Just north-east of the midpoint of Surrey and at a junction of ancient north–south and east–west roads, elements of the town have been a focus for transport throughout its history. A main early spur to this was the construction of the bridge over the seasonally navigable River Mole in the early medieval period. Later the Swan Hotel provided 300 years of service to horse-drawn coaches. In the late 20th century the M25 motorway was built nearby.
Between 1894 and 1974 Leatherhead was a urban district. Since 1974 it has been the principal town in the non-metropolitan Mole Valley District of Surrey. It had a population of 11,316 in the UK census of 2011.
The origins of the town of Leatherhead are Anglo-Saxon. Ashtead lay within the Copthorne hundred by the formation of the Kingdom of England. The Leatherhead Museum has traced the history of the town from its beginnings in about AD 880 when it was known as Leodridan meaning "place where people [can] ride [across the river]" in the Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Later in the Domesday Book of 1086 it was called Leret. Later forms recorded are "Lereda", "Ledreda", "Leddrede" (all second half of 12th century). The early settlement appears to have grown up on the east side of the River Mole, although Hawk's Hill, on the west side of the river, is said to be the site of an old Saxon burial ground.
A view from the University of Sussex has been put forward that the Anglo-Saxon form was distorted from a Celtic form whose Welsh equivalent is Llwyd-rhyd = "grey ford". Within there is evidence of pre-historic and Celtic hillfarming on the North Downs to the east and south - The Druid's Grove, Norbury Park being a possible example of a place of pre-Christian pagan gathering.
To the east of the town is the line of Stane Street, an old Roman road. Most of it is now built over or is used as wooded and hillside footpaths. The road leads from London to Chichester, passing through the strategic Mole Gap.
Elements such as barrows by the A246 provide evidence for a second late Romano-British road that ran from Stane Street in the east close to Ashtead Church crossing the Mole at Leatherhead Bridge some miles to approximately the present road junction very close to Effingham Church. Here it veered more true west and continued in another straight line to Merrow Church crossing the River Wey near Guildford Bridge. The road existed by late Saxon times and all the medieval churches between Leatherhead and Guildford lie within a few yards of this route.
Leatherhead appears in Domesday Book of 1086 as Leret. It was held by Osbern de Ow (Eu). Its Domesday assets were: 1 church, belonging to Ewell, with . It rendered £1. Pachesham within Leatherhead appears in Domesday Book as Pachesham. It was held by Hugo (Hugh) from the Bishop of Lisieux. Its domesday assets were: 3 virgates. It had part of 2 mills worth 12 shillings, 4 ploughs, of meadow, woodland worth 3 hogs. It rendered a relatively low £3 10s 0d (£3.50) per year to its feudal system overlords.
A market serving the developing agricultural economy developed at the crossroads and in 1248, Henry III granted to Leatherhead a weekly market and annual fair. The town survived an extensive fire in 1392, after which it was largely rebuilt. In common with many similar medieval towns, Leatherhead had a market house and set of stocks, probably located at the junction of Bridge Street, North Street and High Street.
During the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, the town was associated with several notable people. Edmund Tylney, Master of the Revels, who was in effect the official censor of the time to Queen Elizabeth I, lived in Leatherhead's Mansion House. A Wetherspoons pub in High Street is now named after him. Another notable local noble was Sir Thomas Bloodworth of nearby Thorncroft Manor, who was Lord Mayor of London during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Leatherhead saw much expansion, with two major railways linked to it; see Transport.
In the 1870s, a group of clergymen built the private St John's School in the town, and it has produced a number of famous pupils. (See below).
The Letherhead Institute was built. The spelling was said, throughout much of Victorian times, to be the correct spelling.
Once parish industries including Ronson's Lighters and Goblin Vacuum Cleaners. Both were used as ammunitions plants in World War II. Most of the assembly plants pulled out of Leatherhead in the late 1970s or early 1980s, in favour of commerce, transport and distribution.
In the 1940s and '50s Leatherhead/Ashtead was made home to a Remploy factory, which are designed to provide work for disabled people in the local area. On 22 May 2007, Remploy announced that the Leatherhead factory along with 42 other sites would close.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Mole Valley District Council decided to "modernise" the town, with a new pedestrianised high street, and large one-way system.
In 1986, the town was joined to the UK motorway system, when the M25 motorway was built to the north. Leatherhead became Junction 9, which has odd non-aligned entry/exit points on the two sides. The town is perhaps most frequently mentioned in the national media as the location of motorway traffic jams and accidents.
Surrey Research Tips
Administrative boundaries of the county of Surrey (Surrey History Centre. The centre has a website with a number of useful indexes--titheholders in various parishes, deaths at the county gaol, etc.)
The website GENUKI provides a very comprehensive list of reference sources for the County of Surrey. It includes: