The Book of Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1986

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'To whom the Lord of the Manor aforesaid by his
Steward Granted Seisin thereof By the Rod To Have
and to Hold to Him and his Heirs at the Will of
the Lord according to the Custom of the Manor'
Molesey Matham manor court roll, 24 July 1771

After the Conqueror's decisive victory at Hastings, he marched his elated followers towards London but, not wishing to risk a frontal attack on a capital which proved less than submissive, settled instead on a broad outflanking manoeuvre, pushing his warriors on through Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire, cruelly harrying the countryside as they went. Molesey lay right in the path of this relentless host and, like the rest, was laid waste, its fields left destitute, its Saxon owners dispossessed. Indeed, when the time came for the spoils to be doled out to new Norman proprietors, as a reward for their conquering assistance, the value of the property was nearly halved.

Molesey was now bestowed upon two knights, Richard Fitzgilbert and Odard Balastarius, in return for certain specified military service for the King. Fitzgilbert, sometimes known as Richard de Tonbridge or Richard de Clare, was a kinsman of the Conqueror himself, and one of his closest companions, a powerful baron, who became chief justice of England, and was awarded many estates throughout the Kingdom. He was the founder of a family which in time embraced the Earldoms of Clare, Hertford, Pembroke, and Gloucester. It must be said, however, that Richard never occupied his manor of Molesey himself; in fact, it is doubtful that he ever set foot in it — he just owned it and let it out to lesser knights, from whom he exacted service in return.

Odard Balastarius was the officer in charge of the ballista, a large engine of war somewhat like a massive catapult, for hurling missiles on the ranks of the enemy. He is, therefore, sometimes referred to as the Engineer or the Crossbowman.

The Domesday Survey of 1086 lists the number of Saxon peasants who toiled on the land in Molesey as 23 villeins men who tilled their own soil but were not free to go as they pleased and who were forced to work on the fields of the manorial lord for a certain number of days each year; 8 bordars and 9 cottars, who possessed no land except that immediately around their cottages and were even more rigidly tied to the manor, and 8 serfs, slaves who held no land at all, had no rights, and were the absolute property of the lord of the manor: a total of 48 men and, with women and children, the priest, the steward and other officials, yielding a community of, say 200 souls.

The descendants of Odard Balastarius held the manor for many years by the service of providing a crossbowman for the King's army for forty days a year, at their own cost, and thereafter at the King's cost. The name Simon Arbelastarius appears on a local document dated 1167, and W. Arbalastarius on another in 1206. Around this time, however, the family seem to have dropped the surname and adopted a territorial designation. For, in 1215 we find the manor held by Sampson de Molesey, later by his son and grandson, eventually devolving on his great-granddaughter, Isabella de Molesey, who married the owner of a small estate called Matham at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. Her husband, John de Matham, succeeded in her right, since when this manor has always been referred to as the manor of Molesey Matham.

After passing through several generations, the property was divided in 1455 among three daughters. Parts were subsequently re-united, but it settled down into two distinct and separate manors, which were known respectively as the manor of Molesey Matham or East Molesey and the manor of Molesey Matham or West Molesey neither of these were co-extensive with the parishes of East Molesey or West Molesey, and both contained lands in adjacent parishes.

During the reign of Henry VIII both these manors, like all the surrounding ones, were acquired by the Crown to form a vast forest or hunting chase and, when no longer required for this purpose, were leased to various tenants, mostly courtiers or servants of the Royal court who desired an estate in the vicinity of Hampton Court.

In 1632, after some years of being let out in this fashion on short leases, the freehold of the East Molesey manor was sold by Charles I (ever in need of ready cash) to Ralph Freeman, a rich London merchant, who re-sold it for a profit in the following year to Sir John Lytcott, a gentleman of the privy chamber. Sir John is buried in St Mary's Church, where his monument, together with several to members of the Clarke family who followed him, may still be seen.

At the end of the 18th century, Joseph Clarke, the then lord of the manor, who was apparently somewhat of a rake and man-about-town and frittered away the fortune his forbears worked so hard to acquire, first mortgaged the estate and then, being unable to pay his debts, sold off the freehold. The purchasers were two brothers-in-law, Beaumont Hotham, later Lord Hotham, and Thomas Sutton, whose descendants are still lords of the manor.

Unlike the manor of Molesey Matharn or East Molesey, the West Molesey manor was sold off by the Crown soon after being released from the chase. In 1553 it was granted to Sir Richard Cotton, comptroller of the Royal Household; in 1570 it was acquired by Thomas Brende, a newly rich lawyer, and it stayed with his descendants, passing by marriage to the Smyth family, until Sir Robert Smyth, who achieved some notability as a supporter of the French Revolution, sold it in 1786 to the owners of the East Molesey manor.

Besides these manors, Domesday mentions three other small estates in Molesey, all of which were given to Richard Fitzgilbert, and by him let to two sub-tenants. One of them was just called John, about whom nothing seems to be known, and who leaves nothing to the history of the place. The other was Roger d'Abernon, a knight from the village of Abernon in Normandy. D'Abernon's descendants continued to live at Molesey for the next seventy years or so, before migrating to Stoke,just beyond Cobharn. That village, of course, has now added the patronymic to its own name to distinguish it from the dozens of other places also called Stoke throughout England. By the 12th century these three separate holdings were amalgamated into one manor under the hands of the d'Abernon family.

