Barnham through the ages

Barnham lies in the centre of the Sussex coastal plain bounded on the north by the Downs and to the south by the sea.

ICE AGE: the melting of the ice sheet during the Great Interglacial period caused the sea level to rise and the coastline in our area to move inland from where it is now. At Slindon you can see excavations of the cliff line as it was about 250,000 years ago. Over the next many thousands of years the whole of southern Englandbecame covered in thick forests.

STONE AGE: by 4000 years BC the coastline was as it is today and around that time Neolithic people came from Franceto settle in the Barnham area. They made axes from local flint with which to clear areas of the forest and then to begin growing cereals, keeping cattle and fishing.

BRONZE AGE: between 2000 BC and 500 BC more settlers came from Germanyand the Low Countries(the Anglo Saxons) bringing with them better axes, tools and weapons made from bronze, and the way of life around Barnham became far less nomadic and more centred on homesteads.

IRON AGE: by 500 BC yet more immigrants from Europehad arrived and they brought with them skills for mining iron ore and making all manner of things, especially tools for clearing more and more forest areas. It was at this time that the great hill fort at the TRUNDLE beside Goodwood racecourse was built. About 100 BC the "wheel plough" was first used around Barnham and much greater areas of land came under cultivation. The tribe that lived in our area of Sussexwas named REGNI.

THE ROMAN INVASION (49 AD): for about the next 400 years Barnham was under Roman rule and administered from the great fort of Chichester, which was the capital for our whole area. By this time so much forest had been cleared that the Romans had to introduce land and forest management, and the face of our area as we see it today began to emerge.

THE DARK AGES: in 410 AD, when Romewas sacked, the Roman legions withdrew from Englandand Sussexbecame an Anglo Saxon area. Throughout the next 600 years there was almost continuous conflict between the kingdoms into which Englandwas divided, with the many warring tribes of Scotlandand Wales, and also against a steady stream of invaders from Scandinaviaand NW Europe (particularly the Danes from 800 AD onwards).

Throughout the Dark Ages, however, our corner of Sussexremained relatively tranquil and the overall way of life changed very little. It was during this period that Christianity came to the south of Englandand there is good evidence that at that time an Anglo Saxon Christian church was built on site of St Mary’s at the end of Church Lane.

THE NORMAN INVASION (1066 ANDALLTHAT): During the fifty years before the arrival of the Normansthe "English" got much more organised and harmonious. Firstly under King Canute (1016 - 1035), then under Edward the Confessor who maintained the status quo until he died on 6 January 1066.

He was succeeded by King Harold who defeated the Norwegians on 25 September, and then on 14 October was killed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.

Once again a momentous change in the history of Englandprobably had little or no impact on Barnham except that the change to Norman rule meant a change to Catholicism. It is of interest that our church is recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as the Church of St Mary the Virgin, and it is unlikely that name pre dated 1066.


This prolonged period of wars against France almost certainly would have involved men from Barnham, and in the church there is rough request scratched on the stonework saying " pray for the soul of my Father who died at Agincourt" (1415).

We do not know our population in the fourteenth century but it must have been very small when you consider that five hundred years later it was only 300. So, what with the toll of the war, and the Black Death in 1348 which halved most populations, a guess would have Barnham entering the sixteenth century with around 50 souls all told.

THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY: during this time it is probable that Barnham was part of the estates of the Bishop of Chichester, albeit later all around became owned by the Duke of Richmond, and there would have been a lot of local turmoil over the "enclosing" of common land, very much to the disadvantage of the villagers. The most significant impact of this century would have been in1534 when Henry VIII separated the Anglican (Protestant) church from Rome, Catholicism became illegal and the services were read in English and not Latin. In 1558 Elizabeth I came to the throne and for the remainder of the century one could imagine men from Barnham joining the ships of Drake, Raleigh and others in that golden era of sea voyages and exploration.

THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY: Barnham Court in its present form was built in 1640 by Shelley family of Michelgrove near Worthing, although there would have been a less grand manor houses on the same site for two hundred years or more. These old timber and thatch houses would have been the focus of the agricultural and economic life of the village, and in the same way that the old manor houses have disappeared, so have all the simply constructed houses of the village, and it is not until the next century that we start to see the old houses that still exist today, houses like Manor Cottage and Curacao in the Street (now called Church Lane).

Also in the seventeenth century we saw an enormous national upheaval with the beheading of King Charles I, and the establishment of the " EnglishCommonwealth" (1649 -1660). In Barnham the siege and sacking of Arundel by Cromwell and his destructive troops could hardly have been missed even in Barnham’s quiet lifestyle.

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: For Barnham this century goes through to the end of the Napoleonic wars in1815. During this century for the first time the village knew what was happening around them through the newspaper - about the war of American Independence, the foundation of the Methodist Church, the Mutiny on the Bounty and the inclusion of Indiain the British Empire. But most importantly at the end of the century in 1805 was the Battleof Trafalgar and in 1815 the Battle of Waterloo. Unfortunately for this imagined history of Barnham the Murrell Arms did not become a pub till 1866 otherwise it would be entirely reasonable to imagine the Press Gangs of Portsmouth arriving at our village pub and taking off our most able bodied men to serve with Lord Nelson, and for some our subsequent ancestors to then be " sons of guns".

