First Elected Mayor of Epsom and Ewell

John Samuel Underhill
John Samuel Underhill
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

John Samuel Underhill was born in August 1866 (GRO: Sep 1866 Exeter Devon Volume: 5b Page: 99) to James and Eleanor (nee Hutchings) Underhill. James and Eleanor had married in 1864 (GRO: Mar 1864 Wheatenhurst Volume: 6a Page: 411)

In the 1871 census 45 year old James and 26 year old Eleanor, with their children William James aged 6, John Samuel aged 4, Eleanor Bessie aged 3 and Edred Hutchings aged 2, appear as living in The Railway Hotel Exeter Devon. James was recorded as being the hotel's keeper. Their 36-year-old niece Elizabeth Lee also worked as a barmaid there.

The 1881 census shows the family still living in The Railway Hotel, with the addition of siblings Arthur George aged 7, Eveline Maud aged 6 and Ernest Frederick aged 4. The eldest of the children, William James, is noted as being an 'Engine Fitter'.

John was educated at Exeter Grammar School and played rugby for Exeter and Devon. He was described as a "good sprinter and quarter mile runner". He was also a non commissioned officer for the 1st Devon Rifle Volunteers. In 1892 he gained his St John Ambulance certificate.

John left home and moved to London where he became involved with the Conservative party. He lived for 13 years in the Cambridge University Settlement Camberwell, although in the 1891 census he is recorded as being a 24-year-old boarder living in 131-135 Camberwell Road Camberwell, where his occupation was described as 'Conservative Agent'.

During his time there he was the Hon. Secretary to the Trinity Mission Working Boy's Club and the Working Man's Club, as well as holding similar positions with the Federations of London Working Boy's Club and the Working Man's Club. He conducted bible classes on Sunday afternoons for the Boys clubs, which had an attendance of at least 200 boys. John also organized August camps for London working boys. Other honorary offices he held were that of South London secretary to the N.S.P.C.C, and secretary of the South London National Playing Fields Association. He became a member of the Camberwell Borough Council and in 1901 lost a London County Council contest by one vote.

Although John's whereabouts in the 1901 census has not been found, several entries in the British phones books place him as working in Baker Street Paddington. In 1902 the entry reads 'Underhill J.S 20 Baker Street Constitutional Union'.

Aged 36, John married Mary Alice Cooper on 18 April 1903 in St Paul's parish church Clapham. John gave his occupation as 'Political Agent' and his address as 20 Rectory Grove. His father James, described as a 'Wine Merchant', was deceased by now. Mary Alice Cooper was a 24-year-old spinster who lived at Grove House Lambeth Rise. Her father was Philip Cooper, a 'Manufacturer'. The next year their first child was born. Kathleen May was baptised in St Paul's Clapham on 18 April 1904. Their next child John Philip was born in 1906, followed in 1908 by their third child Cecil Howard.

John moved his business address to number 65 Baker Street in 1905-6 and then to number 64 between 1906 and 1920, although no phone book entry for 1915 was found. 'Marylebone' was added as a prefix to 'Constitutional Union' in these last phone book entries. For many years John worked here as an agent for the two Marylebone divisions and subsequently for half the London area.

The 1911 census records John, Mary and their three children as living at 8 Hill Road Hampstead. This was a large house with at least eleven rooms which "included the kitchen but not the scullery, landing, lobby, closet or bathrooms". They employed a cook and a housemaid to look after them and a governess for their children.

John was a very active church member who was a churchwarden, a member of three church councils, a Sunday school superintendent and for 15 years a regular reader of lessons.

During WW1 John organized the Derby recruiting scheme in West London, as well as the national registration of national kitchens, and as Captain of the 21st Battalion London Regiment, took part in the defence of London and the east coast. He was also a member of the Marylebone Tribunal for 3 years.

For 20 years John was a member of the Marylebone Bench and held the office of chairman. He was a member also of the County of London Licensing Committee, a member of the Court of Appeal, London Sessions and a visiting Justice to London prisons, all positions of which he resigned from in 1936.

