Edwardian Sutton: Life Through a Lens

Trinity Church opening day Colour scan

Trinity Church Opening Day, Sutton. Photographed by Knights-Whittome 2 Oct 1907

While the David Knights-Whittome archive contains a huge number of portraits, there are, by comparison, just a handful of local scenes, events and landmarks. Sadly for us he did not really appear to document day to day life in the local area in anything like the prolific manner in which he documented the local population. Indeed his documentary work appears to extend only so far as that he was commissioned, and paid, to record.

In the Archives here in Sutton we have a number of contemporary views and reminiscences of the High Street and surrounding areas, and though these are not directly related to the project, we thought it might be interesting to contextualise the Knights-Whittome collection a little by looking at some images taken by other photographers of life in Sutton at the time Knights-Whittome was operating his businesses.


Knights-Whittome’s Sutton Studio at 18 High Street. This premises was demolished in the early 1980’s.

A small selection of local images by Knights-Whittome featured in previous posts

Sutton High Street Xmas Show 1908

Sutton High Street Xmas Show 1908

A 1908 view of the upper High Street shows us the location of Knights-Whittome’s Sutton shop (his sign is visible just below the hairdressing saloons sign on the top right of the image) and offers an idea of other businesses which operated in the same area at the time. This image is just one of a fabulous series of the High Street Xmas decorations which give a real flavour of not only the shops but of the fashions and transport in operation at the time. While these images were not taken by Knights-Whittome, they enable us to picture just how Sutton would have looked at the time his sitters were visiting his shop to have their portraits captured.

Sutton Railway Station 1910Knights-Whittome’s shop was in the parade which lead directly down from the railway station, photographed here in 1910. The station was the hub of the town. When it was opened in 1847, offering a direct link to London, the population doubled in a decade and what had been considered a village became a town. The 1870-1872 Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales describes Sutton:

Sutton, a village and a parish in Epsom district, Surrey. The village stands adjacent to the Epsom railway, 4½ miles WSW of Croydon; consists chiefly of one street; is the head polling place for Mid-Surrey; and has a post-office under London S, a railway station with telegraph, and two hotels.—The parish includes Ben-hilton group of new villas at Been Hill, numerous other new villas and cottages, and the South Metropolitan District school. Acres, 1,803. Real property, £12,061; of which £30 are in gasworks. …

As of 1901, the town’s population had reached 17,223, as it attracted upper middle class commuters, including City workers. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the High Street had become heavily built up.

Knights-Whittome no doubt benefited from his proximity to the station.  We know he targeted commuters with hand-drawn signage before Xmas on one occasion and it is likely that he picked up other passing trade through the advantage of his location. The building in which Knights-Whittome’s studio was housed is no longer there, demolished for the widening of Sutton Court Road in the early 1980’s. The modern high street is much changed from how it would have looked in the early 1900’s. The High Street near the top was known as Cock Hill until the 1880’s. The shops on the east side were built in 1880, ten years later than those on the west side. Large public buildings still dominated the central part of the road; the Baptist church which stood until 1934, is now replaced by Waterstones, and opposite, Wilkinson’s stands in place of the grand Town Hall building which was demolished in the 1970’s.

Nowadays Sutton’s schools are considered among the best in the country and are heavily oversubscribed. Sutton High School for Girls was founded in 1884 by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust. It was followed just 5 years later by Sutton County Grammar School (now Sutton Grammar School for Boys) which opened initially with just nineteen pupils.

A Masonic Hall was built in Grove Road in 1897, and it remains on the same site today. The hall was requisitioned by the military during both World Wars and also served as a temporary shelter for people displaced from their homes. It was built by a locally known architect, Richard Creed, and a local builder, Duncan Stuart & Sons of Wallington.  In 1907, Sutton’s main post office moved into new premises adjacent to this Masonic Hall from its former site at 14 High Street.

North of the High Street The Sutton Garden Suburb was developed between 1912 and 1914. This suburb, designed by F. Cavendish Pearson contributed to the Garden City movement conceived by Ebenezer Howard and was similar to the development of the Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing which Pearson had a hand in designing. It was designated a conservation area in 1989.

Thomas Wall, of sausage and ice-cream fame lends his name to the Thomas Wall Centre in Benhill Road which originally opened as The Sutton Adult School and Institute in 1910 and 1911.

