Essex in the Eighteenth Century
The southern part of Essex suffered a disaster in 1707. There was a very high tide on 17th December. It overflowed the dyke which protected the little village of Dagenham from the tidal rising of’ the Thames. Thomas Moat, a Rainham carpenter, had the job of’ opening and closing the sluice gates which controlled the flow of water off the marshes behind the dyke. He opened one to get rid of the overflow and the hatch was smashed by the force of the water making a six-yard wide breach in the dyke which carried thousands of tons of earth out into the Thames. To mend it then would have cost some £30, but the delay caused by the bureaucracy involved in setting the work in hand allowed the tides to sweep in and out, causing a vast lake in the hinterland and taking more and more land out into the Thames. Where it caused such sandbanks that they became a real danger to shipping. The ‘Dagenham Breach’ became famous. For 14 years it defied all attempts to repair. A special tax was voted by Parliament on all ships coming up the Thames to raise the sum required for the repair. Several contractors were beaten by the sheer force of the tidal flow through the breach, which widened to 100 yards and was 20 feet deep.
The government gave up, the breach became a vast lake. Essex landowners were in despair. Dagenham villagers saw the creek creeping up to their doorsteps. Then, like the hero in a melodrama, along came Captain Perry, a man skilled in such engineering work. It took five years, hundreds of workmen and an expenditure of over £40,000 to finally effect the repair in 1720. His book, Account of the Stopping of Dagenham Breach was published in 1721. There is still a lake left behind the embankment of the Thames, on the land now developed into a vast manufacturing complex by the Ford Motor Company.
By the time the Breach had been sealed, George I had been on the throne for 14 years. Under his influence Essex enjoyed a ‘Golden Age’ of farming. For many years farmers here knew about proper drainage, using marl or chalk to lighten the land, the growing of turnips and the rotation of crops which had put them well ahead of man-v other counties. Improvements in road-making and the construction of canals made travel and transport much easier and the population became increasingly mobile. An Act for the construction of the Stour Navigation was passed in 1705. During the century the Stort, the Lea and the Chelmer and Blackwater rivers were canalised.
New roads were paid for by the setting up of tollgates, or turnpikes’. Essex was adjacent to the City of London business and pleasure in the capital was the merest coach or horseback journey away. It was not long before rich commuters were building elegant mansions such as Wanstead House practically within the sound of Bow bells. Sir Josiah Child, having made a fortune in the East India trade, bought the Wanstead House estate covering around 10,000 acres. His son, Richard, raised to the peerage as 1st Earl Tylney, put in hand the building of the grandest mansion designed by Colen Campbell in the Palladian style, from 1715. The awful postscript to this particular manifestation of wealth and grandeur is that the family’s financial imprudence meant that the place was mortgaged up to the hilt by 1800. It was decided that it was too near the ever-expanding metropolis and was put up for sale in 1822. It sold for just £10,000 to a speculator who demolished it hoping to make a profit on the building material produced. The contents of the house realised over four times that amount.
The kind of life and entertainment which went on in these big houses is well illustrated by a handbill, printed and circulated through London and Essex, which announced:
‘This is to give notice to all my honoured masters and ladies and the rest of my loving friends that my Lady Butterfield gives a challenge to ride a horse, to leap a horse, or run on foot or halloo with [i.e. chase] any woman in England seven years younger but not a day older because I won’t undervalue myself being now 74 years of age. My feast will be the last Wednesday of April where there will be good entertainment for that day and all the year after in Wanstead in Essex.’
While the rich disported themselves away from prying eyes, the poor had to run the gauntlet of close-watching village gossips. If they made love outside marriage they had to pay for it. Today the words fornication and adultery have little meaning and less force, but a note in the parish register of Rettendon shows what a sin it was considered in 1717, and what a stir was caused in the little community.
‘June 30th, 1717, Mary Rawbones and Ursula Event, singlewomen, and Mary Perry, widow, did penance in the parish church. The two former for committing fornication, the first with Ezekiel Carter, the second with Edward Lungley, both bachelors; and the third for committing adultery with John Robinson, a married man. A great multitude of people from all the neighbouring parishes being spectators.’
These guilty people had to dress from head to foot in white and carry white staffs. They stood facing the congregation throughout the service and then confessed their guilt and asked for forgiveness but only the women were judged guilty while the men went scot free.
Between rich and poor, a middle rank of farmers and merchants made a very good living from the London market. There was a constant and reliable demand for meat and dairy produce, for flour, oatmeal and barley. Market gardens were developed as near the capital as possible to reduce transport costs and to maximise freshness of the vegetables on the market stalls. It is hard to imagine the West Ham of today as a wide-spreading market garden, yet even before 1740 potatoes were being grown there on an experimental commercial basis, and the gardens spread out north and east, even as far as Rainham.
Fish to feed that hungry capital, particularly on days of religious fast, were caught by the great fleet of fishing boats based on Barking. It is such a commercial and industrial centre today, with buildings crowding down to the banks of Barking Creek where the river Roding joins the Thames that it is hard to believe that Barking was once a port of great significance. From its quay there sailed the greatest fishing fleet the world has ever seen. In 1814, when the quay had been rebuilt. 70 ships were tying up there, each of 40-53 tons.
