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Epsom & Ewell before, during and after WWII
By Michael Tucker
I have always believed that it is so important to record experiences, situations and events whilst they are fresh in the mind. To delay writing about them could result in them being lost forever. So at the age of eighty and having had my autobiography published in December 2014 in Australia where I have lived for the past forty-eight years, I feel it is time to write about many things I can remember about Epsom and Ewell before it is too late.
Court Recreation Ground. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
I was born in a detached house in West Hill Avenue, Epsom in 1934. It backed on to the huge Court Recreation Ground which was surrounded by spiked railing fences with as many as seven wrought iron entrance gates which were unlocked at day break by the Council Park Keepers and locked at dusk. I shall always remember it as a peaceful little town with quite a history. All the youngsters respected the sight of a policeman as he walked or rode his bicycle anywhere in town. It was and still is a horse racing town in which two of the five classic horse races, the Derby and the Oakes, are held on Epsom Downs. The town also prides itself in discovering the famous Epsom salts for medicinal purposes. Yet only in recent years, has an appropriate memorial been erected, in the form of a wishing well, to mark the spot where the salts were first found.
A modern day photo of Epsom Wells
Like many English towns Epsom has gone through a number of changes in time. Most of the shops are on High Street. Crossing it the intersecting road in the town centre is called Waterloo Road which leads to the Railway Station and Ashley Road which leads eventually to the Race Course on the Downs. On the four corners of that intersection were the Spread Eagle Hotel, the Lloyds, Westminster and Midland Banks. The traffic was controlled by the only set of traffic lights in the town which were activated when vehicles drove over a wide rubber pad on the road. High Street extends to Upper High Street (formerly named Station Road) which leads to the famous Public School - Epsom College. All that area is known as the old part of Epsom. This is indicated by the red post boxes which bear the Royal insignia of Edward VII. When I was very young I remember seeing, through the gates of the coal yard, the original Railway Station. On the sidings, managed by Hall & Co. Ltd., coal was shoveled out of the coal trucks into very strong sacks, weighed and stacked on a long open cart pulled by a pair of Clydesdale horses. The animals were well cared for and the shiny horse brasses which hung from beneath their necks were supposed to ward off evil spirits, or so I was led to believe! It was also a common sight to see College students cross-country running in that area.
Delivery note for coal from Hall & Co Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
An Epsom coal cart but this is was owned by rival coal merchant Furniss & Co Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
There were a number of parks where sporting activities took place and we had two cinemas, namely, the Odeon near the Clock Tower in High Street and the Capitol, which later changed its name to the Granada, opposite the Art School in Church Street. Prior to those, the one and only cinema was on the corner of East Street and Hook Road. It remained empty for many years until vandals burnt it down. A travelling Fair often came to Epsom and set itself up on Hook Field opposite the Orchard School and the Eclipse Inn on West Street. That was in the days of the traction engine which not only pulled the trailers, but provided power for the carousels and other fair ground equipment. Circuses also visited Epsom.
There were no Super Markets in those days. They were all individual businesses and there were as many as twenty-six Public Houses, three of which were named after famous race horses: The Amato, the Blenheim and the The Eclipse. The Southern Railway provided a frequent electric train service to London. Trains from Dorking and Horsham came through Epsom to either London Bridge or Victoria whilst others travelled to Waterloo.
To the south of the town was Epsom Common with its beautiful forest at the edge of which stands Christ Church on the main road to Chessington and Horton Hospital. We took many pleasant walks over the Common and in the forest we were delighted to hear and see many species of birdlife. In particular was the charming singing of the Nightingale. Having descended a gradual hill we came to the Stew Ponds where fishing often took place. In the winter the ponds froze providing the opportunity for skating and playing ice hockey in their natural surroundings.
Postcard view of Stamford Pond Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
There was much horse-drawn traffic in those days. They were used mainly by bakeries and dairies. The horses did a marvelous job. It was not long before each one knew by habit to which side of the road it had to pull over and stop and for how long. Fortunately, there were fewer cars in those days to get in their way. From the Railway Station, Carter Paterson horse and tall covered cart conveyed rail delivered goods to homes in Epsom. Even the Rag and Bone man had a horse and open cart. We always knew when he was coming for he would continually shout, "Rag 'n' bones! Rag 'n' bones!" That occupation was televised so well many years later in the series, Steptoe & Son. Other horses to be seen, especially on Epsom Common, were the piebald horses pulling the gypsy caravans. Quite often they broke away from their tethers and ran towards the town ending up at the dead end of West Hill Avenue, where the pursuing gypsies finally caught them and led them back to their camping ground.
