From 16th century iron works to 13th neighbourhood

An aerial view of Maidenbower in 1997
An aerial view of Maidenbower in 1997

Until 1986, Maidenbower was fields and forest – a great place for children to play, and perfect for an afternoon stroll.

Then Crawley Borough Council announced the land between the M23 and the London-Brighton railway line would become the town’s 13th neighbourhood, and everything changed.

Children at Maidenbower Playgroup took part in a sponsored toddle for Children In Need in 1997

Children at Maidenbower Playgroup took part in a sponsored toddle for Children In Need in 1997

‘Come and live in the village of Maidenbower’ proclaimed hoardings as the first houses were built. But, while developers, the council and many, many families were looking to the future, archaeologists had uncovered a fascinating snippet from the area’s past.

As the bulldozers moved in, they unearthed evidence of a large iron working settlement which had grown up around Blackwater Forge in the middle of the 16th century. Of course, the link between Crawley and iron working was already well known; Furnace Green – and the Charcoal Burner pub – were named in reference to the iron smelting known to have taken place there in ages past.

The Blackwater Forge was linked via a valley stream to Worth Furnace, a few miles away, and between them they produced more than 250 tons of cast iron in two years, much of it being made into canons.

So big was the iron works that local records show 33 people were employed there – an unusually large settlement for the time. Workers included charcoal makers, miners, skilled metal workers and gun founders.

Father Graham Ricketts and his wife Tessa married in a school hall as there was no church in Maidenbower in 1997

Father Graham Ricketts and his wife Tessa married in a school hall as there was no church in Maidenbower in 1997

Records show that the demand for skilled labour was high, with men arriving from all over the country and even from overseas. With so many people to feed, there would have been a lot of cattle as well as oxen to pull the carts carrying raw materials to the furnace. Centuries after traces of the furnace had all but disappeared, the ruts made by the heavy traffic on the muddy tracks were still visible.

The furnace was one of the most important of the many local ironworks dotted around the area, but it was by no means the oldest – 1997 would see a 14th/15th century development uncovered during the building of the Leisure Park, on London Road.

The first evidence of how big the Blackwater Forge had been was found when the railway line to Brighton was built along the same valley floor.

The stream which fed the furnace is remembered in the name of the Saxonbrook medical centre.

By the time work started on the Leisure Park in 1997, Maidenbower had been growing steadily for more than 10 years and had become something of a victim of its own success.

The playgroup, for instance, was based at the community centre and could only cater for 24 children – and there were 34 on the waiting list. Leaders had asked West Sussex County Council for permission to expand but it was turned down.

As well as more space for toddlers to play and learn, by 1997 it was becoming clear that a secondary school would also be needed. Like most things in life, though, this would not be a problem easily fixed. Despite campaigning from parents and residents, it would be 2001 before the money was found to build Oriel High School, and another three years before it opened.

Maidenbower was lacking one other vital commodity in 1997 – a church. Services were held every Sunday at Maidenbower First School and the local vicar had to apply for a special licence so that he could get married there. His name was Father Graham Ricketts and he tied the knot with Tessa surrounded by family, friends and a choir of children from the school.

Father Graham, who was 30 when he wed, had his vicarage in Mayflower Close and had spent 15 months proving that a church was more about its people than a building.

He told the Observer: “In many ways, not having a church is a blessing. It allows us to be people focussed.” His views were shared by Maidenbower First School’s headteacher, Lynda Lowe, who saw the Sunday services as “a positive use of the school”.

Father Graham and Tessa went on to have three children. After six years as an Anglican priest, he was received into the Catholic Church in 1998.

He served as parish priest in Rottingdean with Woodingdean for 11 years and is now parish priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace, in Shoreham-by-Sea.

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