Hornchurch originates from around the 12th century when Henry II gave to the hospice of St Nicholas and St Bernard, Mountjoux, in Savoy as a gift. A prosperous priory and church were established in Hornchurch, near the parish church, but the monks were forced out during the 14th century when a new law banned foreign land ownership. The lands were then given to Lord Chancellor William of Wykeham who made major renovations to the church. He subsequently gave Hornchurch to endow New College, Oxford, which still owns all the local church lands and buildings. Due to this, Saint Andrew's church was not adopted into the Diocese of Chelmsford until agreement was reached in the 1930s. The parish remains staffed by a Vicar temporal and his curates. It was one of three former parishes whose area comprised the historic Liberty of Havering.
Hornchurch is an Anglicised version of the Latin Monasterium Cornutum, a term that was also applied to the mother Abbey in Savoy. The earliest recorded use here was in 1222, meaning 'church with horn-like gables' and it was recorded as Hornechurch in 1233. The horned bull's head mounted on the eastern end of Saint Andrews church, near the town centre dates from much later; around the 18th Century.
A fanciful alternate version has it that the name was originally "Hore Church", so named because it was built by a prostitute, to atone for her sins. A king disliked the name and had it renamed "Hornchurch" and horns were affixed to the church to keep up the allusion. The prostitute in question may have been Alice Perrers, who is said to have been related to William of Wykeham and mistress of Edward III. This version is unlikely, as the explanation antedates adoption of the name.
St Andrew's Church spire is copper clad. In the late 1960s the corrosion of the copper had become so bad in the lower three quarters of the spire that it had to be replaced. An appeal was raised with the usual barometer-style appeal progress indicator clearly visible to passers by on Upminster Road. Eventually, in the early 1970s the cladding was replaced and the new copper panels correctly treated with patenation oil to preserve the copper as it oxidized. Hence it went dull black. However, as the top portion was unchanged, the church has always been spoiled by the odd appearance of old and new copper cladding. In the early 21st century the patena has started to bloom, and finally the spire is transforming into the once uniform malachite green colour of aged copper. For the scientifically minded, copper has two oxides; Copper I Oxide, which is black; and Copper II Oxide, which is green. Whilat the oil application certainly will lengthen the life of the spire, it was a most unfortunate inclusion in the repair specification as the two tone spire tended to blight the spire of the Hornchurch icon.
During World War I and World War II nearby Hornchurch Airfield was an important RAF station; is was known as RAF Suttons Farm during WWI, with its HQ as far away as Upminster Hall. During WWII, the airfield was known as RAF Hornchurch, and was home mostly to a number of Spitfire squadrons, with an advanced sub-station at Rayleigh. The land has since been reused for a large housing development and Hornchurch Country Park.
Like most suburbs of London, Hornchurch had been entirely rural until the arrival of the railway which spurred huge property development during the early 1900s. Whole estates were constructed such as Emerson Park to the north. Development was fuelled further by the arrival of the electrified District Line during the 1930s with inter and post war housing developments south and west of Hornchurch in places such as Elm Park. Hornchurch Urban District was formed in 1926 from part of Romford Rural District. In 1934 it was enlarged to include Upminster, Cranham, and North Ockendon although none are today considered part of Hornchurch. The council offices were located at Langtons until 1965 when the present-day London Borough of Havering was formed. A.F.C. Hornchurch are the local football team, formed to replace Hornchurch F.C. with Havering Hockey Club (formerly Hornchurch Hockey Club) accommodating the field hockey fixtures from their Harrow Lodge Park base.
Hornchurch is identified in the London Plan as a "district centre", with few well known High Street names other than banks and a supermarket, with some small independent or specialist businesses and a growing number of restaurants and bars. The town centre competes mostly with nearby Romford and the out-of-town shopping centres of Lakeside and Bluewater.
There are no stations in central Hornchurch, however four stations are located within the town; Upminster Bridge tube station is located just within its eastern boundary, Hornchurch tube station is located about a half-mile south of the high street, Elm Park tube station is about a mile and a half to the south west and Emerson Park railway station is located about a half-mile to the north. The nearest main line railway station is at Upminster.