The principal owner was Samuel Hewett. He gained fame and fortune for his family fishing firm, the Short Blue fleet, by introducing the first primitive refrigeration of the catch. It was organised like this: the marshes on the edge of the little town were flooded in the winter to provide ice. It was broken up and carted off to the Barking icehouse, a cavern dug deep in the earth where the ice was kept in usable condition right through the summer. On every fishing trip one ship loaded with ice went round the fleet collecting all the fish they had so far caught, and while that fleet carried on fishing the ice-ship hastened back up the Thames to London with a lucrative cargo of fresh fish. The high point in the history of the Short Blue fleet was in 1850 when all 225 fishing smacks sailed down the Thames and out to their fishing grounds. It was the introduction of rail transport which doomed Barking’s role as a fishing port.
Further down the Thames the chalk quarries at Grays have totally altered the riparian landscape. Millions of tons of earth have been carried away to be converted into lime and, latterly, cement. In 1669 Mr Samuel Irons was doing such good business in burning chalk for lime that he issued his own small change in the form of a halfpenny token on which he had impressed a drawing of a lime-kiln. The parish register records the burial of a ‘lime-burner’ in 1681. So we know that chalk has been quarried here for over 300 years. It would be quite impossible to estimate the amount removed. Two hundred years ago heavy loads of chalk were being carted in huge waggons with specially wide wheels along the miry Essex road to kilns up to 30 miles away.
Arthur Young, the eminent writer on agriculture, wrote in his Tour Through the Southern Counties published in 1757,
‘Of all the accursed roads that ever disgraced this kingdom in the very ages of barbarism, none ever equalled that from Billericay to the ‘King’s Head’ at Tilbury. It is for twelve miles so narrow that a mouse cannot pass by any wagon … the ruts are of an incredible depth except at a few places, and to add to all the infamous circumstances which occur to plague it traveller. I must not forget eternally meeting with chalk wagons, themselves frequently stuck fast until a collection of them are in the same situation, so that twenty or thirty horses may be tacked to each to draw them out, one by one.
Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) author of Robinson Crusoe, set up a tile works at Chadwell. It prospered until he became too involved with his political writing, then it was closed down with a loss of £3,000, a very large sum at that rime. He was having the same difficulties in finding workers as some employers complain of today, saving, ‘l affirm of my own knowledge, when I have wanted a man for labouring work, and offered nine shillings a week to strolling fellows at the door, they have frequently told me to my face that they could get more a-begging He did not need to worry because his books were such a runaway success, though his political pamphlets did get him into trouble from time to time. Knowing Essex well, he set the opening scenes of Moll Flanders in Colchester, and later in life he leased the estate we know as Severalls so that his daughter Hannah could live there in comfort until her death in 1759.
Brick and tile making, introduced into the counts’ by the Romans, was an art lost for hundreds of years. Its gradual reappearance is shown by a record of 1301 which shows a tiler was working in Colchester. In 1423 the General Council of Colchester published an edict that tiles should be made to standard sizes. Bricks have been produced in their millions in Essex since Tudor Times, to be exported well beyond the county boundary. Ingatestone Hall’s brick exterior was completed by 1548. Pevsner says:
‘The High Street has no house of independent value, but in the aggregate its Georgian brick and its fewer sixteenth and seventeenth century timber-framed houses form a happy picture.’
Wivenhoe Park, now part of the University of Essex, is a hybrid of such architecture, but in reverse. It was built between 1758 and 1761 in typical Georgian style, but almost a hundred years later it was altered and enlarged in a neo-Tudor style by the architect Thomas Hopper. The number of grand houses built in Essex by old-established families and up-and-coming London commuters is SO great that they cannot be detailed in a general history. They have been surveyed by Nancy Briggs in Georgian Essex (1989).
While the tile and brick industry was growing, the great Essex cloth industry was declining. In 1700 the area of Braintree and Bocking was the second most important cloth-making centre in Essex, and a certain kind of cloth became known around the world as ‘Bockings’. It had the reputation for hard-wearing quality which denim has today. Nearly 600 weavers took part in a strike in 1758, and many others would have carried on working. The unrest was caused by the huge loss of business to the new mills in the north of England with its threat to continuing employment in Essex. Men joined the Militia for alternative employment, and parents made sure that their children were not apprenticed to this dying trade.
Even as late as 1777 the weavers were marching through Braintree and Bocking in their famous procession. Hundreds of them formed up on 1st April and marched together in commemoration of the establishment of the weaving industry in England in general and in Essex in particular. They carried aloft the flags of their country and their craft guilds, stepping in time to the brave music of a band. In front they carried, reverently, working models of the spinning and weaving inventions, like the wheel and the loom, representing the various branches of their industry. The newspaper tells us:
‘They behaved with great decency throughout the whole, not one could be discerned to have been the least disguised in liquor; and most of the masters rewarded them with peculiar generosity, after which they discharged their bills, and retired quietly to work.’
