By Tim Lambert
Dedicated to June Mason 1928-2011
Saxon and Medieval Kingston Upon Thames
Kingston Upon Thames was once the king’s tun or estate. In Saxon times it had royal connections. In 838 King Egbert of Wessex called a church council there. Furthermore, several Saxon kings were crowned in Kingston, including Edward the Elder (900), Athelstan (925), Edmund (940), Edred (946), Edwy (955), and Edward the Martyr (971). However, after the Norman conquest in 1066 Kingston Upon Thames lost some of its former importance. Kings were no longer crowned there.
However, during the 12th century, Kingston Upon Thames grew into a town. At some point in the century (the exact date is not known) the king gave Kingston a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). It was the first of many charters. King John gave charters to Kingston Upon Thames in 1200 and 1208.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Kingston Upon Thames had 5 watermills, which ground grain to flour. By the standards of the time, Kingston was probably quite a large village although it would seem tiny to us. It is not known how large Kingston was in the Middle Ages but it probably had not more than 1,500 inhabitants. As well as raising crops the people of Kingston kept sheep for wool and fished for salmon in the Thames.
Medieval Kingston Upon Thames was also an inland port. In those days it was easier and cheaper to transport goods by water than by land. The Thames served as an ‘artery’, rather like a motorway to and from London.
Kingston Upon Thames had a weekly market. From the 13th century, it also had a fair. 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. In 1351 the king granted Kingston two annual fairs.
Kingston Upon Thames was strategically important because it was the last place where the Thames could with a bridge before London. During a civil war in 1263-1265, Kingston was ‘burned and robbed’ several times. Kingston also suffered from floods. However, despite these setbacks, the little town flourished.
Kingston Upon Thames 1500-1800
In 1513 a Lollard (a person who disagreed with some of the church’s teachings) was martyred in Kingston.
In 1561 Kingston gained a grammar school. However, like all towns in the 16th and 17th centuries Kingston suffered outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1625 and in 1636.
In this period malting and brewing flourished in Kingston Upon Thames. There was also a leather tanning industry in Kingston. People still fished in the Thames for salmon. Timber was exported from Kingston along the Thames to London. In 1555 Kingston was granted a third fair.
Kingston Upon Thames benefited when Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court in 1520. The huge staff at the palace was a ready market for the town’s goods.
In 1642 civil war began between the king and parliament. At first Kingston Upon Thames was held by parliamentary troops. However, they withdrew in October 1642 after losing the battle of Edgehill. Royalists then sacked the town. After the royalists left Kingston returned to parliamentary hands. It stayed in their hands until the end of the war although many of the townspeople were hostile and supported the king.
Modern Kingston Upon Thames
In the 19th century, the old industry of malting came to an end but brewing continued and there was a brick-making industry in Kingston Upon Thames. In 1912 aircraft manufacturing began in Kingston. In 1855 the 3 traditional fairs in Kingston were reduced to one.
There were many improvements to Kingston Upon Thames during the 19th century. Kingston first obtained gas light in 1833. The first police force in Kingston was formed in 1836. The Market House was built in 1840. In 1855 a body of men called Improvement Commissioners was formed with the power to pave, clean, and light the streets. A network of drains was dug under Kingston in the 1860s.
An electricity supply was created in Kingston in 1893 and Victoria Hospital was built in 1897.
By 1841 Kingston Upon Thames had a population of over 8,000 people. Meanwhile, in 1838, the railway reached Kingston. The railway led to the rapid growth of the Kingston area. By 1901 the population of Kingston was 37,000. In the early 19th century Surbiton was a little hamlet. Then it boomed. By the 1880’s Surbiton had over 10,000 people.
Kingston Upon Thames was made an urban district council in 1894 and the Borough of Kingston was formed in 1936. The Guildhall was built in 1935.
From 1875 horse-drawn buses ran in the streets of Kingston. From 1906 electric trams ran in the streets of Kingston. Buses replaced them in 1931. Meanwhile, the Kingston bypass was built in 1927.
Eden Walk Shopping Centre first opened in 1979. The Bentall Centre opened in 1992. In 2020 the population of Kingston Upon Thames was 190,000.