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The parish of Thorley lays to the south-west of Bishop’s Stortford, covering an area of approximately 1500 acres. Archaeologists have revealed evidence from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age periods, as well as many items from the time when the area was a marginal settlement of the Romans. It was a manor at the time of Edward the Confessor but most likely to have been a part of nearby Sawbridgeworth, held at that time by Godith, a vassal of Asgar the Staller (master of the horse) a high ranking soldier in King Edward’s army.
There are various explanations as to the name Thorley, any one of which could be valid. Its original name, Torlei, is said to stem from the Celtic word Tor, meaning stoney hill, and lei, meaning meadow or pasture. It was indeed referred to as such in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the Normans apparently had great difficulty in pronouncing the letter ‘h’, and so possibly omitted it from their spelling of the word, which may well have been Thorlei.
Further confusion is added when we find that the manor was owned in the late 12th century by Paganus and Erwald de Thorley (who may have taken their name from the area), but in the Book of Fees for the year 1212 it was referred to as Thorneley – perhaps meaning a clearing in a thornwood or possibly a reference to the brambles and thorn bushes that once covered the area giving it the reputation of being the most uncultivated land in the county.
Whatever the explanation, Domesday Book records the area as a Torlei Manor and it is assessed as thus: 4 hides (480 acres) with eight ploughed lands for arable farming – half of which were on the demesne (the Lord’s land as opposed to his tenants land); there were about 27 tenants, a knight, a priest and mention of a mill (Twyford Mill) worth 10 shillings (50p) per year rent. Its population totalled about 100 and its value was put at £8.
Prior to the Conquest, William, bishop of London, had bought the Manor of Torlei (Thorley) from the Saxon, Godith, to add to his lands at Stortford and Hadham. Then, at some time between his death in 1075 and the Domesday survey of 1086, both the Manor of Sawbridgeworth and Thorley was granted, by the king, to Geoffrey de Mandeville (also recorded as Magnaville) as a reward for his services in the field of battle at Hastings. A later bishop of London, possibly William’s successor Hugh de Oval, who automatically inherited his properties, disputed the grant and laid claim to Thorley for himself. But as Domesday Book records, it was to no avail.
However, a ‘Manor of Thorley in Stortford’ is recorded as being owned by the Bishop of London at that time and probably refers to one-half a hide (60 acres) that may have been granted to him by the king as compensation for his greater loss. The land in question was first held for the bishop by a tenant named Roderi but in 1294 the tenant is recorded as Hugh de Birne, who was succeeded by his brother, John. No further trace of the estate can be found after this time and it is assumed the land was eventually absorbed into the bishop’s manor of Stortford. Geoffrey de Mandeville and his heirs retained the tenancy of Thorley Manor proper and it was probably he who built the first manor house on the site of present day Thorley Hall.
The manor had other owners after the Mandevilles, and late in the 12th century was under the ownership of Paganus and Erwald de Thorley (mentioned above). From this family it passed to William Gerbergh of Yarmouth who, after a disagreement, was forcibly removed in 1269 by William de Clifford. But the law eventually sided with the Gerberghs and by 1311 the family were reinstalled.
The manor then changed hands frequently, one of the most notable names associated with it being Richard Whytyndone (1358–1423) – better known as Dick Whittington, four times Mayor of London: 1397, 1397–8, 1406–7, and 1419–20. The title ‘Lord Mayor’ was not used in Whittington’s day. There is no evidence he ever lived at Thorley, but perhaps as an administrator or trustee he would have occasionally assumed Lordships. The construction of Whittington Way in the early 1970s – the road that runs parallel with old Thorley Lane linking the B 1383 with Thorley village – was named in his memory.
