Harrow on the Hill

Having moved to London in search of work a couple of months ago, after no end of stress and rejections finally I aced an interview last week and now find myself in the rather fortunate position of waiting on a start date to re-enter gainful employment. I am trying to make good use of this free time: learning German may not be going so well, but I’m doing better at getting the ball rolling on some of the subjects of pieces I intend to write (or at least commence writing) this year. In this vein, today I took the opportunity to jump on the Metropolitan Line and make my way out to Zone 5 in order to conduct an assessment of Harrow on the Hill as an identifiable hearg location to compare and contrast with Warren Hill and Peper Harow.

Harrow has a notable pre-Conquest history. It first appears in a charter of the year 767 as Gumeninga hergae (S 106) – published philological interpretations of this form of the name are all along the lines of “heathen shrine(s) or temple(s) of the Gumeningas. Subsequent charters render its name more straightforwardly, as Hearge (S 1436, of 827) and Hergas (S 1414, of circa 832), which resemble its Domesday form, Herges (cf. Peper Harow’s 1086 spelling, Pipereherge). There is no need to go into great detail as to what these sources record – the work has already been done by Keith Bailey in his essay ‘Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Middlesex: Harrow and Hayes’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 9 (1996), 63-74. Here it will suffice to note Harrow time and again is specified to be the name attached to a sizeable landholding; in Domesday Book, for example, as an estate assessed at 100 hides (entry II.4 of this 1969 translation).

The eponymous, noticeably tree-clad hill is visible, if not exactly dominant, in the now-suburbanised landscape from several miles/Tube stations away (just as it was back in 1798, as the above picture from Harrow’s Wiki entry shows – its environs have changed a little since then). What is apparent even from this distance is that the hill is more like a ridge with two crests, one at either end, separated by a lower “saddle”. The northern summit seems to be known simply as The Hill; to judge from the adjacent street name, the southern one is probably named Sudbury Hill (not a literal appellation – the second element is Middle English bury, “manor”). The Hill is both the taller and more prominent of the two. (The two high points could accommodate the apparent existence of more than one hearg as implied by three of the above-quoted place-name forms – however, Old English singular and plural nominal endings in the various cases are above my paygrade and would not care to risk my neck on such a point.)

Occupying the summit of The Hill is St Mary’s parish church, whose tall, thin spire further draws the eye to this end of the ridge. The spire crowns the west tower, the earliest surviving part of the present church building. It is of above-average size, and boasts a notably wide western portal. Both are hallmarks of particular importance, although it is not clear whether this is as a consequence of the church having once had minster status (the one hide held by a priest recorded in Domesday Book may be an indication of this), the function(s) of the tower – as at St Martha’s near Guildford, the subject of a paper I am now working on in earnest – or its patronage, namely the Archbishops of Canterbury. The sign which greets visitors entering the churchyard through the lych gate at its south-eastern corner proclaims the church was consecrated by St Anselm, the second post-Conquest Archbishop, in 1094; Wiki and other websites narrow this down to 4th January, on what authority I have not yet determined. Architecturally, the tower is perhaps too late to have been part of the church Anselm may or may not have consecrated: the design of the imposts (which do not look to have been renewed) and the reused portions of zigzag carving recommend a twelfth-century date, although the doorway could be a later insertion – if only the tower’s render could be removed to look for evidence of other dateable features.

The ground falls away steeply to the north, east and west of the churchyard; on the latter two sides terracing has accentuated the effect (its position bears some comparison with Thursley church – I shall explore the significance of this in greater detail in a note I hope to write for publication this Spring). It is worth noting that Lord Byron’s favourite spot while a pupil at the adjacent school was at the lip of the western slope; when I reached the spot a quartet of gothic Byron fans were there drinking port and posing for photos. A horizontal “indicator” plaque showing the towns visible on a clear day (of which today was not one) emphasises how wide an area is visible from the Harrow ridge (and hence the visibility of the ridge from far and wide).