A horse drawn bakers van Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
They had been lovely years, but there was much unrest in Europe and at that time the threat of war loomed over us. Then on 3rd September 1939 the Nation found itself at war with Germany and everything in the country suddenly changed. Blackout curtains and blinds were made for every window. Wooden shutters were also made for outside the windows of rooms in which people expected to take refuge in the event of an air-raid. Brown sticky tape was applied to the inside of all hospital windows. Brick air-raid shelters were quickly built in the Court Recreation Ground and other places; excavations took place to build underground shelters in Rosebery Park on Ashley Road and on top of West Hill, a stone's throw from the brick arch at the entrance of the Chase Estate. Pillboxes were built on the road side of West Hill House, on Hook field opposite the Orchard School, on the railway embankment leading to Ashtead, on the bend of Waterloo Road and many other places. Between Christ Church and the housing estate a long deep trench was excavated to act as a tank trap in case the enemy attacked from the Common. Tanks could go into it down a forty-five degree slope, but would have been unable to climb up the eighty degree wall of clay on the opposite side. The trench curved round to as far as the Cricketers Pub. At the side of the main road angle irons, made from railway lines, were stacked upon each other ready to be inserted into concrete sockets in the road to stop enemy tanks and other military vehicles. On the footpaths tall concrete blocks were built in pairs to stop enemy tanks, but at the same time pedestrians, even those with prams, could zigzag through them.
Local Wartime Guidance Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
In the town long rectangular static water tanks were placed on the two roundabouts each end of High Street and a third was placed outside the Ladies' Public Toilets, which was part of the Clock Tower. Outside the Men's Public Toilets was a mobile horse drawn refreshment wagon. Between that and the roundabout, facing the Marquis of Granby Pub, open market was held on Saturdays up the centre of the road. Under the three railway bridges in Waterloo Road, angle irons leaned up against the walls ready to be dropped into their concrete road sockets. A most effective siren was installed on the roof of the Police Station in Ashley Road to sound the 'warning' of an air-raid and the 'all clear' after it. Air Raid Precaution (ARP) was formed and it was the duty of every volunteer to walk down the streets blowing a police whistle for everyone to take cover. Outside every front door was a bucket of water, a bucket of sand and a long handled shovel to extinguish incendiary bombs. Many people also had stirrup pumps which could be used to put out minor fires.
An air raid warden guards a bomb crater at the Chessington Rd/Green Lanes shops
Every able bodied man was called up to serve in the Services. Those under the age of eighteen and over forty were asked to serve in the home guard, whilst others were placed on fire-watching services, especially on the roofs of buildings in London. Gas masks were issued to everyone and they had to be carried at all times. They were tested periodically by members of the Civil Defense. The ringing of church bells, which we had been brought up to cherish, was forbidden to be peeled or tolled unless we were invaded by enemy parachutists. People were encouraged to build Anderson shelters in their backyards, or invest in a Morrison shelter - a large steel table with attachable steel mesh sides, assembled with nuts and bolts in a large ground floor room. Both those means of defense proved their worth later.
Epsom Station during WW2 Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
The Government of the day ordered the requisition of all iron gates and railings for the war effort. All the railings surrounding the Court Recreation Ground were taken, but not the seven gates. Yet the Park Keepers continued to unlock the gates at day-break, and lock them up at dusk. It was not only funny, but quite ridiculous! Eventually, the gates were taken along with wrought iron gates and railings belonging to many properties. Fortunately, respect was shown by leaving intact the beautiful gates and railings of the Durdans, the home of Lady Sybil Grant. She had inherited the estate from her father the Earl of Rosebery who died in 1929.
With the Battle of France over, culminating in the miraculous evacuation of our troops at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain was about to begin. I shall always remember the first daylight enemy attack over Epsom. We were all peacefully shopping in High Street. Suddenly, the siren on the Police Station roof sounded the alert. All with one accord people started running for cover. Many of us ran for the underground shelter in Rosebery Park. ARP wardens calmly ushered us in and requested that we should go in as far as we could. Blue lights gave us just enough guidance to see where we were going until finally we were seated on long wooden forms. Not much was said, the time seemed endless and it was the start of what we had to face and endure in months to come. Eventually, the 'all clear' was sounded and we exited to fresh air and brilliant sunshine.
