Epsom Heritage - Part 2
High Street (West)
A Detailed Survey of Epsom with historical context by Tomas H.J. Dethridge.
High Street (West)
It has already been remarked that the Clock Tower
of 1848 must be Epsom's most distinctive and well-known landmark. It was erected on the site of an older, smaller structure, which not only boasted a clock, regularly wound by a volunteer member of the public, but also accommodated the lock-up and its keeper, the Constable, while outside just to its east were the stocks, still reportedly in occasional use not so long before that time.
Like any new municipal undertaking, the tower gave rise to controversy and criticism, particularly its apex, though it elicited praise from Charles Dickens when he came for the Derby in 1851. In its later years and until quite recently, its base housed public conveniences - they were described by one writer as one of the most impressive public toilets in the country! They were replaced for a time in recent years by an information office.
As built and for its first seventy years, the square-section tower rose from a substantial ground-level structure, also square in shape, with lofty doors in its east and west sides. At one time in the 19th century this enclosed space housed the town's horse-drawn fire engine, doubtless among other purposes. The horses were not stabled there; they were taken off other tasks and sent to the tower as required, e.g. from the municipal dustcart, on the sounding of the fire alarm. It is also reputed that the hoses were stored elsewhere, which could not have made the firemen's task any easier! Towards the end of the 19th century, possibly when no longer used for the fire engine, and in the early 20th century, the tower was enclosed within a surround of iron railings. About 1910 the tower was put to a further use, that of holding up two large street lamps suspended from brackets, one each on the north and south sides. While of some practical value, they hardly enhanced its appearance but continued in place until about 1990 when they were removed.
In the mid-1920s the ground-level building was enlarged on its east and west sides by extensions, each of two sections of divided roofline but of completely compatible design to the existing one. It was undoubtedly in these extensions that the public lavatories were installed. No doubt their introduction were accorded due publicity at the time but, oddly, the writer has yet to come across any specific reference to the extensions in subsequent literature. One of the first decisions of the new Health Board was to drain the large, egg-shaped, semi-stagnant and frequently noisome pond just to the west of the tower, yet when it was filled in during 1854, many Epsomians regretted its loss. Be that as it may, we today are indebted to the pond for the spacious width of the western end of our High Street. Another water feature close by, between the pond and the Albion, was one of Epsom's three parish pumps for the use of those without their own well; the others were at the very eastern end of the High Street and in Church Street, the last-named being reputedly the purest water.
In its later years at least, the pond was enclosed within a surround of wooden rails with a gap for horses to enter but that did not of course prevent accidents, either in its water or when it was frozen over - from contemporary accounts it was clearly an enticing venue for children. An annual fair of very long standing was held between the pond and the Albion, which continued long after the demise of the former, providing fun and games for the young, and perhaps the not-so-young, including a greasy pole poking out over the pond which could yield a prize leg-of-mutton - or a ducking. Another annual contest held in this same area was the Shrove Tuesday football match, but what its rules were and how the teams were made up does not appear to be on record. It seems to have degenerated over the years into a rumbustious free-for-all with windows having to be shuttered, until finally a public petition led to its termination late in the 19th century, doubtless to mingled relief and regret. The fair survived into the post WWII era but with increasing traffic through the High Street (still two-way) it was eventually moved to Fair Green, West Hill, where after a few years it fizzled out altogether.
Up to the middle of the 19th century, the land stretched away behind the properties that lined the north side of the High Street West, apart from the odd adjacent shed or outbuilding at the rear, was open country. The railway borne in on its embankment from Ewell did not arrive in Epsom until 1859. When in 1847, the Methodists acquired their first premises for worship, it was by conversion of a barn in the field behind the Furniss corn shop (presumably No. 100 or thereabouts); it was called by some "the pretty rustic chapel". As is mentioned later, even by 1929 there was very little in the way of building between the High Street premises and the railway or beyond the far side of the station. Incidentally the Methodists moved from their barn in 1863 to their first purpose-built chapel in Waterloo Road - later in the 20th century it was to become the Foresters' Hall.
The courtyard around Furniss' yard in Epsom High Street was a warren of buildings,
all swept away now except the Edwards & Sharp building standing in front of TK Maxx. Date not known.
