Surrey – a county of rural peasants?

Today, Surrey is perceived as being one of the wealthiest counties in the country and it is difficult for many of the current generation to appreciate that this is a modern phenomenon. If we look back to the early 19th century, rural Surrey was predominantly a peasant population. Yes, as you can read elsewhere, there were wealthy land owners but these were the exceptions who held considerable power over the labourers who worked their land.

Reading the literature you will find little mention of Surrey as an agricultural county – mainly because its produce was insignificant compared to the larger, more productive counties elsewhere. However, the majority of the rural population here was involved in some way with agriculture and its associated trades.

A typical labourer would work for a farmer – who might himself be a tenant of a wealthy landowner. The labourer would generally rent his accommodation from the farmer and in most cases, tenancy went with the job. If he lost his job he tended to lose his home as well. In addition, if he were ill or had an accident so that he couldn’t work, he got no pay – so would struggle to pay his rent. Thus, all the power was with the farmer and the labourer was close to being tied to him. This meant that farmers could pay very low wages whilst ensuring the labourers worked extremely long hours. In general, the entire family, including very young children, had to work in order to obtain even a subsistence living. As late as 1867, labourer’s weekly wages varied from 12 shillings (60p) in western Surrey, to 15 shillings (75p) in the neighbourhood of London.

As stated at the time by a West Country parson, Canon Girdlestone, “How is it possible. on such wretched wages for a man to house, to feed and clothe not only himself but his wife and children; and to pay, in addition, the doctor and the midwife when their services were required; to provide shoes, fuel, light, such incidental expenses as school fees, and, in fact, many other items which cannot be enumerated, but which entered nevertheless into the cost of living.”

Although William Cobbett (a Farnham local) died just before Victoria’s coronation, he had spent many years trying to raise the issues of peasant conditions and pay. He was a thorn in the side of Government and authority but did much to highlight the iniquities of early 19th century farm labour. Frederick E Green and George Sturt were two other local writers who wrote extensively on this topic. They were both born in the 1860s and possibly gained a broader perspective on rural poverty since they were looking back over their lives which included the latter part of the century.

One of Sturt’s propositions was that the local peasantry had once been less poor and more self-sufficient and that the “enclosures” which occurred during the earlier part of the century had been a major cause of their decline. The peasants lost the land over which their cow, donkey, geese, fowls, or swine used to graze, and from which they derived fuel for the household, fodder for their beasts, and even corn for their daily bread. Thus, they only had their labour to provide for all their needs and, additionally, now had to purchase from that minimal amount all of those products which they could have obtained free prior to enclosure.

The situation towards the end of the century was exacerbated by general agricultural depression – partly driven by greater international trade in produce. The agricultural labour situation became unsustainable and many left the land to seek employment in towns. This depressed wages for unskilled labour and together with a doubling in population in the first 70 years of the century led to a complete rebalancing of rural versus urban employment. To highlight the change, in 1872 Surrey had 193,343 acres of arable land but by 1909 this had fallen 47% to 102,364 acres.

Some Victorians, however, did make good. Self-made entrepreneurs used their new wealth to rise in society, building large houses, educating their children and employing domestic servants (by the 1880s, 1.25 million people were employed in domestic service – more than in any other work category). That, I suspect was the origin of the current “wealthy Surrey” image. Having created their wealth in the urban areas, they then wanted to move out to greener, cleaner, more beautiful environments. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ken Bare


  • Deerleap Woods Wotton. Hoopshaver at his hut
  • Milton Farm, Westcott
  • Moving Barn @ Bookham

All 3 images courtesy of Keith Harding, Walter Rose/

The Autumn Trees and Flora of Sheepleas

Back by popular request was a walking tour of the Sheepleas mixed woodland open space run by our Society member, Pamela Holt.

Pamela ran this morning tour twice the same morning as we have been sticking to a reduced numbers quota. A few hardy souls braved the pouring rain to meet and learn how to identify tree types from their leaves, fruits, buds and location, especially in winter.

