Welcome to Part 2 of the story of the drawing up of the Greater London boundary. Last time round we looked at the plans of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London and how they were amended by politicians in the run up to the publication of the London Government Bill in 1962. This time we look at a small bit of contested land – three wards in the Borough of Epsom & Ewell that fought to stay in Surrey.
From the very beginning, the Borough of Epsom & Ewell wished to play no part in Greater London. In its June 1958 submission to the Herbert Commission (drafted by the formidable and long-serving Town Clerk, Edward Moore) the Council made it clear that, in its view, it had the size, capacity, competence and resources of a viable independent Authority. It claimed little affinity with London asserting that the Borough “is free from the features which are characteristic of suburban areas” , a highly debatable (actually, no, just plain inaccurate) statement. If anything, it wanted more power to be devolved to it from Surrey County Council, especially in the fields of education and library services.
When the Commission reported, it was proposed that a new “Borough 32” would replace the Borough of Epsom & Ewell and the Banstead U.D.C.. By the time of the White Paper, the Government’s desire was to see larger Authorities than those proposed by Herbert (although the overall boundary of Greater London remained unchanged from the Commission’s proposal) and so the two Councils had been lumped in with the Boroughs of Sutton & Cheam, Beddington & Wallington and Carshalton U.D.C. .
As we saw in Part One, by mid-May 1962 the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was able to report on its final proposed Greater London boundary which, contrary to the Government’s original criteria, resulted in the partition of Epsom & Ewell. Four wards: Stoneleigh; Cuddington; Ewell Court; and West Ewell would be separated and included within the proposed Kingston-Surbiton-Malden & Coombe grouping, which now needed the population numbers given that Esher and Walton & Weybridge had secured their futures in Surrey.
The Council was given an ultimatum – if they wanted to avoid being split up then the whole Borough would have to become part of Greater London, but exclusion of the whole was not an option. It would appear some local residents could live with the idea of separation – a pressure group, the Epsom Preservation Society, makes an appearance in the National Archives’ files at this point confirming their support for the exclusion of the southern wards. I note that it wasn’t called the Epsom & Ewell Preservation Society – they appear to have been more relaxed about the fate of the residents in the north of the Borough…
June 1962 saw another delegation to Whitehall by the Council’s representatives. While they remained implacably opposed to the partition of their Borough, if it was to be split, they proposed to use the Hogsmill river as the boundary. West Ewell would get a reprieve and the remaining three wards would be severed. This was accepted by the Government and was the proposal that stood for the next twelve months.
What followed was a masterclass in local activism. The Ministry had asserted that local views were less relevant in the decision-making process , but had possibly misjudged the determination of the people in those northern wards.
Perhaps a word on politics in Epsom & Ewell is appropriate at this point. It will come as no surprise to learn that the area is solidly Conservative in its national voting. But the local politics has been firmly in the hands of the various Residents’ Associations for many years: there was a strong infrastructure of local organisation and mobilisation ready to pick up the fight for independence.
In March 1962, the Epsom Ratepayers and Residents Society had convened a meeting at Epsom Public Baths to rally against the changes which attracted over 1,000 attendees. Later that year, the local political parties organised a referendum in the northern wards. Of the 10,577 votes cast (a 71% turn-out), just 206 were in favour of incorporation into Greater London .
As a taste of what was to come when the Stoneleigh Residents Association really got into its stride, letters started to arrive at the Ministry from the local population. One example from January 1963 (actually addressed to Harold MacMillan) from an aggrieved resident captures the mood:
“Under the Greater London Plan, your Minister of Housing & Local Government has decided to sever three wards of Epsom & Ewell and force them into Greater Kingston. This is entirely against the expressed wishes of the electorate, and in direct contrast to the statement of Mr Iain MacLeod last February that no Borough would be split against its will…..Why should we be uprooted and deprived of the amenities of our well run town and forced to join Kingston with whom we have no ties of loyalty and in any case is 5 miles away. It is a monstrous decision and unjust in every way and must not be allowed” .
They continued to trickle in during the first half of 1963 as the Bill made its slow progress through Parliament. Yet the residents appeared to be fighting a losing battle. One regular correspondent was moved to write to the Minister complaining: “The capacity of your Civil Servants for evading issues is only equalled by your own in ignoring them” .
And then, a last chance appeared.
