Before London became the modern metropolis that it is today, it was a patchwork of smaller communities with large green spaces in between them. Locals couldn’t easily enclose these areas for farmland, so they became known as the commons – communal chunks of land anyone could use.
Clapham Common was one such pocket of land sitting, as you might guess, between the boroughs of Clapham to the west and Battersea. In the 17th century, villagers from both communities used it to range their animals. But as time wore on and the population grew, so too did tensions over who owned it.
Pitched Battles Between Clapham And Battersea Over Usage Rights
The original parcel of land sat beside the Battersea and Clapham Manors. The landlords permitted local parishioners to use it for whatever they wanted, from grazing their livestock to collecting firewood. Eventually, though, a boundary dispute broke out, with both Clapham and Battersea claiming rights over the western segment. So enraged by the tensions, villagers fought pitched battles and filed lawsuits against one another in an attempt to nail down which side had ownership.
Unfortunately, the issue was never really resolved, and the lack of clear ownership forced the land into a state of disrepair. It became boggy and overgrown, and those charged with looking after it, didn’t. Things eventually came to a head in 1716 when Battersea villagers dug a ditch across the common, marking out their territory. Clapham, having none of it, fought back and filled in the ditch again, allowing their animals to roam freely once more.
The next fifty years or so were a trying time for the common. Eventually, the water table rose, and the land became unsuitable for everything, other than the occasional round of cricket in the summer.
The 1760s Revival
By the 1760s, however, London was fast becoming the wealthiest city in the world, churning out millionaire-equivalents by the bucket full. These nouveau riches often wanted to give back to their communities by providing public amenities. Christopher Baldwin, a wealthy resident, decided that it was his turn to act charitably. He led an initiative of ditch-digging and tree-planting to drain the common and restore it to its former glory. Because of the number and types of trees planted, the common took on “very much the appearance of a park” according to topographer Daniel Lysons.
Thus, the land became usable once more, and many of the residents began animal grazing again. Those whose homes circumnavigated the common also extended their rear gardens into it, much to the dismay of other residents. Holy Trinity Church also set up on the site in 1776, replacing the old parish church that stood on the same spot. James Cook – the son of the famous explorer – planted a black poplar to replace the tree planted by his late father’s that was destroyed a century earlier by fire.
The Common Becomes A Place Of Leisure
Residents continued to graze their sheep on Clapham common until the 1920s, but by the Victorian era, it was a decidedly different place. No longer was it “common land” in the traditional sense, but rather a place of recreation, entertainment and fun. By the 19th century, a group of local trustees managed the park, improving the landscaping and planting even more trees. In 1890, the stewards added a new avenue for horse riding and built a back stand for the gathering crowds.
WWII Transform The Common Again
Hitler’s U-boat blockade of the Atlantic ocean meant that America could not deliver all the vital food supplies Britain needed via boat during WWII. Residents, therefore, transformed Clapham common into a series of allotments, growing fruit and vegetables to keep wartime London stocked with food. All around the site, locals built bomb shelters and dugouts too, just in case the Nazis invaded Kent and marched troops to the capital.
Clapham Common Enters The Modern Era
Following the war, the local council returned the common to its role as a place of leisure, fun and entertainment. The authorities built sports facilities and used the site to host the international London Horse Show from the mid-1950s until 1984.
Today, the area is popular among south London architects thanks to the stunning properties that now overlook the grounds. The common attracted some of London’s wealthiest people, owing to its idyllic scenes and commanding views.
The borough of Lambeth now owns and manages the common land, taking over responsibility from both Wandsworth and Battersea. The controversy over how to use the land rages on to this day, with many residents opposing its use as a concert venue.
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Image: View of Clapham Common by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), painted between 1800 and 1805