‘WG Tarrant: Master Builder and Developer’ by Mavis Swenarton. First published as Monograph 24 by the Walton and Weybridge Local History Society.
W.G. Tarrant was one of the most influential and prolific builders in Surrey in the first third of the 20th century. Today the term ‘Tarrant-built’ is used widely to describe houses on St. George’s Hill and Wentworth estates and in Pyrford, West Byfleet and Woking, and it is recognised as indicating an exceptionally high standard of material and workmanship.
Walter George Tarrant was born on 8th April 1875 at Brockhurst, a village near Gosport in Hampshire. His father was a police constable who later served in Aldershot and Hook, on the Hampshire/Surrey border. On leaving school, `WG’, as he was known, was apprenticed as a carpenter. In 1895 Tarrant set up his own business in Byfleet, first as a carpenter and later as a builder. In the early 1900s he built extensively in Pyrford, West Byfleet and Woking, commuter areas of Surrey, easily accessible from London by the excellent train service from Waterloo.
W.G. Tarrant was a man of vision and enterprise. He was an imposing figure, over six feet tall, with abundant grey hair and a thick beard, and is said to have borne a striking resemblance to King Edward VII. In 1911 he purchased 964 acres of land on St. George’s Hill from W.F. Egerton and planned the Estate as the ideal place of residence for the wealthy business or professional man, where privacy and quiet could be enjoyed in surroundings of natural beauty, with excellent facilities for sport and exercise.
Early in 1912 a book was published entitled ‘IDEAL DESIGNS FOR HOUSES TO BE ERECTED AT ST. GEORGE’S HILL, WEYBRIDGE, BY MR. W.G. TARRANT’ edited by Seth-Smith and Monro. The book contained articles describing the attractions of the Estate in glowing terms and designs for twenty houses by a number of architects. A note headed W.G. TARRANT BUILDER BYFLEET states `To build an ideal house it is necessary for the builder to have ideal facilities and good workmen. These are to be found in Byfleet in connection with the above business. The works are established in one of the most healthy and charming old villages of Surrey, covering five acres of ground and are equipped with the best of necessary machinery. Contained in these works are ideal workshops for joinery, wrought iron, lead lights and iron casement work. The men employed are specialists in their respective crafts. The brickfields connected with this business are situated at Chobham, Surrey, where is found clay similar to that used in the old Surrey farm-houses and still most suitable for producing the hand-made bricks and tiles which have helped to make Surrey the beautiful county it is. The nurseries to provide shrubs and plants for the laying out of gardens are also in Surrey at Pyrford and Addlestone, where acres of charming young trees, shrubs, conifers, etc., can be seen.’
Tarrant’s first priority at St. George’s Hill was to develop an 18-hole golf course, designed by the expert H.S. Colt, and work started early in 1912. The first plans, for two houses and an estate office at Weybridge station, were approved by Weybridge Urban District Council on 3rd April 1912; plans for a further three houses and an entrance lodge at Byfleet Road were approved by the Council on 1st June 1912; all the houses were near the main entrance in Byfleet Road, now Brooklands Road. Tarrant’s system was to build three houses at the same time, with a gang of about a hundred men under one foreman. The men worked a ten-hour day , 561/2 hours a week, from 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, with half an hour off 8 to 8.30 a.m. and one hour from 1 to 2 p.m., and from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, with half an hour’s break. In 1913 the wages for labourers were 6d an hour, for bricklayers and carpenters 81/2d, and for plasterers 9d an hour, plastering being skilled and heavy work; thatchers received one shilling an hour. Tarrant’s workforce is said to have numbered about 5000 in the 1920s, with an administrative staff of around seventy.
Development on St. George’s Hill continued steadily until the outbreak of war in August 1914. By October 1914 Tarrant was under contract to the Director of Works (France) to build portable wooden huts for the British Expeditionary Force. In 1916, when the shortage of timber and labour in France had become acute, he trained women carpenters at his works at Byfleet to build the huts, which were then dismantled and shipped across the Channel, while the women travelled to France to re-assemble them. Towards the end of the war Tarrant built a giant wooden-framed tri-plane, the Tarrant Tabor, 73′ 3″ long with a wing span of 131′ 3″ and an overall height of 37` 3″, designed to bomb Berlin. The wings and fuselage were built in his works at Byfleet and towed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, where the aeroplane was assembled and trials carried out. Sadly it crashed on its maiden flight on 26th May 1919, killing both pilots.
From 1917 onwards local authorities had been encouraged to prepare a programme of housing for the working classes, to be started immediately after the end of the war. The Lloyd George government pledged to build `homes fit for heroes’ for the troops returning from the war and the 1919 Housing Act was passed to fulfil this pledge; under the Act government grants were available, subject to compliance with strict conditions, for houses for the working classes. Guildford Borough Council had prepared a scheme, and in May 1919 Tarrant was awarded a contract to build 83 houses on an eight-acre site at Stourton, near Guildford, at a cost of £68,646 18s 3d, this being the lowest of sixteen tenders submitted. On 12th June 1919 Dr. Addison, President of the Local Government Board and the minister responsible for implementing the government housing policy, cut the first sod at Stourton, using a spade presented by Tarrant and now preserved in the Guildhall at Guildford. This development was one of the first to be built under the 1919 Housing Act. In 1920 Tarrant contracted to build fifty houses at a cost of £705 each on Guildford Park Estate, and he also built council houses at Byfleet, Pyrford and Lightwater.
