The origin of the name ‘Ayling’ has been dealt with fully in previous sections, and we have seen that it dates from the Anglo-Saxon period. It was no doubt derived from the warrior Aelle of 477 A.D., or from Edgar Atheling of 1100 A.D., or perhaps a mixture of both.
For some one thousand years from the time of King Aelle, there are no continuous records of any kind that relate to family history, and in those far-off days people were known only by their ‘Christian’ names. The Normans first introduced surnames, but they were mostly confined to the upper classes, and it was several centuries later before ordinary folk began to assume a second name, chiefly in order to avoid confusion among the growing population, and for official purposes on taxation lists and the like.
Most families adopted a simple descriptive name, such as Baker, Castle or John-son, but some continued the hereditary names of their ancient clan or tribe, as happened with the Aelle-ings or the Athel-ings. The process was very gradual but it was virtually complete by the 16th century.
The only early records are certain charters, and other such documents, which have survived through the centuries, and occasionally the name Ayling occurs in some form or other. One of the earliest references is to ‘Eadmund Aetheling’ in 1006, and there was an ‘Aedwardus Atheling’ in 1176. In 1332, two Aylings were living in West Sussex, namely John Aylng of Chidham, and William Aillyng of Lodsworth.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, English history is greatly concerned with rebellions and wars. Fighting with France went on almost continually, and internal strife led to the Wars of the Roses for thirty years from 1455. Life was hard for common people, and the frightful epidemic of the Black Death in 1348 made matters worse.
The workers were discontented and repressed, but feudalism was gradually disappearing. Commerce was expanding, and the country was developing into one English nation, rather than down-trodden natives ruled by oppressive Normans.
It became possible for some workers to buy themselves out of part of their servile duties. Afterwards, these men often rented land of their own and became yeoman farmers. In the centuries that followed, virtually all of the Aylings were men of this class, and among the first of them, in about 1400, was Thomas Aillyng who occupied a farm at Woolavington (near Midhurst) and William Ayllyng with property and land at Warningcamp (near Arundel).
In the year 1478, a certain John Aylyng and several other gentlemen were engaged in a court case against Robert and Isabel Tue regarding the ownership of Bodyton Manor and some 50 acres of lands and woods in the Parish of Woolbeding, near Midhurst. They were successful in their action, and it is certain that John Aylyng was a person of some consequence in the district. It is not known how old he was in 1478, nor when he died, but it is reasonable to assume that he was closely related to other Aylings who were in the area some years later. Thus, he is regarded as the founder of the large group of Aylings who lived and worked in the district for over three hundred years.
The Aylings were agricultural workers, who obviously looked for the best land, and for them there was nothing finer than the valley of the little River Rother in West Sussex, and within a few miles either side. This river rises near Liss in Hampshire, and enters Sussex at the village of Rogate. Then it flows eastwards past Terwick, Trotton, Chithurst and Iping to Stedham, then via Woolbeding to Midhurst. Here are the original homelands of the Ayling family, and the Stedham area in particular. Probably every Ayling now alive had their roots in the fertile valley of the River Rother.
During the 16th century there were important religious changes. King Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1534/5 and was made head of the Church of England. The monasteries were dissolved, and an English bible was made available in every village church. Parish registers began to be kept and among the first was Stedham in 1539 and Woolbeding in 1547.
In 1540, a Statute of Wills was enacted, which for the first time enabled private persons to transfer property after their death in any way they wished, by means of a ‘testament’ made while still alive. The yeoman class made good use of these regulations, and out of thirty three wills and administrations for Aylings up to 1600, most were in the general Stedham area. The very first known Ayling will was by John Aylyng of Terwick on 19th October 1546 who stated:- “My bodye to be buryede in ye church yarde of Turwyke. I give and bequeth to the church at Turwyke 6 shillings to be put in a stock and with the profites thereof to mayntayn a taper before the Sacrament there forever.”
For five years, 1553-1558, Queen Mary (a daughter of Henry VIII) tried to return the country to the Catholic faith, and there was a dreadful period. of persecution and terror. But afterwards Queen Elizabeth (another daughter) restored the Anglican Church and held off the rival claims of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Even the powerful naval strength of Spain under Philip II (a bigoted Catholic) was shattered when the Armada was routed in 1588.
