Village Narratives: An Historical Note

We were ready to leave our mid-Surrey provincial town partly because we needed more space, what with my 90-year old father encamped in our living room, and partly because of the predictable, grating noise from the Queens’s Head opposite. We could pool our resources and find somewhere larger and quieter. But ending up in Mickleham was unplanned. Our youngest daughter discovered it on the Internet. We saw it initially without appointment, standing by the gate and tracing, wide-eyed, the steps down to the ‘cottage’. Annette and I were already hooked. Once she had checked out the inside, we put in a bid. Your bid cannot be registered, I was told, until you too have been shown around. The deal was clinched, if – just a little worrying this – a while before we had signed off on our old place.

The purchase was an unusual, three-bed semi-detached property up a rough and crumbly track off the A24. Although we knew nothing of it at the time, it was a track with some history of its own. In 1789 Sir Charles Talbot had made over a parcel of land to the parish of Mickleham for a poor house. Since 1601, as a result of the declining fortunes of the Church, courtesy of Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries, parishes had been charged with a responsibility to provide relief for the local poor. The means to do so came from a levy on the better-off and was distributed by overseers as either outdoor or indoor relief. According to local historian Ronald Sheppard, outdoor relief sufficed until 1789 when a poor house was judged essential. Poor houses were austerely functional, designed to stigmatise and deter. The one half way up our hillside track was apparently an elongated, stark two-story building containing eight dwellings. As if to anticipate the present ConDem coalition, however, it was soon put about that the inhabitants were taking advantage. Furthermore, after the Napoleonic War the numbers of ‘needy poor’ rose nationally, leading to the passing of a new Poor Law Act in 1834. Individual parishes lost their responsibilities in favour of ‘unions’ of neighbouring parishes, leaving Mickleham’s high and dry. In 1838 a proposal was made to convert the poor house into an almshouse, but it came to nothing. Another Talbot stepped into the breach, this time Sir George, who in 1845 supplied the means for the reconstruction of a now-dilapidated building; an almshouse was erected. A fire in 1864 levelled this to the ground. Sheppard defines this as a blessing in disguise: the eight sets of rooms Annette and I drive by almost daily are apparently a significant improvement on their predecessors.

Nestling besides the almshouse is the King William IV pub, from which – embarrassingly – I think I remain barred (another narrative). Built in 1830, it offers wondrous views over to Norbury Park (which I enjoyed for a year or two).

Our new home was a former National School founded in 1843 and converted into dwellings in 1900. That there was no local school prior to 1843 may seem odd to a non-sociologist. There were certainly plenty of educated people about: for example J.S.Mills’ dad lived in Swansworth Lane, just behind the Running Horses pub (of which a lot more in subsequent narratives). Sir George enters the picture again. He gave money for the purchase of a site across from the almshouse. Public subscription carried the project forward; and G.W.Wathen was the architect (interestingly, the original Schoolmaster’s house, next door to us, is now occupied by a celebrated local architect).

I suppose we had heard of Mickleham before we bought our way into it, and we had certainly by-passed it a thousand times back and forth to the south-coast to visit my parents at Worthing, but we knew little about it. In fact, it predates the development of our lowly hillside by many a century. Early immigrants to our lands came this way, Sheppard tells us, as long ago as 2,500 BC, hesitating and occasionally settling in the vicinity, often in plots adjacent to rivers like the Mole. Artefacts dating from 500 BC have been found a stone’s thrown away from us on Mickleham Downs (which the old Roman road skirts). Only myth and wishful thinking date Mickleham itself back to these times, but all is not lost. There was likely a presence prior to the building of the Roman road. Moreover the ancestry of the village is captured in its Anglo-Saxon naming: ‘micel’, meaning big, and ‘ham’, meaning a settlement. Incidentally, the naming of Mickleham’s companion village, Westhumble (just across the A24), is no less revealing: ‘wisce’, referring to a wych elm, and ‘stumble’, referring to a tree stump.

The church speaks most eloquently of Mickleham’s past. St Michael’s sits in the core of the village (opposite the Running Horses). It was in 597 BC that Augustine and his monks crossed the English Channel on a mission to evangelise and displace the Anglo-Saxons’ own gods and godlets. What do we know of the outcome for Mickleham? Well, the existence of a church was recorded in the Doomsday Book, so the lineage reaches back to 1086. So a wooden structure antedated the Norman Conquest. From the 12th century on there is more tangible evidence of its early origins.

Just in time for Christmas in 2004 we came by chance to live on the outskirts of a village with its taproot in Anglo-Saxon soil. If our track appears modern by contrast, so what? If this blog receives a visitor or two there will be narrative snapshots to follow that speak as readily of the human condition as do philosophers, sociologists and the like. My barring from the King William IV is symptomatic: I guess all villages have their feuds, often entirely enigmatic to outsiders. In the best tradition of sociology, identities will be protected and names altered. But here is a query or four:

  • Why has Mickleham’s Running Horses been voted the 8th best pub in the UK, and how many recognized ‘Wiggo’ as he sped by?
  • What happened when two pigs escaped and scuttled down the A24’s cycle path, and what would Wittgenstein have made of it?
  • What latent rather than manifest functions does the village choir have?
  • Is working in inner London and living in a mid-Surrey village a recipe for the good life?

Oh, and what will happen to me when I retire?



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