At the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086, when “waletona” was assessed as having a couple of mills, a church and a fishery, the settlement close to the river had already been in existence, or at least the site of human activity, since the Mesolithic era, with a bronze age cemetery lying close to Oatlands Park.
The town’s name is Anglo Saxon in origin and could mean “settlement, or farm of the Britons”; “wal” meaning the Britons. Alternatively, it could mean “hill settlement”; “wald” meaning higher ground, and the town certainly began life on a raised area away from the riverside marshland that we know today as the Cowey Sale. However, its important “upon Thames” tag has been a part of the town since the 13th century.
Proof of Roman activity in the area exists, but is scant, despite the legend that during his second invasion of the country, Julius Caesar crossed the Thames at a shallow ford at Walton, to meet Cassivellaunus, King of the British Catuvellauni tribe, whose arrangement of wooden stakes in the river meant the crossing was made, according to Caesar himself “with difficulty”. Evidence that Caesar actually crossed the river here is only circumstantial, but it is most likely that the wooden stakes were not defensive anyway, but served to make a narrow path to contain cattle as they were driven across the river at this point, hence its original name, “Coway Stakes”.
An established settlement existed in the pre-Domesday Saxon period, with a large number of artefacts having been discovered in the area, including pottery, jewellery and weapons, as well as a number of barrows, suggesting high status burials, near Walton Bridge.
The Norman conquest of 1066 changed the country forever and that included Walton on Thames. The complicated manorial system of land ownership came into play, and William the Conqueror began by giving the settlement to Edward of Salisbury, which passed to his daughter Maud, when she married Humphrey de Bohun, while the adjoining settlement of Walton Leigh was granted to Richard of Tonbridge, Lord of Clare.
St. Mary’s Church was founded in 1150; the earlier church mentioned in the Domesday survey was locally important and within the ownership of Richard of Tonbridge, but otherwise, the site of it is unknown.
Over the next few hundred years, the Walton manor was in the possession of the Bohun family until 1380, when Mary de Bohun married Henry Bolingbroke, who in 1399 was crowned Henry IV of England. The manor of Walton Leigh remained with the Lords of Clare for nearly three centuries before it too came into the possession of the Crown in the mid 1400s.
Henry VIII’s activities had an impact on the town. He used the site of a nearby ancient manor house to build Oatlands Palace for Ann of Cleves – his ex wife, and in the end, very good friend and granted Walton licences to hold fairs in Easter Week and in October. But it was not all good. Like much of the wider area, Walton was subject to Forest Law, due to its close proximity to Hampton Court Chase, fenced off to be Henry’s personal deer park. Although local aristocracy may have had licences with which to utilise aspects of the park, the average Walton villager could no longer freely access the land for firewood or grazing, and as for bringing home any game for supper …. not if they valued their lives! No doubt they were (privately!) very glad when Henry VIII died; royal interest in Hampton Court as a hunting park ceased and venison was back on the menu.
After hundreds of years of the damp inconvenience of crossing the Thames at the Cowey Sale ford, and half a century of the relative luxury of a basic ferry, in 1750, a wealthy local man, Samuel Dicker, who owned the Mount Felix estate, obtained an Act and erected the first wooden bridge across the Thames at Walton, financed by tolls. Thirty years later, his nephew built a stone bridge with additional tolls. Although the river was still vital for transportation, the bridge created an important north-south road link. This bridge stood for 109 years, collapsing in 1859, to be replaced in 1864 by an iron bridge.
There is little information as to how the town was laid out in medieval times, beyond traces of buildings on Church Street and of a metal works in the area. But the Rocque map of 1768 – one of the first good maps of the town – gives a clearer picture of a compact village, with the church and buildings spread along Church Street, High Street, Thames Street and Bridge Street. A parsonage is marked on what is now Walton Grove and there is the suggestion of a market place, while archeaological excavations have found evidence of a kiln, and clay extraction that was taking place on Church Street The Walton manor was large, but sparsely populated, with the building of Ashley Park in about 1605 for Lady Jane Berkeley, which commandeered all the land south west of the High Street, with Oatlands Park to the west, Walton Common to the south, and the Dicker family’s Mount Felix estate to the north and east restricting the growth of the town.
The effect of the Inclosure Acts of the 18th century, culminating in the Inclosure Consoliation Act of 1800, are not documented, but must have been profound. Over the course of thirty-odd years, more than 3,000 acres of common land – almost half the total area of the manor – was lost to the village. The arrival of the railway in 1838, bringing much-needed wealth and employment to the town must have been very welcome. Another advantage of the railway is that it reclaimed a great deal of land that had belonged to the old private manors to the south, allowing development and growth.
In 1827, the Oatlands Park estate was dismantled and sold off, and in the same year, Walton’s first school was built at the end of the High Street. In 1858, a new school was built on Ashley Drive for older children, while the infants school was rebuilt in 1884. The village Pound and Lock-up appear on maps in the mid 19th century also at the southern end of the High Street, and a Public Hall was erected in 1879. The village was rapidly evolving into a town.
The Mount Felix mansion of the Dickers was demolished and rebuilt by the Earl of Tankerville in 1840, and was utilised as a military hospital during WWI for the New Zealand War Contingent Association. They are remembered in the names New Zealand Avenue, built in 1933 and in the Wellington pub.
Walton on Thames was targeted in WWII, with the bridge incurring bomb damage that ultimately rendered it unsafe for traffic. A “temporary” bridge was added in 1955, which as we all know, has only recently been replaced ……..! A tragedy occurred in 1940 when a Spitfire piloted by Flight Sergeant Charles Sydney crashed in Station Avenue.
All of the old Walton manorial estates have now disappeared. Oatlands Palace was destroyed by Parliamentarians in 1650 at the end of the Civil War. Ashley Park House was demolished in 1925 and the land sold off for development in 1977, which did at last allow the High Street to be widened.
Mount Felix was demolished in 1967, but the bakehouse and brewery still stand, converted into offices complete with 18th century clock tower.
This article was very kindly written for us by the members of:
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