Throughout the century the Ayling family in Stedham grew and prospered. John, the founder, had three sons (or perhaps they were grandsons). One named Richard, who died in 1545, was a tax collector for the Rape (district) of Chichester, and his son William has a particular claim to fame:-
William, who was born about 1520, was a yeoman farmer of considerable wealth, and in 1567 he purchased the Manor of Woolbeding from Henry, Earl of Arundel.
This was an ancient estate, going back to a De Wilebeding at the time of Domesday (1086). In return for his acquisition, William was required to “carry before the King a cross-bow without a string and an arrow bolt without feathers whenever the King comes in these parts, namely when he is going to cross to Hampshire, from the bridge called Wolversbridge near Midhurst to the bridge of Sheate in Hampshire”.
William owned many properties in Woolbeding and Stedham, also at nearby Easebourne and Heyshott, together with property at Arundel and at Alton in Hampshire. His wife Elizabeth, and his only son John, died before him but his other children and his brother Thomas were mentioned in his will, and also several cousins in Stedham. Woolbeding Manor passed to his eldest daughter ‘Jone’, then aged 42, and who married Edmond Gray of Heyshott in 1563 at Woolbeding. Edmond’s father had been a successful war-time commander under the Earl of Southampton and so had been ‘given’ very good lands near Cowdray House, where the Earl lived.
The Gray family remained the owners of the Manor until 1679 when Sir John Mill married Margaret Gray, a daughter of the house, after which the Mill family were in possession until 1791, when Sir Charles Mill sold the property to Lord Robert Spencer. Today, the Manor is occupied by the Sainsbury family, but how different the story might have been if only William Ayling, yeoman, had been survived by male heirs.
Another son of John, the founder, was named Nicholas (1500-1571) who, in turn, also had a son Nicholas 2 (1530-1573), who yet again had a son named Nicholas. This Nicholas 3 was born in 1586 and married Mabel Gray in 1586 at Woolbeding. It is almost certain that she was a member of the Gray family at Woolbeding Manor, and there are indications that she owned property in other districts. By the end of the 16th century the Aylings had begun to spread a little further afield.
They moved down the river, to the village of Selham, and they had an almost continuous presence in that area for two hundred and fifty years from 1585. It is recorded that in January 1647 William Ayling (yeoman)- sold land near Selham for £175, a considerable sum in those days. There is also good evidence that Aylings were in Burpham, near Arundel, from a very early date.
In the 17th century, Kings James I and Charles I supported the Anglican Church, but were intolerant of Puritans. However, when civil war broke out in 1642 it was a Puritan Cromwell who was successful. A Royalist army did march into Sussex in 1643, along the Rother valley past the Ayling homesteads, but it was overcome by General Waller for Parliament, after much damage had been caused to Arundel and its castle.
Parliament then remained in general control of the area, but even so it was possible for Prince Charles (later King Charles II), after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, to escape through West Sussex. In disguise he may well have travelled through the Rother valley. He crossed the River Arun at Houghton, north of Arundel, and eventually left for France from Shoreham harbour.
Charles II (1660-1685) secretly adhered to the Catholic faith, but it was his brother James II who, for three dreadful years tried to force Catholicism upon the people. However James fled to France at Christmas 1688, and the crown passed to his daughter Mary and her powerful husband, the staunch Protestant, William, Prince of Orange and head of the Dutch people. Parliament enacted a purely Protestant line of succession, and the religious turmoils were virtually settled for good, although there were brief Jacobite rebellions in the following century.
Ayling family was expanding quite rapidly. The main groups were still in the Rogate/Stedham area, but some were now living in many other places.
Near the town of Pulborbough, the Rother joins forces with the larger River Arun, and together they flow southwards to Arundel and to the sea at Littlehampton. Along this new valley the Aylings were destined to settle in later years, but from 1629 onwards they were present in the Pulborough area continuously for well over three hundred years. Five miles to the north at Wisborough Green they were in evidence from 1611 onwards.
