There is evidence for prehistoric and Roman activity in and around the town. In the Saxon period there was a settlement on the site, and by the time of the Domesday Survey there was a reasonably large population within the Halstead area, with an unusually high proportion of smallholders and freemen. In 1251 Abel de St Martin, who held one of the Halstead manors, was granted the right to hold a market, presumably on the site of the present town, and the settlement grew to be the dominant market-town in the area.
The later post-medieval period saw the introduction of major changes to the town’s development because of the introduction of the weaving trade in the late eighteenth century and more significantly, the building of Courtauld’s silk factory in 1828. Courtaulds was essentially a paternalistic family business, that as the major employer in the town, played a most significant role in all aspects of urban life. In addition to the houses built for the employees of the factory, the Courtaulds also organised and funded a school, adult education classes, a library and institute, nursery, mother’s club, sick fund, amusement society, lodging house, Jubilee Fountain, Public Park, retirement homes and Cottage Hospital. In addition to Courtauld’s there were also a number of other significant employers, including the Tortoise and Portway Iron Foundries and Adams Brewery, and the town continued to retain a market and retail function.