The Early Twentieth Century
The world in 1906 saw social and natural unrest – a general strike in Russia, and San Francisco destroyed by earthquake and fire. In England the Liberals won a landslide election victory when a number of the new ‘Labour’ candidates were put forward for the first time. The women’s suffrage movement was also stirring.
The big news in Chelmsford was the opening of the town’s first public library on 3rd February 1906 by Lady Rayleigh. She also attended the Terling Flower Show to present that famous Essex gardener Ellen Willmott with a silver cup. A derelict wilderness in Warlev is all that remains of a world famous garden that brought royalty on regular visits and attracted horticulturists from around the globe. Ellen came with her parents to live at Warley Place in November 1875. By 1898 she was left on her own in her beloved house and garden and spared no expense. Over 100 gardeners were employed. She had become so well known that the Botanical Magazine featured her in its Christmas number. No less than 40 plants are named after her or Warlev Place. She spent all her money to keep the gardens going. As late as 1932 she was still sending out her valued seed list, naming over 600 plants. She died penniless on 26th September 1934 and the house and its lovely gardens were bought with the intention of developing them. Planning permission was refused in 1938; during the war bombs were dropped in a line across house and gardens and dereliction set in. At last, in 1977, the land was leased to the Essex Naturalists’ Trust and volunteers worked at weekends to reduce the jungle to the point where a nature trail could be formed, showing wild and rare, cultivated flora growing side by side.
Chelmsford waited until 1962 for its first purpose-built Town Hall, yet Colchester had an impressive seat of government from 1902. Its decoration and statuary reflect the story of the town. Architect John Belcher used brick and stone to erect a rich Renaissance’ style of building graced with a soaring tower. On the top of the tower stands St Helena, a statue in bronze representing the patron saint of the town. Below her, four ravens remind us that the ancient port of Colchester used the raven as its official seal. Lower down again are figures representing engineering, fishing, agriculture and the military – cornerstones of Colchester’s economy. Nine stained glass windows continue the story, showing in glowing light a summary of the town’s long and equally colourful history. Statues decorating the main building are of personalities connected with the Borough from Eudo, builder of the Castle in the 11th century to Samuel Harsnett, who rose from son of a humble baker in St Botolph Street to Archbishop of York in 1628. He died in 1631, leaving his library to the town of his birth. It is now in the care of the Colchester Library.
The rapid development of motor transport in Essex is demonstrated by the case of Thomas Clarkson. This bluff Lancashire lad, born in September 1863, was brought up in the Manchester area, a great place for a boy with a passion for engines at a time when steam was king and British-made machinery operated across continents. He became a lecturer in metallurgy at King’s College. London and in his spare time invented a number of steam driven systems, including a light steam car, patented in 1895. He went into partnership to develop these ideas, then, on his partner’s death in 1899 he decided to go it alone, finding the premises he wanted in Chelmsford in 1902, on the site of an old iron foundry. His Firm, Clarkson Ltd., produced a prototype chassis called ‘The Chelmsford’, designed to take eight passengers and their luggage over long distances.
It had few buyers, however, because petrol-driven internal combustion engines were then all the rage, though they were smellier, rougher and noisier than Clarkson’s steam-powered machine. By the summer of 1903 nine models had been sold and were considered so satisfactory that orders came in from as far afield as Australia. India. New Zealand and Barbados. Clarkson designed a double decker steam bus for London routes and sold 37 to the two London omnibus companies. The Chelmsford factors’ was kept buss’ and hundreds of local people found employment there. When orders dwindled from 1908 Clarkson looked for other outlets, and found one in the Territorial Army. A trial was arranged at which the steam bus was to get troops from the Essex Yeomanry depot at Chelmsford to the banks of the Crouch in 11/2 hours. On 6th December 1908, 128 men, accompanied by officers and journalists, ’embussed’ at the local Territorial Headquarters in pouring rain. In one hour and seven minutes they were ‘debussed’ at Latchingdon, 14 miles away, and in one more minute they were formed up ready for action. The Commanding Officer, Colonel R B Colvin, was so impressed that he hired the buses to take the Yeomanry to camp. For this journey the buses were repainted with patriotic slogans like ‘Wake up England’. But army bureaucracy was so slow that the factory nearly came to a standstill.
