Some of the weird, wonderful and well-known figures to visit Brentwood through history

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Sylvia Kent

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent at the reopening of the Brentwood Town Hall in February 2020 with Brentwood history columnist Sylvia Kent and her book Brentwood in 50 Buildings - Credit: Peter Kent

Brentwood has attracted many celebrities over the years, from reality TV stars to musicians and performers. But how far back does the borough's claim to fame stretch? Our Brentwood history columnist, author and president of the Brentwood Writer’s Circle, Sylvia Kent, takes a look at the many well-known people who have visited the area in years gone by.

For more than 800 years, Brentwood has attracted numerous visitors.

Following the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, the Abbot of Osyth granted Brentwood permission to build a dedicated chapel. From 1221, the traffic of pilgrims through the town to Becket’s Canterbury shrine brought passing trade to the inhabitants.

Development of the town owes much to its location perched on top of a hill. Its elevation - 122m above sea level - is roughly the same altitude as the cross on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Hospitals, orphanages and residential schools from London’s poverty-stricken areas came to Brentwood.

Brentwood became a national hotspot in 1381 when local men mustered at the start of the Peasants’ Revolt involving Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’s march to London.

The grammar school was founded in 1558 by Sir Antony Browne, who was conscience-stricken following his condemnation of the young silk-weaver William Hunter for his religious beliefs in 1555.

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In Tudor times, numerous monarchs travelled along the Essex Great Road from London - just 20 miles away - to visit their Essex subjects. Henry Vlll regularly called at Jericho Priory at Blackmore where his son Henry Fitzroy was born to his mistress Elizabeth Blount in 1519. Queen Catherine of Aragon - Henry's first wife - already owned the Brook Street mansion (now Marygreen Manor) when he was born.

Elizabethan actor Will Kemp, friend of William Shakespeare, stayed overnight at Brentwood while famously dancing the Morris from London to Norwich.

The first Lord Petre (Sir John) bought Thorndon Hall in 1573 and expanded it into a fine mansion. A new Thorndon Hall was built in 1770 by the ninth Lord Petre, and George lll and Queen Charlotte stayed there in 1778.

Admiral Sir John Jervis inherited Rochetts at South Weald from his father-in-law Sir Thomas Parker in 1784. Sir John, who was a contemporary of Admiral Nelson and hero of several sea-battles, became Earl of St Vincent.

Lord Byron often visited the owner of Gilstead Hall in 1813.

During the 1840s the Rev Francis Rhodes became vicar of St Thomas’s Church. He was father to Cecil Rhodes, who would become prime minister of the Cape Colony and a controversial figure due to his links to imperialism and colonialism.

St Thomas Chapel ruins

The ruins of St Thomas Chapel, Brentwood - Credit: Peter Kent  

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams arrived in 1903 and often re-visited Brentwood Grammar School until his death in 1958.

Crown Street was home to Arthur Brown (1830-1926), composer of over 1,000 hymn tunes still used today.

In 1921, Guglielmo Marconi built transmitting/receiving wireless telegraph stations off Ongar Road for continental traffic.

Ellen Willmott, the world-famous horticulturist who lived at Warley Place, attracted royalty such as Queen Mary who enjoyed taking the train to Brentwood to enjoy tea in Ellen’s amazing gardens. Her home in earlier centuries was owned by diarist John Evelyn.

Warley Barracks, built in 1805, was visited by Edward, Duke of York in 1935

Sir John Logie Baird presented our district hospital with a television in 1937, and film star Boris Karloff was a regular visitor, collecting his newspapers from Race’s shop.

In 1957 the Duke of Edinburgh opened new R&D laboratories at the Selo factory and in the same year, Queen Elizabeth opened the Brentwood Council Offices and Brentwood School’s science building.

Queen Elizabeth at Brentwood

Queen Elizabeth at Brentwood - Credit: Norman Gunby collection

In 1964, the American singer Paul Simon (Garfunkel) sang at the Railway Arms and the singer mentioned Brentwood in his recent memoir.

Comedian Frankie Howerd starred in the Odeon’s Midnight Matinee in 1967 - proceeds of which helped build Howerd House on Warley Hill.

Speaking of comedians, Morecombe and Wise arrived in 1978 to open Wilson's Corner furniture store in 1978. Lists of eminent sports stars live in Brentwood, including Fatima Whitbread, Sir Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard, as well as entertainers Pixie Lott, Noel Edmonds, Ross Kemp and many more.

Fatima Whitbread and Brentwood history columnist Sylvia Kent

Fatima Whitbread and Brentwood history columnist Sylvia Kent - Credit: Peter Kent

Sir Trevor Brooking and Frank Bruno celebrate the 250 millionth Ford Fiesta Dagenham in 1996

Sir Trevor Brooking and Frank Bruno celebrate the 250 millionth Ford Fiesta in Dagenham in 1996 - Credit: Ford Motor Company

In latter years, members of our royal family were welcomed, along with prime ministers and parliamentarians who met at the Meads in Ongar Road, courtesy of the late Robert McCrindle MP and his successor Eric Pickles (now ennobled).

To discover more about Brentwood’s past, Sylvia Kent's book Brentwood in 50 Buildings, released by Amberley Publishing in Stroud, is available.