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The Brighton road : the classic highway to the south online

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The chapters of railway history which produced all this unlovely medley of
engineering works are in themselves extremely interesting, and have an
additional interest to those who trace the story of the Brighton Road, for
they are concerned with the solution of the old problem which faced the
coach proprietors - how best and quickest to reach Brighton.


Few outside those intimately concerned with railway politics know that
although the Brighton line was opened throughout in 1842, it was not until
1898 that the company owned an uninterrupted route between London and
Brighton. The explanation of that singular condition of affairs is found
in the curious reluctance of Parliament, two generations ago, to give any
one railway company the sole control of any particular route. Few in those
times thought the increase of population, and still more the increase of
travelling, would be so great that competitive railways would be
established to many places; and thus to sanction the making of a railway
to be owned by one company throughout seemed like the granting of a
perpetual monopoly.

Following this reasoning, a break was made in the continuity of the
Brighton Railway between Stoat's Nest and Redhill, a distance of five
miles, and that stretch of territory given to the South Eastern Railway,
with running powers only over it granted to the Brighton Company.
Similarly, between Croydon and Stoat's Nest, the South Eastern had only
running powers over that interval owned by the Brighton.

In 1892 and 1894, however, the Brighton Company approached Parliament and,
proving the growing confusion, congestion, and loss of time at Redhill
Junction, owing to this odd condition of things, obtained powers to
complete that missing link by the construction of an entirely new railway
between Stoat's Nest and a point just within a quarter of a mile of
Earlswood Station, beyond Redhill, and also to double the existing line
between East and South Croydon and Purley. The works were completed and
opened for traffic in 1898, when for the first time the Brighton Railway
had a complete and uninterrupted route of its own to the sea.

The hamlet of Smitham Bottom, which paradoxically stands at the top of the
pass of that name, in this ancient way across the North Downs, can never
have been beautiful. It was lonely when Jackson and Fewterel fought their
prize-fight here, before that distinguished patron of sport the Prince of
Wales and a more or less distinguished company, on June 9th, 1788; when
the only edifice of "Smith-in-the-Bottom," as the sporting accounts of
that time style it, appears to have been the ominous one of a gibbet. The
Jackson who that day fought, and won, his first battle in the prize-ring
was none other than that Bayard of the noble art, "Gentleman Jackson,"
afterwards the friend of Byron and of the Prince Regent himself, and
subsequently landlord of the "Cock" at Sutton. On this occasion Major
Hanger rewarded the victor with a bank-note from the enthusiastic Prince.

[Sidenote: SMITHAM]

Until 1898 Smitham Bottom remained a fortuitous concourse of some twenty
mean houses on a windswept natural platform, ghastly with the chalky
"spoil-banks" thrown up when the South Eastern Railway engineers excavated
the great cuttings in 1840; but when the three railway-stations within one
mile were established that serve Smitham Bottom - the stations of Coulsdon,
Stoat's Nest, and Smitham - the place, very naturally, began to grow with
the magic quickness generally associated with Jonah's Gourd and Jack's
Beanstalk, and now Smitham Bottom is a town. Most of the spoil-banks are
gone, and those that remain are planted with quick-growing poplars; so
that, if they can survive the hungry soil, there will presently be a leafy
screen to the ugly railway sidings. Showy shops, all plate-glass and
nightly glare of illumination, have arisen; the old "Red Lion" inn has got
a new and very saucy front; and, altogether, "Smitham" has arrived. The
second half of the name is now in process of being forgotten, and the only
wonder is that the first part has not been changed into "Smytheham" at the
very least, or that an entirely new name, something in the way of "ville"
or "park," suited to its prospects, has not been coined. For Smitham, one
can clearly see, has a Future, with a capital F, and the historian
confidently expects to see the incorporation of Smitham, with Mayor, Town
Council, and Town Hall, all complete.

It is here, at Marrowfat, now "Marlpit," Lane, that the new link of the
Brighton line branches off from Stoat's Nest.[8] One of the first trials
of the engineers was the removal of three-quarters of a million cubic
yards of the "spoil," dumped down by the roadside over half a century
earlier; and then followed the spanning of the Brighton Road by a
girder-bridge. The line then entered the grounds of the Cane Hill Lunatic
Asylum, through which it runs in a covered way, the London County Council,
under whose control that institution is carried on, obtaining a clause in
the Company's Act, requiring the railway to be covered in at this point,
in case the lunatics might find means of throwing themselves in front of
passing trains.

