Kilty's English Statutes, 1811; Volume 143, Page 262. Extracts from the Statute of Merton

Henry Thrale by Sir Joshua Reynolds

2003JM-3, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Tooting Common is historically two commons; Tooting Bec Common and the smaller Tooting Graveney Common, which were once part of much larger medieval manors. The name Tooting Graveney originates from the De Gravenell family who were awarded the land in the wake of the Norman conquest of 1066. The manor of Tooting Bec was under the ownership of Tooting Bec Priory, associated with the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy, in modern day France. The priory was dissolved in 1315, long before the Reformation, and the land was granted to Eton College in 1440. Although the Statutes of Merton in 1235 led to the establishment of Common rights at Tooting, the Lords of the Manor retained ownership and continued to profit from the land until it passed into municipal hands in the 1870s.

The manorial estates bordering Tooting Common were used by notable visitors and residents including Elizabeth I who in 1600 came to see Henry Maynard, secretary to Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer and Lord of the Manor of Tooting Graveney at the time. While there is no primary evidence to support it, there has been some suggestion in the past that the oaks along the road separating Tooting Graveney Common from Tooting Bec Common were planted to mark the occasion. The road was officially renamed Dr Johnson Avenue in March 1970, when the Greater London Council ordered the change to be made. English writer and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson’s close association with Tooting Common stemmed from his friendship with the wealthy brewer and MP Henry Thrale and his wife Hester. Between 1765 and 1781 Johnson stayed often with the Thrales, giving rise to numerous supposed connections between Johnson and Tooting.

Tooting Bec Lake c.1900

Courtesy of Wandsworth Heritage Service

In 1862 Tooting Graveney Common was purchased by Mr. W.S. Thompson who attempted to enclose a large portion (approximately twenty five acres) of his newly-acquired land, despite protests from local residents who tore down the fences each time they were put up. In 1866 a local butcher, Mr Betts began legal proceedings against Thompson for what he deemed the illegal enclosure of common land and in 1870 he secured an injunction restraining the Lord of the Manor from interfering with the common right. In 1871 Thompson finally gave up his battle to enclose Tooting Graveney Common and in 1875 an Act of Parliament was passed confirming the ownership and management of Tooting Graveney Common by the Metropolitan Board of Works. By 1873, the Metropolitan Board of Works had also acquired fully the manorial rights to Tooting Bec Common, at that point comprising 144 acres, from Robert Hudson. In exchange for reasonable compensation, both commons were now protected from the threat of enclosure and were gradually developed as one public space for recreation and sport. Management was passed over to London County Council in 1889 and eventually to Wandworth Council in 1970.

The introduction of new management policies and facilities, including public conveniences, physically altered the landscape of Tooting Common in the years following municipalisation in the late nineteenth century. The laying of paths, levelling of ground, and formation of the artificial lake following gravel digging all contributed to the formalization of the landscape. These changes were most pronounced on Tooting Bec Common, as the higher density woodland and shrubbery of Tooting Graveney Common was left relatively untouched.

Tooting Bec Bathing Lake c.1906

Courtesy of Wandsworth Heritage Service

The early twentieth century saw more construction taking place with the Tooting Common café and the Tooting Bec Bathing Lake (later Tooting Bec Lido) built in 1905/06. The 1930s also saw the construction of a new drinking fountain in art deco style and the running track on Tooting Graveney Common was constructed.​

Byelaws were implemented to regulate public use of the space and former rights of the local residents were infringed upon or entirely removed. Conflicts surrounding grazing rights and the ban on riding across the open Common are strong indicators of the tensions that resulted from this transition.

As with parks, gardens, and commons across the country, Tooting Common was called into service in numerous ways throughout the First and Second World Wars. It was a site of recruitment and training and from food production to rehousing; it served as an essential resource with which to support the local and metropolitan population.

During the Second World War, the presence of two railway lines made whole area a strategic target for the Luftwaffe and the Common did fall victim to enemy bombardment. However the Common and its vicinity did not go undefended during the War; the Tooting Home Guard and Streatham Home Guard both served here, the former manning the anti-aircraft guns. In addition, the Common hosted bomb shelters, a barrage balloon and 74 temporary homes or ‘prefabs’ across  two sites to meet the needs of thousands of ‘bombed out’ families and returning veterans.

Tooting Bec Common Survey of Sites and Underground Shelters (1947)

The Tooting Common Heritage Project completed on the 31 December 2019. Thank you to everyone involved in the success of the project.

Initiated by Wandsworth Council, managed by Enable Leisure and Culture in partnership with the South London Swimming Club, The Woodfield Project, idverde, Tooting History Group and the Wandsworth Historical Society. Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Wandsworth Council.