Clarkson’s solution was to introduce his own London bus service, calling it The National Steam Car company. On Sundays his steam buses were used to take the great London public to local picnic spots like Epping Forest. By 1913 more than 20 buses were in operation and the company had taken over the bus services of the Great Eastern Railway operating out of the garage in Chelmsford, which consisted of one archway in the railway viaduct. By then the company was carrying 24 million passengers a year. In 1914 Thomas Clarkson was made chairman and managing director. Then things went wrong. He continued to research into steam transport while the board, seeing the odds against them, quietly expanded into petrol driven models. In 1921 the company parted with Clarkson, the Chelmsford works were sold, and the National Company and the ‘Chelmsford’ steam bus passed into history. Thomas Clarkson’s epitaph was written long before his demise, in the Gentleman’s Journal: ‘… It is such men as Mr Clarkson that have made the history of the advancement of the motor industry in England read like eleven years of miracles.’ The designing and building of cars in Essex was what might be called a cottage industry long before Henry Ford arrived in Dagenham in 1925. In 1892 the Brener car, named after its maker, was being produced at Walthamstow. In 1919 Mr Larcombe started producing his own car in a small garage at Margaretting. The place was burned down in 1929 and rebuilt. By then the huge factories with their assembly lines had taken over. The Larmar garage turned to making components for military equipment as the Second World War loomed.
One of the last men to be a coachman lived in Essex. He was J H Horton of Brook Street, Brentwood. He was driving a coach-and four as a hobby when the new-fangled, infernal, internal combustion engine was driving horses off the road. In 1908 he declared publicly, ‘You can have my opinions on roads and motor cars; they are pretty strong. There’s no doubt that motors have come to stay but what I feel is that we country gentlemen should not have to keep up roads in our own district for motorists who come from a distance to tear up … Motorists should be much more heavily taxed – why should I have to pay a very much increased highway charge in order that I may make the roads better for people who come from all over the country, pay nothing for them, and also damage them severely?’
Seated high up on the box of his coach. Horton saw so much bad driving by these modern motorists. He said. ‘Every now and then I met a motor cad seeking his own pleasure utterly regardless of everyone else on the road … I cannot say too strongly that this 20 mile speed limit must be preserved. If it is done away with we shall have men scorching through the place, subject only to the judgment of the police. Not ten minutes ago I saw a man come scorching through Brook-street wrapped in a cloud of dust, and going at least thirty miles an hour. It was quite impossible for anyone to tell his number owing to the dust.’
While Henry Ford was developing his ‘Model T in 1909, something much more important was going on in Colchester – everyone was rehearsing for the grand Colchester Pageant of 1909. What an amazing event it was when it was finally presented in June! The Earl of Warwick was the President of the Committee and the Master of the Pageant had a name to match that grandeur – Louis Napoleon Parker! It took over the Whole of Castle Park and reflected in costume, in drama and in music the long history of this ancient Borough.
Crowds came to see it start with a meeting of the Druids, then the scene changed to the Roman invasion and the way in which they changed the town with their ‘modern’ improvements, including the great temple which is now the basement of the Castle Museum. On went the Pageant through the ‘ears to the awful siege of Colchester in 1648, and then to that proud building of the grand Town Hall in 1902.
Bleriot’s aerial crossing of the English Channel in 1909 brought the minds of Essex folk to bear on the future rather than the past. A V Roe made the first British flight over the marshes beyond Walthamstow. Flying first came to Southend in 1910. There had been an approach from the London Aeroplane and Aerial Navigation Company a year before, with the idea of making aircraft there and testing them in flight, but finance was the stumbling block. Two other unsuccessful attempts were made at bringing Southend literally flying into the 20th century. Then, on 5th July 1910, it happened. A promoter arranged for the popular pilot George Barnes, of’ Brooklands fame, to come down to Southend and give a demonstration, in his monoplane, of this wonderful new art of flying. It took place on the football ground north of the town.