An unusual but important Essex industry closely connected with cloth, was the making of a black dye and ink from copperas. The Portugese demanded black cloth for their women’s wear, so Essex cloth workers with valuable export contracts with Portugal had urgent need of that dye. Copperas occurs naturally on the northeast coast of Essex as twig-like nodules of bisulphate of iron. It was gathered from the beaches by women and children, picking it laboriously from the foot of the cliffs where it had been washed out by tidal action. By mixing loads of copperas with layers of scrap iron and damping it all down, the deadly green vitriol, basis of the black dye, and sulphuric acid were produced. It was done on the foreshore, in hazardous conditions. At Walton-on-the-Naze the ground on which this was done became so polluted with sulphur that nothing grew there for over 100 years after the practice was discontinued. A traveller through Harwich in 1724 spoke of ‘The famous well which turns wood into metal’, continuing, ‘I took out several pieces of sticks, which seemed to the eye to be wood, but were ponderous yet brittle. It is of this they make the best Copperas.’
Roads were improving all through the century. Sir Henry Bate-Dudley (1745-1824), editor of the Morning Post, squire of the village of Bradwell-juxta-Mare, and parson of that parish, used his influence as a Justice of the Peace to set in hand a county-wide improvement of the road system. He expended a great deal of his own money on making up the roads all around the village and also set a very good example of farm management. Though the traveller could make better time on the new roads, especially as new kinds of light, sprung carriages were being developed, they could not be said to be much safer. Highwaymen – a romantic name for petty thieves – like Essex-born Dick Turpin, preyed on travellers from hiding places in the forest borders of the road.
Legend has it that Turpin robbed the rich to give to the poor, but the fact is that most of his ill-gotten gains were spent on high living in low dives. He was born in Hempstead in 1705, where his parents kept the Bell Inn. Now it is known to the locals as Turpins Tavern. He was apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel but was dismissed for bad behaviour. He joined a gang of rustlers, was identified and became a ‘Wanted Man’. From then on he could only live by crime. He joined the Gregory Gang, desperadoes operating on the border of Essex with London.
The gang called on an old lady in Loughton and demanded her money. She told them to do their worst, and they picked her up bodily and held her over her own fire. In the agony of her scorching flesh she screeched out the hiding place of her life savings. The thugs dropped her on the floor, grabbed a haul of 400 sovereigns and disappearecd into the night. They were villains, but they were horsemen too. Between dusk and dawn on a winters night they rode from Chingford to Barking, it distance of 40 miles, robbing the vestries of both parish churches of everything valuable they could carry away.
By now Turpin had a price of £100 on his head for capture, dead or alive and other criminals would not risk working with him. He moved to a cave in Epping Forest from which he sallied forth to hold up traffic on the London to Cambridge road. His fame as a hero was short-lived. He shot dead a man, was recognised and fled. He hid out in Yorkshire, went to prison for poaching a pheasant and revealed his true identity by writing a letter to his brother which was intercepted hr the authorities. He was executed on 7th April 1 739.
‘Essex saw less of the Hanoverians than their predecessors who had been attracted to their residences in the county and the delights of the royal forests’ says the historian Kenneth Neale. Nancy Briggs, in Georgian Essex puts it another way. ‘The early Hanoverians did not take more than a passing interest in Essex, for them Harwich was the gateway to the continent and their beloved Hanover. An example of this was in September 1761 when Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg – Strelitz disembarked at Harwich, spent the night at the house of the Marquis of Abercorn at Witham and two days later went on to her marriage to George III, it is surprising that the king was not more drawn to our very agricultural count, for he wrote pamphlets on agricultural improvement, under the pen name of ‘Ralph Robinson’.
The Peace of Paris of 1763 gave Britain colonial gains and the First British Empire was at its height of power, but, as far as Essex historians are concerned, an even more momentous event took place. It was the publication at Chelmsford of the county newspaper, which is still published today. Thanks to this continuity, it is a source of history which is denied to most other counties.
The Chelmsford Chronicle; or, Essex Weekly Advertiser first appeared on 10th August 1764, printed by William Strupar at premises ‘opposite the Black Boy, in Chelmsford.’ That very first issue declares. ‘This number is to be as a specimen, and is given gratis.’ It goes on: ‘It has often been thought surprising that the county of Essex, which is one of the most considerable in England, should be without a newspaper, the source of information, and the channel of intelligence … The paper now offered to the public will remove this inconvenience … All manner of books, shopbills, catalogues, etc, will be neatly and expeditiously executed by the printer of this Chronicle, which will not be confined to articles of intelligence only, for variety of useful, instructive and entertaining matter shall be occasionally inserted in it, so that it will not he simply a news-paper but a repository of every kind of useful knowledge, and may not improperly be called ‘THE FAMILY LIBRARY.’
