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The meaning of the name—Suth‐rige—as the land or region of the south people prompts the suggestion that the area may have formed part, in the early Saxon period, of a larger kingdom with Middlesex or Essex. So small a kingdom was bound to have difficulty in resisting powerful neighbours, particularly Kent, Mercia, and Wessex.

By the early 11th cent. Surrey had become a recognized county unit. Kingston upon Thames, close to the Wessex–Mercian border, was a royal town, and a number of Wessex coronations and burials took place there. But as early as the Domesday survey in 1086 the future pattern of the county could be perceived. Only two towns were separately identified—Guildford, the county town, and Southwark, itself a suburb of London. Surrey remained a predominantly agricultural county, producing mainly for the London market. But Defoe, surveying west Surrey in the 1720s, was less impressed: ‘here is a vast tract of land, which is not only poor, but even quite sterile—much of it is a sandy desert.’ Guildford was busy, though the assizes were not held there; Woking ‘is very little heard of in England’, Leatherhead ‘a little through‐fare town’. But towards London it was different. There were large numbers of gentlemen's seats, Croydon was ‘a great corn‐market’ for the capital, and Southwark had ‘a prodigious number of inhabitants’.

In the first census of 1801, we can trace the effects of the capital on the county. The inner towns were still small—Kingston 4,400, Epsom 4,400, Farnham 4,300, Godalming 3,400, Dorking 3,000, and Guildford 2,600. But Lambeth had 28,000, Newington 10,000, and Southwark 66,000. By the 1840s the railways were pushing out into the shire. In 1851 Lambeth was 139,000, Southwark more than 100,000. By 1901 the suburbs had taken over—299,000 in Lambeth, 259,000 in Camberwell, 169,000 in Battersea, 134,000 in Croydon. The county of market gardeners had become commuter land.

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