The Hundred of Ongar

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A History of the County of Essex: Volume 4, Ongar Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.

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THE hundred of Ongar, lying in the south-west of the county is roughly oval in shape and about 17 miles long. Although only 10 miles from London at the nearest point and 27 miles at the farthest it is still mainly rural. The River Roding flows south-west through the hundred. In the summer it is usually no more than a narrow stream but is sometimes severely swollen in winter, and the repair of its many bridges was a serious problem down to the 19th century. In the Roding valley the land is never more than 200 ft. above sea-level. Elsewhere it is usually under 300 ft. and there are few hills.

The south-west corner of the hundred is largely urbanized, for here is Chigwell Urban District, which includes the towns of Loughton (with Debden), Buckhurst Hill, and Hainault, and now has a population of about 56,000. Even here, however, the forests of Epping and Hainault and the old houses and cottages of Chigwell recall a simpler society. Farther north and east there is gently undulating country with high hedges, meadows, ploughed fields, streams, and spinneys as far as Chipping Ongar. The soil of this south-western half of the hundred is mainly London Clay, with some areas of Boulder Clay and some patches of glacial sand or gravel. (fn. 1) It is a land of mixed farming, with many dairy herds and sheep.

Chipping Ongar, which gave its name to the hundred and was for long the principal place in it, was an ancient market-town and contained a Norman castle. Though very small it still has some local importance as the administrative centre of the Ongar Rural District. North of it the landscape changes. There are low hedges, few trees or meadows, and the roads are narrow. The soil is almost entirely Boulder Clay. It is good corn land and cattle are comparatively rare. The end of the hundred is reached at Beauchamp Roding and Abbess Roding, which are as remote and isolated as any part of Essex.

Nucleated villages are unusual but there are many hamlets and scattered farms. The older farm buildings are timber-framed and either plastered or weather-boarded. They are often enclosed by moats, especially in the north. Brick houses of the 18th century and later are fairly common. Few are older, but among them is Hill Hall (in Theydon Mount), a 16th-century mansion noted for its early use of renaissance detail. In and after the 16th century the south-western part of the hundred was a fashionable residential area for wealthy landowners and a number of large houses were built there. In the 18th century and later landscape gardeners transformed the surroundings of some of these houses. In most parishes the church stands on an isolated site beside the principal manor house, and is usually a small flint building with a short, shingled spire. But by far the best-known church, the Saxon church at Greenstead, is not of flint at all, but has walls of timber.


In 1086 the west of the hundred-Loughton, Chigwell, the Theydons, and North Weald-and the area around Chipping Ongar were thickly wooded. (fn. 2) By the end of the 16th century the only large areas of woodland remaining were Epping and Hainault forests. Most of Hainault Forest was destroyed about 1860 but Epping Forest was preserved after a notable controversy. Hardly any evidence has been found of open-field arable cultivation in the hundred. Commons survive in several parishes. In others they were inclosed in the 18th or 19th centuries but in most they had been inclosed before 1700. Apart from the forest inclosures the landscape of the hundred probably changed little between the Conquest and the middle of the 19th century. Building development started in the south-west about 1860, when the railway from London was extended to Loughton, Epping, and Ongar, and continued slowly until 1939. Since 1945 the London County Council has built two large housing estates, at Debden and Hainault.

Until the 19th century most of the inhabitants of the hundred were engaged in agriculture and its ancillary trades. There were many water-mills along the Roding and a few windmills on higher ground. Brickmaking was carried on in many parishes in the London Clay area and there was a little beer-brewing with hops grown locally. Agriculture is still predominant outside the towns. Brickmaking continues in a few places but brewing has entirely ceased. There are light industries in Loughton and Buckhurst Hill but the towns are mainly residential.