Barnes’s plane was brought to Southend by true horse power, on a post-chaise, a four-wheeled cart. It was unloaded, assembled, wheeled to the centre-spot on the pitch and tuned-up for take-off. Next day the gates were opened and the 150 lucky people who had paid extra for the privilege were allowed to walk all round the plane for a closer inspection, before joining the rest of the audience in the grandstand. Barnes had announced that he would make a demonstration flight at half past six. Nature decided otherwise – the wind blew too strongly for the frail craft to get airborne. An hour later he tried again and rose just a couple of inches. He made one last effort to give the crowd value for money. He flew off into the gale, rose over the fence and landed 50 yards away, in the next field. It is hard to appreciate now what a miracle that first flight appeared to the hundreds of people gathered there.
Another crowd-puller at Southend that year was the Southend Beauty Show, then considered a national event, promoted by Mr Bacon at the Kursaal. It was probably the earliest example of protest against racial discrimination in Essex, for it was the first time a coloured lady had taken part. Princess Dinobulu from Senegal insisted, good-humouredly, that she be allowed to compete, and she won the hearts of the crowd, to the extent that one aspiring poet, Claude Greening, extolled her beauty in the local paper:
Dinobulu, damsel dusky.
Dressed in taste and style.
Many a throat will be quite husk
Cheering your sweet smile!’
Prizes were awarded in three classes, according to hair colour, on the basis of the length of the audience’s applause for each contestant. Despite that poet’s enthusiasm, the Princess did not become the Queen.
The rural life of Essex at this time has been preserved for us in the writings of S L Bensusan, who wrote 60 books in as many years of his residence in what he called ‘Marshland’, which as C B Pulman puts it, ‘… shiftingly extends its unpegged boundaries through regions drained by Blackwater. Come and Crouch, the inhabitants speaking in their own and ancient accents.’ Bensusan was a London music critic and foreign correspondent who was told in 1886 that he had only about a year to live, and was recommended to end his days in the bracing Essex air, in calm rural retreat from stress and urban noise. In 1954 he was still writing. When Bensusan died in 1938 the Times obituary declared. ‘Essex people and Essex ways were always the theme nearest this author’s heart.’
It would be true to say that for all the nostalgic, simple happiness of village life there was very real poverty in the county. The workhouse was too often the last resort for the old and the oppressed. In 1910 ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ at Orsett, was reported in the local paper: In the entrance hail was a motto wishing all a happy Christmas, and also a well-laden Christmas tree. The various wards were all daintily decorated with mottoes, evergreens, coloured hangings etc. At 5.30 in the morning on Christmas Day the nurses ushered in the festivities by singing carols: a substantial breakfast being served at eight o’clock. At 9.30 there was a service in the chapel, hymns and carols were heartily sung. Tobacco and sweets were given out during the morning, and at 12.30 a sumptuous dinner was served. The fare consisted of roast beef’ (from cattle fed on His Majesty’s Farm at Balmoral), mashed and baked potatoes, plum pudding and beer and mineral waters according to choice. Turkey was served to the sick. At 3.30 there was tea, which consisted of bread, butter and cake, with tea. A happy evening was spent in social enjoyment, singing and playing games, the inmates retiring to bed about nine o’clock . . . Though it may be a misfortune to be in the workhouse, the lot of those living there is much preferable to that Which thousands outside live, and Christmas Day as spent in the Orsett workhouse might be envied by many.’
