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History of Limpsfield Common

Misty landscape beyond Scearn Bank at Limpsfield Common, Surrey
Misty landscape beyond Scearn Bank at Limpsfield Common | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

Limpsfield Common has a history spanning back centuries. In fact, stone has been quarried here as far back as the Domesday Book in the 11th century. The shallow stone pits can still be found while exploring the area today. However, the common is more famously known for its air raid shelters, which protected local school children from bombings during the Second World War.

Second World War at Limpsfield Common

During the Second World War, and particularly during the Battle of Britain in 1940, many ferocious dogfights occurred in the skies above east Surrey and Kent.

German bomber plans also often flew overhead on their way to target London. Although sometimes the aircrafts shed their bombs over Limpsfield Common as they fled the country pursued by British fighters.

Air raid shelters

Air raids were a very real threat to the people living in this area and in order to protect the students of Limpsfield School six air raid shelters were built on Limpsfield Common at the start of the war.

Building the shelters

To build the shelters a trench about 1.2 metres deep was dug filled with concrete to create the base. The roofs and walls were also made of concrete several inches thick.

These ‘trench style’ shelters could each hold around 50 children and were built about 500 metres from the school buildings.

Protecting local school children

The shelters were created in line with instructions from the Board of Education. According to the board, ‘in times of danger children should not be assembled in groups of [more than] 50’ and the buildings should have secure rooves giving them ‘immunity from splinters, anti-aircraft shell fragments and machine gun fire’.

What happened during an air raid

Once the air raid siren rang out – or the headmaster Mr Moulding range the school bell – the students and teachers would scramble to the shelters on Limpsfield Common.

From the school, the children had to cross the cricket ground and then a field laid with barbed wire fences. If they heard enemy aircraft overhead before they reached the shelters, they had to lie flat on the ground until the danger passed.

Sometimes children spent most of their school day inside the shelters, especially during the Battle of Britain.

Inside the air raid shelters

The children and teachers would have gone down a short set of steps and through a wooden door to enter the shelter. Once inside, students sat on wooden benches that ran down either side of the building.

From here teachers continued lessons – or at least, they’d try. It was often difficult to teach with the sound of aircraft battles roaring overhead. If the noise was too loud children would sometimes sing songs like Ten Green Bottles.

Teaching classes in the shelters

Reading and writing was also tough, because the shelter only had a few oil lamps along the walls. However, there’s evidence of cables and fixings so it’s believed that electricity was eventually added.

At the far end of the shelters there was a small curtained-off area, which hid a basic bucket-style toilet and a metal ladder. The ladder led to the escape hatch, which was meant to be used if the main entrance was ever damaged.

Air raids at night

The shelters weren’t only for children, and at night they became a haven for local families. Night raids were frequent as the German bombers flew overhead on their way to London.

Aircraft crash nearby

In one of the many dogfights over Limpsfield Common, a German fighter aircraft called a Messerschmitt 109 crashed close the air raid shelters on nearby New Road. As the aircraft burnt, the shelters were apparently filled with thick black smoke.

The air raid shelters today

In the years after the Second World War, the air raid shelters became overgrown and were in danger of being lost.

However, in 2006, one of the buildings was restored to its wartime condition so now people can visit the shelter and imagine how the school children felt as the sirens blasted and aircraft flew overhead.

Anti-tank weapon on Limpsfield Common

Near one of the air raid shelters on Limpsfield Common are the remains of a Spigot Mortar from the Second World War.

This anti-tank weapon was named after the steel pin or ‘spigot’ on which the gun was mounted, but it was also known as ‘Blacker Bombard’ after its inventor Lieutenant Colonel Blacker.

A wartime weapon

The Spigot Mortar was created at a time when the army needed cheap and easily produced weapons to replace the many that were lost at the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.

However, the Spigot Mortar was extremely heavy. Weighing in at about 150 kilograms, it could fire a 9-kilogram high explosive anti-tank mortar bomb up to 91 metres effectively. Although it was most effective at shorter range.

Who used Spigot Mortars?

Spigot Mortars were issued to voluntary civilian soldiers, known as the Home Guard, in 1941 and used until 1944. Unfortunately, the weapon was almost as hazardous for the operator as it was the for the enemy.

Its stabilising fins had a tendency to fly back towards the person operating the gun.

How to use a Spigot Mortar

Believe it or not, the Spigot Mortar was originally designed to be mobile so was mounted on a large four-legged frame. However, this frame just made it even heavier and it took six men to move it. After a while, the legs were replaced by permanent mounting points.

These mounting points were essentially a column of concrete that stuck out from a small pit about 1.2 metres deep. On top of the base was a steel pin on which the gun was fitted.

The pit itself offered some protection to the Home Guard volunteers operating the gun and the ammunition was stored in small concrete recesses next to the pit.

The Spigot Mortar on Limpsfield Common

One of these permanent mounts can be found on Limpsfield Common today. The stainless-steel pin is in excellent condition and the crown and crowfoot stamp, which marks it as having been military equipment, is still clearly visible. The Spigot Mortar base was dug up and worked on by the Limpsfield Common Volunteer Taskforce.

Limpsfield Common's medieval history

During the medieval period, pots were made in the pottery kilns at Scearn Bank near Limpsfield Chart. This homeware was called Limpsfield Ware and remains of the centuries-old pottery can still be found in the area today.

The common 600 years ago

However, the surrounding area looked different 600 years ago. From about the 14th century, what is now Limpsfield Common was used by locals as somewhere to graze animals as well as collect stone and firewood.

This shaped the landscape into an open heathland. Since then, the woodland has moved in and only a few patches of heath are left.

Limpsfield Common in the Victorian era

Then, in the Victorian era when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, brick workers moved in. In fact, the nearby Brick-Kiln Lane is named after a brick works that produced here from the 1800s to the early 1900s.

Limpsfield Common and the National Trust

The National Trust began caring for Limpsfield Common in 1972. A ceremony was held to mark the occasion on 26 August 1972.

In the ceremony, the Lord of the Manor, Major Richard Levenson-Gower, revived an ancient medieval custom of land transfer: he cut a sod of turf from the common and handed it to the Trust’s director-general.

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