Esher - Awash with history

By Stephen Webbe

I mean, what other Surrey town can boast a royal residence adored by Queen Victoria; two 18th Century prime ministers; the founder of Britain’s Indian Empire; a designer of fighter aircraft who saved civilization; two busty blonde bombshells and a member of the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world?? Quite simply, Esher. Where history isn’t consigned to the past.

* Wayneflete Tower by the River Mole is all that remains of Esher Palace. Its builder was William Wayneflete, Bishop of Winchester, one of the greatest patrons of learning in late medieval England.

* In 1529 Cardinal Wolsey spent four grim months incarcerated at Esher Palace after failing to get Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. He complained bitterly about its “moist and corrupt air”.

* Plague so terrified Henry VIII that when it erupted at Hampton Court in 1537, he left Jane Seymour behind and fled to Esher Palace. He was still there when his third wife bore him the son he yearned for.

* The humbling of the Spanish Armada was complete when Don Pedro de Valdes, its third in command, was banged up in Esher Palace. His galleon had fallen foul of that old seadog Sir Francis Drake.

* After serving as Rector of Esher from 1620–1626 the Puritan preacher Thomas Hooker sailed for Boston and religious freedom. He became the founder of Connecticut and the father of American democracy.

* Sir Thomas Lynch never had much time to enjoy Esher Place. As Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, he was preoccupied with curbing privateers and hanging pirates who preyed on the Spanish West Indies.

* 18th Century prime ministers and brothers Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle both lived in Esher. While Pelham ended a long war, Newcastle helped transform Britain into a global superpower.

* Having made Britain the master of India with his victory at Plassey in 1757, Robert Clive commissioned Capability Brown to build Claremont. But he took his own life before he could move in.

* When the Prince Regent’s daughter, the high-spirited and fiercely patriotic Princess Charlotte died in childbirth at Claremont in 1817, Britain was grief-stricken. Many thought they had lost a great queen.

* Queen Victoria spent some of the happiest days of her life at Esher’s Claremont Palace. Indeed, she never lost her love for the cosy Palladian pile and its glorious gardens, celebrating seven birthdays there.

* Francis Williamson is said to have been Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor and she loved to sit for him at his High Street home. Now called “The Grapes”, it bears a blue plaque commemorating him.

* After King Louis Philippe and Queen Marie Amelie were driven from the French throne in 1848, they went into exile at Claremont.  Enriching the wealthy and repressing the poor cost the King dear.

* No one did trench warfare’s tedium and terror better than R. C. Sherriff who lived at “Rosebriars” on Esher Park Avenue. Hailed for “Journey’s End”, he also wrote the screenplay for “The Dam Busters”.

* Father of the immortal Hawker Hurricane and Chief Designer of  Hawker Aircraft, Sydney Camm  worked and slept in Claremont during World War II refining and designing some of Britain’s deadliest warplanes.

* Esher men come no braver than Lieutenant St. John Graham Young who laid down his life for his men in a German minefield in 1944 and received the George Cross for his unimaginable selflessness.

* Burly, taciturn racing motorist John Cobb was born in Esher in 1899. After twice setting world land speed records, he made a bid for the world water speed record in 1952 – and died on Loch Ness.

* It took a ballsy broad from New Jersey to save a priceless hunk of Esher history from demolition. The broad was seductive singer and actress Frances Day and the lucky hunk was Waynflete Tower.

* Esher resident and film star Diana Dors never quite became Britain’s Marilyn Monroe. She described herself as the country’s “first home-grown sex symbol, rather like (its) naughty seaside postcards”.

*As Beatlemania raged, George Harrison and wife Pattie Boyd retreated to a secluded bungalow on Claremont Drive. They decorated it in psychedelic swirls and scoffed vegetarian food. They were never happier.

* Among Esher’s literary lights none shone brighter than Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith. Ranked with Thomas Hardy in his day and awarded the Order of Merit, he’s virtually unknown today.

* The hugely prolific husband-and-wife writers William Howitt and Mary Howitt arrived in Esher in 1836 and moved into West End Cottage. Mary likened  Esher’s countryside to “the Garden of Eden”.

* The novelist sisters Jane Porter & Anna Maria Porter moved into Alderlands on Esher’s High Street in 1823. Jane’s novel “The Scottish Chiefs” inspired Sir Walter Scott and brought her international fame.

* Perhaps Esher’s least known literary figure is the Irish comic dramatist and songwriter John O’Keeffe, a great favourite of George IV. His 1791 farce “Wild Oats” was revived in 1976 in London to great acclaim.

* Cerebral sleuth Sherlock Holmes visited Esher in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge”. Holmes and Watson were probing murder most foul on Oxshott Common.

* There was no greater moment at Sandown Park than the one in 1984 when the Queen Mother’s horse Special Cargo snatched victory in the Whitbread Gold Cup. A thunderous ovation greeted her win.

* In 1900 Queen Victoria sent her young grandson, the Duke of Albany, from Claremont to Germany to become the Duke of Saxe Coburg & Gotha. He went on to become a German general and a rabid Nazi.

* Diplomat Lord D’Abernon, denizen of Esher Place, was Britain’s first ambassador to Germany after the First World War. Of decidedly pro-German views, he lived to see the savagery of the Third Reich.

© Stephen Webbe/EBG 2011