The death of Edward VII and the succession of George V on 6th May 1910 would not have altered the plight or touched the lives of such people, but the sinking of the Titanic in the icy wastes of the Atlantic on the night of 14th April 1912 was on everybody’s lips. Soon this disaster was overtaken by the cataclysmic horror of the First World War, proclaimed in August 1914. Many people had tried to alert Britain years before the conflict began. One of them was Claude Graham-White, an early aviator, who was determined to prove to the military that the aeroplane was the fighting machine of the future. From 1912 he barnstormed round Britain in his bi-plane with the message ‘Wake up England’ painted in large letters on the underside of the lower wing. He arrived over Clacton on 28th August, landed on the beach, then took off to put on his display. He swooped so low that he played leapfrog with rowing boats bobbing about on the briny, startling both occupants and onlookers, most of whom had never seen an aeroplane before. Graham-White told the press: ‘Our people do not realise how backward we are in comparison with other countries and how our very existence will depend on our having it modern aerial fleet.’ History proved him right.
Just before the war a most unusual hospital was founded in the heart of Essex. Early in 1913 a small group met to share their concern at the awful plight of British people who had caught leprosy during their service to their country in the outposts of empire. They raised enough money to set up a hospice, but owing to the uninformed fears and superstition of ordinary people, it was very difficult to find a site. One clay these benefactors were driving through the narrow lanes east of Chelmsford when they lost their way. The knocked at the door of an old, dilapidated farmhouse to ask for directions. The farmer asked them in, gave them tea and asked what they were doing so far out in the country. They replied that they were looking for a property to buy, and he said ‘l want to sell this place, why don’t you look over it?’ The group bought the 27 acres of land and the buildings that went with it, including the farmhouse, in the parish of East Hanningfield and the hamlet of Bicknacre, at a cost of £1,500.
After the local paper reported the plans to establish what they called ‘A home for chronic disfiguring diseases and lepers’ the local inhabitants, fearful that they might catch these diseases, called a public meeting at which it was declared that In the interests of the inhabitants, local dairy farmers, and owners of property, the matter should be reconsidered. The group knew this would be the reaction wherever they went, so the’ had already obtained government approval, appointed two nursing sisters from Guy’s Hospital and had admitted several patients to what was now called St Giles Home, secretly so that it could get started with the minimum of local hostility.
As the ‘ears passed and no-one caught leprosy, the village became very proud of’ the homes, run by the Brothers of Divine Compassion until 1936 and then by the Sisters of the Community of the Sacred Passion. The homes are no longer needed because modern medicine has beaten these diseases, but in their time the’ were visited by Her Majesty the Queen. Lord Louis Mountbatten. Princess Alexandra and the Queen Mother in 1974.
In July 1914 the county newspaper said in sombre tones. ‘The blackest warcloud yet seen on the horizon of Europe … is hovering over the land with dreadful menace.’ Before the rain of destruction descended there was a lightening of the atmosphere with the enthronement of the new Bishop of’ Chelmsford, the Right Reverend J E Watts-Ditchfield, on 23rd April.
In August 1914 the Prince of Wales came to Brentwood to join the Grenadier Guards. Arriving at seven in the morning, his car passed through streets lined with Territorials sleeping on the pavement because the barracks were full of men called to the colours. By March 1916 the sad weekly Roll of Honour of Essex soldiers killed in action had grown to twelve long columns of very small print in the Essex Chronical.
The six-volume story of the exploits of the Essex Regiment in the Great War was written by j H Burrows. General Sir Ian Hamilton declares in the foreword to the first volume: ‘Essex is one and indivisible, so, too, are its people. Self-centred, self-sufficing, non-assertive, they are known to students, but – not as much as they should be – to fame .., no one else. I believe, but Essex owns a Regiment which, in the old wars … was twice wiped off the face not only of the pay list, but of existence.’ In his second volume John Burrows says of the 2nd Battalion, the Pompadours: ‘It is a story which all Essex men and women will read with pride and mingled sorrow. Pride at what was accomplished by valour, constancy, steadfastness and cheerful endurance; sorrow that in playing so noble a part the County and the Battalion should mourn the loss of 1,457 officers and other ranks.’ Whilst the Regiment’s battalions went round the world to the theatres of war, the 8th Cyclist Battalion, who prided themselves on being a modern military development, an up-to-date unit, were disappointed that they were not chosen for overseas service. ‘They were, at the outbreak of war, at once allotted the difficult and arduous task of watching the Essex coast. . .’ The epitaph of the Cyclist Battalion must be ‘They did their duty and they did it well.’