Over on the south side, there were up to the 19th century a number of buildings fringing the road out to the Wells and Leatherhead - formerly New Inn Lane and subsequently South Street, but eastwards and south of The Parade and Ashley House and west of Church Street, there was little or nothing until the Woodcote/Chalk Lane area. Because of the wide space available here, it was the obvious venue for major events. For example in 1878, when Lord Rosebery
who had bought the Durdans
four years earlier, brought his American heiress bride to Epsom, they were welcomed by the townspeople, the street including the Clock Tower being lavishly decorated for the occasion. Then in 1902, on the Coronation of King Edward VII - no stranger to the town - an ox was roasted whole just west of the Tower and distributed to the assembled crowd in marquees. In September 1937 the ceremony of handing over of the Lloyd Charter of Incorporation of the Borough by the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey to the Charter Mayor, Councillor Chuter Ede, was enacted here. At one time local Hunts assembled prior to moving off to hunt foxes (apparently up to 1912) or stags, the course for the latter being between Stamford Green northwards towards Ewell.
The southern part of High Street West is now of course pedestrianized over most of its length with traffic, eastbound only, confined to the north side. This resulted from a decision taken in or about 1991, following a public consultation exercise, to create a quadrilateral one-way system along the then new Ashley Avenue, High Street West and the linking sections between them of South Street and Ashley Road. The three older roads had up to that time been bi-directional and with a roundabout at the junction of South, West and High Streets, which had been constructed in the 1930s, prior to which there was just a small triangular island. A further project mooted about the same time and known as the Southern Link Road Extension (SLRE) would have seen the construction of an extension of Ashley Avenue between Ashley Road and Church Street to a point in the latter on the site of the Baptist Church (which would have been demolished and replaced elsewhere), across the Silver Birches site (so named from a very old house which formerly stood there, and where the car park is now located), cutting across the Parade and the grounds of the Methodist Church. The scheme also envisaged a rear service road to the premises on the south side of High Street East and was initially supported by the Epsom Protection Society
, principally for taking the A24 with its through traffic out of the High Street which would then become more congenial for shoppers and possibly pedestrianized. In the early 1990s the scheme was forecast to come on stream in 1997, but delays for funding reasons and gathering protests led to its eventual abandonment, the Society also having lost its earlier interest. Had it been implemented, Ashley Avenue would probably have become bi-directional with possible widening at its western end.
Few who pass along the High Street may realize how many old buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries still survive, particularly if they fail to look above the ground floors with their more recent shop-fronts, or, for that matter alterations stemming from the desire of owners to modernise their properties to accord with changes in fashion or for other reasons. Yet time was when the road was mainly lined by well-to-do houses of two or three storeys, shielded by yews, limes and elms, as well as a number of more modest dwellings. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, there was increasing commercial, mainly retail, development so that today only a little obvious evidence of antiquity remains. Fortunately much of the development was by conversion rather than outright demolition and replacement and in such cases it is when one looks at the upper storeys and roof-lines, or has the opportunity to view the sides or rears, that the signs of bygone design and construction are to be seen.
High Street West with its adjacent buildings now forms the Town Centre Conservation Area, together with the Spread Eagle complex, West Street, South Street as far as Ashley Avenue, Ashley Road as far as Ashley House and Waterloo Road with the first block on the west side and, perhaps unexpectedly, Lloyds Bank opposite. The Area contains a high proportion of listed buildings, as will be evident in the course of the walk we are about to embark upon.
The Clock Tower will serve as a suitable departure point for our tour as we first head westwards. High Street is numbered from east to west with odd numbers on the south side, evens to the north (though many premises still seem shy of displaying their identity). Even numbers go up to 124 and up on the wall of this building can be seen the High Street nameplate. Its immediate neighbour carries No2 and postally is in West Street along with the adjacent 'Marquis of Granby pub at No. 4. Then High Street evens resume across the road on the buildings of the Albion terrace facing eastwards along the High Street, as Nos. 126-134, the last being the Albion itself.