The Peace of Paris the previous rear had ended the Seven Years’ War but the quarrel with the colonies was casting a shadow. The taxes which were levied to pay for that war were the cause of large-scale smuggling, with Essex men bringing in all sorts of goods from the continent. The customs men at Leigh-on-Sea had seized from smugglers’ boats in that very year, thousands of yards of French lace, brocade, silk, cambric and lawn, together with quantities of silk stockings, pearls, jewellers’ and all kinds of rare goods from the burgeoning East India trade.
The value of the paper as a means of communication with the public at large was soon realised. Subsequent issues contained more and more advertisements. They range from the Chelmsford Races to be held on Galleywood Common to William Myers, staymaker, telling the ladies of the counts’ that, though he had been unwell for the last two years, he had now recovered and would be glad of their patronage.
News in October was more serious. The First Regiment of the Essex Militia ‘went through their evolutions and brings with the greatest exactness.’ A high tide at the end of September had not only damaged all the quays from London to the mouth of the Thames, but had also flooded the Barling marshes, drowned 100 of Mrs Bidler’s sheep at Hullbridge and completely washed away Bridgemarsh Island, which had only recently been embanked.
The paper became an indispensable source of detailed county history, cheaply available to those who could read, telling the story of’ Essex as it happened. It maintained continuity through changes of ownership and name. It reported on meetings of’ the Essex Turnpike Trusts and of gentlemen and traders concerning the proposed canal from Chelmsford to Maldon. In 1768 it published a letter from a well known gentleman. Peter Muilman, suggesting that a county meeting be held, more than 100 years before the County Council was formed. In July 1770 we read. ‘His majesty is graciously pleased to give the sum of one hundred guineas to be run for at Chelmsford in Essex, on the second day of the usual races by four years old mares, carrying eight stone and a half . . . And orders, as her majesty landed in Essex that this shall be called the Queens Plate.’
Most books about Essex tell the story of Edward Bright, the Fat Man of Maldon – but few people have heard of his sister. It is thanks to the Chelmsford Chronicle of 16th August 1765 that we know that she was Mrs Sarah Suckling of Thaxted – ‘a worthy widow Gentlewoman of an uncommon size’. When she died at the age of 47 she was reckoned to have weighed at least 20 stone – almost two and a half times the normal weight of a woman. The undertaker had to provide a double coffin and eight of the strongest men in Thaxted were asked to bear it to church. Even then there was doubt that they would be able to carry the coffin through the streets with dignity and respect, so they scoured the town for a low cart which could take a heavy weight and lowered the late Mrs Suckling on to it straight from her bedroom window, using her own pony to haul the cart up the hill to the church porch. The whole operation, we are told, ‘was conducted with great decorum, considering the vast concourse of people.’
The complete record of our county was completed by the history written by the Reverend Philip Morant from earliest times to the start of the Chronicle. He died on 25th November 1770 and exactly 200 years later Mr R Powell, then editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, gave a public lecture on the man and his achievement. Morant was born in Jersey, educated in England, took up the curacy of Great Waltham in 1724, then moved on to Shellow Bowells, Broomfield. Chignal Smealev, St Mary-at-the-Walls in Colchester, Wickham Bishops and, finally, to Aldham in 1745.
The great work appeared in 1768, entitled The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex. Mr Powell got to the heart of our reason for gratitude to Morant -’He finished the job!’ – and that was what previous endeavours had failed to do: yet Morant was nearly 60 when he started. Though Philip Morant’s remains lie in the old churchyard at Aldham, his tombstone has been brought into the chancel of the present church, Where a window and a tablet remind the visitor of the contribution this humble rector made to Essex history.
Morant’s excellent work was matched by a superb mapping of the county between 1772 and 1774 by John Chapman and Peter Andre resulting in the map of 1777. There had been other maps, of course, but none on a scale like this, of two inches to a mile. It was the first map to include features like mile stones, turnpike gates and green lanes.
It is a catalogue of the wealthy men of the county in that their houses are shown and their names engraved alongside. Many of them would have been present the following year, 1778, when, on 19th October. George III and Queen Charlotte arrived at Thorndon Hall as guests of the 9th Lord and Lady Petre, whence they proceeded the following day to review the troops assembled at Warley Camp. This was the first time that a Roman Catholic peer had been allowed to entertain the monarch of the realm. That summer another celebrity had been in camp with the militia at Warley. Dr Samuel Johnson staved under canvas with his friend Captain Langton of the Lincolnshire Militia and watched the troops go through their drills and manoeuvres. He even went on the round of guards at midnight. As he was 69 years old at the time, it can be appreciated that he was active for his age. Noting the difference between the tents for officers and other ranks he said. ‘The superiority of accommodation of the better conditions of life, to that of the inferior ones, was never better exhibited to me in so distinct a view.’
