The Coming of the Canal
St Johns village takes its name from the Chapel of Ease (now Church) of St John the Baptist, that was built here in 1842. The chapel, designed by George Gilbert Scott, was built to serve the western part of the old parish of St Peter’s, (Old) Woking. By the 1840s the Knaphill/Goldsworth area had begun to develop with the building of the canal (and later the railway) as well as the development of the brick-making and nursery industries.
St Johns Chapel
The Canal was built in the late 1780s and ’90s, with work starting at Woodham in 1788 and the canal being opened to Horsell in 1791 and Pirbright in 1792 (Basingstoke was finally reached in 1794).
It was a mainly agricultural waterway, with timber and flour being carried downstream to London and coal and finished goods carried upstream to the towns and villages along its route.
In 1787 they estimated that over 30,000 tons of goods would be carried each year on the waterway, but on only three occasions did the canal actually carry the projected amount of tonnage - in 1838 (when the canal was used to carry goods for the construction of the railway), and in 1934 and 1935 (just before the transportation of coal to Woking Gas Works ceased).
After the railway opened the canal started to decline and in 1869 the original company was wound up. It was revived (and failed again) on several occasions in the late 19th century before being bought in 1923 by Mr. A.J. Harmsworth. After he died in 1947, however, the canal once more fell into decline until in the 1970s Hampshire and Surrey County Councils bought their sections of waterway and the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society set about restoration work.
The work in this section took several years with five locks and two ancient bridges (Langman’s and Woodend) to be restored, as well as the canal bank and towpath. Indeed, in a way, work is still continuing with the provision of a new ‘back-pumping’ scheme at St Johns, designed to maintain the water levels in the canal even in the driest of summers.
The bridge across the canal at St Johns – Kiln Bridge – was one of the first bridges over the canal to be rebuilt. Originally the bridge was a simple brick arch – like Woodend Bridge – but in 1899 Woking Council rebuilt the bridge at the request of the War Department, who feared that the old bridge might collapse with the heavy traffic being carried over it from Woking to Inkerman Barracks. In the event it was Hermitage Bridge that collapsed (in 1904) when a traction engine pulling a wagon of potatoes for the barracks was passing over. Woking Council eventually rebuilt that bridge too, although it took them nearly twenty years to do so!
Kiln Bridge gets its name from the brick kilns that were once situated beside the canal between Robin Hood Road and Copse Road.
The pits here were some of the first to be dug in the area and must have been exhausted soon after the canal was opened. Other brick fields were situated on the site of Winston Churchill School and the Lansbury Estate, Lower Guildford Road (just off Hermitage Hill), with more lower down the canal on what is now part of Goldsworth Park. These were developed by the Jackman and Slocock families as part of their nursery businesses.
St Johns Lye & The Necropolis
The name ‘Lye’ probably derives from the ‘Old English’ word ‘lçah’ meaning ‘a grove’ or a clearing within a wood – often a thin wood. This area was part of Woking Common – a vast area of open common land that stretched from the border with Pyrford (common) in the east to the commons of Bisley and Pirbright to the west.
Woking Common covered over 2,300 acres until in the 1850s when the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company purchased most of it for their vast cemetery (although only using part at Brookwood for burials before selling most of the rest off in the late 19th and early 20th century).
When the Necropolis Company were negotiating with the lord of the manor of Woking (Lord Onslow) the local Vicar, the Rev, Charles Bradford Bowles, persuaded them to leave 150 acres of common so that the poor people of Woking would still have some land upon which they could exercise their ‘common rights’. That land was St Johns’ and Brookwood Lye.
St Johns Lye from the footbridge over the railway
For centuries the people of Woking had had a right to graze their cattle on the common lands of the area. They could cut gorse and dead-wood for fires, take heath for thatching and extract sand and gravel for building or road repairs. They could not sell any of the material, but as ‘free’ material it was important to the poor people of the area. When the Necropolis company took away the common they took away those rights too, so it was important that some land was left. Even into the 20th century some people still exercised their ‘common rights’ by sending their pigs to scavenge for acorns on the common, or letting their goats graze on the large areas of grass. Some probably still take the deadwood from the common, although all legal common rights have long since been extinguished.
St Johns Hill & Jackman’s
In 1810 William Jackman founded a nursery on 50 acres of land that was eventually to be known as ‘St. Johns Hill’. William had four sons, two of whom – George and Henry – took over the running of the nursery when William died in 1840. Two years later, however, the partnership was dissolved and George continued to run the business on his own. By 1851 he had 90 acres under cultivation, employing 35 men and six boys.
They specialised in raising clematis, breeding the well-known “clematis jackmanii” in 1859. Other varieties included ‘clematis Beauty of Surrey‘, ‘Countess of Lovelace’ and ‘Belle of Woking’.
Unfortunately George Jackman died in 1869, leaving the nursery to his son, also called George.
He continued to expand the business, so that eventually it covered over 300 acres, including land between Wych Hill and Egley Road, Woking.
