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History of Washington

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WASHINGTON

Washington, W Sussex, is an ancient place of importance. It stands at the N. end of a ‘wind-gap’ giving a passage through the South Downs to the coastal plain around present-day Worthing, where it crosses the age-old E.– W. routes that ran first along the crest of the Downs, subsequently a short way inland. Its name – first recorded in 947 AD – means, in Old English, ‘Homestead of Wassa’s people’; there is of course another Washington in N.-E. England, whence George Washington’s name, and that of the capital of the USA, comes (though Kipling, in his story ‘They’, wrongly attributes these to Sussex!). There are many prehistoric monuments on the Downs and at their foot, of which a Bronze Age burial mound finely, perhaps significantly, located on the brow of a hill in direct alignment with the village street deserves particular mention. Most striking, of course, is Chanctonbury Ring: a four-acre Iron Age fort at the top of the highest hill for miles, within which the Romans built two temples. The higher of these, painted bright red, was visible from afar; an old trackway leads down from it towards the E.-W. Roman ‘Greensand Way’ that still partly marks the parish boundary. If there was a significant  Roman farm or villa at Washington, however, it has eluded discovery so far.

Washington was a major Anglo-Saxon estate. Most unusually, there are two surviving charters (recording change of ownership) from only 16 years apart – 947 and 963 AD, each of which independently gives a list of boundary points: over 20 in all. Two of these are verifiable from modern place-names, giving us a fix on the others, most of whose locations can be reasonably guessed. There is little doubt that the Saxon estate largely corresponds with the historic parish – a conclusion strengthened when the present author discovered traces of a massive bank coinciding with much of the historic parish boundary. Who had it put there? Probably Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, who acquired the estate in 963. Why? We can only guess – maybe to assert his authority. A famous hoard of late Saxon silver coins was found near Lower Chancton in 1866.

Early Washington (like many Downland or coastal manors) had outlying territories, at first swine-pastures, in the wooded areas to the north: Horsham is first mentioned as such in the early charters. Domesday Book (1086) attributes to Washington an improbably large area and population: this must reflect these territories and their growing population. Meanwhile, after the Conquest (1066), ownership of its manor passed from King Harold’s slain brother to the powerful de Broase family of nearby Bramber. With the formation of the parish system in late Anglo-Saxon England, there must have been a church; but it has left no trace. Part of the fabric of a 12th century rebuilding does, however, seem to have survived in the N.-W. corner of the present building. The main manor house must have stood nearby. Other now-lost manors were those of Chancton; Rowdell (where a great house with park survived till demolition in 1952); and Highden to the S., whose large house of c.1700 was remodelled when it became, as it remains, Windlesham School. A curiosity at Windlesham is its chapel - in fact, the demolished church of St Martin at Carfax, Oxford, bought and re-erected (at first in Brighton!) by the then headmaster. Washington had other outlying hamlets: Rock (‘At the Oak’); Clayton to the W.; Ashington (which became a separate parish after the Conquest, though its main road stayed in Washington till 1960). Only in the 20th c., however, did the Heath Common area (on sandy soils N. of the present A283 – previously home to a rabbit warren) become settled and populous enough to outstrip the historic village.

Medieval Washington, an apparently quite prosperous agricultural village, was associated with Bramber till the 16th c., after which other owners (notably the Gorings of Wiston) acquired more and more land. Nine villagers – a large number – were pardoned after the Cade rebellion (1450). In 1760 Charles Goring planted the cap of beech trees that made Chanctonbury Hill into one of the most famous Sussex landmarks (they were much damaged in 1987 – after which proper excavation of the Ring took place). Considerable changes reached the village with the 19th century. The E.-W. and N.-S. roads were modernized as turnpikes, leading to more traffic and (e.g.) the building of the Frankland Arms inn. Roads led to tourism by the second half of the century: eventually hundreds of visitors would make organized excursions from Worthing to Chanctonbury, particularly to view the sunrise. Market gardening became an important resource; there was a brickworks on the Gault Clay under the modern roundabout, and lime-kilns on the chalk of the Bostal. A tall smock mill (still surviving, despite encroaching sand quarries) was placed on the hilltop at Rock – in the mid-20th c. it was the last, cherished home of John Ireland, composer of several works on Sussex themes. In 1865 a new and energetic vicar, Rev. J.W.Knight, adherent of the High Church ‘Oxford Movement’, came to Washington from Magdalen College and set about reconstructing St Mary’s Church, which was evidently too small and decrepit for a growing population. Knight and his architect G.M.Hills retained some of the early fabric (notably the late-medieval W. tower), while their Victorian rebuilding was skilfully handled, with good fittings and a remarkable painted decor (mostly obliterated in 1962).

Proposed railways never came to Washington, so it did not grow as an industrial or commuter centre, like Horsham or even Pulborough. But an unusual settlement was significant in its 20th c. history, and led to some dubious fame. This was The Sanctuary, an idealistic community founded after the First World War by a young woman, Vera Pragnell, who had come into money and bought 50 acres in the Heath Common area, offering half-acre plots to impoverished Christians, Communists and other communitarians. Vera married and eventually moved away; the residents got sensationally lurid treatment in the popular press; yet elements of The Sanctuary lingered on, even if the wooden shacks nearly all vanished, like Vera’s huge Calvary on the local hill-top, now smothered in rhododendron scrub. The historic parish, little changed for 1000 years, lost its northern part to Ashington in 1960; later in that decade the A24 became a modern highway, bypassing the nucleus of the old village – which, with over 40 listed buildings, remains picturesque without being showy. In 2009 all the parish S. of the A283, with part of Washington Common, was designated to be within the new South Downs National Park.


Robin Milner-Gulland F.B.A., F.S.A., 2013