Dr Johnson makes the distinction between the classes: there are other illustrations of the gap between the rich and poor at this time. In 1772 Richard Choate, a grocer of Barnston, appealed to the Justices for help. Food prices had risen so steeply that even in this little village a group of starving inhabitants assembled, went into Choate’s shop and threatened to attack him and his shop if he did not sign a written consent to sell them butter at sixpence a pound and cheese at threepence a pound. He did it, even though this was greatly under market price. Worse was to follow: Benjamin Foakes, landlord of an inn at Great Dunmow, came into the shop and demanded a whole cheese at that same price of threepence a pound. Choate said he would be bankrupted if he sold it at that price. Foakes’ reply was that if he did not get the cheese he would get a mob from Dunmow to take a good deal more than the cheese. He left the shop, but then sent Thomas Gipson in with half a guinea, enough, he said, to buy 42 lbs of cheese. He bribed other people to do the same thing. Richard Choate saw his livelihood threatened and so sought the protection of the court.
In April of that same year waggons loaded with corn, meal and flour were stopped at Colchester by poor people ‘in want of the common necessities of life’. The’ weighed the load into small quantities and sold it amongst themselves, at prices the’ could afford. The traders could not say their goods were stolen, but they did not get anything like the market price. The great crowd which had gathered let it be known that they would give the butchers’ carts the same treatment when they came through. The demonstration spread down the road to Witham and on to Chelmsford, where another crowd seized two waggons of flour and took them to the market-place where they sold it to allcomers at 1s. 6d, a peck. The millers, including the well known Marriage family, the butchers and the bakers accepted the reduced prices, not only to express their sympathy for the poor but also to avoid the possibility of a serious riot.
Meanwhile the war with the American colonies was not going well and Essex suffered in the taking by the press gangs of many of their fishermen and merchant sailors for service in the Royal Na’’. September 1783 brought the Peace of Versailles and the loss of those American colonies. Full details in the Chronicle pushed local news off the page, while advertisements continued as numerous as ever, some of them inserted by the government, like the announcement of prizes in the state lottery, and the sale by auction of a vast amount of spirits seized from smugglers and lodged in the Harwich custom house.
In January 1784 the weather was so bad that the newspaper declared:
‘Let the rich, who cannot as present live without large fires in every part of their house, without flannels, wrappers and great coats, reflect on the deplorable state of many thousands who are well nigh deprived of the use of their limbs for want of these comforts.’
The industrial revolution was already turning its crushing wheels; Essex clothworkers were suffering from the mechanisation in the northern mills while Sir Richard Arkwright, with his own property in Essex, ‘. . , is supposed to have increased his property at least £20,000 per annum by his invention of the machines called Spinning Jennies.’ 1791 brought the news that Essex farmers had sown Egyptian wheat on land around London in a successful experiment. The big event in the county town was the news that on 13th January 1792 ‘The Shire House Committee made their final report that that public structure had been completed in the most perfect and elegant manner, with a saving of near 2,000 pounds under the original estimate . . .’John Johnson, the county surveyor and architect of the Shire Hall, was publicly thanked and given ‘a piece of plate’ worth 100 guineas.
Chelmsford’s role as the county town had been established before the 13th century, through the fact that the Manor was vested in the Bishop of London. Its position in the centre of the county also recommended Chelmsford as the most convenient place for the holding of the courts of the Royal Itinerant Justices. Records show that these courts were held spasmodically from 1189 and regularly from 1226. In 1199 the Bishop, as Lord of the Manor, obtained a royal licence to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.
By the 14th century the town was of settled importance and reputation. In old documents one can see mention of a wide range of trades and professions, showing the place catered for the demands of a wide area around it. A new bridge over the Can, at the bottom of the High Street, was built in 1382 to the plans of Henry d’Evelev, the architect who designed the nave of Westminster Abbey. What a stir must have been caused when Henry VII and his retinue stayed in Chelmsford in the course of a Royal Progress in 1489. He summoned the gentlemen of Essex to meet him there, telling them to be . . , well-appointed, so that the Lancashire men might see that there were gentlemen of so great substance in Essex that they could buy all Lancashire’.
It was thanks to a later Lord of the Manor, Thomas Mildmay, that we have the excellent map of the town made by John Walker in 1591. It gave the Mildmays an idea of the extent and state of their property, but we value it also for the written summary by this meticulous surveyor which gives such a vivid description of the town at this time. It concludes: Not far distant from [the] parish church is one other fair building called the market cross or Session House, very convenient and necessary before the Justices themselves, their under officers and ministers, and also for all sorts of subjects to be attendant there, as well as for the common Gaol and prisoners, so as all may commodiously serve to their convenient ease in the same.’ That Session House survived until 1791. In 1787 the bridge had to be renewed. The date carved on its keystone can still be read today. Both these rebuildings were designed and supervised by John Johnson, the surveyor to the county.