So, let us walk along the north (even) side but looking across as we progress at the other side, which will be dealt with in more detail a little later. Tucked away off the road between Leighton's Opticians at No. 88 (for decades until quite recently the Gas Company's offices and showrooms) and Nos. 94-98 is No. 92 (listed) an 18th century house with stable extension, subsequently subdivided and now in use as offices. In front the three houses Nos. 94-98 (listed) give the nearest hint of their old late 17th century appearance especially the latter two, with their fenced forecourt, now Cafe Rouge, previously Yew Tree Cottage and many may remember it as Wrights; the association with culinary pleasures goes back a long way. They have been identified in a survey of 1680. Not so many years ago all these lay behind a fence and gardens in front and No. 94 was graced with an ornate glazed porch. No. 96 was for a time in the 19th century Epsom's post office before it moved to Waterloo Road (where the public library was located until quite recently). Strictly speaking only No. 98 should be referred to as Yew Tree Cottage.
Many of the houses near Furniss' yard were built in the 1690s
with fragments of Nonsuch Palace stone in the walls. Date not known.
No. 100 is early 18th century and retains the 19th century metal standard with finial and filigree ironwork identifying the occupant; for a long time it bore the name Furniss and was the place of business of a well-known local family, which had moved from 26 West Street and described itself as corn, hay, straw, coal, oil and garden supplies. It ceased to trade in 1983 and subsequently the standard has carried the words Optician and then Insurance to denote its revised activities. John Furniss was incidentally an Epsom Protection Society committee member for a time after his retirement. Next to No. 100 comes a modern development dating from the early 1980s, Nos. 102-120, initially occupied by Sainsbury's supermarket. Yet plumb in the middle an astonishing late 17th century survival at No112 (now a personnel office) has outlasted other 17th, 18th, 19th and even 20th century neighbours. Prior to Sainsbury's return to Epsom, after quitting their much smaller premises in Upper High Street a decade or two earlier, much of the site had been taken up with the Odeon cinema built in 1937, the George pub and one or two smaller shops.
The cinema, which had some 1,400 seats, was built in conformity with the general design adopted for Odeons up and down the country in that era, with a tower; it was said that a condition was stipulated that this should not be higher than the Clock Tower. The George pub, built at the same time, replaced a much older one of the same name and was of an impressive appearance topped with a pediment - it would seem that Epsom was loath to forego the characteristics of classic architecture altogether! Almost adjacent to these there survived another well-loved Epsom establishment, Marshalls, famous for fish, both wet and fried, and for many it was a habit to come out of the cinema and into Marshalls for their fish and chips. Marshalls also had other shops - at the east end of the High Street and/or in Upper High Street and in East Street (not necessarily at the same time). The 1960s/70's saw a considerable downturn in cinema attendance across the country in face of the attraction of television and numerous cinemas were closed or diverted to other uses. The Odeon screened its last film on 20 June 1971. It was not long before the bulldozers moved in and in a short while the 102-120 site was empty (apart from No. 112) Following the demolition of these premises at the west end of the High Street in the early 1970's, the area remained derelict for a considerable period, affording an extensive open view from the High Street through to Station Approach and the railway beyond. It came to be known a little cynically, if indeed not without a degree of anger, as 'the bomb site' - bomb sites were a feature of post-war urban landscapes with which many in those post-war years were all too familiar, not least those who commuted to London day by day, although Epsom itself had emerged from the war relatively, though not completely, unscathed. This 'bomb site', it might have been said, was self-inflicted and it even attracted a brief visitation from a band of travellers. But eventually the site-owners found it worthwhile to move forward by the beginning of the 1980's and Sainsbury's made their return to Epsom with a new superstore, which incidentally preserved the independent No. 112 in its midst. The new store became a popular and well-patronized venue for local shoppers and it was with much dismay when word was announced in 1994 that this prestigious company was intending to quit the town centre in favour of a new and larger store in a fresh location to be developed on what had been a largely empty area between East Street and the Waterloo rail line, called the Peel Centre or Kiln Lane. It was not out-of-town, as favoured by some supermarket groups, but it was deemed off-centre to many (times change!). The firm was persuaded to keep the store going for a year or so as a concession until new occupiers might be found and this was in fact done but by early 2000 they had moved and it was all change again as new owners T.K.Maxx took possession of the building.
In 1937, when Epsom High Street was widened, the George was rebuilt on a grand scale
to match the Odeon next door. Both properties were demolished in 1972. Date not known.
Link to our Public Houses
Next along past the 102-120 site stands No. 122 (Cafe Uno and Ladbrokes) late 18th century, 3-storey and then No. 124 (Lisa's Haberdashery, a rare, local non-multiple trader) also 18th century with 2 storeys and attics (listed) shared with another personnel office. As already mentioned, this marks the end of the High Street on this side and up on the wall above the shop is the old High Street nameplate. The shop immediately adjacent is No. 2 West Street.