Leaving the asylum grounds, the railway re-crosses the road by a hideous
skew girder bridge of 180 feet span, supported by giant piers and
retaining-walls, and then crosses the deep cutting of the South Eastern,
to enter a cutting of its own leading into a tunnel a mile and a quarter
in length - the new Merstham tunnel - running parallel with the old tunnel
of the same name through which the South Eastern Railway passes. At the
southern end of this gloomy tunnel is the pretty village of Merstham,
where the hillside sinks down to the level lands between that point and

At Merstham one of the odd problems of the new line was reached, for there
it had to be constructed over a network of ancient tunnels made centuries
ago in the hillside - quarry-tunnels whence came much of the limestone that
went towards the building of Henry VII.'s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. The
old workings are still accessible to the explorer who dares the
accumulation of gas in them given off by the limestone rock.

The geology of these five miles of new railway is peculiarly varied,
limestone and chalk giving place suddenly to the gault of the levels, and
followed again by a hillside bed of Fuller's earth, succeeded in turn by
red sand. The Fuller's earth, resting upon a slippery substratum of gault,
only required a little rain and a little disturbance to slide down and
overwhelm the railway works, and retaining-walls of the heaviest and most
substantial kind were necessary in the cuttings where it occurred.
Tunnelling for a quarter of a mile through the sand that gives Redhill its
name, the railway crosses obliquely under the South Eastern, and then
joins the old Brighton line territory just before reaching Earlswood

[Illustration: CHIPSTEAD CHURCH.]

All these engineering manifestations give the old grim neighbourhood of
Smitham Bottom a new grimness. The trains of the Brighton line boom,
rattle, and clank overhead into the covered way, whose ventilators spout
steam like some infernal laundry, and from the 80-foot deep cuttings close
beside the road, steamy billows arise very weirdly. Presiding over all are
the beautiful grounds and vast ranges of buildings of the Cane Hill
Lunatic Asylum, housing an ever-increasing population of lunatics, now
numbering some three thousand. Sometimes the quieter members of that
unfortunate community are seen, being given a walk along the road, outside
their bounds, and the sight and the thoughts they engender are not

Along the road, where the walls of the cutting descend perpendicularly, is
the severely common-place hamlet of Hooley, formerly Howleigh, consisting
of the "Star" inn and some twenty square brick cottages. Just beyond it,
where a modern Cyclists' Rest and tea-rooms building stands to the left of
the road, the first traces of the old Surrey Iron Railway, which crossed
the highway here, are found, in the shallower cutting, still noticeable,
although disused seventy years ago. Alders, hazels, and blackberry
brambles grow on the side of it, and its bridges are ivy-grown: primroses
and violets, too, grow there wondrously profuse.

[Sidenote: CHIPSTEAD]

And here we will, by way of interlude, turn aside, up a lane to the right
hand, toward the village of Chipstead, in whose churchyard lies Sir Edward
Banks, who began life in the humblest manner, working as a navvy upon this
same forgotten railway, afterwards rising, as partner in the firm of
Jolliffe & Banks, to be an employer of labour and contractor to the
Government: in short, another Tom Brassey. All these things are recorded
of him upon a memorial tablet in the church of Chipstead - a tablet which
lets nothing of his worth escape you, so prolix is it.[9]

It was while delving amid the chalk of this tramway cutting that Edward
Banks first became acquainted with this village, and so charmed with it
was he that he expressed a desire, when his time should come, to be laid
at rest in its quiet graveyard. When he died, after a singularly
successful career, his wish was carried out, and here, in this quiet spot
overlooking the highway, you may see his handsome tomb, begirt with iron
railings, and overshadowed with ancient trees.

The little church of Chipstead is of Norman origin, and still shows some
interesting features of that period, with some unusual Early English
additions that have presented architectural puzzles even to the minds of
experts. Many years ago the late Mr. G. E. Street, the architect of the
present Royal Courts of Justice in London, read a paper upon this
building, advancing the theory that the curious pedimental windows of the
chancel and the transept door were not the Saxon work they appeared to be,
but were the creation of an architect of the Early English period who had
a fancy for reviving Saxon features, and who was the builder and designer
of a series of Surrey churches, among which is included that of Merstham.