This was the first war in which civilians were terrorised indiscriminately by air attacks. In the early hours of 10th May 1915 a German Zeppelin attempted to drop its bombs on Southend, but the accuracy of the gunfire directed at the highly combustible airship forced it to move out of range beyond Canvey Island. Its Captain, Eric Linnarz, was so furious at being frustrated, for he was looking forward to a hero’s welcome back in Berlin, that he ordered the Zeppelin to return to a high level over Southend, out of gunfire range. He took one of his personal calling cards from his pocket, wrote on it. ‘You English! We have come and we will come again soon, to kill or cure’ and threw it out of the Zeppelin. It was found and forwarded to the authorities: but the Zeppelin had also released its bombs, one in York Road, another at Cobweb Corner and a third in North Road where Mrs Whitwell was killed and her husband injured. Incendiaries set Flaxman’s timber yard in Southchurch Road on fire, it was a frightening experience for unarmed, innocent and sleeping citizens.
The War Office, preparing for the protection of the country against this new aerial bombardment, set up airfields which allowed planes to patrol every inch of the coastline from Kent clear up to Scotland. To suit the capacity of the planes of the time airfields had to be spaced no more than 30 miles apart. That is why, in the early days of 1916, Stow Manes and Goldhanger had one of their larger fields taken over and closely mown. A big canvas hangar was put up, tents for housing the airmen soon sprouted along the edge and the planes came flying in. Only two planes were stationed at Stow Manes initially. They patrolled their sector from halfway to Goldhanger to halfway to Rochford, the neighbouring airstrips. By 1918 eight planes, some of them the famous Sopwith Pups, could he seen swooping low over the village as they turned in to land. When peace was declared the Goldhanger field was closed. Planes and personnel were transferred to Stow Manes, which boasted 24 aircraft and 300 staff, but it was all abandoned abruptly on 17th March 1919 when the whole squadron moved to Biggin Hill. The land quickly went hack into cultivation and the airfield buildings were used as barns.
Hornchurch had an active aerodrome in both World Wars. On the night of 23rd September 1916 Lieutenant Sowrev took off from Hornchurch to intercept and destroy Zeppelin L32 on its way to bomb London. It fell in an appalling fireball, to crash one mile east of Great Burstead in open country. Its destruction took only two minutes. The remains. 250 yards long and 25 yards wide, spread across three meadows. Searchers recovered 28 bodies and they were first buried in Great Burstead churchyard, then transferred 25 years ago to the German war cemetery in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire for the convenience of German visitors. On the same night Chelmsford felt the impact of the first bomb to be dropped upon it from the air. It hit one of the cottages in Becket’s Row, off Glebe Road, and passed right through the house to the kitchen where it ripped straight through a sofa and embedded itself in the earth beneath the floor, without exploding. The miracle was that only minutes beforehand a baby sleeping on that sofa was picked up to be fed by its mother. It was regarded as such an important event that an old photograph shows the cottage being guarded by four men – two military policemen, a constable from the Police Station and a wartime ‘special.
Essex men and women were involved in the naval sphere. Harwich was famous as the home port of the Harwich Force, two flotillas of cruisers and destroyers. The greatest story of individual bravery at sea must surely be that of Boy Cornwell, VC. Born in 1900 in Capworth Street, Leyton, Jack Cornwell left the council school in Walton Road to be a vanboy, but he wanted to be a sailor. The war gave him his chance. He joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman and passed out as a first class boy on the light cruiser HMS Chester, which was involved in the terrible Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916. His job was to act as sight setter for one of the big guns. Within minutes of the action his gun received a direct hit. Eight of the ten-man team were killed or injured. Jack’s wounds were grievous, but the last order from the bridge had been ‘Stand by your gun’ and he continued to obey, terribly injured as he was. The Captain, high up on the bridge, saw this 16 year old boy standing there waiting for further orders and was so moved that he reported it to the Admiralty. Jack died two days later and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He is the youngest person ever to receive it.