There were frequent attacks day and night. At night time we watched the beams of our search-lights sweep across the sky over London and surrounding suburbs. In the evenings the tube trains were stopped at a certain time for vast numbers of residents in the London area to take shelter by sleeping in the underground railway stations. When they emerged in the morning, many found that their homes had been completely destroyed in the bombing. During the day barrage balloons rose and remained motionless, except for turning their three inflated fines in the wind. Their strong cables were at least a strong deterrent against enemy aircraft attacking at low altitude.
Quite a number of bombs fell in the Epsom area. In Chase Road one house was completely destroyed, whilst others in Waterloo Road were extensively damaged. It was obvious that the bombs were meant for the railway junction and station. Bombs also fell on the Common. They were obviously aimed at the army camp on the opposite side of the road leading to Chessington. Whilst they missed their target, quite a few failed to explode. Notices were quickly erected with a warning: Unexploded bomb! Keep out! There was no horse racing in Epsom during WWII. Many anti-aircraft guns were safely installed several feet below ground level within the horse-shoe shaped area of the race course, and men of the Royal Artillery manning those huge guns were billeted in the Grandstand.
WW2 Food Ration Book Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
Food was short and most essential items were rationed. Everyone was issued with a buff coloured Rationed Book. People were encouraged to dig up their front lawns and plant vegetables. It was amazing to see how the idea spread so quickly. That was greatly encouraged by adverts on advertisement boards which showed the lower part of a garden spade being driven into the soil with the words above, "Dig for Victory!" A National Identity Card was also issued. Holders were strongly requested to memorize their ID Cards by the letters and figures contained in them. Foresters Hall, close to Dorsets the ironmongers, in Waterloo Road was taken over by the Ministry of Food from which families could purchase concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil for young children. Clothing was also rationed. Not many people owned motor cars in those days and those who did, jacked them up in their garages to preserve their tyres. The cars were to stay there for the next five to six years! Only vehicles used for essential services were allowed a limited amount of petrol. Because of the blackout regulations, all car lights had to have newspaper inserted to reduce the beams of light. Naturally, the streets became very quiet and the little traffic on them moved very slowly for safety reasons. The only traffic lights in the centre of Epsom were covered with shields that had thin crosses in their centres which gave just enough light for motorists to see the red, amber and green.
A luminous blackout brooch Presumably this piece of jewlery would have been used to help the wearer be seen during the blackout Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
On an extremely sad note, many pet animals were euthanized for various reasons soon after the outbreak of war. However, one good move was made to provide an ID Disc for dogs and cats, should they ever become lost in air-raid bombing. That was started by the National Air Raid Precaution Animals Committee (NARPAC). It was a blue cross on a white disc with NARPAC written on the horizontal arms of the cross. It had a Registration Number on the reverse side. Owners were asked for a donation to this worthy cause. Anyone finding it should contact the nearest National Animal Guard.
There is one of many short stories I would like to include here. In the midst of such terrifying air-raids there was sometimes a glimpse of peaceful communication. Just after a night attack and the 'all clear' had been sounded and dawn was breaking, a bird came to perch on the fan-light window of our parents' bedroom. Then it started to sing. They recognized it at once- it was a Nightingale. It sang so beautifully for some time, then flew off and presumably back to its natural habitat on the Common. It was reasonable to assume that the bombing that night would have disturbed much wild-life and that poor little Nightingale flew for its life and eventually sought refuge on the fan-light window-frame. We had never heard of a Nightingale visiting our housing estate before that time, nor since.