The threat of invasion at the end of the century, during the Napoleonic wars resulted in barracks being built in the town beside the gaol, down by the river and in Wood Street on the site of St John’s Hospital. Entrenchments, big gun emplacements and other fortifications were thrown up, overlooking the roads an invading force would traverse. This is why there is no Moulsham Hall today and the story is as follows:
When the ruling family at Chelmsford, the Mildmays, married into the Fitzwalters, the premier barony of England, they aspired to a mansion worthy of their high place in society. So they tore down the beautiful Tudor house in which they had lived for 200 years and had a new mansion built on the site. In 1770, Lord Fitzwalter, as he was then, was often away from home on national business. When he did return to Chelmsford they rang the church bells to welcome him – that is how important he was! This grand house was inherited by a Miss Mildmay who married Sir Henry Paulet St John. He had to take her father’s name and also to undertake to live in the house at least three months in every year. This was a great inconvenience since he already had his own house; then a curious coincidence occurred. The military authorities needed a house, just far enough away from the coast to serve as a headquarters in the event of a French invasion. Moulsham Hall fitted the bill exactly. They wanted to lease it, but that three months of compulsory residence by Sir Henry was the stumbling block. The problem was easily solved: the government had a special Act of Parliament passed to cancel this obligation and the military were installed. When they finished with it in 1808 Sir Henry had the house razed to the ground and all the furniture and pictures were sold. Now a large housing estate straddles the site.
Colchester claims on its town signs that it is the oldest town in Britain. Its first charter, after its ancient, Roman importance, was granted in 1189. It flourished as the staple town, the principal place for control of quality and for sale of cloth over a wide area of northern Essex. The siege of’ Colchester in 1648 rang the death knell of that industry. While Chelmsford may claim the dignity of County Town. Colchester is its superior in size and population and in the magnificence of its museum collections, particularly of its great Roman past. It has also played an important part in military history as a garrison town since the Napoleonic Wars. In recent years it achieved further distinction as an enlarged borough which includes the University of Essex at Wivenhoe Park. A quotation from G H Martin’s Official Guide to Colchester points up the inevitable price which must be paid by this busy Essex town to meet the 2 1st century: ‘The town’s shops were extensively rebuilt, often erasing ancient boundaries and obliterating, with concrete beams and plate glass, the irregularities that mark old buildings and streets. Above all, motor traffic increased, demanding more and more empty space to rest in, and a perfect forest of notices on poles to advise, direct, and admonish its drivers. The most important change was probably the introduction of a one-way traffic scheme in 1963, that swept the Saturday market out of High Street, and turned a place in which people had lingered and gossiped for more than a thousand years into a conduit for smoke and hot metal.’
The Borough of Maldon has one distinction in common with Colchester. They both had their charters as boroughs withdrawn for a period, because of electoral corruption. Colchester’s period without the valuable charter lasted 21 years from 1742. Maldon was penalised in 1768 and did not get its borough status back until 1810. It has always been a busy little town on the estuary of the Blackwater, but its business men and merchants made a fatal error in that period when they lacked the charter. They would not join in the building of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, the canal, using the rivers from Chelmsford to the estuary where sea-going vessels could tie up. As a result the backers bypassed Maldon and took the canal on round to Heybridge. Over the period between its opening in 1797 and the advent of the railway system from 1845, the canal business flourished. Factories like Bentall’s went to Heybridge and Maldon did not develop beyond the status of a local market centre with barge traffic to and from its hythe.
It could be said that Witham also lost its chance to develop through a source of water. In this case, though, it was a simple spring. A certain Dr Taverner had discovered that this spring, rising within three quarters of a mile of the town, was rich in mineral salts. He had seen how fortunes had been made from such streams at Bath and Tunbridge Wells, where everybody who was anybody went to ‘take the waters’ and at the same time lead a buss’ social life. So, in 1737, Taverner advertised his prospective Witham Spa with a pamphlet which told the world how this chalybeate spring produced water which quickened the blood and .dissolved viscid humours’. He claimed it was a spa even before the pump room and associated buildings had been erected, and he was so convincing that businessmen in Witham smartened up their shops and inns to attract the patronage of all those who would be heading for the spa. That is why you can see, above today’s shops the old buildings fronted in characteristic Georgian symmetry. Sad to say, the Witham spa did not gain enough custom to continue long in business. Dr Taverner died in 1748 and the spa died with him.
Harwich’s history as the ‘Gateway to the continent has been touched upon, but little has been said of the war in which the old port nearly dug its own grave at the beginning of the 19th century. Around 1812 it was found that a kind of cement-stone could be quarried from the cliffs, broken up, burned in a kiln, then ground to a fine powder. Used as fresh as possible, it was mixed with sand and water to a paste called Roman cement. It would set even under water. For such a useful concretion demand soared. It was a vital ingredient in the construction of the great redoubt called Landguard Fort on the other side of the harbour. Those military engineers installed a mill to crush the cement-stone on such a grand scale that they processed over 200,000 tons before leasing it out for commercial exploitation.
Everybody wanted this miracle cement. For example, it was employed as a clamp-proof stucco for the thousands of Regency houses then being built in London. So the manufacturers went on cutting away the cliffs at Harwich to get at the stone. Once this bulwark of harder material was removed the soft cliffs were easily eroded by the sea and a whole headland, where the stone breakwater stands today, disappeared under the ocean. At one time it seemed that the sea might break through behind the town and thus cut it off completely from the mainland. At last the Corporation acted: digging stone at the foot of the cliffs was forbidden and sea defences were put in hand. What really saved the town from the sea was the invention of Portland cement, which used chalk for its catalyst, and the best chalk was found at Grays. Portland cement was cheaper and stronger, so Harwich and its cement-stone were fortunate survivors.
