‘Haymaking is general about Clapham…wheat looks well and turns colour’ recorded Gilbert White, the naturalist, as he passed through Clapham in 1788. Already the wild and marshy rural area which is now Clapham Common had been drained and, to an extent, tamed.
The first written mention of the Manor of Clappenham, including the 220 acres of the Common, is in King Alfred’s time. At a marriage feast held here in 1042 Hardacanute, then King of England, is supposed to have drunk himself insensible, collapsed and died soon after. By the time of the Domesday Book the de Mandeville family own Clopeham Manor and it seems to have been a pretty wild place for the next seven or eight hundred years. In the 1600s it was common heathland, with some pasturage for villagers and rewards for killing polecats. It was notorious for highwaymen and people were robbed at gun and knife point.
Samuel Pepys died, in 1703, to the north of the Common where Cedars Road now lies. But Clapham became really fashionable as a retreat from London in the mid to late eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson visited the wealthy Thrale family here ( as in ‘According to Queenie’ by Beryl Bainbridge ). In 1761 Christopher Baldwin, a wealthy West Indies merchant, built his house on what is now Clapham Common West Side and proceeded to drain and improve the common land. His friend, Benjamin Franklin, conducted his experiments with oil and water on the Mount Pond in 1768. The Thorntons, the Grants and the Macaulays, all members of the Clapham Sect ( see Amazing Grace ) settled around the Common at this time. It became quite the place for wealthy bankers, including the Barclay, Deacon, Hoare, Lubbock, Martin, Robarts and Thornton families. City money bought big houses here ( no change there then ). In ‘The Newcomers’ Thackeray wrote that ‘of all the pretty suburbs that still adorn our metropolis there are few that exceed in charm Clapham Common.’
One of the large Georgian houses which remain on the North Side of the Common is that formerly called Gilmore House at No 113. Built in 1760 by Isaac Ackermann, a later owner was John Walter founder of The Times newspaper. John Doulton, founder of the firm which still bears his name, died at Springwell Cottage, now No, 81.
At the start of the 19th century the Common was open, with trees and hillocks, as painted by J.M.W.Turner. It wasn’t flattened until the first world war. But in 1877 the Metropolitan Board of Works bought the land and made it a public park. The Bandstand, the largest in London (and possibly the UK), was constructed in 1890. It was restored in 2011.
The Common was used during war-time During the Jacobite Rebellion the Duke of Cumberland’s army camped there. In WWI trenches were dug. WWII storage bunkers built in the north-western corner are still there, as is the deep air raid shelter at Clapham South. Barrage balloons, anti-aircraft gun emplacements and farming destroyed what was left of the wild aspect and one of the first V2 rockets hit the Cock Pond. The Common in war-time featured in ‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene and, more recently, in ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan. I was also told, by an ancient and charming Frenchman, that De Gaulle’s Free French were based, in part, in one of the grand Knowles terraces on the North Side. The architecture is suitably Parisian.
Sport and gambling has always been part of the Common. There were archery butts here and horse racing took place from 1678. J.F.Herring’s painting shows the Derby winner returning home from Epsom accompanied by a jolly and drunken looking crowd, crossing Clapham Common. Cricket was played from 1700 and the oldest yacht club in London still meets on the Common at the Long Pond, where model boats are still sailed.
In an echo of an earlier era, Ron Davies, Welsh politician, was robbed at knifepoint in 1998 after he had given a lift to strangers he had met on the Common (when certain places on the Common were known to be places of assignation for gay men at night). Other night-time activity is more sedate – the Chess Club meets on Summer nights and matches have been known to continue until dawn.
Clapham Common can be reached by tube, the Northern Line to Clapham Common or Clapham South stations and overground to Clapham Junction.