I would like to include another account of a particular episode that happened in Epsom during the early part of the war. This one is of a completely different nature. One day I was standing on the pavement near the Clock Tower, waiting for my Mother who was spending rather a long time making an order for groceries in Hudson Brothers. I was watching a small party of German prisoners of war working on the far side of the road. As I watched, a huge German walked across the road towards me to pick up a six-pronged fork used for laying tar macadam. As he picked it up he looked steadfastly at me, and I looked at him not knowing what to expect next. The look on his face was one of sadness, but also a look of loneliness as if he wanted to talk to me, but knew that he shouldn't or couldn't. He was German and it was doubtful that he could speak English. I was English and most certainly could not speak a word of German. He was a prisoner of war with possibly a family in Germany in danger of losing their lives. I was a young boy in similar danger. I also thought it was possible that he had a son of my age and stature, and for those few moments he just wanted to stand there and look at me. I shall never forget the occasion. I felt quite moved, and felt that he did as well. It is amazing how we, in difficult times, can communicate without a word, but just by looking at each other. Finally, he turned around, walked across the road to join his party under armed guard and carried on the work of repairing the road surface. I never told my Mother for fear that it might upset her in some way. However, half a century later, I was invited to speak about the incident when I addressed an Australian church congregation at a Service of Remembrance Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the end of WWII. I spoke of it again two years later when I was invited to give an after-lunch speech at the German Luftwaffe Fighter Pilots Association when on holiday in Germany. War is a terrible thing, but I believe we can and should be sensitive to the needs of others, even those on the other side. The German people and I found the occasion to be a great time of reconciliation.
A former panzer driving German POW poses with the 2-wheeled Trusty Tractor at Northe Looe Farm Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
As history records the RAF defeated the German Luftwaffe which tried to destroy our airfields. Having won the Battle of Britain, the intended air and sea invasion on our country was aborted by the enemy. However, further attacks on our cities and sea-ports were made from time to time. Rail travel was most important and because troop movements were of a priority, people were asked not to travel by rail unless it was necessary. On every railway station advertisements showed a soldier in full battle kit pointing to the reader and asking, "Is your journey really necessary?"
Throughout the War many wounded servicemen were admitted to Horton Hospital. Whilst they were patients there, they were issued with light blue jackets, trousers and forage cap to match. They were also provided with bright red ties. Those who were able to walk were encouraged to go into town. From the hospital they would walk along the bridle path which continued along the path running along the bottom end of the Court Recreation Ground to Waterloo Road. When they had reached the town centre, it was not much further for them to walk to either the Odeon or Capitol Cinemas. They were warmly received by smartly dressed commissionaires with epaulettes on their shoulders and attractive sashes over their frock coats. The usherettes were equally smartly dressed in gold blouses, dark slacks and short green cloaks. The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) provided refreshments of tea, coffee and cakes for the wounded during the intervals. There were three performances a day consisting of the main film, supporting film and the British Movietone News.
The Ebbisham Sport Club, which was situated between the ends of West Hill Avenue and Eastway, had hard tennis courts outside and badminton and squash courts inside. The Club ceased to function since the outbreak of the war when the army took it over for a short time. Then the huge indoor centre became one of the many British Restaurants set up throughout the country and run by the WVS. In Ewell there was one on the corner of the London Road and the Ewell by-pass.
An example of a British Restaurant This one was at Woolmore Street in London Image source Wikipedia.
The Ebbisham Hall in Ashley Road, where much stage entertainment had flourished, was taken over by the army. Opposite stood a large fashion store called Reids. It was the only building in Epsom that had a lift to its three floors. Woolworth on High Street just about sold everything people needed. It had a large ground floor and a sub-basement equally as large. Part of it was made available as a war-time shelter.
There were not many petrol stations in Epsom. Gilder's Garage, situated on West Street close to the railway bridge, had its own taxi service and housed two ambulances for the town. Next door to the Post Office was Page's Garage which had a large car show room. The petrol pumps swung out across the pavement well above head-height when required. William R. Page had nine children. One was serving as Squadron Leader in the RAF and the youngest, Bryan, attended Park Hill School as I did until it closed in 1943. Charles J. Shaw and his sister Isabella J. Shaw were joint Principals of the school. In 1940 he became the second Mayor of Epsom and Ewell. As a contribution to the war effort William Page made his showroom available for the RAF and WAAF to hold an exhibition. With a great number of exhibits and demonstrations given it was very well attended. The proceeds were donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
Page Motors at 74-78 High Street
A few doors along was the Gas Showroom. From time to time large scale models of Royal Naval ships were exhibited in the front window. They drew the attention of many people, especially teenage boys. The fine details on those models were exquisite. They provided a means for the general public to know more about our ships which were fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic and other great waters.
