brief history of Billingshurst
Billingshurst is a large parish situated in
the Low Weald, seven miles south-west of Horsham in West Sussex.
Flint tools found in the area prove some human presence in earlier ages.
The Roman Road of Stane Street bisects the parish but although the highway
must have been one reason for the existence of the village there is no
evidence of continual habitation from that time. The area was almost certainly
permanently settled in the Saxon era when people living on the coastal
plain brought pigs up to the Weald to forage in winter. Some of the dense
woodland was cleared and the settlers stayed. The name Billingshurst means
a wooded hill of the Billa’s people who were perhaps an extended family
rather than a large tribe. They probably first dwelt here because, as
well as the road, the village area had a water course running through
it, (the steam still exists but is now in a culvert) and a band of fertile
soil, whereas the rest of the vicinity is mainly heavy clay. Billingshurst
is not mentioned separately in the Domesday Book, but research is proving
that its lands are mentioned as outliers of coastal manors.
The oldest building in the parish is St Mary’s Parish Church which is
built on a prominent place overlooking the village, maybe on the ‘hurst’
in the place name. The original building would have been small, but it
has gradually been extended over the centuries. Early documentary evidence
for the existence of the church and the parish begin in the 1100s.
Billingshurst has always been a quiet place contributing to the fact that
a wealth of old church records survive. The Parish Officers, appointed
at vestry meetings, Churchwardens, Overseers of the Poor, and Waywardens
(surveyors of the highway) were held by the yeoman farmers. The Churchwardens
Accounts dating from before the Reformation reflect the course of national
history. The ‘images’ in the church were taken down and the first bible
in English purchased. A century later the King’s Arms were removed and
put up again after the Restoration of the monarchy. Nathaniel Hilton the
much respected parson supported the Puritan cause, and the children of
John Downes, one of the regicides, were baptised in the parish church.
In the 1750s the Baptist Chapel was established and in the early 1800s
the Congregational Chapel was founded. The impression is gained that the
inhabitants were independent minded. The ancient landholdings in the parish
were owned by many different manors, therefore the parishioners were not
dominated by a powerful family.
The hard working yeoman farmer families would have lived in a substantial
farmhouse on a landholding. There are still over 80 timber-framed buildings
scattered throughout the parish, including twenty in the village area,
dating from the Middle Ages to circa 1700. Most have been modernised and
no longer support working farms.
Tithe and Causeway Cottages, on the Causeway, almost within the shadow
of the Church, were once a large Wealden House, and Great Daux, near the
railway, now surrounded by other development, is a picturesque example
of a substantial farmhouse.
The Six Bells has a attractive appearance, and it is the only house in
the parish with a continuous overhang or jetty; it was originally a farmhouse
called Taintland. In the 19th century it became beer house and became
a public house in the 20th century. Both the King’s Arms and King’s Head
are older established Inns. When it was built as a coaching inn, in the
late 1700s, the King’s Head would have been the only three storey building
in the village.
Besides farmers, and inn keepers, inhabitants with related trades such
as brewers and millers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights lived in the village.
As early as the 1500s four lock up shops are recorded in the churchyard
and the present chemists has been a shop since at least the 1600s. There
were two windmills in the 19th century, the one in Mill Lane mysteriously
burnt down on 5th November 1852 and Hammonds Mill ceased to operate in
1906, after gale damage. The ruins remain, covered in vegetation. There
were also several malt houses.
population during the 1800s only grew from 1,164 to 1,591, but the century
saw many changes. The short lived Wey and Arun Canal introduced different
building materials; the East Street School was paid for by Henry Carnsew
who lived at Summers Place. Billingshurst had an early Trade Association
and the Parish Council was established. The Cricket Club and Horticultural
Society were founded. The coming of the railway saw the demise of the
coaching trade. Industry became established in the train station area
and has remained there ever since.
In the 1906 the old Village Hall was given to the parish by the Vicar
the Revd Stanley and 1923 the Beck sisters donated the Women‘s Hall. A
purpose built post office and banks were established and in the 1930s
the parish boundary was altered. In the first half of the century Billingshurst
had, like the rest of the country, to contend with two world wars. Some
of the men killed in the conflicts bore centuries old Billingshurst surnames,
Garton, Gravett and Penfold.
Since the 1950s new schools, a Roman Catholic Church, surgery and village
hall and many housing estates have been built, as well as the long awaited
bypass. Billingshurst still has a parish council, but it has grown to
small town size, for the first time in its history, although us older
inhabitants still refer to it as a village.