In the 19th century, Chobham Common was not only a workplace, but a resource for local people – a place where they could get fuel, animal fodder, turf, gravel etc. For some it was also a home.
People tramped across the heath land looking for work, maybe sleeping in barns, or making themselves rough shelters. Some of the people who were living on the Common were simply too poor to afford a house.
In the 1880s Stanley Alder of West End worked with a Mission run by the Shaftesbury schools in Bisley. They aimed to support poor people who were living on the heath in huts and tents. Alder wrote about his experiences in his book “Work among the gipsies.”
He only mentioned two people by name, Harry Elston and James Baker.
Harry Elston had been a navvy at one time, and had worked for many years on the Common. He lived with his wife Mary in a turf hut that he had built 28 years previously. Alder visited them.
Building in turf – an example of a turf house. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Images.)
“From its peculiar size and shape no one would have suspected that it was built for a man and his wife. It was twelve feet long by six feet wide. On entering, to the right was the bedstead reaching from side to side, with the coarse thatch just above it. Opposite the narrow door was one chair, and a table upon which were neatly placed the cups, plates, a few books, etc., to the left. The hut narrowed off to form an open fire-place. This end was made of layers of clay three feet thick at the bottom and rising to the level of the roof, the rest of the walls were made of turf cut from the neighbouring common.”
Henry Elson was buried at Holy Trinity, West End, at the age of 71 on Jan 21st 1890.
Alder wrote about his work with the gypsies who lived at West End. It was very practical – Christmas dinners and other meals were provided. He was appalled at how harsh life was in a tent during a hard winter.
“It is one thing to see a Gipsy sitting outside his tent on the grass smoking his pipe in the summer sun – it is quite another to see them huddled together in a severe winter.”
Gipsies’ Camp on Chobham Common. (From the Oliver Collection held in the University of London’s Library Depository at Egham, courtesy of the trustees of the S. A. Oliver Charitable Settlement.)
The mission worked hard to persuade the gypsies to move into cottages, but found that some simply preferred to live in a tent.
“Another old man reads his Bible in his tent… he is a widower, his large family are all married, but he prefers his lonely tent, which is one of the most clean and comfortable we see, to the cottages or the tents of his family.”
One young man “was always spoken well of by those in the tents, but he prefers the roaming life to settling down.”
Even when the families moved in to cottages, they still travelled during the summer months, and were usually away from June until October.
“We may note the fact that they paid the rent of their houses the whole of the time they were away in the summer, pea picking, hay and harvest work, and hop picking; in some cases three or four months.”
Hop pickers at work, in Kent or Surrey. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
The children attended school, but not all the time. Even James Baker’s children only “attended the day schools from time to time.”
Alder thought highly of James Baker. Baker, a gypsy, worked as a sweep. His wife Eleanor made bee hives, and in 1881 they had six children under 15, and another on the way. When the Mission helped them to find a cottage they only owned a butter tub, a few cooking utensils, a donkey cart, and some loose straw for bedding.
The family settled well, and the children began to attend school. Baker was able to continue his work as a chimney sweep. ” The other man, a chimney sweeper… who now has 8 children, has now a fair connection in business, and drives his pony and trap long rounds. This man who is fond of music and plays a fiddle, may be heard in his own cottage leading his children in singing Sankeys known hymns.”
In 1891 – 92 an influenza epidemic swept through West End. James Baker, the sweep, was one of the victims. He died at the age of 51 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church, West End. “We are sorry to relate that the disease proved fatal to Baker the Sweep, whose family was the first that we placed in cottages. After a brief illness he died, leaving a wife and large family; his wife survived him only a few months, her great grief of losing so a good a husband, and the great trouble into which she was plunged, hastened her death.
A chimney sweep, c. 1850. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
“Poor Baker, who was in the prime of life, was the most deserving of any we have had to do with. I know no man so much missed and enquired about as “Baker the sweep,” everybody all through the parish spoke well of him. He was courteous and always so cheerful, he was quick and clean in his work, he was a very honest, steady, and sober man, and delighted to make good provision for his family.”
James Baker’s family remained in Chobham after his death. One of his daughters lived for many years in Valley End, and his descendants still live in the area.
Stanley Alder. “Work among the gipsies.” Published by Medhurst, Chobham, 1893.
Mary Ann Bennett. “Life and work on Surrey Heath.” 2007.
With thanks to Jeremy Harte and Sallie Buchanan.