Epsom Heritage - Part 5
High Street (East)
A Detailed Survey of Epsom with historical context by Tomas H.J. Dethridge.
High Street (East)
Returning yet again to the High Street at the crossroads in the town centre and looking eastward we are, with the important exception of the Spread Eagle and its immediate neighbours, in an architecturally and visually quite different world. A present-day Epsomian, taken to the crossroads and transported back 100 years, would have little difficulty when looking west in making out where he was, despite the many changes in the interval. But turn around and he would totally fail to recognize the scene east. In 1934 and under pressure from the Ministry of Transport, which was anxious to improve the A24 trunk road to the coast, the Council had agreed to the widening of High Street (East). It was then just half its present width and with increasing traffic, including double-deck buses and delivery lorries, was becoming congested (nothing much changes!). The approved plan was to pull down everything on the north side and double the carriageway - double, not dual; the barrier down the middle is a recent addition.
Hitherto both sides were a mixture of mainly 19th century buildings but with some 18th century survivals and a few 20th century newcomers, mostly small medium sized and with a considerable variety in design, size and height. On the southern side about a third of the way along a few tiny, tumbledown timber cottages known as Rabbit Hutch Row still existed well into the 19th century, opposite a house dubbed Frog's Hole with its floor level markedly below its neighbours!
It need hardly be remarked that the proposal to transform High Street (East) in this manner gave rise to much local dispute at the time. However, given the increase in traffic through the 20th century, the failure to go ahead with a by-pass (which had been planned in some detail by 1932 but never implemented, largely because of the war in 1939) and the later rejection of at least two different schemes for a relief road (the inner Relief Road and subsequently the Southern Link Road Extension, both in turn causes of controversy but supported by the Protection Society when mooted) it has to be concluded that the widening was inevitable.
The occupants of the premises on the north side were local businesses in the main and a number of these survived the destruction of their shops, etc., some by moving away from the High Street. One such firm to do so was a still flourishing company which is among the oldest and best-known as well perhaps most widely recognized Epsom house. Epsom Coaches indeed began its life from a base in High Street East in 1920 when the firm of Richmond & Reeves (H.R.Richmond Ltd from 1933) acquired covered accommodation in the yard between the road and the railway. It was accessed by a very narrow inlet from the High Street, where a rather wider Boots Car park approach was later located - and still is though car park no longer. One inevitable consequence of the road widening was the contraction of the space behind, up to that time taken up with a number of stores and other structures. Realizing that their garage - then known as Brighton House Garage from the name of an unrelated shop at the front - would not provide a viable long-term base for an ambitious concern with ideas of expansion, Richmonds in 1934 sought an alternative and moved to 37 South Street where they remained until 1971 on transfer to a completely new operational base at Longmead. A partial return to High Street was made in 1992 when a travel agency was opened at No. 73 on the south side, but it was subsequently sold off in 1999 though the agency still remains at that address.
A completely new north side was needed and this was brought to fruition with what at first glance might appear to be an extended homogenous terrace, but is actually made up of varying but harmonious designs of standard height affording a pleasing overall effect. Look for instance at Lloyds Bank at No. 64 on the corner and compare with its neighbours at Nos. 58-62 with pilasters and pediment flanked by stone urns, and those with the adjacent properties to their east. Or again, observe Macdonalds at Nos. 36-40 with its six classical pilasters - originally occupied by Burtons multiple tailors - and those on either side. As the redevelopment progressed, many of the old shops co-existed for a time in front of their modern replacements. Lloyds had even put up a new bank in 1935 on the old frontage line when there was still doubt about the rebuilding project but had to pull it down and start again on the new. Even in 1938, the not inconsiderable bulk of the 4-storey mid-19th century Railway Inn still traded on its old site at the far end, forming a neat bottle-neck. Next to it and curving round to East Street stood a row of four 19th century shops, originally houses, of plain but pleasing appearance; they included Boots the Chemist's first venture into Epsom in the Edwardian years, one of the first multiples to arrive. Next to these, just before the railway bridge, was the Cinema Royal, entertaining Epsom from 1911 to 1938 in a distinctive converted building with five arches on the ground floor for its windows and doors. Seating some 500 patrons, it showed the town's first talkies (films complete with sound track) in 1929 prior to which the films were silent but often accompanied by a piano or sometimes a small orchestra making up the music as the film unrolled.
