The history of Horsham

PUBLISHED: 10:39 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:39 10 April 2018

East Street, Horsham (Credit: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy Stock Photo)

East Street, Horsham (Credit: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy Stock Photo

One of the prettiest streets in West Sussex, a Romantic poet and a surprising number of executions make an historical tour of Horsham a memorable experience for Clive Agran

As I sip a welcome coffee in the front room of his charming cottage right in the heart of Horsham, Oliver Farley, a well-respected member of the Horsham Society, talks me through countless million years of local history in little over an hour. Shortage of space obliges me to condense this snapshot so significantly that I apologise in advance to both you and Oliver for any errors.

It all began an awfully long time ago with the coming together of two tectonic plates – the Eurasian and African. That collision triggered what is known as Alpine orogeny and literally shoved up the earth around Sussex creating a thickly-forested, saucer-shaped depression in the middle.

Fast-forward to 947 AD and Horsham – its name meaning ‘horse village’ – is first recorded. Unlike most other towns and villages in England, its name has not changed. William the Conqueror invades and, as a thank you for protecting the route he proposed to escape along in the event of defeat at Hastings, he generously gives the Rape of Bramber, a north-south strip of real estate that includes Horsham, to William de Braose.

Oliver explains that new rulers establish control through castles, the church and the courts. Horsham has enjoyed a particularly colourful succession of courtroom dramas, more of which later, but it was the development of a market dealing mostly in sheep, cattle, pigs and corn around medieval times that helped establish the town as a significant star in the Sussex firmament.

The surrounding forests helped sustain a flourishing iron ore industry until coke took over from charcoal as the favoured fuel and the industry migrated north. Glass furnaces not only made good use of the local sandstone but also consumed vast amounts of wood, raising concerns that there wouldn’t be enough timber to provide the navy with sufficient ships. This matter was raised in Parliament in 1615 and consideration was even given to banning the use of wood in glass furnaces. Other industries such as brewing, brickmaking and printing have also played a significant role in Horsham’s history.

The railway made a dramatic impact when it arrived in 1848 and the train service today to London, Gatwick and the south-east is obviously a major influence on the development of Horsham as a popular commuter town.

One traditional local activity that peaked in the Regency period, ceased in 1917 but has recently been revived, is the making of gingerbread. Horsham, according to Oliver, can also lay claim to being the dimmer switch capital of the UK. Doyle and Tratt, Britain’s leading manufacturer of these popular items, has been producing them here since 1972.

Until 2015, the Swiss-based multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis, formerly Ciba-Geigy, was a major employer in the town, but the plant is now closed. The RSPCA has a £16m headquarters at Southwater near Horsham, which replaced its former headquarters in the centre of town. Royal Sun Alliance are major employers although not as big as they once were. Founded in 1987, the Creative Assembly is one of the UK’s premier video game developers and is responsible for the Total War strategy games that have sold more than 20 million copies.

Before we step outside and wander around town, Oliver suggests I might need an umbrella. Because it’s so sunny I can only assume he’s conscious that Horsham holds the UK record for the heaviest hailstone ever to fall. On 5 September 1958, one weighing 140g and the size of a tennis ball crashed to the ground at a speed estimated at 224mph.

We stroll up a twitten and into what many regard not only as the prettiest street in Horsham but also the most attractive in the whole of West Sussex. Lined on both sides of a broad street by extraordinarily attractive old houses, most of which are timber-framed and all evidently date back many centuries, the Causeway exudes the almost unreal feel of a film set.

Oliver points out the Horsham stone ‘slates’ on some of the roofs. Quarried locally, they are extremely heavy. Interestingly, the older they are and the more exposed they’ve been, the harder they become.

Sadly, after the Great Fire of London, exposed external timbers were less appealing and most were therefore plastered or bricked over. To see inside a property, pop into the Horsham Museum and Art Gallery at number 9. It’s full of fascinating artefacts and you will learn even more about Horsham than you will from this article!

Although you can’t go in, there’s nothing to stop you standing outside and admiring the magnificent Manor House, which is arguably the most imposing building in the Causeway. In 1920 it was sold and converted into a prep school, which was subsequently attended by a young Donald Campbell who went on to set new world speed records on land and water.

By extraordinary coincidence, the world air speed record was established by another one-time resident of the Causeway. Neville Frederick Duke lived at number 15 and in 1953 flew a Hawker Hunter at 727.63 mph over Littlehampton. And just to complete the celebrity list, the author Hammond Innes attended the prep school at number 7 when his parents lived at number 18.

Right at the bottom end of the Causeway is the church of St. Mary the Virgin. It dates from about 1247 and is the oldest building in Horsham. Oliver points to the twisted spire and explains that seasoned wood was incredibly hard and almost impossible to cut and so green timber was used which subsequently warped.

Thomas De Braose, the last member of the famous Horsham family, is buried inside while in the adjoining cemetery, the gravestones come to an abrupt halt some way short of the perimeter. Why? Because criminals are buried in unmarked graves around the edge.

Time is pressing and so instead of taking the short walk down to the River Arun we turn back into town, stroll past more beautiful old buildings and several smart restaurants in East Street before arriving at the Town Hall in Market Square which, I’m reliably informed by an impeccable source, was never a town hall. An imposing stone building, it’s now Bill’s, a restaurant.

It’s lunchtime and so we pop in for a bite. Oliver whispers to the waitress, the manager appears and we’re escorted into the basement where there are 12 uncomfortable-looking cells that are now used for storage. This was once a magistrate’s court and among the unsavoury characters who were held here was John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, who was hanged in 1949 for killing at least six victims. Now less hungry than before, we eat a light lunch.

Also executed, but under dramatically different circumstances 408 years earlier, was Catherine Howard. Brought up by the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk in nearby Chesworth House, which is at the end of the road where Oliver lives and was formerly the home of the De Braose family, Catherine was the ill-fated fifth wife of Henry V111.

Another grisly execution took place in Horsham in 1735 when John Weekes became the last prisoner to be literally crushed to death. Accused of murdering Elizabeth Symonds, he refused to enter a plea and was found guilty of “standing mute through malice” and ordered to be crushed in an effort to persuade him to plea. Laid down beneath a door onto which increasingly heavy weights were placed, he stubbornly refused to speak. Finally, the fat gaoler jumped on top of the lot and Weekes expired. Because he didn’t enter a plea and was never convicted of murder, the Crown could not confiscate his house and property which were therefore retained by his family.

Since Horsham is essentially a peaceful place, it would be more appropriate to end with a poet than a murderer.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in nearby Warnham in 1792. Sadly, he drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822. To commemorate the bicentenary of his birth, a memorial in the form of a rather complicated water sculpture was installed in the town in 1996. However, there were problems with the mechanism more or less from the outset and it was removed a couple of years ago. Fans of Shelley are hoping that something rather more permanent will one day replace it. 


The history of Battle - The East Sussex town is inextricably connected with the most famous date in English history. So what’s new for Clive Agran to discover when he’s given a tour by the locals?

Latest from the Sussex Life