In 1389 the manor passed to the Corbett family. They sold it to William Pinchbeck and he sold it, in 1420, to the Leventhorpes of Shingle Hall, Sawbridgeworth. In 1447 Henry VI granted John Leventhorpe permission to create a hunting park, for which he acquired a further 520 acres in the parishes of Sawbridgeworth and Thorley to accommodate it. The Leventhorpes held the manor for the longest period, finally selling it to John Duke who died in 1606. It then came to John Coke of Melbourne, Derbyshire, who married Mary, daughter of Lady and Sir Thomas Leventhorpe. She was the last member of this family. In 1688 Coke is recorded as having helped the cause of William of Orange in the Revolution of that year by raising a troop of horse and equipment. For this he was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
William Kiffen was the next owner, a sheriff and later alderman of London, who sold out in 1691 to John Billers, a London haberdasher. His son, William, became Lord Mayor of London in 1734, but by this time John Billers had sold the manor in 1712 to a wealthy London silk merchant named Moses Raper. When he died it fell to his brother Matthew Raper and at his death, in 1748, was inherited by his son, also Matthew. This Matthew Raper (1705–1778), a Fellow of the Royal Society, was perhaps the most distinguished resident the manor had had up until that time, and in 1775 both he and Samuel Horsley proposed Captain James Cook (See Guide 11) for membership of the Society.
Raper was a multi-talented scientist, astronomer and mathematics scholar who had published research papers on many diverse topics including the inequalities of the earth’s movement as effected by Jupiter and Saturn (1756), and the relative values of Greek and Roman money (1771). He also had an observatory – designed by John Smeaton – built into the roof of the manor house, and to maintain his records when he stayed at his brother’s home, Twyford House, converted a room there as a smaller observatory.
The manorial rights eventually ended up with his brother, John Raper, who was also a silk merchant. His daughter, Elizabeth, married a rich and well-connected Edinburgh doctor named William Grant, and their son, John Peter Grant, became the owner in about 1800. But within ten years his trustees sold the manor to Edward Law, the first Lord Ellenborough and Lord Chief Justice of England. In his time he presided at all the great state trials of treason and libel and was popularly known as the ‘hanging judge’. At his death the manor passed to his son, the 2nd Lord Ellenborough, who later became Governor General of India. It then passed to the 3rd Lord Ellenborough, and in 1895 the 4th Lord Ellenborough sold to Charles Gayton of Much Hadham. Other principle landowners in Thorley at that time were Bartle John Laurie Frere of Twyford House and Mrs H. Patten at Thorley Wash.
In 1906 the Lord of the Manor was Mr George S. Streeter who bought the large country house called Thorley Place, built in 1887. After his death, his wife, Blanche, continued to live in the house until her own death in 1966. That same year the entire contents of Thorley Place were sold by auction and the house bought by Bernard Mulvany who converted it into the Thorley Place Hotel. Unfortunately, its early success didn’t last and after closure a few years later the building remained empty and was constantly vandalised. In the 1990s the overgrown gardens were sold for the development of Premier Court Nursing Home, opened in 1998, and the house was later bought and restored to become a family home once again.
Adjacent to Premier Court stands a small house called Stone Hall, a fairly non-descript property but said to be one of the oldest house in Thorley. In the 17th century it was home to the Defoes and on a pane of glass in one of the windows was scratched the name Daniel Defoe (1660–1731). It seems unlikely the scribe was Daniel Defoe himself, as he couldn’t have known the date of his death! However, the front hall floor was laid by a Defoe on the occasion of a wedding and a Defoe is buried in the churchyard of St James the Great.
Beyond Thorley Place there currently stands a rather run-down lodge house. In the early 1900s somebody had the bright idea of constructing a road to Bishop’s Stortford from here and built an arch alongside the lodge to identify the road’s starting point. The scheme came to nothing but the arch did remain for some years.
