A History of Hornchurch

By Tim Lambert

Early Hornchurch

Hornchurch began as a small village in Essex. It was not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 but there might have been a tiny hamlet at Hornchurch at that time. Certainly, a village grew up at Hornchurch by the middle of the 12th century. By about 1163 a church had been built at Hornchurch on the site of the present St Andrew’s Church.

In the early 13th century it was called the Horned Church. We do not know why it was called the Horn Church. Perhaps the church building had metal gutters that reminded people of horns. At any rate, the church gave the village of Hornchurch its name.

Hornchurch grew into a fairly large settlement. By the time of Henry VIII Hornchurch had a population of 700 or 800. By Tudor standards, it was a large village.

Most of the people in Hornchurch earned a living from farming but there was a considerable leather industry in the village. There were skinners and tanners. There were also shoemakers.

In Tudor times by law, all men had to practice archery at the Butts. This is remembered in the place named Butts Green.

In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Hornchurch was a quiet residential area. Many well-off people chose to live there. It was close enough to London for them to be able to travel to work by coach and horses but it was also away from the dirt and noise of the city.

Hornchurch in the 19th century

In 1801 Hornchurch had a population of over 1,300. By the standards of the time, it was a large village. In the early 19th century many stagecoaches passed through Hornchurch to and from London and there were several inns in the village.

However, the old leather industry in Hornchurch declined in the early 19th century. It ended completely by the middle of the century. On the other hand, there was a brewery in Hornchurch in the 19th century. There was also a foundry making farm machinery and an industry making tiles and drainpipes

Hornchurch grew steadily during the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, it had a population of over 4,000. The population then exploded. By 1911 the population had risen to over 9,000. By the mid-1920s, it was 12,000. This rapid growth was partly due to the Hornchurch railway station which opened in 1885.

In those days London was growing rapidly and it was engulfing villages. Very often when a railway station was built in a village middle-class Londoners would move there in large numbers. Then as more and more houses were built the village would become a town. Eventually, the countryside separating it from London would vanish and it would become a suburb.

Meanwhile, there were several improvements in Hornchurch in the 19th century. From 1872 the streets of Hornchurch were lit by gas. In the 19th century, people obtained water from wells. However, in 1901 a piped water supply was created in Hornchurch. Between 1898 and 1902 sewers were dug in Hornchurch.

On a darker note, a workhouse was built in Hornchurch in 1839. Conditions in the workhouse were deliberately made as unpleasant as possible to discourage ‘idlers’ from seeking state help.

Hornchurch in the 20th century

In 1913 the first council houses were built in Hornchurch. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hornchurch continued to grow rapidly. In 1925 Hornchurch gained an electricity supply. Then in 1926, Hornchurch was given an urban district council as it was no longer a village but had grown into a town. By the early 1930s, it had a population of over 28,000 and it continued to grow.

In 1915 a military airfield opened at Hornchurch. It was an RAF airbase in World War II but it finally closed in 1962. Today part of it is Hornchurch Country Park but part of it was used for building houses, the Airfield Estate.

Meanwhile, a cemetery was laid out in Hornchurch in 1932. The first public library in Hornchurch opened in 1936. St Georges Hospital was built in 1939. A swimming pool was built in 1956 and a college of further education opened in 1963. Fairkytes Arts Centre opened in 1973.

In 1965 Hornchurch was made part of the London Borough of Havering. Today Hornchurch is a thriving suburb of London. Queen’s Theatre moved to its present building in 1975 and Havering College opened in 1991.