The story of Braintree is set out in the wonderful murals in the former Town Hall, now the home of the Braintree Heritage Trust, painted by Maurice Greiffenhagen on huge copper plates set all round the Council Chamber. The building, to the design of’ Vincent Harris and at the expense of Sir William Courtauld, was opened in 1927.
In 1826 artist Robert Crane produced an illustration of all the prominent figures who frequented Braintree market outside the Horn Inn. It was engraved as an aquatint by a man called Reeve at the expense of Thomas Nottidge of Bocking, High Sheriff. It was impossible for the artist to hold up traffic and business in the market while he painted each person – at least 31 recognizable individuals are shown – so he listed them and then called at their homes and at his leisure and theirs made water-colour studies of each one. He then made a large oil painting of the market place, setting all his subjects in suitable groupings. The engraver copied the painting on a reduced scale and the sepia impressions from the copper plate were coloured by hand. They included Doddy Hayes, the dwarf who sold shellfish, and Ben Patmore who brought his hot pies of meat or fruit to market in a wheelbarrow. The pies sold at a penny a time, but Ben was always ready to toss with his customers double or quits, though the number of lucky customers who got a pie for nothing were very few! The huge figure to the right of the picture is ‘Great John Digby’, with a mouth so wide and a voice so loud that when he cried his mackerel in the market he could be heard at Coggeshall, six miles away.
Southend-on-Sea is now the home of so many great commercial enterprises that it would be invidious to single out an’ particular name. Until local government reorganisation in 1974 it was the only county borough in Essex, and by far the largest town, with a population of around 170,000. To think that it all started in the south of the old parish of Prittlewell, with the building in 1767 of a few cottages called Pleasant Row. They became holiday homes for discerning folk who liked the sea air and the solitude where the Thames was embraced by the North Sea.
By 1794 Thomas Archer of Prittlewell, a priest, wrote a poem – 304 lines of rhyming couplets – in praise of the ‘New South-end’. Though it was, by then, hardly developed at all, he prophesied:
‘Streets shall extend and lofty dollies arise,
Till NEW SOUTH-END, in each spectator’s eye
With Weymouth. Margate or Brighthelmstone vie.’
He anticipated the roads which would take the ever-increasing traffic:
‘Down the New Road they post with swift career
In coach and four, or humble one-horse chair.’
Today we can heartily agree with a couple of his closing lines:
Whether for health, for pleasure or for sport.
The various train to NEW SOUTH-END resort.’
Or, as the county newspaper put it in August. 1792, ‘The new Sea-bathing village of South End, in Essex, at this time, overflows with aquatic visitants.’
On the national front, though, the news was serious: ‘The black cloud of war, which hangs so heavily, this summer, over the Continent of Europe, more and more lowers …’ France. Russia, Prussia, Holland, Belgium, Poland and Britain were all engaged in battles on land and sea over the next 20 years or so. At the same time 500 children, celebrating the sixth anniversary of the establishment of Sunday Schools in Colchester, walked in procession to church. Through such schools mans’ underprivileged children learnt to read and write.
In the wake of the French Revolution, meetings were held all over Essex to demonstrate loyalty to our King – even little Goldhanger turned out in a body to sing patriotic songs and burn an effigy of Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man.
In 1800 the children of the day were chanting, ‘Chelmsford church and Writtle steeple fell clown one day but killed no people.’ The fact is that the church at Chelmsford collapsed during the night of 17th January because workmen who had dug a grave under the pavement of’ the aisle had made the hole much too close to a pillar. In the night the pillar slipped into the hole and brought the roof crashing clown. It took a special rate on the inhabitants and a lot of argument from nonconformists about such an imposition before repairs could be effected. It was in April that Writtle church tower collapsed: the jangling bells leaned outward for a brief moment, then all came down with a most tremendous clangour. A far worse tragedy was the huge explosion at the Powder Mills at Waltham Abbey on 1st February 1802 when they were in full production on a war footing. Nine people and four horses were killed, their pathetic remains scattered over a wide area.
Many an Essex sailor served under Nelson at the Battle of’ Trafalgar. The great man’s death in victory was fully reported in the county newspaper of 11th November, 1803, only 21 days after the actual event. News of the Battle of Waterloo was published within five days: ‘DEFEAT OF BONAPARTE – The melancholy part of this news is the price in blood which it has cost.’
Life went on, and there was no stopping human ingenuity. A gas lighting scheme for private subscribers had been introduced in Chelmsford as early as 1815. Within three years a plan for lighting the town by gas had been put forward and ‘spiritedly entered into by the inhabitants: and had not individuals been limited as to the number of shares they should take, the subscription would have been filled instantaneously.’
The newspapers went into mourning with heavy black borders to announce the death of George III at 8.35 pm on 29th January 1820. He had been mentally ill in 1788, due possibly to porphyria, but it was not until 1810 that this illness struck again, and incurably. The sad old King was nearly 82 when he died. His son had been Prince Regent from 1812 and succeeded him as King George IV.