Within the belfry here is a ring of fine bells, some of them of a
respectable age, and three bearing the inscription, with variations:


From here a bye-lane leads steeply once more into the high road, which
winds along the valley, sloping always towards the Weald. Down the long
descent into Merstham village tall and close battalions of fir-trees lend
a sombre colouring to the foreground, while "southward o'er Surrey's
pleasant hills" the evening sunlight streams in parting radiance. On the
left hand as we descend are the eerie-looking blow-holes of the Merstham
tunnel, which here succeeds the cutting. Great heaps of chalk, by this
time partly overgrown with grass, also mark its course, and in the
distance, crowned as many of them are with telegraph poles, they look by
twilight curiously and awfully like so many Calvarys.

Beside the descent into Merstham was situated the terminus of the old Iron
Railway, in the great excavated hollow of the Greystone lime-works, where
the lime-burners still quarry the limestone and the smoke of their burning
ascends day and night. The old "Hylton Arms," down below, that served the
turn of the lime-burners when they wanted to slake their thirst, has been
ornately rebuilt in the modern-Elizabethan Public House Style, alongside
the road, to catch the custom of the world at large, and is named the
"Jolliffe Arms." Both signs reflect the ownership of Merstham, for
Jolliffe has long been the family name of the holders of the modern Barony
of Hylton. Formerly "Jolly," it was presumably too bacchanalian and not
sufficiently aristocratic, and so it was changed, just as your "Smythe"
was once Smith, and "Johnes" Jones.


[Sidenote: MERSTHAM]

Merstham is as pretty a village as Surrey affords, and typically English.
Railways have not abated, nor these turbid times altered in any great
measure, its fine air of aristocratic and old-time rusticity. At one end
of its one clearly-defined street, set at an angle to the high-road, are
the great ornamental gates of Merstham Park, setting their stamp of landed
aristocracy upon the place. To their right is a tiny gate leading to the
public right-of-way through the park, which presently crosses over the
pond where rise fitfully the springs of Merstham Brook, a congener of the
Kentish "Nailbournes," and one of the many sources of the River Mole. To
the marshy ground by this brook, and to its stone-quarries, the place
owes its name. It was in Domesday Book "Merstán" = Mere-stan, the stone
(house) by the lake.

[Illustration: MERSTHAM.]

Beyond the brook, above the tall trees, is seen the shingled spire of the
church, an Early English building dedicated to St. Catherine, not yet
spoiled, despite restorations and the scraping which its original lancet
windows have undergone, in misguided efforts to endue them with an air of

The church is built of that limestone or "firestone" found so freely in
the neighbourhood - a famed speciality which entered largely into the
building and ornamentation of Henry the Seventh's Chapel at Westminster.
Those wondrously intricate and involved carvings and traceries, whose
decadent Gothic delicacy is the despair of present-day architects and
stone-carvers, were possible only in this stone, which, when quarried, is
of exceeding softness, but afterwards, on exposure to the air, assumes a
hardness equalling that of any ordinary building-stone, and has, in
addition, the merit of resisting fire, whence its name. From the softer
layers comes that article of domestic use, the "hearthstone," used to
whiten London hearths and doorsteps.

Merstham Church is even yet of considerable interest. It contains brasses
to the Newdegate. Best, and Elmebrygge families, one recording in black

"Hic iacet Johesi Elmebrygge, armiger, qui obiit biij die
ffebruarij; Aº Dni Mºccccºlxxij, et Isabella uxor eius
quae fuit filia Nichi Jamys quonda Maioris et
Alderman London: quae obiit bijº die Septembris
Aº Dni Mºccccºlxxijº et Annae uxor ei: quae
fuit filia Johes Prophete Gentilman quae obiit ...
Aº Dni Mºcccº ... quoru animabus
ppicietur Deus."

The date of the second wife's death has never been inserted, showing that
the brass was engraved and set during her lifetime, as in so many other
examples of monumental brasses throughout the country. The figure of John
Elmebrygge is wanting, it having been at some time torn from its matrix,
but above his figure's indent remains a label inscribed _Sancta Trinitas_,
and from the mouths of the remaining figures issue labels inscribed _Unus
Deus - Miserere nobis_. Beneath is a group of seven daughters; the group of
four sons is long since lost.

