A History of Essex

What Makes Essex

A county’s history through 10,000 years must be influenced by its physical features and the underlying structure of its land. So it is with Essex. A bird’s eye view shows Essex sloping gently from the north west to the south eastern coast, as if preparing to slide slowly into the North Sea. Millions of years ago, Essex, along with the rest of Britain, lay at the bottom of the sea, where the chalk beds that underlie the county’s boulder clay and gravel layers of subsoil, were formed.

The land we see today can be summed up like this: to the north west of the county, roughly from Roydon through Chelmsford to Colchester, there is a plateau of boulder clay, mixed in some places with chalk. The ancient deposit of chalk still comes to the surface at Saffron Walden in the north west and at Grays to the south east. This chalk has been worked for man’s needs since prehistoric times. At Thurrock on the north bank of the Thames it is worked in quarries associated with the great cement factory which was such a landmark, with its smoke-belching chimneys seen by all who travelled by the Purfleet—Dartford tunnel. The Dene Holes in Thurrock show how ancient man burrowed his way down into the chalk, forming caverns in his search for flints from which to make his tools.

Under the boulder clay lies the gravel – rocks broken down by glacial action and pushed down from the north. It forms a rumpled blanket yards deep, surfacing and diving deep under clay and sand and loam. Another valuable deposit left by the action of glaciers and their melt water is the brick earth found in pockets all over the county. It is sufficiently near the surface, and in such quantities in some places, to sustain large local brick and tile industries between the Stour and the Colne and on the banks of the Chelmer, Blackwater, Crouch, Roach and Thames. Such earth is also very fertile, supporting plentiful crops since man first farmed it.

The larger rivers find their outlets in the boulder-clay plateau and run with the inclined plane, the lie of the land, from north west to south east.

Any motorist driving down to the Thames from the north will notice the ridge from which there is an unusual lofty view of the Thames and the Kent countryside. Beyond, it can suddenly open up before the abrupt drop to the Thameside towns and villages. This ‘scarp’, not high, but steep, extends as far as the eye can see on either side. The explanation is that this was once the northern bank of an altogether mightier Thames, made unimaginably vast when the melting glaciers of the Ice Age caused the river to bend northeast-wards in its course to join the Rhine and flow on north into a northern ocean long before our North Sea came into being. The formation of the marshlands along the Essex coast up to the low cliffs of Harwich gives credence to this theory.

By and large, the residents in the thousands of homes on estates built since the Second World War, find themselves tilling the obstinate London Clay which, when it is broken down and fertilised can make an excellent growing medium. Farmers on the ‘three-horseland’, the stiff blue London Clay which weathers brown, sticky and glue-like, found it almost impossible to work until the advent of mechanisation. In wet weather it made the ill-clad agricultural labourer’s life a misery. It covers the south, the east and west of the county, and is interspersed with alluvial soil on river banks.

People living on the tumbled debris of the ancient glacier paths enjoy a medium soil, but the jagged flints and the broken gravel, together with the rounded pebbles, make cultivation more difficult. Farmers have broken many a tine and blade on the obdurate stones which can be of all sizes and from rock strata hundreds of miles from their original source, moved on and down by glaciers. Central north eastern Essex is covered in this manner. One place in Essex – Ingatestone – even gets its name from the vast conglomerate of rock called pudding stone which marked a prehistoric track, used possibly by early salt traders. Later Saxon settlers made their homes here, and as pioneers passed on through to new sites for settlement they called this place the ‘Ing’ or people, at the Stone. In another place, Dedham, a great boulder can be seen in the churchyard on the south side of the church. In 1907 an old man told the story of this huge boulder, a leftover from the Ice Age, and it was written down for posterity. Edward Ward, a ploughman, had the plough almost jerked from his hands as it hit an obstruction under the soil. He tried to dig it out but it was too large to excavate in work time. He set himself to uncover it after he had finished work, then asked the farmer if he could use his tackle to take it to his cottage. He let it be known to all his relations that this great boulder was to be his and his wife’s gravestone. His wish was faithfully observed, but the relatives did not have that stone inscribed. So the humble ploughman and his wife lie anonymously beneath a stone which will outlast the finest monument in the churchyard.

The chalk soils on the north west border of the county are thin and dry. The earliest settlers sited their crude huts on the patches of glacial drift and gravel where there was a better water supply.

Stone Age people were settled in Essex some 7.300 years ago, though their simple way of life made no impact on the wilderness that then was Essex. Humans made themselves thoroughly at home in Essex, living off’ the forested land and the creatures it supported.

