Not too long ago, some said that the best thing about Woking is that it is so easy to leave it! The railway, the rail-air coach to Heathrow, the close proximity of the A3, M3 and M25 – Woking certainly has good communications, but it has not always been like that. In the early 18th century one writer noted that Woking was a ‘private country market town so out of all road or thoroughfare as we call it that ‘tis very little heard of in England.’
Of course he wasn’t writing about the present town centre, but the original Woking – now called Old Woking – down in the Wey Valley. The present town centre once was the site of a huge area of common land known as Woking Heath. Although often referred to as wasteland, it was far from a waste to the local farmers who could graze their cattle on it, cut turfs to thatch their roofs, or take brushwood or gorse for their fires and bread-ovens.
It was across this vast, open heath that the London and Southampton Railway came in 1838.
The Coming of the Railway
In the early 1830s the people of Southampton realised that they could boost trade if they could link their town to London with a railway line. They drew up plans for a line starting at Nine Elms (Vauxhall) in London, across the relatively cheap common lands of Surrey and Hampshire, to just beyond Basingstoke were a branch line was originally to head west to Bath and Bristol and the main line head south through Winchester to new docks at Southampton. In the end the Bristol branch was not built (Brunel’s Great Western Railway put paid to that), but the rest was gradually built, with the first section of the line (from London to Woking Common) opening to the public on 21st May 1838.
Woking Station in 1838
The original station consisted of a small square building on the south side of the line, with a goods shed to the east and stables where the dropping off point and rail-air pick-up point are today.
At that time very little trade came from (Old) Woking itself, but as the railhead for Guildford, Godalming and the rest of West Surrey, many coaches and carriages descended on Woking Common to connect with the fast and efficient train service to the capital. The price for a first class single fare to London was just 5s (25p) with second class ticket costing just 3s (15p).
Woking Common was only the end of the line for a few months. In September 1838 the railway was extended to Shapley Heath (Winchfield), with Basingstoke being reached in June 1839 and Southampton in the following May.
Many people wonder why the main entrance to Woking Station is to the south, away from the town centre. The answer lies in the early days of the railway when most of the trade came from that direction – at least until the branch line to Guildford was added in 1845. When that branch line was eventually extended to Portsmouth in 1859, Woking had an even better rail service with many trains making Woking the first stop out of London (or the last before reaching the capital). It is not surprising therefore that the new town of Woking grew up around the station, but its development was the cause of another company – not the railway company!
Beginning of the Town
In the 1840s and 50s London was experiencing serious health problems. The population of the city had increased rapidly and with many people living in cramped conditions epidemics of cholera and other infectious diseases quickly broke out. Part of the problem was caused by the close proximity of many of the area’s burial grounds to the homes of the living – the rotting corpses contaminated nearby water supplies. Something had to be done.
In 1851 a company called ‘The London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company’ was formed. Their idea was to build a massive cemetery, far away from habitation but linked by railway to the capital, that would be capable of looking after the dead of the city (if not the whole country). Their idea was to buy Woking Common and turn it into a ‘city of the dead’.
It is not a nice subject admittedly, but without the Necropolis Company Woking would not have developed as it has.
In 1852 the Company sought Parliamentary approval to purchase and enclose the common land at Woking. In all they wanted to buy over 2,300 acres – the whole of what is now Woking Town Centre, Maybury, Heathside, Hook Heath, St. Johns, Knaphill and Brookwood (plus outlying parts at Mayford and Westfield). Even at the time there were some doubts that the company would need all that land but, with certain clauses restricting commercial development, the Act was finally passed and the Necropolis Company could begin negotiations with Lord Onslow, the Lord of the Manor of Woking, for the purchase of the land. In all they bought £2,268 acres for £33,944, with a further £15,000 set aside as compensation for the loss of ‘common rights’ to the villagers of the area.
In November 1854 the ‘first stage’ of the cemetery was opened at Brookwood – covering over 400 acres – but it soon became clear that it was to be the ‘only’ stage as almost immediately the Necropolis Company sought permission to sell off what they called ‘surplus land’ around Knaphill, St. Johns and Woking Station.