On 24 June 1963, as the Bill was progressing through its Report stage in the House of Lords, an amendment to exclude all of Epsom & Ewell was passed by 35 votes to 30. Its primary exponents were Lord Auckland (Ian Eden, an Epsom resident) and Lord McCorquodale of Newton (Malcolm McCorquodale, the former MP for Epsom), echoing a similar position put forward in the Commons by James Chuter-Ede MP .
Over the next fortnight the Ministry was inundated with letters – enough to fill two files at the National Archives  – in a campaign orchestrated by the Residents Association. The generic template for the letter writers appears to have been something along the lines of “I was delighted to hear the result of the Lords vote, please can the Minister act upon it” (I paraphrase greatly). For me, it was reading the words of those who had deviated from or embellished this standard text that proved so fascinating, and I share below some of the common themes that emerged.
First, there was a deep sense that loyal Conservative voters were being betrayed by a Conservative government which, given the loss of the Orpington by-election, the Profumo scandal and MacMillan’s “night of the long knives”, was clearly on its last legs:
“While I feel that any defeat of the present Government in Parliament is regrettable….[the] proposed mutilation of our Borough is an affront to our civic pride” extract of a letter from a resident of Gayfere Road, Stoneleigh (30/6/1963)
“This seems to us to be a purely statistical exercise of a kind that one might expect from a Socialist government” extract of a letter from a resident of Bradford Drive, Ewell (undated, but marked as received on 3 July 1963)
“Epsom and Ewell regularly return a Conservative Candidate to represent them in the Commons with a large and safe majority – but then so did Orpington” extract of a letter from a resident of Waverley Road, Stoneleigh (5 July 1963)
“This is not my idea of democracy, nor of a Conservative policy. If we are to be moved about like cattle to suit administrative convenience we might as well vote for the Socialists” extract of a letter from a resident of Park Avenue East, Ewell (1 July 1963)
Second, it would appear that local people believed that Epsom & Ewell was a well-run Authority and any alternative grouping was certain to be inferior:
“It is gratifying to know that some of the Noble Lords have the common sense to realise the futility of carving up a Borough that manages its affairs far more successfully than a Government that plans to dismember it…..The proposal to include part of our Borough in the new Council appears to be the opium pipe-dream of some addled-brained planner…” extracts of a letter from resident of Horton Hill, Epsom (27/6/1963)
And more prosaically:
“The standard of planting of roundabouts and flowerbeds…is very good and if part of the Greater London Borough I feel it might be difficult to keep up this standard” extract of a letter from a resident of Chadacre Road, Stoneleigh (29/6/1963)
Third, a sense of identity, place and personal political agency proved stronger than the technical and rational arguments – it didn’t matter what the merits of the case were, the people had spoken. In this there is a clear parallel with our current Brexit predicament and some of the language is rather familiar as well:
“We have never had ties with Kingston, worthy Borough though it might be, nor do we have the slightest desire to become part of it” extract of a letter from a resident of Gayfere Road, Stoneleigh (30/6/1963)
“A political party which overrides the freely expressed wishes of the majority for administrative convenience is not worthy of continued support” extract of a letter from a resident of Ewell Park Way, Stoneleigh (29/6/1963)
“After all, the only raison d’etre of Parliament and Government is to implement the wishes of the people, if I may with respect emphasise this” extract of a letter from a resident of Rosedale Road, Stoneleigh (30/6/1963)
“It is almost incredible that in this so-called free country bureaucratic processes can so radically alter the living conditions of so many people contrary to their wishes….As a tax-payer, rate-payer, house owner and elector, I wish to protest forcibly” extract of a letter from a resident of Bradstock Road, Stoneleigh (1 July 1963)
“To my way of thinking it is totally irrelevant whether or not the plan has merit. The plain fact is that the majority of people concerned do not wish to be moved into the new Borough…” extract of a letter from a resident of Amberley Gardens, Stoneleigh (4 July 1963)
“…it is to be hoped that the Government will see the wisdom of giving way, in this instance, to the widely expressed will of the people” extract of a letter from a resident of The Glade, Stoneleigh (5 July 1963)
Finally, one aspect of the correspondence which jumps out is the repeated reference to people having lived in the area for thirty or so years. In other words, they had moved in during the 1930s as the original occupiers of the new suburbia . Having been sold the image of the semi-rural idyll, their own alternative Metroland, they were still very attached to it. London was the “other”, the very thing they had escaped from. This mythical world was compelling, even if a cursory glance at the map showed that Epsom & Ewell was very much part of the built-up Greater London area:
“We moved out of the London area a number of years ago and do not want to become part of a great metropolis” extract of a letter from a resident of Briarwood Road, Stoneleigh (undated, but marked as received on 3 July 1963)
“The main reason for my move into Stoneleigh was to move out of London, and it was with great dismay I learned that this area might become a part of London” extract of a letter from a resident of Stoneleigh Park Road, Stoneleigh 3/7/1963
“...residents who bought their homes in the expectation of living in the Epsom and Ewell Borough and fear that the transference to the London area will slowly but surely affect their way of life and the value of property adversely for their children” extract of a letter from a resident of Stoneleigh Park Road, Stoneleigh 29/6/1963
It is hard to tell what factors played the biggest part in their success: the parliamentary pressure of Peter Rawlinson (the local MP), James Chuter-Ede and the Lords Auckland and McCorquodale; the tenacity of the Council and of its Town Clerk, Edward Moore; and/or the letter-writing and activism of the Residents’ Associations. But on 8 July 1963, Earl Jellicoe informed the House of Lords:
“My right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has asked me to take this opportunity to inform your Lordships that the Government are prepared to accept the decision of your Lordships’ House on this matter and to leave the whole of the Borough of Epsom and Ewell out of Greater London” .
