The Blackheath War Memorial
by Sarah Sullivan
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The Blackheath War Memorial Cross stands proud on Rosemary Hill and has a deep emotional resonance with villagers and those further afield. Whether on a national, civic or social level it acts as a constant reminder of the ultimate price of war. This is a monument that stands for the many lives lost, as well as a means of remembering the names of the individual servicemen who paid that price.
At the end of four years fighting the Great War, ‘The War to End All Wars’, every city, town and village in the country, including our village of Blackheath, contained families who had lost their young men. Preserving the memory of those involved was a fundamental desire of this small community. It was tragic that these young lives had been lost with no physical symbol of remembrance. Families of the fallen did not have bodies to bury, as there was a government policy of no repatriation of corpses.
In 1919, the Royal Academy organised a ‘War Memorial Exhibition’, which provided advice for those who wished to erect a memorial, as well as providing a catalogue with suggested designs. No national funding was available for local and civic memorials, so they were commonly paid for by public subscription, or sometimes by private donation.
After consultation with the Arts and Crafts architect, Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949), it was decided to erect the memorial at Rosemary Hill. Standing just 17 feet high, the cross may be considered modest in style. Nicholson, who lived at Blackheath, was an architect who specialised in church work and cathedrals. At Blackheath, he built his own house called Poynetts, named after his family’s farm near Benfleet in Essex. The house still stands on the heath today. Now called Aston House, many walkers will know it as "the house with the sun". It has white rendered exterior walls with a large glazed yellow smiling sun facing eastwards over the heath and the break of dawn. Nicholson’s ecclesiastical works included Portsmouth Cathedral, Alton Abbey, St Mary’s Bournemouth and the west front of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. He also sang in the Blackheath choir and took an active part in the community.
Nicholson used Clipsham stone for the memorial – as used on Windsor Castle since 1363 and for much of the restoration works to the Houses of Parliament and many Oxford Colleges. It is synonymous with quality, durability and beauty. The stone, which Nicholson selected, was light brown to match the colour of the local Bargate stone. Clipsham stone has been quarried for centuries and came from Rutland through to Lincolnshire in the East Midlands. The stone used on the memorial is a coarse grained limestone dating to the Jurassic period (approximately 208-146 million years ago). Other materials were discussed with the committee such as granite, although this form of limestone was thought ‘would look equally well or better and be as durable’.
Subscription was put together to make this permanent reminder on the heathland. This cross on Rosemary Hill provides a ‘living memorial’, as its stone surround provides a convenient resting seat to be able to view St Martha’s and Newlands Corner. More distant views are dependent on the weather and foliage on the trees.
This memorial is not only significant in a commemorative role, it also marks a key location in this historic environment. It is widely believed that it was here that the Saxon Thanes would gather, pre-Domesday. These chiefs from the surrounding area would meet here on an open hilltop, known as a gathering of the Blackheath Hundred. Referred to as Roastmeat Hill in the eighteenth century, it could be a piece of folk entomology, although seven paths converging from all points of the compass do suggest a meeting place. An area of open land would be chosen on the borders of the ‘Hundreds’ so that approaching enemies could clearly be seen. Blackheath was originally quite treeless land, which, even 100 years ago resembled the Yorkshire Moors. Horace Townsend described Blackheath as ‘a district whose wide sweep of heath and moorland with its far stretching horizon suggest Yorkshire rather than Surrey’ (from The Studio: An Artistic Treatment of Cottages 1896). Although the exact meeting place of the Hundred of Blackheath is not known, it has been thought to be location where the WWI war memorial stands today.
The area of land known as Rosemary Hill was later purchased by the Ballantyne-Dykes family to prevent the spread of housing such as that seen along the Triggs Turner Estate to the south of Locker Holt (dating to the 1920s). The land lies behind the house of Rosemary Hill and was gifted to the National Trust by Maud Theresa Ballantine-Dykes. She donated 19.74 acres at Blackheath on 5th May 1937.
The Blackheath War Memorial Cross was created, erected and built to commemorate those involved or affected by a conflict, which touched all the villagers. A list of every member of the community who gave money towards this monument, however humble a contribution, shows the deep grief felt by all. These feelings are still held; inscribed into stone the surnames of those relatives for whom names still engender a sense of family pride.
The Memorial Cross to the memory of the Men of Blackheath who gave their lives was unveiled by Colonel Longbourne and the cross was dedicated by the Lord Bishop of Guildford on Saturday 27th March 1920. A procession, led by the St Martin’s church cross, was taken up onto the heath. It was accompanied by The Drums of the 1st Battalion The Queens Regiment, followed by the villagers.