So much is now known of Wimbledon’s history that it comes as a surprise to learn how recent much of the research really is.
This week marks exactly 42 years since the first formal gathering of the Local History Group of what is now the Wimbledon Society. Six members met on 5 February 1971 at the home of founder Guy Parsloe in Leopold Road, aiming to locate and list historical records of Wimbledon, encourage new research, and record the living memories of local residents for future generations.
A few publications covering the history of Wimbledon Village had appeared since Victorian days and during the 1920s the Society’s predecessor, the John Evelyn Club, had had a Local History Section run by Arthur Hughes Clarke, a professional printer and publisher.
The section, with members from King’s College, the British Museum and the Public Records Office, had published Wimbledon’s Parish Register, records of the monumental inscriptions in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, and histories of big houses around the Common.
However it all stopped when Hughes Clarke resigned in 1928. The subsequent four decades – including World War 2 – had seen little that was new. Much of Wimbledon’s past remained unknown or unrecorded.
In 1970, Parsloe, a retired academic from London University, decided to act. He invited several like-minded members of what had then become the John Evelyn Society to set up a new Local History Group.
Among these were the teacher Richard Milward, museum curator Bill Myson, historian Evelyn Jowett, and architect Norman Plastow. They were all talented professionals and with colleagues from February 1971 onwards, carried out extensive new research and published booklets on a huge range of subjects as well as meeting every month to discuss their findings and listen to presentations.
Among the new booklets was Norman Plastow’s “Safe as Houses”, showing exactly where every bomb fell on Wimbledon during World War 2. This was a mammoth task involving numerous interviews and the lucky discovery of forgotten incident records and a map.
Other subjects studied by the group included the original deeds of the 17th century Eagle House, Wimbledon’s second oldest building, the prehistoric origins of Caesar’s Camp, and Spencer Hill in the 1930s.
In 1974 the monthly meetings switched to the Museum of Wimbledon at 22 Ridgway and the group grew bigger. In 1975 Parsloe was elected President of the whole John Evelyn Society after securing a major coup with the purchase of the original deeds of Merton Place, home of Lord Nelson between 1801 and his death at Trafalgar in 1805. Seven years later, Parsloe passed the chairmanship of the Local History Group to Richard Milward and it entered a remarkable new era.
Milward, a lifelong Wimbledon resident and teacher at Wimbledon College, was a brilliant speaker and historian whose published output eventually ran to 28 books, more than 200 talks to the group itself over 23 years, and some 650 talks to other local societies, schools and organizations.
He researched and wrote on every aspect of Wimbledon’s history from the lives of notables to the minutiae of everyday life. For some years he too was President of what is now the Wimbledon Society but he finally passed the chairmanship of the Local History Group to the present office holder, Charles Toase, in April 2004.
So the group continues, meeting at the Museum of Wimbledon on the first Friday evening of every month to discuss new findings and revelations. Although sometimes covering parts of the old parish of Merton as well, the members generally concentrate on what was the original Borough of Wimbledon, stretching from the Common and the Windmill down to South Wimbledon Station.
You no longer have to be invited to attend. Nor do you have to have an academic or professional background. Anyone with an interest in some historical aspect of the town or Village will find a ready audience for their findings and may also learn from other members of the group. History has no limit, no end.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.