We were guided through beautiful areas of late autumn colour of oak, beech, yew, the ‘beams’ – whitebeam, hornbeam, various maples, willows, sycamores, ash, lime and London plane trees (I’m sure there were more that I’ve forgotten!). In winter when there are no leaves on deciduous trees to assist identification, we learnt to look at surrounding vegetation, presence and arrangement of buds on the stem, presence of nuts on the ground or some berries still remaining on the tree. We were encouraged to look at wild clematis weaving its way through walls of deciduous hedgerows, where honeysuckle also fought for space.

Tree roots are not nearly as deep as you might imagine a lofty beech tree to have – their roots spread superficially far and wide. This is evident when you see a fallen tree with its roots still intact.

Pamela is extremely knowledgeable and has had an interesting career as a botanist, having started out with Kew Gardens & travelled far and wide since.

The interesting thing as a keen walker is that I often walk in areas consulting a map, enjoying the views, chatting or looking ahead to where I’m going – but don’t notice the huge variety of tree species right next to me off the path.

Diane Cooper

Coronavirus (COVID 19) advice for the public

Due to the current situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and in line with Government regulations, all Surrey Hills Society outside events have been cancelled.  We hope that all events will be reorganised at later dates as soon as it is safe to do so.  If you are already booked on an event you will receive a separate email explaining the cancellation arrangements.

Gordon Jackson, Chairman

Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden

On arrival we were greeted with a cup of tea or coffee and biscuits, always most welcome.

We then had a talk from Vikki Leedham who is the co-curator at the gallery together with Anthony Paul who is married to Hannah Peschar.   

Vikki was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and gave us a potted history of the garden informing us of how Anthony landscaped the grounds but Hannah felt something was missing.  Although not an artist, Hannah has a very good eye for sculpture and on a visit to a friend’s gallery saw some sculptures being exhibited outside and this was the inspiration for the garden to become a gallery.

After the talk we were given a free reign to walk around the garden/gallery which takes around an hour and a half to fully appreciate the grounds and all the exhibits displayed.  Below are a few photographs of the some of the 200 or so sculptures very cleverly positioned around the garden.

It was a lovely visit (except for a hail storm and torrential rain which lasted at least half an hour) but we would definitely go back for another visit perhaps as early as next year.

Sall Baring

Gatton’s Trees: Ancient and Modern

It is always good to revisit favourite haunts and so it was a pleasure to go to Gatton again.  Gatton has always had a close association with the Society since its early days.  On this visit, the weather was very wet and windy but the landscape was still there for all to see in the glorious colours of autumn. 

The Capability Brown landscape was magnificent with the trees in bold yellows through to reds.  It is hard to believe that this is a largely man-made landscape.

The Japanese Garden was a highlight with a magnificent Bloodgood acer which was so red that it matched the newly replaced bridge. 

Many thanks to Gatton’s guides for giving up their time to show us round the property – and their enthusiasm for the Trust was obvious.

For the first time visitor, Gatton is a revelation.  Some members are already planning to return at a different time of year and in better weather to see it in its full glory.

Stella and Martin Cantor

Our visit to Ramster Gardens

Members of the Society enjoyed a beautiful morning at Ramster Gardens on Wednesday 14th October, which started with some welcoming tea and cake.

These gardens in Chiddingfold extend over 25 acres of woodland, glades, a lake and a formal “tennis court” garden and, at this time of year, are a blaze of autumn colours. In particular the wide variety of Acers, planted throughout the gardens, display a rich palette of colours with deep reds and orange framing the pathways.

Huge Gunneras enjoy the moist soils adjacent to watercourses whilst there are plenty of tranquil spots to stop and admire the beauty of the surroundings.

We hope to return in spring when the bluebells, daffodils, rhododendrons and magnolias will be at their magnificent, colourful,  best.

A wonderful gem hidden away in the far south west corner of our county.

Martin and Stella Cantor