This section has been compiled by David Dare, HHRA treasurer, based on publications produced by other residents. Principal sources are listed at the foot of the section.
Hook Heath is an area of high ground to the west of Woking, composed of sandstones and thin layers of clay. The edges of the tracts of sandstone form low but prominent 'bluffs' that overlook the Wey valley southwards to the Hog's back and the North Downs. The Hoe stream, a sizeable contributory to the river Wey, also lies to the south of the ridge. Chambers Dictionary defines 'hoe' as a promontory or projecting ridge (now only in place names) derived from the Old English 'Hoh', (cf modern German 'hoch' meaning 'high'). It is therefore not unlikely that Hook Heath and Hook Hill are corruptions of Hoh Heath and Hoh Hill.
The area originally formed part of the Woking 'wastes' on the eastern fringe of a great expanse of such land extending from Bracknell to Petersfield. Hook Heath was a remote area of heath land inhabited occasionally by itinerant workers (and others of a less law abiding disposition) who lived in rough wooden huts or tents. The land was too poor for agricultural use, though nearby villagers in (Old) Woking enjoyed certain rights, including grazing rights. Cattle grazing and cutting of vegetation suppressed tree growth, resulting in a bare and barren landscape. The 1871 25-inch Ordnance Survey map shows Hook Heath to be largely treeless.
The wastes were legally the property of the Lord of the Manor of Woking. The manor was divided for administrative purposes into seven tithings from at least the 14th century. The large tithing of Goldsworth included Hook Heath, whilst the Hale End tithing embraced a narrow belt along the escarpment to the south and then across Wych Street to Harelands, from which the name of the tithing is thought to have originated.
Economic activity in the area began towards the end of the 18th century with the construction of the Basingstoke canal on the north side of the heath and in the 1830s and 1840s when a deep cutting was made through the northern edge of Hook Heath to take the London & Southampton Railway from Woking Common westwards towards Farnborough. Shortly afterwards a branch line was constructed along the southeast flank of the heath to link Woking with Guildford and eventually Portsmouth. While the railways made Woking easily accessible from London, the two cuttings served to isolate Hook Heath from surrounding villages. Only a small area in the vicinity of Wych Hill and College Lane known as Wich Street was inhabited on a regular basis.
Although the sandy soils of the heaths were barren, after 1780 they were discovered to be ideal for nurseries, and the new transport links made it possible to send plants and produce easily throughout the country. By the end of the 19th century nursery cultivation had become a vital part of the economy of Woking, including Hook Heath. The 1842 'Apportionment Book' shows the proprietor and occupier of the escarpment land adjacent to Hook Hill to have been William Jackman. The terracing of the nursery is clearly seen on the 1871 edition of the 25-inch OS map. The Jackman family at various times acquired other land in the vicinity including the northern slopes of Hook Heath running towards what is now St Johns Village. The proprietor of the area south of the present golf course was James Waterer, one of the best-known nurserymen, although the 'Apportionment Book' shows that he personally was only in occupation of the eastern end, the remaining area being occupied by his tenants. The 1841 tithe map also indicates farm holdings in the area of the present golf course, traces of which can still be seen.
Towards the end of the 19th Century London was rapidly running out of space to bury its dead. The solution was to use the new railways to transport the dead out to waste lands in the countryside where new cemeteries could be created. The London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company was incorporated in 1851 to build a 'national' cemetery on Woking Common. In 1852 a private bill was passed through the Houses of Parliament authorizing the Company to acquire 2600 acres of heath land in Surrey in the vicinity of Woking, Horsell and Knaphill. In practice only about 400 acres were needed for the cemetery, which opened in 1854, and within a few years the Company had obtained an amendment to the bill allowing it to sell off surplus land including 400 acres around Woking Station, Maybury and Hook Heath for development. As part of the agreement the Company were to build a 60-foot wide road (now called Hook Heath Avenue) along the line of a track way linking Wych Street Corner to the Hook Heath Railway Bridge, thus opening up the land for building.
An engraving that appeared in The Illustrated London News shows a proposal circa 1850 for the full cemetery development, as put forward by Sir Richard Broun and Mr Richard Sprye. St Johns Church can be identified north of LSWR line, and, had this scheme been developed, the focal point of the main cemetery would have been in the area of Pond Road. A chapel of rest, having proportions more in keeping with a cathedral was shown near the southern end of Pond Road.
Outline maps produced by the company in 1852 show that the initial plan was to close or divert most of the public highways or footpaths that crossed the heaths, as permitted by the 1852 Act. In their place the Necropolis Company proposed a series of new roads, but only Hook Heath Road and the Mayford link (Pond Road) were actually constructed initially.
It was not until the end of the 1880s that the Necropolis Company attempted to dispose of land in Hook Heath. On 18th May 1892 a group of barristers from the New Court, Temple, London, agreed to form a golf club and to build a course on land that was easily accessible from London. Hook Heath was considered an ideal location, as it was free of rights of common and available now that the company was authorized to dispose of surplus land. They leased land from the company, and Woking Golf Club was opened in 1893 for members of the Bar.
