A Potted History of Sunninghill and Ascot

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Various disparaging quotes on the poor nature of the soil and the general ugliness of the landscape provide clues as to why Sunninghill and Ascot was a very sparsely populated area for a large part of its history. “As bleak, as barren and as villainous a heath as man ever set his eyes on” said William Cobbet in 1822, talking about Windsor Forest in general. Samuel Pepys thought the area gloomy and Daniel Defoe “a black forest”. The aptly named Sunninghill Bog which was made a fuel allotment as part of the land enclosure act of Windsor Forest in 1813 was described as useless land. Overall, the soil was, shall we say, very unpromising. It was unlikely to attract many individuals in an agrarian society.

However, the proximity of Windsor, with its royal connections from the time of the Saxons onward, gradually attracted members of the nobility and the wealthy. Sunninghill Manor and Sunninghill Park were early estates in the area.

The first major improvement in local fortunes occurred in 1711 when horse racing was first held on Ascot Heath. Queen Anne, a very keen horsewoman, had identified Ascot as a suitable place for the sport. Racing was spasmodic after Queen Anne’s death in 1714, but it resumed in 1744 under the influence of the Duke of Cumberland. The area got a second string to its bow in the early 1700s with the discovery and subsequent popularity of the Sunninghill Waters. Its geographical position in the south east of England and the poor means of transport meant that  it could compete as a spa with the likes of  Bath and Cheltenham .. for a while.

It was the arrival of the railway that heralded the golden age of growth which occurred not only here but across the UK. It arrived in Ascot in 1856, leading to significant housing development in South Ascot and around Ascot and Sunninghill High Streets, all during the late Victorian era. The success of the British economy, primarily through the Industrial Revolution, led to an explosion in many other areas of life, ranging from the numbers of churches and schools through to the founding of many sports and other leisure activities.

The latest phase in the growth of this area was arguably brought about by the introduction of the motorway network from the mid 1960s through to the early 1980s. The development of businesses along the M3/M4 corridor and the ability to commute by car inevitably led to increased commercial and residential development.

On to the meat ..

Geology
Bronze Age Through to the end of the 17th century
1711-1855
1856-1965
Railway
Fuel Allotment Trust
Churches
Schools
Parish Council
Medical
Library
Golf Club
Cricket Club
Soccer
AHS
Allotments
1966-present
Charities

Geology and Soil

So, why was the soil in this area so poor?

The most well-known geological formation in the Thames Valley area is London Clay. However, there is a stretch of land roughly centred on Bagshot, which is approximately 25 miles wide (east to west) and 15 miles from north to south, where the London Clay is covered by layers of sand that were put down between 58 million and 43 million years ago during the Palaeogene era. Three strata are currently identified: Bagshot Formation (the oldest) is dominated by orange and pale yellow fine-grained sand, its depth varying widely with 40 metres in the Bagshot-Chertsey area but only 7 metres in Ascot; Bracklesham Beds containing alternate layers of sand and clay are mainly found in the Chobham, Crowthorne and Farnborough areas; and Barton Beds containing yellowish brown fine-grained sand with an impersistent layer of flint and pebbles at the base are mainly limited to Chobham and Bagshot.

In plain English, apart from the odd piece of land on the northern edges of Sunninghill and Ascot, the soil was sandy in nature, holding little in the way of nutrients. It was definitely not a place where arable crops would naturally thrive. Hence, it was not going to attract people who needed decent land to cultivate in our agrarian society. Nor was there a river close by which would provide other sources of food and as well as means of transportation for our ancient ancestors.

Ascot Durning Library

Miss Jemina Durning Smith, the daughter of wealthy parents, lived in London and King’s Ride in Ascot. She became a philanthropist after the death of her parents, donating large sums to medical charities. She became interested in libraries, possibly because her brother-in-law, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, was the Library Commissioner for Lambeth. She contributed 10,00 guineas to the building of the Lambeth Durning Library, which was opened in 1889 and still exists today.

