The origins of the town are obscure. Though traces of Roman occupation have been found in Greensted and Shelley, there is no evidence of a substantial Roman settlement. A Saxon origin is likely, as the town gave its name to the hundred, a Saxon unit of administration, and ‘Chipping’ is a prefix usually attached to market towns of this period. A faint earthwork to the east of the Castle Street allotments may be the remains of the Saxon fortified town. The first written evidence is a will of 1045 referring to a deer park at Ongar, the boundaries of which can still be traced near North Weald. Until the mid-thirteenth century, no distinction is made between the two Ongars (Chipping Ongar and High Ongar). There was probably one vast parish stretching from North Weald to Roxwell. Chipping Ongar may have been carved out of this as a Norman ‘plantation’ town, with its houses and the market huddled around the castle for mutual support and security.
The date of the construction of the earthwork castle (most of which still survives) is not known but it is traditionally attributed to Richard de Lucy (died 1179). He played a highly important role in Henry II’s reign and in the king’s struggle with Thomas Becket. Though the castle received a number of royal visits, its site was of no strategic importance and it was never updated with the stone keep and battlemented walls usually associated with medieval castles. The outer earthworks enclosed the medieval town, with fortified gates sited at the bottleneck and near Central House. In 1542 the present Castle House was built and any remains of the old castle buildings were cleared away. Though Queen Elizabeth I planned to stay at Castle House, the visit was cancelled due to illness in the household.
The Norman church (St Martin’s) is unusually complete, built with flint and Roman (or, more probably, medieval) brick and tile. A hermit was walled in for life against the north chancel wall during the Middle Ages, and his window overlooking the altar is still visible. The medieval chancel roof, ingeniously reinforced by Jacobean carpentry, is an unusual survival. Due to a serious shortage of space, the south aisle was added in 1884 in spite of fierce opposition by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
The earliest record of a schoolteacher in Ongar was in 1637. Joseph King, by his will of 1678, left money for the education of the poor, though it was not until 1846 that a purpose built school was constructed. Up to that date, teaching took place in one of the King’s Trust cottages near the Budworth hall. The Trust is still actively providing financial support to local people with educational needs.
The area was notorious for its bad roads, noted by Daniel Defoe to be “impassable in winter by horse or by man”. However the town grew slowly during the eighteenth century, spreading down the hill to Ongar Bridge, the source of repeated disputes with the county over the responsibility for its repair. Finally the county built a new brick bridge in 1797 which, hidden behind modern concrete extensions, still carries the full weight of the High Street traffic.
The Rev. Isaac Taylor was Ongar’s nonconformist minister from 1811 till his death in 1829. Generally known as the Taylors of Ongar, the family were prodigiously talented artists, engravers, writers, philosophers and scientists. Jane Taylor is known the world over as the author of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, though it must be said that this was written before she came to Ongar.
In the nineteenth century the town had a wide variety of tradesmen to serve the surrounding rural community, as well as a brick works, a gas works and a brewery. However its weekly market was increasingly eclipsed by nearby rivals and had ceased by the end of the century. The annual hiring fair, in spite of the active support of a local JP, Captain Budworth, was seen as a cause of rowdiness and was abolished in 1892. As a memorial to his contribution to the life of the town, the Budworth Hall was built in 1887 to provide rooms for public meetings and recreations. The clock was added to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee.
The railway arrived in 1865. Though it had no obvious effect on the growth of the town, it slowly changed its appearance by bringing in new building materials, such as blue bricks used in the Budworth Hall. It also enabled the Scottish migrant farmers of the 1880’s to send large volumes of fresh milk to London. In spite of the post World War II growth at each end of the town, and the railway’s electrification in 1957, falling passenger numbers let to its closure in 1994.
'Gernesteda' in 1086, meaning 'a green place'. The parish church is renowned for its unique nave, built from vertically placed split oak logs. Monastic accounts stated that the remains of St Edmund rested here overnight in 1013, but recent dendrochronology dates the oldest timbers of the existing church to the latter part of the eleventh century. Several of the Tolpuddle martyrs settled in the parish in 1838 after their return from transportation, but harsh farming conditions and local hostility resulted in their emigration to Canada within a few years.
'Senleia' in 1086 meaning 'an open place in a wood on a slope'. The medieval church adjoining Shelley Hall was demolished and rebuilt in 1811. The present church was built in 1888 in flint, with a polychromatic brick interior. A large area of local authority housing was built in the south of this rural parish from 1945 onwards. The former agricultural/veterinary medicine research station at Boarded Barns pioneered many important treatments.
The name 'Marden' from the 11th century means 'a boundary valley'. The Cripsey Brook still separates the church parishes of Chipping and High Ongar. A hamlet developed here in the 18th century and it was the site of the Ongar brewery in the 19th century. St James’s church, built in flint in 1884, was severely damaged by a V2 rocket in January 1945. It was rebuilt in brick after the war designed by the noted architect, Laurence King. The tiny hamlet has grown into a substantial residential area in the last half century.
Article written by Michael Leach