How Midhurst developed and its links to author H.G. Wells

Midhurst was once part of the much larger adjoining parish of Easebourne. The name Midhurst derives from Old English, Middel hyrst meaning Middle Wood. It is situated on a Roman road as well as the River Rother.

The river was made navigable through the efforts of the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837). The origins of the town itself are linked to the Norman Conquest, when the area became part of the vast Sussex estates owned by Roger Montgomery.

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Montgomery erected a series of earthwork castles across his estates, both in existing towns and in strategic positions, such as at Midhurst, where he wished to establish new towns.

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The castle at Midhurst was positioned on St Ann’s Hill. All that now remains are the foundation stones, which can be seen nestled within the trees. It is thought the castle was built around 1066, originally in wood and earthwork defences before being later rebuilt in stone.

Postcard of North Street, Midhurst, circa 1921

A circular stone wall reaching up to 1.7m thick was built around the top of the motte. A series of rooms abutted the wall, likely including kitchens, living quarters, storage, stables and a hall. A chapel dedicated to St Denis or Deny’s also stood on the site until at least 1367.

Excavations in 1997 at the Spread Eagle Hotel exposed a large ditch, suggesting the existence of defences surrounding the town. Midhurst became a market town in the 13th century, and received a market charter by 1223. Many of the town’s street names hint at the early activities and trades which took place in them, including Sheep Lane, where the Beast Market was held, Wool Lane and Duck Lane. A market hall was built c1552 and later replaced c1820.

Precise dating of the different phases of the development of the town are as yet unclear, however initially the town consisted of a core open rectangular market place or ‘green’, with a chapel in the middle.

The first burgage plots (land or property held in return for service or more frequently rent) were probably laid out at the same time on the eastern and western sides of the ‘green’.

The remains of the bailey and chapel, St Ann’s Hill, Midhurst

Over time, the market ‘green’ contracted, as new burgage plots were introduced to the north, and eventually the open space was completely infilled as market stalls became permanent structures, shops and dwellings.

Expansion beyond the town’s defences was soon necessary, although when and how this development occurred exactly is difficult to say. A second possible market may have been established on a triangular piece of land to the West of the original (bounded by what is now West Street, Rumbolds Hill and Wool Lane) by the Knights Hospitallers (Order of St John). In time this too was infilled.

The town’s later expansion was limited to the north. Here a linear market was formed by deliberately widening the road – now known as North Street.

Increasing coach travel in the 17th century enabled the development of inn accommodation in the town. The Spread Eagle Hotel probably dates from the mid-16th century, and by the mid-17th century there were five inns in the vicinity of the market square.

Postcard of the Old Market Hall, Midhurst, circa 1920s

The former Midhurst Grammar School was founded in 1672 as a private charity school for 12 poor Protestant boys. The school was established by Gilbert Hannam, a weaver and coverlet maker. The boys were originally taught Latin and Greek, writing and arithmetic in a classroom which was at first located in the loft of the Market House.

Prominent author Herbert George Wells was a student at Midhurst Grammar School. Wells was originally sent to the school to improve his Latin by the chemist in Church Hill to whom he was apprenticed. Although he was not a formal pupil, Mr Horace Byatt, the school’s headmaster at the time, coached Wells in Latin after shop hours.

In 1883, Wells left his apprenticeship to become a pupil-teacher at the school. The Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in North Street featured in H.G. Wells’ adventure story The Wheels of Chance, leading the hero Mr Hopdriver to it.

Eventually, the school was moved to North Street, on land which had been home to Hannam’s house and workshops. The grammar school closed on December 19, 2008, and was replaced by a new academy, Midhurst Rother College, which opened in January 2009.

Having covered only a small fraction of Midhurst’s long and fascinating history, see the monthly Changing Times feature in December to find out more about Midhurst’s more recent history, including the introduction of the railway, the tradition of the Curfew Bell and much more.