A description of some of the early roads in Ewell is given in Philip Shearman’s topographical introduction to the Fitznell’s Cartulary (1194–1426 AD), published in 1968, in Charles Titford’s notes on the Portway and correspondence with Dorothy Nail, and in additional notes published by C.S. Willis. The earliest known road is the Roman Stane Street, which has been uncovered at various points either side of the village (and is currently being excavated in St. Mary’s Churchyard), although Stane Street probably followed the line of earlier trackways or leys through the great forest to Chichester. Many of the earlier trackways would have been about 5 foot wide, plus a foot on either side, width of carts drawn by yoked oxen which are known to have been kept in Ewell, certainly in the middle ages. Roman roads are generally 14 feet to 16 feet wide, sufficient for two columns of soldiers, six abreast, to pass.
A detailed description of the village and its roads is given in the 1408 Memorial and 1577 Survey, from which several attempts have been made to construct maps. There are several strip maps dating from 1675 onwards, but the first accurate plan is the 1802 Enclosure Award, followed by the Ordnance Survey 1-inch in 1810, Schiereck’s plan of 1839/40, and the first OS 25-inch plan in 1867/9. These show the village before the urban sprawl began in the 1930s.
The condition of the roads was the responsibility of the Manorial Courts and subsequently the churchwardens took over this responsibility. The 1555 Highways Act led to the annual appointment of a Waywarden or Surveyor of Highways who was unpaid, but had the power to call out the ‘statute’ labour, i.e. the manpower of the parish together with their carts, tools etc., to work on the roads. There are a number of references to the condition of the Ewell to Long Ditton road in the 17th century Quarter Sessions records, and the villagers were indicted in 1661 for ploughing up the road from Ewell to Reigate ‘to the grave nuisance of the king’s liege people riding along the said highway, in evil example and against the peace’. An Act for repairing the highway from Nonsuch Palace to Kingston was passed in 1606, and it was not until 1755 that the first turnpike act was passed covering the Ewell to Cheam, Tooting to Ewell, Ewell to Burgh Heath and Epsom, and Ewell to Kingston turnpike roads. Sir George Glyn was appointed a Turnpike Trustee in 1773, a new Act ‘for amending, widening and keeping in repair’ various local roads was passed in 1801, amended in 1838/9 and 1868/9, and turnpikes were finally abolished in 1895.
There were 14 turnpike gates between London and Worthing, or a gate every 4 miles. Travellers did not have to pay at each one, but the accumulated delays due to being stopped 14 times made them somewhat bad tempered. Great confusion and congestion at these gates was noted on Epsom race days and a series of drawings in the Illustrated London News, showing the problems of getting to Epsom. indicate that conditions then were even worse than they are today. Incidentally the name ‘turnpike’ arose when spikes were put on top of the wooden bar gate in an effort to prevent gentlemen on horseback from leaping over the gate and riding on without paying! The position of the turnpike gates is marked on the 19th century maps whilst the 25-inch OS map also shows the position of milestones. The surviving milestones have been recorded and photographed for our records.
The Highway Rate Books of 1849 and 1852–7 survive with the Highway Surveyor’s accounts for 1852–5. The Vestry Minutes of 1832 contain several references to the roads and in 1836 the Parish undertook to repair Church Street which had been left in a neglected state by the Turnpike Trust when the new stretch of London Road (in front of Bourne Hall) was adopted, bypassing Church Street. Street lighting was first adopted in 1859. In 1921 Ewell had the doubtful distinction of being the last parish in the country to be indicted for non-repair of the roads.
Pack horses were used from Roman times until the coming of the railway in 1848 and, in earlier periods, ‘trains of pack horses laden with coal, clay, hardware and wool were a common sight’. The 18th century packhorse bridge at Ewell Court can still be seen. Oxen were used in Ewell in the 13th century, and the position of the large ox shed and roads such as Ox Lane and a field called Oxenlease tell their own story. Samuel Pepys rode on horseback to Ewell and Epsom or by carriage in the 17th century and constantly went in fear of robbery by highwaymen, and complained of the state of the roads. The first daily stage coach out of London ran to Epsom Spa in 1684, and various timetables are quoted for 1790, 1824 and, in particular, the Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836 contains a number of references including one to the famous Comet which ran from Charing Cross via Ewell and Epsom to Littlehampton and Bognor, carrying 4 passengers inside and 8 outside. Mr. Broad’s coach carried 6 inside and 12 outside and took 4 hours for the journey from London to Dorking, leaving Dorking at 7.0 am and London at 4 pm. The opening of a more direct route to Brighton in 1807 relieved Ewell of a great deal of traffic, but a number of stage coaches continued to run until about 1905. Ewell was not on the early Royal Mail coach routes, but from 1890 to 1905 the GPO four horse coach thundered through the village in the early hours on its journey from London to Guildford.
The coming of the railways led to a reduction of public stage coaches in the 1840s but these were revived in the 1860s, including a number of horse drawn vehicles which were the forerunner of buses and trams.