Willis Notes

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



'One of the very old things in England must be the track from the hills down Ewell High Street to the springs at the river head'. So opens (p1) the most charming local history of any Surrey village. Cloudesley Stannard Willis (1865-1955) was in his 60s when he began to set down memories of the village, and his A Brief History of Ewell and Nonsuch is a tribute to a lost England as well as the fast-changing parish in which he was born.

It is a very discursive book, and the index at the back does not do full justification to the people, places and topics covered. We have prepared a new index, which can be consulted here.

Cloudesley Willis was the eldest son of Henry Willis (1829-1903), who had married Jane Maria Stannard (1832-1914). The Stannards were from the Isle of Wight, but Henry Willis was a local man; his father was Henry Willis the elder (1801-1884), who had come from Wandsworth as an apprentice to the blacksmith Richard Bliss (1763-1845). Richard and his wife, Jane Bliss née Cloudesley (1768-1815), had a daughter Elizabeth (1791-1852) who married the young apprentice Henry, thus welding the Willis and Bliss families into a single business. And it was through this local lineage that Cloudesley Willis gained his sense of the past. For other people, the 1802 Enclosure Act was simply a document. For him it was a family memory, of the time when great-grandfather Richard Bliss 'made a very strong plough, drawn by a number of horses, to break up Long Down' (p10).

A portrait of Cloudesley Willis
A portrait of Cloudesley Willis
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

He grew up, and grew old, above the blacksmith's shop at 9 High Street, writing evocatively of its 'great timbers and forges black with the smoke of scores of years; the interior was full of strong lights and deep shadows, pleasant to see on a winter's day; and the rhythmic ting of the small hammer answering the sledge hammer was a pleasant thing to hear' (p94). Like George Sturt of Farnham, he had a craftsman's sense of local detail. The age of mass-production was on its way, and it was as an ironmonger, not a blacksmith, that Willis was apprenticed in his teenage years. But he still looked on old buildings in the neighbourhood, not just as homes of the gentry, but as a record of fine English workmanship. He had a good eye for wrought iron and in the breakneck munitions drive of 1941-2, when railings everywhere were being sawn up and carried off, he compiled a report on Ewell ironwork and saved some of its best examples. Before the war he had gone round the neighbourhood with Henry Lewis Edwards, the Epsom estate agent, preparing a record of the best local buildings, in the fear that they might be destroyed in the coming holocaust. In fact many of the buildings were indeed demolished - after the War; and not by the Nazis.

Willis stood on the cusp of an old world and a new. He was a supporter of Surrey Archaeological Society, contributing notes to its Collections on more than ten occasions between 1913 and 1950, and was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1946; but his true instincts remained visual and oral, not documentary. As a member of the parish council, he had access to the Vestry minutes and Overseer's accounts - it was thanks to him that these archives were saved on the winding up of the Rural District - but such papers meant little to him unless they could be brought into contact with the traditions of the village elite.

And those traditions had deep roots. 'Mrs. Fendall lived to the age of ninety-nine; she was born when King James II was alive; and when my grandmother was a child Mrs. Fendall assisted her with her silk embroidery' (p55). Another stream of narrative came via the Henderson and Hall families; Willis acted as private secretary for Alexander Henderson at the Upper Mill, and this put him in touch with stories going back to the time of William IV, who may (or may not) have strolled down to the Hogsmill while staying with his partner Dorothy Jordan in Church Street. Tradition is not necessarily accurate, and Willis is sometimes betrayed by the desire to identify landmarks - the stump of the gallows, or the house of the murderer John Rowse - which in reality had long since receded over the horizon of time. He is aware that some of his better stories, such as the anecdote of Parson Maggs and his book of sermons (p48), are well-worn tales. But still he is an unerring guide to what people said to each other, even if that was not the official version. It makes a change from the usual shareholders' self-congratulation on the coming of the railway (it arrived at Ewell East in 1847) to read: 'the air pumping apparatus often failed, and the train stopped; when the passengers were obliged to get out and push; and were sometimes left on the line' (p88).

