Five Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Secret Dorking

Dorking has a long and fascinating history dating back centuries, but it also has many secrets hidden just below the surface. Many of these secrets have been long forgotten or excluded from the history books … until now! My latest book Secret Dorking uncovers many of the town's deepest and darkest historical anomalies for the first time, and presents a new outlook on Dorking's varied, surprising, and sometimes shocking past.

1. Dorking Police Station was the hub for investigating an assassination attempt on Lady Beaverbrook.

An eagle-eyed chauffer saved the life of Lady Beaverbrook in May 1971 when he spotted something strapped to the car's exhaust pipe. On closer inspection, he discovered it was a bomb and called the police. The device was safely removed, and the car taken to Dorking for forensic examination. Dorking CID was given the task of investigating the crime and quickly found that a group calling itself The Angry Brigade had been responsible, having attached the bomb to the car during a trip to London on the day before the device was spotted by the chauffer.

Site of Dorking’s third police station. (Secret Dorking, Amberley Publishing)

2. The workhouse did not close until 1930.

With the town's first workhouse opening in the late seventeenth century, there has been a long history of poor relief in Dorking. In 1841, a new, purpose-built workhouse was erected off Horsham Road to house 250 inmates. Described by a local reporter as a 'prison like pile,' the conditions inside were grim, with men, women and children all being separated and housed in separate blocks. Only the men's ward was heated, although the women had straw mattresses and a little extra food. Inmates were forbidden from leaving the workhouse until the institution closed in 1930, when it became a public assistance institution and residents (no longer called 'inmates') were allowed to wear their own clothes and could come and go as they pleased for the first time. The building eventually became the hospital in 1936.

The surviving workhouse entrance block. (Secret Dorking, Amberley Publishing)

3. An unsolved wartime mystery has defied all attempts at explanation.

Dorking was bombed many times during the Second World War, but it was a series of six bombs that fell harmlessly in woodland on Brockham Hill that attracted most attention after the war. The thirty-foot craters were largely forgotten by 1947, until a local botanist on a walk spotted some strange plants growing in one of them. At first they looked like native species, but closer examination discovered that there were twenty-five different species that had never been seen in the British Isles before. The secret was kept until 1950, when news spread and flocks of botanists descended on the hill. The plants were all native to south-east Europe and it was thought at first that the seeds had somehow contaminated the bombs that were dropped. This was soon dismissed, because the plants only grew in one crater. Birds were the next suspected source of the mystery, but again this did not explain why they grew in just one crater, and why so many different species were present. The mystery was never solved.

Brockham Hills, site of a botanical mystery. (David Howard, Secret Dorking, Amberley Publishing)

4.  Dorking became a target for the IRA.

During the height of the Troubles in the late 1960s, a small factory on an isolated farm on the outskirts of town was producing CS gas weapons for use in Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, when word of this got out, the factory became a target for the IRA in 1970. Luckily, the plot was discovered after an informant alerted the police, and a raid on the group's London offices put an end to the plot before it could be carried out, but not before a stock of bomb-making equipment had been acquired. The guilty parties were all sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

5. The UK's first war crimes trial took place in Dorking.

When a car arrived outside the former magistrates' court in February 1996, it marked a momentous event in British legal history. An elderly man from Banstead, dressed in a fur coat and flat cap, got out of the car and was escorted inside for the opening of the trial. The man in question had been a police chief in Belarus during the Nazi occupation of the region and was accused of murdering three Jews in 1941 and 1942. The trial lasted twenty-two days, during which sixteen witnesses had been flown in from the USA, South Africa, and Israel to testify against the accused. He was acquitted of one charge, but was sent to the Old Bailey to be tried on the remaining two charges. However, the man was never brought to justice, since a pre-trial hearing ruled he was unfit to stand trial, and he died a short time later. Many people argued the man's innocence throughout the case, and it had cost the taxpayer around £8 million before the trial was halted.

Eddy Greenfield's book Secret Dorking is available for purchase now.