The Book of Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1986

Previous Chapter Contents Next Chapter Honest Toil Index
'The finest gentry it has ever been my good fortune
to meet have been the craftsmen, blacksmiths
wheelwrights, shepherds, slatters, saddlers and
millers. It is sad to think that they are on the
S. P. B. Mais, Our Village Today (1956)

From the start of its history right through to the beginning of our century, Molesey saw little of what we today usually term 'industry'. The staple employment of Molesey's sons (and many of its daughters too) lay in the field of agriculture, or of related pursuits. The villagers were practically self-supporting: the blacksmith repaired the ploughs and shod the horses; the miller ground the corn and the baker baked the bread; the innkeeper brewed his own beer; the wheelwright, the carpenter, the tailor were all local craftsmen. It was not until late in the day that shopkeepers appeared on the Molesey scene, and not till very late that the commuter's requirements brought the Victorian 'emporium', and the 20th century, the supermarket.

The rich alluvial soil on which Molesey stands is extremely fertile, unlike that of some of our near neighbours, which have large tracts of dry acid unproductive ground, not worth the trouble of enclosing and so left as the commons we see today. Molesey has no such commons. Even the small area known as 'Cow Common' is not, strictly speaking, common land.

Under the manorial system the land was cultivated on a communal basis. The arable area was divided into three huge open fields, several dozens of acres in extent, in which each tenant held a number of strips, each one furlong (220 yards) in length and one pole (5 1/4 yards) wide, scattered throughout the field. A number of strips were known in Molesey as either a shot or a furlong, each having a separate and distinctive name, most of which are now lost. But the following are representative of those which have survived: Lydmore Shot, Polfurlong, Stanfurlong, and Le Fullack.

As far as East Molesey is concerned the open field system seems to have died away quite early, probably during Tudor times when it was Crown land, and the area was divided into smaller compact units called closes. But in West Molesey the common field system continued until 1821. These fields were Churchfield, which ran between Walton and Hurst Roads, from the parish church to the Walton boundary; Crossfield, which was on the eastern side of the village, across both sides of Walton Road, and Crabstile Field, which covered the land lying between High Street and the river Mole, south of Walton Road.

Surrounding the arable fields, and bordering the rivers, were the lush green meadowlands, which were also sub-divided among the tenants and farmed in common. Hay was grown on the meadows in spring, but it all had to be mown, dried and gathered before Lammas Day (1 August), and from then until Candlemas Day (2 February) they were thrown open for the grazing of cattle. The meadows in Molesey were: The Hurst, which lay entirely in West Moseley, on both sides of Hurst Road; two separate meadows both called Lot Mead, one in West Molesey and one in East, and so called because each man's holding was allocated by drawing lots; East Molesey Common, which stretched alongside the southern bank of the Mole from what is now the Nielson Playing Field to Hampton Court; and Dunstable Common, which was on the north side of the Mole in West Molesey between Green Lane and High Street. The commoners' beasts could also browse on the stubble of the arable fields after the crops had been harvested, and on the fallow field for the whole year. In fact, it was the droppings of the animals running the land which replaced the nitrogen in the soil and allowed the system to continue.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the shortcomings of this archaic system were increasingly obvious. On 25 November 1814 a petition from the main landowners in Molesey was presented to the House of Commons, seeking permission to bring in a private Bill to rearrange the land. The Bill was passed, and received Royal Assent in the following July as 'An Act for Inclosing Lands in the Parishes of East Molesey and West Molesey, in the County of Surrey'.

Under the Act, each man's holdings were re-allocated in single compact units, and from 1821 the landscape of the two parishes took on a new face. Fences and hedges sprang up around the new enclosures, trees were planted, and new farm houses built, setting the pattern of fields, hedgerows, roads and farms, which stamp their mark on the map of Molesey even today, though most of them have long been built over.

At the same time the Act extinguished the tithes which farmers had to pay, and the owners received awards of land in lieu. The lords of the manors, as lay rectors of the great tithes of East Molesey, received large pieces of East Molesey Common, for the grant of which they were charged with the liability of maintaining the chancel of the parish church. The owners of this land, currently the Trafalgar House Group, still have this obligation.

From that time the agriculture of Molesey, particularly of East Molesey, veered away from traditional cereal crops towards market gardening and fruit growing. Such produce found a ready sale among the sprawling masses of London, until these acres themselves were swallowed by the ever-voracious appetite of that same Great Wen.

In early manorial times, each lord of the manor provided a mill to which all his tenants were perforce obliged to take their corn. There were in Molesey three mills, powered by the waters of the Mole and Ember; we should more strictly speaking say that there were two and a half, because Ember Mill, the mill of the manor of Ember or Imber, sat astride the river and was half in East Molesey and half in Thames Ditton. The other two both stood on the river Mole.

