A 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.

The 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.

Billingshurst has an active Local History Society, details of which can be found on these pages