A History of Farnham

  • This short history was written to accompany our map of Farnham in 1903.
  • The map is available through our On-line Mapshop.

  • Farnham was described by Kelly’s Directory, in 1903, as "a parish, market and union town…supposed by some to be the Roman Calleva and the capital of the Belgic tribe of the Atrebates; it derives its name from the ferns which abounded in this locality". The 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that this was the site of another Roman town, Vindomis. To some it is the archetypal Georgian town, with a wealth of finely preserved 18th century town houses strung out along West and Castle Streets, with a medieval church and episcopal castle standing proudly in the wings. For others again it is a London commuter town, on the edge of the countryside, with acres of 20th century housing set within easy walking distance of the station.

    Silchester is now accepted as the site for the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, and Neatham, nearer to Alton, is credited as Vindomis. Farnham, where some bath and villa remains have been discovered, was a more modest pottery and stopping-off point. Nevertheless, the town had undoubted early importance, as is shown in its large parish church of St Andrew’s and in the castle that towers above Castle Street. In 688AD the Saxon king, Caedwalla, granted land here to the Church, and by the early 9th century it belonged to the diocese of Winchester, for whom it would have enduring importance. The Saxons gave the town its name, Fearnhamme, but nothing remains of their church, though today’s was probably built on the site. Significant, too, must have been the arrival of Cistercian monks locally in 1128, and the building of their Waverley Abbey, about a mile SE of our map, encouraged by the then Bishop of Winchester, Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen. A decade or so later the bishop began work on Farnham Castle, for himself, and this would remain a bishops’ palace into modern times. In the 12th century, too, Farnham became home to an archdeaconry, the rector generally serving this role with a vicar employed to look after the parish.

    This round of building brought masonry and carpentry expertise into the area and a large scale rebuilding of the church took place in the late 12th century. Fragments of this work survive, especially in the chancel and crossing pillars, and by the end of that century side-chapels had probably been built. However, there was substantial rebuilding in later centuries, perhaps partly as a result of a fire in the 14th century, and it seems likely that there was once a crossing tower. The west tower was built in the early 16th century, but its appearance was stumpy, rising only a few feet above the roof of the nave; the turmoil of the Reformation almost certainly put an end to further building work and the tower was not completed to today’s height until 1866. Galleries and high-backed pews were added in the 18th century and there was a general restoration in the mid-19th century.

    Numerous memorials around the church, most of them to local families, remind us of the town’s past. They include a one to General William John Kerr, 5th Marquis of Lothian (1737-1815), sometime Colonel of the 11th Dragoons and a man with a wealth of hereditary titles: Lord Kerr of Nisbet, 8th Lord Jedburgh, 7th Earl of Ancrame, Lord Newbattle, 5th Viscount of Briene, Baron Ker and others. (The title is now held by the Conservative politician Michael Ancram, who has added a life peerage, Lord Kerr of Monteviot, to the collection.) Family scandals at Court apparently led to William Kerr leaving London, and eventually leading a quiet life at Vernon House, on West Street. One of these involved his son, also William Kerr (1763-1824), having an open liaison with the married (if separated) Lady Belmore. Vernon House, originally Culver House and later the public library, dates from the 16th or early 17th century, with rebuilding in or about 1721. It was here that Charles I is said to have stayed, on the night of 20th December 1648, en route from the Isle of Wight to his eventual beheading in London.

    Another plaque in the church, by Sir Richard Westmacott, is to Sir Nicholas Rycroft d.1827, and shows a pilgrim resting on his travels, while another, with lettering by Eric Gill, is to the local author George Sturt (1863-1927), who wrote many books and articles on village life and rural crafts under the nom de plume George Bourne. Sturt was a teacher in the local grammar school until the 1890s, but later took over the family wheelwright shop. His book Change in the Village, written in 1911, is an invaluable and lucid commentary on living conditions in and around a country town. Of work in the gravel pits, a declining industry in Farnham as the pits were worked out, he noted that the men "can earn perhaps five shillings a day if at piece-work, or about three and sixpence on ordinary terms. From this sum a deduction must be made for tools, which the men provide and keep in repair themselves…The picks frequently need repointing, and a blacksmith can hardly do this for less than twopence the point. The gravel-work, too, is very irregular. In snow or heavy rain it has to stop, and in frost it is difficult. More than once during the winter of 1908-09, it being a time of great distress, gravel-pit workers came to me with some of those worked flints…which they had found and saved up, but now desired to sell, in order to raise money for pointing their pickaxes. I have wondered sometimes if the savages who shaped those flints had ever looked out upon life so anxiously as these neighbours of mine, whose iron tools were so strangely receiving this prehistoric help”.