The all-pervading forest had, by about 5,000 BC, diversified to include oak, ash, beech, elm, lime and other varieties as we see them today in those relatively tiny enclaves at Epping and Hatfield – the last, and now zealously guarded, relics of the Great Forest of Essex. Formerly the forest pressed down to the foreshore and clothed the banks of the rivers. Those rivers were the natural highways for the people from the Stone Age right through to modern times when they were canalised to take even more advantage of nature’s easy access to the heart of the county.

There are at least 22 rivers and streams in Essex significant enough to have been named by our Saxon forefathers. Four main rivers form its ancient boundaries. The Thames forms the 35-mile south border, although it does not drain any part of the county directly except through its tributaries the Lea, the Roding, the Ingrebourne and some minor streams. Down the western side of the county runs the Lea which, having taken the waters of the Stort at Roydon, continues on its southward way to the Thames. The Lea has formed the boundary of the county since AD 886 when King Alfred negotiated with the Danish ruler Guthrum that all the land east of the river should remain under Danelaw while the other bank would form the extent of Alfred’s kingdom of Mercia. The Stort rises on the border of Essex with Hertfordshire, between Langley in the former and Nuthampstead in the latter. It acts as the county border for a couple of miles, then wanders into Essex through Clavering. Manuden and Birchanger to Stansted Mountfitchet, where it again forms the border for a mile or so. After another meander for a couple of miles it once again forms the border clown to the Lea at Roydon, though it does wander away west of the Hallingbury villages.

Our county’s northern border is defined by the Stour. Forty three of its 52-mile long course traces the county’s outline. Having risen near Brinkley in Suffolk, it flows south east to arrive on the Essex border at Sturmer. Once there was a great lake here and the Stour mere gave the settlement its name of Sturmere, as shown in the Domesday Book.

The Stour was first made navigable for small trading ships, from Sudburv down to its mouth, in 1712 or thereabouts. An improved navigation 24 miles long with 15 locks was opened in 1796. The barges were pulled by two horses upstream and one coming down. The journey between Sudbury and Mistley on the estuary took twelve hours. Upstream, another two hours were needed. The towpath crossed the river 32 times and the horses were trained to cross by jumping on and off the bows of the barge. Whereas other canal companies had bought the riparian rights to the land needed for towpaths, the Stour Navigation Company was content to lease such land so, when it closed down, the river banks reverted to the riverside farmers – and that is why there are few public walks beside the Stour to this day. At Mistley the Stour, rapidly widening into a tidal estuary, can accommodate coasters Lip to a thousand tons burthen. By the time it joins the Orwell to form Harwich Harbour some ten miles on, it takes vessels of up to 15,000 tons which operate out of Britain’s second largest passenger ferry terminal.

The Chelmer rises in Rowney Wood. Debclen, some 370 feet above sea level and runs for 35 miles from west of Thaxted through the Easton villages, the Dunmows. Great and Little. Barnston. Felsted, the Walthams. Broomfield. Springfield and Chelmsford – the county town from which the river gained its name. But it is actually the Can which runs through the town centre and under the old Stone Bridge. The Chelmer cuts across under the Springfield Road and then meets its fate as the terminus of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, with wharves and warehouses built to unload and store the goods brought up by barge from Heybridge Basin, where the sea-going ships tied up.

The Chelmer was still technically a river, for it continued to drive many a mill wheel on loops of the river which had to be bypassed by the canal engineers. So the river runs on, with canalised stretches, through Boreham and Baddow, Woodham Walter and Citing, Langford and Maldon to its ultimate ‘harbour’ at the last lock on the Blackwater estuary. The canal is no longer used other than as a mooring and pleasure boat facility.

The Blackwater rises at Debden very close indeed to the source of the Chelmer. It is called the Pant down to Kings Bridge in Bocking and thereafter is known as the Blackwater right down to the wide Blackwater estuary where the Come and the Chelmer contribute their waters. After passing through villages from Radwinter to Wethersfield and on to Bocking, the young Pant becomes the adult Blackwater, running on through Coggeshall, Feering, the Braxteds and Wickham Bishops to Langford and a junction with a canalised section of the Chelmer. Here its waters swell the flow which, from 1797, carried a continual procession of barges up and down the last ‘cut’ taking the canal down to Heybridge Basin.

The Come, 32 miles long with an extra tidal stretch of seven miles, rises near the back entrance to Moyns Park, Birdbrook at a height of some 300 feet above sea level and flows straightforwardly south east through Colchester. At Great Yeldham, about four miles from its source, it is reinforced by a stream from Stambourne: then it continues on its direct course through the Heclinghams. Halstead, the Come villages, Lexden and, of course, its great namesake Colchester. On it goes in broadened estuarine form to Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea, where it combines at last With the Blackwater to form that very wide estuary which takes in the Chelmer. It then washes round the islands of Osea. Northey and Mersea and runs at last into the North Sea.