To the south the ground again slopes away, but the gradient is less steep. It is because of this that the school (founded 1572) and village are sited here, although both have spread onto less propitious parts of The Hill. Walking through the school’s campus was a little on the strange side, like being in a village populated entirely by teenage boys, the air filled with sounds of choir practice and square bashing. Still, at least it’s not Hogwarts. Although not as obvious in the following photos as being there in person, the gradient of north-south aligned Church Hill (just to the right of centre in the first picture – the church spire can just be glimpsed above the main school building) is considerably less severe than the slope perpendicular to it – hence the need for retaining walls and terraces.

The High Street/London Road run more or less along the top of the ridge. It’s possible that Harrow on the Hill may have been a nucleated medieval village, but this is a judgement based on its present appearance rather than an examination of cartographical and historical sources – it was granted a market in 1262 (see footnote 3 of the entry for Harrow in Lysons’ 1795 topography The Environs of London).

It is notable that there are sources of drinking water even on the uppermost parts of The Hill – settlement (and any other activity hereabouts) could not have prospered without it. One spring due east of the church on Grove Hill has a notable legend connecting it to King Charles I:

There are of course no pieces of direct evidence for the pre-Christian use(s) of the ridge which caused the application of the term hearg apparent to the present-day visitor. On the other hand, the derivation of the place-name is remembered in a fashion in the names of Herga Court and Herga House; I can’t deny part of me was tempted to rearrange the letters into the correct Old English order.

Dropping down Sudbury Hill to the bottom of the ridge, I circumnavigated most of it in order to get a sense of how the ridge sits in the landscape. This reinforced the impression that the southern high point isn’t as dramatic as the one capped by St Mary’s church. That said, it’s surprising how easily suburban semis and their tree-filled gardens can obscure a good view of the eminence.

Looking north-west from Sudbury Court Road allotments

Looking east across school playing fields next to Bessborough Road

The set below were taken from the footpath crossing the playing fields at the foot of The Hill west of Watford Road. Hopefully they give some sense of the profile of the ridge:


Clearly the differences between Harrow on the Hill and Warren Hill/Peper Harow are plentiful, and the similarities few. Whereas the former became the site of a (minster) church and village, as far as is known Warren Hill remained undeveloped (aside from the eponymous warren, the date of which is unknown); instead a minor estate-cum-parish church was erected in the twelfth century far enough away as to demonstrate proximity to the manor (and perhaps an incipient village) rather than the postulated hearg-site was the guiding factor in the choice of location.

But maybe all of this should not come as such a surprise. Semple’s published work on hearg place-names may have identified common traits in their archaeological biographies, but implicit in this finding, as well the conclusion that the term may have been one used retrospectively to refer to ritual activity and/or importance, is the fact that each is unique in its background and development, and hence the reason for the choice of hearg to identify the location. This is equally true for the period subsequent to the coinage and fixing of their names. Whether further research will reveal types of evidence that proves Peper Harow and Harrow on the Hill did not follow entirely different developmental trajectories for now remains to be seen.

MARCH 2016 (!) UPDATE: It had long puzzled me that I couldn’t find any information about the archaeology of Harrow on the Hill, particularly from the Romano-British period. Then I happened upon an article – Isobel Thompson, ‘Harrow in the Roman Period’, Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 59 (2008), 61-80 – which sheds some light on the matter. Or rather, it shows that there’s next to no archaeological data from the hill or its immediate environs (Thompson 2008, 70-71). The only possible evidence cited from the hilltop are several supposedly Roman bricks incorporated into the fabric of the church, which even if Roman need not have been repurposed from a ruinous masonry building on or close to the church site. So in the case of Harrow on the Hill, the idea of hearg remembering Romano-British religious significance does not – as yet – have much in the way of archaeological substantiation.

MARCH 2017 (!!) UPDATE: I have discovered that a student colleague of mine at UCL Institute of Archaeology, Daniel Secker, produced an excellent report on the early architectural and documentary history of Harrow church, that helps clear up some of my uncertainties about the tower in particular. I believe it will be published in a future volume of the Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society; for the time being, however, an incomplete scanned draft version can be viewed here (if you’d like to read the whole thing, drop Dan a message via Academia and I’m sure he’ll sort you out).

