Becket Wood

The History of Becket Wood

Becket Wood is in the hamlet of Parkgate, on the south side of an area of the parish called Ewood (originally Yew Wood?). Ewood became a hunting park soon after the area was first settled; parts of its boundary bank can still be seen. The word ‘gate’ meant a road in early English, and the hamlet of Parkgate grew up on the road near the park, so the name Newdigate is thought to have originated as ‘on-Ewood-gate’ i.e. on the road to Ewood.

In about 1550, Ewood became the site of a major ironworks. These grew up in parts of the Weald which had the necessary iron ore, wood for fuel, and water to power the works. Ewood was not an ideal site, as water was short; a huge earth dam was built to impound a Great Pond, said to have covered 80 or 100 acres just north of Becket Wood. The area close to Mill Cottage on Ewood Lane was the main ironworking area, and the bellows for the furnace and forge, hammers, and machinery which crushed the ore were all water-powered. The stream at the edge of Becket Wood was dammed to create two subsidiary ponds to supplement the water supply.

The ironworks needed a huge supply of charcoal as fuel, and the woods were very carefully coppiced to provide it. This involved cutting down young trees of certain species; from the stump grew several strong stems which were cut when between ten and twenty-five years old, and the stump then regrew. Part of the coppice was cut every year, and provided a regular supply of fuel. An Act of Parliament in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, intended to maintain a supply of timber trees for ship-building, specifically exempted Ewood because it was sustainably managed as coppice.

The ironworks quickly ran out of ore, and the water supply was always inadequate, as the Great Pond dried up entirely in summer. Ironworking ceased in around 1620, but a watermill remained on the site, grinding corn using water from the pond. Farmers from most of the parish brought their grain there. The mill was still working in the late 1700s, but by the time the miller Richard Bax died in about 1794, flour from the mills in Dorking was being sold in shops in Newdigate, and fewer farmers grew grain for home consumption. The Duke of Norfolk had bought the two Ewood farms, including the mill, in 1786 and 1789, and his steward concluded that draining the lake and farming the land would be more profitable than the rents from the mill and the fishing. The lake was drained by about 1802, and Ewood became a mixture of farmland and coppiced woodland.

The farmland at Ewood was divided into two farms, each with its farmhouse. Ewood Park farmhouse was built in the 1600s, and is now named Ewood Old Farmhouse. Ewood Place farmhouse was much older and stood very close to the dam, just east of Mill Cottage. It was probably originally the Ewood manor house, and later became the home of the ironmaster; in the 1600s it was described as ‘an ancient mansion and fine’. But by 1791 it was in poor condition and said to contain forty inconvenient little rooms, eight of them windowless; the ground floor was only four feet above the surface of the pond at high water. It was demolished around 1800.

The two Ewood farms were owned by the Duke of Norfolk and let to tenant farmers for nearly 150 years. But they were unprofitable and in 1921 he attempted unsuccessfully to sell them. Five years later they were sold to a speculator, and the land fronting Broad Lane, Mill Lane and Ewood Lane was divided up and sold as building plots. A few years later, in 1934, an area of land off Mill Lane was bought by the Schermuly Pistol Rocket Company. This later became the site of Becket Wood.

The company was started at Cheam in 1897 when William Schermuly, a former merchant seaman, designed a rocket which could be fired from a distressed ship to another ship or the shore. It carried a line, which allowed stronger ropes to be hauled across and a breeches buoy or a tow line set up. His invention has saved untold numbers of lives at sea, and is still required safety equipment on all ships.

By the 1930s the expansion of Cheam meant that a factory handling large amounts of gunpowder was not welcome close to housing. So William’s son Conrad bought land at Ewood and moved the factory there. Safety was paramount, and the company’s safety record was extremely good. Work was carried out in small, lightly built sheds, so that if an explosion occurred debris would not cause further damage. The most dangerous job, that of filling the charges, was done by men working alone in tiny sheds separated by blast walls. As production increased, the site became covered with small buildings spaced well apart across the land, with isolated explosives stores, ponds to provide an emergency water supply, and a proving field for quality control.

Schermuly’s diversified into a wide range of other ‘pyrotechnic’ products, and production increased rapidly when the second world war started. They supplied the army, navy and air force with vast numbers of flares, distress rockets, star-shell and various specialist items, as well as line-throwing apparatus for all ships. The company expanded hugely, and at its peak 1,400 workers were brought in by coach from the surrounding area. To conceal the factory from the air, it was disguised as a farm, and animals grazed between the buildings.

After the war production was scaled down, but sales of a range of products continued to be high. In particular demand were the coloured cartridges for Very pistols, which were used for many signalling purposes, including to aircraft pilots where wireless contact was not possible.

Eventually the third generation of Schermulys decided to sell the family company, and it amalgamated with Pains-Wessex, who were best known as manufacturers of fireworks. Production of flares and other products continued at Ewood, and latterly CS gas was put into cartridges and grenades for police and military use. However, by 1981 all production had been transferred the Pains-Wessex factory at Salisbury, and the Ewood site was abandoned.

The site remained derelict for some years, but in the 1990s planning permission was given for housing development. The name Becket Wood was given by the developer, and its origin is unknown.

Jane Lilley – 2011