The Wallington and Carshalton Advertiser carried a reminiscence of the area on the 2 February 1978, the very year in which Knights-Whittome’s archive came to the Borough.

“Imagine being able to look down High Street, Sutton from the top of Cock Hill and see farms and green fields.

This is what Mr Sam Owen…is able to do as he reminisces of bygone days….Born in Islington in 1886, he can well remember the particular summer morning in 1903 when he moved from Mitcham to Sutton in a rubber tyred gig pulled by a cab, passing fields of lavender. “I thought what a lovely sleepy little place it was, with not a soul in sight,” he recollected. He recalls there was a two-horse bus that ran from the Greyhound, Sutton…to the Greyhound, Croydon, with a ‘chain horse’ hooking on at Sandy Hill, Wallington, to help pull up the hill. “Things were far different in those days…Tradesmen would call to take orders and deliver them by horse and cart”…

“The family of Colermans [sic] the mustard firm, went shopping in the High Street in an open landau and pair. The shopkeepers came out to the landau to take orders, as it was considered ‘infra dig’ to enter shops. Also we had to touch our caps to a rich family living in Banstead, otherwise there would be no coal or blankets at Christmas…”

Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre ref: SBFS9

A talk given by Frank H. Potter, resident of Benhill Road, at Sutton library in 1975 offers further personal insights into Edwardian Sutton:

“My first memory of Sutton as a small child was of a quiet drowsy town where it always seemed to be summer, and nothing exciting happened.  Every road was lined with trees, and everything was horse-drawn….It was a small world bounded by Banstead Downs and Rosehill and the fields around Gander Green Lane and the Wrythe. There was hardly a house between the Angel Inn and the River Wandle at Mitcham. Rosehill was lined with lively full grown chestnut and beech trees and fields stretched on either side… Sutton Common Road was full of big houses with coach houses and stables… Standing guard over the older part of town was Benhilton Church, overlooking the Green with its pond which was used for skating in a hard winter.

Round the church were large houses – built before the later development of Brighton Road. On our way through town we passed the Cricketers Inn on one side, near was a blacksmiths shop – and on the west side the Green with well kept lawns. Hardly anyone ventured beyond the station.

From the Station to the California Inn, it was purely residential, with no shops. The residents were nearly all concerned with the City of London and higher graded civil servants. Even the First World War has little effect on its social barriers, and so it remained to a lesser degree until the thirties. I could never understand these barriers as the local people were most law-abiding, and kept the Sabbath and their homes in an immaculate way. Litter was unknown and most gardens beautifully kept. The barriers were unfortunate as a united town could have preserved its character from much of the vulgar development, devoid of architectural merit…Those who lived on the clay were barred from joining the rugby and cricket as well as most local societies…Much later, to get a game of rugby, I had to write from a public school in Yorkshire to get a holiday game – writing from my home address would have got a polite refusal…Local boys went to the County School or Council Schools, none of whom had playing fields, while boys in the Brighton Road area had The Cliffords – in Manor Road, and Homefield in Grove Road, advertised as being for the sons of gentlemen. The girls had the High School, Eversfield, and the convent at Carshalton except for state schools….

Little disturbed our peaceful days….The race meetings at Epsom brought the town to a standstill with its continuous traffic, mostly horse-drawn – from coach and four to Coster’s donkey carts. Crowds lined the road as they went by inviting them to throw out their mouldy coppers, and every pub like the California and Angel occupied by tired horses and thirsty passengers…

About 1908 the first cinema appeared, where you sat on forms and watched cowboys and injuns, to the accompaniment of a machine which played lively music. Christmas was the occasion of the year. Butchers and other shops were lit by naptha flares and kept open to midnight, while the ham and beef shop sold all kinds of cold meats as well as pease pudding, faggots etc…

All the children played together… in the road as little traffic came except the milkman, baker and butcher and on Saturday…a man with a van selling paraffin, candles, matches and kitchen equipment. The milkman came twice a day in a milk cart with the milk in churns and he took the milk round in pewter buckets and delivered the milk in containers which he hitched to the side of his cart. The butcher delivered meat in a dog cart with the driver on a high seat in a white coat and straw hat.

(In the days before the First War), the county school closed for Derby Day and I used to ride my bicycle to a house near the course, and I enjoyed seeing the coaches and side-shows and above all Edward VII walking amongst the crowd on his way to the paddock… In Sutton at this period, 1910-14, was a photographer, Knight Whittome [sic], who had a small shop opposite Grove Road. He seemed to be a court photographer, and his windows were full on Edward VII’s house parties. These I used to hear about from my father – an ardent Royalist.