On East Street, on the opposite side to the Kings Arms, was a large square building camouflaged with green and brown paint. At first people were curious to know for what purpose it was to be used. Then every few days we saw the RAF long trailers carrying one fighter aircraft at a time arrive and depart. It was obvious some further work was being done on them.
In December 1941, the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Soon our country was full of servicemen and women from our Commonwealth Countries and the USA. Within the next two years we all knew that a huge attack would be made against Nazi Germany. Eventually, it came and D-Day was launched on the 6th June 1944. There was great military activity everywhere. It was difficult to walk across Epsom's High Street, because of the constant convoys of army trucks carrying supplies, each lorry having a soldier lying across the roof of the cabin armed with a Bren gun, a light machine-gun.
Later in that month, Hitler launched his secret weapon - the Flying Bomb! It was also known as the VI (V standing for Vengeance, or Vergeltung in German). It had been rumoured that a pilotless craft had been devised by German scientists. The noise of its jet engine was frightening, but it was more frightening when it ran out of fuel and cut out. Then it dived and when it exploded the ground shook violently.
Epsom Cottage Hospital Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
During those terrifying weeks I happened to be in the Cottage Hospital for a tonsillectomy. One patient, opposite me in the men's ward, was allowed to wash and shave in a little washing annex. It was a warm sunny morning, so with the window wide open he placed his things on the window-sill as a flying-bomb roared overhead. Suddenly, it cut out and within a few seconds it dived into Alexandra Park on the opposite side of Alexandra Road. When the man reached for his shaving gear, it had all disappeared! Nurses searched the grounds outside without success. The explosion was so great that it had sucked all his items away never to be seen again!
We all lived from day to day, not knowing if we would be killed or injured. Sometimes nursing staff dived under the patients' beds. The only means of protection patients had was to pull their steel tables on four casters over their heads. Then the VI, which we also called the doodle bug or buzz bomb, was followed by the V2 rocket. They were worse; we had no warning of their approach. People could be there one second and gone the next! Much information on those two deadly weapons and others can be found on the Internet.
Finally, on Tuesday 8th May 1945 Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. It was a huge relief after we had endured the War for nearly six years. A Service of Thanksgiving at St Barnabas Church in Temple Road was held a few days later. There was not enough time to advertise it in print. The announcements were conveyed at great speed by word of mouth- the Church was packed! I also attended a similar service a day or so later at St Martin's Parish Church. From widespread reports the same responses came from all over the country. Three months later, following the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally on 15th August 1945. That was commemorated as VJ Day, or, as we refer to it in Australia, VP Day - Victory in the Pacific. It was so good to have our street lights on at night-time again and church bells rang throughout the country, but it was sometime before many other things were re-instituted.
Thanksgiving Week Programme Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
The country took many years to recover. There was no television in those days, so we relied very much on the news we heard on the wireless, which later became known as the radio; also the Newsreels at the cinemas and limited pictures in the newspapers. We were greatly shocked and horrified when we learned about all the atrocities committed in the concentration camps under the Nazi regime. After some time of convalescence, prisoners of war returned home and our troops were eventually demobilized and returned to their civilian employments. Food rationing continued up to May 1953, and National Service was still in force until 1960.
It took several years for all the brick shelters and concrete pillboxes to be demolished with the use of pneumatic drills; the underground shelters were bulldozed into the ground, static water tanks were dismantled and the huge tank trap trench was filled in. The Ebbisham Hall returned to being a place of entertainment and the Ebbisham Sports club returned to being a place for sporting activities of tennis, badminton and squash. Since those days of recovery Epsom has continued to change, but not necessarily for the better. There seems to be far too many vehicles on the roads throughout the country which cause more problems. The amount of paintwork on the roads and an ever increasing number of sign posts appears to have cluttered the streets so much that the quaintness of our towns which we had cherished in the past has, in my opinion, virtually disappeared. Some regard all these new things as progress, whilst others may have completely different views. As for me, I shall always treasure the lovely memories I have had as a small child and throughout my teenage years as I grew up in Epsom and attended Ewell Castle School. Whenever I return to England there have been fewer and fewer people I once knew still living in the area. Now there are none! They have either moved to other parts of the country, or have even immigrated to other countries as I have done and others have sadly past away. Well, that's life! Hopefully, my memories recorded here will be of interest to readers, particularly those who live in Epsom and Ewell, who have a yearning to know what life was like from the 1930s in their historic market town.