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Local History Guide to Guildford

Updated on October 7, 2015
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Local History

England is a country with a great deal of history. This history is not just confined to the capital, London, or some of the larger cities - many of the smaller towns and villages around the country have interesting stories to tell about their past. At first glance it may seem that not much ever happened in many towns and villages around England but this is far from being the case. If you are interested in local history it can be easy to find some interesting facts about a town if you look a little closer. A good example of this is the county town of Guildford in Surrey. A county town is the administrative centre for a county or simply the main town. Guildford, according to the 2011 census, has a population of over 135,000 but its roots can be found as a small Saxon town that was established after the Romans had left Britain. Here are some interesting facts that you may not know about Guildford.

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Unknown Etymological Origin

Often many towns will know the history, or etymology, behind the town’s name. Usually it is related to the local area or a geographical feature. However, in the case of Guildford there has been a certain amount of debate over where the name ‘Guildford’ comes from. Previously historians and etymologists have suggested that the name simply derives from ‘guild’ – an association or society of merchants and tradesmen and ‘ford’ – a reference to crossing of a stream or river. However, these claims of a ‘guild’ are usually unreferenced. In the 10th and 11th centuries Guildford was actually referred to as both Guldeford and Geldeford – which, instead of meaning ‘guild’, mean ‘gold’. Suggestions have been made that the name of the town is more likely to refer to the golden flowers that grow by the ford or the golden sand on the banks of the river.

Where is Guildford?

Guildford High Street, Charles Deane c.1828
Guildford High Street, Charles Deane c.1828 | Source

The Guy Riots

Though Guildford has been a fairly peaceable town throughout the years, there was one period in its history that almost sounds like something from fiction. Between 1820 and 1865 Guildford became home to an almost annual tradition of semi-organised violence and lawlessness. These incidents were known as the ‘Guy Riots’. Every 5th of November (or Guy Fawkes Night) people, who referred to themselves as ‘Guys’ would dress up in disguises and arm themselves with clubs and torches. With what was described by a witness as ‘a chilling cry’, they would then descend on the town and avenge themselves against other townspeople who had offended or crossed them in some way during the year. This avenging often took the form of damaging, looting and sometimes assaults. Many people’s belongings were burnt on bonfires. These ‘Guy Riots’ continued for many years and there were numerous attempts to suppress them. It wasn’t until more police reinforcements were brought in and the policemen were armed with cutlasses that the tradition began to die down.

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Business Reinvention

If you live in the UK it is likely that you may have heard of Cow & Gate and know them for their baby formula products. What may be surprising to learn is that the business not only had its roots in Guildford but also in the beer and spirits trade. Upon the death of their father in 1882 Charles Arthur and Leonard Gates took over the family shop which at that time was a distributor of wine, spirits and beer. The brothers, however were convinced to join the Temperance Movement in 1885 and, upon seeing the ‘bad influence’ of alcohol, promptly poured their entire stock down the gutters of Guildford High Street. They reinvented their business as a dairy and used a milk separator to remove the cream and whey. Once this was done they sold the skim back to the farmers as pig feed. In 1906, following on from the addition of three more Gates brothers into the business in 1888, the company was renamed ‘Cow & Gate’.

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Guildford & Alice

Guildford has had connections to several prominent writers – arguably the most well-known being Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. According to local history Carroll had a house in Guildford, and after dying there in 1898 was buried in the Mount Cemetery. If you visit Guildford you can find two sculptures, one in the grounds of Guildford Castle and the other by the River Wey, that reference the classic children’s story. The sculptures are full size and made of bronze, one depicts Alice going through the Looking Glass while the other is of Alice and the White Rabbit. You can also see a collection of items that belonged to the author in the Guildford Museum.

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Guildford Facts

Other interesting facts about Guildford that you may not know:

  • In the 10th and 11th centuries Guildford was home to the Royal Mint – the official body for producing, or ‘minting’, new coins.
  • A 16th century court case gave the English language the first written reference to ‘cricket’. The court case referred to the students of the Royal Grammar School in Guildford playing ‘kreckett’.
  • Guildford is located in one of the most expensive areas to buy property – excluding London.
  • Guildford is one of several towns to have a cathedral but not city status – the town has, however, applied for city status several times.
  • Parts of the 1976 film, The Omen, were filmed at Guildford Cathedral.


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  • Jane Grey profile image

    Ann Leavitt 4 years ago from Oregon

    Great article! I recently heard of Surrey and was wanting to know more about it. Guildford sounds like a lovely town, both to live in and to visit.