Caterham is not mentioned specifically in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but it may be the unnamed manor in the Hundred of Tandridge, which was held from the Bishop of Bayeux by ‘Hugh’. Cana had held this manor in the time of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066).

The first surviving record of the village as ‘Catheham’ is dated 1179 and it is ‘Katrehamme’ in 1263. The ‘cater’ element of the name may correspond to the Welsh word ‘cader’, meaning ‘fort’ or ‘hill-fort’ - in Caterham's case this may refer to the nearby camp at War Coppice on the Downs.

The manorial history of Caterham during the medieval period is uncertain. In the early 13th century it may have been held by the Gaist family and the monastery of Waltham Holy Cross seems to have held it until the Dissolution in the late 1530s. In 1544 it was granted to William Sackville and then in 1609 it passed to George Evelyn and from him to the famous diarist and horticulturist, Sir John Evelyn, sometime before 1640.

Caterham consists of two settlements. The old village, Caterham-on-the-Hill, stands overlooking a deep valley and the old medieval church of St Lawrence is 600 feet above sea level. This church has survived but the present Victorian parish church, dedicated to St Mary, is situated opposite its predecessor. Down in the valley a substantial town did not begin to grow until after the railway was built in 1856.

Caterham received a boost when Caterham Barracks were built in 1877 as the Guards' Depot. The barracks remained in use by the army until they were closed in the mid-1990s. New residences were then constructed on the site, but some of the barrack buildings were retained and converted into quality housing.

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