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.
Between 1806 and 1810 the 2nd Earl Spencer measured the girth of some 44 trees in the vicinity of the last house and he measured them again in 1823 or 1826. The results, shown in the Althorp papers held by the British Library today, provide statistics on their rate of growth and indicate which could have been there in Brown’s original design and which must have postdated his involvement with Wimbledon Park. The Earl found an average growth in girth of 1.3in per annum, slightly better than the rule of thumb devised by the modern dendrologist, Alan Mitchell, of an inch a year for a tree with a full crown 8.This rate can be accounted for by the unusually fast growth of one species, the Cedar of Lebanon. A quarter of the Earl’s trees were cedars and he found an average growth rate for these of 1.7in per annum.
Many of the trees measured in 1823 or 1826 were small specimens at the time. Only a few were large enough to date back to Brown’s own day. Among these were a cedar ‘south of the pavilion’ and an elm ‘south of the terrace’ which were then already approximately 150 years old. They must have dated from around 1675, not long after the Cedar of Lebanon was first introduced to England. Three other cedars and a Scots Pine were around 70 years old, so probably planted before Brown’s time, as was a Beech of around 100 years.
Trees that could have been planted by Brown himself had estimated ages from 65 to 40 years. There were four cedars, a Tulip-tree, a Weymouth Pine, a hybrid poplar (which the Earl called a ‘Carolina poplar’ 9), a Larch 10 and a Copper Beech. There was also a ‘Red Cedar’, unlikely to have been a Western Red Cedar as that was not introduced from America until the 1850s. The remaining 41 trees were younger. The trees measured by the second Earl were a tiny proportion of those indicated on John Corris’s Plan of Wimbledon and Surrounding Parishes of 1787.
In today’s Wimbledon Park area, the oldest tree is an Oak near the 8th green of Wimbledon Park Golf Course, which is over five metres in girth, so about 300 years old, probably already 50 years old in Brown’s time. Trees with girths between 4.4 and 4.8 metres have estimated ages of 230 to 255 years and may originate with Brown’s landscaping. These comprise four further Oaks, two of which are on the golf course, one in the pavement of Home Park Road beside the course and one in Lake Road 11. Both within the historic Wimbledon Park and
nearby today there are many more trees with a girth of around 4 metres, indicating an age of around 200 years. They may post-date Brown.
The Spencers remained in Wimbledon until the 1820s but in 1846 the parkland was sold to the same property developer who had bought another Brown commission, the neighbouring West Hill estate, Putney, the previous year. Substantial house building over the following decades saw the former 1200 acres of open land shrink dramatically as residential areas such as Southfields appeared for the first time.
In 1914 Wimbledon Council purchased part of the former Spencer estate and created a municipal park with the lake between it and the golf course. In 1922 another 13 acres to the west of the golf course were taken over for development by the All England Lawn Tennis Club, an area since expanded to some 42 acres. In 1993 the AELTC also bought the freehold of the golf course itself from Merton Council so those 75 acres could eventually face development too when the current lease expires.
The lake, probably the most defining feature of Brown’s 18th century design, remains in public ownership although now slightly reduced to 22 acres following some reclamation by the golf club. It was certainly the focal point in the celebrated view towards London from what had previously been the Duchess of Marlborough’s manor house. The two older ponds from which it had been formed originated in springs at the edge of the flat gravel terrace occupying the top of the hill to the south and west. In Brown’s day the catchment was predominantly common land, parkland and farms. The water quality was good and there was a fine fishery.
Today like many lakes in lowland Britain, it is eutrophic with extensive beds of pondweed. The catchment is predominantly suburban and has extensive hard surfaces, such as houses and roads whose runoff carries pollutants. This was exacerbated in the late 1990s by construction of an extra inflow to take runoff from the AELTC. Other sources of pollution are intensive management of the golf course, feeding of the carp by fishermen, large populations of waterfowl and excess bird feeding by the public. The lake has lost its beds of waterlilies and
submerged water plants can be a problem.
It has also been slowly silting up. Once up to 2.5 metres deep, there are now few places deeper than a metre. To provide sufficient depth for water sports, the outflow weir has to be kept high, and this causes a high water table and some flooding. The Friends of Wimbledon Park hope to raise the funds to remove silt and secure the lake’s future.
It is important for water birds, especially in winter, when many arrive from continental Europe seeking ice-free water. In summer, it also attracts at least four species of bat to feed on the rich insect life associated with the water. Its value as wildlife habitat has led to its recognition as a Site of Borough Importance for nature conservation. Large geese numbers visit seasonally while others include common terns, kingfishers, grey herons and cormorants.
1. Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown (Faber & Faber, first published 1975, 1984 edition), p.135.
2. Bernard Rondeau, Wimbledon Park: From Private Park to Residential Suburb (Rondeau, 1995), pp.8-9.
3. Jane Brown, The Omnipotent Magician – Lancelot Capability Brown 1716-1783 (Chatto & Windus, 2011), p.179.
4. Richard Milward, The Spencers in Wimbledon 1744-1994 (The Milward Press, 1996).
7. Stroud, op.cit
8. Alan Mitchell’s Trees of Britain, (Collins, 1976), introductory chapter.
9. A ‘Carolina poplar’ would be a hybrid between the native Black Poplar and the “Eastern Cottonwood” from the eastern USA (Populus x canadensis), probably the variety ‘Serotina’, the earliest of several hybrids to find favour around 1780, according to Mitchell.
10. The European Larch (Larix decidua). The more exotic species were introduced to England much later.
11. All the oaks identified were Pedunculate Oaks (Quercus robur).
The Account Book of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, The first Landscape Gardener of Fenstanton, Hunts. 1759-1787
The Right Honble the Lord Viscount Spencer, at Wimbledon in Surrey
In July 1765 Recd the first payment 500.0.0
1766 September the 8th. Received of his
Lordship By Draft on Hoare & Co
The 2nd & 3rd Payment 1000.0.0
This Account Settled and a Bond
given for the Balanced
March the 2 1779 Rcd of Lord Spenser
a draft on Hoare for May the 200.0.0
22nd. Recd of his Lordship 200.0.0
Due to Balance 100.0.0
Thomas Squires Bill for the
Rail Fence at Wimbledon Park 42.3.9
John Wartridges Bills for
Painting the above Fence 13.0.10
Disbured by G. Bowstreed in this
Year to July the 8 1780 in the
Wood and various Parts of the Park 90.13.0
Received by the ? of the ? Rail Fence 21.0.0
Paid by a Draft on ? Hoares
Dated October the 27 1780
1781 April the 16th Recd of Lord
Nov the 26 Rcd Ditto
Settled by the Executors 500.0.0
A Contract with the Right Honble Lord Vis
Spencer of 1760 Pounds begun in
January 1765, at the underwritten Times of Payment
At Michaelmass 1765 √ 500.0.0
At Christmas 1765 √ 500.0.0
At Lady Day 1766 √ 500.0.0
In June 1766 When the Work
is Completed 260.0.0
Source: RHS Lindley Library 998 BRO. The account book of Lancelot Brown, unpublished MS 1764-1788, pp. 37-38.
The former Spencer estate, 1898. Map 52 from Bacon's New Large-Scale Atlas of London and Suburbs reduced from the Ordnance, published by G.W. Bacon and Co.
Click on the PDF to see a sketch of Wimbledon Park for comparison with the 1770 map by Haynes. As noted on the map, the grey shaded area covers those parts of the historic Wimbledon Park now lost to built development. The white areas around the lake created by
Capability Brown are what remains as open space today. The delineated area at bottom left shows the extent of Wimbledon Village in Brown’s day.