Most of the plants grown at St Johns were ‘exported’ from this area via train and in the mid 1880s George Jackman – supported by the Waterer’s of Knaphill and the Slocock’s at Goldsworth – called for a station to be opened at St Johns.
When George Jackman II died in 1889 he left strict instructions in his will, resulting in the forced sale of the St. Johns Hill site – the sale documents noting that the estate was ’situated on high ground, commanding most beautiful scenery and adorned with fine specimen conifers, deciduous and other flowering trees and shrubs of mature growth’ adding to the attractiveness of the area for high class housing development.
The nursery concentrated production on their Egley Road site before moving eventually to Mayford – where Wyevale Garden Centre is today.
Some of the old nursery buildings have survived at St Johns. However, including the old estate office– now called ‘Kelwood’ in Jackman’s Lane. There were packing sheds, storerooms and the company pay office here too, and the old cottages around the corner were most probably the home of nursery workers. The old Jackman family home, known then as The Hollies also survives, although it has been converted into apartments and renamed – Deerstead House.
St Johns Road & Slocock’s
Another well-known nursery on the edge of St Johns was the Goldsworth Nursery of Walter Slocock and Sons.
It was founded some time in the 1760s by James Turner. who grew mainly trees and shrubs. An early catalogue listed up to fifteen varieties of rhododendrons – a plant that had only recently been introduced into this country from the Americas.
By 1804 the nursery was being run by Robert Donald, a well-known nurseryman of his day whose son (also called Robert) took over the running of the nursery in 1848. By 1861 he had built up the nursery business at Goldsworth to cover 200 acres, employing 35 men and 8 boys. Robert Donald Jr. died in 1863 and for a while the property appears to have been owned by branches of the Waterer, Jackman and Chandler families – all well-known local nursery-men.
In 1877 the ‘stock and goodwill’ of the nursery were bought by Walter Charles Slocock for £1,750, with a loan of £1,550 for working capital. Within a few years he had built up the business, so that by the 1890s sales reached almost £14,000 p.a., and when he died (in 1926) his personal fortune amounted to £244,000!
Walter Slocock used a ‘contract’ system giving men seven acres to work for 42 shillings a week with a bonus paid if the land was kept clean and free from weeds. He was apparently very quick tempered, but also quick to forget and on several occasions he was known to ‘sack’ a worker for bad work and then enquire the following day why the man had not turned up for work. One worker had a pet parrot who, it is said, learnt to imitate the voice of Mr. Slocock. It would cause chaos in the fields when the workers thought that the boss was coming, but from Walter Slocock’s point of view it must have helped keep his men on their toes!
W.C. Slocock’s two sons, Walter Ashley and Oliver Charles, both joined the firm, with Oliver’s son, Martin, eventually taking over the business in the 1970s. It was Martin Slocock who eventually sold the land for the building of the Goldsworth Park estate, using the money to buy the old ‘Knaphill Nursery’ - where his grandfather had learnt his trade.
Neolithic arrowheads and a 2nd century ‘Samian’ bowl found on the Hermitage estate in the late 1960s point to the fact that this area has been inhabited for thousands of years. The first mention of a ‘Hermitage’ on the site, however, dates from the 14th century when a royal pardon was granted to ‘the chaplain of the Heritage of Brookwood’. Apparently the chaplain had been attacked in Pirbright Church by a man from Horsell called Simon Serle. In an act of self-defence the chaplain had killed Serle, with the result that not only had he to obtain the royal pardon, but the church at Pirbright had to be ‘purged’ by the Bishop of Winchester.
In 1718 John Aubrey noted that ‘in the middle of Broke Wood stood a Hermitage formerly belonging to the Grey Friars at Guildford. Part of the house, built of stone and timber, yet remains – four or five rooms and some parcels of land’.
The HermitageBy this stage the Hermitage was part of the Manor of Woking – granted by James I to Sir Edward Zouch. His grandson – James – granted the Hermitage in 1708 to Mrs Catherine Wood.
The whole site was surrounded by a wall, eighteen feet high, the bricks of which can occasionally still be found on the escarpment down towards Robin Hood Road.
Work began on the building in 1858 with prisoners and officers brought in from Lewes, Carisbrooke and Dartmoor to help with the construction.
The north-east wing was opened on the 28th April 1859, although the official opening of the whole site was not until the 22nd March 1860 when three-hundred prisoners were transferred from the already cramped and inadequate Lewes Prison in Sussex.
The average number of prisoners at Woking was 613.
In 1867 work began on the second prison at Woking – this time for female convicts, and once again some of the more able-bodied men from the male prison were employed as cheap labour.
The new prison opened on the 5th May 1869 when 100 were transferred here from Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.
Many of the women worked in the prison kitchens or laundry, whilst a number were employed as Tailoresses, Needlewomen or Knitters. Woking Prison was also well-known for its Mosaics Department where the women could earn 1s2d a day breaking up refuse marble to be laid as mosaic floors. Some were exhibited at the ‘International Exhibition of Fine Arts and Industry’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1872, and it is said that part of the floor of St Paul's Cathedral and the ‘South Kensington Museums’ were produced at this time. St John’s Church also exhibits some of the work
In 1886 it was decided to close the prisons at Woking over a ten year period, and in 1888 most of the male prisoners were transferred. The invalid prison finally closed on the 21st March 1889 and in November the Home Office transferred the site to the War Department.
