A History of Horsham

By Tim Lambert

Horsham in the Middle Ages

Horsham began as a Saxon village. Ham is the Saxon word for a village. No one is quite sure where the first part of the place name comes from. Perhaps this ‘ham’ was famous for horses. Or maybe it belonged to a man named Horsa.

A horse

Horsham is first mentioned in the 10th century. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), it was a large village.

By the 13th century, Horsham had grown into a small town. For the first time, it was described as a borough. However, Horsham was tiny by modern standards with a population of only several hundred people.

Medieval Horsham had 2 weekly markets. It also had a fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Sussex and Surrey to buy and sell at a Horsham fair.

However, Horsham was largely an agricultural settlement. Many of its inhabitants lived by farming. Nevertheless, Horsham had the same craftsmen found in any town such as a cooper, glove maker, butcher, brewer, and baker but there was no significant industry in the town. Horsham was just a small market town.

Horsham 1500-1800

In 1532 a grammar school was founded in Horsham.

However, like all towns in those days, Horsham suffered from outbreaks of bubonic plague. It struck in 1560, 1574, and 1608-09. Horsham also suffered an outbreak of smallpox in 1659.

In the years 1500-1800, Horsham became known for 2 industries, tanning leather, and brewing. By the early 16th century, there were 5 brewers in Horsham.

In 1673 a writer described Horsham as ‘a large borough town governed by 2 bailiffs, elects 2 MPs, is the place where the county prison is kept and lately where the assizes are often held and has a very great market on Saturdays for corn and all sorts of provisions especially poultry’.

In the early 18th century another writer described Horsham as: ‘A large straggling market borough. It is in the figure of a cross and the streets called by the names of East, West, North, and South streets.’ (Both these writers describe Horsham as large which is surprising as it had only a small population).

Horsham gained its first bank in 1791. Then in 1796 barracks were built in Horsham, which housed about 1,500 men. So many soldiers provided a boost to the town because they were a market for the townspeople’s goods. However, the soldiers left in 1815, and the barracks were demolished. There was also an ammunition depot built in 1804 which gave its name to Depot Road.

In the 17th century, people who refused to plead either ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ at a trial were ‘pressed’. That means a wooden board was placed on them and weights were put on top, one by one. Sometimes the person could not stand the increasing weight and agreed to plead. However, sometimes he was pressed to death. This barbaric practice died out in the early 18th century. The last man to be pressed to death died at Horsham in 1735.

Horsham in the 19th century

In 1801 Horsham had a population of just 1,539. Towns were much smaller then than they are today. Even so, Horsham was a very small town, more like a large village. However, Horsham grew rapidly in the 19th century. By 1851 it had a population of almost 6,000 and by 1900 over 10,000.

In 1835 the old corporation was dissolved but a new body called the Watching and Lighting Inspectors was formed to pave and light the street. From 1836 Horsham was lit by gas. After 1839 the inspectors appointed watchmen to patrol the streets of Horsham. This was the first police force. A fire brigade was formed in Horsham in 1840 and the old prison was demolished in 1845. The first cemetery in Horsham opened in 1852.

Meanwhile, Horsham was connected to Brighton by rail in 1848. Then in 1866, a Corn Exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold. Also in 1866, a water company was formed to provide piped water to those who could pay.

In 1875 a local government board was formed. They took over the water company and in 1878-79 they dug sewers under Horsham. They also took over responsibility for street lighting. The first hospital in Horsham opened in 1892 and Horsham was made an Urban District Council in 1894. Meanwhile, Horsham Museum was founded in 1893.

In the 19th century, the brewing industry in Horsham boomed. However, the tanning industry entered a steep decline in the late 19th century. Other industries in Horsham in the 19th century were coach-making and flour milling.

Horsham in the 20th century

Christ’s Hospital School moved to Horsham in 1902. Also in 1902, Horsham gained electric street lighting. The first cinema in Horsham opened in 1910. A war memorial was built in 1920. A swimming pool was built in 1935.

During World War II Horsham suffered several bombing raids. The worst was in November 1940 when 7 people were killed.

During the 20th century, the brewing industry in Horsham declined and it ended altogether in 1999. In the late 20th century insurance became a major industry in Horsham. Other industries were electronics and IT.

Meanwhile Piries Place shopping centre opened in 1989. The Swan Walk Centre was also refurbished in 1989. Then in 1996, a fountain was erected in Horsham as a memorial to Shelley. It was called ‘The Rising Universe’.

Horsham in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Horsham continued to thrive. In 2002 The Pavilions In The Park leisure centre opened. A public space called The Forum opened in 2003. However, in 2016 Horsham council decided to remove the fountain made as a memorial to Shelley as it cost too much to maintain.

A Timeline of Horsham

1086 Horsham is a large village

13th Century Horsham grows into a little town with 2 weekly markets and an annual fair

1532 A grammar school is founded in Horsham

1560 Plague strikes Horsham

1574 Plague strikes Horsham again

1673 Horsham is described as a large borough town

1755 A turnpike road is built from Horsham to London

1791 Horsham gains its first bank

1801 Horsham has a population of 1,539

1836 Horsham is lit by gas

1848 The railway reaches Horsham

1866 A water company is formed

1878-79 Sewers are dug under Horsham

1892 The first hospital opens in Horsham

1894 Horsham is made an urban district council

1901 Horsham has a population of over 10,000

1902 Horsham gains electric street lighting

1910 The first cinema opens in Horsham

1929 A public library and museum opens

World War II Horsham suffers several bombing raids

1989 Piries Place Shopping Centre opens

1996 The Rising Universe sculpture is erected

1999 The old brewing industry in Horsham ends

2003 The Forum opens