A few miles to the south of the River Rother, Aylings now appeared occasionally in villages near the northern slopes of the South Downs – such as Harting, Elsted, Treyford, Bepton, Woolavington and Bignor.
Further afield, there were established Ayling families in Felpham near the modern Bognor Regis, from 1612, and at Fernhurst (5 miles north of Midhurst) from 1653. Now for the first time the Aylings had spread a short distance into a neighbouring county, to Haslemere, which is in Surrey but only two miles north of Fernhurst. Most distant of all, an Ayling family became settled at Hamble, on Southampton Water, and at the nearby village of Hound; they were well-known fishermen and mariners and survived in an unbroken line from about 1680 for at least one hundred and fifty years.
During the 17th century, there is some evidence that a few Aylings were beginning to seek higher education. A certain John Ayling, who was born about 1635 went to Magdalen College, Oxford where he obtained his B.A. in 1659 and his M.A. in 1661.
At Stedham, the original family of Aylings still continued, and Nicholas 3 and his wife Maibel (Gray) had ten known children, mostly girls but including Thomas(1590) and Nicholas 4 (1613).
The religious atmosphere of the times is clearly shown when we read that Robert (a brother of Nicholas 5) and his wife Elizabeth were reported by the churchwardens for not receiving Communion at Easter 1621.
Indeed a number of Aylings, or their servants, were taken to task for their Catholic views, or for not attending church. One was charged with “spending the sabbath dayes idlely and lewdly”.
Thomas (1590) had at least five children, all baptised at Stedham the eldest being William and then there were Williams in each of the next three generations. Full details are known, and the family line continued to the present day, including a large group of Aylings living in South America (Buenos Aires) since 1900.
According to an existing Ayling family record “Nicholas Ayling built Ash House in 1626”. This could refer to either Nicholas 3 or Nicholas 4, but most likely the work was carried out as a joint family effort.
A small stream runs southward from the Tote Hill area; it passes across agricultural land through a deep wooded valley and joins the River Rother not far from Stedham. At a mid-way point the stream widens into a small lake and here, amid sloping lawns, stands Ash House. It is built of local sandstone, and has survived the centuries virtually unharmed. There have been alterations, and some quite extensive additions, but these are all very much in keeping with the original. The surrounding woodlands, and farms, will have changed their character in over three hundred and fifty years, but otherwise the Ayling ancestors would surely recognise the old homestead where they lived and laboured so long ago. The Ayling family remained in occupation for two hundred years, until the estate was sold by a John Ayling in 1822.
Nicholas 4 died in 1670 leaving possessions worth 207 pounds. This was quite a fair figure for the time, when a bed, complete with all linen including curtains, was valued at 5 pounds, when a horse was 3 pounds, and when a “hogshead of beare” was only 1 pound (about 50 gallons, or a quarter of a 1983 penny for a pint!).
Nicholas 4 and his family were obviously quite well-to-do, and his sons all had substantial possessions. One, Thomas, had an estate valued at 593 pounds, when he died in 1711, including lands at both Stedham and Rogate. Another son was named William (1649 1724), and he and his wife Margaret had nine children, some of whom moved away from the Stedham area. This included the four married daughters and a son Thomas who was born in 1689.
During the 18th century the English nation began a marked period of growth, which led to rivalry and wars with France and her allies. However, Britain went from strength to strength under such leaders as William Pitt (the Elder), General Wolfe of Canada and Clive of India.
The American colonies were lost in 1776, during the reign of George III, but in compensation Captain Cook made his famous voyage of discovery to Australia and the Pacific. In France there was a massive revolution by a discontented people in 1783, which destroyed their monarchy and the aristocracy. But France remained very powerful, and only England under William Pitt (the younger) stood against them. However, the British Navy under Admiral Nelson was supreme, and won the famous victories of Cape St. Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and finally Trafalgar (1805).
During the first half of the 18th century England was an agricultural country and the yeoman farmers were at their peak of prosperity, but then a change gradually took place. A network of canals was built to provide cheap transport, the most successful one in West Sussex being From Midhurst to Petworth and Pulborough. Several Aylings are known to have been ‘bargemen’.
