Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Last night the first snow flakes of the season fell over southwest London. Could we soon witness the same scenes as in January this year, when a thick carpet covered Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath for several days?
This vast expanse of open land between Putney, Wimbledon and Kingston-upon-Thames, which is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every week was almost lost when Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon, proposed in 1864 to enclose about two thirds as a park and sell the remaining third as building land. Fortunately after several years of conflict with local residents a settlement was reached and in 1871 Parliament passed the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act. Under the terms of the Act, a new body of eight Conservators took over from Earl Spencer. They are charged with the duty of keeping the Commons open, unenclosed, unbuilt on and their natural aspect preserved. In compensation Earl Spencer and his descendants received £1,200 a year. However this yearly payment stopped in 1968 after a lump sum was paid.
Near the centre of the Common stands its most famous structure: the windmill. This hollow post mill was built by Charles March in 1817 and worked until 1864, when it was purchased by Earl Spencer. By then the windmill was being operated by John Marsh, whose family owned several mills around Kingston. When Marsh sold it, he insisted the machinery should be dismantled and the grinding stones removed to prevent any competition. As a result the building was converted into cottages for six families. In any case, this suited Earl Spencer, who hoped to diffuse opposition to his project of converting the commons into parkland and building a new manor house near the site of the windmill: people would be less likely to resist if they had already lost a major asset.
By the time the windmill came into the care of the Conservators it was in a very poor state. Major repairs were carried in the late nineteenth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1974 it had become clear it was no longer suitable for living and the decision was taken to restore it and convert it into a museum. It opened two years later and offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the Wimbledon windmill and of different milling methods. Several models also chart the development of windmills throughout the ages.
Most of the £1 m budget needed to manage the Commons comes from a levy added to the council tax paid by residents living within three quarters of a mile of the Commons or in the old parish of Putney. The amount varies according to the tax band but is a small price for the privilege of living within minutes of such a beautiful open space.