Wimbledon’s first recorded horses in fact appear in the reign of King John’s son, Henry III. They belonged to the lord of the manor, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his accounts for the years 1236-37, the Archbishop’s Bailiff (the official who managed his farm at the end of Church Road near St Mary’s) noted that he had two horses.
The accounts for the 1270s show that the Bailiffs example had since been followed by some of the Archbishop’s tenants who now also owned horses. Instead of doing work in his fields, they were paying rent for their land not in money, but in horseshoes or in “strigils”, curry combs for grooming horses. So there is little doubt that they were already grazing their one or two animals on the Common. Then John Perkyn was fined for “overburdening the Common with six horses and mares”, four more than he was allowed. In 1488, all the tenants were ordered “to remove from the Common all mangy horses and mares”, an order often repeated in the next century.
By then stables and coaches had begun to appear at the chief houses in the village. In the 1550s William Cecil had a stable at the Rectory capable of taking 14 horses. By the early years of the next century his eldest son, Thomas first Earl of Exeter and builder of Wimbledon’s first manor house, owned several coaches, while his grandson, Edward, Viscount Wimbledon, escorted the coffin of his second wife to St Mary’s parish church “by night with a train of twenty carriages, drawn with six horses a piece and many more with four, and with torches without number”. It must have been an amazing sight.
Riders on the Common
As the numbers of such wealthy families living in Wimbledon increased, so their journeys to London on horseback or by coach became tempting targets for footpads and highwaymen. In the 1750s such robbers were said to “so infest” the Common “that ’tis dangerous travelling day or night”.
In the 1730s, it was the scene of an annual horse race for the King’s Plate. Sixty years later, during
the long war against Napoleon, it was also the training ground of a mounted “Home Guard”, the Wimbledon Volunteer Cavalry who, in colourful uniforms, paraded twice a week to prepare for a French invasion which fortunately never came.
By then, with the threat from highwaymen at last over, the Common was being used by riders whose chief interest was not travel, but exercise. Among them was the Prime Minister, William Pitt, who on his frequent visits to Cannizaro in the 1790s went for long rides with his host, Henry Dundas, the Secretary for War.
Village Blacksmith and Stables
The men who had the important job of caring for all these horses, those of the wealthy gentry as well as of the ordinary villagers, were the blacksmiths. The first whose name has been recorded was John Linton in 1617. His smithy was at “Long’s Corner” where the High Street joins Southside (and where today, very appropriately, the vet has his surgery). Not merely did he shoe horses, but like a vet tried to cure their ailments, as well as repairing ploughs and carts, and making farm implements.
Linton seems to have been law abiding, but one of his successors in Charles II’s reign, Tobias Barton, was frequently in trouble, accused of being “a common disturber of the peace” and “throwing a large quantity of dung into le Pond”. Nevertheless, the smithy remained at Long’s Corner until well into the twentieth century, while the blacksmiths from early in Queen Victoria’s reign began to describe themselves as “Smiths, Farriers and Vets”.
All this time an increasing number of travellers had been passing through the village, especially after Putney Bridge was opened in 1729. To look after those who needed to stay the night, there were two main inns: the older Dog and Fox, and the Rose and Crown. Each had large stables for the horses. By the 1850s, these were being called livery stables (able to look after other horses than those of people lodging at the inn) and were run by a Job Master (ready to provide horses for hire).
Wimbledon’s First Riding Stables
The first person in Wimbledon to give riding lessons seems to have been William Cooke, who had recently been managing Astley’s famous circus near Westminster Bridge. He came here in 1866, took over the stables next to the Castle Inn in Church Road and advertised himself as Riding and Job Master.
When he died twenty years later, his son, also William, took over. Just before the First World War he transformed the stables into the Victoria Riding Establishment. Unfortunately his horses were then requisitioned by the Government for war service.
The Wimbledon Museum is a small, intimate museum where you will find, in pictures, words and objects, the 3000 year history of Wimbledon. 22 Ridgway, Wimbledon, London SW19 4QN. It is open at the weekend between 2.30pm and 5pm, admission is free.
Hilcote Riding School
The next recorded instructor was William Kirkpatrick, a Scotsman who trained racehorses for a wealthy banker. When his employer moved to London during the First World War, Kirkpatrick came with him, but soon came to believe that the future lay with riding rather than racing stables. So he gave up his job, moved to Wimbledon, leased a house at the end of Marryat Road and started a small riding stables. Shortly afterwards the much larger and more central Stables behind the Dog and Fox came on the market. He decided to take on the lease and there in 1919 set up the Hilcote Riding School, (now Wimbledon Village Stables) named apparently after the lady owner’s house in Lancaster Road.
