Epsom Heritage - Part 6
Upper High Street
A Detailed Survey of Epsom with historical context by Tomas H.J. Dethridge.
Upper High Street
At the eastern end of the High Street there is in effect another set of crossroads. Bearing left under the railway bridge is East Street and the road to Ewell, and straight ahead (more or less) is Upper High Street and on to Drift Bridge and Banstead, while round to the right lies Church Street, our next focus of interest, but before we set out along it, a glance around may be worthwhile. East Street actually begins at the north side of the bridge; it was not historically the way to Ewell but fizzled out in an area once known as Wapping. The Ewell road lay some hundreds of yards to the east, probably along the line of Church Road and Windmill Lane.
Upper High Street was originally Station Road and just led to Epsom Town Station, built by the LBSCR as the terminus of its 1847 branch line from Croydon via Sutton, which was extended in 1859 to a junction with the LSWR line from Waterloo and Wimbledon, and thence on to Leatherhead. It is understood that at the very outset the station lay a little way to the east of its subsequent site and it is not unlikely that initially there may have been little more than a single raised platform with a booking hut, handling half a dozen trains in and out a day. It would also seem very possible that in the early stages the access to the new station, which lay along the south side of the Ormond House property and with very few, if any, buildings along its length, would have been little more than a path or trackway. However as time passed and the train service increased, with the number of passengers and the quantity of freight handled, especially after the 1859 extension, pressure for development would become inevitable.
So far as the railway itself was concerned, a brick-built engine shed was constructed in the 1850's on the north side of the line with a turntable and some sidings, while on the south side a small goods yard was built to handle coal and other freight including livestock. This yard lay across the line of the road, which ran only as far as the station, and it was not until late in the 19th century, not earlier than the mid-1880s, that it could be extended to link with Alexandra Road to form a more direct way from what had become the town centre to College Road, Drift Bridge and Banstead.
Further information on the railway infrastructure is contained in a later section of this survey, but it may be recorded that after the station changed from a branch line terminus to a through line, a new platform and building were constructed in the 1870'son the down (south) side a little nearer the town. It was not directly opposite the up (north) side platform; instead they were linked at their inner end by a subway under the tracks rather than by a footbridge. The new station building was of single-storey brick construction, distinguished by four prominent chimneys and two triangular gables facing both the street and rail side elevations. It was to remain in use for half a century with little change until 1929, when the newly formed Southern Railway, established six years earlier by Act of Parliament (along with the GWR, LMSR and LNER, the so-called Big Four, between them covering the whole of the country in place of the previous plethora of companies) and in the process absorbing the LSWR, LBSCR and other companies in the south of England, built the present station on the site of the former LSWR one and closed the station in the Upper High Street (by then named Epsom Town). The new arrangement had the great advantage of permitting direct change of train between the Waterloo and Victoria/London Bridge services. It was doubtless the occasion for the change of name from the no longer appropriate Station Road to the less-than-inspired Upper High Street.
Remarkably however, the old station building on the 'down' line survives to this day, though no longer with the platform or canopy. It is hidden behind the group of single-storey shops, Nos. 47-57, built where the station forecourt had once been. Representations to restore and convert the building to more positive use and perhaps bring it back "into the open" have so far been unavailing, although roof repairs were carried out in 1978 after a fire. Now only a glimpse of its top can be had from the road and that only from the opposite side.
Conversely to its action regarding passenger handling, the Southern Railway decided, also in 1929, to concentrate its goods activity at the former LBSCR yard and away from the very cramped LSWR facility at the main station. The old engine shed was sold off to Longhursts, a local firm of builders and builders' merchants with other railway land; this firm's premises, accessed off Church Road were eventually sold off for housing development (Delaporte Close) about the 1980's. The goods yard remained in active use as such up to May 1965 when the prominent raised signal box was demolished; this yard too, having been cleared in 1974, was sold off for development. It now includes the small housing estate, Stevens Close, a group of private garages and a modern office, Pickard House, initially built for the headquarters of the Little Chef roadside restaurant chain.
