Purleigh is first mentioned in a Saxon will of AD 998 but, like most parishes, no detailed information is available about it until 1086 when it appears in Domesday Book. Purleigh was then a typical rural community consisting of eight manors in the ownership of four Norman barons. Substantial areas of woodland are recorded, as well as arable and pasture land and the usual assortment of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and goats. The population consisted of 35 families of villeins and bordars, with 10 slaves working on the lord’s farms. Purleigh has the distinction of being one of the few places in Essex where a priest is mentioned in 1086.
During the next two centuries, prosperity, population pressure, or both, caused large areas of woodland to be grubbed up to create new farms, mostly in the west of the parish and usually up to 20-30 acres in size. A few of these farms still bear the name of the former wood (e.g. Birchwood Farm) or that of an earlier owner (e.g. Scotts Farm) and some of their small, irregular shaped fields still survive (e.g. at Cock Clarks). This expansion seems to have declined by the early 14th century and had stopped entirely by the later 14th century after the plagues had reduced the population so dramatically. Of the woodland that remained, some was used by the manorial lords for their personal income (e.g. Kent Wood) whilst other areas, where the manorial tenants had established rights of grazing etc, gradually deteriorated into the scrub covered commons of the 16th and 17th centuries (typified by the name Furzey Common - the area between Mill Lane and Walton Hall Lane).
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Purleigh’s population began to increase again, but its remaining woodland was too valuable to be cleared for homesteads, so new cottages were built on the commons at Cock Clarks, Howe Green and Farther Howe Green instead. The amount of land allocated to these cottages (usually between half an acre and two acres) was too small to sustain their occupiers by farming alone, even though they usually had grazing rights on the remaining commons as well. Consequently, many of the new cottagers resorted to other trades to make a living.
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, tailors, blacksmiths, butchers, potters, ploughwrights, sawyers, bricklayers, carpenters and bakers proliferated, and many of these also used their homes (often illegally) as alehouses to supplement their income.
Towards the end of the 17th century Purleigh’s population declined. Farms became amalgamated, and redundant farmsteads and cottages were abandoned and demolished. The population rose again during the late 18th century and remained high for the next 100 years (the number of residents recorded in the 1841 census, 1213, was not in fact surpassed until 1981). This time however, the rising population coincided with a period of great prosperity in arable farming so many of the new residents became employed on the farms, although a variety of new trades also appeared in the parish. As well as those mentioned earlier; brickmakers, plumbers, glaziers, shoemakers, millers, harness-makers, carriers, hawkers and a surveyor are recorded. By now the commons had virtually disappeared (the remaining areas being almost entirely enclosed by 1801) and the high value of arable land meant that much remaining woodland was cleared to enlarge existing farms instead of creating new holdings. The only remaining areas available for cottage sites therefore were the wide roadside verges. The landscape of Purleigh today therefore is one of dispersed farmsteads, small hamlets and roadside cottages.
It is as a result of this last phase of expansion that many traditional parish assets survive in Purleigh. A Church has been here since the Middle Ages, but the earliest nonconformist chapel was not established until 1822 (at Cock Clarks) and the earliest one to survive is the Congregational Chapel at Howe Green (now Chapel Cottage) which was built in 1852. A redundant cottage was used as the poor-house from the late 1660s but a purpose built workhouse was provided in 1784 (now Queen’s House at Rudley Green). In 1769 the rector, Samuel Horsmanden, left an endowment to provide for the education of Purleigh’s children which took effect in 1800 on the death of his wife. Shortly after this, the then rector, John Eveleigh, financed the building of a schoolmaster’s house and school room (now Eveleigh House). Another rector, Edward Hawkins, financed the building of a second school in 1848 (Hawkins House at Cock Clarks). By 1760 a grocer’s shop with adjoining bakery had been built on Purleigh Hill, which, although no longer a shop, still retains its original bow window. Purleigh’s principal bakery further down the hill was converted from cottages in the 1830s, functioned until modern times and was until recently known as ‘The Steam Bakery’. Valley Stores on the opposite side of the hill has been in use as a shop since at least the 18th century, being at various times either a grocers, bakers, butchers or a public house called The White Hart.