Stories from Cobham Remembers
Cobham Remembers - Cobham Society
The Cobham Remembers project attempted to capture something of the atmosphere of Cobham in the early years of the 20th century researching a variety of historical records. If you are interested in local history the decennial census is a veritable treasure trove and that for 1911, the closest to the outbreak of the Great War, gives us a glimpse of the life and social structure of the area at that time.
The 1911 Census was taken on the night of Sunday 2nd April and collected detailed information on the people who spent the night in each household, including their name, marital status, age, occupation and birthplace. New from previous censuses were questions about the number of years married, children born alive and number still living (the so called “fertility census”). The forms, usually completed by the householder in their own handwriting, give the modern-day viewer a frisson of intimacy with the past and much can be researched or inferred from the basic information.
The road map of Cobham has not changed much in the past century so the census addresses can often be recognised today. Between Streets, named on the 1914 Ordnance Survey map as Street Cobham Road, was mainly bordered by fields with a handful of large houses where now stand Waitrose and Oakdene Parade, and a timber yard towards The White Lion Hotel. The densest area of population centred around Portsmouth Road, Copse Road, Leigh Road, Anyards Road and Hogshill Lane brought together, geographically if not socially, the traditional village centres of Church Cobham and Street Cobham and the houses, built in the 1890/1900's, have hardly changed. This was the working class area where the male residents were predominantly labourers, skilled and unskilled. It was also the area from which many of the soldiers came who are listed on the War Memorial and the Roll of Honour.
Most married women were not employed although some ran laundry or dressmaking businesses or took in laundry at home. An advertisement in the Cobham Parish Magazine, January 1915, is just one example. “Mrs Nicholson, Anyards Road, Cobham (assisted by her mother), is able to add to her laundry work, which is well spoken of by present employers”. Single women found employment either assisting in the family business or working in one of the commercial laundries or the brewery. A major laundry located in the area between Anyards Road, Copse Road and Leigh Road, the Cobham Hygienic Laundry, advertised regularly in the parish magazine but never stated an address so must have been well known. They were proud to advertise that they used “good and pure soap and starch” turning out “linen which invigorates and braces the wearer”. At the other end of the scale Mrs Waby of Myrtle Cottage, Anyards Road offered “high-class laundry work all done by hand.”. The Waby family seem to have been quite entrepreneurial advertising in April 1918 that “Church Army sacks for waste paper, provided by Mrs Cartwright, can be collected by Mr. J Waby, of 3 Myrtle Cottages, Anyards Road, at a cost of 3d. per sack payable to him for onward transmission to the depot at Mr Boorers”. (Walter G Boorer was a “printer, stationer, music-seller, newagent, etc” in the High Street, “music not in stock procured on the shortest notice.” His son Walter James was killed at Gallipoli in November 1915.) About 70 people were recorded in the census as involved in laundry work of some sort. Dressmaking from home was a popular way to earn a living. Sisters, Margaret & Mary Botten, dressmakers, are listed in Kelly's Directory at Fairmile, clearly an address that carried a cachet as their home was at 12 Elm Terrace, Portsmouth Road near the Cottage Hospital. The Brigden sisters, Elizabeth and Marianne, ran a prominent drapers shop in the High Street and Miss Foster had a confectionery shop in Post Office Place. Teaching and nursing were other acceptable employments for young ladies and their names are predominant in the local schools, and in the hospitals as matrons and nurses. Caroline Rooke as matron with her niece Emily Nott assisting ran The Creche day nursery in the High Street. At least one lady broke the glass ceiling. Miss E C Willis of Home Cottages, Church Cobham was a Registrar of births & deaths for Leatherhead sub-district, Epsom Union.
Widows however were generally obliged to work. Mary Ann Harris ran a newsagent & stationers in Church Street, assisted by her two middle-aged daughters until she had to leave the area in 1918 to nurse her sick daughter. In Street Cobham Daisy White, a 37 year old widow with three children, one daughter at art school, had a confectioners shop and took in a boarder. Listed in the Kelly's Directories for 1913 and 1915 Elizabeth (Mrs Frederick) Holden was advertised as a General Smith. Her husband having died in 1893 she continued the business with her three sons.