Crossing over the road now by the light-controlled crossing, we reach the Albion terrace, Nos. 126-134 (all listed). It has a significant place in Epsom's spa
history; built in 1706 by Dr. Livingstone (all Levingstone] an entrepreneurial apothecary, who saw that the inaccessibility of the Old Well on the Common had become a disadvantage at a time when Tunbridge and Bath had begun to supplant Epsom in the favours of the fashionable set. He established his New Well just along in South Street by what is now the Symond's Well pub (renamed, with greater significance, from the Magpie in 1996 and commemorating the owner of the land where the well was sited) together with a bowling green and other leisure activities and built his Coffee House for dancing and refreshment. The adjacent shops at Nos. 126-132 were built about the same time to provide additional inducement to patrons to spend their money. As built, the Coffee House presented an austere appearance but this was transformed by the still surviving exterior decoration applied late in the 19th century, in the course of which the Albion name had been bestowed. Nicknamed The House of Lords by the locals for its sedate atmosphere, it was for many years the meeting place of Epsom's magistrates until a special building was brought into use in Ashley Road in 1934.
Before entering West Street, and for those who do not wish to go beyond the High Street, let us look again and in more detail at the south side of the main road. Starting by the Clock Tower at Nos. 119-121, formerly and for much of the 20th century the Nell Gwynne Cafe (but more recently Hyams Jeweller and an employment bureau), a 2-storey 18th century building with a balustrade (listed), it has for more than a century preserved the memory of Sweet Nell with its name of Nell Gwynne House, although it was in fact not yet built when she stayed in the town.
Outside on the very edge of the pedestrianised zone is a 19th century horse trough, which had at one time stood in the middle of the road at the junction of High Street and Church Street. It has two water holders, a shallow one just above ground level for dogs etc., and a deeper one two or three feet higher for horses and larger animals, plus at one end a revolving tap by which people might obtain a drink - but this is no longer fitted. Such troughs were fairly commonplace up to the early 20th century when traffic was mostly horse-drawn and also cattle and sheep droving on the hoof from the countryside to London and other large towns was a regular feature of life. The troughs were mainly provided by charitable animal welfare organizations and on this Epsom one the inscription "Presented by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association" can just be made out along its side. One might regard them as the bygone equivalent of the petrol pump.
Next beyond Nell Gwynne House is a modern building, Nos. 123-125 which in addition to its shops contains an entrance to King's Shade Walk leading through to what was formerly King's Shade Square, both being open to the sky when new in the 1960's, there was even quite a tall tree growing robustly in the Square. Both were absorbed into the Ashley Centre and received roofs to close them in but apart from that they have not changed much, except that in the southwest corner of the Square there was another walkway leading through to the municipal car park behind Waterloo House.
King's Shade Wa1k is on the site of the King's Head Hotel, an attractive building formerly fronting the High Street and demolished to widespread regret as recently as 1957. It had been rebuilt, modernized and much improved in 1838 from its 17th century origin when it had played host to Charles II. The rebuild had incorporated a handsome projecting entrance with an assembly room on the first floor above.
Nos. 127-129, Lloyds Chemists (previously Harsant & Lee) and the Clock Tower Café, is a tall 3-storey 18th century building (listed) notable for preserving the original twin bow windows and doorcase. Then comes Nos133-135, Marks and Spencer, seemingly a single modern structure - but look up at the roof with attic over the east section. Nos. 137-139 form Bramshott House (now Cafe Nero), now, a late 17th Century dwelling (listed) where Samuel Pepys tells us that Nell Gwynne and her patron Lord Buckhurst in the 166O's "did keep a merry house". Tales of a hidden tunnel from the King's Head have never been proven (Charles never attempted to keep his liaison with Nell a secret). Nos. 143-145 (listed) date early 18th century and the former is interesting also for the 19th century ironwork canopy outside. No. 141 is a separate in-fill of slightly later date. Incidentally (and this applies to one or two others) one can form a better impression of the antiquity of some of these buildings by observing the rear of No. 145 from the adjacent entrance into the Ashley Centre. In the 1920's, and possibly earlier and later, space to the rear of these shops was laid out with tables and chairs to form the Roseary (sic) Tea Gardens where no doubt many of our predecessors whiled away a pleasant and refreshing half-hour. The area now lies within the confines of the Ashley Centre.