Turnpike roads were built and the chief one in West Sussex was from Fernhurst in the north to Midhurst, thence to Cocking and Chichester. At least one Ayling was known to have been a toll-house keeper.
Coal-fields were opened up in South Wales and in the north. The steam engine was invented, and the spinning machine. Agriculture became more efficient, but required more capital and less workers. Many small farms disappeared, and the workers moved into industrial districts, where conditions were usually very bad. England became more wealthy, often at the expense of the lower classes, but their sufferings did lead eventually to social improvements and to the rise of Socialism and Trade Unions.
Relatively little industry came to the West Sussex homelands of the Aylings, but nevertheless by the end of the century there was a gradual drift away from the villages and farms towards larger towns, including London.
Whereas in the year 1500 there were only a few Ayling families in existence, it has been estimated that by 1750 there were fifty such families, scattered mostly among the numerous towns and villages of West Sussex. They ranged along the coastal plain from Worthing to Westbourne, and from Arundel along the Pother valley to Rogate, and northwards to Kirdford and into Surrey. Many of these families have descendants who are alive today, and in some cases, the family trees are known. However, it is impossible to quote them in detail, merely to give a general indication where the main Ayling groups were situated.
Dealing first with Thomas of Stedham (1689). He married in June 1720 in his home village, and five children were born there. Then at the age of 40 he moved to Cocking, on the Midhurst/Chichester road, where he was a yeoman farmer of some consequence and where five more children were born. When he died in 1759 he was taken back to Stedham for burial, the last of his direct line to be so honoured.
Thomas left a will in which all his surviving children were mentioned. The total value of his farm stock and personal possessions was 635 pounds. Ploughing had been done with oxen, and the inventory included ten oxen with yokes at 60 pounds.
The family home and farmhouse can easily be imagined from the fact that it consisted of a hall, best chamber, chamber over the hall, maid’s chamber and men’s chamber. There was also a kitchen, bakehouse, and milkhouse, as well as beer cellar, ale cellar and brewhouse, so there was no shortage of food and drink!
One of his sons, William (1736), became a farmer at the neighbouring village of Heyshott, and he had nine children, two of whom moved to Bromley in Kent, and founded the family of Aylings who were (and still are) in the shoe trade in that town. There are also descendants in the United States, and yet another branch that boasts an Air Vice-Marshall in the R.A.F.
Another son of Thomas was Robert (1730), who carried on the farm and he had ten children, all baptised at Cocking. His eldest son was also Robert (1765), and in turn his six children were also baptised at Cocking. But then the link with farming and agriculture drew to a close. One son was a cornfactor in Chichester, and another (William – 1804) became a draper in Midhurst with descendants who were grocers, drapers, nurserymen, clergymen, engineers, and many other occupations – some now living in Africa, and in New Zealand.
All over West Sussex, other large family groups were being founded during the 18th century. At Arundel there was one which started about 1750, and another thirty years later at the nearby village of West Stoke. Both have very extensive family trees – indeed Thomas of S.Stoke (born 1761) had no less than sixty five great grand-children. One of them, Arthur, lived to be 100, the only known Ayling to reach his century.
A certain William Ayling, who was born in 1768 had his first children baptised at Aldingbourne, near Chichester but later the family moved to Broadwater.
There, for several generations a large number of his descendants were engaged in building trades, and took part in the expansion of the town of Worthing, especially in the area then known as New Town (now the Clifton Road district). One branch of this family emigrated to Australia, and another to America.
At Bosham in 1777 Thomas Ayling married Anne Coombs, and they founded a family of fishermen and mariners with extensive connections, both in Sussex, and at Portsmouth. The naval town of Portsea, as it then was, grew rapidly in the 19th century, and there was a steady trickle of young Ayling men from families all over the area to join some branch of the sea-going services. Many marriages to local girls took place in the main churches of Portsmouth and Gosport, but there were no large established families of Aylings actually in Portsmouth for many years.
Across the harbour, however, at Rowner near Gosport another Thomas Ayling married Mary Penfold in 1721, and a large family developed in the area, with a branch at Weymouth in Dorset. One of the descendants of the latter was William Beck Ayling, who joined the Indian Civil Service, became a Judge in Madras, and was knighted in 1915 – the only Ayling known to have been so honoured.
