From Saxons to the Turnpike

Roman influence over daily life in the British Isles gradually diminished during the fourth century, and the army left for good in A.D. 410. The first Saxon invaders arrived in 477 and settled along the South Downs.

The Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the densely forested area around modern Crawley would have been hardly affected by the Saxons until further waves of settlers pushed north. The expansion of the local population led to large-scale clearances for timber and pasture.

The spread of Saxon culture left its mark in two main ways:

  • the Anglo-Saxon language, from which modern English is partly descended,
  • and place names.

The word Crawley derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘crow’s leigh’, or crow’s wood.

Saxon Political Administration

The centre of Saxon administration was in the settlements near the south coast, which claimed areas to the north. The area of modern Crawley was shared between the rapes of Bramber and Lewes.

Rapes were divided into hundreds, which contained parishes. The parish of Crawley (within the hundred of Buttinghill) was a relatively minor neighbour of the parish of Ifield (at first within the hundred of Burbeach, later in its own hundred). The boundary lay along the eastern edge of the modern High Street.

Each parish, of course, contained a church. Early Saxon churches were wooden, and were only replaced by stone buildings when political importance or the size of the population required it. Of Crawley’s churches, there are Saxon traces only at Worth church.

1066 And All That

The Norman invaders retained the Saxon rape system, and merely imposed their own overseers. The Domesday book survey of 1086 does not identify Crawley by name, but does mention Ifield and Worth, which suggests that these larger parishes were substantially wealthier than Crawley.

The centre of power in Norman Britain moved north to London, and the settlements around Crawley became more independent of the Saxon strongholds to the south. The old track from the south-west, which followed modern Horsham Road to a crossroads at Ifield Road (see the location page), faded in importance. A new route, more directly north and south, emerged along the parish boundary at the High Street.

Crawley became a staging post on the long and dangerous route between London and the south coast. This led to an increase in the population through the 12th century.

By 1202, Crawley had grown large enough to support a regular market, and in 1271 it was granted a charter to hold both a market and a fair. The width of the High Street, and the existence until the early 20th century of buildings in the centre of the road, make it clear that this was the location of the market.

Medieval Building

Building work increased throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The churches in Crawley, Ifield and Worth were all either built or expanded in the 14th century.

Two of the surviving medieval buildings on Crawley High Street, the Ancient Priors and the Punchbowl, were built around 1450. Both have had many uses over the centuries, and consequently have had structural alterations, but both have had their exteriors restored recently. Also restored is the building known as Crawley Moot Hall, which is perhaps slightly older than the others. It was dismantled and now stands in the Weald and Downland Open-Air Museum in Singleton near Chichester. The George Hotel was built in 1615 on the site of an earlier building of the same name.

The King’s Highway

The expansion of Crawley appears to be due to the village’s situation on the route between London and the south coast, rather than to its weekly market, which was overtaken in importance by those in Horsham and East Grinstead.

In 1681, sixteen scheduled coach services per day from London passed through Crawley. A generation later, there were three times as many.

The growth in traffic required that the roads be maintained. This was the responsibility of the owners of the adjoining land, and was seen as an unnecessary burden. Local courts had jurisdiction over the upkeep of the roads. So in 1613, the court of the hundred of Buttinghill declared that ‘Richard Willarde is to cleanse his ditches on either side of the King’s highway leading between Slaugham and Crawley, and lying between Brodefilde and Tylgate, by the feast of St. Andrew next under a penalty of 4d. for each perch uncleaned’.

The solution was to oblige users of the roads to pay for their upkeep. From the late 17th century, turnpikes and toll houses were built along main roads. The London to Brighton road was improved and turnpikes installed in 1770, following an act of parliament ‘for repairing and widening the road leading from Brighthelmstone [Brighton] to the County Oak on Lovell [Lowfield] Heath in the county of Sussex’.

In Crawley, the names of two of the toll houses became transferred to their locations: Northgate and Southgate. The turnpike system was dismantled in the 1870s.

Next: the 19th-century expansion