Edwards' Companion to the Road from London to Brighthelmston.

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History



a waywiser
A statue of a surveyor and a waywiser in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
Photography by Mtaylor848 via Wikipedia and used under this common licence.

As the 1780s drew to a close, proprietors of land throughout Surrey and Sussex looked up from their occupations to see an unexpected figure. Conversations about the dreadful mutiny on the HMS Bounty, or the merits of the Revd. White's ingenious natural history, faltered for the moment, as the visiting gentleman made a bow and introduced himself as James Edwards, topographer. He had a curious machine, which those of a mechanical bent would have recognised as a perambulator or waywiser: it consisted of a wheel that rolled along the ground, together with a clockwork fitting to convert its revolutions into distances marked up on a dial plate. Laying this down, together with some other surveying equipment, he produced a notebook, and explained that he was writing a guide for the convenience of travellers from London to Brighton, with details on the places visited by the road, their amenities, and the seats of those persons of quality who nearby. Everybody likes to be considered a person of quality, so Edwards seems to have had little difficulty extracting the information he needed. Jotting down the information, he recorded it against the exact distance he had travelled from London, picked up the waywiser, and proceeded on his chosen route.

This is how it seems to have happened, at any rate. The first clear evidence for Edwards' project comes from January 1788, when William Bray described it (Archaeologia 9 (1789) p106) as 'a work which he is now publishing in numbers, being a map and description of the road from London to Brighthelmstone, taking in a good deal of the adjacent country'. Brighton was written Brighthelmstone in those days, though pronounced in the modern way. In late 1789 Edwards published (at Dorking, which is where he seems to have lived) a volume called Tabulae Distantiae which gave you the distance as the crow flies between any two out of a list of 100 villages in East Surrey. Finally in 1801 his main project finally saw the light, in two slim volumes published by T. Bensley of London, as A Companion from London to Brighthelmston, in Sussex: Consisting of a Set of Topographical Maps from Actual Surveys, on a Scale of Two Inches to a Mile : with Ichnographical Plans of Some of the Principal Towns. There were also a number of engravings, for Edwards had originally had ambitions to write something much more like a county history, but this seems to have been eclipsed by the more comprehensive work of Manning and Bray.

In any case the merit of the work lies not in its historical sections, which were mostly lifted wholesale from Aubrey's Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey. Evidently some antiquarian passages were felt necessary to the dignity of the whole enterprise, but the real value is to be found in Edwards' contemporary description, for which the sequence dealing with Epsom and Ewell is extracted here:

Contemporary Description

The exact distances which Edwards gives for each property are a great help in locating them, if you can understand the abbreviations which he uses in the column on the left of his page. This gives the distance from London, in miles, quarter-miles and rods. A rod is 5½ yards and there are 320 rods in a mile, making 80 in a quarter-mile. So if we start at the 'small bridge' just outside the gates of Nonsuch Park, opposite the present Briarwood Road, we are told that we have travelled XII-0-0 from London, which is exactly 12 miles. By the time we get to St. Mary's Church in Ewell, we are XII-2-72 distant from our starting-point: 12 miles, 2 quarter-miles and 72 rods, which works out as 12 miles 1276 yards.

'The road', as Edwards calls it, begins in our area with what we now know as London Road, running from Cheam Common past Nonsuch and into the outskirts of Ewell. Then, after XII-2-0, it turns left down Church Street and follows the bend in this road until it turns left again into Ewell High Street at XII-3-39. From here it carries on up the High Street into Epsom Road and East Street until at XIV-0-51 it turns right into Epsom High Street. Then from XIV-1-65 it continues down South Street and Dorking Road, crossing the Common and so passing over the borders of Ashtead at XV-2-52.

The entries for distances and proprietors of houses are accompanied at repeated abbreviations of M.3 and M.1, sometimes L.3. I must confess that I haven't worked out what these mean, but I've included them nevertheless.

As he passes along the road, Edwards looks to one side and the other, noting the houses and other features. He will say that such-and-such a place is on the right; then somewhere else is opposite; then somewhere else is on the same side (meaning the same side as the opposite side, not the same side as the original side that the opposite side was opposite to) and so on. This can get confusing. I have made it more intelligible by keeping his text unchanged, but revising its presentation on the page, so that the main route has been split into right, left and middle sections.

To make his work more comprehensive, Edwards adds descriptions for five other roads which run off the main London route. The first of these is 'the road from Ewell to Kingston', what we know as Ewell High Street as it runs northwards from no. 15 until, after the Spring Hotel, it becomes our Kingston Road. Then comes 'the South Street at Ewell', which is Cheam Road. In Epsom the side-roads are 'Church Street', 'Clay-hill' (now West Street and West Hill), and 'Woodcote-Green etc.' (Woodcote Road and Chalk Lane, with a diversion down Woodcote Green Road). Edwards quotes distances along these roads using the same measurements of miles, quarter-miles and rods, only instead of measuring from London, his datum point is always the junction at which the side-road turns off the main routeway.

