A BRIEF HISTORY
Balcombe (OS grid ref TQ 30630) is located in the Mid Sussex District of West Sussex and is located 33.5 miles (54km) south of London and 20.5 miles (33 km) north of Brighton. It is represented in the UK Parliament by the Horsham constituency.
There are differing views as to the origin of the name ‘Balcombe’: some say it is Saxon for “Bealeda’s Cum” (Bealeda’s Valley). Others say it is from the Old English, “Bealy Cumb”, meaning ‘lush valley’. Regardless of the actual origin of the name, its spelling has varied over the years: 12c – Balecombe; 13c – Beecumbe, Balecumbe, Baldecombe and Baldcomb; 17c – Baulcombe; 18c – Balkham; eventually settling on its current spelling.
Balcombe is located in the High Weald which, until relatively recently, was heavily forested and not settled, not only for a lack of tools to clear the forest effectively, but also there was little need for additional arable land.
Sometime in the early 10th century routes through the forest began to develop, including one which is now the approximate route of the B2036 (London Road), where a stone religious building was built in circa 1091; subsequently, starting in the 13th century, St Mary’s Church was built on the same foundations, with further additions through to the 19th century.
Also around early/mid 10th century, settlements began to form along the current route of the B2036, north of the present location of the village. It’s not known when the current location of the village was established: the oldest known tombstone in St Mary’s churchyard is dated 10 June 1611 and the oldest known house is dated around 1676. During the mid-1600s there were approximately 200 people living in the Parish of Balcombe.
By 1823 the Brighton seaside, particularly after the Prince Regent (George IV) had constructed his Pavilion, attracted more and more people from London, a daily stage coach between the two centres passing through Balcombe had been established.
In 1837 an Act of Parliament was passed to create the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company which commenced construction of the railway in 1838, an event that was to change Balcombe forever as it was selected to be on the main route and necessitating the construction of a tunnel just north of the village and the Ouse Valley (Balcombe) Viaduct to the south. The increase in the population of Balcombe from approximately 700 people in 1831 to over 1600 in 1841 was mostly the result of employment in the construction of the tunnel and viaduct.
The Balcombe Tunnel is approximately 1040 metres (1130 yards) long and is lined with bricks, many of which were made using the excavated site materials. The Viaduct is approximately 100 feet (30 metres) high and 500 yards (458 metres) long. It was built using at least 10 million bricks, brought to the site by barges coming up the Ouse River and offloading where Wharf Cottages are located, along the Haywards Heath Road. There is uncertainty as to the origin of these bricks: some say they were transported from Belgium and the Netherlands; others claim they were made in brickworks just north of Newhaven at the mouth of the Ouse River. Presumably, someday this debate will be resolved.
With the coming of the railway the forests were cleared to create mixed agricultural farming and the Village began to be established including opening of Balcombe School in 1850. Moneyed families from London moved to Balcombe and several estates were formed. One of the personages to arrive was Sir Weetman Pearson, later Lord Cowdray, whose daughter Gertrude married Lord Denman (Governor General of Australia in early 1900s) and established Balcombe Place as their main residence. About this same time Brantridge Park was developed and this eventually became the residence of the Earl of Athlone, brother of Queen Mary of Teck and Governor General of South Africa and Canada.
The Denman family donated various parcels of land in the village that enabled various facilities to be established, such as the Balcombe Working Men’s Club (now Balcombe Club), the Parish Room, the Rifle Club and the Bowls Club.
After World War I, Lady Denman was responsible for initiating the construction of the Victory Hall which was opened in 1923: it features unique frescos depicting scenes from The Great War, painted by Neville Litton and a wooden plaque listing the names of 221 men from, or associated with, Balcombe who served in war (a further plaque honouring the Balcombe men who died in both World Wars is located in St Mary’s Church). Lady Denman also was National Chairman of the Women’s Institute for many years as well as being responsible for the founding of the Women’s Land Army which was headquartered at Balcombe Place.