Ascot Durning Library opened in 1890 in a building in Winkfield Road which Jemina bought for £700 in 1889. It had been a china shop cum Ascot Post and Telegraph Office. She also owned various adjoining properties. The rent from them provided an income for the library. The library was run by a trust and a management committee of local worthies.

Books could be borrowed for between 1d and 3d per week. In its early days various classes were held (cooking, bent iron work and sketching) while there was a smoking room where chess, dominoes and draughts were available.

In 1959 Berkshire County Council took over the management of the library, which subsequently moved to its present home in the Ascot Racecourse buildings in 2006. The sixth form library at Charters School in Ascot is also named after Jemina, as it received a grant from the Ascot Durning Trust

Sunninghill Fuel Allotment Trust

The trust recently changed its name to the Sunninghill Trust, as the term “Fuel Allotment” confused many people, its meaning lost in the mists of time. Well, let us start with some background in an attempt demystify fuel allotments.

The vast majority of rural folk suffered from the privatisation of land through land enclosure acts, many of which occurred between 1700 and 1860.  The resultant poverty which resulted from the loss of land which villagers could cultivate ultimately led to the creation of allotments, albeit slowly.

A token amount of land was set aside for the poor, as part of the overall land enclosures. Parliamentary Commissioners were instructed to decide which parcels of land would be used. It has been estimated that a derisory figure of less than 0.5% of the total land enclosed was ultimately set aside for this purpose. It was often poor or waste land.

Apart from the land necessary for cultivation, villagers had also lost their access to common land which they used for animals to graze on and for the collection of fuel items such as peat and turves. It was the provision of fuel that was to be the main use for these parcels of land. Hence the title of Fuel Allotments (or Poor’s Land). However, some of this land was occasionally let as allotment gardens.

While some individuals did indeed forage for their own fuel under the new regime, the more usual system involved the land being rented out, e.g. to farmers. The resultant income was used to purchase fuel, typically coal, for the poor. The gradual reduction in the use of coal eventually saw a move to more general financial assistance to the poor and needy. Over time some of the land has been sold, with the proceeds being added to the funds of the charity. The objective of these charities is to maximise their income wherever possible, and therefore they will invest funds to help provide further income. The histories of some of these charities can be found on the Internet. Hampton Fuel Allotment Charity and Tilehurst Poor’s Land Charity are both well worth reading.

The Windsor Forest Enclosure Act came into law in 1813. However, it took until 1817 to sort out all the claims and counter-claims to various parcels of land, and to identify unauthorised uses of waste land. 60,000 acres were enclosed, of which 36,000 acres went to the Crown and major landowners. 112 acres of land in the Sunninghill Bog (South Ascot) was set aside for the Sunninghill Fuel Allotment Trust. One author described it as “useless land”.

Detail of trust to follow here ..

Ascot Horticultural Society

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) started life as the Horticultural Society of London in 1804. The initial chairman was John Wedgwood, son of Josiah Wedgwood while Sir Joseph Banks was also at the initial meeting to discuss  the idea of a society. It subsequently acquired its present name by royal charter in 1861.

Societies were springing up elsewhere across the country during the 19th century. The concept of affiliated societies goes back to at least 1858 when the idea of “unions” between London and provincial societies was first mooted. However, it was 1865 before the first tentative unions came into existence.

The Ascot, Sunninghill & District Horticultural Society was founded in 1884, holding its first show at the racecourse in the same year. This show was primarily aimed at professional gardeners with sections for amateurs and cottagers. Sunningdale was included in the title in 1889. After early enthusiasm there were periods from 1900 through to 1919 when the society verged on total extinction. Happily, the society “re-started” in 1919 when Dr. Herbert Crouch led preparations for a summer show, featuring vegetables, fruit and flowers. It became affiliated to thr RHS in 1920.Sunningdale eventually formed its own society in 1936 although close relations between the two societies continues to this day, an example being the annual quiz between them for the Alistair Fosdick cup.

