Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Battle of Surbiton, 1648

It was approaching two o'clock at night when Colonel Sydenham Hill was rudely awoken by his servant Iphonius Severn with the news that Hill's daughter was nearing home. "At this hour!" exclaimed Hill. "It must portent something serious why she is travelling at night. I will meet her upon the road". Orders were issued to prepare one of the nags in the stable at Mont Plaisant, Hill's home outside Kingston. Before long Hill, accompanied by Severn (like Hill a veteran of the late war against the King), was trotting on his wife's white mare towards Coombe Hill. Lady Grace's coach appeared out of the drizzle. 

The daughter, accompanied by her chaperone naturally, had lately returned from the Empire where she had been taking the waters at Aachen and had there picked up gossip doing the rounds amongst English emigrés in the city. The Low Countries were buzzing with similar stories. Supporters of the King were to exploit discontent amongst the people across the country, seize key towns and passes. They would hold them pending an invasion by the Scots who would return the king to power in return for granting privileges to the Presbytarian faith. Of particular import to Hill, a gathering of Royalist forces was to be held at Banstead Downs before seizing Kingston Bridge and marching on the City. Hill had lost his commission in the re-modelling of the army 3 years before, along with some of his influence. Yet he was still loyal to Parliament, for now, and would take his news to Fairfax. At 56 he was not keen on returning to campaigning, but he hoped maybe for a sinecure or some other favour from Parliament. Further, the last thing he needed was a band of marauding Cavaliers running amok on his estates, especially as he had gained some celebrity beating their Northern brothers 5 years before.

"Yes, yes, yes." the weathered Yorkshireman had impatiently dismissed Hill's 'news'. "There is no security in the Cavaliers' counsels. Every tavern between Leiden and Leeds is full of it. We know about the planned levee in Surrey. We have it in hand. But I thank your loyalty all the same my dear Sydenham. My complements to your women folk sir. Now forgive me but I am rather busy."

Within days the Earl of Holland's band of Royalist rebels had seized Kingston. However, the rapid arrival of a troop of Ireton's regiment from Windsor saw them flee the town and head further into Surrey. Through Ewell, Leatherhead  and Dorking the Royalists marched to Reigate. Unsettled by an attack by 3 Roundhead troops outside Reigate, Holland abandoned the town. Followed from post to post in Surrey by elements of the army and militia under Sir Michael Livesey, Holland marched his force of 5-600 back towards Kingston. Livesey's command was a similar size (4-500 according to the History Today article) composed of five troops of horse and three companies of foot. At Surbiton Common* the two forces met in a brief action that ended with the scattering of the Royalists. One much commented upon death, was that of the young Royalist Lord Francis Villiers, younger son of the first Duke of Buckingham, who rode into battle alongside his brother George, the second duke.

Some of the above may a figment of my imagination. Being awoken at 2 to meet my daughter from a school trip to Aachen may well be true.

I remember reading a short account on line a couple of years ago but have been unable to find it again. It isn't even mentioned in the BCW Project or on the Battlefield Trust website (not surprising as no one is certain where exactly it took place).  I found an article in History Today, paid my subscrition and downloaded the article. Note to self - return to the History Today archives before the subscription runs out!

* The History Today article mentions that Surbiton Common was about a mile and a half SE from 'the modern Southern region station'. I presume this means Surbiton station but I'm sure rail buffs could correct me (maybe it means Kingston station?). Surbiton Common doesn't seem to exist on current maps on line (all my 'research' for this was done from a laptop). I found reference to it in an article about the development of Hook (north of Chessington) which places it in that area. 19th century maps show an area called Kingston Common in the same general area. This would also roughly fit with the account given in History Today ‘upon a hill in the mid-way between Nonsuch and Kingston’ (possibly quoting Major Awdeley, an officer of horse with the Parliamentarians, but the citation is not clear). I've circled the area on the map below.

Map from Possible area of the battle circled. Nonsuch Park is right at the bottom, just right of centre.

The area indicated contains hills, so that fits. The tendancy would be to pick the ones that appear to be either side of what appears to be the modern Ewell Road, being as its name suggest the route from Ewell (next to Nonsuch). The centre of Surbiton itself has moved southwards, now occupying ground in the NE corner of the circled area. Interestingly, there is a modern road which crosses the Hogsmill River just east of what is marked on the map as 'Leatherhead Mill'. This road is called Villiers Road, and Villiers Avenue, which ascends the hill at the top of the circle. Town planners around the turn of the 19th century must have had their eye on local history when they named this road. Less auspiciously, town planners in the later 20th century placed the 'municipal dump' (or to give its grander, official title 'The Household Reuse and Recycling Centre') on land next to Villiers Road.

A couple of other places on the map worth noting. There are two powder mills marked by the Hogsmill. One by the village of Malden, and one just NW of Ewell Court (bottom centre of map). I have no idea whether they would have been around in the Civil War, or even if they were for gunpowder. Maybe I need to root around the 'local history' books in the library (though these are typically just compendia of 19th and early 20th century photographs). Another site to note is Cannon Hill just west of Merton on the right hand side. I've been up there and it is a particularly commanding site, and I like to think of it as the location of a battery. I'd be interested in finding out more about these places and what they really were. If anyone has a clue, I'd love to hear from you. Obviously you'll have noted Hampton Court Palace, and maybe Richmond Park to the top. Just off the map heading north along the Thames is Ham House and further up, the site of Richmond Palace. These things have my tiny mind thinking 'imaginary mini-campaign'. I need some high brick walls first though....

Anyway, onto the wargame. Coming up next.


  1. There is a hilly road in Kingston named Villiers Avenue where legend has it the young Duke of Villiers held at bay several roundheads by his skilled swordsplay, until stabbed by a pike through a hedge at Villier's back.

    1. Thanks for your comment James. I wondered if that’s how the road got it’s name.

  2. The History and excavation of nonsuch palace
    gives a good account by Martin Biddle the then chief historian for the borough who excavated the palace and places the battle just west of Nonsuch and a map which shows the common extended to Ewell
    and the alarm was raised to Lord Worcesters house beside the hogsmill near Tplworth who sent a message to Kingston Lord Worcester was the keeper of the hunting park hense Worcester park

    1. Many thanks for your contribution. Very interesting. This has prompted me to do a bit more digging on the internet.

      I assume the property you are referring to is Worcester Park House. It appears to have been where Surbiton Raceway now is, which makes sense as it’s on an area of open ground. This would place it by the Ewell-Kingston Road south of Tolworth.

      I assume the alarm was being raised on behalf of the Royalists as the (2nd) Marquess of Worcester, who’s grandfather had the house built as he was Keeper of the Park, was a Royalist. Maybe the message to Kingston was about the impending arrival of the Parliamentarians.

      The 2nd Marquess, Edward Somerset then appears to have been something of an inventor during the Restoration and developed a prototype steam engine called a “water commanding engine”!

  3. The hilly road mentioned is probably Villiers Path not Villiers Ave which is at the back of Hollyfield school as a north continuation of King Charles Road and its here,-0.299995,233a,35y,38.81h,30.54t/data=!3m1!1e3
    And Surbiton station was originally called Kingston station for a few short years and was located at Lamberts Hill NE of where it is now, near the junction of Villiers Path, Villiers Ave and King Charles Road. And 150 years ago Surbiton was mainly between Ewell road and King Charles Road.

  4. Thanks for your contribution Adrian. That’s confirmed what I thought about the station name.

    I wonder if Lucy Furlong is repeating a local legend or if there is a specific reference. Pinning down locations of battlefields even for something as recent as the English Civil Wars is a tricky business.