Wimbledon’s pubs have a tale or two to tell, like their regulars. One hosted a ghost, one hailed a football hero and one was the regular of Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, before she even thought of any high office. CLIVE WHICHELOW tells the story of most of them.
These days, a pub is get a drink, maybe something to eat or take part in a quiz.
But not so long ago it was an A&E department, a betting shop, a coroner’s court, an estate agent’s, an auction house and many other things.
It’s hard to imagine now, but along with the church, the pub was the most important place in the community.
A new book, Pubs of Wimbledon Town (Past & Present) looks into the stories behind all the pubs that have ever existed in central Wimbledon.
One was the haunt of a notorious murderer who ended up in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds, one was the local of a future Prime Minister, and another was named after a football manager.
Back in the 1830s Wimbledon really meant what we now call Wimbledon Village.
Down the hill were cows grazing in fields, few buildings, apart from farmhouses, and not even a railway line.
That changed in 1838 when Wimbledon railway station was built and 17 years later the Mansel Arms pub (later the South Western Hotel) was built next to it and based here was a horse-drawn carriage service to bring commuters from the village down to the station.
But this wasn’t the first pub in New Wimbledon as it was to become known.
There was the Horse & Groom which had opened in Haydon’s Road by 1838. Again, it was in the middle of farmland and the name was probably meant to appeal to its likely clientele.
As New Wimbledon developed so the number of pubs increased.
By the 1860s, there were two more pubs in Haydon’s Road and several small beerhouses in the backstreets nearby. But there were a couple of inns that predated even these.
In nearby Merton High Street, the King’s Head had been there since the early 1700s, and in Plough Lane was the Plough Inn from around the same time.
In the Victorian era the Plough was a stopping off point for villagers ‘beating the bounds’.
Because the inn was near the boundary line between the parishes of Wimbledon and Wandsworth it was a convenient place to get refreshments as they walked round the boundary to remind their children, and the people in the next parish, exactly where each parish ended.
This was important for many reasons, one being that the pub licensing laws were different in each parish. At one time the pubs shut at 9pm on a Sunday night in Wandsworth but stayed open until 10pm in Wimbledon.
Needless to say, many people were to be seen dashing across from the White Lion on one side of Plough Lane to the Plough on the other side for an extra hour’s drinking.
The road, incidentally, was named after the inn, a fact that will probably be forgotten now the pub has gone.
Further up Plough Lane in the 1970s was one of the most exclusive pubs in Wimbledom, the Batsford Arms.
Allen Batsford was manager of Wimbledon FC from 1974 to 1977 and the pub was named after him. It was really the home supporters bar but it had a proper pub sign outside and was used by fans after their original bar, the Sportsman, further up the road, was turned into a fully-fledged pub, run by Young’s brewery and opened to the public in 1971.
Just along Durnsford Road was the Woodman, built in the 1860s on open land with barely a house in sight. More than a 100 years later it was Theresa May’s local when she was a councillor for Merton council before becoming leader of the Conservative Party and then Prime Minister.
In central Wimbledon, we still have one or two of the Victorian pubs that have been there since the town was first developed in the 1860s. Up till then there had only been a 1,000 people living south of the railway.
The Alexandra stands at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill and has done since 1868. It is said to be haunted.
In the 1990s, several staff who lived in at the pub reported seeing a child who would suddenly disappear. Others reported poltergeist activity, and one found a pile of children’s clothes in the attic.
Happily, no one has reported anything in recent years so it is perfectly safe to go there.
Just down the road, on the corner of Hartfield Road is the Prince of Wales which has been there since 1867 and which sports a large clock on the outer wall which was once dubbed the timekeeper of the town.
Some years ago there was a plaque on the wall which strongly hinted that highwayman Dick Turpin once drank there.
Unfortunately this cannot have been true as he was hanged 128 years before the pub was built. This pub and the Alex were both so-named because of a royal wedding.
In 1863, Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Albert, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and these pubs were named in their honour.
We also had a pub in Wimbledon Village called the King of Denmark (Alexandra’s father) until a few years ago but that has now sadly gone.
Halfway between the Prince of Wales and the Alexandra was the previously mentioned South Western pub which was there from 1855 – 1981.
It was a popular pub with commuters and it was also a favourite of Neville Heath, one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century.
He lived nearby, and in the past had been convicted of several petty offences, but in 1946 he murdered two women, one in Notting Hill and one in Bournemouth, and mutilated their bodies.
He was hanged later that year. He ended up in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds alongside such figures as Dr Crippen and Adolf Hitler.
So the pubs of Wimbledon town have many stories to tell, many more than can be fitted into this short piece, and perhaps many more stories to come.
Pubs of Wimbledon Town (Past & Present) is the third in a series of books about pubs in the Wimbledon and nearby area, following on from Pubs of Wimbledon Village (Past & Present) 1998, and Pubs of Merton (Past & Present) 2003, both of which are still in print.
Price is £5.95 and available from good bookshops or enigmapublishing.co.uk
Main Pic: The Woodman
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