A HISTORY THAT GOES BACK FOR CENTURIES
Petworth has been settled since at least Norman times and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. A sense of great history is imposed on the town by Petworth House – a palatial 17th century mansion on the edge of town. The high walls surrounding the house and the Capability Brown-designed gardens seemingly enclose Petworth in a distant age which gives the town a magical, fairy-tale feel.
In the 12th century, the Percy family acquired Petworth and built a fortified manor house which was completely rebuilt in 1688 by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset who transformed it into the magnificent Petworth House we see today. This vast late 17th-century mansion is set in a beautiful 700-acre deer park, landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown and home to the largest herd of fallow deer in England. One of the jewels in the National Trust’s crown, Petworth House has close links with the Nation’s most famous painters such as Turner and Constable, both regular visitors to the house in the early 19th century.
Petworth House enjoys a place in early tennis history as the Percy family had a long interest in the game. An entry in the household records dating from 1588 shows a payment of £4 2s 2d for the plastering and paving of a tennis court. Eventually, as many as six tennis courts were present at the house and one even served as Petworth’s law court in 1795. This tennis court was then taken down stone by stone in 1797 and moved to a new site at the north end of the house.
Petworth has had a market square since at least 1541 and some historians suggest it was there for at least 300 years before that. Leconfield Hall, which was built in 1794, stands on the site of a former covered market. A street fair dating back to 1189 in Petworth is still held annually on 20th November. The fair wasn’t held in 1666 because of the plague, at this time the fair was a nine-day affair!
The railway came to Petworth in 1859 and the line was then extended westwards to Midhurst in 1866. The station was closed to passengers by the Southern Region of British Railways in 1955 and finally to freight in 1966 and is now an atmospheric hotel and B&B.
Although bereft of heavy industry or military bases, Petworth was bombed in World War 11. On the 29th September 1942 German Heinkel 111 approached from the south over Hoes Farm and aimed three bombs at Petworth House. The bombs all missed the house but one of them landed on Petworth Boys School in North Street. Headmaster Charles Stevenson, assistant teacher Charlotte Marshall and 28 boys were tragically killed in the incident, forever commemorated today by a stone plaque in the wall.
To get a sense of what life in Petworth was like 100 years ago, visit Petworth Cottage Museum. This small cottage has been refurbished to look just as it did in 1910 where Mrs Cummings lived when she worked as a seamstress at Petworth House.