A History of Farnham

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Helen St John-Mosse

Early Farnham

There was a Roman settlement on the site of Farnham. Pottery kilns were discovered in the 20th century so an industry existed there. The remains of a Roman villa and bath were also found, on the site of Roman Way.

However, the modern town of Farnham began life as a Saxon village. Little is known about it but from the 7th century, Farnham belonged to the Bishop of Winchester. Originally it was called Fern Hamm, the well-watered meadow (hamm) by the ferns.

By the beginning of the 13th century, the little village of Farnham had grown into a town. It was situated where 2 important roads crossed, the road from Eastern England to the Southwest and the road from London to Southampton. It was natural that trading would take place at Farnham and a town would grow.

Farnham probably grew into a town partly because of a castle built there. It was built in the mid-12th century by the Bishop of Winchester to be a convenient residence for him halfway between Winchester and London. The garrison of the castle formed a market for the townspeople’s goods.

There has been a church on the site of St Andrews since the 7th century. The present building dates from the late 11th century. Waverley Abbey was built near Farnham in 1128. It was closed by Henry VIII in 1536.

In the Middle Ages, the little town of Farnham had a weekly market. It also had an annual fair. In those days fairs were like markets but were held only once a year. People would come from all over Hampshire and Surrey to buy and sell at a Farnham fair. In the Middle Ages, some wool was manufactured in Farnham.

In 1249 the Bishop of Winchester gave the people of Farnham a charter (a document granting them certain rights). After that, the well-to-do citizens of Farnham had some independence from the Bishop. They could elect their bailiffs (men who ran the town from day to day).

FARNHAM 1500-1800

In the 16th century and the 17th century, the wool cloth industry in Farnham prospered. The wool was woven. It was then fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by a watermill.

By the 16th century, Farnham was also known for making green pots. Also, from the end of the 16th century, hops were grown in the area.

In the 17th century, Farnham became known for its wheat market. Wheat from Surrey and North Hampshire was brought to the market to be sold. Some of it was turned into flour and sent to London.

In 1566 Queen Elizabeth gave Farnham a new charter. By 1585 Farnham also had a grammar school.

However by today’s standards Farnham was tiny, no more than a village. Worse, like all towns in those days, it was dirty and unsanitary. There was an outbreak of the plague in 1625. Despite attacks of the plague, Farnham continued to thrive as a small market town. In 1754 it gained its first fire engine.

The castle continued to stand guard over Farnham. Bishop Fox 1448-1528 who was made Bishop of Winchester in 1500 built Fox Tower. He was blind (although he never let his disability stand in his way) and the Bishop’s Steps were built for him.

The Bishop's Steps in Farnham

The Bishop’s Steps

In 1619 a man named Andrew Windsor built some almshouses in Farnham which still stand.

Farnham Castle was occupied by the parliamentarians during the Civil War (1642-1646). However, after the war, the keep was damaged by the parliamentarians to prevent it from ever falling into the royalist’s hands. However, the other buildings continued to be the residence of the Bishop of Winchester until 1927.

King Charles I stayed at Vernon House in Farnham on his way to his trial and execution in London in 1649. (Vernon House is now the museum).

In 1740 the hymn writer Augustus Toplady was born in West Street, Farnham. In 1763 the writer and radical William Cobbett was born in an Inn called the Jolly Farmer (his father was a farmer and innkeeper). The inn is now the William Cobbett public house. Today Farnham is famous for its Georgian architecture.


In 1801 the population of Farnham was 4,321. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. It was considerably larger than Guildford. Farnham grew rapidly during the 19th century. By 1851 the population of Farnham was over 9,000. By the end of the century, it had risen to over 14,000.

The railway arrived in Farnham in 1848. In the late 19th century wealthy people began to live in Farnham and commute to work in London each day. From 1854 a new army camp was built at the village of Aldershot. This village quickly grew into a town.

Farnham changed rapidly in the 19th century. In 1834 it gained gaslight and in the 1880s a network of sewers was created in Farnham. In 1895 Farnham Urban District Council was formed. In 1930 the council purchased Farnham Park.

In the 19th century, there was an important pottery industry in Farnham. The town was noted for its greenware.

In 1901 the population of Farnham was 14,541. In the early 20th century the population grew quite slowly. However, after 1945 Farnham grew rapidly. This was partly because many commuters came to live in the town.

The Woolmead Centre was built in the 1960s but fortunately, Farnham’s Georgian architecture survived the town planners.

The Museum of Farnham opened in 1961. Birdworld opened in 1967. The Maltings dates from 1969. Surrey Institute of Art and Design was also opened in 1969. Farnham College opened in 1973. The New Ashgate Art Gallery opened in 1976. Farnham Sports Centre was built in 1981. Victoria Garden opened in 1998. Pride of The Valley Sculpture Park in Churt opened in 2003.

Farnham became part of Waverley Borough Council in 1974. Farnham Town Council was formed in 1984.

In 2023 the population of Farnham was 39,000.

Museum of Farnham