Ascot Horticultural Society played a pivotal role in the North Ascot Produce Association during and after the Second World War. The Ministry of Agriculture had realised early in the conflict that there may well be food shortages. It therefore encouraged crop cultivation by individuals. The number of allotments grew significantly, peaking at 1.75 million. In addition, people were encouraged to dig up their lawns and grow fruit and vegetables. Village Produce Associations were formed. By clubbing together, it was possible to purchase seeds, fertiliser et cetera in bulk at better rates. They could also regulate what they grew, to ensure that there were no gluts of individual crops.

The society currently holds monthly meetings and stages four shows each year (Spring, Summer Autumn and Christmas).

Allotments

As mentioned earlier, a small part of the land that was owned by the Sunninghill Fuel Allotment Trust was indeed used for allotment gardens in South Ascot. The actual location of these sites has varied over time, mainly around Victoria Road and Lower Village Road. The Trust currently has three allotment sites. Dump Road (west of Victoria Road) is the main site, while the smaller sites are off Lower Village Road and on Victoria Road.

The Parish Council has been responsible for providing allotments in other parts of Sunninghill & Ascot. Except for Cheapside Allotments, which were established in 1918 and still exist today, it has been a tale of renting land to provide plots, none of which has survived.

There were several unsuccessful attempts to rent an area of land near Kennel Ride in North Ascot, starting in 1895. Eventually, agreement was reached with the Crown in 1917 at a rent of 4d per pole. The lease was renewed (often via 3 year leases) through to 1961, although there were many plots which were uncultivated, most notably after WWII, a common problem around the country as people lost their enthusiasm for allotments in the 1950s. Around 1960 the Crown wanted to build on part of the site and it proposed to move the plots. Unfortunately, the two sides were unable to agree on the length of a new lease and the site subsequently disappeared.

Another patch of land was rented for allotments in 1918. This site was in Bagshot Road, Sunninghill. It lasted until 1932 when the owner wanted to move the plots to allow for some redevelopment. However, the plot holders refused the replacement site. Other short term lets have included St. Michael’s school playing field behind the Ascot Day Centre which was used as allotments (16 plots @ 10 poles) from 1980 through to 1991 and Blythewood Allotments which existed for a short spell from the late 1970s through to 1983.

Cricket

The first definite reference to the game appears in 1597 in a dispute over a plot of common land in Guildford where creckett was played. There is frequent mention of the game during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was the 19th century that saw the development of county cricket, Sussex being the first team in 1839.  The organised amateur game made its first tentative steps around the middle of the century, although it was towards the end of the century before leagues beagn to appear.

The Royal Ascot Cricket Club obtained permission from Queen Victoria in 1883 to form a cricket club on Ascot Heath. However, it was two years later before the ground was ready to play on. The RAF used the Heath during World War I, and so the club had to be re-established during the 1920s and a new pavilion was subsequently opened in 1934. Cricket managed to continue during World War II thanks to the generosity of the Racecourse Authority and the help of soldiers who were based in Ascot.

Silwood Park Cricket Club was founded in 1894 and lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Golf

The modern game of golf is generally considered to have Scottish origins, dating back to the 15th century. The first course in England was at Blackheath where Henry, the son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, played with other courtiers in the early 17th century. However, it was 1864 before the next course was built in England at Westward Ho. There were 12 courses in 1880, 50 by 1887 and over 1,000 by 1914.

The Royal Ascot Golf Club was the earliest club in this part of Berkshire, being founded in 1887 by F. J. Patton, a local barrister. It was a nine hole course in the middle of the racecourse. Queen Victoria granted it royal status in the same year.  Ascot Ladies soon had their own nine hole course, also on the heath in the middle of the racecourse. The two clubs amalgamated in 1895 and an eighteen hole course was designed. Some of Victoria’s children leaned to play golf on the course, and the royal connection continued when the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was made the club’s patron in 1901.

Other courses began to spring up in the surrounding area and Ascot’s fortunes went into a bit of a decline in the 1920s. The course was requisitioned by the War Office during World War II, but it was re-formed in the early post-war years.

More recently, the major redevelopment of the racecourse in 2004-5 led the club to move to a new course on the other side of Winkfield Road, formerly Ascot Farm, which was formally opened in 2006 by the club’s patron HRH Prince Andrew.

