A Brief History of Epsom and Ewell

The Epsom & Ewell Coat of Arms
The Epsom & Ewell Coat of Arms

The Borough of Epsom & Ewell is in the county of Surrey, fifteen miles to the southwest of the centre of London. The Borough shares borders with Mole Valley District Council and Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to the south, as well as the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames to the north, and the London Borough of Sutton to the east.

The origins of the name 'Epsom' are open to debate. The most widely accepted theory is that it derives from Ebbi's ham (Ebbisham); Ebbi being a Saxon woman and 'ham' meaning village or small town. The name "Ewell" comes from the Old English "Aewiell", meaning "the spring at the head of the river".

Little is known about the earliest settlement of Epsom but Toland reported that an "Abundance of wrought stone, of Roman bricks and tiles are often dug up about [Epsom Court]" which suggested that a Roman villa had once stood on the site occupied by that old farm. Certainly, Stane Street crossed the district on its way from the Downs to Ewell and, in particular, has been identified by excavation behind St Martin's Church. This edifice stands on a chalk knoll from which a spring once issued and, because sweet water meant life, the place is likely to have become a sacred site dedicated to some Roman deity (in common with Ewell where votive offerings have been found). C. J. Swete, in his Handbook of Epsom, published 1860, suggested that the name Ebbisham (and its variants) was derived "from the presence of a remarkable intermitting spring...called the 'Earthbourne' which there gushes and flows and then disappears. 'Ebbe', the Saxon word for 'ebb' (recessus aquarum) and 'ham', a village being the foundation for the name." The Venerable Bede, in Historia Ecclesiastica, explains that when Mellitus, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was sent by Gregory the Great to England in 601, Pope Gregory advised him to incorporate, where possible, pagan monuments into the fabric of church buildings. The policy set by St. Augustine in the 6th century would explain the development of Christian worship on the spot where the later parish church now stands. Swete also tells us that princess Ebba received her baptismal title, in 660, from Bishop Wilfred with reference to "this gushing spring". A Saxon brooch found at Epsom and dated to the 7th century was lodged at the British Museum. (Described in Epsom, A Pictorial History as 'A gold mount ornamented with beadwork surrounds a garnet cameo carved with the bust of a bearded man: one of the three kings, perhaps, imported from the east. The jewel is Mediterranean, the setting is native work'.) In a History of Surrey, W.E. Brayley provides an alternative name, "Earth Bore", but mentions that it flowed for several months before ceasing, implying a "Winterbourne", dry over the summer. As late as 1690 the channel remained wide enough to require a bridge "in the place leading to the church" although, in 1711, Toland is found referring to "now uncertain springs in Church Street".

Although the authenticity of the record has been questioned, the place called Epsom also appears in a Charter, dated to A.D. 882 (link to www.anglo-saxons.net). It was issued on the authority of Alfred whilst the king of the Saxons was there on campaign (in expeditione in loco qui Hebbesham appellatur).

In 70AD, Roman surveyors constructing Stane Street, from London to Chichester, had to change direction at the source of the Hogsmill River. Houses were built alongside the road and by 150AD, Ewell was the largest village in Surrey.

In medieval times, both Epsom and Ewell were small rural communities, with Epsom being smaller than Ewell. The major event for Tudor Ewell was the building of Nonsuch Palace by Henry VIII in 1538 to celebrate thirty years of his reign. The church and village of Cuddington were wiped away so that the Palace could be built. Henry wanted an impressive building, one which was bigger and better than any other contemporary building hence the name "Nonsuch". The Palace was surrounded by parkland stretching all the way to Hampton Court. The building was little used by royalty and was demolished in 1670, and the surrounding parkland sold off as farmland.

By the 18th century merchants had moved their homes out from London into the villages of Epsom and Ewell. Epsom remained a small village until the early 17th Century when water from a pond was found to have medicinal properties and the minerals in Epsom salts were identified. Epsom village soon became a prosperous spa town attracting several notable visitors, including Samuel Pepys and King Charles II. When the interest in the spa declined in the early eighteenth century, horseracing attracted the visitors, especially after the Derby was established in 1780.

The railways came to the borough in the mid nineteenth century and stimulated rapid house building to cater for the new breed of commuter to and from London. The suburbs of Auriol, Stoneleigh and Worcester Park were developed in the 1920s & 30s. The next major housing development was towards the end of the 1990s on the cluster of five former hospitals sites.

Epsom & Ewell has become a desirable area because of the good physical and social environment, the transport links to London and easy access to rural areas. The population was estimated in 2004 to be 68,000 living in 28,725 households with a ratio of 48 men to 52 women. The majority of the househders are owner-occupiers (82%) which is higher than the national average. The borough covers 3,400 hectares (8425 acres or 13 sq miles) and the population density is higher in the north of the borough at over 40 persons per hectare down to less than 10 persons per hectare in the south. The population is ageing with the percentage of over 45s slightly higher than the national average.

The Borough is divided into 13 wards (click here for a clickable ward map), each ward elects 3 Councillors (except Auriol which only elects 2). These 38 Councillors decide the Council's policy and spending priorities, and sit on various Council Committees. The Council currently has four policy committees, each made up of 10 councillors, and meets 5 times a year:

  • Environment
  • Leisure
  • Social
  • Strategy & Resources
and two regulatory committees
  • Planning (meets 10 times a year)
  • Licensing.
Epsom & Ewell Council Chamber
Epsom & Ewell Council Chamber

Committees can set up working parties to look at topics in more detail and some committees have advisory panels on technical or ethical issues. Unusually the majority of the Councillors are Independents representing local resident associations rather than being aligned to one of the major political parties.

Epsom Urban District Council was created as a Local Government District in 1894 and in 1933 it was merged with Ewell, most of Cuddington and small parts of other parishes into Epsom & Ewell Urban District Council. The next re-organization in to the current Epsom & Ewell Borough Council took place in 1974. The borough coat of arms (shown at the top of this page) were designed by the late Revd E E Dorling and granted in 1937. Technically they are described as per chevron Vert and Argent in chief two Horses' Heads erased Or and in base as many Bars wavy Azure. The green and white background represent the grass and chalk of the Downs and the horses' heads the local horse racing and the blue waves represent the local wells and the spring at Ewell, with the motto recalling Nonsuch Palace.

The Council currently spends around £8m per year and employs around 300 staff to deliver services to the borough, including

  • Community Safety
  • Housing & Housing Benefit
  • Leisure centres
  • Local plans and planning applications
  • Parks and Open Spaces
  • Recycling and rubbish collection (but not disposal)
  • Public conveniences

Epsom and Ewell is one of 11 boroughs that cover the area of modern day Surrey County Council. Surrey has existed in one form or another from around 722 when it was called Suthrige. By the time of the Domesday Book it was called Sudrie and was sub-divided into 14 groups of manors call 'Hundreds':

  • Brixton
  • Blackheath
  • Copthorne (which included, amongst others, the manors of Epsom, Ewell and Cuddington)
  • Effingham
  • Elmbridge
  • Farnham
  • Godalming
  • Godley
  • Kingston
  • Reigate
  • Tandridge
  • Wallinton
  • Woking
  • Wotton

Map showing approximate location of the Surrey Hundreds
Map showing approximate location of the Surrey Hundreds

As can be seen in the above map the local Copthorne hundred had manors in two distinct areas of Surrey

This article was originally researched and written by Peter Reed, 2006.
Additional research and text kindly provided by Brian Bouchard, 2009.