Towards the end of the 19th Century the Surrey hills and heath lands were becoming popular residential areas for wealthy families who needed to be within easy reach of London. Hook Heath, with its south-facing escarpment running steeply down to Mayford and affording fine views to the Downs and the Hogs Back, became highly desirable. As a further inducement, the Necropolis Company offered membership of the newly opened Woking Golf Club to prospective purchasers of land.
An Estate Office was opened in Hook Heath; Holly Bank Road and Golf Club Road were laid out across the heath, while Hook Heath Road followed a winding route along the top of the escarpment. Building began on a number of large houses with accommodation for servants on generous plots of land in the period from about 1895 until the outbreak of World War I.
The Woking Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, formed in 1905, added to the recreational facilities available to the purchasers of the exclusive homes being built on Hook Heath.
One of the first houses built was Hook Hill (now Brockhurst/Whinfield) in Hook Heath Road a few hundred yards west of the junction with Hook Hill Lane in 1893, for Henry Fisher Cox. A few years later the Duke of Sutherland bought the house. Also among the early houses built in Hook Heath were St. Catherine's off Hook Heath Avenue in 1895 and Comeragh Court in Golf Club Road.
Sir Edwin Lutyens designed Fishers Hill for the Hon Gerald Balfour, brother of the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, and his wife Betty. Gertrude Jekyll took charge of the gardens. Betty Balfour was active in the community, becoming Conservative Councillor for St Johns. Her close friend, Dame Ethel Smyth, came to live nearby at Brettanby Cottage in Hook Heath Road, and together with fellow suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, she is reputed to have practised stone throwing by night on Hook Heath. Sir Winston Churchill is reputed to have stayed at the house on many occasions and to have written many of his wartime speeches there while a guest of the Balfours. Lutyens designed Fishers Hill Cottage in 1907
A number of renowned architects were engaged to design houses in the area. W G Tarrant built Stoney Fore (now Hembury Knowle) in Hook Heath Road, Homewood and Danescross in Pond Road and, at a later date, Fawdon in Cedar Road. Horace Field, who had designed Hook Hill, built South Hill in Hook Heath Road for himself. The new residents laid out extensive gardens planted with many varieties of trees and shrubs that matured over the years to produce the unique character of Hook Heath. An interesting newspaper article, dated 25th June 1919, describes the extensive work of W.G.Tarrant, Sons & Co and mentions the concept that "The preservation of natural beauty is the starting point of Tarrants' plan. The gardens and surrounding amenities are schemed before the house....The moment the owner enters his drive he is absorbed by his own property - yet he has a sense of sharing a beautiful estate...."
Apart from building houses to the highest quality, W.G.Tarrant was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The movement gathered pace soon after the turn of the century when the cause was taken up in the pages of Country Life. The career of Sir Edwin Lutyens, perhaps the best known of the Arts and Crafts architects, took off largely due to the enthusiasm of Sir Lawrence Weaver, a founding editor of Country Life. Arts and Crafts embraced not merely the house itself but the furniture, furnishings and garden. Tarrant, an astute businessman, actively promoted the Arts and Crafts concept when he built the Hockering and St Georges Hill Estates, after being successful with individual houses in Byfleet and Hook Heath. Garden planning was advertised as being a special feature of Tarrant built country houses.
Building in Hook Heath halted during the First World War, but resumed afterwards as improvements to the rail service made Woking a prime location for commuters to London. The relatively high price of land ensured that the practice of building exclusive houses of high quality continued in the inter-war period.
Since the Second World War, population pressure in southeast England and the difficulty of maintaining large estates, have lead to great change in Hook Heath. Many of the older houses have been sub-divided into several residences; others have been demolished to make way for new developments; servants' cottages have been sold off and new houses built within the once extensive grounds. Nevertheless, much of the atmosphere of Edwardian Hook Heath remains. For the most part houses have been individually designed and have larger than average gardens that provide a degree of peace and privacy that is becoming all too rare today. Much of the tree cover remains to give a semi-rural appearance to the roads. Hook Heath is recognized by the local planning authority as an Urban Area of Special Residential Character; Fishers Hill and parts of Pond Road and Hook Heath Road have Conservation Area status. Hook Heath continues to be a desirable and prestigious place to live.
Gorse Hill, one of the most substantial houses in Hook Heath, was built for Mr John Ingram in 1911. It remained in private ownership until after World War II when the British Railways Board acquired it for use as a training college. Subsequently the Indo-Suez Bank used it briefly for a similar purpose. It remains in use today as a hotel and conference centre run by De Vere Venues.
Acknowledgements. Much of the information in this brief review of the development of Hook Heath has been derived from:
A History of Woking, by Alan Crosby, published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2003, and
Hook Heath and Star Hill, by Iain Wakeford, published by A K H R & D A Wakeford, 2000.
The Provenance of Danescourt, Hook Heath, Woking, by P G D Shallow (private communication).
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