A transitional Norman font of grey Sussex marble remains at the western
end of the church, and on an altar-tomb in the southern chapel are the
poor remains of an ancient stone figure of the fifteenth century,
presumably the effigy of a merchant civilian, as he is represented wearing
the _gypcière_. It is hacked out of almost all significance at the hands
of some iconoclasts; their chisel-marks are even now distinct and bear
witness against the Puritan rage that defaced and buried it face
downwards, the reverse side of the stone forming part of the chapel
pavement until 1861, when it was discovered during the restoration of the

Before that restoration this was an interior of Georgian high pews. Among
them the "squire's parlour" was pre-eminent, with its fireplace, its
well-carpeted floor, its chairs and tables: a snuggery wherein that good
man snored unobserved, or partook critically of his snuff during the
parson's discreet discourse. But now the parlour is gone, and the squire
must slumber, if he can, with the other sinners.

[Sidenote: GATTON]

In Merstham village, just beyond the "Feathers" inn, stood Merstham
toll-gate, followed by that of Gatton, at Gatton Point, a mile distant,
where the old route through Reigate goes off to the right, and the
new - the seven miles between Gatton Point and Povey Cross, through
Redhill - continues, straight as an arrow, ahead. The way is bordered on
the right hand by Gatton Park, a spot the country folk rightly describe as
an "old arnshunt place." The history of Gatton, in truth, goes back to
immemorial times, and has no beginning: for where history thins out and
becomes a mere scatter of disjointed scraps purporting to be facts,
tradition carries back the tale into a very fog of legend and conjecture.
It was "Gatone" when the Domesday survey was made: the Saxon "Geat-ton,"
the town in the "gate," passage, or road through the North Downs, just as
Reigate is the Saxon "Rige-geat," the road over the ridge. The "ton" or
town in the place-name does not necessarily mean what we moderns would
understand by the word, and here doubtless indicated an enclosed, hedged,
or walled-in tract of land redeemed and cultivated out of the then
encompassing wilderness of the Downs.

Who first broke the land of Gatton to the plough? History and tradition
are silent. No voice speaks out of the grave of the centuries. But both
Reigate and Gatton are older than Anglo-Saxon times, for a Roman way,
itself following the course of an even earlier savage trail, came up out
of the stodgy clay of Holmesdale, over the chalky hills, to Streatham and
London. It was a branch of the road leading from _Portus Adurni_ - the
present Old Shoreham, on the river Adur - and doubtless, in the long
centuries of Romano-British civilisation, it was bordered here and there
by settlements and villas. Prominent among them was Gatton. There can
scarcely be a doubt of it, for, although Roman relics are not found here
now, Camden, writing in the time of Henry the Eighth, tells of "Roman
Coynes digged forth of the Ground." It was ever a desirable site, for here
unfailing springs well out of the chalk and give an abounding fertility,
while another road - the ancient Pilgrims' Way - running west and east,
crossed the other highway, and thus gave ready communication on every

Gatton has, within the historic period, never been more than a manorial
park, but an unexplained something, like the echo of a vanished greatness,
has caused strangely unmerited honours to be granted it. Who shall say
what induced Henry the Sixth in 1451 to make this mere country park a
Parliamentary borough, returning two members? There must have been some
adequate reason or excuse, even if only the one of its ancient renown;
for there _must_ always be an apology of sorts for corruption; no job is
jobbed without at least some shadowy semblance of legality. But no one
will ever pluck out the heart of its mystery.


A Parliamentary borough Gatton remained until 1832, when the first Reform
Act swept away the representation of it, together with that of many
another "rotten borough." Rightly had Cobbett termed it "a very rascally
spot of earth," for certainly from 1541, when Sir Roger Copley owned the
property and was the sole elector of the place, the election was a
scandalous farce, and never at any time did the "burgesses" exceed twenty.
They were always tenants of the lord of the manor and the mere marionettes
that danced to his will.

