Capability Brown's Wimbledon Park, in His Day and Ours
The following article is compiled from material and research by Tony Matthews, Dr Dave Dawson and other sources
Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.Today’s municipal Wimbledon Park, a Grade 2* landscape on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks & Gardens of Special Historic Interest, covers just under 67 acres of the original parkland designed by Lancelot Capability Brown for John, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783). Wimbledon Park Golf Course has another 75 acres inaccessible to the general public and the privately owned Wimbledon Club a further nine acres. Roughly a third of the publicly owned 67 acres consists of Brown’s original lake with the remainder split between the boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth.
Brown was commissioned in 1764 to design an estate that originally covered 1200 acres, stretching from Tibbett’s Corner, Putney Heath, in the north to the bottom of Wimbledon Hill in the south, from Parkside bordering Wimbledon Common in the west, to today’s Durnsford Road near the River Wandle, in the east. Dorothy Stroud wrote: ‘From the ridge of high ground near the parish church, [the grounds] dropped sharply as they fanned out to the north’ 1.
Spencer, who became the first Earl on 1 November 1765, had inherited the Wimbledon estate in 1746 at the age of 12. Local historian Bernard Rondeau wrote that only two years earlier, Spencer’s father had himself inherited the manor house and parkland from his grandmother, the Duchess of Marlborough. The estate had been managed by trustees until the young Spencer came of age in 1755 and it was they who nearly doubled its size to 1200 acres 2.
Lancelot Brown was commissioned to make considerable improvements to the park. His contract specified fees amounting to £1760 ‘to be paid quarterly over two years’, although this may understate what he was actually paid by Earl Spencer. Total payments by the Earl of £5800 are recorded but how much of this related to Althorp, Spencer’s estate in Northants, rather than Wimbledon Park is unclear. Work at Wimbledon was to start in January 1765.
When Brown first saw the gardens they were, according to Jane Brown, ‘a cavalcade of baroque fashions – lime walks, orchards, vineyards, fountains, knots embroidered parterres, a green-painted circular banqueting house and a maze’ 3. Stroud also comments that: ‘The formal gardens of the earlier manor houses had already been much altered at the time of the Duchess’s building activities but two avenues remained to the north-east.’
According to Richard Milward, writing in his book documenting the history of the Spencers in Wimbledon 4 during the two years 1765 and 1766 Brown oversaw the creation of a lake of up to 30 acres, flooding swampy areas by linking two older fishponds. This was stocked with fish and a boathouse was built at one end, with Greek and Roman statues on pedestals dotted around the edge. Wide vistas were created between the woods, coverts for game (roughly where Inner Park Road stands today), and a new winding drive between the manor house and today’s Parkside, which started just off the main road to London at a new entrance lodge. Brown retained some clumps of woodland including Horse Close Wood (still in existence today), Highwood (now lost) and Ashen Grove Wood, of which a small fragment still survives. He also planted many new trees.
Milward goes on to say that: ‘Capability Brown returned to Wimbledon Park in the late 1770s to make further improvements […..] they may have included supervision of a menagerie for birds and small animals that had recently been set up in the park, and of a large kitchen garden just built at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill. Both appear for the first time in the estate accounts for 1772. The menagerie was situated in the Game Cover just to the west of the new drive. It was …. about an acre in extent…..The kitchen garden was set up on 12 acres of glebe land leased from the church and situated just below the modern Woodside 5.
It had a special hothouse. Also built on the estate at that time were a washhouse, brew-house, bake-house and a well-house. A tunnel from the manor house, partially excavated today, is closed to the public. Said to have been wide enough to take eight men abreast and a man on horseback, it also had a practical purpose of keeping servants out of view as they went about their daily work.
The contract was more or less complete by the end of 1766. Twelve years later Brown was back, supervising minor alterations for which he noted that he had been paid £200 in March and £200 in May 1779, out of which he made payments to Thomas Squires for a rail fence and to John Watridge for painting it, while George Bowstreed was paid for work in woodland and various parts of the Park. Brown was still receiving sums totalling £740 from Lord Spencer in 1781 6.
Social reformer Hannah More wrote in 1780: ‘The Bishop of St Asaph and his family invites us to Wimbledon Park, Lord Spencer’s charming villa which he always lends to the Bishop at this time of year. I did not think there would have been so beautiful a place within seven miles of London. The park has such a variety of ground and is as un-Londonish as if it were one hundred miles out.’ 7
The manor house built by the Duchess of Marlborough burned down in 1785 and the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806), Brown’s son-in-law, designed another one for the 2nd Earl Spencer by extending the former servants’ quarters. He altered the nursery and added an attic among various improvements. This was the last of four Wimbledon manor houses since Elizabethan times, and survived until 1949.