The High Street in 1870
Necropolis Land Sales
Before the Necropolis Company could sell any of their land they had first to get permission from Parliament to repeal certain clauses from their original Act, notably clause 16 that stated they
‘shall not erect, or cause, or permit, or suffer to be erected – any buildings other than such as may be required for the purposes of this Act or the residence of the officers and servants of the Company.’
In 1855 they were given ten years to sell their surplus land and in anticipation of a new town growing up around the station the Government insisted that five acres had to be set aside for a new church, churchyard, parsonage house and school for the poor of the area.
Land Sales began almost before the ink was dry on the Act, but they were slow to get off the ground. Land that had cost the Company less than £15 per acre two years previously was now being offered at over £70 per acre (sometimes more than twice that)!
Most of the land sold was for two large institutions near Knaphill – the Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum (Brookwood Hospital) and the Woking Invalid Convict Prison (later Inkerman Barracks) - although some land was sold to the south of Woking Station to a gentleman called John Rastrick.
This was to affect the later development of the town as it restricted commercial development in that area – a fact not lost on the Victorian Town Fathers who often blamed the Rastrick Family for the town’s woes. What seems to have been overlooked is that the Necropolis Company were really the people responsible for the town being built ’back to front’ (i.e. on the opposite side of the tracks to the main station entrance)! It was they who sold the land to Rastrick, they who laid out the roads and plots around the station and they who obviously predicted the growth of the town to the north with the placing of the site for the ‘Church and School’ on the site now occupied by Dukes Court. From their point of view it was better to sell the ground to the south of the railway (with its well-drained soil and fine views across the Wey Valley) in large, expensive plots for large, expensive houses, reserving the ’poorer’ land to the north for low-class and commercial development.
In 1855 the Necropolis Company were given ten years to sell their land, but by 1864, when their time was almost up, only 343 acres had been sold. The Necropolis Company sought and were given an extra five years to sell the land but, when they elapsed with under a hundred more acres exchanging hands, the Government finally lifted all restrictions and gave the company as long as it liked to sell their ‘surplus’ land. The development of the modern town of Woking could begin in earnest.
Later Victorian Development
One place had been built near the station even before the Necropolis Company bought the common – the Railway Hotel (now the Sovereigns). In 1856/7 a hotel (The Albion) was built to the north of the railway, soon to be followed by another called the Red House Hotel at the junction of Chertsey Road and Chobham Road. Woking had three public houses long before any place of worship was built. Is it any surprise that the area soon developed a reputation as a sort of ‘wild-west’ town!
Woking’s first ‘shopping centre’ was in the ‘High Street’ where in 1870 a row of newly constructed cottages were converted into shops. Gradually others followed in Chobham Road, Chertsey Road and Maybury Road (The Broadway). Several of the old shops still survive in these streets, now protected as part of the Woking Town Centre Conservation Area.
The second Albion Hotel, built in the late 1890s
Of course most of those shops were privately owned businesses in Victorian times – the shop-keeper often living above the shop – but by the 1890s some ‘national’ stores had been attracted to the town including the International Tea Stores; Freeman, Hardy & Willis (shoe retailers); and the Home & Colonial Stores. Later arrivals included Sainsbury’s (1920), Boot’s (1924), Woolworth’s (1926) and Burton’s (1936).
Woking’s first Post Office opened in 1865 (on the corner of the High Street and Church Path), with its first bank (Ashby’s of Staines) opening in 1882. Trade obviously was not great in those days as it was only open on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
There was entertainment as well with a music hall in Duke Street, the ‘Grand Theatre’ in Commercial Road (where Bewise is today) and further up the road the Atalanta Ballroom – not to mention the three cinemas that were eventually to open in the town.
But as well as all these facilities, which you would expect in a thriving town centre there were also many homes as well.
