Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the Commons were around long before Great Uncle Bulgaria, the wisest of the pointy nosed and recycling Wombles, set up home on Wimbledon Common. In fact the earliest history of Wimbledon Common and Putney Lower Common dates back to the Palaeolithic age, more commonly known as the Stone Age.
The Commons have been the subject of many publications over the years, including a booklet by Norman Plastow, which includes a full description of the area’s history. Its name comes from the term "common land" describing land that, surprisingly wasn’t actually deemed public property but was normally owned by the Lord of the Manor. The only members of the public entitled to use the land were certain tenants, known as "commoners", who were granted "common rights" which included a certain amount of grazing and the collection of firewood. In the 19th century many commons were enclosed and turned over to agricultural use and the commoners' rights were no more.
On 11th November 1864, Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon, called a meeting of local residents in the Village Hall during which he outlined a bill which he intended to present to Parliament for the enclosure of 700 acres of the common as a park, a further two acres as a garden to a new manor house which he intended to build near the site of the windmill, and the sale of the remaining 300 or so acres as building land. The reasons he gave were that the land was "boggy" and "noxious mists and fogs" arose from it and "great nuisance was caused by gypsies" who camped on it. The money raised from the sale of building land would pay for enclosure and improvements.
The majority of those present agreed to the proposal but fortunately the bill was delayed by a select committee which had been set up to inquire into the condition of open spaces around London. A Wimbledon Common Committee was later set up under the Chairmanship of Sir Henry Peek Bt., MP for Mid-Surrey.
In 1866, a suit of Chancery was commenced against Lord Spencer. After four years of litigation Earl Spencer came to terms with the residents and a new Bill was drawn up. This became the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act which received the Royal Assent in August 1871.
Under the Act, Earl Spencer conveyed his interest in the Commons to a body of Conservators (five elected and three appointed) who were charged with the duty of keeping the Commons open, unenclosed, unbuilt on and their natural aspect preserved. Earl Spencer and his descendants were to be compensated by a perpetual annuity of £1,200, and a rate was to be levied on local residents, in accordance with a complicated scale, to keep up these payments and to maintain the Commons. The annuity was finally redeemed in 1968 by a lump sum payment from a redemption fund set up by the Conservators in 1957.
You can find out more about how the Commons look today from our range of resources available to buy at the Ranger's Office, from maps and guides to postcards and notelets.