Was this the right outcome?
It seems to me that if you believe in local government, then it isn’t a great leap of faith to support the idea of local self-determination. On the other hand, it is wrong to ignore the demands of administrative efficiency and the need to run Local Authorities on a sustainable scale. It is a balancing act and trade-offs and compromises must be made.
The notion of including only the three northern wards in Greater London was fatally flawed: it was bad policy and even worse politics. A bureaucratic desire to boost the population of the future Kingston Borough wasn’t in the best interests of the inhabitants of Stoneleigh and its adjacent neighbourhoods. It didn’t even have much impact on the objective of giving Kingston (which today remains London’s smallest Borough by population) the required size and scale. And it was wrong to be so dismissive of the wish of the local population not to see their Borough split in half.
But I don’t necessarily think keeping the whole of the Borough outside of Greater London was right either. I suspect Epsom & Ewell, perhaps grouped with Banstead as Herbert suggested, or with Sutton & Cheam (with which it has a substantial border) as the White Paper proposed, would have thrived as a London Borough and would have enjoyed greater powers.
In conclusion it is hard not to agree with the sentiment of one MHLG memo:
“Ancient market towns such as Epsom find it difficult to accept that they have been overwhelmed by London (Barnet and Staines are other cases in point). Perhaps opposition would have been less had they been the centres of new London Boroughs” .
(1) Borough of Epsom and Ewell Memorandum of Evidence to the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, June 1958
(2) London Government: The London Boroughs. Report presented to the Minister of Housing and Local Government by the Town Clerks of Plymouth, Cheltenham, Oxford and South Shields, HMSO 1962
(3) Per a MHLG memo from C J Pearce dated 9 April 1962:
“In paragraph 899 of their report, the Commission also suggest three questions which must be applied to each area:
(a) How strong is it as an independent centre on its own
(b) How strong are its ties to London
(c) How strongly is it drawn outwards towards the country rather than inwards towards London
These must be distinguished from three other factors which do not seem to be relevant:
(a) Whether the inhabitants wish to be part of a London system [my bolding]
(b) How the county services are administered
(c) How the borough groupings might or might not be affected by the exclusion of a particular area…”
(4) Borough of Epsom and Ewell written submission on the London Government Bill, January 1963
(5) Letter dated 22 January 1963 from a resident of Park Avenue West, Ewell, National Archives files HLG 29/573 and 574
(6) Letter dated 6 April 1963 from a resident of Oakland Way, Ewell Court, National Archives files HLG 29/573 and 574
(7) At first sight, James Chuter-Ede, the Labour MP for South Shields (and Atlee’s former Home Secretary) may not have been an obvious interested party. But he had been born in Epsom, started his political career on the Epsom Urban District Council and been Charter Mayor of Epsom & Ewell in 1937. To this day, a ward of Epsom Hospital is named after him.
(8) They can be found in the National Archives’ files HLG 29/573 and 574
(9) In his book Semi Detached London, Alan Jackson profiles the Stoneleigh Park Estate in one of his case studies
(10) Hansard 8 July 1963 vol 251 cc1180 et seq.
(11) Undated file note (but probably from April 1962 given its position in the file) documenting the MHLG’s thoughts on Epsom & Ewell