The Story of Lester Bowden
Lester Bowden has been established for over 114 years. Over that time past customers have included Sir Winston Churchill, the Prince of Wales and the Sultan of Oman. Long serving managers Brian Chilman & John Footitt have combined their large knowledge of the shop and the family to produce a fascinating story of the Bowden family. Please select your chapter below:
Initially working door-to-door by horse and cart, Arthur Bowden established the tailoring business that has resided in Epsom for over century at the young age of 18. Epsom was a very different town in the late 19th century, with many dismissing the town as a sleepy hollow. However, with the industrial revolution expanding the area around the capital, now known as Greater London, in the 50s, Epsom was undergoing a huge transformation. Beyond the station, new roads and houses were built to accommodate staff from the huge asylums in Horton.
Amongst the hustle and bustle, Arthur Bowden, a journeyman tailor – whose genial personality, together with an eye for style and excellent craftsmanship- immediately found favour with the owners of the stables, country houses and livery yards that were already heavily established in the area.
By the turn of the century, Arthur had acquired his own shop in the Grand Parade, and it was in the residence above that Lester was born. The youngster grew up close to his father, visiting many of the local fine houses and comforting the horse, while his father measured and fitted the uniforms and liveries that bore the substance of the Bowden trade at the time.
These visits, together with many hours spent labouring in the basement of the family shop, gave Lester a deep understanding and affection for the business that he used to good effect to keep his father’s enterprise afloat during the recession of the late 1920s.
Lester set about rebuilding the business from 109 High Street, the premises from which Lester Bowden operated for 70 years. He stacked the windows high with empty boxes to create an illusion of stability and negotiated new credit terms with suppliers, which cultivated the business from a small tailor’s outfitters to a substantial firm encompassing large departments incorporating equestrian, school outfitting, livery, hosiery, children’s clothing and footwear.
Throughout this period of growth Lester was true to his father's craft, and in the basement workshops the cloth cutters, tailors and sewing hands still made to measure the liveries and uniforms for staff of all the surrounding estates, from gamekeepers to footmen, and in later years made to measure suits.
During the war, Lester held a distinguished service record in the Queen's Own Regiment, while his family continued to run the business for him. After the war the shop expanded rapidly, taking over the dentist surgery above the baby shop next door and, in the mid-sixties, the United Dairies premises. When the store finally acquired an adjacent shoe shop in 1979 it provided the family with an imposing corner-to-corner site.
However, tragedy struck in February 1980 when Lester died, and Epsom and Ewell Borough Council made the shock decision to place a 90 % compulsory purchase order on Lester Bowden to make way for plans for a brand new shopping centre, now known as the Ashley Centre. At this stage the family had two options – take the money and run (!) or protect the future of their family business that had survived two world wars and a brutal recession. In an emotional move, Lester’s sons Richard and Warwick made the move to commit LB’s to a massive £750,000 re-development programme, a project that had to be completed in just one year.
It was a daunting task. The brothers had to vacate 105 and 107 High Street, which was to become a tower type development spanning the main entrance to the Ashley Centre, and re-build their premises behind the listed buildings of 109-113. The initial work was completed in October of 1981, with the final work completed in May 1984; as well as the relocation, the re-development programme included a renovation of further 6,000 sq ft of space leased from Ashley Avenue development, and a new shop window that stretched 50 yards down the new mall and into the High Street.
10 years after the redevelopment plans were completed, the brothers acquired the perfect location for the business to flourish, The Old Spread Eagle coaching inn across the road. With the prospect of giving up their shop just 10 years previously, family had looked longingly at the vacant location, despairing as the 80’s property boom propelled the building out of their reach. However, in the 90’s market dip the family jumped at the opportunity to obtain the premises, and The Old Spread Eagle has remained the location for the Bowden family business until this day.
Building on this fascinating story, Lester Bowden will continue to concentrate on its personal service, interpreting the needs of the market and providing its customers with choice, style and a value that only a specialist store can offer.
Horse Racing has been a central part of the Bowden’s tradition from the onset. One of Arthur Bowden’s first customers was Arthur Nightingall – winner of three Grand Nationals – who lived at Priam Lodge off Burgh Heath Road. Arthur’s small business also served George Duller, the greatest hurdle specialist amongst the jockeys of his generation, and champion jockey Frank Wootten and his family at Treadwell House, who regular bought breeches from the Bowden enterprise. William Bullock cemented his place in the history books on the back of Signorinetta in both the Derby and the Oaks wearing a pair of Bowden breeches, whilst the Bowden’s other specialism in racing silks served actor-turned-racecourse owner Tom Walls- whose horse April the Fifth won the derby in 1932- and Geoff Lewis, who won the 1971 derby with his horse Mill Reef.
On one occasion, Lester received a telephone call from what seemed like a prank caller, announcing that he was calling from Buckingham Palace. Lester brushed off the apparently false claim with words to the effect of ‘buzz off!’; he could be a very forthright man. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the Prince of Wales! Despite this challenging start, the Prince became a Bowden customer. Other titled patrons were to include Sir Winston Churchill and the Sultan of Oman, who commissioned riding hats equipped with miners’ lamps and small wing mirrors for use by the Oman army in night-time camel patrols. These are a variant on the standard Bowden safety caps for jockeys, which are designed for lightness and resistance to impact.
Notable customers like these are just the tip of the iceberg for the thousands of loyal customers who continue to shop at Lester Bowden in the historic old building. Before Lester Bowden had even been born Charles Dickens had already passed through the building for a glass of brandy in 1863. Still, to this day, our customers are provided with a warm welcome at the door.