Regular blog followers will know that, as well as being unhealthily obsessive about book history and literary curiosities, I also have a more than passing interest in Wimbledon’s local history. So imagine my delight when, last weekend, I discovered something which brought both these things together! A new book about the history of Wimbledon Village, spotted whilst on duty at the Museum of Wimbledon.
Neal Ransome’s Wimbledon Village: A history told through its street names is exactly what the title says it is. It explains how and why some 140 streets in the village acquired their names, and charmingly admits that in just a few cases, the origins of a street name remain elusive. It is a admirably thorough and has enough fascinating detail and colourful stories to draw in even those with only a passing interest. Who can resist the speculation that the famous Crooked Billet inn, on a street of the same name, was once owned by Thomas Cromwell’s father, or the romanticism that its name harks back to the days when shepherds tended their flocks on the nearby Wimbledon Common with the aid of their crooked billets, or staffs? Or the amusing anecdote that Kinsella Gardens is an erroneous name – it was intended to be Kinellan Gardens, in recognition of the fact that the road lies upon what were once in the grounds of Kinellan House, the former home of the 1887 Wimbledon champion, Herbert Fortescue Lawford. Lawford, Ransome tells us, had Scottish connections and may well have named his London home after the picturesque Loch Kinellan in the Highlands. But when the road was laid in the late 1990s, the developer got the spelling wrong and Kinsella replaced Kinellan. The origin of Wilberforce Way is obvious to anyone who knows that it spreads over the grounds of the former Lauriston House, once the retreat of the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce. The real joy of this book, though, is that it goes so much further, weaving the stories of local people and local events into a narrative web which tells the story of Wimbledon from a perspective that has a tangible link to today.
Fellow literary lovers may find it particularly appealing that at least two streets in the Village are named after once popular novels. Windy Ridge Close recalls Willie Riley’s 1912 story, Windy-Ridge, which tells of a young lady who escapes London for the Yorkshire Dales. Cranford Close, which came into being in the 1960s, was so named because it ranges over ground once occupied by Cranford House, itself named for Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1851 classic novel Cranford. And here’s an example of where Ransome goes further: he tells us of two links between the novel Cranford and Wimbledon, which may have been in the mind of whoever named Cranford House. Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughter, Marianne, lived in Wimbledon after her marriage to her second cousin, Edward Thurston Holland. But even more intriguing is the direct link with the novel. Hugh Thomson, one of the foremost book illustrators of his time (who designed and illustrated the famous ‘peacock’ edition of Pride and Prejudice) provided the drawings for one of the most enduringly popular editions of Cranford. These portrayed the fictional village of Cranford, which is identified with Knutsford in Cheshire, and attracted much praise. This amused Thomson greatly, and Ransome relates his retort: “as a matter of fact I had never seen it, having really done my country sketches from the studies I made on Wimbledon Common”.
The directory-style entries of street-names are preceded by a general overview of the history of the Village, from its earliest hill fort settlement which, despite being called Caesar’s Camp, appears to have no connection whatsoever with any Caesar, through medieval times and 18th century Wimbledon’s gentrification, the era of grand houses, its transformation from village to railway suburb of the metropolis and on into the 20th century. An illuminating and engagingly-written book which quietly showcases the author’s deep knowledge of the locality and solid research.
Neal Ransome’s book, Wimbledon Village: A History Told Through its Street Names, can be purchased from The Museum of Wimbledon (where you can order on line) and, I guess, any good bookshop, using the ISBN 9780957615199. It was published by the Wimbledon Society Museum Press in June 2016.