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: after so very many centuries as an unknown hamlet this new century with its industrial revolution transformed Barnham and moved it towards the thriving village complex that we know today.

Following the Napolionic wars and the defeat of France there was much unemployment amongst returning soldiers and sailors. To help those in our area Lord Egremont (Petworth) was a strong supporter for the building of the Londonto Portsmouthcanal, and especially the section from Ford to Hunston which opened in 1823, and which almost certainly gave work to men from Barnham. Sadly the canal was never a commercial success and it slowly declined over the following thirty years. The opening of the railway from Lewes to Chichesterin 1846 signalled the end to the canal.  

To support the acres of cereals that have been grown over the centuries on the Sussexplain there had always been a need for mills and millers. The earliest reference of a mill at Berneham (Barnham) is in the Domesday book, but records of a mill at the present site go back only to 1678. This mill was post mill and was blown down in 1827 and the present tower mill was built in 1829. Over the best part of the next 100 years, and before the general introduction of engine driven and electrical milling, eleven working tower windmills could be seen from the top of Barnham mill.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: only one aspect of this great national change had any impact on Barnham but it was very significant. It was the coming of the railway and the external influences which made Barnham a railway junction.

In the ages before the railway the only movement was by horse and cart. The roads and tracks in our area of Sussexwere terrible, especially in the winter, and in many ways it was the bad roads that were the key as to why Barnham had always remained a small backwater unable to develop its agricultural potential. The railway changed all that.

The line to London opened in 1863 and within a few years land was being bought in and around Barnham for market gardening, orchards and nurseries.

Barnham’s rich land and mild climate was ideal and by the end of the century there were 350 acres sending produce to towns along the railway line. A special train left Barnham every evening for London’s Covent Gardenmarket, and Barnham’s nurseries were producing 45 tons of tomatoes each year.

The railway junction also made Barnham a focus for all aspects of farming over a very wide area and in 1890 the cattle market was started. Over the next 50 years it grew to be one of the most important cattle and cereal markets in Sussex.

By the end of the century the population of Barnham and Eastergate was around 400.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY : for Barnham, as for the rest of the United Kingdom, this is the century with more change than the previous 6000 years all put together. The century is divided quite clearly into three parts by the two world wars.

Before World War 1 Barnham continued to prosper around the railway junction very much as it had since around 1870 but, apart from the acres of greenhouses, there was very little new housing to see except for a new vicarage in the "Street" built for the first resident vicar in Barnham for over 100 years.

The men in the nurseries earned twopence an hour for a 70 hour week and the roads remained unsurfaced. In 1903 Barnham led the way when one of the earliest cultivated mushroom farms started up in Elm Grove. Whilst on the site of what is now the Philip Howard Schoola brick works was opened to meet the demand for new houses in Bognor. In 1906 Barnham had its first school opening with 36 pupils, before this date the children used to walk to Eastergate. Also in 1906 the telephone arrived.

World War 1took its toll of Barnham men and their names are on a scroll in St Mary’s church.

The years between the two world wars saw Barnham expand slowly with the nurseries turning additionally to landscape gardening to supply the housing being developed along the south coast. The way the bigger farms were worked changed with the introduction of the tractor, there was also a shift in land ownership with the local authorities requisitioning small holdings in Hill Lanefor returning servicemen who could not find work.

The years of depression in the late 1920s, which hit manufacturing areas so badly, did not have the same effect on a rural environment such as Barnham and the village moved into the ’30s with still around 350 acres supplying the daily needs of the cities. Housing and the population grew slowly and our school now had over 70 pupils.

Motor cars and trade vehicles arrived, and the roads improved. The village hall was made possible through funds raised by Women’s Institute (1927), the Methodist church was built (1931) and the railway was electrified in 1938.

The years of World War 2 were very different. The men went off to war, wives and land girls worked the farms and lots of evacuee children arrived from Londonto escape from the bombing. Food production was increased and diversified and over the heads of the tractors flew the fighters from Ford, Goodwood and Tangmere defending England from invasion by Germany.                                                     

After the war Barnham had to cope with a great deal of change. Market pressures and changes in working methods caused the cattle market to be closed (1948), the brick works to stop trading (1950), the mill to cease grinding (1978) and, most notable of all, the nurseries to start selling off their land for the development of housing estates. By 1960 total market gardening land was down to 100 acres. Today it less than half that amount.

Very quickly in this post war period the whole focus of Barnham shifted from being a strong agricultural centre to being a dormitory town where most able bodied people went off each day by train and car to work in London and other big employment centres along the south coast. Also many people on retirement came to live in Barnham and that is how the village is today.


Now Barnham has a new challenge in trying to retain its identity as a separate village. Trying not to swamped with further building developments, by ever increasing traffic, and in parallel striving to ensure that there is a basic infrastructure in place strong enough for the future. If the village is equal to these challenges perhaps at the end of the 21st century we will have achieved a Barnham which looks very much like it is today, but perhaps a little smarter and a little more grand because of its own efforts.