The Star & Garter Inn, Augustin Heckel 1755
For many centuries the woodland and much of the surrounding area was used as common land for the pasturing of animals and gathering of firewood. First belonging to Chertsey Abbey, the land was surrendered to the Crown in 1415, and remained Crown property until 1647 when King Charles I granted the lease of the manor of Petersham, including Ham House, to his 'whipping boy' William Murray.
William Murray, First Earl of Dysart
In the early 1600s the broader area, including neighbouring Hill Common, was eroded by grants of land to tilemakers whose tile kilns had been set up between Petersham Road and the river in the reign of Elizabeth I. "So eagerly did the tilemakers dig out clay, sometimes outside the land granted to them, that the manor records are full of complaints that landslides were caused." (John Cloake, Richmond Past, 1991).
The tile kilns were closed in 1767, by which time Petersham was already well established as a desirable site for grand 'rural' residences away from London, thereby attracting more social and recreational visitors.
Notable amongst early local buildings was the Star & Garter on the eastern edge of the Common near the entrance to Richmond Park. The Star and Garter evolved from a tavern, first established in 1738, into an extravagant French-chateau style hotel by the late 19th century, frequented by royalty and nobility.
The prosperity of the area was also reflected in a large number of almshouses for the poor and some of these were situated on the Common along the Petersham Road until they were destroyed in the mid 20th century.
Petersham Common remained in the Dysart estate for over 250 years, but by the end of the 19th century it had become an inpenetrable jungle of undergrowth, reminiscent of the blood-curdling tales of the Brothers Grimm*. Recognising that common land would be better managed by elected representatives, parliament transferred ownership of Petersham Common from the 9th Earl of Dysart, William Tollemache, to the Borough council. A body known as the Petersham Common Conservators was established, who continue to manage the Common to this day. For more details, see Woodland Management.
The historic pastoral and recreational elements of Petersham Common Woods have featured in a romanticised way in several of the historic paintings of the famous view from Richmond Hill:
Attributed to Adriaen van Diest c.1700. Petersham Common Woods are on the left.
The view as painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1788), for whom Wick House was built at the northernmost point of Petersham Common
Wick House (centre) and The Wick (right), c 1800, by J.I Richards. The boundary of Petersham and Richmond parishes falls between these two houses.
The view from the woodland as painted by JMW Turner (1819)
Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1862
Postcard of the Star & Garter Hotel at the peak of its popularity in the late 19th century. Charles Dickens is said to have celebrated his birthday there for many years. After the First World War it was demolished and rebuilt as a home for war veterans.
By 2011, Royal Star & Garter Homes announced that the building could no longer serve the needs of its residents, and the building was sold for luxury residential development in 2013, includng a sympathetic restoration which was completed by 2017. More information here on the Star & Garter history.
The almshouse (destroyed in 1953), with the Petersham Hotel on the left.
The almshouses with the Star & Garter above.
Petersham Common from intersection with Star and Garter Hill c.1912
The Petersham Hotel (left) and Star & Garter in the 21st Century
*from an article by Arthur Godfrey, published in the Richmond & Twickenham Times (3rd September 1966) as cited in the Journal of the Richmond Local History Society 2007 (Number 28)