    The church also contains a memorial to Farnham’s most celebrated son, William Cobbett (1763-1835), sometime farmer, pamphleteer, Newgate prisoner and (at the fifth attempt) Member of Parliament. Cobbett, whose grave is just outside the main door of the church, was born in Bridge Square, at the Jolly Farmer pub (renamed the William Cobbett in the 1970s). His father was a farmer and landlord, and Cobbett’s first job was as a farm labourer at Farnham before he set off for London, joined the army and eventually became one of our great reformers. As a writer he is best known for a weekly newsletter, the Political Register, whose supplementary Parliamentary Debates anticipated Hansard; and for a great series of journeys across southern and midland England, Rural Rides, which chronicled the problems of the countryside.

    Farnham Castle, at the top of the map, was built for Bishop Henri de Blois in 1138 but demolished c.1155 and rebuilt in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It is a motte and bailey castle, but the main apartments were arranged around a triangular courtyard; this meant that they survived when the keep was destroyed during the Civil War. The outer walls were built in the 1340s and in 1470-75 Bishop Waynflete built a tower on the S side of the castle, a notable feature on the landscape and "a splendid piece of brick design" according to Ian Nairn, who goes on to say "It is extraordinarily sophisticated architecture – it makes Hampton Court, in the same idiom, look like nouveau- riche ostentation. Bishop Waynflete was evidently building a false keep…" There was substantial repair and rebuilding after the Civil War and the facade of the Great Hall is dated 1677. Of the 53 bishops who occupied it, one of the most famous is Cardinal Henry Beaufort (c.1377-1447), sometime Lord Chancellor of England, Papal Legate for Germany and Bohemia, and the presiding judge at the trial of Joan of Arc; Farnham made an apology if not amends in 1931 when a new Roman Catholic church was dedicated to St Joan. Upkeep of the castle was not always an unalloyed joy for the bishops, and in the 1780s Bishop Brownlow North d.1820 sued the heir of his predecessor, Bishop John Thomas †1781, for dilapidations, the house having "sadly run to ruin" according to John Byng.

    Byng, Viscount Torrington (1743-1813), visited Farnham while on his Ride into the West, in 1782, and described the area as "an extensive, richly cultivated country [open] to the view with abundance of hop-gardens, reminding me of the Weald of Kent. Farnham…is a neat well-built town". He walked up to the castle, "whence is a beautiful view of the town" and, "attended by a manservant…survey’d every part of the palace. My first enquiry was after the old kitchen and the famous cooking utensils I had heard of there; the kitchen still remains, but with very little show of hospitality or good living; one of the great fireplaces is closed up; old hospitality is kick’d out of doors and made to give way to taste. A bishop’s lady now vies in dress and gaiety with a duchess…The hall is very large, the chapel neat, and some of the lodging-rooms commodious". Byng wanted to explore the remains of the old castle, "but in vain did I wait for an hour for the key, so was obliged to walk only the outer circle and then return’d to the inn, much chagrin’d at my disappointment". After further travels around the area he return’d at near two o’clock to Farnham and found "roast lamb ready for dinner; when my friend and I made a hearty meal on the lamb and a dish of politics, follow’d by a decent bottle of Southampton Port (for this is the county for good port wine)…"

    The hop-gardens provided traditional employment in and about the town in and, as in Kent, hop-pickers came down from London for a fortnight’s ‘holiday’ in the country. Hops were introduced into the area by a Suffolk farmer, Mr Bignell, in 1597 and took over many of the fields and gardens around the town. Whole families would take part in the annual harvest. On 10th October each year many of the hops were taken to the great Weyhill Fair, near Andover, where Farnham hop-planters – trading as the ‘Gentlemen of Farnham’ – had their own allotted patch, the Blissimore Hall Acre. Farnham became a natural centre for brewing, although its best known brewery, the Lion Brewery, is just W of our map on West Street. Barley, the other natural ingredient, was also grown on many farms, and the crop passed on to local maltings, including that shown here off Bridge Square. Part of the building shown here as Malthouse had originally been a tannery but was acquired in 1845 by John Barrett, who converted it into a brewery, adjacent to his Red Lion pub; from the 1850s he benefitted from the opening of Aldershot garrison, opened numerous pubs across the area, and by the 1870s was able to extend his premises along the riverfront. The easternmost part of the building, which was originally separate, had been acquired in 1830 by a maltster, Robert Sampson, and later developed by his son as Sampson & Sampson. In 1881 they were bought out by John Barrett and in 1890 the whole complex was acquired by the local rival, George Trimmer of the Lion Brewery. The concerns were amalgamated as Farnham United Breweries, with about 91 pubs, which in turn was taken over by Courage Breweries in 1925. Malting continued here until 1956, but the building has since been converted into ‘Farnham Maltings’, a centre for arts and community events.