About the year 1130 Engelram d'Abernon, as a deed of piety - what the official citation calls 'for the redemption of the souls of himself, and his brother Jordan, and his father and mother and his lord Gilbert, and for the welfare of the glorious king Henry' — presented the whole manor, lock, stock, and barrel to the Priory of Merton. As the deed proclaimed, this included 'all his land in Moleseya, with all land in plain and wood, and waters and mills pertaining, and free from all service'. Afterwards Engelram stood in the church of the priory 'and granted this gift upon the altar of the Blessed Mary, in the presence of the Prior and all the Convent, and many others both cleric and lay'.

Merton Priory, one of the largest houses of Augustinian friars in England, owned the manor continuously for the next four hundred years, and it thus became known as the manor of Molesey Prior or Molesey Priory.

In 1518 the great Cardinal Wolsey, who had just completed his magnificent palace just across the river, persuaded the Priory to lease its lands in Molesey to Sir Thomas Heneage, his gentleman usher, for whom he wanted a lodging near at hand. Heneage immediately erected for himself a sumptuous mansion, in which he took up residence. This mansion was probably just off what is now Bridge Road, on the site of Cedar Road. After Henry VIII had taken over Hampton Court and Heneage's eminent master had fallen from grace, the manor was wrested from the hands of the Priory and Sir Thomas became the tenant of the Crown and a servant of the King.

Of the three manors of Molesey, Molesey Prior was the one which stayed longest as Crown property. For about a hundred and thirty years it was let out only on short leases of twenty to thirty years, usually to Royal hangers-on. Then, in 1676 James Clarke, the owner of East Molesey Matham, persuaded the powers to grant him a long lease for 99 years. Soon after that the inhabitants petitioned the King, stating that Clarke, now Sir James, 'has a lease of Molesey Prior for 99 years and has joined it to his own manor of Molesey Matham, by which procedure he encloses the poor tenants common, takes in their landmarks, destroys the King's free chase; therefore praying that the King's manor may not be enclosed to the ruin of the poor inhabitants'. No answer to this entreaty is recorded, and Clarke, a rich and powerful man, apparently continued in the enjoyment of the manor, although it must be said that his successors had to be restrained on occasions when they tried to transfer certain lands from the leasehold manor to the freehold one.

After the expiration of this lease in 1775, the manor was let to a lawyer named Baker John Littlehales, but he soon afterwards sold the remainder of his term to Beaumont Hotham and Thomas Sutton, the joint owners of East Molesey Matham, who obtained renewals of it in 1788 and 1810.

In 1816 George IV, being desirous of purchasing Claremont as a residence for Princess Charlotte, befitting the heir presumptive to the throne, was given permission by an Act of Parliament to sell off enough property to raise a sufficient sum for this purpose. The manor of Molesey Prior was one of the estates in question, and in 1820 the freehold was sold to the lessees. Thus, for the first time since the Saxon era, all the manors of Molesey were under a single ownership, and have stayed so ever since.

Each manor, of course, had a principal house in which the lord lived. That for the manor of Molesey Prior was situated just off Walton Road, where School Road is now. When the manor was in joint ownership with Molescy Matham, it became a farmhouse but, by the middle of the last century, it had degenerated into three very poor tenements. In 1873 it was in such an insanitary state that the medical officer of health reported that 13 persons slept in two rooms, each 13ft by 9ft by 6ft. The house was also totally unfit for habitation — there was no water supply, no water closet accommodation, and near to the house was a pond of filthy and offensive water into which vegetable matter and refuse were thrown. The report continues with a statement which is perhaps the most puzzling to modern ears: 'The only redeeming part about the house is that it has no windows'. It was swept away a few months later.

The East Molesey Matham manor house is the only one still standing, as No 6 Matham Road. At one time it was much larger than it is now. What remains is mostly 18th century, although some experts think that parts may date back as far as the 14th. Internally it has secret passages, a hiding hole, and a good staircase with barley-sugar balusters.

The position of the original manor house for West Molesey Matham is unknown, but it is possible that it was a house which stood in High Street on the site now occupied by Manor Court housemother scheme for the elderly. This house, a delightful medley of facades and gables, dated back to the time of the first Elizabeth. It was demolished by Esher Council in 1963, a diabolical piece of municipal vandalism.

After the amalgamation of all the manors the lords, when they lived locally, usually occupied either East Molesey Park, or Hurst House in West Molesey. Both are now demolished. The house in Bell Road now called Old Manor House was never a manor house.


court books

Copy of an entry in the Court Books of the Manor of Molesey Matham, relating to a Court Baron held on 24 July 1771.

(Court Books text)

molesey prior

Manor house of the Manor of Molesey Prior, after it had become a farmhouse. It stood on the western side of what is now School Road, and was demolished in 1875

Bishop Fox

Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester in the reign of Henry VII, lord of the manor of Molesey Matham.

Robert Smyth

Bookplate of Sir Robert Smyth, lord of the manor of Molesey Matham or West Molesey in the 18th century.

Manor House

Old manor House, West Molesey, demolished in 1963.


Handbill for apprehending a criminal, 1821.

ISBN 0 86023 251 4

The Book of Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.

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A printed copy is available from:

  • Molesey Residents Association: Ernest Mallett, 20 Walton Road, East Molesey, Tel 020-8979-6446
  • Bookshop: 68, Walton Road, East Molesey 020-8224-3232
  • Molesey Library, The Forum, Walton Road, West Molesey 020-8979-6348
  • Houben's Bookshop: 2a Church Court, Richmond 020-8940-1055
  • Alternatively you may be able to get second hand copy on amazon.

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