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Clapham Common

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One of South London’s most important open spaces, jutting into south Battersea from the western side of Clapham. From the time of Domesday Book this was uncultivated land, split between the manors of Battersea and Clapham. The poor quality of the soil protected it from exploitation at a time when neighbouring fields came under the plough. A windmill was erected in 1631 and horse racing took place here from 1674. Certain problems arose cyclically, mostly revolving around issues of ownership and responsibility for the common’s upkeep. The condition of the terrain was often allowed to deteriorate to an overgrown and boggy state before improvements were made. Owners of houses bordering the common periodically attempted to extend their properties onto the common land until legal measures forced them to retreat. In 1716 tensions over grazing rights erupted into a turf war when Battersea parishioners dug a boundary ditch bisecting the common. Clapham parishioners promptly filled it in. By the mid-eighteenth century the common’s edges had become a popular place to build one’s country retreat, especially on the north side. The Pavement divided the common from Clapham’s Old Town and the Plough and Windmill public houses were well-established. Mount pond had been formed by the extraction of gravel. Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments in pouring oil on trouble water here. Holy Trinity church was built in 1776. At this time the common was still an important practical amenity for ordinary people, providing firewood and water, as well as pasture for livestock – and even a place to string out a washing line between two trees. These practices began to die out as more villas and institutions (especially private girls’ schools) encircled the common. Sports clubs established themselves here, including Clapham golf club and Clapham Rovers football club. In 1877 the Metropolitan Board of Works acquired Clapham Common from the lords of the manors, bringing a bandstand here from South Kensington in 1890.

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A girl reacts enthusiastically to her father's angling success on Eagle Pond. The fish is circled.

The common became a popular place for day trips with a classier reputation than Kennington. A group of houses replaced a grove of chestnut trees behind the Windmill Inn in the 1890s but the common’s integrity has otherwise been preserved. Clapham Common now has dozens of pitches for almost every kind of outdoor sport and is a regular venue for fairs, rallies and concerts.

Postal district: SW4
Population: 12,270 (Lambeth’s Clapham Common ward)
Stations: Northern Line (Clapham Common, zone 2, and Clapham South, zones 2 and 3)
Further reading: Fiona Henderson et al, The Story of Clapham Common, Clapham Society, 1995

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

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