As we have already seen, Station Road was originally bounded on its north side - left hand going up - by the Ormond House property, or its shallow remnant left after the westward extension of the railway in 1859. Doubtless it was separated off by a wall or fencing, so there was little scope for change on this side. On the south side, a number of buildings called Railway Terrace were standing by 1869, although apparently little else; they have been described as large houses of which some remained in 1970. In 1883 two major buildings were erected, the Public Hall on the corner with Church Street and the Congregational Church a little further up. (They will both come in for mention later). When they were built there was just open space between them but by the turn of the century a block of seven 3-storey triangular-gabled buildings, with a shop at ground level and accommodation on the upper two floors - which was to become a common pattern in the town centre - were in place, and still are to this day, Nos. 2-12. Minor differences in the detailing of the frontages indicate that the terrace was formed of two sections of four (lower) and three (upper) although at a glance it appears to be a single block.
It is not clear whether the Public Hall was regarded as being in Church Street or Station Road, or perhaps it was thought to be so important that it did not require a specific address. The Quadrant row of shops which eventually replaced it in 1938 merits its own separate address, but the writer's guess is that the Hall came within Church Street and it is covered in that section. Be that as it may, it lasted until 1934 when it had passed out of active use and was demolished. The Church, later known as the Lecture Hall (when another was built in Church Street in 1905) lasted much longer, till about 1990. Apart from religious activities such as Sunday school, Sunday evening service and standing in as an alternative to the main church when required, the Hall was the venue for a day school, seemingly privately run, in the 1920/30's, as well as for other more secular events. However for its last 60 years it had sadly been almost lost from the Station Road street scene; for in about 1929 the church authorities under heavy financial pressure agreed to permit the construction on the forecourt of two lock-up shops fronting the road. Thereafter the Hall could only be seen through a small gap between, and even here it was scarcely possible to take in the building with its lofty spire, although the rear end, less imposing, was entirely visible from the Depot Road area. Its presence was however indicated between the two shops, Nos. 14 and 16, by an arched entryway with the carved words 'Lecture Hall' and an overhanging lamp. Oddly a view became opened up when the sites of the post-WWII office blocks in Church Street were levelled in preparation. Finally it was demolished in 1991 when the opportunity arose for the church authorities to concentrate activities at the site of their main church in Church Street, which by now had taken on the new name of the United Reformed Church.
Continuing along up Station Road, the south side became wholly taken up with retail shops as far as the station, by a process of new building, conversion or replacement of units of the old Railway Terrace. They comprised a number of shops numbered up to No. 24, selling a variety of wares at different periods as the premises changed hands from time to time; they included one of Epsom's first supermarkets when the new practice of self-service was introduced; initially it was an outlet for Worlds Stores, a former country-wide group, later becoming known as Gateway. It had front and rear entrances, the latter being accessible from an allocated section of the Depot Road car park.
Nos. 24 and 26 formed a pair of plain 3-storey semi-detached houses with basements, the former a dental practice with the Liberal & Social Club occupying the other. One wonders if these were the survivors of the Victorian Railway Terrace previously mentioned. Nos. 28-30 made up the Capital Garage of Epsom Motors Ltd, with a large forecourt, showrooms and, the writer seems to recall, basement servicing and repair shops. No. 32 was what was then known as the Labour Exchange where people without jobs sought work and drew "the dole" (unemployment benefit money); this too had a large forecourt on which a queue of applicants were wont to form. It was later moved to Clayton Road off East Street. No. 34 was a store building for Post Office Telephones and will be mentioned a little later. Then came four large houses, Nos. 36-42, while No. 44 comprised the residence and offices of John Norrington, builder and decorator, with an adjacent yard and its front distinguished by a glazed display cabinet showing samples of DIY items for sale. No. 46 was the Railway Hotel (opposite the station) and next door came another car firm, Pearces, later Allams. From that point on upwards as far as Church Road were houses, of which some disappeared to make way for the Upper High Street carpark. The hotel subsequently became the site of the Bejam frozen food store later Iceland. A very long-established footpath between Upper High Street and Church Road along the eastern edge of the car-park also forms the western boundary of the Pikes Hill Conservation Area, which however lies outside this survey.