All these were demolished by 1939 but, with World War II looming, the spaces were to remain vacant until the building programme could resume in the early 1950's and it was in 1955 in the case of the last-mentioned when Waitrose could move into its newly-opened store. Directly behind the Railway Inn a new building erected in 1939 became the Charter Inn - Nos. 28-30 - the manager of the former taking over its replacement. Although this pub closed in 1970 and was then divided into shops, it is distinguishable from its neighbours by the white semi-circular fans over its first-floor windows and it too is topped by a pediment. As already indicated, the space between the Charter and East Street railway bridge remained as waste ground through the war years. It was in 1955 that Waitrose came to Epsom and moved into its new store next to the Charter Inn after a short occupation by Courts furnishers.
Mention of Boots is a reminder of the opening between its present shop at No. 44 and Quality Seconds at No. 4 which until quite recently led to what was usually referred to locally as Boots car park but which is now occupied by the new Ebbisham Centre. A brief look in here in Derby Square reveals an imaginative equestrian sculpture of a pair of galloping racehorses by Judy Boyt commissioned just a few years ago. One has the name Diomed (winner of the first Derby in 1780) carved into it. The other Galileo (winner in 2001, the latest winner when the work was conceived or executed).
Arriving at the railway bridge, we have perhaps surprisingly not finished with the street's even numbers, for the last premises adjacent to the railway lines turns out to be No. 12 and reminiscent of the situation at the western end where it was necessary to cross the road to find the last few numbers. Here again No. 10 and below lie over the road in the small group of late 19th century buildings between the bridge and Upper High Street corner. These were built, as indeed were the properties on the north side of Upper High Street, on the site of Ormond House, a large house facing the High Street and owned in the earlier and middle years of the 19th century by the locally famous Henry Dorling, printer and publisher who became Clerk of the Course on the Downs in 1839 and lessee of the Grand Stand in 1844. He and later his son were instrumental in considerably developing and improving the course facilities. By his second marriage in 1843 to Elizabeth Mayson, mother of four, he became step-father to Isabella who went on to gain widespread and lasting fame as Mrs Beeton.
Ormonde House at the corner of East Street & Station Road [now Upper High St] c.1870.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
An impressive iron-built coach-house on the north side of Ormond House was demolished in 1859 to make way for East Street bridge (which became known locally as Volunteer Bridge) when the LBSCR rail line was extended to a junction with the LSWR line. The house itself was pulled down later and the short terrace of shops already mentioned erected on the site. Ormond was another Derby Winner (the name is sometimes spelt as Ormonde) and the name Ormond House still survives on the entrance to the accommodation. No. 2, which some older Epsomians will recall as Coppin's drapery store; even in its final surviving years of the mid-20th century it still contrived to maintain a quaintly old-fashioned atmosphere. It was later succeeded by wallpaper and paints up to 1998 and latter in turn by Dream Beds. Nos. 4/6/8 carry the name Cadogan House and this group echoes the triangular gable then so prominent round the corner in Upper High Street and also sports an architectural conceit in the form of a pair of small arches at first-floor level. No. 10 immediately next the bridge is a smaller and later infill. These are all turn of the 19th/20th century.
The south side of High Street (East), Nos. 1-89, by contrast, has never undergone wholesale transformation but lives on as a mixture of style, size, height and age, with a gradual process of updating to meet changing needs. Apart from the Spread Eagle, it has no building of particular historical or aesthetic importance. The Spread Eagle (listed) dates from the late 17th century - a date of 1680 has been quoted - and its exterior has remained little altered from its early days. In the 19th century it became a favourite meeting point for racing enthusiasts attending the Derby and it continued its existence as a pub until about 1990 by which time the progressive deterioration of its interior led to the decision to surrender the licence. Fortunately, after a period standing disused and empty, it was bought by the well-known local firm of Lester Bowden - then coming up to a century of trading in Epsom - and after a major renovation re-opened in its present guise in 1994. The two large black birds (not original) but put up in the later days as a pub are a reminder that at one time the name was the Black Spread Eagle - symbol of Prussia, an ally in that period. Its immediate neighbours at Nos. 85 (Cancer Research) and 87 (Michael Everett) (both listed) are of 18th century origin and by the latter there still remains a former entrance to the old stable yard; in fact there were two entrances, the second coming in from Ashley Road, now transformed into a small shopping precinct displaying the title Spread Eagle Walk. The west side of No. 87 was lived in as a house up to the 1920's but by the 1930's became an off-licence of Epsom wine stores and has remained as a two storey shop under various owners up to the present day.
Having looked at this end of the High Street, albeit more briefly than its western section, we come to its east end where once stood another public water pump, later replaced by a horse trough, in fact a pair of them at one stage, apparently much used by the gypsies at Derby time. The trough was still in situ well into the post WWII era and has now been transferred to the pedestrian area at the western end. After the widening of the road and probably post WWII a roundabout was constructed at this point, displacing the horse trough, and much more recently the roundabout has been superseded by a system of traffic lights and pedestrian crossing points with islands.