History of Surrey

Surrey has a rich heritage that spans thousands of years creating a legacy which is as interesting and compelling to a historian as it is to anyone researching their family history.

The county of Surrey is located in the South-East of England, and borders Greater London to the north, Kent to the west, Sussex and Hampshire to the south and Berkshire to the west.  Surrey's boundary has changed over the years, and none more than in the 19th and 20th century, where up to one point Surrey was as far into London as Wandsworth next to the Thames.  Today the boundary line is further south just below Kingston.

Brief History of Surrey
Few visible traces remain of the ancient inhabitants of Surrey.  Two fine Bronze Age “barrows” or burial mounds can be seen at Horsell Common in Woking and there are the remains of Iron Age hillforts at Hascombe Hill, Chertsey, and St George’s Hill in Weybridge. Probably the best for visitors is the hill fort at Holmbury Hill, especially as the site enjoys fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. 

The Romans created one of their major roads in the early years of their occupation connecting Chichester with London known as Stane Street. The modern A3 and A24 roads follow this route. They also built temples near Wanborough and Farley Heath. You can visit the site of the latter, and see a beautiful Priest’s head-dress from Wanborough at Guildford Museum.

The Saxons came to Surrey in the 5th and 6th centuries and the names of their tribes live on in modern place names such as Woking and Godalming.  “Surrey” itself comes from the Saxon term Suthrige, or "southern kingdom".  Surrey was largely protected from attacks by the Vikings due to its position inland, however the invaders were defeated at Farnham in 892 by the army of Edward the Elder. Kingston was the site of the coronation of English kings during the following century, including Aethelstan and Aethelred the Unready. The Coronation Stone can be seen on the High Street by Clattern Bridge.

Following the Norman conquest , William de Warenne  was given the title “Earl of Surrey”, and significant castles at Guildford and Farnham  were built  - both can be visited today.  The first Cistercian monastery in England, Waverley Abbey, was founded in 1128 in Farnham. The buildings survived many floods but felt into disrepair following the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. The ruins are now managed by Historic England and are open to the public. 

One of the most significant events in world history took place in a quiet meadow in Surrey in June 1215, when King John reluctantly sealed Magna Carta at Runnymede.

The proximity to London, and the abundance of hunting grounds resulted in the building of some magnificent royal palaces in Surrey during the Tudor period. Of these, only Hampton Court remains intact, but there were sumptuous residences at Richmond and at Ewell, where Nonsuch Palace was built on a spectacular scale for Henry VIII. He did not live to see it completed, although it was much used and loved by Elizabeth I. Sadly Nonsuch survived for less than 140 years. Charles II gave it to his mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, who had it pulled down in 1682-3 and sold to pay off her gambling debts! Some of the fixtures, including oak panelling, were reused in the Great Hall at Loseley Park.  Nonsuch Mansion, a Georgian house on the park is now largely used as a wedding venue and contains a museum which is open to the public along with extensive gardens.

Woking Palace was created by Henry VII from a 13th Century house. It was further developed during the reigns of both Henry VIII and by Elizabeth I and remained in royal hands until 1620, when James I granted it to one of his courtiers. The palace was largely demolished and the materials used elsewhere. The site, with its picturesque ruins and tranquil moated setting is definitely worth visiting and guided walks can be booked at times during the year.

Surrey's mainly rural economy had revolved mainly around the woollen cloth industry although this came to an end during the Tudor period. A new industrial era came into being in the 17th century centred on the Tillingbourne valley, which runs from Leith Hill to join the river Wey at Guildford. During the 17th century this area was the main producer of gunpowder in England. One of the country’s first canal systems, the Wey Navigation, opened in 1653. It enabled gunpowder, timber, wood, corn and flour to be transported up to London and coal to be brought back to power the mills. The waterways are now purely for leisure use and you can enjoy boat trips organised by the Wey and Arun Canal Trust.