By the early 20th century a number of businesses had formed and were expanding. There were several nurseries growing flowers, particularly chrysanthemums and sweet peas, as well as vegetables, mainly for the London Covent Garden market. Initially these, together with milk from local dairies, were transported by the early morning train, subsequently to be replaced by motor transport. One of the Balcombe nurseries was one of the earliest in the UK to use hydroponics for growing flowers all year round. Over time the nurseries closed, with the land often being used for new housing as the population continued to expand: the last Balcombe nursery closed in 2002. By the 1930s, businesses and shops operating in the village included a post office, stationers, bakery, green grocer, tobacconists, confectioners, tea rooms, tailor, dress maker, milliner, outfitter, shoe shop and mender, hairdresser, coal merchants, hauliers, insurance agent, garage and petrol station and several dairies making home deliveries.
The shops and businesses began to close, particularly after the end of WWII, as more people owned cars and supermarkets and high street shops were opened in nearby Haywards Heath and Crawley. At one time there were eight public and ale houses in and around Balcombe: these started to close as the large, but temporary, railway construction work force moved on. Now only one public house remains – The Half Moon Inn – which became community owned in 2017.
Employment gradually moved from working small holdings, smelting iron from local iron ore deposits and making charcoal needed for the iron works to larger mixed agriculture farms, forestry and lumber production and estate workers, to becoming primarily a commuter based community – a shift in employment pattern facilitated by the village’s relatively close proximity to London and Brighton (and towns in between, as well as Gatwick Airport), increased frequency of rail services and an expanded road network.
Although the change has been from mainly local employment to principally commuters, the Village has remained the focus for recreational and social activities. The tea dances that took place between the war years and on into the 50’s, both at the Victory Hall and the Assembly Rooms (which were opposite The Half Moon Inn but no longer exist) that provided a way for the local young people to socialise and to court may have come to an end, but there are numerous sports, recreational and social facilities that have continued or been started that help fill this void and maintain the village’s strong community.
A number of Village clubs have their own facilities such as the football club, the bowls club, the rifle club, the cricket club and the tennis club. Others benefit from having three venues available within the village in which to hold their activities – catering for young babies (and their mums) through to the older generation and covering a wide range of interests and activities: many of these groups appear on the Balcombe Village website and are reported on regularly in the monthly Balcombe Parish Magazine.
Uniquely for a small village church, St Mary’s Balcombe has been the venue for two royal weddings. The first on 24th October 1931 was the wedding of Lady May Cambridge, daughter of the Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice, to Captain Henry Able-Smith. A number of royal personages were bridesmaids including Princess Elizabeth of York (later to become our Queen Elizabeth II). Guests included Queen Mary of Teck (the bride’s aunt, wife of King George V); and the bride’s cousins – David, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), Albert and Elizabeth, Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). The attendance by Queen Mary is commemorated by a plaque on the front pew in St Mary’s Church.
The second royal wedding was a much more lower keyed affair; it took place during WWII on 15th February 1941, between Lady Iris Mountbatten, daughter of Lord and Lady Carlsbrooke and granddaughter of Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, and Captain Hamilton O’Malley of the Irish Guards: this short-lived marriage ended in 1946.
Two other notable names associated with Balcombe are: Anthony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon, husband of Princess Margaret) who was raised at Balcombe House where his family lived, before moving later to Nymans; and Paul Scofield (international stage and screen actor) who lived in Balcombe for many years and is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard.
The history of Balcombe – its people, buildings, evolution and organizations – are documented in the archives of the Balcombe History Society which is indebted to its many contributors, particularly the late Leslie Fairweather OBE and Joan Dutton MBE. The Society organizes regular presentations on subjects that are of relevance and interest to Balcombe residents, together with major exhibitions highlighting specific aspects of Balcombe history.
With may thanks to The History Society
What will make the site work is what makes the village work; a strong sense of community, bringing together and sharing ideas and information.
Balcombe, quite possibly the best village in the South, with a great sense of community.
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