On Saturday I was planning to take part in a tour of Wandsworth Prison – I’m a member of the London Historians group and one of the members is a serving officer there. Unfortunately, although I’d packed all the other things that I would need for the day I forgot my ID so was unable to participate – understandably they don’t let just anyone wander around one of the country’s Category B penal institutions.
There’s no doubt that the prison will feature on the Londoneer in the near future, but I did take the opportunity to have a look around the area that’s just down the road from the prison itself – Wandsworth Common. This particular stretch of London’s common land has an interesting history – as early as 1871 local people sought to protect it from the urban sprawl that was already beginning to encroach on the area, and for many years the common was home to the 85 foot long ‘scope‘ – built by the Reverend John Craig and supported by a tall brick tower in the middle of the common, it was once the largest astronomical instrument in the world.
Wandsworth Common’s other notable feature is the building that sits on its western edge – the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building. This handsome mid-Victorian structure was built in 1859 as an asylum for girls who were orphaned during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. While it operated as a school well into the 20th century, during World War II it was used as an interrogation centre by the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6). Today the buildings in the complex house the Academy of Live & Recorded Arts, posh flats and the ‘Le Gothique’ restaurant. The exterior is easily accessible if you would like to take a look around, but a good opportunity to check out the interior of the building comes twice a year, when it hosts the annual Wandsworth Common Beer Festival (unfortunately you’ve missed the 2013 outing, which took place in March).
One of the other surprising discoveries I made about Wandsworth Common is how incredibly popular it is with dog-owners – I’ve never seen so many pooches in one place at the same time. Popping into the coffee bar outlet near Wandsworth Common railway station I was one of the few people there without a canine in tow – odd!