The village of Byfleet has a long and rich history, which can come as a surprise, as on the surface Byfleet looks like a fairly modern commuter town. But beneath the surface and around various corners there is a great story to be discovered. Evidence of Bronze Age settlements has been found at Brooklands and ancient iron-smelting equipment has been found at Wisley pumping station, showing that the area has been inhabited for thousands of years.
The first written reference to Byfleet occurs in 727, when the village formed part of the lands owned by Chertsey Abbey. Byfleet is listed in the Domesday Book where the Manor, Mill and church are mentioned, with, apparently, enough forest to feed 10 hogs. The whole village was valued at a massive £4.
Glamorous figures from history once lived at and even rebuilt Byfleet Manor and many Kings have visited there with their families or granted the manor to their favourites. One former owner, Henry de Leybourne, was arrested and thoroughly ticked off by Edward I for leaving the King’s service in Scotland and popping down to Byfleet with some mates for a joust! Edward II gave the manor to his infamously unpopular favourite Piers Gaveston, and Edward’s long-suffering wife refused to visit the place for ever after. Byfleet Manor was the Black Prince’s favourite country retreat and he bred horses there.
Later Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, rebuilt the manor in grand style in 1617. Alas, all is now gone, except for the gateway leading to the courtyard, and two chimney stacks. King Charles II gave the manor to his favourite mistress, the fiery Barbara Countess of Castlemaine. Two years later he granted it to his new wife Catherine of Braganza – although what Barbara thought about losing out to her competitor is perhaps thankfully not recorded!
Byfleet has literary and artistic connections too. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer often visited the Manor in his job as Clerk of the Works. The diarist John Evelyn described a visit to Byfleet Mill in the 1660s, which at that time made white paper, then a luxury item. Robert Bowyer, Miniaturist to King George III lived at the Clock House. And there’s more! Byfleet could move with the times too. The Wey Navigation canal passed through the village in 1651, providing faster transport for goods via the Thames to London. In the 20th century the first purpose built motor racing track in the world was built at Brooklands.
The track opened in 1907 and attracted not only the best in the world of car and bike racing, but many early aviators as well. Later Vickers and British Aerospace carried on Byfleet’s connection to aviation development. When the Vickers factory moved here in 1911 it caused Byfleet’s population to almost double in ten years and the houses in Dawson and Caillard Road were built to house the Vickers’ workers. Other technological marvels happened here too.
W G Tarrant the well-known local builder was involved in the creation of the first articulated deep sea diving suit, designed by Joseph Peress and tested in a deep tank at Tarrant’s yard by Byfleet resident Jim Jarratt (leading to the suits being nicknamed “Jims”). Mr Tarrant also built the Tarrant triplane (it crashed on its maiden flight at Farnborough, but the idea was there!).
Unfortunately, although the village itself is old, there are not many old buildings left. The large houses of the gentry that stood in Byfleet, such as Weymede and Grasmere, have now largely disappeared making way over the years for modern housing and now have streets named after them. However traces of Byfleet’s interesting past remain. The present St Mary’s church dates from the late 13th century with 19th century additions, although there has been a church on the site for far longer.
It is well worth visiting to see the 14th century wall paintings, the Thomas Teylar brass from 1480 and the unusual war memorial consisting of the original grave markers of Byfleet men who fell in the First World War. The old fire station, built in 1885, still stands in High Road. Sir John Whittaker Ellis, formerly Lord Mayor of London, started Byfleet’s fire brigade after a fire in his own property, Petersham House, which stands opposite (now Lloyds Bank). Just up the road is the old village school, built in 1856.
This now houses the Day Centre, which was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1986. And across the road from this is Byfleet Village Hall, built in 1898 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Hugh Locke-King donated the land and local benefactor F C Stoop paid for the building. Money raised by the villagers paid for the furnishings. Over one hundred years later the Village Hall is still the centre of many of the village’s activities, hosting a variety of clubs, classes and special events.
Byfleet’s shops have changed over the years. Digby’s High Class Grocers and Freelands ironmongers (nicknamed the “Tuesday Shop” due to customers always being told “it’ll be in on Tuesday”) have disappeared, but the Blue Anchor and Plough pubs and the Binfield Bakery still serve the village after many years, along with a variety of other shops and services, keeping the village atmosphere alive.
Byfleet may look like just another modern village, but it is a community built on a long and interesting history. More details of Byfleet’s fascinating past can be found at Byfleet Heritage Centre at Byfleet Library (open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). The library can also supply details of all that is going on in the present day village, which is still a lively community after over a thousand years of existence. And if you take a walk down by the Manor House, give a thought to the jousting knights, Kings, Queens, mistresses and poets who have been there before you.
The Heritage Centre at Byfleet Library tries to convey some of Byfleet’s fascinating history. Opened by Sir Cliff Richard on 1st February 1996, it houses various displays on Byfleet’s past life. These are supplemented by old maps and a time line linking events in Byfleet with those of Britain. In the very year we opened we were proud to win the Heritage Promotion Partnership’s Interpret Surrey Award run by Surrey County Council.
The Centre is gradually building an archive of historical material, a small selection of which is available for reference. If you have visitors over, why not take them in for a browse – the Centre is open during library hours (Tuesday 10-1, 2-6, Friday 10-1, 2-5 and Saturday 9.30-4, although as the room is available for booking it may be an idea to ring ahead first to check).
Byfleet Heritage Society was founded in 1996 to support the Centre. Both the Centre and the Society were the idea of Doug Bright, sadly no longer with us. He had been inspired by Howard Cook who had written some short books on the history of Byfleet and Pyrford, and he in turn had been inspired by L R Stevens, whose wonderful book “Byfleet A Village of England” was reprinted by the Society in 2001. This takes you from the Bronze Age to the mid 20th century and makes a fascinating read.
The Society has a series of monthly talks and events, and are always pleased to welcome new members, whether to share any research they may have done or just to enjoy the talks. Members receive free entry to Society events, a newsletter three times a year.
Everyone is very welcome both at the Centre and the monthly talks, and if you are tempted to join the Society, you can pick up a membership form at the library. Also if you have any questions, or if you have any information you would like to pass onto us, please ask the library staff, who will pass them on to us.
History of Byfleet was kindly provided by Tessa Westlake of the Byfleet Heritage Society