When the possibility of peace shimmered over the shell-scarred fields of France the Essex men echoed the national cry of ‘Homes fit for heroes to live in.’ Though the dream went largely unfulfilled, the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 did make a great difference to that part of the county bordering London. London Counts’ Council was allowed to develop housing estates on land acquired in other local government areas. Becontree is a classic example of this process. Built in the countryside, it forms with Dagenham a huge housing estate, built between the First and Second World Wars, for resettling dwellers of east London. The land was acquired in the Dagenham. Barking and Ilford districts by 1922. In ten years more than 22,000 houses had been erected. By 1937 a stylish civic centre designed by E Barry Webber had been opened and has been much extended since then.
After the war a great feeling of relief and release swept the country. In our county that spirit was captured by the late Ursula Bloom in her volume of autobiography Rosemary for Frinton, where she lived as a young widow. She writes of famous people holidaying here at the seaside whilst their old haunts in Europe were still in chaos. A dance club called ‘Victor’s’ was opened around 1920 and patronised in the season by people like Gladys Cooper, Ivor Novello, Lilian Braithwaite, Seymour Hicks and Joyce Carey. Another centre in Essex where the literati and the cognoscenti gathered was Easton Lodge at Little Easton, home of Frances, Countess of Warwick, whose association with Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales, caused such a scandal. In her Life’s Ebb and Flow, published in 1929, she paints an amazing picture of culture in the countryside:
‘In town one can choose one’s friends, but, in the country, neighbours, often uncongenial, are thrust upon us. My neighbours have been a constant delight and inspiration. My mind flies, above all, to my tenants at the Glebe, to H G Wells and his wife and all their interesting entourage. In my “Laundry” live Philip Guedalla and his beautiful wife. , at my Home Farm, Gustav and Isobel Hoist have made a cottage into an abode of delight with an old barn for their music room … No more than a stone’s throw from the Lodge the Horrabins rest from their editing of ‘Plebs’ and their political canvassing of Peterborough VII, when he was Prince of Wales, caused such a scandal. In her Life’s Ebb and Flow, published in 1929, she paints an amazing picture of culture in the countryside:
‘In town one can choose one’s friends, but, in the country, neighbours, often uncongenial, are thrust upon us. My neighbours have been a constant delight and inspiration. My mind flies, above all, to my tenants at the Glebe, to H G Wells and his wife and all their interesting entourage. In my “Laundry” live Philip Guedalla and his beautiful wife. , at my Home Farm, Gustav and Isobel Hoist have made a cottage into an abode of delight with an old barn for their music room . . . No more than a stone’s throw from the Lodge the Horrabins rest from their editing of ‘Plebs’ and their political canvassing of Peterborough . . . In the old Easton Manor, where Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville spent their protracted honeymoon, my youngest daughter Mercy, the wife of Basil Dean, entertains the stars of the theatrical profession at week-ends. The Park Cottage is the week-end haven of my son Maynard Greville . . , well-known writer to the ‘Morning Post’ … Further clown the Park road lives Mr H A Gwvnne, the editor of the ‘Morning Post’. It was Mrs Gwvnne who brought the ever-gracious personality of the late Ellen Terry into our gatherings at the Barn Theatre.’
The list of the famous goes on, to include finally. ‘At Thaxted all the world knows of the rebel priest in his cathedral-like church of the Middle Ages, Father Conrad Noel, preaching the gospel of brotherhood and the championship of the oppressed.’ He was a great friend of Gustav Holst, who lived in Thaxted from 1917 to 1925 and made the Whitsuntide Festival there an international event. Noel made mans’ enemies through his intense socialist campaigning. In 1921 he hoisted high in his church the red flag of communism alongside the flag of’ Sinn Fein and the national flag of St George. Cambridge undergraduates came down to Thaxted in a body, borrowed ladders, tore clown the two offending flags and hoisted the Union Jack. Noel’s supporters ripped it down, burnt it and replaced their flags. The shouting and swearing which echoed round those ancient, sacred walls were repeated on Empire Day of that year when, in the churchyard, one of Noel’s followers had his hat knocked off for failing to remove it when the National Anthem was played. The fighting spilled out into the street and cars and motor bicycles had their tyres slashed.
