A History of the Wimbledon Society
The conservationist aims of today‘s Wimbledon Society owe their origins to the 19th century campaign to protect Wimbledon Common. Although the Society itself was not founded until later, an earlier generation of residents worked for some years in the 1860s to ensure that the Common did not share the fate of the surrounding park and farmland in being swamped by urban development. Norman Plastow, President of the Wimbledon Society, explains.
At the start of the 20th century Wimbledon was becoming fully aware of its extraordinary transformation during the past fifty years. In 1851 it had been a pleasant and relatively small village with a population of about 2,500. By the end of Queen Victoria‘s reign there were nearly 40,000 more people in what had developed into a major suburb of London. To deal with the immediate social problems this created, especially in ‘New Wimbledon‘ at the bottom of the hill, the Urban District Council had to set up a Sewage Works, an Isolation Hospital for infectious diseases, a Fire Brigade, a Free Library, and an Electricity Works. There were still, however, many other problems caused by the quite unprecedented rate of change, above all how to ‘protect and improve the grace, dignity, and picturesque amenities of the area‘.
The man who first saw the need for such protection was a journalist and leader-writer on the ‘Pall Mall Gazette‘, Richardson Evans, who had settled in Wimbledon in 1876. He had already founded a Society ‘for checking the abuses of public advertising ‘. Now in 1902 he wrote to a number of leading Wimbledonians suggesting the setting up of a local conservation society. This letter aroused considerable interest and won support especially from Sir Thomas Jackson, a leading Architect who lived at Eagle House, Sir William Preece, a noted electrical engineer at Gothic Lodge, and Percival Graves, a school inspector, one of whose sons Robert later became famous as a poet.
Early in 1903 Evans, Jackson, Preece and Graves held a meeting in the Hall next to the Village Club and agreed to found a Society ‘to safeguard the amenities of the district, to promote an interest in local history and wildlife, and to preserve objects of historical and natural interest‘.
The new organisation was named by Mr. Evans the John Evelyn Club - ‘Club‘ to promote friendly talk over common interests and ‘John Evelyn‘ because he was a man who ‘showed so delicate a love of nature, such cultivated taste in art‘. By the 1920‘s, however, some members wanted the word ‘Club‘ changed to ‘Society‘. Richardson Evans would not hear of it and a Club it remained until 1949. Four years later the Executive Committee proposed replacing ‘‘John Evelyn by ‘Wimbledon‘ as some visitors came to the Museum hoping to see a display about the diarist, but older members strongly opposed the idea. So the present name ‘Wimbledon Society‘ was not adopted untill after further controversy in 1982.
In its first twenty years the Club achieved considerable success in carrying out its first aim, the safeguarding of local amenities. It helped to preserve a small part of the old Village Green and blocked the building there of an unsightly block of flats. It campaigned to keep parts of Wimbledon Park as an open space. It secured the creation of Wandle Park as a public recreation ground. Above all, just before the First World War, it saved Beverley Meads from development, an important achievement as the future Kingston Bypass was already being planned to run near there. On top of that, it promoted lectures on local history and guided walks on the Common, and so helped to spread interest in Wimbledon‘s past and concern about its present condition. Then in October 1916, in the middle of the war, it opened a Museum in the Village Club. Originally proposed over fifty years earlier by Joseph Toynbee, this was carried through thanks to the determination of Richardson Evans and has since proved one of the most valuable works carried on by his Club - without any help from the local authority.
In 1921, Evans had to leave Wimbledon through ill health. On his death seven years later Canon Monroe, Vicar of St. Mary‘s, remarked that ‘Wimbledon would have been a less attractive place had it not been for his indefatigable efforts‘. Even without his inspiration, the Club continued to flourish under men such as Dr. Francis Bather, a noted geologist and the first Chairman of the Museum Committee, and Arthur Hughes Clarke, Secretary of the Club in the 1920‘s and editor of the Wimbledon Parish Register. Its greatest achievement in the 1930‘s was to help save the Royal Wimbledon Golf Course from development by the Council. But it also promoted a photographic survey of the district, organised the first Society outings (to Wotton and Cheam ) and bought the Hope Collection of watercolours and drawings, the basis of the present fine collection in the Museum.
During the Second World War the Museum had to be placed in store.The war saw heavy damage inflicted on Wimbledon.
Once the war was over, hopes were raised that the Museum could be found a larger and more appropriate home than a single room in the Village Club. First, in 1950, Eagle House was suggested by the Council as a combined Museum and Art Gallery, but the plan fell through. Then in the 1970‘s the ground floor of Cannizaro was felt by many to be the ideal site for concerts as well as a Museum, but again the Council finally backed out of the deal and sold the house to Thistle Hotels. So the Society had to refurbish its original room, first in 1974 and then even more drastically twenty years later when Norman Plastow and Paul Bowness produced a new and striking series of displays illustrating Wimbledon‘s history. At the same time the Society began publishing booklets on local history, starting with Guy Boas‘s ‘‘Wimbledon: Has it a History?", while in 1971 Guy Parsloe, President (1975-81), launched a Local History Group which is still flourishing.
Meanwhile, the Society, above all its Planning Committee (including architects and town planners), struggled to ensure "the sympathetic and orderly development" of Wimbledon. In the 1960‘s it instigated the "Village Face Lift" , which greatly improved the appearance of the High Street and Church Road, but it failed to secure retention of the name Wimbledon for the new London Borough.
In the 1970‘s it campaigned successfully for a major extension to local Conservation Areas and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1978 with concerts and a Crafts Exhibition at Cannizaro, then recently closed as an old people‘s home. The 1980‘s were notable for controversy over the redevelopment of the Town Centre. The Society, along with the Town Centre Coordination Group, published an imaginative scheme, "Our Town Our Plan", to no avail. Merton Council went ahead with its own scheme which ultimately produced Centre Court, "the fridge on the bridge", and the destruction of the fine Civic Hall.
Undeterred, the Society in the 1990‘s continued to monitor the Council‘s Unitary Development Plan very carefully, suggesting ways to deal with traffic and parking problems in the Village and above all helping to set up the Wimbledon Hall Trust to build a new Civic Hall early in the new century. This is an ambition still to be fulfilled. Today‘s emerging Local Development Framework is the successor to the Unitary Development Plan.
So the work of the Society continues. When President in the 1970‘s, Guy Parsloe went though all its records. Afterwards he remarked that it was "a humbling experience"; so many people had given so much time, skill and money. Without their dedication Wimbledon would be a far less pleasant place than it is today.
If you have found this short history interesting why not get more information from the Society‘s Museum. As part of our Centenary celebrations in 2003, Richard Milward published "A History of the Wimbledon Society". This book costs £10.00 and is available, together with many other local publications, in the Museum.