Heritage: The historic facelift of Wimbledon Village
A group of distinguished figures gathered exactly 45 years ago tomorrow at a historic ceremony in the heart of Wimbledon Village opposite the Dog & Fox pub.
On that day, at 10.30am on Saturday, 14 September 1968, a plaque was unveiled outside the former fire station, celebrating a ground-breaking facelift for the centuries-old village.
The Earl of Munster, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, unveiled the plaque marking a Civic Trust Award for the Wimbledon Village Improvement Scheme.
A great-great-grandson of King William IV and husband of the last private owner of Cannizaro House, the Earl’s speech was listened to by the Mayor, Alderman N S Clarke JP, and other dignitaries, together with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and what would later become the Wimbledon Society.
The building displaying the plaque – still there today – was no longer the Victorian fire station but had become an outlet of the London Electricity Board, so this was mentioned on the plaque along with the other bodies involved and the architects who had advised on the facelift.
These were Alan and Sylvia Blanc and Gerald Davis who had organised everything, including the facelift design and meetings with all the individual traders.
But the historic ceremony had been a long time coming. The Wimbledon Improvement Scheme had actually been planned five years earlier and completed in 1964.
A new Wimbledon Village Association had been a major contributor to the scheme and had held its first annual general meeting in October 1963.
Most traders had participated in the facelift, which involved enhancements of shop fronts and their street signs in Wimbledon High Street and Church Road. Among the most enthusiastic were A.E. Duffell & Sons, joiners, of No 56 High Street beside Eagle House; F.W. Essex, a grocer at No 27 High Street beside what is now Cafe Rouge; Gravestock the bakers (recently replaced by The Lawn Bakery); and Radio-Electric of No 97 High Street, a large shop whose premises were later absorbed by the NatWest Bank next door.
In autumn 1963, the bulk of the work was expected to be completed by April 1964 when it was hoped a VIP would declare the scheme complete. The Mayor and Wimbledon Borough Council would be sponsoring the ceremony. But although the facelift became a reality, other events rather upset the apple cart. Not least was the abolition of Wimbledon Council itself in 1965 and the borough’s absorption by Merton.
Moreover, by October 1966 the Wimbledon Village Association had become moribund. The Wimbledon Society, known at the time as the John Evelyn Society, had hoped the Village Association would survive in order to keep interest alive in the Improvement Scheme, organize future redecorations and monitor planning applications for the area. It didn’t happen.
Instead the Society itself recruited some former Village Association members and set up its own planning committee to continue their operations.
It was not until 25 January 1968 when Wimbledon Council was just a memory that the Civic Trust made its award for the Improvement Scheme and months later before the ceremonial unveiling of the plaque.
There were some significant long-term results of the facelift.
The Wimbledon Society’s new planning committee has continued to advise Merton Council on planning matters ever since and Alan Blanc went on to advise the Society for decades to come until his death in 1995. In due course too a successor to the Wimbledon Village Association emerged to co-ordinate activities by local businesses for the common good.
But most of the participants of that historic day in 1968 have totally vanished. All of the leading shops of the time and even the London Electricity Board followed Wimbledon Council into history. The Earl of Munster himself died five years after the ceremony and his title disappeared forever some years later.
A luxury retail outlet and a fashion shop now occupy the one-time fire station, and today’s Wimbledon Village hosts restaurants, estate agencies and up-market shops in general rather than the traditional businesses that were there during the facelift. But the plaque survives.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.
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