The subject of cheaper housing was under discussion at this time and both concrete and wooden houses were considered. In March 1920 a plan was submitted to Walton-on-Thames Urban District Council for `STANDARDISED PERMANENT WOOD & BRICK COTTAGES TYPE B by W.G. TARRANT, ensuring quick erection at least possible cost’. The plan is dated 7th November 1919 and shows a semi-detached pair with living room, parlour, scullery, WC and fuel store on the ground floor, and three bedrooms, bathroom with WC and box-room above. The specification states that `the external walls are to be covered with special weatherboard, which ensures a weather and draught proof building’ and stained with two coats of preservative solution. On the plan the firm is described as `Builders and Contractors to the English, French and Belgian Governments’ and the address of the French office in Calais and the Belgian office in Bruxelles is given, in addition to the head office in Byfleet; this suggests that this type of cottage was being erected in the devastated areas of northern France and Belgium. Three pairs of these cottages were built in Ellesmere Road, St. George’s Hill; all are still in good condition and several have been much extended. Tarrant applied to Walton Council for a government grant for the cottages, naming the owners for whom they were being built; all had large houses on the Hill and required the cottages for their gardeners and chauffeurs!
Also in 1920 Tarrant built flat-roofed houses for Weybridge Motor Engineering Works in School Lane, Addlestone. In an article in the Builder of 26th November 1920 Tarrant wrote ‘No one but a builder can fully appreciate the scarcity of skilled labour and the absolute necessity for designing to enable partially skilled men to get work. It is scarcely necessary to point out what a great economiser of skilled carpentry flat roofs are.’ The plan of the lay-out shows about thirty houses of three types, but only six pairs of semi-detached houses of two types were built. Of these one pair has been much altered and a pitched roof added, but five pairs are only slightly changed and most are in good condition.
In 1925 plans were submitted to Walton-on-Thames Council for ‘THE TARRANT SELF SETTING BLOCK BUNGALOW’ and ‘BUNGALOW NO 3 AS EXHIBITED AT BRITISH EMPIRE EXHIBITION WEMBLEY 1925 AND CONSTRUCTED WITH THE TARRANT SELF SETTING BLOCKS (PATENT APPLIED FOR)’ Both bungalows were built in Ellesmere Road, St. George’s Hill, and were granted a subsidy under the Housing Act 1923 by Walton Council; both are still occupied and in good condition. The blocks were made at Tarrant’s works in Byfleet from broken bricks, cement and ash from his own gas plant, crushed together, mixed with water and poured into wooden moulds.
The Wentworth Estate, Virginia Water, was developed by W. G. Tarrant from 1922 onwards, on similar lines to St. George’s Hill, and with a golf course designed by H. S. Colt. Building on both estates continued successfully for some years, but with the onset of the depression in the late 1920s, the demand for large expensive houses decreased and in 1931, when the bank demanded repayment of a large debenture, the firm went into receivership. Subsequently, the building section emerged as Tarrant Builders Limited, without W. G. Tarrant, but with his eldest son Percy as one of the directors, and the ownership of the land passed to Wentworth Estates Limited. Tarrant Builders Limited built a few houses on St. George’s Hill in the 1930s, and before and after the Second World War the firm built extensively at Virginia Water.
Many of Tarrant’s larger houses were built from hand-made bricks and tiles in the Surrey style, with tall chimneys, dormer windows, gables, leaded lights, tile-hung or half-timbered or a combination of both. The woodwork and joinery – doors, panelling, beamed ceilings, staircases and floors – were always of exceptionally high quality; some houses had stonework round the front door and stone fireplaces, and a few had a marble floor in the hall. On some of his houses there is a stone tablet with his initials WGT and a few have the date 1914 also. The early houses built by Tarrant on St. George’s Hill were mostly of three storeys and several were very large and imposing. The houses built in the 1920s on St. George’s Hill and Wentworth Estate were mostly smaller, of only two storeys, but built to an equally high standard.
In 1940 Tarrant purchased Hafod, a large well-timbered estate near Aberystwyth, with an historic but neglected mansion. He felled and sold some of the timber and started to restore the mansion and grounds. Sadly he died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis on 18th March 1942; he is buried in the churchyard of Hafod Church, Eglwys Newydd.
The publication of the ‘Inventory of Tarrant-built houses on St’ George’s Hill’ in 1992 has stimulated much interest in W. G. Tarrant and his houses, both from St. George’s Hill residents and from those living in Tarrant houses in Pyrford, West Byfleet and Woking; also from former employees and their descendants. As a result much additional information is forthcoming on the life and work of a remarkable local character.