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A Brief History of Horley

Today Horley is a small but busy town of around 23,000 people situated almost half way between London and Brighton at the southernmost point of the County of Surrey. It is mainly residential and sits astride both the main line railway and the A23 main road and close by London Gatwick Airport.

Description: 1816 Horley Town MapHorley lies on what is known as the Weald that consists mainly of heavy clay soil, a few miles south of the chalk North Downs. The local area was thought to have been at one time densely forested so early settlers preferred to live on the drier Downs. They only penetrated the muddy and overgrown Weald during dry summer months, to feed their animals and to forage. When Christianity first came to southern England during Saxon times, Horley and its Manor came under the control of the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Chertsey, close by the River Thames. The Abbey also controlled many other manors on the North Downs, who in turn had claims on parts of Horley from earlier use of its land.

Following the Norman Conquest, Horley is not named in the 1086 Domesday Book as it is thought to be included within the northern manor returns. After the Dissolution of the Monastries in 1539, Horley Manor passed to Henry VIII who gave or sold it to various people until 1602, when it became the property of Christ's Hospital in London. A superb map of its purchase was produced in that year, the original of which is held today by the Guildhall Library in the City of London. This map clearly shows that Horley consisted of three separated settlements around the western and northern edges of a huge open common. One by St Bartholomew’s Church, parts of which are thought to be 14th century, along with today's Six Bells Public House of 15th century origin, another where the Watermill once stood by the River Mole, and the third, along the northern boundary of the common, today called Horley Row, where several other properties can be seen, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

By 1812 with a population of a little under 1000, the huge common was enclosed. New roads were planned and the intervening land sold. However, Horley changed little even when two of its planned roads were Turnpiked, one in 1809 and the other in 1816, to allow regular stage coach services to operate between London and Brighton. In 1841, the railway was laid across the common and the first Horley station came into operation to serve its population that had by then reached about 1500. In 1890 Gatwick Racecourse was opened just to the south of Horley where the Grand National was run during three years in World War 1. It closed in World War 2 and became part of wartime Gatwick airfield while Horley’s population had risen to around 8000 by 1940. Whereas agriculture was its main industry prior to World War 2, it changed rapidly after to become a dormitory town for London commuters and a place to house the growing workforce and associated businesses of Gatwick Airport. From its humble beginnings in 1930 as a recreational airfield, Gatwick first became a continental airport with its own terminal (now listed) building in 1936. Today it is the UK's second largest airport and handles over 30 million passengers a year.

Despite the fact that Horley is now mainly a residential town with business services and some light industry alongside Gatwick Airport, it is still situated within pleasant rural surroundings from which it originally evolved. Something its population remains keen to safeguard.

Brian Buss, July 2011