In 1921 John had once again moved his business address along the road to number 47. John was by now the Chief Conservative Agent for London and was responsible for the management of party affairs for over 62 constituencies.

Where John and Mary lived during their early married life before the 1911 census was taken is unclear but between 1914 and 1922 there are phone book entries for J.S Underhill living at 8 Hill Road Abbey Road Hampstead. This address changes to 11 Blenheim Road Hampstead between 1923-1928. This would tie up with the 1929 phone book first showing John and Mary's first appearance in Epsom. The entry shows them as living at 1 Links Road Epsom Surrey. This is a large detached house off of College Road Epsom where they were to live "in retirement" for the next ten years. Their son John Philip Underhill, who was working as a master at Epsom College, may have influenced John and Mary's decision to move to Epsom.

Within two years of their move to Epsom, John was asked to represent the College Ward on the Urban Council and elected as such in March 1931. This was followed by his election in 1936 to vice-chairman of the Urban Council. In April 1937 he was elected as the last chairman of the Epsom and Ewell Urban Council.

On the 29 September 1937, the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey presented the 'Charter of Incorporation' to the Borough of Epsom and Ewell on a specially erected platform in the High Street of Epsom. The first Mayor of Epsom to be elected was Alderman John Samuel Underhill. Sadly, due to his death, he was only to hold the office of Mayor for 6 months causing his deputy Alderman Charles Joseph Shaw to take over, and who later become Mayor himself in 1940.

John's later obituary in the local newspaper quoted that
"During the six months of his office that he earned the respect and admiration of all shades of opinion on the Town Council and of the burgesses generally. He was peculiarly well fitted to be the First Citizen of the borough, for he bought to the position dignity, vision in municipal matters and the utmost fairness in presiding over the debates."
Six weeks prior to dying, John had broken the muscle in the back of one of his knees and, on medical advice from doctors of the day, remained resting in bed. However while resting he developed fibrositis in an arm and then contracted thrombosis and phlebitis. This in turn caused two clots to develop and soon pleurisy and pneumonia set in. While he appeared to be strong enough to survive this and seemed to be making progress, an abscess formed in his lung. His end was reportedly peaceful.

John Samuel Underhill aged 71 died on 28 March 1938. After he was cremated at Streatham crematory, Longhursts Funeral Directors buried his ashes on 1 April in the Ashley Road cemetery, after a memorial ceremony held by the Bishop of Guildford at St Martins Parish Church Epsom.

John's widow Mary Alice Underhill, who had worked quietly and loyally beside her husband during their entire marriage, purchased grave A695 for her husband on 20 April 1938.

John Underhill's headstone in Epsom Cemetery
Image courtesy of Hazel Ballan © 2010

During his life John, who had been described as "a sportsman and a gentleman - an unbeatable combination", had also been a member of the Assessment Committee, a Guardian, chairman of the Means Test committee, chairman of Fire Brigade and Ambulance committee, Cemetery Sub committee, a governor of the County School for Boys, a manager of the Church of England schools and the Joint Industrial Council representative on the Joint Industrial Council to name but a few. Especially remembered was his work with the Nonsuch Park Joint Management committee in 1937 and on the Cuddington Joint Hospital Board.

Alderman Chuter Ede M.P, who was Charter Mayor of Epsom and Ewell at the time of John's death, was quoted as saying:
"The Mayor of Epsom and Ewell was a most genial and happy companion. His knowledge of public affairs was very wide and he had taken his full share in promoting the public welfare at a time when the social movement was not as strong as it is today. He had a long experience of the provisions of open spaces and recreation facilities in urban and developing areas. As Chairman of the Establishment Committee at Epsom under the late Urban District council, he showed a wide and human outlook of the personal problems of a large staff. He was approachable. He was painstaking in his consideration of the details of personal problems and strove earnestly to secure justice in all matters in dispute. His loss to the town at this juncture of its history is a heavy one."

Researched by Hazel Ballan 2010

  • Ancestry
  • Free BMD
  • 'Borough of Epsom and Ewell 21st Anniversary of Incorporation'
  • Kelly's Directories.
  • Obituary in local paper.

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