There are also references in the margin to the Topographical Plates. These follow the course of the road from London, which runs across the page from left to right; thus, rather confusingly if you're used to an ordinary map, the top of the page is not north but southeast. Edwards stated that the maps were an independent survey but some features of the landscape look suspiciously similar to Roque's 1768 map of Surrey. Anyway, Topographical Plates II and III, which cover Epsom and Ewell, are included here:

Plate II and Plate III

As far as we can tell, Edwards gathered his information, at least for the Epsom and Ewell stretch of the road, in 1789, and never updated it for the later date of publication. How he came by the very detailed information on owners and occupiers is not clear, although there are several spellings of people's names – Rawdon for Rowden, Madden for Madan, Nipe for Knipe – which suggests that he asked for details when he made the survey, then wrote down the names as he heard them, rather than sending out questionnaires. Perhaps it was this local observation which enabled him to grade people so effortlessly into those who should be called Esq., those referred to as Mr., and those known only by their first and second names. One artisan builder appears simply as Carpenter Smith..

Like many wayfarers he had a special interest in pubs, and in particular the transport facilities which they could offer: thus the Bull's Head in Ewell had 'genteel accommodations, but neither post chaise or saddle horses'. He was also careful to include notes on the postal service, which in those days was much more closely keyed into the main road system. And he has very detailed instructions for those who want to use stagecoaches. The timetable (to be found at p32 – significantly in Ewell, not Epsom) uses abbreviations which were evidently well understood at the time, but can now be baffling on a first view. There is a row for each service, and columns for all the six days when coaches ran: Sunday travel was inconceivable. London is the implied destination of all coach services, and the abbreviations u and d stand for 'up' and 'down'. The superscript letters m and a, which stand for 'morning' and 'afternoon', have been supplied whenever the maker of the table thought there was any chance of misunderstanding. So if you were standing in Ewell at the beginning of a Monday in the summer, at 8am you would see three coaches coming through on their way to London: one from Epsom bound for the City, another also from Epsom but bound for Westminster, and a third from Dorking. At the same time there would be another heading in the opposite direction, the London post coach to Brighton. At 11am the coach from Guildford would come through on the way to London, and at 12 the coach from Horsham. At 3.30pm the afternoon coach from Brighton would come through on its way to London, and then at 6pm the first coaches of the day would return from town, two for Epsom and the third for Dorking.

This timetable was clearly intended to be kept for reference, and generally Edwards supplies much of the information which would late be found in directories. Unlike a directory, however, he is never dry. He describes most of the houses that he has passed, briefly and almost always in a positive way; he likes them when they are handsome, elegant, genteel, neat and, best of all, 'built in the modern taste'. The Companion allows itself no criticism more pointed than 'indifferent' or 'rather antique'; after all, any house could hold a potential customer. The highest praise is reserved for property which unites good style with rustic scenery. Ewell Grove is 'a handsome seat… the front towards the south commands an agreeable prospect of the beautiful downs of Epsom, which prospect is opened by a large extent of fine open corn fields'. Pitt Place, 'finished in the most refined taste', is 'bounded on every side with spacious common fields, which on the south leads on by an easy ascent to the beautiful Downs'.

Despite his antiquarian trimmings, Edwards is a man of the present. He gives due notice to the lost glories of Epsom Wells, but is much more excited by 'the crystalline cool bath' at Ewell, 'justly allowed to be one of the coldest in ENGLAND… lately become frequented by many genteel people'. He likes to see a flourishing industry, such as William Jubb's paper mills or the now-vanished brewery of Cheam Road. And feats of engineering catch his imagination, too. At Downs House he has been shown 'a well, whose depth is 395 feet, and the water is raised by an engine, worked by hand; erected by that ingenious artist Mr. Cole of Westminster Bridge'.

Mr. Cole's employer, 'Colonel' Dennis O'Kelly, seems to have made an excellent impression on Edwards, who to be fair may have responded more to the beauty of his house than that of his character. This grand property at West Hill backed onto 'a hundred acres of land judiciously divided into 35 paddocks for the convenience of the colonel's large stud of stallions, brood mares, colts and fillies'; and here, says Edwards, 'I was entertained with the sight of that famous horse, Eclipse, called the king of horses'. Apart from that one encounter with celebrity, he was not a racing man. The Derby, already in its tenth year, gets less attention from him than a pack of harriers; a reminder of how little the race meant to the local community at its beginning.

With its gentility, its love of the neat and new, and its unashamed admiration for the businesslike, the Companion from London to Brighthelmston is a very Georgian book. Edwards pushes his waywiser through the Surrey countryside in great good humour, with elegance, industry and commerce smiling all around him. Everywhere gloomy old houses are being pulled down and rebuilt in an elegant style, everywhere the sturdy labourers reap golden harvests on their masters' lands; postboys and coaches race against each other along the turnpike roads; all is good. But the news that the postboys bring is not good. They are carrying tidings of the French Revolution, and after 1789 nothing will ever be the same again.

Jeremy Harte © 2014