|the Old Town Hall|
By Carole Barclay
Kingston-upon-Thames is one of those outer London boroughs that seems to reek of Toryland. The malls and markets are a shoppers’ paradise and the riverside oozes of wealth. But first impressions can be misleading.
This town once had an active communist presence based in the local aircraft industry that began when Sopwith Aviation built their first factory in Kingston in 1912. Today the labour movement lives on in the unions, the Labour Party and the local NCP branch. But the borough is now a Liberal-Democrat bastion.
The aircraft industry dominated the town in the 20th century with three factories and a research centre that directly employed over 40,000 workers. That chapter in Kingston’s history sadly ended when British Aerospace sold their Kingston plant in 1992. Now all that’s left are a few street names and the dedicated galleries in RAF museums.
The factories have gone but thousands of workers are still employed in the public sector.
Kingston became part of Greater London in 1965 but it remains the administrative centre for Surrey despite half-hearted attempts to move the county seat to Woking. The town is also home for 20,000 students at the university that specialises in the arts, design, fashion, science, engineering and business.
Nowadays the town is dominated by the retail industry that has made Kingston the third biggest shopping destination in London. But hidden in plain sight behind the bustle of the malls and stores are reminders of our distant past.
The town began when a bridge was built over the Thames that divided Wessex and Mercia in Saxon days. It prospered as a royal centre under the patronage of the Wessex kings who eventually dominated the whole country.
The original settlement revolved around the market square, now dominated by the Old Town Hall towering above it. A gilded statue of Queen Anne looks down on the square atop the former town hall that was built in the Italian style in the 19th century. These days it’s full of arts and crafts stalls. The street market outside is open every day of the week.
Seven Saxon kings were said to have been crowned in Kingston on a stone that is now tucked away in a nearby garden outside the modern Guildhall. The Coronation Stone is said to be the stone on which the seven Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned at the nearby parish church of All Saints, where it was unearthed in the 18th century.
Although All Saints Church does date back to Saxon days, most of it is sturdy medieval work. It was put to good use by Oliver's Army, who used it to stable their horses when they garrisoned the town during the Civil War. The Puritan preacher Edmund Staunton was Rector at Kingston from 1633–1658 during those turbulent times and there’s a monument to his children in the church.
Pop in for tea at the excellent café that the church runs in part of the nave. On your way out stroll down to the Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill river, which has miraculously survived since Norman days.
Finally, don’t miss one of the more unusual sights in Kingston – a modern art installation consisting of 12 old red phone boxes tipped up like dominoes on a street near the museum and history centre. Designed by David Mach, who was previously a lecturer in the Sculpture School at Kingston University, they’ve bemused Kingstonians and visitors alike since they went up in 1989.