Past Reports

November 2012: Newdigate Church & Its Carvings – Jane Lilley

Jane gave us a fascinating talk about an ancient Surrey church and its changing fortunes. Newdigate was a poor parish, but its church is a story of triumph over adversity. It began as a timber chapel around 1150, but by 1525 had become much as it is today – a stone church with one of the finest timber towers in the county.

The interior was altered in the Reformation and the Civil War, but by 1800 was in a poor state – the Victorians saved it; box pews were replaced and a new organ installed. In the 1890s a Mrs Janson formed a wood carving class for men and boys who over the years, provided a rood screen, pews and other fittings, all superbly carved in the Arts and Crafts Style. They continued their work through to the 1930s.
A major crisis arose in 1910. The tower was found to be nearing collapse. Without consulting anyone the rector commissioned repairs costing £1400, a huge sum, expected the villagers to pay it and scorned their efforts to raise the money. The rector was replaced by Rev Bird who rescued the situation. Eventually the tower was saved.
In 1980 the village faced another challenge. The oak shingles on spire had to be replaced. Local men learnt how to make them and eventually produced over 50,000 shingles from local oak to do the job. The surplus timber made a new lych-gate. This was the latest chapter in a remarkable story of a village and its determination to preserve its church.

September 2012: Gomshall Tannery – Colin Woolmington

Colin, who had been a manager at Gomshall Tannery, told us that tanning at Gomshall went back at least to Tudor times. It was owned by various families up to the 1890s when it was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt and became part of the Vestey group of companies whose business was based on their cattle and sheep rearing interests in Brazil and New Zealand.

Hides and skins came to Gomshall in their millions; skins from New Zealand came in barrels, each containing 48 dozen skins – hammered in tight! All the skins were different and the challenge was to turn them into a product which had the consistent quality required by the customer. Each worker’s judgement and skill was crucial and the industry was very labour-intensive. Much of the output was for the fashion industry and Colin had on display a range of their products; the quality was superb.

Skins and hides had to go through a whole range of processes and Colin’s pictures gave us a vivid impression of the tannery at work. About 120 people worked there and one could easily imagine the noise, heat, dirt and smells – some of the work was unpleasant. Operations ceased in the early 1980s; the tannery was sadly destroyed by fire in 1988 and an era of industrial and social history came to an end. All that remained was the Tanyard Hall which is now a thriving community centre.

July 2012: A Sporting Miscellany – Peter Bennett

With the Olympic Torch and Road Cycling Races coming to Westcott, this talk looked at the history of sport in Surrey and particularly in our local area. Close to London with poor soils useful for little else, Surrey was ideal for sporting venues and events. Many of sport’s movers and shakers came from here and wars, technology and changing social attitudes all shaped the way things developed.

An early influence on sport was perhaps George Evelyn of Wotton. When he brought the gunpowder industry to England, the longbow became obsolete and men compelled to practice archery were free to play what sport they liked. Racing began at Epsom. A cricket scene at Dorking, one of the earliest, hangs in the Long Room at Lords. William Caffyn of Reigate improved cricket in Australia and Henry Jupp of Dorking played the first ball bowled against England in a test match.

Subsequently Wimbledon, Bisley and Brooklands became venues of intenational importance. The Surrey Hills became a cyclists’ paradise and it was here that the battle of the ‘rationals’ was fought, an important step for womens’ righs. By the early 20th century a wide range of sports
flourished in Dorking and Westcott and a surprising number of local sportsmen, sportswomen (and horses!) have got to the top.
This talk was our unofficial contribution to the cultural Olympiad so we also discovered how the modern Olympics began and why the 2012 mascot is called ‘Wenlock’! We now look forward to the torch and the bike races coming through our village.

May 2012: Thomas Hope & the Deepdene – A Lost Landscape: Alex Bagnall

The subject of this talk is currently of heightened local interest. Thomas Hope was a remarkable man descended from a Scottish family who became very successful merchant bankers in Amsterdam and acquired enormous wealth. Instead of joining the family business, Thomas followed his passions for the arts and architecture. He went on the Grand Tour, returned to Holland, but then had to flee with his brothers to London to escape an invasion by Napoleon’s forces. This setback seems not to have unduly affected his wealth; he went on another Grand Tour, this time to the Middle East, and on return bought an Adam house in Duchess Street, London, which he re-modelled and furnished to his own designs. Although not to everyone’s liking the result was a unique and remarkable house in the heart of London.
Thomas then married, bought the Deepdene and he spent a fortune on it. The estate had been owned by the Earls of Arundel. Under Thomas’s direction the House was radically changed to his own classical style, the gardens were enhanced and the grounds embellished with temples and other structures. His brother Henry bought next door Chart Park which, on his death, came to Thomas who built the family mausoleum within its grounds. After Thomas’s death, his son added Betchworth Park and the result was one of the finest landscaped estates in the country.
Sadly this was not to last. The estate declined and was eventually sold. The house became a hotel and in 1939 was requisitioned for the railways. In the 1960s the house was demolished, Kuoni Travel bought part of the site for their offices and Dorking council acquired key surrounding areas, including the mausoleum which was later buried to make it safe. The area became overground, but it was always hoped that ‘the lost landscape’ and the mausoleum would be recovered. For some years now the council has been working with other groups to nachieve this aim which will create a Deepdene heritage trail from Cotmandene to Brockham and bring into being a major new amenity for our area. Alex who acts for the council on the project, outlined the plans for us and the outcome of a lottery bid is now awaited.  We very much hope it will be successful.