Knaphill: the name, the landowners and the Azalea

The village name of Knaphill was derived from ‘la Cnappe’, with its earliest reference dating back to 1225. ‘Cnappe’ or ‘Knap’ actually means ‘at the top of the hill’. The hill part of the name came about during the 15th Century and is believed to be a corruption of the old English term of ‘haga’ meaning an enclosure which dates back to Anglo Saxon times. ‘Knaphill’ has previously been spelt in various ways sometimes without the ‘K’ ‘Naphill’ and as ‘Knap Hill.’

The village emerged as part of the ancient parish of Horsell. Horsell formed part of the Manor of Pyrford, which may explain why Horsell is not recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086. This also means that Knaphill along with the rest of Horsell was probably part of the land granted to Westminster Abbey in 956 A.D.

Horsell was the property of the Abbot of Westminster by 1278 but would have passed to Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s. There is also some evidence to suggest that Knaphill and Horsell once formed part of Windsor Great Park.

The property, including what is now Knaphill, was owned by Denzil Onslow in 1678 and it continued to be held by the Onslow family into the mid-19th Century when it was sold to the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company.

Denzil Onslow 1719 (c) National Trust, Clandon Park; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Basingstoke Canal was constructed to the south of Knaphill and opened in 1794 and the London & South Western Railway Company came in 1838, the nearest station being built at nearby Brookwood. Knaphill developed slowly but not initially as a commuter village as most people found work locally. An invalid and woman’s prison was established here in 1859 which was later converted into army barracks.

StJohns Barracks

In the mid-19th Century the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company owned much of the land that is now Knaphill. The heathland to the south of the village became ear-marked for the locations of what was to become the Surrey Lunatic Asylum and Woking Prisons (later Inkerman Bararcks) as the company negotiated the sale of huge chunks of its land.

The sprawling Knaphill Common had sat snugly between Horsell and Pirbright Commons and Sheets Heath. In the 1880s neighboring Brookwood was able to develop as a village in its own right as the railway station slowly became an important hub for the area’s growing population.

At the time the area was treated as low class and inferior. Other pieces of the land were sold off in ‘quick sales’ and a number of small holdings began to appear.

Dwellings were poorly built, with little planning as they popped up in a somewhat sporadic fashion. By the 1870s and 1880s the remaining areas of the common had been sold for further housing and many of these became inhabited by Knaphill’s so-called working class, including those employed at the prisons and the lunatic asylum.

The Knaphill Azalea

If you look closely at the Knaphill village emblem, which was designed by Woking Borough Council in the mid-1990s, you will see that it shows the old Brookwood Hospital asylum tower on a hill and in the foreground the flower is the Knaphill Azalea, a member of the rhododendron family.

The fertile soils in and around Knaphill proved ideal for the establishment of garden nurseries and these employed large numbers of manual workers. The earliest nursery, Waterer’s, can be traced back to 1724 when Thomas Waterer was believed to be already farming in Knaphill. But it was his grandson Michael Waterer Senior (1715- 1827) who acquired the ‘bog’ around 1770 and set to work to drain it, having realised its great potential for the raising of rhododendrons, azaleas and other ericaceous plants.

In 1809 the nursery started to specialise in rhododendrons and this was where the famous Knaphill strain of Azalea, was born. The azalea was created towards the end of the nineteenth century by Anthony Waterer at what became Waterer’s Nursery in Knaphill. Anthony Waterer along with Robert Godfrey took charge of the nursery in 1853. The business continued to be owned by the Waterer family until 1976.

Michael Waterer (1770-1842) produced the ‘Nobleanum’ Azalea which is early flowering. In 1870 Anthony Waterer (1822-1896) began hybridising using the species and developed hybrids of the deciduous rhododendrons that included hybrids from Belgium and others from eastern North America, China, and Asia. Then in the 1920s they were hybridised even further by Lionel Rothschild of Exbury Gardens in Hampshire.

Rothschild developed other strains include the Exbury Azalea, derived from the ‘Knaphills’. Both this and the ‘Nobleanum’ azalea established hybrid groups and their descendants are now generally referred to as ‘Knaphill hybrids’ and the name relates back to their original hybridising process.

Knaphill Hybrid Azaleas produce some of our most spectacular displays in late spring.

The flowers of the Knaphill hybrids can reach from three to four inches across. They come in magnificent shades of yellow, gold, orange, and red, although some hybrids are often pastel blends of almost any hue from white through to lemon yellow, to peach, salmon, and pink. Some of the varieties have brilliant yellow or gold flares in the throat and many of them are extremely fragrant. The plants are very winter hardy, capable of surviving extreme weather temperatures with no noticeable problems. However, they can sustain damage during hot dry summers if not carefully maintained.

Unfortunately, most of the Knaphill azaleas have been in decline over the past 50 years due to climatic stress, competition, theft, and disease and as a result of this have become very rare.

Michael Waterer (1770-1842) produced the ‘Nobleanum’ Azalea which flowers at Christmas. In 1870 Anthony Waterer (1822-1896) began hybridising using the species and developed hybrids of the deciduous rhododendrons that included hybrids from Belgium and others from eastern North America, China, and Asia. Then in the 1920s they were hybridised even further by Lionel Rothschild of Exbury Gardens in Hampshire. The Knaphill Azalea features on the Woking Borough Council village emblem for Knaphill. Knaphill Football Club has replaced the Azalea with a football for their club badge.

Knaphill Brickfields that was located just off Anchor Hill had been a key employer in the village since the early 1760s. Bricks from the site were used for the construction of the Basingstoke Canal, Surrey County Asylum and Knaphill’s two convict prisons. The works were owned and operated by the Cook Brothers and were situated where the Lansbury Business Park is today. It was accessible from Lower Guildford Road and had an entrance at what is now Hillside Close off Anchor Hill. The distinct ‘yellow’ bricks from the fields were also used to build a number of residential dwellings in and around the village. The business was closed down in 1924/25 because of depleted sand-clay levels and the numerous alternative options that became available in the construction industry around that time, although some ‘red’ bricks were still produced from the pits adjacent to Robin Hood Road and in St Johns right up to 1942.

Taken from Knaphill (All in One Place) © Mal Foster

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