To start with Commercial Road was not very commercial. Where Wolsey Place is now were several large houses (some of which were later converted into dentist surgeries, estate agents offices and even a private school), whilst in Church Street could be found mainly semi-detached properties. Oakfield Road was a small cul-de-sac of houses where the Victoria Way Car Park is today and where The Peacocks now stands were the houses of ‘Clarence Avenue’.
To the east of the town the Necropolis Company laid out a grid pattern of roads in what is now generally referred to as the ‘Walton Road Area’, whilst to the west the ‘Goldsworth’ area developed on former farm land – the farmers realising that bricks and mortar was a more profitable ‘crop’ than anything they could possibly grow on the poor sandy soil!
With a flurry of development in Victorian and Edwardian times, Woking Town Centre settled down to a relatively quiet life in the years between the wars. Some might say that it stagnated, and indeed Woking Council appears to have recognised the problem in the late 1930s when they set about demolishing some of the houses along Commercial Road to make way – so they claimed – for a car park. The ultimate aim, it seemed, was for a new town centre, but the war intervened and it was not until the 1970s that work began on what would ultimately become the Wolsey Place Shopping Centre.
There was some development between the wars, but little that has left its mark on the present day town centre.
Woking at War
Woking was luckier than some towns during the war, but as a strategic junction on the Southern Railway (knock out Woking and you would disrupt troop movements to both Southampton and Portsmouth), the town did see its fair share of action. Most of the bombs that were dropped on the area didn’t result in too many casualties (although according to one source seven people were killed in an air raid on the town in January 1941) and only a few properties were completely demolished. One of those was a tailors shop in Chertsey Road (part of the site now occupied by Weatherspoons).
Despite this the Woking area was used as an area for evacuees with several of the large houses in Maybury and Heathside areas being taken over as hostels. An orphanage in Oriental Road became a war hospital and several organisations moved their offices from central London to the outskirts of the town.
At night and on weekends the town was full of troops from the nearby Inkerman Barracks at Knaphill, whilst many of the ladies of the area went to work at the many workshops and factories producing items for the war effort – James Walkers at Maybury, Vickers of Byfleet (who had small workshops all over the area) and GQ Parachutes in Portugal Road.
Early Post War Development
With little war damage there wasn’t much rebuilding in Woking Town Centre in the early post-war years, but there was elsewhere in the area and that was the problem. Small new estates were being developed – Cavendish Road (off Triggs Lane) was begun in the late 1940s, with Birch Close and The Dell at Goldsworth following in the mid 1950s. Others developed to the south of the town centre, where in the late 1950s the ‘Mount Hermon High Density Area’ was established – eventually giving rise to developments like Craigmore Towers, Moorholme and the various ‘courts’ of flats off Hillview Road.
From a political point of view the most significant development was the construction by the London County Council of their ‘out of county’ estate at Sheerwater, and Woking Council’s own 1950s ‘garden’ estates at Maybury, Elmbridge and Barnsbury. The largely ‘conservative’ town council suddenly found there were not just ‘socialist’ but also, for a time, ‘communist’ councillors too.
1960s & 70s
By the early 1960s it was clear that the town would have to change and by the end of the 70s a lot of it had changed beyond all recognition.
In the early 1960s five new shops were built in Chertsey Road at its junction with Church Street, whilst just up the road Tesco’s opened their first ‘self service’ supermarket in the town (on the site now occupied by the Rat & Parrot public house). Robinson’s, a local department store redeveloped their site at Nos. 9-17 Chertsey Road in 1962 whilst the Post Office opened their state of the art new facility in Commercial Road in 1960.
All of these were relatively low scale developments, but the 1960s were also to see the first of the high-rise ‘Norwich Union’ developments at Albion House (High Street), Ryde House (Chobham Road) and Premier House (Commercial Road). The main change, however, was the development of the ‘new town centre’.
