Although it is quite likely that there was a Roman settlement at Burwash, as it was on Roman Route IV from Hurst Green to Heathfield, and there are Roman ironworks nearby (and also, therefore, a Saxon community), no tangible evidence of either survives today. The oldest building in the village is St Bartholomew’s Church and parts of the Norman original (1090) can be seen today (a complete history is available in the church).
Burwash grew steadily in the 11th and 12th Centuries and its status as a local trading centre was recognised in 1252 when King Henry III authorised a weekly market and a three-day fair in May. These markets continued until the 20th Century and the tradition is perpetuated by the annual village fete on the August Bank Holiday following St Bartholomew’s day (August 24th). Although there are now no livestock for sale, the mediaeval inhabitants would recognise the music, food stalls and spirit of conviviality and fun which continues today.
An ancient mystery is the disappearance of the Manor House. It is known to have existed as there are official references to it from 1280 to 1334 but thereafter it was heard of no more. To add to the mystery there is no evidence of where it was sited. The origin of the name of the village is also a matter of debate as it evolved from Burherce in the 12th Century to Burghesse in the 13th, Burgherssh or Burwash in the 15th, Burrishe in the 16th and the modern Burwash in the 17th Century. It is said to mean, in old English, a stronghold, BURR, with a stubble field, ERSE, but there are other theories such as “town in the forest” or “fortified hill in the woods” using two different meanings of BURGH and HURST.
The current appearance of the village dates to the 18th Century when the rows of 15th and 16th Century cottages were upgraded and tile hung by the prosperous Georgians. Some larger houses were also built at this time including Rampyndene, Mount House, Burghurst and Denes House as a result of the local landowners moving into the High Street. The oldest house in the village is Pelham Hall (1375) but in most of the High Street the old buildings are hidden behind the Georgian tiles.
At one time there were at least seven public houses plus official and unofficial ale houses but gradually they have been reduced to two, the Rose and Crown and the Bear as well as The Wheel in Burwash Weald all of which retain many of their original features. Likewise in the 18th Century there were over 50 shops, traders and craftsmen but over the last 250 years these have shrunk. Now a village store and post office, a butcher, a hairdresser, flower shop and local petrol station meet most local needs
Smuggling was rife in Sussex and Burwash is rumoured to have been an important centre on the back route from the coast to London but no evidence can be found. However, Rudyard Kipling who lived at Bateman’s (1902 – 1936) wrote:
“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the Parson
‘Baccy for the Clerk
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy
and watch the wall, my darling, whilst the Gentlemen go by”
He is popularly supposed to have been commenting on local events. Bateman’s is today owned by the National Trust and is preserved as a faithful monument to Kipling and his work.
In the 1914-18 war approximately 300 men from Burwash fought, with 56 killed. In the 1939-45 war a further 29 men died. All of them are commemorated on the war memorial near the church. The memorial is unusual in that was designed by Sir Charles Nicholson and has a lantern that is still lit on the anniversary of each death. In the 1939-45 war, over 900 bombs dropped on Burwash. A local Home Guard unit was formed; evacuees arrived from London, and local committees and groups were set up, supporting the war effort and providing assistance to local defence.
The C of E Primary School, which started as a Charity School in 1729, is thriving today having continuously provided education to the village for nearly 300 years.
Perhaps the greatest change to the village has been the occupations of its inhabitants. 800 years ago it was entirely based on agriculture and local crafts serving the villages and hamlets around. Very few ever travelled out of the area. With the growth of the markets in the 14th Century, travellers came to the village and over the next 500 years the range of traders and shops increased. Even in Victorian times, virtually the whole population worked locally. But with the arrival of the railway in 1851 and improved road transportation, the population became more mobile, travelled more and commuted to work in London and elsewhere. This process has continued until today when few work in agriculture and there are only a handful of shops. Most people work outside the village or are retired.