…Sutton was a very orderly place, the police patrolling on foot. Several policemen had sinister reputations. A new police station was built at the time and I remember a most beautiful Queen Anne House being pulled down to make room and not a voice raised to save this house of considerable beauty. Even as  a callow boy it’s beauty stirred me.

The High Street being the main artery…shops of quality started at the station and generally ended at West Street. The Station Hotel was kept by my Father’s Uncle James Potter, who lived in Court Road.  On the next side was Crakes, a tobacconist and job master with cabs for hire outside the station, and then a fishmongers called Savage who was known as ‘Kippers and Cods’, then several shops owned by Bobbie Wootten, and a high class woman’s shop only closed down some years after the First War. Opposite was Holt’s, a very good children’s shop, then Knights Whittome, and almost next door a large shop famous as supplier of school uniforms and men’s clothes. Keeping on the same side was Lewis Hind’s, a good woman’s shop and Wards and Hudson brothers who has their shop built on the Cock Hotel tea garden. In the corner of Grove Road was the grocer Stevenson and Rush…then came Stevens the bookmaker, then the Green Man, the offices of a laundry and Barclay’s Bank. The laundry was owned by two charming daughters who were extremely popular with various adolescent males.

At the junction of the High Street and Carshalton Road was Piles, a first class stationers and book shop. Keeping to East Side was a tobacconist kept by Mr Davidson – with a Junoesque daughter. Then a sweet shop and Millen’s, a good quality grocers shop. Then came Gosling the butcher with a majestic looking wife who presided over the cash desk. Nearby came Hawkins, an old fashioned ironmongers complete with a plumbers shop adjacent to my father’s yard in Throwley Road, up a little right of way which houses Gosling’s slaughter house and a dyers workshop.

Most of these people met at the Cock Hotel. At the corner stood Holland and Barratt and opposite my fathers yard, the Fire Station. On the other side was Sainsburys and Boots at the corner of Hill Road. On the opposite corner was a nonconformist church which was pulled down and replaced by a small drapers shop called Shinners, now a larger ever increasing store. Oakshotts was perhaps the best man’s shop ever to be in Sutton, opposite St Nicholas Road. Then Pearsons the bicycle shop, and almost opposite Odds, famous for its sports gear and toys. Hidden by trees was the house of Mr Vincent and higher up, in a timber clad house was Hearden, our family doctor who visited the sick in a cab with a top knotted coachman.

Among the other interesting buildings in Sutton were the workhouse at Belmont, and nearby a vivisection laboratory. In Lenham Road, the Territorials met and further up Throwley road was a skating rink popular in the period 1910-14 and of course the swimming baths. I have forgotten to mention the  cake shops of Messrs. Riddington near the station and its coffee rooms, a rendezvous for the young.

One of my uncles told me of a travelling show which appeared from time to time in the Greyhound yard with a troop of clowns and salesmen, they had in addition a dentist who took out teeth for a shilling. All of this was accompanied by a band who played loudly as the dentist operated. Sometime ago I saw this story confirmed in Country Life.

War came…my pony taken and I went off to the wars, and my world had gone forever…”

Although Sutton is still sometimes described as a sleepy little commuter town, it is hard to reconcile the picture of what that means today with these accounts of the area given here. Luckily, the archive contains a fantastic collection of photographic images which help to bring these descriptions alive. We are uncovering new Knights-Whittome plates every day here at the project, and so will be sure to update our blog pages with any new gems that we find of the area and it’s shops, buildings and institutions. But if you have family recollections or photographs of the area yourself that you would like to share with the archives, then please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

High St 1910

High St, 1910

Sutton High Street opp Vale Rd c 1910

High St, opposite Vale Rd, 1910

Sutton High Street c1918

High St, c. 1918

Sutton High Street c1913_2

High St, c. 1913

Sutton High Street c1913

High St, c. 1913

Sutton High Street c1911

High St, c. 1911

Sutton High Street c1910

High St, 1910

Sutton High Street c1906

High St, 1906

Sutton High Street Xmas 1909

High St, Xmas 1909

Sutton High Street

Xmas in the High St, 1908

Sutton High Street 1908_2

High St, 1908

Sutton High Street 1908

High St, 1906

sbfs high st 1916

High St, 1916

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