Other rivers which make jagged edges to the outline of Essex include the Crouch and the Roach. The Crouch rises just south of Billericay and runs some 24 miles eastwards through Wickford and Runwell to Battlesbridge where, at high tide, it becomes navigable down the 16 miles of an estuary that widens to a mile and a half between Holliwell Point to the north and Foulness Point to the south. One of its tributaries is the Roch, or Broomhill River, better known today as the Roach. From a source of several springs on high ground east of Rayleigh, it combines as one river near Rochford and flows on eastward to join the Crouch after feeding Potton Creek and the Middleway at Potton Point. The strange thing is that its estuary is twice as long as its course – demonstrating how the coastal valleys were filled by glacial melt in those times.

The Roding runs down to a creek off the Thames;’. . , the insalubrious Barking Creek’, as Marcus Crouch puts it. From a source at Chapel End, Broxted, this humble river runs 35 miles through Takeley, the Canflelds, the Rodings, Fyfield, the Ongars, the Staplefords, Woodford and Wanstead before it finds the Thames. John Norden, the mapmaker, put it so neatly in 1594: ‘The Roding firste appeareth nere Takeley; whence, as she passeth, she greeteth her nine daughters, all the Rodinges.’ He was referring to the nine villages then existing that were named after the river: Abbess, Aythorpe, Beauchamp, Berners, High, Leaden, Margaret, Morrells and White Roding.

The Rom, another tributary of the Thames, was known in the past as the Bourne or the Beam. It rises near Brook House, Navestock, and runs south under Bourne Bridge. Stapleforci Abbotts, on to its namesake Romford and thus directly into the Thames, forming on its way the boundaries of the old parishes of Dagenham and Hornchurch. A perambulation of the Forest of Essex in 1301 states that the Rom formed its eastern boundary ‘. , which water runs down from a certain place called Dakenhambeem and from that place by a certain ditch called Maredike between Havering [Liberty] and Dakenham, as far as the line of the water of the Thames.’ Just about a mile from the rising of the Rom there springs the Ingrebourne, flowing south to feed the Thames at Rainham, 11 miles away. The Mardyke mentioned in that ancient perambulation is the spring that feeds the lake in Thorndon Park, East Horndon, and runs on ten miles through Childerditch, Bulphan, Orsett and Stifford to join the Thames at Purfleet.

There is often confusion concerning the Cam and the Can. Let us take the Cam first. It rises on that same watershed near Wimbish where four other Essex rivers are born – the Blackwater, the Chelmer, the Roding and the Pincey Brook. The Cam, whose source is between Debden and Henham, has the distinction of being the only river which rises in Essex and flows out of it. After 11 miles through Essex it runs on for another 54 miles to be a tributary of the Great Ouse as it heads for the Wash.

The Can’s source is at High Roding. It waters a particularly beautiful vale of villages including Aythorpe Roding, High Easter, Good Easter, Mashbury, Chignall Smealey. Chignall St James, Roxwell and Writtle. So it arrives in the county town where it delivers a considerable volume to the Chelmer. It is itself enriched by the waters of the Wid which runs round three parts of a circle in its 14-mile journey from Blackmore.

The name of the Brain is comparatively modern. It has been traced back to the 13th century, when Braintree was known as Great Rayne in contradistinction to Little Rayne – now known simply as Rayne. Before the river reached Braintree it was always, and still is, known as Pod’s Brook – only as it leaves the town is it recognised as the Brain. Taking the river as a whole, it runs 14 miles from south west of Bardfield, near Long Green through Great Saling, Rayne and Braintree, curving north to water the Notley villages and Faulkbourne on its way to Witham and marriage with the Blackwater.

The little Ter rises at Porter’s Hall in Stebbing and flows for 15 miles through Felsted. Great and Little Leighs, Feering, Terling and Hatfield Peverel to its meeting with the Chelmer at Ulting. This river was the subject of accusation and investigation during the terrible typhoid fever outbreak in Terling in November 1867. Over six weeks 300 people contracted the disease and 44 died. Its severity brought the situation to the notice of the national press including the Times and the Lancet.

The Roman River, 11 miles long, rises about a mile west of Tey-brook Farm at Great Tey. It flows serpent-like south east through Copford and Birch, passes Abberton and Fingringhoe and joins the Come almost at its mouth. Early writers believed it got its name from the many evidences of Roman occupation of the land it waters, but later authorities, like P H Reaney, show how both river and creek were named after the owners of the land in the 14th century – the Romayn family.