And Willis, who lived to be 90, had observed a great deal for himself. His account of church-going in the 1870s (pp23-4) is a classic of Victoriana: the parishioners dressed in their best and the Sunday-school children all in a line, 'the vergeress, discreetly bonnetted and shawled in black' and Dr. Barnes in his military uniform, the organ blown by the blind boys and the stern parish clerk; finally Sir George changing into his black Geneva gown to preach a long sermon - 'there were sermons in those days; and we thought ourselves lucky to be out before one o'clock'. And all this observed by a boy who had not yet reached the age of fifteen.

It is passages like these that make A Brief History of Ewell still worth reading, eighty years on. After all, Willis was there, or had spoken to people who were, and wrote down the stories with a quirky freshness that was all his own. On the other hand, when tradition gives out - that is, for the whole span of local history before about 1750 - he is a very unreliable guide indeed, and the reader would be better off trusting to more modern books. When it comes to the Middle Ages, he is whistling in the dark; there are a lot of paragraphs introduced by 'doubtless', and he tends to cover the joins by citing Shakespeare, who adds greatly to the atmosphere but is hardly a local source. To turn from Willis' musings on Nonsuch Palace to the exhaustive archival notes prepared by John Dent is to move from belles lettres to serious documentary research.

Looking back from the 2000s, we can only regret that, like so many local historians of his era, Willis kept his eyes fixed on a distant horizon to the exclusion of anything more recent. To read A Brief History you would not imagine that there had ever been a First World War, or that Ewell was affected by it. This is all the more unfortunate since Willis was a key figure in the local community; an associate of Arthur and Margaret Glyn, a founder of the Nonsuch Society, a fellow musician with Kathleen Riddick, and a friend of A.R. Laird, whose prints record a disappearing world of local farms and workshops. Quite where he fitted in commercially is not certain. It was his younger brother John Orday Willis ran the ironmonger's shop. One suspects that Cloudesley Willis did not have much of a head for business and, in those uncompetitive days, he could eke out a quiet living from the shop, devoting most of his time to playing the cello and discussing the latest find of Roman coins with Captain Lowther.

A Laird view of High Street
A Laird view of High Street
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

But it must have been this involvement in the social life of 1920s Ewell - still a small, closely-knit village - which gave Willis his unerring ability to picture people and communities in a few words. Take his description of 'George Stone, corn and coal merchant and farmer; well with all the world and himself; who parted his hair down to the poll, was Vestry Clerk, had his gun and his dogs; and kept his account at the Bank of England' (p41). That is not just a personal description, it's a whole society boiled down to 40 words. Or the comment of a retired major that 'there was more caste in Ewell than in the whole of India' (p111). The major is, prudently, left anonymous; the Glyn family, even its more democratic twentieth-century descendants, might not have welcomed such plain speaking. Consider also Willis' own laconic judgement on the entropy of small-town business, that 'the tradesmen ran long bills with each other, which went on from year to year, and roughly balanced: it was practically a system of trading by barter' (pp102-3). There is a risk, especially for plain statistical historians, of dismissing A Brief History as a string of picturesque anecdotes strung together by inaccurate topography. The picturesqueness is not in doubt: this is a book which features Beating the Bounds and May Day, Gypsy musicians and nightingales, body-snatchers and smugglers. But the customs and anecdotes are there for a purpose. Willis uses them to show the values that the old community set for itself, and the ways in which it functioned.

He was driven by a sense of the lost past - or rather, of two pasts. First, there was the world of his grandfather and great-grandfather, now existing only in a tenacious family tradition which he had no-one to pass on to; and then there was also the world of the contemporary village, so obviously on the verge of suburbanisation. 'We have seen a different Ewell', he concludes (p113), and the narrative is always one of loss, not of transformation. 'The footpath to West Ewell passes through the Fitznells meadows; in May they are gorgeous with buttercups; and on the brooks are penstocks for flooding the meadows. The fields of Ewell Court rise beyond... It is the English scene, fresh and pastoral; may something of its beauty be preserved from buildings and concrete roads...' (44). A hundred years later, the meadows are still there, as the Hogsmill Open Space; not everything is lost. I think it would have cheered him to know that.