Site of Ember Mill

Site of Ember Mill, part in East Molesey and part in Thames Ditton.

The mill of the manor of Molesey Matham, known as Upper Mill, stood on what is now part of the sports ground of the Standard Chartered Bank; and the Lower Mill, or Sterte Mill, that of the manor of Molesey Prior, still stands not far from Hampton Court Station.

In the early 13th century antagonism between the two mill owners burst into open conflict. The owner of the lower mill, the Prior of Merton, complained that the owner of the upper mill, Sampson de Molesey, had diverted the course of the river, thereby depriving him of essential water. Furthermore, when he sent his men upstream to reinstate the former course of the river, Sampson took away their picks and shovels by force of arms and prevented them from completing their task. The Prior then appealed to King John, who personally ordered a jury to sit and decide the matter. Their verdict is a lengthy document, detailing what each side should do at the various places along the river. Today it is virtually impossible to identify with any degree of certainty the names and locations mentioned.

During the Commonwealth both mills were acquired by a man named John Samine, and for a time embarked upon a real industrial career — the manufacture of gunpowder. However, as soon as the monarchy had been restored, thirteen residents of East Molesey petitioned the new King: 'humbly beseeching your princely goodness to order that the said mills may be taken away or removed to such distance from the said Town that your petitioners may quietly enjoy their habitation and not be left in such perpetual fear and terror', carefully pointing out that one of the mills was directly opposite the King's own house at Hampton Court. It is perhaps significant that, shortly after this, Lower Mill ceased making gunpowder and reverted to the grinding of corn, while Upper Mill carried on its deadly trade for another hundred years.

That the fears of the residents were in some ways justified is proven by a number of serious and often fatal accidents. As early as 1669 the store caught fire and Samine lost powder to the value of £1,200, as well as £660 worth of powder belonging to the King, for which he was responsible. In 1706 an explosion killed Thomas King, a labourer working at the mill; and in 1771 the burial register of East Molesey records 'Francis Weasen and Thomas Hawkins distroyed by ye gunpowder Mill'. The worst disaster, however, seems to have been in 1754, when The Gentleman's Magazine reported: 'Saturday, October 19th. About two in the afternoon, a place called the Dust-house belonging to Mr. Norman's gunpowder mill at Moulsey, in Surrey, blew up, and killed one man who was barelling up the gunpowder. 'Tis reckoned that there were about 30 barrels of powder in the storeroom each barrel containing about 100 pounds weight [about one and half tons]. The building was blown into a thousand pieces, the poor man's body was blown limb from limb, seven or eight elms torn up by the roots, and the adjacent buildings terribly shaken. Another store-house had the roof blown in, and a man at work received a light blow on the back of his neck by a piece of timber, but the powder remained safe. The houses for many miles about were shaken by the explosion, particularly Hampton Court Palace, and the Speaker's house [Ember Court]. At Croydon it was thought to be the shock of an earthquake'.

About the year 1780 the owners of the powder mills acquired the lordships of the manors and, wishing to set themselves up in style, closed down and demolished all the mill buildings and turned the old mansion alongside, together with all its grounds, into a country estate.

It is difficult to assess just how many men were employed in the gunpowder works. Probably it was never very many. It was dangerous toil, and the employees were ever engrimed by the thick black powder. Locals would almost certainly have shunned it unless the wages were a lot better than those paid in agriculture.

Lower Mill, continuing to grind corn, was rebuilt in 1828, and was described in 1844 as a large, factory-like and most unpicturesque mill. By this time the owner had decided to extend his business to include sawmilling, and an additional structure had been added at one side.

In 1913, after an abortive attempt to use the mill as a cocoa factory, a lease was granted to the Zenith Motor Company for the manufacture of motor 'cycles. The Zenith company had started in small premises in Weybridge encouraged by the proximity of Brooklands Track, and its success was due in no small measure to the brilliance of designer Fred Barnes, who produced one of the earliest spring-framed motor 'cycles, and also an infinitely variable-ratio gear, made possible by a belt drive onto two conically opposed pulleys, which far outstripped anything else then on the market, and enabled the company's machines to win every race they entered.

In 1934 the mill became the tent and sail works of Mr C. Nielson, and has since been divided among a number of firms, including Robert Vince Advertising, who have done much to get the premises back into good order.

In the census returns of 1841 only one person in Molesey was listed as employed in manufacturing, and that was a man in West Molesey described as a basket maker. For centuries the small islands along the Thames (Budworth's 'willow'd aytes') had been utilised for the cultivation of osiers for baskets and cane furniture. Because the raw material of the trade, the osier rods, were seasonal in supply, much of the labour used was itinerant, and tramped into the district from afar for the annual work. The West Molesey parish register of June 1840 records the baptism of the child of a basket maker all the way from Watford in Hertfordshire.