Domesday Book lists some 40 estates under Ongar hundred. (fn. 3) Seven other estates, though not so listed, seem clearly in this hundred in 1086. (fn. 4) These 47 estates contained 103 hides in 26 villages distinguished by separate names. Most of these villages later gave their names to the parishes of the hundred, but there were several exceptions. The Domesday Theydon was later split into the three parishes of Theydon Bois, Theydon Garnon, and Theydon Mount. The Domesday Laver similarly became three parishes and Stapleford and Ongar each became two parishes. The Domesday Rodinges, to which three Ongar hundred and thirteen Dunmow hundred entries relate, was eventually divided into eight parishes, two of which were in Ongar hundred. In contrast to these places where 'the fission of vills' occurred were some which later became part of parishes larger than themselves: Alderton and Debden, which were separate Domesday villages were later included in the parish of Loughton, Woolston was merged in Chigwell parish, Passfield in High Ongar, and Little Stanford in Stanford Rivers. The case of Stanford is specially interesting, for it shows the process of fission starting in 1086 but later reversed. This may also have happened in two other places: there are separate references in Domesday to Fyfield and 'the other Fyfield' and to Navestock and 'the other Navestock', but there was no later fission in either village. One place which later became a parish in this hundred is not specifically mentioned in Domesday: Stondon Massey which was probably included in an entry for Margaret Roding (Dunmow hundred). The connexion between Stondon Massey and Margaret Roding was subsequently maintained by the payment of tithes from Marks Hall in Margaret Roding to the Rector of Stondon. A tithe-rent charge is still paid by the owner of Marks Hall to the Rector of Stondon, and until early in the 19th century the parishioners of Stondon included Marks Hall in their annual beating of the parish bounds. Loughton, which in 1086 was partly in Becontree hundred, was from the 14th century or earlier wholly in that of Ongar. North Weald Bassett seems to have been partly in Harlow half-hundred in 1086 and continued to be thus divided between Harlow and Ongar. (fn. 5) One very small place, Plumtuna, has not been certainly identified. (fn. 6)

Figure 1:

*Marks Hall in Margaret Roding has always paid tithe to Stondon Massey

The 13th-century eyre rolls give little additional information about the composition of Ongar hundred. Stondon Massey is mentioned in the roll for 1226- 7. (fn. 7) In the same year a tithing of Epping was listed under Ongar hundred; (fn. 8) this was probably part of Theydon Garnon, whose boundary in later times ran through the middle of Epping town. (fn. 9) In and after the 13th century there were usually reckoned to be 26 parishes in the hundred, including North Weald and Loughton. Greenstead, a very small parish adjoining Chipping Ongar, was sometimes omitted from official lists. (fn. 10) In the Middle Ages the parishes in Ongar hundred were normally identical with the 'vills'. There were occasional exceptions: in the taxation assessment of 1320, for example (see below, p. 300), Norton Mandeville was included in High Ongar. The same assessment and others of the 14th century listed under Ongar hundred the hamlet of Roding Morrell, which was situated locally in White Roding parish (Dunmow hundred). For the purpose of these assessments Roding Morrell was included in Abbess Roding, but there was never any permanent and parochial connexion between them. The inclusion of Roding Morrell in Ongar hundred possibly originated in the acquisition of the tenancy in chief of the manor of Roding Morrell by the lords of Ongar hundred. (fn. 11)

A document concerning the hundred drawn up in 1543-6 and based on earlier records includes a list of 'the names of the vills, parishes and hamlets' in the hundred. (fn. 12) Marden Ash (in High Ongar) and Greenstead appear to have been grouped with Chipping Ongar, and Ashlyns (a detached part of High Ongar) with Bobbingworth. Chivers End was mentioned as a hamlet of High Ongar: it was probably identical with the Passfield of 1086. Barringtons was mentioned as a hamlet of Chigwell and Abridge of Lambourne. There was an entry for Roding Morrell and one for Westwood (a detached part of High Ongar), which was grouped with Chipping Ongar. Apart from the above all the places mentioned were parishes.

Saxton's Map of Essex, 1576 shows hundred boundaries and the location of parish churches. It correctly places the 26 churches of Ongar hundred, although the hundred boundary is inaccurately drawn in relation to some natural features, for example in the south-west corner, at Chigwell. Morrell Roding is not shown as belonging to the hundred. (fn. 13) The Map of Essex, 1678, by John Ogilby and William Morgan, has a more accurate delineation of the hundred boundary. That of Robert Morden and Joseph Pask, about 1690, shows Thornwood (in North Weald) as in Harlow hundred. That of Philip Overton and Thomas Bowles, 1726, also shows Hastingwood (in North Weald) as in Harlow hundred, Berwick Berners (in Abbess Roding) as in Dunmow hundred, and Roding Morrell as a detached part of Ongar hundred. (fn. 14) Chapman and Andre's Map of Essex, 1777 shows the hundred boundaries with precision. C. and J. Greenwood's Map of Essex, 1824 is the first to give parish boundaries, but the delineation of these is often inaccurate. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6 inch Map (published 1868-84) indicates parish boundaries precisely and shows the detached parts of several parishes, in this hundred notably High Ongar, Magdalen Laver, and North Weald. The origin of such detachments, where it can be explained, lies in the manorial and church history of the parishes concerned. (fn. 15)