Kingsmead
Kingsmead
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Publications

The first edition of A Brief History of Ewell and Nonsuch was published by Pullingers of Epsom in December 1931. It must have proved popular, since it was reprinted in September 1932. There were ten plates; I, II, V and X were photographs, variations on the usual postcard views of the village, taken by Arthur Monger in 1901, while IV, VIII and IX are more interesting as they came from Willis' own watercolours made between 1926 and 1928. Plate II is a view of the (pre-1848) old St. Mary's from a watercolour by J.M. Waghorn, presumably acquired by the Willis or Bliss family. This, like the watercolours made by Cloudesley Willis himself, is now lost.

After the War, in 1948, Pullingers issued a new edition. This is the one which was been used in making the new index above. The 1931 text had run to page 113; the 1948 version retains this pagination but adds two appendixes, as pages 114-35. Appendix I, 'Ewell', consists of (rather undigested) material from Surrey Archaeological Collections as well as a note on the Vestry minutes of 1848. Evidently there were those who felt that Sir George had been too high-handed in pulling down the old church, and Willis is defending his own family view of the matter from the documents. Appendix II, 'Cuddington and Nonsuch' has more information on Nonsuch, including observations of wartime exposure of its foundations.

In 1969 a new, posthumous edition was brought out, edited by Philip Shearman and John Dent, published as before by Pullingers. The 1946 portrait of Cloudesley Willis by A.R. Laird was introduced as plate I, so that all the other plates are now II to XI. The text of pages 1-135 remains the same, although the type was re-set. Shearman added a preface outlining Willis' life and work, pp.viii-xiv, and an appendix bringing the reader up to date with changes in the village (mostly demolitions), pp.136-8. Dent prepared a revised and much more comprehensive index.

Willis wrote a number of papers for Surrey Archaeological Collections, increasing in length as he became more confident in his judgement, and as the rate of change in the built-up area increased. These are:
'Discovery of foundations at Nonsuch' Surrey Arch. Coll. 38 (1930) pp230-1.
'Saxon burials at Ewell', Surrey Arch. Coll. 41 (1933) p122.
'The banqueting house at Ewell', Surrey Arch. Coll. 41 (1933) p127.
'Earthwork in Ewell and Cuddington', Surrey Arch. Coll. 42 (1934) pp117-8
'Epsom houses', Surrey Arch. Coll. 45 (1937) pp154-5.
'Ewell Grove, Ewell', Surrey Arch. Coll. 45 (1937) pp155-6.
'Ironwork in Epsom and Ewell', Surrey Arch. Coll. 48 (1943) pp8-16.
'An old workshop at Ewell', Surrey Arch. Coll. 48 (1943) pp159-60.
'Old houses in Epsom, Ewell and Cuddington', Surrey Arch. Coll. 51 (1950) pp110-33.
Willis is also recorded as having published an account of 15 High Street in the Epsom & Ewell Advertiser, 11th January 1949.
The Cloudesley Willis memorial gate
The Cloudesley Willis memorial gate
Image courtesy of Epsom & Ewell Local and Family History Centre

Sources

These notes were largely prepared from notes made by Maurice Exwood, now held at Bourne Hall Museum; he in turn was able to draw on the reminiscences of Philip Shearman in the 1969 edition of A Brief History and on information given by Cecily Fausset, Willis' niece. I am grateful to Brian Bouchard [link to Richard Bliss] for untangling the Willis family tree and to Shirley Mullins for typing up the original draft of the index.

Willis makes a habit of referring to people by their surnames - '"Cock" Holland (they all had nick-names in those days)' (p53). In the index, first names have been provided in brackets wherever it seemed possible to make a reasonable inference. I am grateful to Peggy Bedwell, who has been researching old Ewell over more decades than Willis himself, for help with these identifications.

Jeremy Harte © 2012


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