Much of this section of the road which has been covered in the foregoing paragraphs has been entirely replaced in the 1990's, and further on still plans are currently being aired for further redevelopment up to and including the car park, the latter to be- replaced, it has been suggested, by another multi-storey facility. The scheme has already become the focus of considerable controversy and the outcome remains for the future. The 1990's changes brought one advantage for many local people; having lost all its earlier cinemas, Epsom's film-going public gained a new entertainment facility, the multiplex, at the very end of 1999 with the opening of the second Odeon with its eight screens and 2,100 seats. In addition to the cinema, three new blocks of three storeys each have replaced the variety of premises which previously stood there. Clearly, the process is not yet over.
Going back to the north side of Station Road/Upper High Street, which as we have seen, had little or nothing to mark it between what remained of the Ormond House property and the station up to the close of the 19th century, the eventual selling off of the former at last enabled new construction to be put in hand along the road as well as in that small part of the High Street just to the south of the East Street railway bridge. Interestingly what was then built has survived virtual1y intact for the past 100 years, after the shop on the corner; it comprised a block of four 3-storey triangular shops with accommodation above, Nos. 1-7, similar to the block opposite, followed by the only 2-storey building on this side, a house with annex at No. 9, which was for many years the seat of the Conservative Club but post WWII has become just another shop. Recently it has been acquired by the Co-Op as one of its "Welcome" brand convenience stores, marking the return of that group to Epsom, where for many years, pre- and post- WWII, the South Suburban Co-Op owned a group of four shops, with meeting hall above, just south of the Church Road turning in East Street. No. 9 displays a stone panel at the top of its façade bearing the date AD 1908.
Nos. 11-33 form a terrace, which is the defining feature of the street, of twelve shops, similar to the four mentioned in the previous paragraph. The whole present a harmonious vista of gabled facades stretching most of the way up. Open for business by 1900/1901 this became the fashionable shopping centre of Epsom, assuming the prestigious title of the Grand Parade. Among the original traders No. 15 was distinguished by its name in large gilt block letters above its retractable canvas weather awning (a common feature of most main street shops in the earlier years of the 20th century, and some in side roads too). The name was J. Sainsbury and later the firm possessed two other shops there, No. 15 for its butchery department and No. 23, like No. 21, for general groceries. The two latter shops, although neighbours were not internally connected, at least not for shoppers. Closed in 1965, these local outlets were of the conventional counter and service type usual before the arrival on the scene of self-service and checkout. The Upper High Street shops were too small for conversion and the company withdrew from Epsom; it was to be some years before it returned with its new superstore at the western end of the High Street. Another firm to try its hand in Station Road, though not on a permanent basis (so far), was Tesco (thought to have been at No. 35), which later still, moved to High Street East and then withdrew altogether. Many well-known local names were to be found in Upper High Street over the years, even in post-WWII years, offering service on an individual basis, which is becoming less common in our 21st century, but times change!
While Epsom Town Station continued in use, there remained an open space between it and the eastern end of the Grand Parade at No. 33, apart from the perhaps temporary siting of a railway structure at some stage, but after the 1929 closing, a new block was erected as Nos. 35-45. These continued the pattern of 3-storey shops and accommodation but were to a simpler exterior design - without gables - more characteristic of the post-Great War architectural thinking. Until quite recently, it was possible to walk in by No. 45 and look along the back of the old station building but this view is now blocked off.
One interesting unit located at one time in Station Road was an early experimental automatic telephone exchange of American design, which in 1912 replaced the 1905 manual system with the first such facility in Britain. Epsom is understood to have been selected for this trial on account of its proximity to London and the heavy traffic expected from the racing. For whatever reason the system was not perpetuated and reversion to manual was made, the latter continuing in use until well after WWII. So having had its taste of robotics, it was ironic that Epsom was destined to be one of the last places, long after Ewell in fact, to surrender its love affair with human Hello-girls on the switchboard ready and able to "put you through". It would seem likely that the automatic unit was housed at No. 34 on the south side, given that this building remained in GPO ownership for some years after.