The census reports of 1801-41 give Roding Morrell as a separate hamlet of Ongar hundred. Those of 1811-41 note that Thornwood and Hastingwood were in Harlow hundred and those of 1821-41 show Berwick Berners as in Dunmow hundred. (fn. 16) The 1851 census, though not arranged by hundreds, states that the hamlet of Birds Green was partly in Beauchamp Roding and partly in Willingale Doe (Dunmow hundred). In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Birds Green was for some purposes certainly reckoned as part of Dunmow hundred, though no evidence has been found that this was so at any earlier date.

The lordship of Ongar hundred was given by Henry II to Richard de Lucy. (fn. 17) It descended along with the manor of Chipping Ongar (q.v.) to the Rivers family and subsequently to the Staffords, earls of Stafford, and later dukes of Buckingham. At various times in the 14th and 15th centuries the hundred was in the king's hands for short periods owing to the minority or forfeiture of its owners. (fn. 18) It was finally forfeited to the Crown along with the manor of Chipping Ongar in 1521. In that year Henry VIII appointed his yeoman Robert Stoner as bailiff and 'wardstaff' of the hundred, (fn. 19) and in 1543 the hundred was granted for life to John Stoner, serjeant-at-arms. (fn. 20) In 1547 it was granted to Richard Rich on his creation as a baron. (fn. 21) It descended along with Paslow Hall in High Ongar (q.v.) until the death in 1673 of Charles Rich, Earl of Warwick. In the subsequent partition of the earl's estates the hundred was allotted to Henry St. John, who in 1689 granted it to Philip and Rowland Traherne. (fn. 22) In 1694 the Trahernes conveyed it to Sir Eliab Harvey of Barringtons in Chigwell (q.v.) and it subsequently descended along with Barringtons. Vice-Admiral Sir Eliab Harvey was lord of the hundred in 1814. (fn. 23)

The original meeting-place of the hundred is not definitely known. The site of Ongar castle and Toot Hill in Stanford Rivers have both been suggested. (fn. 24) In and after the 15th century Ongar hundred was closely associated with Harlow half-hundred, whose lordship had also been acquired by the Staffords. (fn. 25) From the late 16th century Ongar and Harlow were grouped with Waltham half-hundred, the common meeting-place being at Waltham Holy Cross. (fn. 26) These Waltham meetings, however, were probably for business other than that anciently associated with the hundred. It is not known whether separate meetings for Ongar hundred alone were held in the 17th century.

On a quo warranto inquiry in 1277 John de Rivers, lord of the hundred, claimed no return of writs within the hundred except the withdrawal from the sheriff of the King's debts and the execution of the other orders of the king therein. (fn. 27) As to pleas of withernam he said that the hundred had been granted by Henry II to his ancestor Richard de Lucy and that Richard and his descendants had had those pleas. The Crown advocate rejoined that in Henry II's time there were no such pleas and that in any case they were not mentioned in Richard de Lucy's charter.

On the same occasion Rivers also claimed view of frankpledge. This was not opposed but in fact before 1277 this juridiction had in some cases already been alienated to the lords of individual manors. It was stated in 1274-5 that the lords of Fyfield, Stapleford Tawney, Woolston (in Chigwell), Stapleford Abbots, Loughton, Navestock, Beauchamp Roding, and Theydon (Mount?) possessed view of frankpledge and the assize of bread and ale, that the lord of Woolston also had gallows and the lord of North Weald Bassett had all pleas. (fn. 28)