Sacrilege in Thaxted was balanced by reconsecration at Bradwell-on-Sea. The Romans had built a fort to protect the coast from raids by Nordic seafarers. When they left Essex around AD 400 it mouldered away, but when the new Saxon immigrants were converted to Christianity some 250 years later the missionary bishop, St Cedd, chose this place where he first came ashore as the site for the first Christian church. During centuries of neglect it was used as a lighthouse and ultimately as a barn. When its great religious antiquity was established, an anonymous benefactor paid for it to be restored as far as possible to the form of the original simple church. On 22nd June 1920 it was reconsecrated by the first Bishop of Chelmsford.
Another impressive building dating from the days of the Conqueror found a secure future in public hands at this time. Colchester Castle was not battered into ruins at the siege by Cromwell’s army in 1648 – it had been crumbling away long before, because it was too big to be maintained even by the richest Baron. In the 17th century this sad-looking ruin had been sold to John Wheeley, on condition that he knocked it all down. He tried, even using gunpowder, for all that building material was valuable in a ‘stoneless’ county, but the hulk of that mighty bastion defeated him. The remains were eventually bought by Charles Gray, local MP and keen antiquarian, who appreciated the castle’s place in the county’s history. He spent his own money on ensuring that what was left was properly preserved. It then passed to Lord Cowdray who, in 1921, gave it as a gift to the Borough of Colchester, to stand as a memorial to all the people of Colchester who had served and suffered in the Great War. There could not be a better place in which to house the Colchester and Essex Museum.
The man most widely acclaimed in the history of Essex must surely be Guglielmo Marconi. A pamphlet issued in 1974 to celebrate the centenary of his birth recounts the development by him of wire-less transmission of messages over vast distances. By 1899 he was looking for premises to start commercial production of his equipment, and in that year acquired a former silk factory in Hall Street, Chelmsford. He was the major shareholder in the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company which became Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900 and The Marconi Company in 1963. The Hall Street works are famous as the first radio factory in the world. During the war, research and development was geared to the military effort. The regular service of broadcasting information and entertainment to the masses began in February 1922 from the Company’s research laboratories at Writtle, after the Post Master General granted the first ever such licence. After broadcasting the death of Marconi on the morning of 20th July 1937 every wireless station in the world observed two minutes of silence – a gesture which is most unlikely ever to be repeated.
The General Strike was called in 1926. The county newspapers attempted to keep going, in much reduced form, to reassure their readers and to help preserve law and order. The Essex Chronicle was reduced to just four pages the following week, but the strike collapsed after nine days with just the miners staying out. People buying or borrowing books to escape the national misery found two Essex authors to entertain them. One was Warwick Deeping, who died in April 1950. His Sorrell and Son was published in 1925. He was born in Southend in 1877 in Prospect House, at the end of the High Street opposite the Royal Hotel, moving when he was still a small boy to Royal Terrace. He trained as a doctor but turned to writing novels, though at first he achieved scant recognition. But with a series of novels such as Old Pybus’ Roper’s Row and Corn in Egypt he won national acclaim.
Dorothy L Sayers’s detective stories are still in print. She was born in 1893 and on her marriage came to live in ‘Sunnyside’, Newland Street, Witham. Many people remember her tubby figure bustling in and out of the shops there, where she was described as a loud, large lady, full of enthusiasm.’ Millions of people all over the world have enjoyed reading those detective stories, starting with Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness in 1926. Lord Peter Wimsey, her aristocratic investigator, became so popular that he featured in more than a dozen novels up to 1937. Then she turned to plays and more serious works. She spent her very last moments in the Witham home she loved. On 17th December 1957, she suffered a massive, fatal, heart attack.