Working class men's employment was largely manual. In 1911 about 250 were employed in the building trade, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and painters, this out of a population of about 5,000 at the time. Sometimes the person filling in the census form could not resist a political jibe. One carpenter, a retired soldier was “out of work owing to free trade”. A more patriotic gardener in Oxshott added “God save the King” at the foot of his census form.
Agriculture and market gardening were also significant employers, about 200 people listed their employment as farm related and 20 in the local market gardens. Kelly's Directory records that the soil is marl; subsoil sand and gravel with the exception of Fairmile which is sand. The chief crops are wheat, barley and oats. The chief landowners were Sir Francis Mount, Viscount Iveagh and Charles Combe.
Francis Mount owned Poynters, Cold Morton, Chatley and Pondtail Farms. At the time of the census Francis was recorded at his 19 room house in Ennismore Gardens, Knightsbridge, together with six servants and a Sick Nurse, while his wife, Gladys, was staying at her father's 20 room house in Cornwall Gardens, London SW accompanied by a visitor and two servants. Their home at Poynters House, Cobham (24 rooms) was occupied by four people. Sir Francis was killed in the trenches in 1915.
The vast disparities in wealth are exemplified by the census return for Stokes Heath Farm where Charles Harris, cattleman, wife and 9 children occupied four rooms.
In all six people were recorded in the Cobham area as tramps including Tom King and Ernest Smith, farm labourers, sleeping in a barn and Edward Bax (53) and his wife Ann (46) sleeping in a cow shed at Cossin's Farm, details furnished by PC Avenell, Police Station, Cobham. At Downside two families of “Licensed Hawkers” were recorded as living in “caravans on Goose Green”, now under the M25. In one, Venus and Unity Pidgley were living with their children Samuel, Venus, Amy, Mark, Unity and Emily. The eldest was 19 the youngest 3.
Some interesting stories emerge from the bare bones of the forms. Nina Rathbone refused to complete the census form on the grounds that she was a suffragist. In 1911 she was living at Randalls Farm, Old Common and the census was completed “on the best information available by E C Willis, Registrar of Births and Deaths on the authority of the Registrar General”. Miss Willis had the unenviable task of estimating the ages of Ms Rathbone, her cook and parlourmaid, number of rooms “about 7” and added the curt note “information refused”.
Edwin Cawston recorded his status as “retired California ostrich farmer”. He lived with his family at Leigh Court, a substantial 5 acre property to the east of Leigh Road having made his fortune from the sale of ostrich feathers, the height of fashion at the time. Born in Clapham Park, London he set up the first ostrich farm in the USA in 1886 and in 1896 moved to Pasadena where he marketed the farm as a tourist attraction. He returned to England in 1901 and was significant in Cobham as Chairman of many local committees and a generous benefactor, particularly in his support of the YMCA Cobham Hut in Flanders. His son George was a student at Sandroyds in 1911. He was commissioned in the 2nd Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and in August 1918 transferred to the Royal Air Force. He died of pneumonia in 1918 and his name is recorded on the Cobham War Memorial.
Bernard and Helen Bosanquet were living at The Heath Cottage, Queen's Drive, Oxshott. Bernard was a philosopher and political theorist and an influential figure on matters of political and social policy in late 19th and early 20th century. Helen was an English social theorist and social reformer. She worked as a translator of German philosophy and sociology, and as a collaborator with her husband.