In the document of 1543-6, already mentioned, the lord of the hundred held no courts leet in any of these places nor in Chipping Ongar, Greenstead, Stanford Rivers, Abbess Roding, and Shelley. At four other places, Norton Mandeville, Roding Morrell, High Laver, and Navestock, courts leet were said to be held by the lords of the manor but the common fine was customarily paid by them to the lord of the hundred. During the Middle Ages the manors of Chipping Ongar and Stanford Rivers (q.v.) were held in demesne by the lords of the hundred and there was thus no need to include them in the list of leets. At Greenstead, which was also omitted from the list, the lords of the hundred were tenants in chief of the manor. (fn. 29) Courts leet for the manor of Abbess Roding (q.v.) were certainly being held in the 15th century. But it is clear that the document of 1543-6, so far as it relates to courts leet, does not describe 16th-century practice, for it omits many manorial leets that are known to have existed in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At High Ongar (q.v.) courts leet were being held for the manor of Paslow Hall at least as early as 1271, and for that of Newarks Norton in 1487. At Abbess Roding, in addition to the leet of the capital manor, there was one for Berwick Berners manor in and after 1382. At Kelvedon Hatch (q.v.) there was a court leet from 1390.

The manuscript of 1543-6 quoted above was probably drawn up for John Stoner when he acquired the hundred and revised somewhat during the next three years. (fn. 30) It includes the text of the grant of the hundred to Stoner, and states that the customs and duties it records were observed in the time of Edward III and Robert Bruce, King of Scots, and long before 'when the Saxons inhabited this realm'. In support of this statement it refers to ancient records made by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hertford [sic] and Essex, Constable of England, and 'lord of the said liberties and hundreds' dated at Pleshey, 10 July II Edward III (1337) and to other records 'written in the Saxon tongue'. These records have not been traced. Humphrey de Bohun (d. 1361) is not known to have held the hundred of Ongar, but his successor and namesake Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex (d. 1373) held the hundred of Harlow, which later came into the possession of the earls of Stafford, the lords of Ongar hundred. The document of 1543-6 was probably prepared so that Stoner might exact his legal dues as lord of the hundred. All tenants' names in it were up to date but the section relating to the courts leet and some others described below certainly did not represent 16th-century practice; an antiquarian interest may have led to their inclusion. Probably much of the document was indeed based on early-14th-century records and described the customs of that period.

The document lists the names and tenements of all those owing suit at the three weeken court or other courts of the hundred, and the names and tenements of those liable by reason of tenure to maintain prisons and pounds. It also lists the vills which by custom came to the sheriff's tourn, in each case with the reeve, the copyhold tenants from which the four suitors at the tourn were chosen, and the free suitors at the tourn. These places are identical with those in which, according to the document, courts leet were held by the lord of the hundred, or from which he received the common fine, except that Abbess Roding and Beauchamp Roding occur only in the tourn list.

The document describes at length the annual ceremony of the wardstaff of the hundred. (fn. 31) This started on the Sunday before Hock Monday, when the hundred bailiff cut a willow wand from Abbess Roding Wood: this was the wardstaff, which gave its name to the bailiff's alternative title. The staff was conveyed from the wood to Rookwood Hall, where it was placed in the hall. There it remained while the bailiff refreshed himself. It was then taken 'by sun shining' to Wardhatch Lane near Longbarns (in Beauchamp Roding) and was there met by the lord of Rookwood Hall with all tenants of the Abbess Roding 'Watch', whose duty it was to guard the staff. The lord of Rookwood Hall had also prepared 'a great rope called a barr' which he now caused to be stretched across the lane to stop passers-by. The wardstaff was laid beside the rope while the bailiff called the roll of the watch, and charged them 'to watch and keep the ward in due silence so that the king be harmless and the country scapeless'. The watch lasted until sunrise next day, when the lord of Rookwood Hall took up the wardstaff and made a notch in it, signifying that he and his men had performed their duty for the year. Finally he handed the staff to the bailiff to be taken to the lord of the manor of Fyfield, delivering as he did so 'the tale of the wardstaff', a narrative in Middle English verse relating how his watch had carried out its duty. (fn. 32) The staff was then presented to the lord of Fyfield Hall, who examined the notch made in it by the lord of Rookwood and then went through a ceremony similar to that at Abbess Roding. The Fyfield Watch, which was kept at the 'Three Wants' in Fyfield, was followed on successive days by seven other watches at different places in the hundred, proceeding in a clockwise direction.