The School was a success almost from the start. Mr Kirkpatrick did the instructing, helped at first by his brother (who then left and took over William Cooke’s old stables near the Castle Inn). He had a large staff of grooms, all men, and kept 35 to 40 horses in two stables. The main one was behind the Dog and Fox; a smaller one for the children’s ponies was some distance away in a mews opposite Grosvenor Hill. The horses were bought at Tattersall’s auctions in London or at Cambridge horse sales. They cost between sixty and eighty pounds each and had a normal working life of ten years. Every four weeks, grooms rode them down the Hill to the blacksmith’s in St Mark’s Place, near the library, to be shod.
Riders came in large numbers. Many were small boys and girls who paid five shillings an hour and were instructed in two riding rings, the Black Ring near the Roman Well Laundry on the Common and the Sandy Ring near the Richardson Evans Playing Fields by the Robin Hood Gate to Richmond Park. But the great majority of the riders were men, often wealthy businessmen like Richard Seligman of Lincoln House, Parkside, and Alfred Faulkner, a tobacco “baron” who owned a huge house a little nearer Putney. Such people had the horses brought to their house by one of the grooms. Even more select was Roy Lancaster, head of the “Pru”. He owned a coach and four, which was looked after by the Stables and kept in a nearby garage. Every summer he took it out and drove to Epsom for the races.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 nearly ruined Hilcote Riding School. The horses were not requisitioned as in 1914, but the number of people wanting to ride shrank, especially at the time of the Battle of Britain and there was a constant problem of getting enough food for the horses. Their survival was ensured by the Stables agreeing to look after the Carleton Bakery horses,
which gained them horse feed from a corn merchant on Wimbledon Hill, as well as pigswill collected from bins at street corners.
Later, as the threat of raids receded (and the Morrison shelter in the saddle room was no longer needed), the Stables gained new customers, American officers preparing for the invasion of Europe. Among them was the famous cowboy, Cal McCord, who rode regularly on the Common.
After the War, the Stables soon revived. But then William Kirkpatrick died and his daughter Jean, who had already taken over, had a serious riding accident. Confined to a wheelchair she continued to supervise the running of the stables from the office, and even managed to do some teaching aided by a carer and with the help of a car.
In 1964 in stepped Colin Crawford, a local businessman, known jokingly as ‘The Squire of Wimbledon’ who at first just liveried a pony called ‘Lucky Jimmy’ for his son Keith to learn to ride on. Having ridden throughout his life, he then bought a horse for himself, ‘Melody Fair’, a beautiful skewbald mare. Unknowingly, this would change the long term course of his life and the stables once again.
Colin Crawford, Jean Kirkpatrick and Michael Simons MRCVS
By the end of the Sixties, Colin was virtually overseeing the day to day running of the stables. Jean Kirkpatrick, although mentally a resoundingly strong woman, found it difficult to run the stables alone. Colin by now had his mare, Melody Fair plus Lucky Jimmy’s replacement Nobby a thirty five year old pony he bought for £60 in 1965 for his daughter Jenny to learn to ride on. With Lucky Jimmy being retired through laminitis, Keith and Jenny shared Nobby between them. Every free moment was spent at the stables or going to shows.
By 1969 Colin’s own first marriage had broken down; coincidentally, around this time the family linen business in Ireland was sold. Free to do what he liked, Colin agreed to take over the lease and running of the stables full time. The actor Oliver Reed, a good friend of Colin’s, kept his horse Dougal at livery at the yard. Colin met his second wife, Judith a cousin of Oliver’s through Dougal. Judith would come up occasionally to ride him. ‘The Squire’ was a good looking chap to whom Judith took a shine. Sharing a passion for horses, they later married in 1972.
Throughout the early 70s Jean continued to live with her carer in the flat above the yard till the mid seventies when she sadly had to move into assisted housing because of her paralysis. Colin had tried to purchase the stables outright from Jean throughout this time, but to no avail: Jean would not sell.
In 1978, Colin and Judith wanted to purchase their own stables, and so bought ‘April Cottage’ in Walton on the Hill, complete with a yard comprising thirty-plus boxes and some land. Colin by this time was tiring of life in Wimbledon and was happy to move. He was more content out on the hunting field anyway. A full member of the Surrey Union Hunt, Saturday and Wednesday would find him at full hue and cry, usually taking the odd hireling or two along for the thrill. Having lived a long time at Wimbledon, they sold their house off the Ridgway and moved to Surrey. Having both yards during 1979 proved to be too much, although they had installed a manager at Hilcote, things just weren’t the same.
