By Tim Lambert
Petersfield in the Middle Ages
Petersfield was founded in the early 12th century. The name Petersfield is a corruption of the words St Peter’s feld. The word feld did not mean field in the modern sense but simply meant any open area without trees. In the early 12th century a church was built on a feld and it was dedicated to St Peter. The surrounding area became known as St Peter’s feld.
The town of Petersfield was founded in the early 12th century. The Earl of Gloucester who owned the land in the area deliberately created it. He started a market by St Peter’s Church. In those days there were few shops and anyone who wished to buy or sell goods had to go to a market. When a market started craftsmen and merchants would come to live nearby. The Earl divided the land in the area into plots for building houses.
The next Earl, Walter gave the people of Petersfield a charter. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The first charter given to Petersfield has been lost but we know that it gave the merchants of the town the same rights and privileges as those held by the merchants of Winchester. The charter also gave the merchants of Petersfield the right to form themselves into a body called a guild. After Walter’s death, the charter was confirmed by his widow.
As well as the weekly market there were 2 annual fairs at Petersfield. A fair was like a market except it was held once a year and people would come from all over Southeast England to attend. The 2 fairs were held in June and November.
The little town of Petersfield had only 600 or 700 inhabitants, which seems very small to us but in those days settlements were very small. A typical village had only 100-150 inhabitants. By the standards of the time, Petersfield was a respectable size.
The prosperity of Petersfield was based on wool. Sheep were raised in the surrounding countryside. After the wool was woven it was cleaned and thickened. This was done by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay called fullers earth. In the Middle Ages, this was done by wooden hammers powered by watermills.
There was also a leather tanning industry in Petersfield. Tree bark was soaked in fresh water to provide tannin for tanning leather.
In Petersfield, there were the same craftsmen found in any Medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers, shoemakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. In the Middle Ages, The Spain was called Le Green. In Tudor times most houses had thatched roofs and only well-to-do people had tiled roofs. An old word for tile is ‘spayne’. Perhaps the name changed to The Spain because the houses there had tiled roofs. In the 16th century, there was a wool market in Sheep Street. Horses were sold in The Spain.
Like all towns at that time Petersfield suffered outbreaks of the plague. One outbreak occurred in 1568. Nevertheless, the population of Petersfield continued to rise and by 1600 may have reached 1,000.
In the reign of James 1 (1603-1625) it was said that the wool industry in Petersfield supported 1,000 poor people in the area, who lived by weaving. (Most of these weavers would have lived in surrounding villages rather than in the town itself. Merchants would take the raw wool by packhorse and collect the woven cloth).
In 1622 Thomas Antroubs, a merchant, left money in his will to provide an almshouse for 12 poor men and women. The almshouses opened in 1624. The famous botanist John Goodyer (1592-64) lived in Petersfield.
Petersfield suffered another severe outbreak of plague in 1666. There were also outbreaks of smallpox in 1674 and 1687.
In the late 17th century Petersfield was an important stop on the stagecoach route from London to Portsmouth. By the end of the century, there were 9 coaching inns. Both Charles II and Samuel Pepys stayed in the town. On 1 May 1661, Pepys wrote in his diary ‘Up early and baited at Petersfield in the room which the king lay in lately at his being there. Here very merry and played with our wives at bowls’. On 3 May he wrote ‘Took coach to Petersfield. Here my wife and I lay in the room the Queen lately lay at her going to France’.
But the wool trade declined in importance during the 17th century and by the 18th century, Petersfield had become a small and quiet market town. In 1726 Daniel Defoe described Petersfield as ‘a town eminent for little but being full of good inns’.
In 1722 Richard Churcher left money in his will to provide a school where boys could be taught skills like navigation to prepare them for life as employees of the East India Company. In 1744 it changed to being an ‘ordinary’ school. The school originally stood in College Lane and moved to Ramshill in 1876.
East of Petersfield was a common, an area where the townspeople had the right to graze their cattle. Unfortunately part of it was boggy and animals sometimes drowned in it. In 1735 some citizens got together to dredge the bog and built an earth rampart around it. In this way, the pond was created. It soon became an area used for leisure. By 1775 there was a bowling green on the site of the tennis courts. It was also a popular place for fishing.