    Farnham may have been a prosperous Georgian town, but there was a darker side, its poverty reflected in the workhouse on the N side of the town. This was built in 1791 and, because Farnham had adopted the Gilbert’s Union Act of 1782, which empowered small groups of parishes to operate a workhouse together, it could ignore the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. In 1846, however, it joined with the Aldershot & Bentley Gilbert’s Union to form a new Poor Law Union, was enlarged but was quickly faced with an increased workload brought with the development of Aldershot as an army garrison, not least with its venereal complaints. By the 1860s Farnham Workhouse was notorious for its poor conditions, and these were exposed nationally in The Lancet in 1867. A recent workhouse master, James Sargeant was described as "a large man, with an imposing presence, a confident manner, and a faculty for talking down any mildly remonstrant guardian". The ‘despotic’ master became the subject of inquiries following several incidents, including forcing an epileptic to work at the cesspool, into which he fell; threatening the doctor with physical violence; and – the final straw – seducing a female inmate. The doctor, Dr Powell, acted as ‘whistleblower’, ignoring the apparent apathy of the guardians, and the master had to resign; but it would be some years before the worst features of Farnham Workhouse were properly dealt with. All the wards were described as filthy, with few if any facilities, and there was only one nurse, "a good and skilful woman", aided by a "broken-down male pauper, who has been five times tapped for dropsy". Following this lengthy and devastating report, new buildings were added to the south c.1870 and an infirmary to the east c.1900. In 1901 the workhouse, with a capacity of 314 inmates, was nearly full, the census recoding 290. The building became Farnham Hospital and would later be almost entirely rebuilt.

    The railway would have a major impact on Farnham. Services began modestly enough on 8th October 1849 with the opening of a line from Guildford via Ash Green and Tongham. The line was then extended to Alton and, in 1865, with the opening of the Mid Hants Railway, to Alresford and Winchester. Farnham became a junction in 1870 when the line from Aldershot was opened, and was important enough to have a small engine shed, just W of the station, until 1890. The line via Aldershot as far as Alton was electrified in 1937 and services via Tongham ceased at the same time, their legacy the awkward reverse curve at the former Farnham Junction, about a mile E of the station. Today Farnham is served by a frequent service of trains from Waterloo to Alton, and there is a large EMU depot just west of the station. The level crossing at the end of the platform is just one of the town’s bottlenecks, an attempt to build a diversion around it having been objected to by ratepayers back in 1897.

    The map shows several gravel pits close to the line, largely providing ballast for the tracks. Sturt wrote that at one time up to 40 men were employed here, providing gravel for L&SWR’s engineering trains. "The work, usually done at night and on Sundays, brought them in from eighteen to twenty-four shillings a week, according to the hours they made. I do not know how many of our men are employed on the railway now, but they are certainly fewer. Some years ago – it was when the great trade depression had already hit the parish badly, and dozens of men were out of work here – the railway company suddenly stopped this train, and consternation spread through the village at the prospect of forty more being added to the numbers of its unemployed".

    Population figures for the town are confusing, as the original parish included the tithings of Wrecclesham, Badshot, Runfold, Runwick, Hale, The Bourne and Tilford, and would later be divided into Urban and Rural parishes, as shown here in the marginalia. A Local Board was formed in 1866, this duly becoming an Urban District in 1895, but it was abolished in 1974 when the town became part of Waverley Borough Council, along with the Municipal Borough of Godalming, Haslemere UDC and Hambledon RDC. A modest vestige of self-government was restored with the creation of Farnham Town Council in 1984. By 1881 the population of the Local Board area was recorded as 4,539, rising steadily to an equivalent 7,365 by 1911. A century later the figure had risen to 30,469 (or 39,488 if outlying ‘tithings’ are included).