Finally on the south side we come to what is agreed to be Epsom's premier historic building, at No.147 (actually Nos. 147-153) now graced again with its early name of the Assembly Rooms. Built in 1692, it had initially been called the New Tavern and apart from eating and drinking, gaming and dancing, it was with its adjacent leisure space and bowling green a venue for activities such as bear baiting and cock-fighting. In the 18th century, plays were staged and other performances but by now, Epsom's star as a leisure centre was on the wane and by the 19th the building was divided into shops, even including a shoeing forge. It housed the business of John Bailey, known as the Epsom Banker, who built it up into the finest shop not only in the town but for miles around, attracting a clientele including "the carriage trade" from far and wide. It would often take over an hour to be served. Baileys later became Oldridges and at some point in the 19th century had acquired the name of Waterloo House - apparently from a fashionable London emporium - and this name still persists with many people up to the present day.
In the 20th century, including post WWII, the store was in the hands of a firm called Wheelers who in turn sold out to Ely's of Wimbledon. Many in Epsom will still recall shopping at Ely's and possibly a few at Wheelers. When Ely pulled out post-WWII, late 1950's or early 1960's, the long-time department store lay empty for a few years, until in 1966 a different sort of occupant moved in. This was the National Counties Building Society, a company founded in 1896 as the Post Office Building Society with offices in London and its primary aim of providing postal workers with loan and financial services - later extended to civil servants generally - and ultimately post-WWII altering its constitution so as to become a company dealing with the public at large. On acquiring Waterloo House, National Counties Building Society was obliged by the Council to install not-well-advised anachronistic windows along its front, now fortunately removed. In the 1980's the Epsom Protection Society was given permission to stage a number of successful exhibitions there. With continuing expansion of its business, NCBS transferred its headquarters activities to Ebbisham House, another listed building in Church Street, but still retained a presence at Waterloo House for personal callers. In 1995 having built a small extension to the southeast corner for this limited work, the Building Society sought to divest itself of the main building.
There followed an anxious period while it lay empty with its future seemingly in the balance; a number of proposals were put forward, with the Protection Society and other local people maintaining a close watch to ensure an outcome appropriate to its history and importance (which it has to be said, did not always appear to be likely). Then after one or two abortive projects, the building was eventually bought by the Wetherspoon pub chain, which fortunately had some experience in the successful conversion and adaptation of old buildings to suit its present-day catering business. The Protection Society played an important role in these developments and the Society was actively consulted for its views and suggestions. After a careful and sympathetic restoration, external and internal, the premises were reopened for business in 2002 as the Assembly Rooms.
At both ends of the building can be seen the outline of the arches through which in its earlier days the carriages of patrons were driven to set down or embark in the interior courtyard. Not surprisingly, given the many changes it has undergone in the last three centuries, little of the original internal fittings remain but it preserves a close likeness to its 1ate 17th century external appearance. Up to the pedestrianization of the area, there had long been three or four steps from the roadway to the pavement, but these no longer exist.
Back at the Clock Tower, the south side of the road retains a good element of 18th century survival. No. 115, National Westminster Bank, which replaced the much lamented timbered Riddington
's tea-rooms and bakery, now exhibits a plaque proclaiming a 1993 county design award after a felicitous face-lift of the previous exterior, regarded by many to have been Epsom's ugliest frontage - Riddington's having been one of the most attractive (and incidentally displaying a sign announcing its founding in 1802; it is also said that Mrs Beeton as a girl learned cookery in these premises!) Nos. 105-113 were also 18th century (what remains is listed), as also were Nos. 93-95 but the construction of the Ashley Centre, opened in 1982, with a notable feature marking its main entrance, led inevitably to considerable change. No. 113, Waterstones, previously Lester Bowdens, still remains as do Nos. 93-95 where Browns Estate Agency is the last, round the corner, looks eastwards over a small square. On the south side of this square formerly stood the well-known White Hart Hotel, later Lawleys Chinaware and now a card shop, alongside the Halifax Building Society and a small Italian Trattoria brings us to Ashley Road.