The common people of Essex have always had a great sense of fairness. It was demonstrated dearly on the occasion of the death of Queen Caroline, whom George IV had married in 1795. This was no love match; the King only married her as a sop to Parliament so that it would pay off his enormous debts. Their baby Princess Charlotte was born in January 1796, and then they parted. Caroline vent off to Italy and her paramour, but on her husband’s coronation in 1820, came back, demanding her place as Queen. She tried to attend the Coronation, but was turned away at the door of Westminster Abbey. Broken in health and spirit, she died on 7th August 1821.
The King was out of the country. His ministers knew he would not want a great fuss made about her death, yet the common people were very much on her side. Since Caroline’s body was to be taken to her old German home for burial, the government arranged that she should be taken to Harwich in a hearse drawn by eight horses followed by 26 carriages for the representative mourners. The route was planned to circumvent the City of London and its mob which could so easily be aroused. Though Caroline had specifically directed that she did not wish to have a military escort, the government thought it was essential, and they were right. Hardly had the procession started when a great crowd blocked the road at Hyde Park and the escort had to find an alternative route.
Then the cortege headed for the Great Road, today’s A12, to pass through Ilford. Chelmsford and Colchester. At Ilford crowds caused more trouble as they shouted insulting criticism of the King in his treatment of his poor queen. Night was falling as they approached Romford. It had been planned to stop there for the night, but the inhabitants turned out in force, lit their torches and insisted on escorting the corpse all the way to Chelmsford, where the coffin was rested reverently in the church. Next morning great crowds saw the funeral procession off on the road to Colchester, where the next night was spent. Even though the coffin was again placed in a church for protection, somebody gained access and fixed a placard on it declaring. ‘Here lies Caroline of Brunswick, the injured Queen of England.’ The organisers were glad to head for Harwich next morning and see Caroline’s catafalque safely aboard the frigate Glasgow, and headed for Brunswick and burial.
In 1825 the first steam-driven train ran on the Stockton to Darlington railway and as early as 7th January of that year a ‘New Rail Road’ from London to Norwich was already being suggested, though the coach masters announced their implacable opposition. In 1827 John Constable was busy on such paintings as the Haywain and Dedham Lock which brought the beauty of Essex and Suffolk to an admiring world. Some of these paintings are preserved in the National Gallery.
The most important event of that year was the passing of the Reform Bill. Until that time members of the House of Commons came largely from the south and there was a good deal of corruption in electoral matters. In the reorganisation Essex gained two seats as a county and the qualifications for voters were set to include a much wider range of people, in a scheme which staved in force down to 1867.
From the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars down to the 1830s there was much unrest amongst the agricultural labourers of Essex.
In 1816 Sible Hedingham was a village with shops serving a wide area of agricultural land worked by vast teams of labourers and horses, but ingenious men were inventing machines for doing work on the farm much more quickly and efficiently. This meant that farmers could dismiss much of their work force and multiply their profits, quickly recovering their capital investment in the machines. Those poor labourers, with large families, had relied on the farmer for their food and shelter. By using machinery the farmworkers felt he was breaking his trust with them, and reducing them to abject poverty. They met together in secret, went into the barns and the fields at night and broke the machines that were breaking them. One farmer heard them, called out the constable and lie arrested the ringleaders. He was taking them off to prison when their fellow agitators cornered him in a shop in Halstead. They smashed the windows, rescued their workmates and then went on the rampage, smashing windows all through the town. Men in neighbouring villages soon heard of the uprising and hastened to Halstead in support. The Halstead Cavalry and the 20th Regiment of Dragoons at Colchester were called out, and special constables were quickly sworn in from the ranks of the shopkeepers and the richer inhabitants. All roads in and out of Halstead were sealed off, the revolt was quelled, the leaders went to prison and the younger generation looked to towns and their trades for a better life in the Victorian era.
Another riot, for an altogether different reason, broke out in East Ham churchyard, one dark night in 1830. Two body-snatchers, or Resurrection men as they were then called, had crept in to dig up the corpse of a seven-year-old girl for sale to the surgeons at a teaching hospital. This was then a lucrative trade. The dead girl’s father had suspected that such an attempt would be made and had kept watch with two friends and his dog. The men tackled one of the thugs and the dog took a grip on the other one’s leg. He screamed ‘Help, murder!’ hoping that people abed would be roused to come to his help, cause a diversion and thus allow him to escape. At this time there was a colony of Irish folk living in the neighbourhood of the church. They came tumbling out, and saw the true situation in a trice. While the men set about the two thieves the women took off their stockings, filled them with stones and, says the newspaper. ‘struck the prisoners on the head, until their bodies were almost applicable to their own trade.’ They were committed to the Barking House of Correction to await trial at Chelmsford Assizes.
In 1830 also, on 26th June. George IV died and was succeeded by William IV, the ‘sailor king’, whose brief reign ended with his death on 20th June 1837, just one month after the 18th birthday of his niece Victoria, his successor.