The county continued to be largely rural and sparsely populated until transport improved during the 19th Century, and in particular with the arrival of the railways. This enabled the process of commuting and with it a dramatic growth in building, population and wealth.  It affected existing towns like Guildford and Farnham and created new towns such as Redhill and Woking. The transformation of Surrey continued into the 20th Century with the creation of the M25 orbital motorway and the building of both Gatwick and Heathrow airports on either side of the county, enabling easy access to visitors from overseas.

There are 40 Museums across the county, almost one in every town, telling the local history story.

If you are keen on ancestry and are looking into your family history, the Surrey History Centre can help.

Here are some little bites of surprising facts of the history of Surrey:

A Motoring first in Farnham
John Henry Knight (1847 – 1917), was the creator of one of the first petrol engine motor vehicles in Britain. In October 1895 Knight drove the vehicle through Farnham, and was prosecuted for not having a licence and without a man walking in front with a red flag!
Knight was an extraordinary inventor with a string of innovations to his name including steam powered vehicles, the speedometer, wooden tyres, a brick laying machine, a grenade thrower and a plate tilting device to make it easier to carve meat. He also a pioneer of colour photography.

Woking was home to Britain’s first official crematorium
The last quarter of the C19th saw an upsurge of interest in world religions, spiritualism and other esoteric belief systems.  Early in the 1880s, the cremation of the dead, long practiced amongst the Hindus of India, but which had hitherto been taboo, became the subject of, sometimes quite violent, discussion.   In 1884, Brookwood, near Woking, already the site of one of the big London ‘necropolises’, became the site of Britain’s first, official, legal crematorium.  It remains in use today.

Major Peter Labilliere buried upside down on Box Hill 
On 11 June 1800, amidst huge crowds and an almost funfair atmosphere, Major Peter Labelliere was buried at the top of Box Hill.

Peter Labelliere had been unlucky in love. The woman of his dreams had turned him down and this appears to have affected his mind badly and his manner grew more and more eccentric over the years.  He moved to Dorking where, despite the fact that he had an annual pension from the Duke of Devonshire of £100, he chose to live in a hovel called ‘The Hole in The Wall’.  He was, however, a generous man and would even give the coat off his back to a passing beggar. 

At the age of 70, he paid a visit to his old friend, the Duke of Devonshire and, on returning home, said to his worried landlady “Now I have come to live and die with you, for this day nine months hence I shall depart out of this world”.  His prediction came true, for he died on the very day he had predicted.  Assured of the life to come, he firmly believed that, at the last trump, as the Bible said, the world would be turned upside down, so he left instructions that he should be buried upside down, head first in his grave, so that when he rose again, he would be the right way up!

Breakfast cereal first made in Surrey
In 1896, the owners of the early C19th Shalfords Mill, near Horley, went bankrupt and the lease advertised.  It was taken up by the Seventh Day Adventist movement.  They intended to supply health foods to their British followers, but since these were only available in the U. S. and difficult to import, the venture failed. However, several of their members, led by one Dr. Kellogg, founded the ‘London Health Food Co.   As the ‘International Health Organisation Ltd.’, they produced, at Shalford Mill, wheat flake breakfast food and ‘health biscuits’, plus nut-based foods.  The mill burnt in 1900 and the business was transferred to Birmingham, but the accolade of producing Britain’s first ever breakfast cereal goes to Shalford Mill.

Britain’s first purpose-built Mosque in Woking
In the 19th Century a Hungarian doctor, Gottlieb Leitner, described as an ‘orientalist’, bought an abandoned ‘Dramatic College’, at Woking.  This had been opened in 1865 as a home for actors, sponsored by such luminaries as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray.  Herr Doktor Leitner, intending to make the site into a centre for the study of all the eastern and middle eastern religions, planned to build a mosque and a Hindu temple in its grounds.  In the event, only the mosque was ever built, becoming Britain’s first purpose built one.  The old ‘Dramatic College’ became the ‘Oriental Institute’ and fans of H G Well’s War of the Worlds will remember its roof crashing down in flames after being hit by the invading Martian’s heat ray in 1895!