Elsewhere in the same document there are details of the number of men in each watch, and the names and tenements of those who were bound to provide the men. The smallest watches were those of Abbess Roding (3 men) and Theydon Garnon (5), the largest Magdalen Laver (19) and Chigwell (14). Those who furnished the men for the watches had to pay 2d. a man, probably for food. The lord of Lambourne Hall also provided straw for his watch. (fn. 33)

There is a reference to the wardstaff of Harlow hundred in the reign of Henry III (fn. 34) but the earliest contemporary reference that has been found to the wardstaff of Ongar was in 1331, when Robert William of Havering, who had been outlawed for felony, was said to have held land in Lambourne for which he paid 1s. a year to the bailiff of the hundred for sheriff's aid, did suit at the three weeken court, and paid 2d. a year for the wardstaff. He had to find two men to watch the wardstaff for a night and to pay 4d. a year for this, and also had to provide a pound for distraints taken in the hundred for debts owed to the king and a prison to guard prisoners taken in the hundred for a day and a night. (fn. 35) It seems unlikely that a wardstaff ceremony was still observed in the 16th century, but references to the wardstaff occur in records as late as the reign of James I. (fn. 36)


  • 1. For the geology of the area see V.C.H. Essex, i, 1 (map), which still represents the latest information available cartographically.
  • 2. Cf. V.C.H. Essex, i, 375.
  • 3. Ibid. 427-574 passim. Occasional ambiguities in Domesday Book make the total doubtful to within two or three.
  • 4. V.C.H. Essex, i, 537b, 538a, 540a, 554a.
  • 5. Ibid. i, 397, ii, 350.
  • 6. Ibid. i, 529. But see P.N. Essex (E.P.N.S.), 153.
  • 7. J.I. 1/229.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. See Theydon Garnon. Epping parish was in Waltham half-hundred.
  • 10. e.g. Feud. Aids, ii, 204-6.
  • 11. Morant, Essex, ii, 471.
  • 12. E.R.O., D/DRg 1/197, and see further below.
  • 13. Copies of this and the other maps mentioned below are all in the Essex Record Office.
  • 14. For Berwick Berners see also Morant, Essex, i, 138.
  • 15. See especially High Ongar, Church.
  • 16. But in and after 1831 the population was enumerated in Abbess Roding as part of Ongar hundred
  • 17. Plac. Quo Warranto (Rec. Com.), 232; Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), i, 153.
  • 18. e.g. Cal. Fine R. 1413-22, 362; Cal. Pat. 1467-77, 561.
  • 19. L. & P. Hen. VIII, iii (2), p. 973.
  • 20. L.& P. Hen. VIII, xviii (I), p. 193. According to the 1543 grant Stoner was to be bailiff and wardstaff of the hundred, not its lord, but the 1547 grant to Rich, quoting that of 1543, states that the hundred had been granted to Stoner for life.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1547-8, 110-11.
  • 22. E.A.T. n.s. ix, 402; E.R.O., D/DCw T26.
  • 23. E. Ogborne, Hist. Essex, 236.
  • 24. E.A.T. n.s. xviii, 192.
  • 25. Morant, Essex, ii, 482; E.R.O., D/DP M570, 585, 588, 595.
  • 26. Norden, Description of Essex, 1594 (Camd. Soc.), 12; E.R.O. Guide, i, 3.
  • 27. Plac. Quo Warranto (Rec. Com.), 232.
  • 28. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), i, 153. For North Weald see also Cat. Anct. D. i, A. 755.
  • 29. But Roding Morrell, which was included in the list, was also held in chief by the lords of the hundred.
  • 30. E.R.O., D/DRg 1/197. The MS. was formerly in the Round collection at Birch Hall, Colchester. It was calendared in Hist. MSS. Com. 14th Rep. App. pt. IX, p. 5, and was also described and partly printed by W. C. Waller, E.A.T. n.s. ix, 212-19.
  • 31. This part has been printed: Salmon, Hist. Essex, 68-70; Morant, Essex, i, 126-7.
  • 32. Although the narrative appears to be basically in Middle English it is not entirely homogeneous and there are some later word forms.
  • 33. For the watches and their services see E.A.T. n.s. ix, 216-19.
  • 34. Morant, Essex, i, 127 n.
  • 35. Cal. Inq. Misc. ii, p. 286.
  • 36. Morant, Essex, i, 127 n.