Gatton, returning its two members to Parliament, as of old, was early in
the nineteenth century purchased by Mark Wood, Esq., who was soon after
created a Baronet. It was then recorded that in this borough there were
six houses and only one freeholder: Sir Mark Wood himself. The other five
houses he let by the week; and thus, paying the taxes, he was the only
elector of the two representatives. At the election, he and his son Mark
were the candidates, and the father duly elected himself and his son!
Scandalous, no doubt; but those members must have represented the
constituency better than could those of a larger electorate.

The landowner who possessed such a pocket-borough as this, and could send
whomsoever he liked to Parliament, to vote as he wished, was, of course, a
very important personage. His opposition was a serious matter to
Governments; his support of the highest value, both politically and in a
pecuniary sense; and thus place, honours, riches, could be, and were,
secured. The manor of Gatton actually, in the cynical recognition of these
things, was valued at twice its worth without that Parliamentary
representation, and Lord Monson, who purchased the property in 1830, gave
as much as £100,000 for it, solely as an investment in jobbery and
corruption, by which he hoped, in the course of shrewd political
wire-pulling, to obtain a cent per cent return.

[Illustration: GATTON HALL AND "TOWN HALL."]

He was a humorist of a cynical turn who built in front of the great
mansion in midst of the park a "Town Hall" for the non-existent town, and
inscribed on the urn which stands by this freakish, temple-like structure
the motto, satirical in this setting, "_Salus populi suprema lex esto_,"
together with other sardonic Latin, to the effect that no votes sullied by
bribery should be given.

Less than two years after Lord Monson's purchase of the estate, Reform had
destroyed the value of Gatton Park, for it was disfranchised. We can only
wonder that he did not claim compensation for the abolition of his "vested

[Sidenote: MUSTARD]

There is a remarkable appropriateness in Gatton Hall being designed in the
classic style, for its marble hall and Corinthian hexastyle colonnade no
doubt revive the glories of the Roman villa of sixteen hundred years ago.
It is magnificence itself, being indeed designed something after the
manner of the Vatican at Rome, and decorated with rare and costly marbles
and frescoes; but perhaps, to any one less than an emperor or a pope, a
little unhomely and uncomfortable to live in. Since 1888 it has been the
seat of Sir Jeremiah Colman, of Colman's Mustard, created a Baronet, 1907:

Mother, get it if you're able,
See the trade mark on the label,
Colman's Mustard is the Best - - [Advt.],

as some unlaurelled bard of the grocery trade once sang, in deathless


Half a mile short of what is now Redhill town, there once stood yet
another toll-gate. "Frenches" Gate took its title from the old manor on
which it stood, and the manor itself probably derived its name from the
unenclosed or free (_franche_) land of which it was wholly or largely

Redhill town has not existed long enough to have accumulated any history.
When the more direct route was made this way, avoiding Reigate, in 1816,
Redhill was - a hill. The hill is still here, as the cyclist well enough
knows, and we will take on trust that red gravel whence its name comes;
but since that time the town of Redhill, now numbering some 16,000
persons, has come into existence, and when we speak of Redhill we
mean - not the height up which the coaches laboured, but a certain
commonplace town lying at the foot of it, with a busy railway junction
where there are always plenty of trains, but never the one you want, and
quite a number of public institutions of the asylum and reformatory type.

The railway junction has, of course, created Redhill town, which is really
in the parish of Reigate. When the land began to be built upon, in the
'40's, it was called "Warwick Town," after the then Countess of Warwick,
the landowner, and the names of a road and a public-house still bear
witness to that somewhat lickspittle method of nomenclature. But there is,
and can be, only one possible Warwick in England, and "Redhill" this
"Warwick Town," by natural selection, became.

There could have been no more certain method of inviting the most odious
of comparisons than that of naming Redhill after the fine old feudal town
of Warwick, which first arose beneath the protecting walls of its ancient
castle. Either town has an origin typical of its era, and both _look_
their history and circumstances. Redhill, within the memory of those still
living, sprang up around a railway platform, and the only object that may
be said to frown in it is the great gas-holder, built on absolutely the
most prominent and desirable site in the whole town; and that not only
frowns, but stinks as well, and is therefore not a desirable substitute
for a castle keep. Here, at any rate, "Mrs. Partington's" remark that
"comparisons is odorous" would be altogether in order.

Prominent above all other buildings in the town, in the backward view from

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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 10 of 18)