Most of the cost of the mosque was met by Her Highness the Begum Shah Jehan, to whom it is dedicated and the captain of a P & O liner kindly came down to Woking with his compass to make sure that the mosque was correctly aligned towards Mecca.

A Pioneer of Early Music
Anyone who learnt to play the recorder at school will be familiar with the name Dolmetsch. He was responsible for a flowering of interest in the music of the mediaeval and renaissance period.

Arnold Dolmetsch was born at Le Mans in 1858.  Coming to London as a young man to continue his musical studies, it was whilst he was delving in the library of the Royal College of Music that he found some long-forgotten music for viols.  It was this chance discovery that set him on his course to rediscover a lost musical world and by the 1890s, he had performed, at private and public concerts, nearly 500 works from the pre-classical era.

As part of his work, he also repaired instruments and began the making of replicas of period instruments.   On 20 December 1917, he and his family moved to a house called ‘Jesses’ at Haslemere, where they set up a workshop and it is this town with which he and his work is most associated.  He is buried in the Shottermill cemetery near Haslemere.

Surrey and the Cinema
Following the de Lumiere brothers demonstration of the new ‘moving pictures’ a number of film studios sprang up, both here and abroad.  Amongst the best known in Britain were Hepworth’s studios at Walton on Thames, certainly one of this country’s first.  Opened in 1899, Hepworth’s output was very large and only a few years later, the studio was releasing over 100 productions a year.  Hepworth’s can be credited with two world ‘firsts’ in film history, producing the very first film based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in 1903 and also the first ‘movie’ featuring dinosaurs!    The studio finally closed as recently as 1961, by which time it was being used as a TV stage, producing over 100 episodes of the classic series Robin Hood, starring Richard Green.

The C18th and early C19th was the heyday of the ‘folly’, useless, but charming –and, occasionally, terrifying buildings, in the fashionable ‘Gothick’, or classical styles.  In time the landscape parks of the wealthy became littered with follies, taking their inspiration from Charles Hamilton’s park at Painshill, near Cobham.  One of these parks surrounded the Evelyn’s house at Wotton, near Dorking.  One of the most curious has to be the Wotton  ‘tortoise house’.  This odd little building, which has recently been beautifully restored, features an upper terrace, with a pergola over it, upon which the Evelyns could sit and have afternoon tea whilst looking down into a pool below and watching the antics of ‘tortoises’ –which were almost certainly terrapins, within it.  No one knows exactly when the tortoise house was built, but it was probably in the 1820s or 1830s.

The Surrey Style
Sir Edwin Lutyens brought to prominence the ‘Surrey Style’, based on the domestic architecture with which he was surrounded during his childhood in Thursley.  Lutyens is famed for his design of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and the administrative capital of India at New Delhi.  It is, however, Lutyens’ houses that captured the popular imagination and many of these, such as ‘Orchards’, ‘Ruckmans’, Tigbourne Court’ and ‘Munstead Wood’, are in Surrey.  The last of these cemented the unique partnership that Lutyens had forged with the formidable gardener, Gertrude Jekyll.  Whilst Lutyens designed houses, Jekyll would lay out the gardens which complimented them.

H G Wells and Woking
In 1895, H. G. Wells, already a well-established author, moved with his family, to 143 Maybury Road, Woking.   Whilst living there he wrote two books, Tono Bungay and The War of The Worlds one of the best-known novels of all time.  The story is, of course, familiar to most people, but it is interesting to note that few people living outside the area know how much local detail he actually used in his book.  The Martian heat ray being turned on the ‘Oriental College’ for instance and his naming the ‘College Arms’ pub at Maybury, which may well have been his local.  It is probably this use of real-life locations which gives the book such immediacy.  The Maybury Road house still survives and is marked with a blue plaque.