Bishop’s Stortford is situated approximately midway between London and Cambridge on the edge of East Hertfordshire’s border. Its environs have supported a variety of ancient settlements from Stone Age through to Iron Age, and between the first and early fifth century AD a small Romano-British settlement existed just north of the present town centre – itself established as a settlement by the Saxons soon after they invaded Britain in 449 AD. Little is recorded of the Saxon period locally, only that the Manor of Esterteferd (later corrupted to Stortford) was once owned by a Saxon woman named Eddeva Pulchrima. She sold it around 1060 to the Bishop of London – hence its prefix.
The settlement’s all important river crossing made it a haven for travellers early on, and the creation of a market soon brought trade and prosperity to the area. At the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), the town’s population has been estimated at no more than 150, increasing to around 700 by the 13th century. This number then grew steadily but was substantially reduced on each of the three occassions that plague struck the town: 1348–9, 1582–3 and 1666. By the 17th century the present form of the town had been established and its natural position at the centre of vast cereal growing lands led to the creation of a malting industry. Such was the scale of this industry that the Stort Navigation was built in 1769 to accommodate it, and prior to 1800 Bishop’s Stortford supplied more malt to the London brewers of porter than any other town in England.
With the advent of stagecoach travel in the 17th century, Bishop’s Stortford became a convenient mid-way stop for travellers journeying between London and the towns and cities of East Anglia. Town trade increased dramatically and inns proliferated, but in 1670 its economy suffered a serious set-back with the building of the Hockerill bypass – courtesy of Charles II – and Hockerill’s own fame and fortune began because of it. Hockerill’s wealth was further enriched in the 18th century by the creation of the Hockerill Turnpike Trust. Their promotion of better roads resulted in faster journey times for travellers and the initiation of a Mail coach service between London and Norwich in 1785.
In the 18th century a livestock market (described in 1752 as ‘the finest in East Anglia’) grew up alongside the general market, and in the 19th century two of the town’s most famous sons were born: Cecil Rhodes – the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Walter Gilbey – best remembered, nationally, as the founder of Gilbey’s Gin.
In 1831 the town’s population was 3,358, but increased dramatically after the arrival of the railway in 1842 and the creation of New Town. This, combined with further increases in population at Hockerill, led to the building of two more parish churches to ease the burden on St Michael’s church – itself built around 1400. After the turmoil of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants found some stability in Elizabeth I’s compromise between the two faiths, but at her enthronement in 1558 Catholic priests left the town not to return for 338 years. Ironically, due to an oversight in the law, the town became a haven for non-conformists in the middle of the 17th century and virtually every Independent Church was represented here long before local catholics got their own church in 1900.
Further housing development in the late Victorian period increased the population to 7,013 by 1901, but it was after the Second World War that the town expanded most, both in area and in population. This once self-contained market town then became a dormitory area for those working elsewhere, and by the middle of the 20th century the population stood at 12,772. Further expansion in the 1970s saw Thorley’s ancient farmland being sanctioned for development, which in the space of 30 years has resulted in three large residential areas: Thorley Park, Bishops Park and St Michael’s Mead. Bishop’s Stortford’s population in 1991 of approximately 27,000 had increased to more than 35,000 by 2004.
The most dramatic change to the town’s fabric and infrastructure came in the late 1960s and early 70s, when urban regeneration and redevelopment became the order of the day and ‘New Age’ planners gave birth to the Town Redevelopment Scheme. Much of what took place was necessary to bring Bishop’s Stortford into the 20th century and it has since benefited, but many of the changes, more especially the re-routing of the river away from the town centre, now seem ill thought out and totally unnecessary. Like any town, Bishop’s Stortford fares better under blue skies than grey, but like just about anywhere else these days it suffers from modern-day living – mindless vandalism, an excess of litter, and roads clogged with cars. Parts of the town’s fabric are also in need of care and attention. Redevelopment of the large swathe of land bordered by Causeway, Station Road, the river and Riverside, started in 2005, helped ‘tidy up’ that particular area but the end result wasn’t well received by all. The development certainly wasn’t designed to be sympathetic with its surroundings and did nothing to improve the vista in any direction, more especially in Causeway. In this particular project it would seem that absolutely nothing has been learned from architectural errors of the 1960s.
Through 2,000 years, Bishop’s Stortford’s history has been interesting and varied to say the least, but you’d be hard-pressed to find mention of this town in any book of national history. There are no ancient ruins of any note, no known battle sites, and no great municipal buildings or monuments. Nor, in truth, is there much material evidence of the town’s medieval heritage. Apart from St Michael’s church and the foundations of a few buildings in the town centre, the oldest structures to be found are predominantly Tudor inns. And whereas its market once sustained the town, today the town sustains just a handful of stalls on a Thursday and Saturday. Its oft-used title ‘Medieval Market Town’ is accurate but perhaps a little exploited by property developers and estate agents.
So what, you might ask, makes Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley worthy of such a large website as this? The answer is simple – both have a long and fascinating history and one or two interesting stories to tell. The town may not have featured too prominently on the national stage but it has been touched and affected by many of this nation’s historical events and had its own character and history formed partly because of them. That’s not to forget the countless individuals who helped shape the town through the years, giving it its colourful social history.
Thorley and its hamlet of Twyford both retain their ancient name, but both have been fully incorporated with Bishop’s Stortford since 1935 when they were transferred to the parish and urban district council. Little is known of Thorley before the Conquest, but its history has been well recorded ever since. The inclusion here of Hadham Hall and the nearby church of Little Hadham is, perhaps, stretching the town’s boundary just a little, but both have tenuous links with Bishop’s Stortford and are more than worthy of mention. Between 1076 and 1900, the manor of Hadham and Hadham Hall was owned by just just two families – the latter being the Capels. Their association and involvement in 17th century events actually added to history, in particular Arthur Capel whose support for Charles I inevitably led to a charge of treason and the loss of his head shortly after the king lost his.
Now, unfortunately, many of the books that documented Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley’s long history are history themselves – most being out of print and some of the more interesting only available for reference purposes. This was one of the reasons for producing this website, although the information contained herein is by no means definitive – that would be an impossible task. Nor is this an academic works – I am not a historian. This is, quite simply, a fairly informative circumnavigation of the town and Thorley, giving an insight into each area’s past. Some subjects readily lend themselves to more exploration than others, and additional notes have been included that are relevant to understanding how the town was affected and progressed through historical and social change.
That said, the passage of time ensures that however well documented the original evidence, it will have been subjected to interpretation, change and error. But I have endeavoured to be as accurate as possible in using the wealth of archive material available – the product of past and present authors whose fascination and reporting of the town’s history has greatly increased our knowledge of it. Their work greatly reduced my research at grass roots level and made this website possible.
Unless otherwise credited, all photographs on this website are the ©copyright of Paul Ailey. No photograph should be reproduced in any form without prior consent of the author. Permission should also be sought to reproduce any photograph used on this website not credited to the author.