In 1963 plans were drawn up for five major new stores, 59 shops and 48 flats with 125,000 square feet of offices to the north of Commercial Road. Work began on demolishing the old properties on the site in 1968 and in 1969 a ‘comprehensive development area’ was designated. The following year Woking Council reached an agreement with Norwich Union for the scheme and work began on construction. It included a new by-pass for the town (Victoria Way), with multi-storey car parks at Victoria Way and behind the shops in Church Street. The Victoria Way car park opened in June 1971 (charging 3p for up to two hours), with the town centre car park opening just two years later in advance of many of the new shops such W.H. Smiths, Robert Dyers and Mac Fisheries supermarket. Some of the old shops from the town transferred to the centre too, such as Sainsbury’s (High Street) and Boots who moved from their cramped store in Chertsey Road (where Pizza Hut is now) to what was then their largest store in the south-east outside London.
The ‘old’ town centre started to feel the competition but with shops such as Woolworth’s still trading in Chertsey Road it managed to hold its own. A new ‘superstore’ – Fine Fare – opened between Chertsey Road and Church Street (cutting off the end of Commercial Road) and in March 1978 plans were announced for a new 60,000 square foot British Home Stores (Bhs) on the site of the old ‘Gammons Department Store’ in Chobham Road.
New offices also began to be built in the ‘old’ part of town such as ‘Crown House’ (Chobham Road), Dukes Court and the original Brook House (Chertsey Road), as well as the offices above the new shopping centre (now Telewest, but originally B.A.T. Export).
From a housing point of view the major development in the area was the building to the west of the town of Goldsworth Park (begun in 1973), which more than made up for the loss of the hundreds of homes demolished to make way for the shops, the car parks and the new roads of the new town centre.
The Planning of The Peacocks
The original ‘new’ town centre included cultural and civic facilities, including new council offices, a ‘Centre Halls’ (including the Rhoda McGaw Theatre), a library (on more or less the site of the present one) and an indoor swimming pool built in the middle of a roundabout. These last three, together with the projected site for a new magistrates court and police H.Q., were eventually to become the site of The Peacocks – arguably the best thing to happen to Woking Town Centre in the 20th century.
The decision in 1988 to demolish buildings – some of which were little more than a decade old – was a courageous one, but it was nevertheless the right one. Detailed plans for the new centre were approved in November 1988 and demolition began the following year. The new library opened in December 1991, the shopping centre the following April with the last piece in the jigsaw – The New Victoria Theatre – opening in June 1992.
Originally The Peacocks included a Nightclub (Fantails), but after a few years it closed to make way for more eating area and eventually the new nightclub – Quake – opened in the H.G. Wells Planets complex (The Big Apple).
With a Marks & Spencer’s, Allders Department Store, TK Maxx and other major anchor stores, The Peacocks is the perfect complement to the ‘old’ new town centre (re-vamped and re-marketed as Wolsey Place). Here can be found W.H. Smith’s, Robert Dyas hardware store, Boot’s and Sainsbury’s – to name just a few.
In the past thirty years it seems that the developers cranes have seldom left the Woking skyline – and at present there are several that can be found helping to build Woking’s bright new future.
Developments in recent years include the ‘Centrium’ development (near the station) by Barratt’s, who also built ‘The Old Dairy’ in Goldsworth Road and ‘Claremont Lodge’ in Claremont Avenue. Meanwhile Bellway Homes were in Victoria Way building their ‘Waterside’ development (by the Basingstoke Canal) opposite the Holiday Inn, whilst ‘The Point’ was looking at the other side of the hotel from the Chertsey Road/Stanley Road junction. They also built Lismore Gardens in Heathside Road.
Another ‘B’ - Berkeley Homes demolished the Cotteridge Hotel (Litten Tree) on the corner of Constitution Hill and Guildford Road, whilst other developers concentrated on the Walton Road and Goldsworth areas, replacing old shops, garages and industrial sites with luxurious new apartments.
But perhaps the most exciting development as far as Woking’s status is concerned will be the building of the new Surrey County Council’s ‘County Hall’ and offices on the Brewery Road car park site, just across the Basingstoke Canal in Horsell.
From common land to County Town in 150 years – not bad going.