There are other streams and rivulets which have been the reason for settlement by humans in prehistoric times. They may not make much of a contribution to the landscape, but just a moment of reflection on the bank of a small stream like the Roxwell Brook brings to mind the generations of people who have been grateful for its water – the water of life for simple folk scraping a living off the land through 5,000 years or more.

The shape of the county on its seaward side is extremely complex. The endless erosion of the salt marshes by the sea, long before sea walls were raised, combined with silt carried out to sea by all those rivers in flood, created tide-washed sandbanks which stretched more than 20 miles out to sea in some places. The low cliffs to the north east are the county’s only defiant gesture to North Sea storms, and they have been made to suffer for it. The old villages of Frinton and Walton were washed away completely by the 18th century. Harwich was once under the direct threat of encirclement by the sea, as will he explained later in the book.

Erosion of the Naze cliff at Walton, particularly in the ‘Red Crag’ stratum, constantly brings to light fresh layers of fossil remains of mammoth and rhinoceros, shark and shellfish, that enjoyed life in the tropical climate which blessed the land and sea before the Ice Age.

Though a journey distance by sea from Southend direct to Harwich would be no more than 45 miles, the extent of the sea walls needed to keep the sea from inundating the Essex coast would stretch up to four times that distance, so long and wide are the creeks and estuaries which make up the Essex shoreline.

The maritime history of Essex is as varied as its coastline. The shallows and the sandbanks stretching far to sea created a maze of death for sailing ships and denied the county a major port from the mouth of the Thames right up to Harwich. Of course, there were ports where the essentials of life were landed and certain local exports loaded, and where fishing fleets could find safe haven. Barking had a huge fishing fleet sailing regularly out of the Thames: Leigh was a considerable fishing port with general trade from overseas, sufficient to require the establishment there of a custom house. Burnham and Battlesbridge had their quays, the former going on to be an international yachting centre. Maldon was an early and important port until the silting up of the Blackwater reduced the draught which the larger vessels needed. Colchester was a very busy port in the 18th century when its cloth trade was booming, but it lost much of that trade with the onset of the industrial revolution when the new railway system allowed easy distribution from the vast complex of London docks.

The port of Harwich was important from the earliest times, with its ferry service to the continent. Its value was summed up in a report to the Admiralty in 1843: Although the rivers Thames and Humber afford shelter by running far up them, yet Harwich, from its easy access by night or day, in all weathers, at all states of the tide, is the only harbour of refuge on the East Coast of England.

The little ports down the Colne – Wivenhoe. Rowhedge, Brightlingsea – were surprisingly prosperous at the turn of the century from the flowering of the yacht-building and repairing activity carried on there. This industry grew to international importance and gave rise to the facilities for large fleets of fishing smacks which were based there.

All sailors heading for Essex ports had to be very careful when threading their way through the sandbanks and the islands. Of the latter there are more than 30 included in the Essex boundaries. Quite a few of’ them have now been connected to the mainland by causeways. Some are permanent, like the Strood that leads to Mersea: some are tidal, like the raised roads that allow low-tide access to Osea and to Northey.

Canvey Island, now firmly tied to South Benflect with concrete roads and bridges, is a history book in itself, built up from nothing more than a shifting mudbank in the Thames by the ingenuity of the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden in 1623. The whole story is laid out to view in the Dutch Cottage Museum on the island. Northey Island saw the Danes encamped before their victory at the Battle of Maldon in AD 991. Mersea Island heard the tramp of Roman troops nearly 1,000 years before that, and Osea Island was used in modern times as a rehabilitation centre for chronic alcoholics. Every island has its story, right down to little Rushley Island. It was just three acres of mud washed by the highest tides as they swept up the creek between Havengore and Wakering Stairs when it was bought for £40 in 1785 or thereabouts. It was walled around and farmed to produce a profit of’ no less than £330 a year in 1790, and that was a considerable sum in those days. It was overwhelmed by a freak tide in 1791 which bankrupted its owner, John Harriot, the famous progenitor of the Thames River Police. It was later re-walled and is still farmed today. These facts serve simply as representative examples of’ the importance in the Essex story of its veritable archipelago.

By including in this history the whole area of Essex as it existed up to 1965 and the artificial formation of the Greater London Council, we are following in the footsteps of Essex County Council itself, for it states in a recent copy of its County Handbook:

‘… although the London Boroughs of Barking, Havering, Newham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, with a population of nearly 1,250,000 are referred to in this book, the Essex mostly dealt with in these pages is a county covering 1.450 square miles and with a population   of 1,314,680 …’

The towns and villages swallowed up by those new London Boroughs include some really important old Essex settlements; from Walthamstow, Wanstead, West Ham and Leyton eastwards through Ilford, Barking and Dagenham to Havering-atte-Bower, Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster. Even little Cranham achieved fame as the home of General James Oglethorpe, colonial pioneer and prison reformer, who founded the state of Georgia. USA.

