Most of what you see in Woking today has come in the last 150 years – in the middle of the town there are very few buildings more than 40 years old. But Woking does have a history. There are three burial mounds on Horsell Common which are 3000 years old and there was a small Roman settlement east of Old Woking. About 1300 years ago monks came from Chertsey and built a church, probably where Old Woking church is now, to serve the whole district. Vikings destroyed this but by 1066 it had been rebuilt and a small village grew around it.
Apart from land along the River Wey which could be used for agriculture most of the area of the modern borough was heathland – like Horsell and Chobham Commons. There were isolated farms and small churches at Horsell, Pyrford, Sutton and Byfleet and by 1300 some of the richer people and servants of the king had built larger manor houses in these places (but not Horsell). The kings loved hunting and large areas formed ‘forest’ which meant they were kept for the court to hunt deer and the local people had few chances to improve themselves. The manors at Woking and Sutton grew more important and were often owned by the king; at Woking Henry VIII rebuilt the old house as a small palace and often entertained his court and foreign visitors there: at Sutton the Weston family were given the manor and built Sutton Place, one of the first large houses built in brick and not with any means of defence.
Woking Palace was not used much after the time of Henry VIII and after James I sold it the building was demolished to build Hoe Place and other houses around Woking. The Weston family built canals and locks along the River Wey so that boats could reach from the Thames as far as Guildford and this meant that Old Woking grew into a small town. With this improvement in transport some market gardens opened on the heath to provide vegetables for London, which was growing rapidly, and by the end of the 18th century it was found that while the soil was poor it was good for growing plants such as rhododendrons and several plant nurseries opened, mostly lasting until the late 20th century.
In 1838 the railway reached Woking Common, on the site of the present station, on its way from London to Southampton and in 1845 a branch line opened to Guildford. Woking Station thus became an important junction for goods and passenger traffic, and London could now be reached within an hour. This did not bring an instant growth to the town, but it was now easy to reach London and there was a lot of land around the station which had little value for agriculture and was therefore cheap to buy from the Earls of Onslow, who owned the commons. First to realise this were those who saw that the London graveyards were becoming overcrowded and unhealthy: in 1852 the London Necropolis Company was formed to acquire land for burials out of town and came to buy 2000 acres of land based on Brookwood. The cemetery laid out on 400 of those acres was, and is, the largest private cemetery in Europe, and taking advantage of the railway passing by they ran trains for coffins and mourners from a special station near Waterloo into the cemetery where there were two stations. These special trains stopped when bombed in 1941.
The Necropolis Company had a lot of land they did not need for burials and soon began to sell it to others who saw the need for buildings on cheap land, near the railway but not too near anything else – so Woking by the 1870s had a splendid home for retired actors (the Royal Dramatic College, of which more later), the expanded Surrey County Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Brookwood Hospital, and one of the first mental hospitals which tried to understand problems of mental health) and two prisons, one for invalid men, the other for women. Other land was sold near the station, but in small portions, with no proper planning, and some rather ordinary streets of shops and houses grew along the roads to Chertsey, Chobham, Guildford, St John’s and Maybury. South of the station ground was sold for larger houses, but nothing else.
Not all these grand projects succeeded. The Royal Dramatic College ran short of money by 1877 and after being empty for some years was bought by Dr Gottlieb Leitner, who founded the Oriental Institute as a centre for oriental studies in England, both for the English and visitors and residents from the east. He built a mosque in the grounds – the first purpose-built mosque built in Western Europe since the 1500s, and although it closed for some years after his death it was re-opened in 1912 and was a centre for Muslims in Britain for many years, attracting many immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uganda, to Woking from the 1960s onwards. After much successful work the Brookwood Hospital finally closed in 1994 as mental problems began to be treated in the community rather than in large institutions, and the site has been redeveloped with Sainsbury’s and Homebase, but some of the original buildings becoming flats and the chapel a Buddhist temple. The prisons were gone by the 1890s, becoming Inkerman Barracks, which closed in the 1980s, to be demolished or converted to housing.
Two later large projects were the Crematorium at St John’s, the first crematorium built in Britain, opening in 1885, and the orphanage for the children of railway workers transferred from Clapham in 1911, and partly maintained by donations made to dogs which patrolled main stations with collecting boxes on their backs. The Crematorium continues but the orphanage has now been demolished and houses as well as a smaller home for retired railway workers built on the site.
Meanwhile the new town around the station continued to grow, with the addition of churches, a hospital, public buildings, halls and cinemas, and the smaller settlements such as Kingfield, St John’s, Knaphill and Brookwood also grew on a modest scale: Old Woking, left behind by the railway and north of the present A3 grew very little until industrial estates came after World War 2. Byfleet and Horsell both acquired rows of shops and West Byfleet started from a church at the corner to become the largest of the centres outside Woking town. Plans to develop a site for light industry and to rebuild in the centre of Woking had to stop with the outbreak of World War 2 and until 1975 the centre of Woking was a large car park. From 1950 Sheerwater was built on woodland and heath to house people from London which was becoming overcrowded, and also became a centre for industry, being the first Woking home of the McLaren motor racing works.
Woking was by now not only an ideal commuter town for London, with frequent trains, but was also becoming a business and industrial centre in its own right, with its population reaching 80,000 (it is now 90,700). In 1975 the first shopping mall, Wolsey Place, was built, along with a new library, swimming pool, theatre and halls and the Town square took shape, with the war memorial moved to its centre from ‘Sparrow Park’. As the nursery land became Goldsworth Park, then the largest private housing estate in Europe, further building in the town centre was necessary by the 1990s and the Peacocks shopping complex was built, along with the Ambassadors, including the New Victoria Theatre and a three (later six) screen cinema. The library was rebuilt and the swimming pool moved to Woking Park. More office buildings and housing came along Victoria Way, the relief road built in the 1970s, as well as in Goldsworth Road and south of the station. Throughout the 1970s there had been calls for a branch of M & S, a hotel and a museum: M & S came to the Peacocks and left in 2009, the Holiday Inn to Victoria Way (with an efficient district heating system) and in September 2007 The Lightbox opened as a museum, art gallery and cultural centre for all the people of Woking.