Also at Rowner, Anthony Ayling (born about 1778) and his wife Ann Maria founded a large farming family in the area. Doubtless there are descendants alive today, but most of the male lines seem to have died out.
At Kirdford, north-east of Petworth, there was a substantial Ayling community from early in the 18th century. James, who was born about 1744 had many children baptised in the local church, and descendants are alive today. One son, John and his wife Vashti had fifteen children and they lived in the Meon valley area in Hampshire, near Petersfield, with descendants in the Portsmouth district.
For centuries the Aylings have had close association with Petworth and Pulborough, two of the larger towns in their homeland area, and also to a lesser extent with Midhurst and Arundel. Some Aylings were also attracted to Chichester, the capital town of the county, but mostly for business reasons, or for official purposes such as marriage licences, the proof of wills, etc. Many present-day Aylings can refer to ancestors who lived in or near one or other of these towns. In Petworth there was a family who worked as saddlers and harness makers for four generations or more, and at Fittleworth nearby was a large farming group founded by George (born 1786).
There were Ayling families from 1700 onwards in many villages in West Sussex, and it is not possible to list them all. However, mention can be made of South Bersted, Yapton, and Walberton all between Bognor and Arundel, of Boxgrove, East Dean and Graffham all to the north-east of Chichester, of Lodsworth, Tillington and Lurgashall all to the north of the Rother valley at Selham, and of Westbourne and Funtington both in the extreme west of the county.
Finally, at Ovington, near Alresford in Hampshire was the large family of George (born about 1730). Two of his sons were tailors, but most of his descendants for several generations were carpenters. And at Privett (between Ovington and Petersfield) was the even larger family of William, born 1767 who was a wheelwright by trade, an occupation which lasted for at least four generations of his descendants, some of whom are now living in Lincolnshire.
In the 19th century, the strength of France was finally reduced when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and Britain made steady progress. During the Victorian era the country became a major power, with an empire extending around the world – yet there were clouds on the horizon, especially in Central Europe where the German Empire was formed in 1871.
But conditions for ordinary folk were not always so good. The first half of the century was marked by agricultural depressions and unemployment, but things improved later on. The working classes obtained the vote in 1867. Education was extended in l870, and became compulsory and free in 1891.
Large families were quite normal, and the total population increased steadily. In England and Wales it was about four million in the 15th century, but had increased to nine million by 1800 and to thirty two million by 1900. Among the Aylings, as elsewhere, there was a steady flow of emigrants to various parts of the Empire, and to America.
During the 19th century, the Aylings mostly became established as middle-class citizens. Some became tradesmen and shop keepers, others were builders and craftsmen of various kinds. A few did remain in agriculture but the farming tradition was gradually dying away.
In the 20th century, there were two world wars, and the Aylings played their part in both of them. Sixty two young men gave their lives between 1914 and 1918, and some of them are listed on war memorials in Worthing, Arundel, Rogate and Portsmouth. In the second war, the total was mercifully lower at fifteen.
The name Ayling is very rare, and in England only one person in every 10,000 has such a name. Nevertheless there are approximately two thousand, five hundred male Aylings alive today, aged between 1 and 100. This probably represents about five hundred separate family groups, compared with the fifty in 1750, but of course the families now are much smaller than they were over two hundred years ago.
During the last one hundred and fifty years, the Aylings have become increasingly scattered, and there are quite large contingents in various overseas countries, notably America, Australia and New Zealand.
Even so, by far the largest part of them are still living in the original homelands of West Sussex, and in the Brighton area. Others are in East Hampshire and in Surrey. Many are living in numerous districts around London, both south and north, and there are some in Kent and in Essex. In short, they remain where their South Saxon ancestors first settled – in the southern counties of England. Apart from a few ‘exiled’ families they are not to be found elsewhere.
The ancestors of some modern families have been traced back a considerable way, and most extend to the middle of the 19th century (1850), but there are a number who know very little about their family history. It is hoped that the story here unfolded will have been of interest to all of them.