Lionel Longhurst lived at The Downside Institute (seven rooms) where he had been the caretaker since 1906 “after many years good work as Secretary of both this and also of the cricket club” (Parish Magazine November 1906) and in 1911 his occupation was recorded as “Firewood merchant”. Three children lived with him and his wife Annie, two daughters and a nephew Ernest Reddick. One daughter Doris, aged 15, was employed as a laundress, and his son, also Lionel, was away serving in the Royal Navy. In February 1912 the family emigrated to Australia but evidently kept in touch with the home country as in September the Parish Magazine carried the following report. “News of the immigrants to Australia, both are doing very well in Queensland. Mr Longhurst is a partner in a 160 acre orchard in the hills above Brisbane, growing fruits and vegtables. They have 20 acres of tomatoes and grow grapes which often weigh 10 - 12lb per bunch. They also grow cabbages which sell for 9/- per dozen and they expect to get a £300 return on them. The climate is perfect and labourers are paid 8/- per day for a 48 hour week plus overtime. At the end of his 12 months from arrival, Mr. Longhurst will be able and glad to nominate four Downsiders for the £6 passage out and hopes this offer will be taken up.” Responding to the call from the home country to support the Empire Lionel Junior enlisted in the Australian Infantry. He was wounded at the Battle of Menin Road and died on 4th October 1917.
In 1911 Albert Finch, a gardener at Tudor Court, Fairmile lived in The Lodge with his sons Fenimore and Leland, who worked as grocers, and Herbert who was at school. His wife Ellen was a housemaid at The Crossways and another son Albert was a footman at the Manor House, Stoke d'Abernon. Albert and Ellen both came from Chelmsford but the sons had all been born in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. Fenimore, a corporal in the RAF and Leland, a private in the East Surrey Regiment, died in June and September 1916 respectively and their names are recorded on the Oxshott War Memorial.
Two Cobham men recorded their occupation as Assistant Overseer - Arthur Spencer, 7 Freelands Road, a member of Cobham Church Council and Cobham Parish Council, and Thomas Whiting, Fairview, Tartar Hill. According to Wikipedia “In England, overseers of the poor administered poor relief such as money, food and clothing as part of the Poor Law system. Overseers of the poor were often reluctant appointees who were unpaid, working under the supervision of a justice of the peace. The law required two overseers to be elected every Easter, and churchwardens or landowners were often selected. Overseers of the poor were replaced in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, and replaced with boards of guardians, although overseers remained in some places as a method of collecting the poor rate”. In Stoke D'Abernon George Slolon of Bank House carried out similar duties.
George Stannard Gurr in his census return gave his occupation as gardener - domestic but by 1920 he was advertising in the Parish Magazine as “G S Gurr, 3 Korea Cottages, Cobham. Photographic portraits and enlargements. Films developed. Instruction given in the pianoforte.” Evidently a man of many parts. He later became a patrolman with the AA.
Fate can be cruel. Frederick Lynn's butchers shop in Street Cobham was on the corner of Between Streets opposite the White Lion, where he lived with his wife Elizabeth and four children, Harold, a builder, Clifford, a butcher, Beryl and Gordon. The parish magazine of October 1912 reported that “Harold Lynn, a very helpful and worthy young man died in a tragic accident helping workmen repair one of the water wheels at Cobham mill”. His younger brother Clifford served in the East Surrey Regiment, is named on the Roll of Honour, and survived the war.
Sometimes the occupations listed are obscure. What was a pall cleaver? We can tell from the census code added to the census form that it was connected to the wood trade. Some are descriptive but archaic. Hay tyer's mate, jobmaster, lamplighter, bath chairman (retired coachman), lighterman, Havana merchant and ice merchant are just a selection.
Other interesting occupations of Cobham residents included HM Chief Inspector of Mines, Land Agent to Ecclesiastical Commission for England, Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council, and Secretary of the Imperial Institute (Major, Indian Army retired). Amongst the professionals the law was well represented with eleven barristers and seventeen solicitors. Douglas Flemming, a barrister of Eaton Grange, died at Salonika in 1917 aged 33. The Stock Exchange featured in the job descriptions of twenty men. William Webb Hale, stockbroker, of Cranbourne, Fairmile, a Lieutenant in the East Surrey Regiment died in hospital at Dover in 1917 aged 49.
It is salutory to reflect that those people who so studiously recorded their details in 1911 had no inkling of what was to happen in a few short years when the Great War touched them all, rich and poor.