Riddingtons Tea Rooms, Epsom High Street, 1900's.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
Over on the north side between the Clock Tower and Waterloo Road, the buildings are all late Victorian or 20th century. Right by the Tower and between Nos. 86-88 is an alleyway, still known to many as Station Way, which for decades had led directly to the station, although its alignment at the inner end was changed in 1929 when the station was completely rebuilt. Both before and after WWII, its entry immediately opposite the Clock Tower was surmounted by a large overhead board advertising the rail routes served from the station. In fact it is still there in the Southern Railway's customary green enamel with white lettering, but now covered over with a canvas screen. The two or three shops fronting this path remain but beyond them the ground had been left wild. The path was closed off immediately past the shops when redevelopment of the sector was commenced in 1992 and despite intensive efforts by the Epsom Protection Society for the facility to be retained or reinstated. Their efforts included the posting of a public notice at the town end of the passage proclaiming it as a public right of way, approaches to the Borough and County Councils and publicity in the local press, as well as representing its views at an inquiry in Kingston. Unfortunately it proved impossible legally to uphold the contention that a public right of way had existed or been created by usage; on the contrary it was demonstrated that it had been the property of the London & South Western Railway which had exacted a toll from local businesses (albeit unwillingly) for its use by the public. These rights had passed in turn to the Southern Railway in 1923 and to British Railways in 1948, even though the toll had long since been dispensed with. Although not completely successful, the Society secured an undertaking that an alternative passage would be provided. Quite recently a footway has been sign-posted between the High Street, by the side of No. 100, and Station Way.
The change in the alignment of the path mentioned above was from the original straight way culminating in steps up to the station level, at that time the inward end of Waterloo Road curving round to the front of the station, the entrance to which was a little further along opposite the steps. The alignment change eliminated the steps and instead made a right-handed turn up a gentle slope towards Station Approach, emerging just opposite the new station's entrance, some yards to the east of the previous one. There were three or four small self-contained shops erected at this point, also facing the station, of which one was used by an estate agent and the others by coal company offices - at time the great majority of householders were still dependent on solid fuel for heating. Then on the other side of the Way was a parking ground for Brewers Garage for car servicing and beyond that there was virtually nothing between Station Approach and the backs of the High Street shops. In the road itself was the "lay-over" point for London Transport buses terminating in Epsom (the 93 to Putney, 164 to Sutton, etc): these turned right out of High Street East into Waterloo Road, and on departure turned left out of Station Approach into West and High Streets - neither of these manoeuvres is now possible. In the 1980's the right-hand turn out of High Street East was banned, so the buses then continued along the High Street to turn right into Station Approach to lie over on the rail side of that road; on departure they proceeded via Waterloo Road to regain the High Street for their return journeys. The corner of Waterloo Road and Station Approach also saw the erecting of an additional single-storey building as an overflow car showroom for Page Motors in post WWII days. It later passed to other traders, e.g. furniture, but like the other small buildings on the way round to the station, it was to be swept away in the 1990's developments.
Prior to the 1929 rebuilding, there had only been a footway cut through the rail embankment at the east end of the station, since at least 1896, but no roadway and this only came about with the new development, which resulted in three new bridges to carry the revised junction layout across the top. Up to that time there had indeed been little or no housing west of the railway between Temple Road and West Hill to be accessed; the Horsley Close/Hazon Way housing would be built later in the 1930's and at this stage the area remained open fields. Such vehicular traffic as needed to cross the railway went via West Hill or Hook Road.
No. 86 for many years from the 1930's up to 1999 housed the offices and showrooms of the Gas Company - prior to the nationalization of the late 1940's known as the Wandsworth, Wimbledon & Epsom District Gas Co. and subsequently as the SEGAS division of British Gas. As with the Electricity Office shut down at about the same time, the closure caused much dismay among local consumers. The building is currently being used by Opticians. Across the Station Way inlet, No. 84 has had a variety of occupiers ranging from undertakers and financial services to restaurants. Then comes Barclays Bank at No. 82, which, not long before the war had carried out an enlargement and rebuilding, taking in an old-established butcher's shop. Close by the bank was another well-patronized feature of the High Street in post WWII days, the largely al-fresco site of Poulsons, a local greengrocer, facing on to the pavement.
