Wash Common is thought to have taken its name from the ‘Gewaesc’ or ‘Wasshe’ a swampy area of forest on the Hampshire-Berkshire border along the River Enborne. The forest was valued for its oak from medieval times and provided timber for Winchester College and New College Oxford as well as for local uses (Newbury’s wooden bridge over the Kennet and the roof of Sandleford Priory).
The southern slopes of the common were home to prehistoric people, whose ceremonial barrows can still be seen in the recreation ground at Battery End. In later feudal times, the area became an open common for the people of Newbury. It remained an expanse of heathland, used mostly by the drovers and by local residents for grazing and turf-cutting, until the enclosures of the mid-nineteenth century.
The Civil War
Many of the modern street names reflect Wash Common’s main claim to fame as the site of the first battle of Newbury in 1643. The battle was perhaps a pivotal moment for the Parliamentarians. Had the King won the day, the Roundheads and London Apprentices would have been prevented from reaching London on their way back from Gloucester and the whole outcome of the Civil War might have been changed.
The Royalists had reached Newbury first (on September 19th) and set up their positions on the common, digging in their cannons overnight. The Earl of Essex and the parliamentary army were on the lower land along the River Enborne. However the King’s position was too far back and when the battle commenced the next day, the Parliamentarians managed to gain a foothold on the higher ground at Round Hill. It was a fierce battle, with casualties running into thousands. The King’s Secretary of State, Lord Falkland, was killed leading a cavalry charge on the Roundhead guns. Running out of ammunition and appalled by the losses the King withdrew that night, leaving the way clear for Essex’s men to return to London.
The Beginnings of a Church on the common
By 1858 the common had been enclosed and a turnpike road (the Andover Road) had been built across it. Large houses, then smaller ones were built. To cope with the growth in population, St John’s parish (of which the common formed part), erected a Mission Room and Infant School in 1876. You can see the School marked on the map of 1877. In 1878 the small red and blue brick building was licensed for Divine Service and the Sacrament of Baptism – it became known as St Luke’s, and remained Wash Common’s church for 57 years.
The idea for a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Church had come from a local historian, Walter Money, and a building fund was started. Miss Leila Power of Park House had given some land next to St Luke’s in 1914 and St John’s purchased more in 1925. Thus starts the story of St George the Martyr, named after England’s patron soldier-saint and built to commemorate the fallen of the First World War as well as those who had perished on both sides in the carnage of 1643 (some estimates are of 6,000 dead in that one day).
By 1930 the fund had passed half-way to the target to £10,000, and work started in 1933. The Church was designed by FC Eden, and is based on the early Renaissance pilgrimage chapels found by the Italian Lakes in the foothills of the Alps. Work continued until the money ran out – the Church had been completed as far as the nave, so the end was boarded up. The work had cost £5,468 and it was estimated that a further £3,500 was required for completion. However that completion had to wait, as it turned out, for the next 31 years.
In the 1960s further growth on Wash Common led the Education Authority to seek a site for a new school. Thus the surplus land on the Church Field was sold – providing the funds (now somewhat more than the £3,500) to complete the Church , the cloister, campanile and vicarage in 1963-4 based on Eden’s original designs amended by John Griffin. The growth of the area led to St George’s becoming a Conventional District in 1958 and a Parish in 1963.
St George’s is one of only two churches in England designed by FC Eden FSA FRIBA, an authority on Italian art and architecture. The other is St John’s in Harpenden. The Italianate style, tall, light and airy, was also thought more suitable (and less costly) to the heavy clay subsoil of the common than the traditional Gothic that had also been considered.
The rood beam has figures carved in Italy by Alphonse Nofleur. The baldachino, based on drawings by Eden, is the work of Sir Stephen Dykes-Bower, architect and surveyor of Westminster Abbey and the designer of the rebuilt St John’s Church in Newbury. The memorial chapel of St Michael also has a reredos designed by Sir Stephen. The other major artistic contributions to St George’s are by John Hayward: the superb circular stained glass west window in reds and golds shows St George; the Lady Chapel reredos depicts the Annunciation; the St Michael Window; the pulpit, lectern and priests’ stalls; and the Processional Cross and Churchwardens’ staves.
The translations of the Latin inscriptions are:
On the front of the rood beam: “Look unto the Rock whence ye were hewn” Isaiah 51 v1
On its opposite side: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” Galatians 6 v14
On the front of the baldachino: “Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour Thee, Who in Thy Sacrament art pleased to be.”
Inside the baldachino is a verse from the Office Hymn of the Holy Name.
The Church Hall
In 1933 when the half-finished Church came into use, the former St Luke’s became the first church hall. As the needs of the community grew, it was decided to build a new hall and in 1970 two gifts were received towards the a new building. Work commenced in 1972 and after some delays completed in 1973. See the short memoire by Fr Piers Nash-Williams who was vicar during this period. The old St Luke’s hall is now leased to a local dramatic group, the New Era Players, as a small theatre.
After 20 years of constant use and exposure to the elements the 1970s hall was starting to deteriorate and a number of bad winters forced its closure in 1995. Plans for a new hall to meet the current needs of the wide range of regular users, as well as to extend the Church itself to provide new facilities were drawn up. The Development Project raised some £0.6mn over nine years to complete this vision. The new Hall was opened in January 1997 and the Annexe rooms in September 1999 to form the St George’s Centre. The redecoration and relighting of the Church was the final stage of the project.