set up in 1874 in Thames Ditton. In about 1885 Edward Power built a factory in Walton to manufacture dental instruments, which later became the Amalgamated Dental Factory.
Throughout the 1800s, various acts of Parliament were passed which eventually led to the creation of a free, state-run education system. Education in the early 1800s depended on wealth and status. Children of the aristocracy and gentry were sent to boarding schools, while grammar schools were available for the less well off. Working class children learnt reading, writing and arithmetic at Dame or Ragged Schools.
The Elementary Education Act of 1870 established Board Schools and it soon became compulsory for all children up to the age of thirteen to attend school. The Balfour Education Act of 1902 allowed County Councils to set up their own elementary and higher education schools. At this time, private schools charging fees flourished in the Elmbridge area, especially in Walton and Weybridge.
At the start of the 1800s, the rise in food prices caused by the Napoleonic Wars brought poverty to the Elmbridge area. The parishes could no longer afford to maintain their own workhouses. From 1834, parishes were grouped into 'Unions' with a single workhouse. The local poor of the area were now sent to workhouses in Chertsey, Kingston and Epsom.
In the first decade of the century, most of the Common Land in Elmbridge was enclosed. Portions of land were allocated to landowners, who then had to fence them off. The rich increased the size of their estates dramatically while the poor were left with small pockets of land. The local gentry tried to help poor children by setting up National Schools from 1811.
The arrival of the railway in the Elmbridge area from the 1840s created a property boom that led to the break-up of the great estates. The wealthy business classes settled in the area, soon followed by the middle and working classes.
In the 1830s, Sir John Easthope, the Chairman of the London and Southampton Railway, bought up large amounts of land around the route of the railway in the Heath area of Weybridge. He settled at a house called Firgrove in 1844 and then proceeded to sell off land for property development to wealthy London businessmen. Houses such as Bartopps, Netherfield and Heatherbank were built in the 1850s and 1870s.
East and West Molesey underwent similar development after the arrival of the railway at Hampton Court in 1849. A Hampton lawyer called Francis Jackson Kent developed new housing in East Molesey, doubling its population. Even isolated rural villages like Claygate and Oxshott began to be redeveloped in the later 1880s.
Attending church was a very important part of Victorian life. The Church of England was the dominant form of Christianity in the Elmbridge area, but there were also several Nonconformist churches. From the 1830s there was a small Catholic community worshipping at the chapel of St. Charles Borromeo in Weybridge.
Churches provided education in the form of Sunday schools and entertainment in the form of children's clubs, choirs and musical bands. These free church activities were popular with local working people.
Several new churches were built in the area to accommodate the gradual rise in population after the arrival of the railway in 1838. Weybridge's parish church, St Nicholas' was too small to cope with its growing congregation by the 1840s and a new church, St James' was erected in 1848. In Esher, Christ Church was built in 1854 to replace the smaller St George's.
During the 1800s, the Elmbridge area had strong links with the British and European royal families.
The daughter-in-law of George III, Frederica Charlotte, Duchess of York and Albany, wife of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, lived at Oatlands Park from 1792 until 1820. The Duchess of York lived a solitary life at Oatlands, consoling herself by keeping a menagerie of pets. Greville, the diarist, wrote in 1818, that Oatlands was, 'the worst managed establishment in England, there were a great many servants, and nobody waits on you; a vast number of horses, and none to ride or drive.'
The Duchess died in 1820. The people of Weybridge had been very fond of her and they erected a monument to her memory on the green near The Ship Inn. The Oatlands estate was then sold to Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, a wealthy London socialite, in 1824.
Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816 and went to live at Claremont, but she tragically died in childbirth the following year. Victoria, the daughter of the Duke of Kent, spent part of her childhood at Claremont, where she stayed with her mother and her Uncle Leopold. After the French Revolution in 1848, the exiled King Louis Philippe stayed at Claremont until his death in 1850.
Queen Victoria continued to visit Claremont, especially after her son, Leopold, Duke of Albany, went to live there in 1882. He died young a couple of years later, leaving his widow, Helen of Waldeck, the Duchess of Albany, to live there until her death in 1922. The future Russian Tsar Nicholas II visited his fiancée, Alexandra, who was staying with the Battenberg family at Elm Grove, Walton, in June 1894. Nicholas wrote to his mother that, 'We were out all day long in beautiful weather, boating up and down the river, picnicking on the shore, a veritable idyll.'
During the 1800s, an increased variety of leisure activities became available to ordinary people. Professional people brought organisation and respectability to sport. Horse racing became more genteel with the building of enclosed racecourses such as Sandown Park at Esher. Cricket and football became better organised with the formation of local clubs.
Working people still spent much of their leisure time at the local public house. The better-off worried about drunkenness and stopped travelling fairs such as the Esher Fair coming to their villages because they felt that they caused rowdiness.
The leisure of children depended on how well-off their families were. Better-off parents could afford to buy their children mass produced toys such as tin or lead soldiers for boys and dolls for girls. Poorer children had to improvise with the materials that were around them or invent their own games.
The number and variety of shops in the towns and villages of Elmbridge expanded rapidly from the 1870s as a result of the increase in the number of wealthier people settling in the area. Early in the 1800s, most people in the area bought what they needed from travelling traders or at markets. As more middle class people moved into the area later in the century, small shops were set up in the high streets to cater for their needs.
Small family-run corner shops began to appear, such as butchers, shoe repairers, chemists, clothiers and grocers. The range of goods was basic compared to today, but local people could get most of what they needed in their own village. Some of today's major chain stores such as WH Smith and Boots established stores in the Elmbridge area in the early 20th century. They often undercut the prices of goods sold by smaller family-run businesses and made huge profits.
