Bookham Commons : A brief history

The present 452 acres (200 hectares) of Bookham Commons were once considered wasteland of three local manors – Great and Little Bookhams and Effingham. Partly wooded and partly pasture land since time immemorial, the Commons were never enclosed but remained accessible to commoners living nearby for timber and grazing of livestock.

The waterlogged clay soil was never suitable for building or arable cultivation so settlement remained on the periphery. In medieval times the locals were allowed to use the oak trees for fuel as well as making or repairing farm equipment or fences. But the grazing rules were strict: one cow or four sheep for each acre used; no pigs and no cutting bushes or underwood without authority.

After the whole area was taken from Chertsey Abbey by the Crown under King Henry VIII, timber was taken from the Commons to build Nonsuch Palace at Cheam in 1538. By 1614 the remaining trees were said to be small and useful only for fuel.

The pasture land of Banks Common on the western side came under Effingham manor while the Little Bookham land was a mix of pasture and scrub. The largest area came under Great Bookham and was wooded apart from the pasture land known as the Isle of Wight with its ponds. From 1550 until the start of the 19th century it was owned by the Howard family. From 1801 it was sold to a series of owners, including William Keswick who arrived in 1882.

Six years after his death in 1912, his son Henry sold the manor to Hippolyte Louis Wiehe du Coudray Souchon who tried to sell the oak and ash trees on the Common immediately following World War One. The local community was horrified. Stymied, in 1922 he sold the land instead to a property developer, Percy Portway Harvey who gave the protesters three weeks to raise £1200 if they wanted to save the precious woodland and rich wildlife habitat.

Thankfully, 23 subscribers were eventually able to buy 332.507 acres on 6 October 1922 for £1650, including some cottages. On 2 August 1923 they handed it all to the National Trust. The 33 acres of Banks Common was added by Effingham’s lord of the manor and long afterwards, in 1986, the NT also bought Hundred Pound Bridge Wood and The Birches.

Until 1949 grazing continued on the pastureland and this, together with a large rabbit population, maintained the grassland habitat for a very rich variety of wildlife. Surveys by the London Natural History Society from 1941 onwards recorded 82 families of flowering plants and ferns on the Commons, along with 100 species of birds and 22 species of mammals. Invertebrates were equally impressive, including 1200 fly species, 1000 beetle species; 264 species of butterflies and moths, and 180 of spiders.

Then in 1954 came tragedy. Myxomatosis struck the rabbit population and it was largely wiped out, only partly recovering later before another more recent disease repeated the disaster. Without grazing livestock or rabbits to maintain the grassland it changed to scrub and its very rich biodiversity began to decline. Subsequent environmental conditions beyond the control of the National Trust including climate change and increased development nearby worsened the difficulties. Despite this the Commons were later designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of their continuing biodiversity importance.

Now, thanks to the National Trust with support from the Friends of Bookham Commons, a combination of controlled grazing each year and clearance programmes to restore the natural grassland offers some hope for the future of these precious acres of glorious countryside between the Thames to the north and the chalk land of the Surrey Hills to the south.