A Brief History of Bishop’s Stortford

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to John Robinson


Bishop’s Stortford began as a Roman settlement. It was on Stane Street, a major Roman road between London and Colchester. The many travelers through the area caused the small town to grow. In those days of slow communications, it would have taken days to travel from London to Colchester. Bishop’s Stortford was a convenient place to stay overnight and many travelers would spend money in the little town. However, in the 5th century Roman civilization broke down and the settlement at Bishop’s Stortford was abandoned.


A new Saxon settlement grew up at Bishop’s Stortford. The town is not named after the river but the other way around! Stort may be derived from a person’s name. Or it may be derived from the local landscape. At any rate, the river was not called the Stort until Tudor times. The settlement was called ‘Bishop’s’ because in the Middle Ages, it belonged to the Bishop of London.

By the time of the Domesday Book (1086) Bishop’s Stortford was a typical village with a population of around 120. In time it grew into a focal point for the surrounding villages. It also grew because of its position on a river and several roads. A weekly market began. Bishop’s Stortford also had 3 annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area.

Meanwhile, the Normans built a wooden castle at Bishop’s Stortford. In the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone. However, by Tudor times, it was in ruins.

Bishop’s Stortford was mainly an agricultural community but from the 15th century, there was a tanning industry in the town. However, Medieval Bishop’s Stortford was a small town, even by the standards of the time. It only had a population of several hundred.


The little market town of Bishop’s Stortford continued to grow through the centuries. This was despite outbreaks of plague in 1578, 1582-83, and 1666. By the mid-17th century, Bishop’s Stortford probably had a population of about 1,200.

A grammar school was built in Bishop’s Stortford in 1579. In 1572 five almshouses were founded by Richard Pilston.

Meanwhile, in 1555 a Protestant called John Denley was martyred on Goosemead Green.

Bishop’s Stortford began to grow more rapidly after 1769 when the River Stort was made navigable. That made it easier to transport goods to and from the town. In the 18th century, Bishop’s Stortford was also a coaching town. Stagecoaches would stop at the town on their way from Cambridge to London.


In 1801 Bishop’s Stortford had a population of 2,305. To us, it would seem no more than a village but at the time it was large enough to be a market town. Bishop’s Stortford grew rapidly. By 1841 the population of the town had more than doubled to 4,681.

A corn exchange, where people could buy and sell grain was built in 1828. However, the main industry in Bishop’s Stortford was malting. (Making barley into malt for brewing).

Barley malt

The railway reached Bishop’s Stortford in 1842 and a hospital opened in Bishop’s Stortford in 1895.

Meanwhile, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was born in Bishop’s Stortford where his father was a vicar.


In 1901 Bishop’s Stortford had a population of over 7,000. By 1951 the population was almost 13,000. The population of Bishop’s Stortford doubled again by the end of the 20th century.

In the 20th century, Bishop’s Stortford remained an agricultural town. There was still a malting industry and some light engineering. There was also flour milling and a match-making industry. Bishop’s Stortford is also, of course, a commuter town.

Castle Gardens were laid out in 1905. The War Memorial was erected in 1922.

The Cecil Rhodes Birthplace Museum started in 1938 and Bishop’s Stortford Local History Museum opened in 1979.

Jackson Square Shopping Centre opened in 1972.


In 2002 Rhodes Memorial Museum and Bishop’s Stortford Local History Museum merged to create Bishop’s Stortford Museum. In 2023 the population of Bishop’s Stortford was 40,000.