By the end of the year Colin had totally lost interest and decided to give Hilcote up to concentrate full-time on his new yard. It was to be ironic, that, having declared for years that she wouldn’t sell the yard, with Colin now gone, Jean Kirkpatrick did exactly that. She put the stables on the market.
The New Wimbledon Village Stables
In December 1979, the yard was put up for sale. Aylesford, who was asked to manage it, stated at first: “We are not exactly sure how to value the site. It’s not every day that a stables comes up for sale”. However, by the start of 1980 it was put on the market, though it conceded that the buildings were in need of “extensive repair work”.
Soon five rival groups were bidding for the site, among them Merton Council, which was planning to build a multi-storey car park there. In the end, the “battle” was won by the group composed of Walter Stevenson and his wife, their daughter, Carol, and Peter Strong and his wife, Dirga. They carried out “a massive renovation”, replacing the rotten wooden stalls and hay barns with prefabricated stalls, four new loose boxes, an office and a staff room.
On 23 August 1980, there was a grand opening ceremony of the renamed Wimbledon Village Stables by the Mayor of Merton, Tom Bull. There were 12 new horses, ranging from the ex-stunt horse Rasputin, a 19 year old Russian, to Florrie, a seven year old Shetland pony. Florrie was said to be “the most popular guest” at children’s parties, as she stayed calm when children dressed as cowboys leapt onto her saddle and urged her to gallop away.
Rasputin won several cups at a Show a year later and then took part in a sponsored jump to raise money for new sails for the Windmill.
With such reliable horses, the new Stables got off to “a flying start”. Most of the weekend rides were soon fully booked and weekday rides were also popular.
Only two years after the opening, The Horse and Pony magazine voted it “the top stables in London” for its well kept horses, efficient administration and good teaching. The success was gained despite the horses having to start their walk to the Common along the High Street, no doubt helped by the fact that the Common offers, as one expert put it “better hacking facilities than are available in any other London suburban area”.
Over the years, that has not changed – we can still claim with confidence that “on the Common we have some of the most beautiful riding country in the South of England”.
WVS can truly be described as a family business, which adds to its charm and friendliness but in no way detracts from the professionalism exhibited by the WVS Team.
Carol’s father, Walter Stevenson, could often be seen riding Carlof (photo on the left from 1996), immaculately turned out and an excellent advertisement for the yard. Caroline Stevenson, now Chief Instructor at WVS and a friend of Carol’s since Pony Club days, came to work at the stables in 1981 and in 1984 she married Carol’s brother Peter. Both of Carol’s daughters, Sasha and Stephanie, and Caroline’s daughter, Ella, have been riding since they were young and regularly compete.
One of the first horses to arrive at WVS in 1980 was a young thoroughbred mare called Dream Days who was not only a very popular horse in the riding school, but also won many prizes eventing and show jumping. When she was 17 years old she had the first of her three foals. The youngest, Pod, lives at the Stables now – the photo on the right shows him when just three days old.
As well as running the yard, Carol and Caroline have been responsible for organising many other well-attended equestrian activities. Together they founded the Annual Sponsored Ride in 1975 and it is the oldest and most successful in the country. While just £550 was raised by the first ride in 1975, last year’s total amounted to over £20,000. Through the Sponsored Ride and other fund raising events (the very popular WVS Charity Ball being one example) over £600,000 has been raised for charity.
The Summer Show organised by WVS as part of the Wimbledon Village Fair started in 1989 and over the years hundreds of riders have participated, some WVS liveries and clients, others from further afield. In addition to its primary business as a riding school and livery yard, WVS and the horses stabled there have often been used for film shoots, thanks to the convenient location and the quality of the horses. Many well known faces have been seen at the yard on such occasions. There have been many appearances of WVS horses in films, television and publications over the years.
Although WVS had been operating very successfully, in 1999 Carol decided to introduce the Members Club which has increased the popularity of the stables still further. Membership ensures that frequent and committed riders can secure a regular slot at favourable rates, while the horses benefit from a more stable routine. When there is availability, however, WVS welcomes new riders – whether clients or liveries.
In addition to new faces, there are many riders of long standing, some of whom had ridden at WVS when young and are now introducing their own children to the joys of horse riding. The longest-serving livery has kept horses at WVS since 1985 and there are other clients who started riding at the yard even earlier.
Thanks to the combination of quality horses, dedicated staff, beautiful riding country and its successful Membership scheme, WVS can look to the future with confidence.