Characters of the Commons

Boating on the river, Cookham, Berkshire

Over the centuries, there have been many characters who have lived and worked here or influenced the future of the Commons. Here are just a few of our favourite stories.

Thomas Dodson

In 1597, the villagers secured the lease of Widbrook Common from Elizabeth I for the term of three lives or that of the longest lived. The villagers chose Thomas Dodson, a bargeman, who lived until he was 86; ensuring that the lease extended well into the reign of Charles II. On his death, the people refused to return the lease and the matter went to court. The villagers defeated the Crown in court, so Thomas’ good health preserved their grazing rights long after his death.

Robbers and Highwaymen

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise of the Highwayman and the stretch of the Bath Road through Maidenhead Thicket was notorious countrywide as was amongst the most dangerous places in England. This was one of the busiest stretches of road in the country whilst the dense vegetation provided cover and plenty of escape routes. One such highwayman who operated in the Thicket was Captain James Hind - among his many famous exploits was a failed attempt to rob Oliver Cromwell, along with his seven bodyguards.

Sir Stanley Spencer

Born in Cookham in 1891, Stanley Spencer lived in the area for much of his life and could often be seen walking along the country roads pushing an old pram in which he kept his canvases and easel. He sought inspiration from the commons and many of his paintings reference everyday rural life in this corner of Berkshire. Today his works can be seen in the major London galleries, at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire and of course at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham itself.

Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame lived at 'The Mount' in Cookham Dean as a child and returned to the village in later life, writing The Wind in the Willows from here in 1908. He is said to have been inspired by the River Thames at Cookham and his childhood memories of “messing about in boats”.

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands

During the Second World War, Queen Wilhelmina was living in exile at Stubbings, taking charge of the Dutch government, setting up a resistance movement and communicating messages to her people. The staff and police needed to protect her were housed in Maidenhead Thicket in what became known as the ‘Dutch Camp’. Elsewhere on the Commons potatoes were grown on Pinkneys Green and various crops planted at Cookham Dean as the nation ‘dug for victory’.
" Messing about in boats"
- Kenneth Grahame