The Thames provided the district with a variety of employments — ferrymen, fishermen (freshwater fish were at one time highly regarded as a table delicacy), bargemen, boat builders, boat hirers, watermen of every description: jobs which have all but disappeared. It is difficult now to picture the great impact that the river once had on the district, reaching its hey-day in the Edwardian era, and collapsing abruptly with the advent of the motor car. The employees of the Thames Water Authority are nowadays almost the only people to obtain their livelihood from our great northern neighbour.

Gravel and water are about the only exploitable minerals found naturally in Molesey. Gravel was at one time used mainly for metalling the roads, and obtained by dredging the rivers, although two plots of ground were allotted under the Enclosure Award, from which each parish was allowed to dig gravel. When its value as building material became fully appreciated, its extraction became big business. Increasing demand for housing and other development brought increasing pressure on every available site offering access to the precious deposits. Landowners became aware of the fortune which lay under their feet. Within something like forty years, most potential sites were exploited and exhausted, the land reinstated, and covered by houses, schools, factories and playing fields.

A number of other individual industrial undertakings flourished for a time and then faded away. During the 18th century an extensive tanyard was to be found in the grounds of what is now called Old Manor House in Bell Road. The nearby crossing of the river Mole is known as Tanner's Bridge. The tanning pits were said to be still visible less than a hundred years ago. One book on Molesey history records that, further along Bell Road, near to East Molesey Court, 'in the middle of the last century stood a spinning mill, erected to spin wool for the bandages required by the army in the Crimean War'. No verification of this has been possible.

A large house called The Priory, which stood on the site now covered by the houses in Anne Way and Helen Close, was acquired by Messrs J. C. & C. Field Ltd, the well-known makers of candles, for the bleaching of wax for high-class candles, especially those for church use. It first appears in the rate books in 1845. In the 1890s the factory was closed and the wax for Field's candles was imported from the south of France, where the sunlight necessary for the process was infinitely greater than at West Molesey.

A works which existed until recently between Spring Gardens and Avern Road, now developed for housing, had a chequered career. Originally built about the turn of the century by a local firm of builders called Potterton and Gould as a steam-powered saw mill, it was soon taken over by J.J. Griffen and Sons, manufacturers of photographic papers, who stayed here until about 1922. After that it was used by H. S. Whiteside and Company, the makers of Sun Pat Raisins and other sweets, and later by Messrs British Fondants, who considerably enlarged the premises for the milling of almond confectionery.

Since the end of the last war, considerable industrial development has taken place in West Molesey, especially in the Central Avenue/Island Farm Road area, on land which until then had produced nothing but milk and beef cattle. This estate, known locally as Little Pittsburgh, provides employment not only for hundreds of Molesey men and women, but for many from a much wider field as well.


EM Mill

East Molesey Mill showing the landing stage from which barges were loaded and unloaded with corn and timber.

EM Mill

East Molesey Mill about 1894. This part of the river Mole, known as 'The Creek', is now filled in.

EM Mill

East Molesey Mill, from Hampton Court station, during the flood of 1894.

Thomas Andrews

Thomas Andrews (1804-1892), owner of East Molesey Mill, outside Creek House.

Old Manor House

Old Manor House, once the tannery, built by Thomas Willett, probably in 1767.

The Priory Outbuildings

Outbuildings of The Priory, at one time Field's candle works, and later a nursery.

Rural Molesey

Rural Molesey — cows grazing where the West Molesey factory estate now stands.

Bridge Road

Bridge Road, about 1900.

Mr Biggs' butcher's shop

A Christmas display — Mr Biggs' butcher's shop.

Walton Road

Walton Road, about 1910.

Shops in Bridge Road

Shops in Bridge Road, about 1930: Thomas Usher, ironmonger; E Payne, tobacconist, and A. Angus, coal merchant.

Shops in Walton Road

Shops in Walton Road, about 1947, before completion of the Parade.

Mr Edwin Buteux

The corn chandler's — Mr Edwin Buteux outside his shop on the corner of Walton Road and Spring Gardens, about the turn of the century.

East Molesey Park

East Molesey Park, about 1850, built by the side of Upper Mill.

ISBN 0 86023 251 4

The Book of Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Related Subjects:

Printed version of this book:


A printed copy is available from:

  • Molesey Residents Association: Ernest Mallett, 20 Walton Road, East Molesey, Tel 020-8979-6446
  • Bookshop: 68, Walton Road, East Molesey 020-8224-3232
  • Molesey Library, The Forum, Walton Road, West Molesey 020-8979-6348
  • Houben's Bookshop: 2a Church Court, Richmond 020-8940-1055
  • Alternatively you may be able to get second hand copy on amazon.

All books copyright © R G M Baker, all rights reserved.
Images © 2006 M J Baker and S A Baker, all rights reserved.
Web page design © 2006 M J Baker and S A Baker, all rights reserved.