12 Responses to Harrow on the Hill

  1. Miriam Cartwright says:

    I have been most interested to look at your finding on Harrow on the Hill. I live in West Street, Harrow on the Hill, in a building reported to date from 1532. It is below the site and buildings which incorporate the main structure that was the medieval manor house. I have evidence of my house dating ownership back to 1700s but I am stuck as to how to proceed to get information about the building any earlier than this. I therefore wonder if you can suggest how I might be able to do this as you have been so sucsessful in your research. I would be most pleased to hear from you in regards to this.

    • Hi Miriam, thanks for leaving a comment. I’m not sure about how you might go about finding out more about the early history of your house. On what authority is your house said to date from 1532? Going back and looking at who said this and where could be a springboard for further discoveries.

      If you’ve traced its history back to 1700, one thing that comes to mind is looking at the Hearth Tax records. I found the Harrow returns for 1666 online – http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-hearth-tax/london-mddx/1666/harrow-on-the-hill – which gives you personal names (maybe one is the owner of your house?) and there might be others available in printed form. You’ve probably seen this Family History Wiki before – https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Harrow_on_the_Hill,_Middlesex_Genealogy – which has a load of suggested resources.

      On a practical level, is there not a local history society in Harrow? Or books written on the village? What about the school – did it have an interest in property in the village and so an archive containing relevant documents? It would surprise me if no research has been done previously given Harrow’s considerable historical interest!

  2. Pingback: Getting to the root of Getinges: tribal memory and group identity in Early Anglo-Saxon Surrey | Surrey Medieval

  3. Sally Chandler says:

    A very interesting article and thank you for sharing. In terms of pre-Christian activity I remember that an unusual burial was found when the church was undertaking some renovations. The remains had not been placed west-east, therefore the assumption being it was a pre Christian burial. I think the church contacted the Archeological society for advice, so there may be more information available.

    • That’s really interesting info, Sally – thanks for drawing it to my attention. I will investigate further…

    • Judith Makoff says:

      This is rather a long shot, but did you live in North Harrow in the 60s/70s by any chance? I’m trying to trace a Sally Chandler I was great friends with many years ago and deeply regret losing touch with her.
      Judith Makoff (nee Grunewald)

      • sally chandler says:

        Hi Judith – yes its me! Hope all is well with you. I don’t know how to share private info on here so all good wishes to you. Sally

      • Judith, Sally – if you like, email me at surreymedieval.blog@gmail.com and I’ll send you both a message so that you have one another’s addresses without the need to share them publicly. So happy this blog has been able to reconnect you two!

  4. bakerbalham says:

    A very interesting article and thank you for sharing. I’ll take a look a look at some of your other posts sometime. Thanks.

  5. Natalie says:

    Hi, I’m looking for the name of a house that was next door to The Orchard on Sudbury Hill (possibly even in what would be The Orchard garden now). It would’ve been demolished in the 1950’s. Would you have any idea on how I can find this out? I’ve searched old maps etc but cannot seem to find it. Thanks, Natalie

    • Hi Natalie, have you tried looking at the old maps put online by the National Library of Scotland? It’s an amazing database of Ordnance Survey maps from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Click through using this link http://maps.nls.uk/geo/find/#zoom=16&lat=51.5729&lon=-0.3396&layers=39&b=1&point=51.5720,-0.3424 as you should hopefully find that there are 7 maps you can consult via the thumbnails on the right side of the screen. The earliest is of 1868, the latest of 1948, so the house you’re interested in should definitely appear, although I can’t vouch for its name being marked! If the link doesn’t work you may need to repeat the search – have a play around, it’s fairly easy to use once you get the hang of completing the various fields.

      Beyond that, I recommend paying the Harrow Local History Centre a visit: http://www.harrow.gov.uk/info/200070/museums_and_galleries/183/harrow_local_history_centre. I imagine they might hold some records that may help in your search; census records are done on a house-by-house basis, so that might be one possibility. Also parish church records? Unfortunately I’ve never visited the Centre so I can’t tell you what records it holds.

      Hope these suggestions are useful to you, and good luck with your quest!

      • Natalie says:

        Dear Robert,
        Thank you so much for your help. I shall try those resources.
        Thanks again!

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