The 19th Century: Steam-Powered Expansion

The increasing road traffic throughout the 17th and 18th centuries benefitted the local economy, and especially the shopkeepers along the High Street. Most economic activity before the industrial revolution was based on agriculture, but trade in other goods and services led to an increase in the population of Crawley.

The first census, in 1801, gave the population of Ifield parish as 637, and Crawley parish as 210. The village of Crawley occupied around half of the parish of Ifield, including all the houses immediately west of the High Street, leaving only the relatively unpopulated farms, so the population of Crawley itself was probably 500 or more.

Stage Coaches

A growing number of stage coaches, goods wagons, and private horse-drawn carriages passed through Crawley. In 1790, there were 5 passenger coaches and 6 goods wagons making the trip between London and Brighton per day, each journey taking between 8 and 9 hours. By the 1830s, the number of passenger coaches alone exceeded 20 per day, and journey times had been reduced to 5 or 6 hours.

Many of the old timber buildings along the High Street were replaced by brick buildings from the late 18th century, and more houses were built in West Green. The 1831 census shows that the populations of both Crawley and Ifield parishes had almost doubled over 30 years.

Steam Railway

By the 1830s, technological improvements had made a steam railway system possible. The newly formed London, Brighton and South Coast Railway company spent 5 years planning and constructing a line between London and Brighton, which came into operation in 1841. The journey took between 1½ and 2½ hours.

A station was built at Three Bridges, and named East Crawley. The construction of a branch line between East Crawley and Horsham in 1848 necessitated the addition of a station at Crawley itself, just east of the southern end of the High Street.

Once the branch line had been built, the renamed Three Bridges station provided employment for railway workers, and the hamlet expanded rapidly. Crawley, however, lost a good deal of passing traffic to the line from London to Brighton, and only resumed its growth in the 1850s when wealthy people began to move out of London to rural areas served by the railways.

Building material was transported much more easily by rail than by road, and this led to much house building in the area close to Crawley station, in particular West Green, in the late 19th century.

The Motor Car

Although the electrification of the London to Brighton line in 1932 increased the attractiveness of Crawley to commuters, the final push in the pre-New Town expansion of Crawley was prompted by the internal combustion engine.

Private cars were out of the reach of the majority, but enough existed to support several garages in and around the High Street. Regular bus services encouraged people from surrounding villages to visit Crawley.

By the late 1930s, the amount of motor traffic through the main north-south road, the High Street, had become excessive, and the A23 by-pass was built.

Next: Crawley New town: the 20th-century expansion