Tennis

The word “Tennis” is first heard in the middle of the 13th century. The medieval form of tennis is known as real tennis. Henry VIII was a keen player on a court that he had built at Hampton Court Palace. There were 14 courts in London during the reign of James I. Lawn tennis was established in the early 1870s with the first Wimbledon championships taking place in 1877. The game quickly spread to the US, France and Australia.

There are several references to tennis being played locally in the 1890s. The Royal Ascot Tennis Club was established in 1906. It was a grass court club on Ascot Heath inside the racecourse. The club eventually moved to Ascot Wood where it currently has four floodlit hard courts and a clubhouse.

The Parish Council built tennis courts at Victory Field for public use in 1951.

Soccer

Football goes back to medieval times with different rules being employed over the centuries. A somewhat crude, generalised definition might be that it was a game that included both handling and kicking, a mixture of soccer and rugby with a dash of free-for-all thrown in if you like. The codification of the modern game of soccer came with the creation of the Football Association in London in 1863. The (professional) Football League commenced in 1888, while amateur leagues sprang up all over the country in the 1890s and 1900s.

The lifespan of an amateur soccer club tends to be short, in comparison with cricket and golf particularly. This may be because the players are generally younger; they retire earlier; there tends to be little continuity between generations; and they generally lack their own facilities, e.g. clubhouse and pitch. There are of course exceptions, company-run and school old boys teams being the obvious ones.

In this area there are only fleeting references to soccer and to various teams with Sunninghill in the name from the 1890s. This eventually changed when Ascot United was founded in 1965 by a men’s team who played in Sunninghill. Within three seasons the Ascot Racecourse Authority had granted permission for the club to convert the land north of coach park 10 into a football pitch. The club initially grew with the formation of a number of youth teams.

It has now grown to become one of the largest Community football clubs in the UK with over 1,000 registered players and over 70 teams playing every weekend embracing all ages and abilities from 5 year olds through to Vets. A new clubhouse opened in September 2010, together with an improved main pitch, floodlights and a stand.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Weightman, C., Cheapside in the Forest of Windsor, Cheapside Publications, Cheapside, 2000
Hughes, G.M., The Forest of Windsor, Sunninghill, Windsor and the Great Park, Ballantyne, Hanson & Co, 1890
Searle, C.W., The Origin and Development of Sunninghill and Ascot, 1936
Hathaway, P., Some Ramblings of an Old Bogonian, P. Hathaway, Bracknell, 2005
Onslow, R., Royal Ascot, The Crowood Press, Marlborough, 1990
Painter, A., Map of Ascot 1910 – Introduction, Alan Godfrey Maps, Consett, 2005
Morris, R., Images of England: Around Ascot, The History Press, Stroud, 2013 (reprint)
Weightman, C., The Ascot Durning Library: Founded 1890, Cheapside Publications, Cheapside, 2006
Weightman, C., “The Bobby’s Notebook”: On the Beat in Early Victorian Sunninghill, Cheapside Publications, Cheapside, 2002
Weightman, C., Remembering Wartime: Ascot, Sunningdale and Sunninghill (1939-1945), Cheapside Publications, Cheapside, 2006
Sumbler, M.G., British Geological Survey: London and the Thames Valley (4th edition), HMSO Publication
Jones A., Stacey G., O’Kill P., Across Three Centuries The Story of Royal Ascot Golf Club, Royal Ascot Golf Club, 2006

Here are some additional useful web links:
History of Sunninghill (British History Online)
Royal Berkshire History: Sunninghill (berkshirehistory.com)

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Christine Weightman for granting permission to include photographs which were originally part of Reg Morris’s collection, many of which are to be found in his Around Ascot book of old photographs.

I would also like to thank the staff of Ascot Durning library and Berkshire Record Office for their help during my investigations.

Finally, thanks to various individuals who have answered specific questions that I have posed or otherwise helped me: Marion Hurdwell, Heather Cummings, Gordon Anderson, Liz Comish, Steve Brine, Jeff Neals, ..

Any errors in the text are mine.

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