The view from Frowsbury Hill, 1861

In July 1858, Queen Victoria paid a visit to Puttenham to review the troops based (in much the same way as they are today) several miles away in Aldershot. The nascent military town was in the grip of a cholera outbreak and, so as not to risk the monarch’s health, Puttenham Heath was chosen as the alternative open-ground venue for her visit. (I don’t know if the Heath had previous form for this sort of thing, or if it was selected at the suggestion of a person with a Puttenham connection – more detective work is required in this regard!) 150 years later another royal (HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Essex) visited the same spot on the anniversary of the original event and the restoration of the commemorative stone and flag pole raised to mark the occasion.

So far as I know, no photographs or other illustrations of Queen Victoria’s visit survive (unlike that of the Earl of Wessex, which was filmed and made into a DVD). A evocatively-illustrated information board, shown in a photo below, goes some way towards setting the scene, but what was the landscape Queen Victoria looked out over actually like? By a stroke of good luck, in spring 2015 I acquired a small watercolour of a landscape scene which, if the legend ‘From the Flagstaff, Puttenham Heath – June 24th 1861’ written on the paper on which it is mounted is to be believed, shows part of Puttenham Heath and beyond less than three years after her visit.

Because the locational information is not physically part of the painting, and because (as you’ll see below) what is depicted is a touch on the impressionistic side, it’s not cut-and-dried that what it depicts was/is indeed the view from the summit of Frowsbury Hill. Such attributions aren’t always what they seem, and I have a rather distinguished local example to prove this point. A few years ago, when I was really interested in St Martha’s church/chapel just outside Guildford, online searching turned up an 1805 pencil online version of a sketch by no less and artist than J M W Turner with the title ‘St Martha’s Hill from St Catherine’s Hill, near Guildford’. Go to St Catherine’s Hill and you’ll find there’s a major issue with this title – what you see when you look east across the Wey isn’t St Martha’s Hill, but the lower sandstone ridge known as The Chantries.

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Photo taken from a point pretty close to where Turner made his sketch in 1805, looking at The Chantries from St Catherine’s Hill. St Martha’s Hill, capped by the famous church and a landmark for many miles around, is out of sight behind it!

Anyway, back to the painting I bought and which is reproduced below. The first thing to say about it is that it’s very small – a slip of paper measuring some 20 x 3 centimetres. Secondly, I don’t know the name of the artist. His or her initials may be O. T. – this is a detail supplied with the information asserting authenticity by the antiquarian print dealer from which I acquired the painting.* If the initials are indeed those of the painter then I’m sure it would be possible to identify them based on other producing similar works in South-West Surrey around this time. But for now I’m stumped.

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Corroborating the trustworthiness of the label is best achieved climbing Frowsbury Hill and checking out the view from the flagpole. The ascent is no problem, but comparing features of old and current vistas is not so easy given the much greater numbers of mature (and mainly coniferous) trees now standing in the vicinity. Having done this twice in 2015, once in early May and again on the final day of the year, I’m pretty certain that the watercolourist painted the view looking east from the flagpole (or else very close by) and the stated location is thus credible.

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From the Flagstaff, Puttenham Heath – 31st December 2015. More trees (and more lens flare) obscuring the hills on the horizon line than in the 1861 painting, you’ll get a better sense of the similarities between painting and real life by clicking on the photo to enlarge it – or better still by visiting Frowsbury Hill!

In the foreground, the undulating pinky-purple washes are an effective depiction of heathland in summer, with heather in flower. This is dry heath, good ground for troops to march over and whatever else went on that day. The recently-erected information board (the majority of which is shown below) provides a wealth of minor information – the horse the Queen is sat on was named Alma – but inaccurately shows an overwhelmingly grassy environment – not that its artist was meant to know the reality!

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In the middle distance of the painting appears to be an area of woodland, presumably equivalent to Monkgrove or Monksgrove Copse (which, like Puttenham Heath, now forms part of Puttenham Golf Club’s 18-hole course). The depiction of the surrounding topography, on the other hand, is more dramatic than in real life; what I take to be the southern slope of the Hog’s Back ridge is nothing like at steep as in the painting. There’s also the question of the identity of the building crowning the hill. Monkshatch and Greyfriars, two big houses on the slopes of the Hog’s Back, were not built by 1861, and neither was the Henley Grove mobilisation centre further towards Guildford (it was built circa 1890). The Pewley Hill Admiralty Telegraph Station atop the chalk ridge south-east of Guildford town centre might seem a better bet, for it was built in the early 1820s, but is too far distant for this to be a realistic depiction of it. Maybe the element of the painting I’m missing is a big dollop of artistic licence?

Finally, a few words about the description of the spot at which the picture was painted. There is no mention of the name Frowsbury Hill, a fact which may or may not be significant (as negative evidence has an inherent tendency to be!). The earliest known attestation of Frowsbury Hill can be ascribed to around the start of 1870, when the Rev. Charles Kerry referred to it in an archaeological-cum-historical lecture to an assembled audience of Puttenham parishioners (as recorded on page 128 of volume 3 of his journal). Then, he advanced a convoluted explanation whereby Fro(w)sbury was the original name of the hill, superseded by Windmill Hill on account of what may have been a medieval post-mill at its summit (the last remnants of its steading were removed in 1817, though I have found stones part-covered in mortar which I fancy came from it).

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Frowsbury Hill marked on the Ordnance Survey 1:10,560 Epoch 1 map of 1871-82. It is very possible that Charles Kerry offered his knowledge of local toponyms (accurate or otherwise) to the cartographers, leading to it being named thus and not Windmill Hill. That said, the spelling differs from the spelling Frosbury found throughout his journals, and the form Frowsbury is known from 1765, so it is possible other local sources of information were used in addition to/instead of Kerry on this occasion. Quite why the year of Queen Victoria’s visit is given as 1838 rather than 1858 is unclear – a mapmaker’s deliberate error perhaps?

Quite what the hill was known as in 1861 is another matter. It may well have been Windmill Hill, though this could have been no more than an informal local name rather than one which ever appeared in a written document. If so, Kerry appears to have engineered the “restoration” of its supposedly-original appellation on the strength of its proximity to what he called ‘Frosbury Field’ (seemingly commensurate with the grounds of the nearby Rectory). However, he was wholly mistaken in his assumption that the -bury in Fro(w)sbury stemmed from Old English be(o)rg, ‘(small round) hill’; it actually comes from OE byrig/ME berie, ‘fortification, stronghold, manor (house)’. What is more, all indications are that the name was originally attached to the property known in the medieval period as Frollebury, whose site lay within the aforementioned field (discussed on the first page of my quick guide to Puttenham place- and field-names, and in a lot more detail in a paper for the Puttenham and Wanborough History Society I’ve been meaning to write up for years).

Be that as it may, I would contend it is no less feasible that it may have been a hill without a name at the time our unknown artist painted the watercolour, hence his or her recourse to the flagpole as the specific location of the viewpoint. What is beyond any doubt is that it was and remains a fantastic spot to paint or simply admire the view.

* I am immensely grateful to Dr David Taylor for alerting me to the existence of the painting (and another watercolour of a cottage said to be in the Puttenham area, which turns out to be near Lydling in neighbouring Shackleford parish), purchasing it and selling it on to me. Proof as if proof were needed that it’s always worth keeping an eye on online sales and auctions for items of local historical interest!

2 Responses to The view from Frowsbury Hill, 1861

  1. Mike Smith says:

    I was very interested to read this article as I was the person who organised the commemoration day in 2008. I have more photos, paintings & information & would love to talk to the author of this piece please.

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