The Fox Corner Wildlife Association
Starting from the beginning...
... from at least 1667, and most likely earlier, on the east side of the Hoe Stream, there were 5 fields called Speech Field (numbered 129 on the above map), Speech Meadow (numbered 130), together with 3 others (128, 131 and 131a). Around 7 acres in area, they went by the name of “Speeches” and are coloured pink on the map above. Quite why they were called Speeches is a mystery. Were they once owned by a Mr or Mrs Speech? Were they once used for growing spinach (unlikely)? Or was the owner a prominent local orator (even less likely)? Or perhaps it was a derivation from some old English word.
The earliest known occupants of “Speeches” were one Radolphus Vynein 1547, and then Elizabeth and John Burle in 1667. Within the next 6 years the plot had been sold to Henry Rober, who also owned Heath Mill. It is easy to assume that Speeches was used to grow crops for use by Heath Mill, but we do not know this for sure. Both properties were owned copyhold, which was an old form of property ownership, similar to freehold, but involving some payment (eg a number of days of work) to the owner, in this case The Lord of the Manor of Pirbright.
Henry Rober died in 1731, and was declared bankrupt. Speeches was then acquired by 3 members of the Huntingford family: John, his son Richard and Richard’s wife, Alice. John may have been a tailor in Pirbright, but Richard became a yeoman in Worplesdon (living in Nightingale Cottage, Rickford, just beyond Perry Hill Chapel). Richard and Alice passed Speeches to their son, Richard at some stage before their deaths in 1786, but things did not go to father Richard’s satisfaction, as evidenced in his will. It makes an interesting start: “I give and bequeath to my son Richard Huntingford one shilling and no more in the month after my decease, I having given him divers sums of money before and my lands in Pirbright”. Just to make it clear, he specifies that the remainder of his estate should be “equally divided between all my children, except my son Richard Huntingford”. No love lost there.
At any rate Richard the younger now owned Speeches, but later sold it (in 1801) to John Collins. This was probably the same John Collins who was one of the executors of father Richard’s estate. He was a member of the Collins family which owned several properties in Pirbright and Worplesdon.
[At some stage before 1807, 2 of the 5 fields at the eastern end (Pirbright Meadow and The Slip) were separated from Speeches and occupied by different farmers. In 1807 they were farmed by James Honer (the owner of Lower Mill), but by 1841 they were farmed by James Stanford, the owner of Hockford Farm]
Back to the main Speeches fields. After John Collins’s death in 1820, Speeches passed to his nephew Henry. Henry died in 1826, and the property then passed to his son William, until his death in 1841 (at which time the fields were categorised as arable and meadow in equal proportions).
By this time, William’s properties included not just Speeches, but also Norton’s Farm and Rickford Cottage in Worplesdon, as well as others. William’s will directed that all his properties should be sold by his son, William, and 2 others “with all convenient speed”, but Speeches was not sold until 1854, and Norton’s Farm a further 6 years later, both to Charles Peyto Shrubb, becoming part of his Merrist Wood estate. Charles was one of a line of wealthy Guildford landowners, and was living in Hampshire. He was rapidly expanding the size of Merrist Wood by buying surrounding properties. Speeches would have formed a very small part of this estate, for a few years used by the occupants of Norton’s Farm.
Charles Peyto Shrubb died in 1899 (at Merrist Wood), and the estate continued to be owned by his family.
In 1918, the entire Merristwood Estate was sold to Harold Denison Arbuthnot (1868-1944), a partner in a firm of stockbrokers, who used Merristwood House as a private residence. The Speeches fields would have been low on his radar, being in a far corner of the estate, and separated from the rest of the estate by the Rickford House grounds and the Hoe Stream. The OS maps of the time show them as being a nursery.
The estate was purchased in 1939 by Surrey County Council under a Compulsory Purchase Order with the intention to convert Merrist Wood House into a mental health institution. Local residents objected strongly in newspapers and at public meetings, but in any case, plans for the conversion were shelved shortly afterwards, when the Second World War broke out.
In 1943, Merristwood was chosen as the site of the County Farm Institute, and later (in 1967) it became the Merrist Wood Agricultural College. As with the previous owners, the fields would probably have escaped much scrutiny, and the small group of isolated fields would have been a low priority on the agenda of the new Merrist Wood management.
It is not clear exactly what happened to the fields between the end of the war and the 1980’s, so we will fast forward to recent history. Riding stables existed there between at least 1967 and 1981. The excellent website of the Fox Corner Community Wildlife area at http://www.foxcornerwildlife.org.uk/gallery/ shows some old photos of the area being used as a used car lot, together with the remains of the riding stables. It looked a mess. We have included two below, with thanks to the FCWA.
The Community website picks up the story and describes how “Having suffered long-term dumping and misuse and a succession of non-conforming planning uses and applications, the land was bought by compulsory purchase order in 1989 by Guildford Borough Council to give it permanent protection. Local residents then asked for the chance to create a wildlife area for Fox Corner and in 1990 a partnership group was set up, involving residents, Guildford Borough Council, Surrey Wildlife Trust and Merrist Wood College, to bring the site back to life.” The website shows numerous photographs of the development of the area.
Thus, after a series of twists and turns, together with a lot of recent effort from several volunteers, we have ended up in the happy position of having the marvellous Fox Corner Wildlife Area on our doorsteps. 14 acres in total, it is a peaceful haven, carefully tended by volunteers, and free for visitors to wander over at their leisure. Here are a couple of recent photos, again with thanks to the FCWA.
The westerly extension of the Wildlife Area (ie, over the Winter Bridge) lies outside the old Speeches Fields, and is on land formerly owned by Tod’s Farm, but we will cover this piece of land in the “Norfolk House & The Squirrels” section.