    Farnham is known for its Georgian buildings, but during the 19th century there were a couple of attempts to break free. In 1865 – only a year or so before his Cragside fantasy – a young Norman Shaw was commissioned to design the Bank on Castle Street, for Farnham’s own Knights Bank. The result was an extraordinary, half-timbered, over-hung and many-windowed Tudoresque giant, four storeys high, towering over its neighbours, a building that would have been more at home in a Shrewsbury or Ludlow. Knights Bank was taken over by Capital & Counties in 1886, who were in turn swallowed up by Lloyds Bank in 1918. Just down the road, in 1866, just as Shaw’s bank was built, so the old half-timbered Market House, which might have served as a companion in style, was demolished, and the Town Hall Company built the Corn Exchange, shown here as Town Hall. This was designed by E Wyndham Tarn, its opening celebrated with a multitude of songs, toasts and brass band ensembles. Nigel Temple describes it as "large, pseudo-Gothic, towered, turreted, parapeted, buttressed and punctuated with blind trefoils against white brick, with blue brick, terracotta in addition". With Norman and medieval detailing, and a Gothick clock tower, the building stood for Victoriana at its height.

    From 1910, however, the local architect Harold Falkner, with the support of a landowner, Mr Borelli, had set about the preservation of Farnham’s architectural heritage – its Georgian heritage, that is – and there could be no place for such Victorian eccentricities. Both were demolished in the early 1930s – Lloyds Bank ruefully expressing some sadness at the loss of such "a landmark in our architectural history – and Falkner himself designed the replacement town hall. It is largely thanks to him that West Street and Castle Street in particular retain so much of their Georgian character, with a host of good buildings. East Street, by comparison, has been largely redeveloped, while South Street (originally New Street) was essentially a later creation to provide access to the station, although architectural aficionados might note an early work of Edwin Lutyens, the Liberal Club (here Club) of 1894.

    The survival of much of Farnham’s architectural heritage is indeed impressive and owes much to Harold Falkner and other local architects, including G Maxwell Aylwin. In 2014 English Heritage have listed 362 buildings or features, and 43 of these (17 in Castle Street) are listed Grade II*. (Apart from the Castle, just The Grange and Willmer House, both beyond this map – are listed Grade I.) Inevitably there have been losses, most notably Fir Grove, built in 1688 but altered in the 19th century and subsequently home to the Barlow family, notably Sir George Hilaro Barlow, 1st Bt (1763-1846), sometime Acting Governor-General of India and later Governor of Madras, where his tactless parsimony brought about a mutiny of senior British officers. The king wanted to make him a peer but returning officers pamphleted their objections, and he was recalled in 1812, retiring to Farnham; his troubles continued with a divorce four years later. However, the family connection with India was maintained and his son Sir Robert Barlow (1797-1857), the 2nd baronet, became a Judge of the Supreme Court of Calcutta; his son, Sir Morison Barlow, the 3rd baronet (1835-89), fought as a Captain in the Indian Mutiny and at the Siege of Lucknow; and the 4th baronet, Sir Richard Wellesley Barlow (1836-1904), grandson of Sir George through his second son, was a Member of the Legislative Council of Madras. By that time, however, the family had left Fir Grove, probably following the death of Sir George in 1846.

    Soon after that the estate was sliced in two as the railway marched through, and today the A31 bypass also passes beneath Firgrove Hill, just S of the former house. That, alas, has not proved the solution that it might, for traffic is the blight of the town centre, incessant down several streets, while the handsome width of Castle Street is wasted in lines of on-street parking. It is the tragedy of Farnham that, for all its prettily preserved Georgian buildings, it is impossible to stand back and enjoy them. Better to search out the tranquillity of the church, or spare a thought at the grave of William Cobbett. Farnham’s true history lies in its people, and they deserve better.

    ©Alan Godfrey, October 2014

    Principal sources: Gilbert Jackman, The Story of St Andrew’s Parish Church (2nd ed 2006, Farnham); Ian Nairn, Buildings of England: Surrey (Penguin, rev 1982); Jean Parratt, Farnham Past (Phillimore, 1999); Nigel Temple, Farnham Buildings & People (Phillimore, 2nd ed 1973); Kelly’s Directory of Surrey, 1903.


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