In 1891 they bought an extra 20 acres adjoining the site from the Necropolis Company for £5,600, to be used as part of the parade ground.
The female prison continued to be used until October 1895 when it too was closed and the last of the women transferred to Holloway. During the First World War the female prison was used as a military hospital, whilst the male section housed various units, including many troops from all over the Empire.
After the Second World War the barracks became the base for the Royal Military Police who finally vacated the site in 1965 when they moved down to Chichester (although part of the site was retained as a clothing store)
The site then became available for housing with Woking Borough Council and The Guinness Trust developing part of the estate in the early 1970s – followed by more private houses in the 1980s and 90s – although it is perhaps the restoration of the original prison officers quarters in Wellington Terrace and Raglan Road that are the most distinctive part of the area.
The Crematorium – A Unique History
In 1878 the Cremation Society of England bought an acre of land at St Johns and built the first crematorium in this country. At that stage the law regarding cremation was uncertain, and it was not until March 1885 that the first cremation took place here following a test case in South Wales that found that, because there was no law against cremation, cremation must be legal.
In 1888 a chapel and waiting room was added at a cost of £3,000 – the building being designed by E.F.C. Clarke and constructed by Longley and Co of Crawley using locally produced bricks. By then only 100 cremations had taken place at Woking, but by the 1940s the practice of cremation had gained in popularity with over 10,000 bodies being cremated annually.
One of the most unusual event here was the open-air cremation of a Nepalese Princess, Chamsere Jung.
The princess was a member of the Napalese Embassy in London when she became seriously ill. It was realised that she would die and as Hindu tradition stipulated that she must be cremated on an open-air pyre, the Home Office were asked where such a ceremony could take place. As one of the few Crematoriums in the country at that time it was decided that St. Johns would be the ideal site.
Napalese Hinduism apparently required that a dying person should take their last breath ‘beside a sacred piece of water’ so in early July 1934 the Napalese Government purchased a small bungalow on St Johns Lye, beside the ’sacred waters’ of the Basingstoke Canal!
The funeral took place at 6 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 13th July 1934 when the princess’s body shrouded in red and gold silk was carried from the house over the canal and into the grounds of the Crematorium. Here a five foot high pyre had been constructed using 400lbs of sandalwood (with 20lbs of camphor incense and other oils, gums and spices) that altogether cost an estimated £400 – £500. As the cortege of two hundred or more mourners crossed walked the route copper and silver coins were scattered on the ground – closely followed by a number of local children intent on picking them up again.
Apparently the four high-caste Hindus carrying the body were forbade from wearing any leather and the story goes that a mad-search was made for rubber soled canvas plimsolls. The funeral taking place on a Wednesday – early closing day in those days – a local shopkeeper had to be found who would open up his shop specially for the mourners.
The Princess was one of only three open-air cremations to take place in this country in modern times– all at St Johns (the others being in December 1935 and February 1937)! After that the new houses of the Hermitage Estate meant that no new pyres could be built as each one was considered a new ‘crematorium’ and thus under the Cremation Act could not be built ‘within 200 yards of a dwelling without the owners/occupiers consent’.
20th Century Development
The early development of St Johns, based on the canal, the nurseries and the brickyards, soon gave way in the late 19th and early 20th century to shops and houses serving the institutions of the area – the prison (later barracks) and asylum at Knaphill.
In the later 20th century it was from the workers in Woking and commuters to the capital that St Johns gained its growth, with several small estates being built in the St Johns Road, Robin Hood Road and Hermitage Road areas.
The 1960s and 70s saw places such as St Johns Rise, Pantiles Close Martin Way, Goldsworth Orchard and Cedar Gardens (all off St Johns Road), with Lansdowne Close and of course the roads of the Hermitage Woods Estate off Hermitage Road.
In the 1980s and 90s several 60s and 70s estates saw extra houses added, so that Ashley Road off Robin Hood Road gained Ashley Court, and Nottingham Close saw more houses built at the end of the road. In the St Johns Road area Dale View likewise saw the land behind the original houses built on, whilst in Beacon Hill it was the steep escarpment in front of the 1970s houses that saw the flats built in the 1990s.
Other 1980s and 90s developments include St Johns Waterside in Copse Road, St Johns Mews in the village centre and St Johns Gardens in St Johns Road – the developers all but exhausting the ‘St Johns’ name in recent years!
On St Johns Hill large houses have been replaced by smaller houses in closes such as ‘Firgrove’, ‘Barricane’ and Holly Close, with developments such as ‘The Mount’ and ‘Glen Court’ continuing the trend into the 1990s.
It is hard to see where the development (or redevelopment) will end, as more and more people want to live near this popular local village, the centre of which was designated as a conservation area in 1991.