Mary Collier (c.1690 – c.1762) was a washerwoman in Petersfield. Despite her humble background, she became a noted writer and poet.
Petersfield in the 19th Century
By the time of the first census in 1801, the population of Petersfield was about 2,100. It had declined in importance and around that time a writer said Petersfield was ‘formerly a place of much greater consequence’.
Nevertheless, Petersfield was still an important stop on stagecoach routes. By 1830 some 27 stagecoaches were passing through Petersfield every day.
In 1812 a statue of William III was erected in The Square. The statue had previously stood in Petersfield House, which was demolished in 1793.
Since the Middle Ages, there had been two fairs in Petersfield. In 1820 a new fair began on the heath by the pond. It was held in October and was called the Taro fair. Cattle and sheep were sold at the Taro fair. It is said to get its name from Welsh drovers shouting Tarw (pronounced Taro) as they drove along with their cattle to the fair. (Tarw is the Welsh word for bull).
Soon there were side stalls such as freak shows and roundabouts at the fair. Gradually the sideshows became more and more important and eventually replaced the buying and selling of livestock. The last animals were sold in the early 1950s.
The railway reached Petersfield in 1859 when it was connected to London and Portsmouth. In 1864 a branch line opened to Midhurst.
The population of Petersfield grew slowly through most of the 19th century but in the last quarter, it began to grow more rapidly. Houses were built on Lavant Street, Station Street, and Chapel Street. Nevertheless, in 1900 the population of Petersfield was still less than 4,000.
In 1836 a workhouse opened in Love Lane. In those days if you had no income you had to enter the workhouse where life was made as unpleasant as possible to discourage ‘idlers’ from seeking help. A cemetery opened in 1852. Also in 1852 Petersfield obtained gas street lighting. In 1858 a police station opened.
In 1866 a corn exchange was built. A cottage hospital opened in 1871. A system of sewers and drains was not built in Petersfield until 1884. In 1893 Bedales Public School opened. In 1894 Petersfield Urban District Council was formed.
Petersfield in the 20th Century
In 1901 the first festival of music was held. In 1902 the two fairs that were held in Petersfield since the Middle Ages closed (the Taro fair continued). In 1911 the council bought the heath and pond for public use.
In 1933 during the Depression, some citizens formed Petersfield Community Service Committee. They provided land, tools, and seeds for the unemployed to grow food. (This did not affect their dole money). In an old electricity generating station, they did haircutting, shoemaking, and carpentry for each other. Townspeople donated 50 tons of timber for them to use as fuel.
In 1936 a new Town Hall was built together with a public hall. At that time a writer said ‘new and up-to-date houses are springing up almost like mushrooms in the outer area of the town’. Between the wars, houses were built near the pond and at Highfield Road. By 1939 the population had reached about 5,000.
In the mid-1930s the mud on the sides of the heath pond was removed and an island was built in the centre. In 1945 High Meadow was donated to the town. The same year the Petersfield Society was founded to preserve historic buildings. Petersfield Physic Garden opened in 1990.
Petersfield Secondary School moved to a new site in 1957. In the 1950s council houses were built around Grange Road. The town was growing rapidly. By 1970 it had reached 8,000. By 1990 the population had risen to 12,000.
In the 1960s the centre of Petersfield was redeveloped. Many historic buildings were demolished and replaced with modern ones. Meanwhile, In 1963 the cattle market which had met in the square since the 17th century came to an end.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park opened in 1976. A new library was built in Petersfield in 1981. Also, a new leisure centre opened in 1981.
In 1986 The Square was refurbished and in 1987 the pond was dredged. In 1992 Petersfield was twinned with the town of Barentin in France.
In 1992 Petersfield bypass opened. The same year the Taro Centre opened. In 1992-93 the town hall was refurbished. In 1992 the old cottage hospital in Swan Street was demolished and was replaced by the Community Hospital, which opened in 1993. At the same time, Heathside Hospital in Durford Road was also demolished and replaced by housing.
In 1993 Petersfield gained a shopping mall called Rams Walk. Petersfield Museum opened in 1999.
Petersfield in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, Petersfield is a thriving market town. Today the population of Petersfield is over 14,000.
My Youtube video about the history of Petersfield