There was a large bronze foundry at Thames Ditton from 1874 until 1939, which produced some very famous statues.
Statues were cast of royalty and famous people including Queen Victoria, Robert Burns, and Dr. Livingstone. The largest monument cast by the Foundry was The Peace Quadriga erected on Hyde Park Corner, London, in 1912. It was cast in one-ton sections and took three and a half years to complete. After 1919, the Foundry was in demand casting statues for war memorials.
Some examples of the Foundry's work can be seen locally, for example, the statue of Britannia on the 1897 Diamond Jubilee Memorial in Esher; the Thames Ditton War Memorial; and a statue of a boy scout at the Polyapes Scouting Camping Ground in Blundell Lane, Oxshott.
The Edwardian period was one of fun and frivolity. Boating was very popular. Regattas were held at Walton, Weybridge and Molesey. Many people enjoyed swimming in the Thames at Walton. The well-off in the area took up playing golf. Golf courses were laid out as part of the residential estates at Burhill in 1907 and St. George's Hill in 1913.
From 1911, W.G. Tarrant started to develop an exclusive residential estate on St. George's Hill, Weybridge. Work also started on creating Whiteley Village near Hersham as an idealised village for the elderly. William Whiteley, the millionaire entrepreneur, had left the money in his will to build the village.
Ownership of motorcars became more widespread amongst the well-off at this time. The building of Brooklands Race Track by Hugh Locke-King in 1907 made Weybridge the focus of the motoring world. Shortly afterwards, an aviation school was established inside the track.
Suffragettes were active in the area. A suffragette called Kitty Marion burned down the grandstand at Hurst Park Racecourse in June 1913. Charlotte Despard, one of the leading figures in the suffragette movement, lived at Courtlands in Esher.
The men and women of Elmbridge played an active part in the First World War both abroad on the front and at home in the factories and hospitals. Many local men rushed to join the army at the start of the war. Major Gordon Watney of Weybridge encouraged men to enlist in the 'Watney Lot' and they served as lorry drivers and mechanics in the Royal Army Service Corps.
On the home front, local committees of the Red Cross were set up. Ethel Locke King, the wife of Hugh Locke King, ran a Red Cross Hospital at Brooklands House from 1915 until 1919. The New Zealand Army ran military hospitals at Mount Felix, Walton and Oatlands Park Hotel, where 27,000 soldiers received treatment. Local women worked in the Vickers aircraft factory at Brooklands and the Bleriot propeller factory at Addlestone. Food rationing was introduced in 1917 to combat the shortages caused by German submarine warfare against British shipping.
Hundreds of local people were killed fighting for their country during the Great War. Throughout the 1920s, war memorials were put up in the towns and villages of Elmbridge to commemorate those who had died.
Local playwright R.C. Sherriff recorded his memories of life as an officer on the Western Front in his play 'Journey's End', which later became a major theatrical success.
Between the wars, many new private and council estates were built in the Elmbridge area. New roads had to be built to serve them and in turn motorised transport brought more people into the area. The various district councils built council estates for local people, while a whole new residential area was developed at Hinchley Wood in the 1930s. Many new houses now had electricity, hot and cold running water and indoor toilets.
The increased road traffic resulted in town centre redevelopment including the building of new roads. New Zealand Avenue was opened in 1935 to by-pass the congested centre of Walton-on-Thames.
Cecil Hepworth made silent films at his studio in Walton from 1899 until 1924. The studio, under the name Nettlefold Studios, continued to make films and TV programmes until its closure in 1961. Hepworth's films such as 'Rescued by Rover' were big hits. By the 1920s, members of the Hepworth Stock Company such as Chrissie White, Alma Taylor and Henry Edwards had become international stars. However, competition from Hollywood was too strong for the Hepworth Studios and they closed in 1924.
The site was taken over by Nettlefold Studios in 1926 and 'B' movies were made here before and after the Second World War. In the 1950s the studios were used for the production of television series such as 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' starring Richard Greene. The studios finally closed in 1961 and a car park and shopping centre were built over them.
Cinema was the most popular form of entertainment in the 20th century until the arrival of television in the 1950s. Going to the cinema became the main leisure activity of ordinary people in the 1920s and 1930s. Many new luxurious cinemas were built at this time in the local area.
In the 1930s, Clifford Spain, the manager of the Capitol Cinema in Walton, raised the profile of his cinema in the local community by filming local people at swimming galas, Jubilee and Coronation celebrations and sports events. He then showed these films at his cinema.
The arrival of television in the 1950s affected local cinemas badly and many closed down as cinema goers stayed home instead.
War with Germany meant change for many people and there were some ways in which this war could be said to have affected people's lives more directly than the First World War. German air raids killed and injured many people in the Elmbridge area, as well as destroying many family homes and local businesses. The worst air raid of the war in the area took place on 4th September 1940, when the German Luftwaffe bombed the Vickers aircraft factory at Brooklands. 83 people were killed and 176 were injured.
Later in the War, a V1 Flying bomb landed in the middle of a Welsh Guards Sports Day at Imber Court, Thames Ditton, killing 40 men and injuring 140 others. Local people were actively involved in the war effort. They became Civil Defence workers, air raid patrol wardens, and fire guards. With the men in the armed forces, women often took their place in the factories. They also worked on farms in the Women's Land Army.
Local councils helped to raise money to support the war effort. During Warship Week in February 1942, Esher raised £1,192,000, which helped to build a warship, 'HMS Cossack'. After the war in Europe ended, local people organised their own street parties to celebrate, but official celebrations did not take place until June 1946.