From Wimsey to windows and still in the neighbourhood of Witham – Silver End is a village which was built as a small estate for factory workers employed by Frank Crittall. By 1924 he had expanded his window-making business into three factories employing 1,600 people. Silver End began when Crittall built a special factory there to give employment to men disabled in the Great War. He went on to buy 220 acres of Boars Tye Farm and by 1930 had built a self-contained estate which included all the amenities then thought desirable, including a clinic, a cinema and a communal laundry. Even though they were then in their seventies, Frank and his wife moved to a new house overlooking the estate, to show their fellow-feeling. By then he was employing 5.000 people. He died in 1935, and his employees remembered him gratefully as the ‘Guv’nor’, strolling through the factory with a friendly word for all the staff he met. He was the first employer in the world to introduce a five-day working week, beating Ford’s of Detroit by a good six months.
Ford cars first appeared for sale in England in 1903. By 1912 they were being manufactured in this country, at Manchester. It was the ever-increasing demand which caused the Ford Company to look for a larger site. So they came to Dagenham, on a 500-acre site beside the Thames where that famous breach had been made in 1707. In 1929 Edsel, son of Henry Ford, used a silver spade to turn the first turf on the day development of the site began. By 1931 production had been transferred from Manchester and 2.000 employees and their families were brought south to find new homes. In an early edition of the official guide to the London Borough of Barking, published in 1967. Ford’s sums up its raison d’être:
Since Ford came to Dagenham thirty five years ago, more than seven million cars, trucks and tractors have left our vast plant beside the River Thames. Some went by road and rail to home markets, nearly as man again to destinations overseas. These vehicles are a fine tribute to the people who built them.
For this reason there has always been a strong interdependence between Ford and the local community. We are proud to say that this relationship has been both a close one and a happy one.’
By 1931 flying was all the rage amongst rich young men. Towards the end of the year a group of these enthusiastic amateur aviators set up the Southend Flying Club, in a field in what was then the separate village of Ashingdon. They clubbed together to buy just one plane, an Avro 504K. Within a year they had enough members to move to the field at Rochford, which had once housed the pony racing track, and they traded in the Avro for a later model as well as buying two Tiger Moths and a Blackburn Bluebird. It became too big an operation for amateurs. Southend Flying Services was called in as a commercial firm to manage the club which from 1933 offered hourly trips to Rochester. This development was the spur that Southend Corporation needed to set up, in 1935, what we all know now as Southend Airport.
Stand on Maylands golf course today and you could hardly believe that this was once a busy aerodrome. It started in 1928 when a sloping field lying next to the A12 near Harold Wood was used by A H Matthews of the Essex transport company as the home for his first aeroplane (again an Avro 504K). By the following March it had become the base for one of those aerial circuses which took its four canvas and string machines on flying displays all over the country. E H Hillman offered a regular air taxi service from Maylands to Clacton and to Ramsgate. He organised the great Essex Air Pageant on 24th September 1932. The following year he started a regular service to Paris at a return fare of £5 10s 0d. It was a sell out and Maylands soon became too small. A new site was found at Stapleford Tawney in 1934. The Romford Flying Club staved at Maylands and in 1940 all its aircraft and the hangars were destroyed by German incendiary bombs.
National news through the 1930s was of recession, depression and succession, leading to the resignation of the Labour government and rule by coalition under Prime Minister MacDonald. In June 1935 Baldwin succeeded MacDonald and in 1936, on January 20th. Edward VIII succeeded George V. He abdicated on December 10th, to be succeeded two days later by the Duke of York. George VI.
Through this difficult period the government put in hand a major programme of road improvement, to provide employment. The date 1932, inscribed in large letters on the railway bridge which carried the new Chelmsford bypass, can still be seen today, though that bypass has been swallowed by town expansion and another bypass takes the A12 well away from the town. Unemployment in Essex remained a problem until 1939, when the threat of war brought increased arms production and at the same time provided a doubtful but paid future for active men and women in war service.