Crooked Billet is a small corner of Wimbledon Common with a green, two public houses and residential housing, which despite surrounding development has never quite lost its identity as a semi-rural enclave. It was former grazing land, with adjoining farm buildings and cottages dating back to at least the C17th and possibly earlier. The origins of the name Crooked Billet are disputed. There are a number of trees on the green, including a horse chestnut, willow and London plane.
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This is a small area of Wimbledon Common (q.v.) with a green, two public houses and residential housing of Cinque Cottages that date from 1872. The origins of Crooked Billet are disputed; the first mention of a brewery and inn occurs in 1509 and the name was given to a small row of cottages, although 1776 is the first authenticated date of an alehouse here. The site has been referred to erroneously as Cromwell's Half Acre after local legend had it that the site was occupied in 1513 by Walter Cromwell, father of Thomas Cromwell the Chancellor of Henry VIII. Walter was a 'smith and armourer, a brewer and hostelry keeper' but his 'half acre' is now believed to have been elsewhere across Wimbledon Common. A survey in 1617 mentions Shepherd's Hatch Gate here, one of several gates for grazing livestock, and also the site of a cottage, shed and 'backside' occupied by Richard Atkins who farmed a field off the Ridgeway. By 1776 there were 25 cottages and among the residents was successful farmer Daniel Watney, founder of the brewing family. He had moved here in 1730, living on the site that was later the Hand in Hand pub. Watney bought up half the cottages, his son establishing the Wheatsheaf Brewery nearby. An alehouse known as the Crooked Billet was being run by Thomas Wray by 1745, near the location of the present pub of that name, but it closed and reverted to cottages after 1794; another alehouse of the same name had opened on the site of today's pub by at least 1838. The Hand in Hand operated under that name for the first time in 1877 but had opened as a bakery in 1865. From 1869 it was owned by the Holland family who held it until 1974, and who started selling ale by 1871 while remaining a food retailer.
In 1865 the hamlet of Crooked Billet was in a wooded area on the west side of the Common. At that time a small path led to Wood Hayes, a large house now on Woodhayes Road; The Lodge, later renamed Southside House (q.v.) and Gothic House, built as Gothic Cottage c.1763, were to the south-east of Crooked Billet. Gothic House was the home of novelist Captain Frederick Marryat in the 1820s and in 1874 was renamed Gothic Lodge, famous as the home of engineer Sir William Preece, who allowed Marconi to set up a transmitter in his garden, which was used to send some of the earliest telegraph messages. It became London's first house with a telephone and with electricity for lighting, ironing and boiling a kettle. Sir William campaigned for electric street lighting in Wimbledon and his son Arthur opened the town's first electricity power station in 1899.
In the 1860s Wimbledon Common was owned by Lord of the Manor, Earl Spencer, whose proposal to enclose the commonland prior to sale for building development led to the campaign that culminated in the 1871 Wimbledon Common Act. This saved the land for the public in perpetuity, and it continues to be managed by a Board of Conservators. Soon after this, in 1872, Sir Henry Peek of Wimbledon House, Parkside, built the Cinque Cottages beside Crooked Billet on the site of earlier cottages. A trust deed stipulated that they were meant for the benefit of 'poor men of good character in needy circumstances' who were 'not less than 55' and who lived in one of the 40 parishes of Surrey. Sir Henry, son of the founder of biscuit makers Peek Frean & Co, was MP for East Surrey from 1868 and played an important role in the campaign to secure Wimbledon Common. The Cinque Cottages were gutted and converted into 8 flats in the early 1990s. Two privately occupied cottages continue to separate the two pubs.
By 1933 the Crooked Billet effectively marked the last corner of Wimbledon Common before the built-up area of today, but the site has never completely lost its identity as a semi-rural enclave with its own village green and country pubs. In 1888 the Crooked Billet pub had been leased by Young's Brewery, who purchased the freehold in 1928, and it was particularly fashionable in the 1960s. In 1974 Young's purchased the freehold of the Hand in Hand, which was altered and enlarged,. Both pubs have been refurbished since then, but Young's sold the brewery in 2006, and although both pubs continue to sell real ale brewed by Wells & Young's, the shire horses no longer cross the Common to deliver beer from Wandsworth to Crooked Billet. The Hand in Hand has a small external courtyard at the front with seating and decking beside a mature horse chestnut tree, and the Crooked Billet has a grassy area. The green has a mature willow and other species of tree including London plane, with various shrubs such as holly. Pavement separates the pubs from the green and Wright's Alley was formerly used by shire horses delivering from the brewery.
P Loobey/K Every, ‘Wimbledon in Old Photographs’, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, pp 8, 50; R Milward, ‘Historic Wimbledon’, The Windrush Press, 1989, pp 81/83; R Milward, ‘Wimbledon 1865-1965’, The Chalford Publishing Co Ltd, 1997, pp 16, 21; R Milward, ‘Wimbledon A Pictorial History’, Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1994, pp 17, 100, 146; R Milward, ‘Wimbledon Past’, Historical Publications Ltd, 1998, pp 41/42, 75/76, 78/79; R Milward, ‘Wimbledon Two Hundred Years Ago’, The Milward Press, 1996, pp 23/24, 67, 69, 79, 118/120; R Milward/C Maidment, ‘The Lull before the Storm: The Last Years of Rural Wimbledon’, 2002, pp 7; H Osbourne, ‘Inn and Around London: A History of Young’s Pubs’, 1991; C Whichelow, ‘Pubs of Wimbledon Village’, Enigma Publishing, 1998,
pp 15, 21.
LPGT Volunteer Research by Tony Matthews, 2009