No. 80, another 1930's style building was latterly the place of business of Norland's builders merchants and when they moved away in the late 1980's, became one of a number of shops held temporarily on very short-term leases at various times by Dave, a man whose niche was the sale of cut-price goods allied with lurid publicity display; he also traded from Nos. 78 and 86 among others at different periods.
This brings us to another well-known local firm, Page Motors, at No. 78, where previously there had been a veterinary practice. In 1919 Pages transferred from the middle of the Victorian block in Waterloo Road, where the business had originated as the Waterloo Cycle Works in 1907. The front parts of the new premises comprised of the car showrooms and behind were the workshops and servicing areas - accessible from the High Street. Although normally reached from Waterloo Road via a rear entrance. It may seem remarkable today that one could draw up in the High Street and fill up with petrol from a pump outside the premises, the filler pipe being swung across the pavement on an overhead arm - no yellow lines then!
Page Motors moved into the old Skilton's premises on the High Street
in 1919 and fitted the town's first petrol pumps. Date not known.
Also in Waterloo Road in its later years, Pages put up a single-storey building, curved to match the corner with Station Approach, as an additional car showroom, doubtless to catch the eye of the numerous passers-by on their way to and from the station. Pages transferred their business in stages to new and more commodious premises - Kiln Lane in the 1960's for servicing and repair, and later, and progressively, sales and other activities to East Street, coincidentally on a site previously occupied in part by Snow, another cycle dealer. However they maintained a presence in the High Street until about 1976, though by this time the pavement petrol pump and its associated tank below the road surface had been dispensed with. The overflow car showroom on the corner of Station Approach was also relinquished to sell a different range of products and for a time was in use by a furniture company. It was later demolished in the early 1990's as previously mentioned.
On vacation by Pages, No. 78 was converted to a completely new use, unique in Epsom's shopping history, to become the Indoor Market, a shopping centre which, while quite lacking the spaciousness and modernity of the Ashley Centre opposite (then yet to be built) had a very wide range of goods of all descriptions on offer from a large number of individual stalls, including at least one dispensing eats and drinks. The access from Waterloo Road was retained and indeed some of the stalls were set up there, including the area where the Foresters' Hall had stood for a hundred years until its demolition in 1979. The Market attracted considerable support from local shoppers. It also had a very distinctive smell of its own. It continued in business until 1995. Incidentally, the site had once contained not one but two wells, further evidence of the abundance of water in, or rather under, Epsom.
Nos. 78 and 80 were demolished in the late 1990's and in their place, Wilkinsons built Emerald House, which they opened in 1999, of pleasing appearance and sympathetic to its surroundings. It is good to see a building which proclaims its birth-date. The main post office building at Nos. 74-76 which is listed, dates from Victoria's Jubilee year of 1897 and for long was solely dedicated to the business of the GPO but is now shared with other occupants. Originally it had no fewer than 18 tills, lined parallel with the road, to enable it to cope with the rush of business expected on race days. The sorting office for mails was originally located in the rear part until its transfer in the 1930's to a purpose-designed building erected on the more commodious site in East Street where earlier had stood Doctor Barnardo's Home for Boys in Mittendorf House (the charity of the good doctor being nationally famous and the building itself named from its benefactress). On the west side of the main post office, there was an arched passageway for the postmen (and postwomen during the Great War) to go to and from the sorting office for mail collections and deliveries. Immediately adjacent to the Post Office on its west side in the early 1920's was a small 3-storey building, its purpose denoted by the title on its fascia - United Kingdom War Pensions Committee. It site was subsequently absorbed into the Post Office, which was extended in a style closely matching the Victorian design, but with changes to the doorways and with a new two-storey window.
In or about 1988, No. 76 (including this extension) was surrendered for commercial occupation and postal business concentrated in the other half.
No. 72 is also a listed building. Currently an amusement centre, it was until very recently the Wellington pub and was built in 1906 in replacement of an older and smaller pub of the same name, a 2-storey building, which had proclaimed itself as the Cyclists' Hotel and acted as the meeting place for the Epsom Cycling Club and two or three other local societies. Incidentally, Epsom seems to have been something of a cyclists' Mecca in terms of the facilities available in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A small point of interest here was that, as would be expected, the inn-sign displayed the head of the Iron Duke, but in 1996 this was replaced by the head of a well-known local trader, albeit in suitable uniform. (Presumably an in-joke?).