The out lying farms named Butlers Hall and Moor Hall were rebuilt in the 19th century, the former probably associated with the family of Richard Boteler in the early 15th century. In 1291 Moorhall Manor belonged to Merton Priory in Thorley but in 1544 was owned, briefly, by Sir Henry Parker the 8th Baron Morley and gentleman usher to Henry VIII. Parker had been one of the King’s commissioners sent to assess the wealth of St Michael’s church at the Dissolution of the Chantries, and in 1544 was given, by Henry VIII, Wickham Hall and this land in Thorley. Although a staunch Catholic he vigorously supported the king’s plea for divorce from Catherine of Arogan, and assisted at the christening of Henry VIII’s only son, Edward – later Edward VI. His daughter, Jane Parker, married Anne Boleyn’s brother, Lord Rochford, who was accused of incest with Anne Boleyn and became instrumental in her execution. He was executed at Tower Green in 1536, as was Jane Parker some years later on a charge of treason relating to Henry V.
Information regarding Grade II listed buildings in Moor Hall Lane and Butlers Hall Lane
In the 17th century a national rise in the population led to an inevitable rise in unemployment, especially in rural areas where many tenant farmers were forced off the land by the engrossing of farms. To counteract this the government inaugurated the parish poor rate; meaning those most in need were supplemented out of the rates of the parish. At the beginning of the 18th century a person needing help could be assisted at home or in the workhouse, but in 1722 parliament encouraged workhouses and anyone refusing to enter forfeited his claim to relief. In 1754, John Raper (Lord of the Manor at that time) gave an undertaking to the parish vestry that he would build a new workhouse to replace the parish’s old one. It isn’t known where or even if one was built.
In the post-Napoleonic War period between 1815 and 1850 the country suffered an economic slump and, once again, there was unemployment caused mainly by a rapid increase in population and immigration. The 1841 census shows the population of Thorley was 396 and that the majority of men had no profession or trade. The only industry in these parts was malting, but just six Thorley men were employed as maltsters.
It’s very unlikely any school existed in Thorley before the Board School was created in 1875. Generally it was only the wealthy classes of British society who were able to teach their children, either by private tutor or at an endowment school. Working class children were put to work from an early age in the 1840s and although several laws were passed limiting their hours, those children in Thorley were generally agricultural labourers – some starting work at the age of 10. This changed in 1870 with Forster’s Education Act, making it possible for every child to have a primary education. A further Act in 1880 made it compulsory.
The Board School, with resident schoolmaster’s house adjacent, cost £1500 to build and had two classrooms to accommodate 100 children. One classroom was for infants, the other for older children. The first headmaster was Charles F. Buckham, but it seems unlikely he ever had 100 pupils in his care. In fact, at the end of World War II there were only 9 children in attendance and the school closed in 1948. It was then used as a community centre and is currently HQ of Thorley Scouts and Girl Guide group.
The area’s population remained fairly static between 1801 and 1971, the figures being 269 and 268 respectively. But by the 1970s Thorley began to accommodate countless new housing developments, which by the end of the 20th century had helped boost Bishop’s Stortford’s population to over 35,000.
Thorley Wood is now about one tenth the size of the medieval forest, and nearby Mathams Wood – once part of the park granted to John Leventhorpe in the 15th century – still has the remains of a Second World War airfield skirting its northern edge. The area had been used as a small airfield during the First World War and in June 1940 was chosen by Wing Commander A.J.W. Geddes as a suitable landing ground for No2 (Army Co-operation) Squadron.
A farmhouse was requisitioned as a flight office, and the land flattened by Royal Engineers to accommodate a 950 yd (868m) all-weather runway. Within months the airfield was extended to 77 acres and became RAF Sawbridgeworth for the duration of the war. Missions of interception, bombing and reconnaissance were launched from the airfield and Spitfires, Mustangs and Lysanders regularly flew from there. It was also used as a refuelling base for squadrons on their way to Europe and North Africa. The last squadron to use the airfield was No3 MU, which dealt with disposal of surplus stores until it closed in June 1947.
The last time Mathams Wood was in the news was in 1966 when it was the hiding place of the notorious criminal Harry Roberts, who went on the run after murdering three policemen in West London. His knowledge of Thorley stemmed from the war years when he was sent here as a child evacuee, but after being at large for 95 days he was finally captured in a cattle food store at nearby Blounts Farm. He is currently still serving his prison sentence.