Although written evidence for Chertsey dates to the 7th century with the founding of Chertsey Abbey, archaeological remains show that the area was occupied long before that. Neolithic (c.4,500 – c.3,000 B.C) flint axes have been discovered in the area as well as tools made from bone or antlers. St. Ann’s Hill has the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, although the terraces have largely been destroyed by subsequent agricultural activity, planting of trees and the introduction of roads and footpaths.
However, although we know there were early settlements locally, there is little other evidence of life in Chertsey until the arrival of Chertsey Abbey in 666 AD. Bede, a Northumbrian monk writing in 731 tells the story of how a Prince Erkenwald was given land by King Egbwert of Kent land to build a monastery ”in the region of Surrey next to the River Thames in the place called Cerotaesei, that of island of Cerot”.
The name Chertsey means “The Isle of Cerot” and it is likely that Cerot was the original owner of the land used for the Abbey site. The Abbey was built on an area of slightly raised land in the middle of the Thames boggy flood plains. The Abbey, the first of its kind in the county, was immensely wealthy and powerful and at the height of its power the Abbot controlled over 50,000 acres of land in Surrey plus houses in London and Cardigan Priory in South Wales. The Abbey was sacked by Vikings in 871 when the Abbot and 90 monks were killed. They have subsequently been recognised as being Christian martyrs and have been canonised, remembered on 10th April, their Saints day.
Chertsey was granted its market charter by Henry I and was reconfirmed Henry III in 1249, by Edward I in 1282 and again by Elizabeth I in 1599. Chertsey thrived as a market town due to the arable landscape producing fine market gardening, and its proximity to London. The Elizabethan charter also permitted the construction of a Market House, which stood until 1809, at the junction of London Street and Guildford Street. The Market House was also the site of the cage or jail. The Market House obstructed the view from St. Peter’s Church so when it was demolished due to its poor condition, a new one was built in London Street now known as the Old Town Hall.
As a successful market town, Chertsey attracted travellers to the area, and situated between London and Windsor, it became a busy coaching town. Many the inns and public houses which were built at this time as places offering refreshments and a change of horses are still present in Chertsey today. The Swan, the last surviving inn in Windsor Street, was trading as ‘White Swan’ as early as 1595 and was of great local importance during the 18th and 19th centuries as the principal coaching inn and post office. Royal carriages travelling to and from Windsor Castle often stopped to change horses.
‘The George’ in Guildford Street is thought to be the oldest licensed premises in Surrey, dating back to the 13th century. The surviving Public House, a 15th century timber-framed building, took its name from a visit by King George III in the late 18th century. Earlier, it may be identified as the ‘Prince’s Arms’ in 1613 and operated as ‘The Boot’ in 1770-1, but has been known as ‘The George’ since 1794.
During the latter half of the 18th century Chertsey, and the surrounding countryside, became the fashionable place to live for the London gentry, thanks to the Whig politician, Charles James Fox, who lived in St. Ann’s House on St. Ann’s Hill. Much of the modern planting on the hill is the work of Fox, his wife and Lord and Lady Holland who inherited the house on the death of Mrs Fox in 1842.
During the 18th and 19th centuries and even into the 20th century Chertsey had a thriving clock-making industry. There was a succession of makers, at least three generations, called James Douglass. The first James Douglass worked in Chertsey between 1768 and 1791, from premises in Guildford Street, and is known to have used very fine clock movements from the South of England and much additional non-functional ornamentation. His son continued to work in Chertsey until at least 1832. The other main clock-maker was Henry Wale Cartwright who started business in Chertsey at 104 Guildford Street in 1840, working until his death in 1897.
The coming of the railways
The coming of the railway to Chertsey in 1848 dramatically changed the town. Although only a branch line the arrival of the railway led to rapid residential development and an enormous increase in the local population. This increase in population has continued in to the modern day, although the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act introduced controls to safe guard against the over development of the area.