East Grinstead is a West Sussex town that started life as a village in Saxon Times. The meaning of Grinstead is “green place”. It lives up to its name, given that it's surrounded by beautiful Sussex countryside and forest.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book, East Grinstead was by then quite a large village by the standards of the day and in the 13th century it became a town, with a charter being granted in 1247. The charter allowed East Grinstead to hold a market every week and also conferred the right to hold an annual fair. By 1516 the town was becoming more important and held two fairs a year, attracting traders and visitors from miles around.
In the early days of the town, East Grinstead boasted a population of a few hundred, which was a reasonable size in Medieval England. In the early 1300s the town gained its first MP in parliament, a right which lasted until 1832. The population grew over the centuries until it reached about 1,500 by the early 1700s.
The mid-Sussex town prospered in early times because it was a stopping post on the main route between London and Lewes – the important County Town of Sussex. Later stagecoaches would pass through the town and take advantage of the local inns to rest and water their horses as they stopped to refresh passengers on the way to Brighton, which was becoming a popular resort.
By 1800 the population of East Grinstead had grown but it was still considered a small town with 2,700 residents. But that proved to be a tipping point as the population grew rapidly to 4,000 by the middle of the century and by 1900 it had grown to 6,000.
Today the town is home to around 24,000 people, so considerable further growth over the last 117 years. With pressures for housing in Sussex, it’s probable that the increase in population will continue for some time to come.
One of the reasons for growth during the 19th century was the arrival of the railway. It must have meant a big change to the town as stage coaches gradually disappeared, to be replaced by the iron monsters of the day. It meant that East Grinstead started to become a commuter town.
Other modern inventions like gas lights, sewers and piped water reached the town during the 19th century, no doubt making life a lot more pleasant for the residents. The first cinema was built in the town in 1913, bringing a new form of entertainment.
You can still see a lot of the history of East Grinstead in its beautiful old buildings, particularly in the High Street where there are many wonderful timber-framed buildings dating back to the 14th century. The area is difficult to observe from a car because the traffic is pretty continuous but it’s well worth getting out and strolling around the centre of the town to appreciate the special architecture and breath in the history.
There are other historical buildings to notice, including the sandstone almshouse, built in the early 17th century, famous for being where John Mason Neale wrote “Good King Wenceslas”. And visit St Swithun’s Church, which dominates the landscape since its imposing building was built on the highest point in East Grinstead. John Mason Neale is buried in the graveyard at the church.
The Town Council is housed at East Court Mansion, which is notable as an historic building in a lovely parkland setting, through which runs the Greenwich Meridian.
During WWII East Grinstead became famous for its burns unit, formed at the Victoria Hospital to treat aircrew and use pioneering plastic surgery to aid their recovery. The Guinea Pig club was formed to support these burns victims. Also during the War a tragedy occurred when a Luftwaffe bomber dropped 7 bombs on the town. One hit the local cinema where hundreds were watching a film and 108 sadly died, including many children and 20 Canadian troops who were stationed in the town. This was a devastating event for a small town and the fallen are remembered to this day.
A previous famous resident of the town who isn’t always remembered with fondness was Dr Beeching, who oversaw the massacre of the UK’s railway lines in the 1960s. He even axed the line from Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells, which is why East Grinstead is now a terminus.
East Grinstead is beloved by its population for its rural situation, closeness to London and the proximity of Ashdown Forest and country parks. At the north-east corner of West Sussex, it’s off the beaten track yet not cut off from the City.
Maybe that’s why EG has become the centre for a number of unusual religions, including Ron Hubbard’s Scientologists, who have their headquarters on the edge of town, and Opus Dei who have their conference centre at Wickenden Manor. There are also other little-known religions housed in the town, which led Channel 4 to produce a documentary to explain the phenomenon. They seemed to come to no worthwhile conclusion, but in any case East Grinstead has become known for its high number of religious centres.