In 1965, then, these ancient places left Essex in terms of local government boundaries; but for all the new names and the different divisions between capital and country there are still hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of these former Essex villages who identify strongly with the old county. In 1974, there was a big reorganisation of local government within the county, when rural district councils were abolished. Southend-on-Sea lost its status as a County Borough and altogether larger districts were formed. Take the county town as an example; Chelmsford had been incorporated as a Borough in 1888. In 1974 that status was done away with and 27 villages all around the town, formerly administered by the Rural District Council were added to the borough to make the area of the Chelmsford District Council. The office of Mayor was declared redundant and a Chairman presided over council meetings. Later the Chelmsford District Council took up the option to re-introduce the title of Mayor and so preserve a valuable ceremonial link with the past.

That ancient division of settlement and self-government in Essex – the parish – is neatly defined by a historian early in the 20th century: ‘Centuries before universal suffrage was ever dreamt of, we were governing ourselves . . , the local community was the only real authority: the parish was the unit of government . . . . Every householder had to serve his year as an administrator of the nation’s business . . , he became for the time being an essential part of the national machinery …., the end of his year he went back into the general body of the village community . . .’ He was then much wiser about the doings of the parish and its relationship to the county and the country at large. He told his family all he saw and heard, and that was a valuable part of their education.

The parish in the earliest days was what could be described as ‘the territorial basis of community service.’ The date on which parish government was lawfully defined and introduced is now lost in history, though historians seem to agree that it was some time between the Council of Clermont in 1095 and the Lateran Council of 1179. Parish government was overtaken by the vast increase in population and the formation of large urban areas of residence, business and manufacture. K B Smellie, in his history of local government, shows how this was catered for: ‘Between the parish and the King there was a system of county government and in each County the representatives of the King were never allowed to become the independent heads of petty kingdoms . . , certain small towns received special privileges from the King which, in effect, meant that they were excluded from the supervision of the County authorities – those special towns were the Boroughs.’

In later times, and especially during periods of agricultural depression, more and more people were attracted to the opportunities of steady work in the growing urban areas, particularly east and north east of London. The old parishes had to be divided and subdivided to provide the basic services to the poor, the aged and the infirm. Take, for example, the parish of Barking, already shown in Pigot’s County Directory of 1839 as divided into four wards known as Town, Chadwell, Ilford and Ripple with a total population of 8,000 souls. ‘The welfare of the place mainly depends upon its fishery, which employs upwards of twelve hundred men and boys, on board vessels from forty to sixty tons . . , a considerable number of the inhabitants are also engaged in the cultivation of potatoes and other vegetables for the supply of the metropolis.’

By the time the last County Directory was published in 1937 both these industries were totally obsolete. Wharves, warehouses and factories had increased and the population in 1931, when Barking achieved the status of a Borough in its own right, was no less than 51,270. Currently, as a new, enlarged London Borough taking in the neighbouring Borough of Dagenham, the population is in the order of 180.000, and industries range from manufacture of cars and production of electricity to industries based on chemicals, paints, timber, rubber and medicines.

In contrast to this expansion, let us look at a country parish – Great Bardfleld, in the centre of agricultural Essex. In 1831 it had a population of a thousand and was described as ‘. . , once a market town, but at present hardly recognizable as such.’ By 1937 that population had dwindled to 795. Agricultural inventions, harnessed to the internal combustion engine, were already reducing the manual labour needed on the farm, and competition from foreign food suppliers through advances in canning and refrigeration were affecting the local farming industry.

The universality of personal motor transport today allows anyone With sufficient money to buy a house in a charming village and travel to work in a distant town. Many Essex villages are now dormitories for commuters to London and to the towns in the county – Chelmsford. Colchester, Brentwood, Southend, Stansted and so on.

Even in the earliest days, agriculture was not the only or even the main industry in some places. We have seen how Barking’s importance grew from fishing, and there were other places which relied on the sea for their livelihood. Some, like Leigh, were not only busy ports but had their own oyster beds and dredged the estuarine shallows for the shellfish which were the ‘beef’ in the diet of coastal villagers. Old Walden gained the ‘Saffron’ prefix from its cultivation of the saffron crocus, so useful in baking and in dyeing. But however the people of Essex earn their living today, the county is now home to a population estimated at more than two and a half million.