The two large 3-storey mock-Tudor buildings at Nos. 68-70 have had a great variety of businesses over the years but the current occupiers, Orange and Vodafone deal in products (mobile phones) not conceived of back in the Edwardian era when these buildings were new. The junction between the Wellington and Waterloo Roads in the late 19th century were low-rise premises owned by the local firm of Dorsets, which to advertise its trade in agricultural equipment, maintained an old plough on the roof. They sold half the site to the London & Counties Bank, which in 1901 built the still existing 4-storey building (listed) and replaced the other half with a new 3- storey double-fronted premise for their own use where they remained into the 1930's. From there they moved round the corner into the two end shops of the decorated Victorian block, No. 7, where they flourished until comparatively recent times as general ironmongers, heating engineers and plumbers, but have now gone out of business.
Dorset's High Street Branch, date not known.
Note the plough on the roof
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
This group of buildings (Nos. 66-72) when first erected earned some praise from local observers although one commentator would have welcomed No. 66 being one storey lower. Nevertheless it must have seemed quite an impressive development at the time, but if the Council's ideas about road widening by continuing the alignment of the new north side of High Street East across Waterloo Road into the west side, had been realized, this century-old group would perhaps not have reached its golden jubilee.
To pick up on one or two points before we leave High Street (West), it is well known that up to WWII and indeed for the decade or so following, car ownership, even in a reasonably affluent area such as Epsom, was on nothing like the scale that it has since become. Parking especially short-term was consequently not a serious problem and particularly where, as here, the main shopping streets were quite wide. On-street parking was generally permissible almost anywhere away from street corners, bus stops or certain other restricted sections. Even as late as 1984, there were no yellow lines and driving across the road to park on the "wrong" side was still not unknown - if the circumstances were right! In High Street (West) the centre space, was also used for the purpose. Saturdays were probably the most difficult time with the market in full swing and with weekend shoppers and increased through traffic. There had been a park in the open space between High Street (East) and the railway embankment, which had come to be known as Boots Car Park - not because Boots owned it but because that was where the entrance was (accessible both to and from left and right). It also contained a small building with public toilets; these have now been replaced within the Ebbisham Centre, which has recently been built to take up the whole site. As the pressure for off-street parking increased, other parks were opened up off the Upper High Street (later extended and improved), the vacated Gas Company land just inside Hook Road (later replaced by a multi-storey) while another was on the unpaved land behind the south side of High Street (West). The site of the last-named had become available when University Motors moved in 1935 to Church Street from its previous premises in-South Street (as T.Hersey Ltd). This left a large L-shaped area of land, entered by the west side of Waterloo House (in effect Hersey's neighbour). The site stretched eastwards behind Waterloo House and there was latterly a pedestrian access into the southwest corner of Kings Shade Square and thence into the High Street. This parking area was located where the 18th century bowling green and entertainment spaces linked to the Assembly Rooms had once been. In the Ashley Mall development of the early 1980's, this area was absorbed and built over.
In the early post-WWII period parking charges, once they began to be imposed at all, were quite low (which is not to say welcomed) and often collected by hand. If you were a local ratepayer you could obtain a season ticket available for the whole year and valid at any council park for seventeen shillings and sixpence (seven-eighths of a pound, though it must be added that the value of money was vastly different a half a century ago). The site of the last-named (obviously located where the 17th/18th century bowling green and other entertainment spaces had once been) was absorbed into that of the new Ashley Centre complex which opened in two or three stages from 1982. This also absorbed the original Ashley Avenue, a short but attractive residential road a little north of the present-day one-way thoroughfare, which carries the A24 trunk road. In addition, it took in the former Ebbisham Hall and its adjunct, the Myers Hall (which had been built in 1929 by The Brotherhood, a nationwide religious society for men). These buildings were also intended to be available for hiring-out. Ebbisham Hall was distinguished by a quite impressive entrance in Ashley Road and its facade was incorporated into the shell of the new Ashley Centre at the store of W.H.Smith (formerly John Menzies) while the old Myers Hall had a rather inconspicuous entry round the side by Ashley House. In the new complex they have been replaced to some extent by the Playhouse and new Myers Hall, opened in 1983. (The Epsom Protection Society has used both the old and new Myers Halls for most of its meetings). Despite its considerable size and importance to the Town Centre, the Ashley Centre presents only a single (but distinctive) feature to the High Street - that over its eastern entrance.