Victorian and Edwardian Essex

Victorian and Edwardian Essex

The reign of Victoria was one of transition. The Queen’s accession in 1837 marked the end of the Georgian age; at the end of her reign, the First World War was only 13 years away. Essex suffered many changes. Two powerful reasons for this were the growing urbanisation of all the area contiguous to London and the terrible agricultural depressions caused by foreign imports, together with the unemployment caused in the countryside by ever-increasing mechanisation on the farm.

The topography of the county was irredeemably altered by the grading, embanking and bridge-building necessary to the introduction of railways. A forecast of what was to come is seen in the sale catalogue of 7th May 1839, when the Mildmay family disposed of most of the Essex property acquired by their 16th century forefathers – merchants and politicians of such acumen that they rose to the ranks of the rich and noble, served the King and filled their pockets. The 36 page catalogue details 430 acres of freehold land in the ‘Capital and improving Market and Assize Town of Chelmsford having the immeasurable advantage of a rail road from London, called. The Eastern Counties, now in full progress, and promising every reasonable expectation of being opened next year for public conveyance as far as the town of Chelmsford.’ Like all good sale catalogues it was more optimistic than accurate: the first trip along the line built out from London via Romford and Brentwood to Chelmsford was that made by directors and engineers in 1843, fully described in The Rivers Chelmer and Blackwater. The impact of this new form of transport on the townspeople is shown in an anonymous poem on Chelmsford in 1815, touching on the amazing addition to the landscape of the viaduct:

‘And yonder where in close succession rise

Arch after arch inviting our surprise.

There runs the Railway – hark that piercing cry!

The engine with its ponderous train draws nigh:

Onward it comes with twenty horses’s power

With speed at rate of fifty miles per hour

The work of the railway ‘navvies’ went ahead at such a rate that the line had reached Colchester by May 1843, and continued on to Norwich, at a cost of some £57,000 a mile, which was a colossal sum at the time. Much of the expense arose from demands for compensation to landowners. Through this period a web of branch lines was woven through the countryside, including villages like Chappel. Once this village had the charming name of Pontisbright, from the bridge (Latin – pons) which Beorhtric built across the Colne in the 11th century. A chapel had been built here for the convenience of the growing number of worshippers who could not cross to Wakes Colne church when the river was in full flood. The architect of the other ’bridge’ which crosses the river here, the magnificent railway viaduct, is not recorded locally at all. Yet this viaduct of 30 arches, the largest of them 75 ft high, has been estimated to have needed some seven million bricks to carry the railway that short but essential 320 yards. It was the largest viaduct ever built for the Great Eastern Railway and is the biggest in East Anglia. It has been called. ‘the most imposing Victorian architectural monument in the county.’

As soon as Queen Victoria was crowned in June 1838 her advisers were exercised to arrange a suitable marriage. She married Prince Albert in February 1840 when they were both 20 and produced nine children as evidence of their wedded bliss. Yet there was a man in Essex who found fault with them. Charles Clark, tenant of Totham Hall was studying birth control at a time when it was quite a wicked thing to do. He spent long candlelit nights around 1840 printing leaflets on birth control, which included much poetry. Some of them he tied to gas-filled balloons and sent them on windblown journeys of propaganda.

He was a bachelor who fervently believed his county, and his country, was becoming overpopulated. The remedy, he stated, must be birth control. He even dared to comment on the regular royal births. He wrote and printed a revised version of the national anthem which runs:


‘God stop quick Vic, our Queen!

O! thwart our fruitful Queen —

God stop the Queen!’


He produced good verses, too, like An Essex Calf’s Visit to the Tipiree Races which gives a fascinating picture of mid-Victorian Essex rural life. He combined with his neighbour to write and print a history of Great Totham which is now a collector’s item. He died in 1880; Queen Victoria grandly reigned on.

The developing depression in agriculture hit the country in general and Essex in particular. The plaque set in the wall of Tudor Cottage, Greensted Green, near Ongar, says ‘On their return from transportation the Tolpuddle Martyrs, George Loveless. James Loveless and James Brine lived here from 1838 to 1844.’ What did they do to merit this special mention? With three other agricultural labourers, the’ formed a trade union to resist the reduction of their wages by a farmer in Tolpuddle, Dorset, in 1834. After a travesty of a trial, the men were sentenced to transportation to Australia for seven years. The public outcry was so great that in less than two years a full pardon was granted, and they were brought back to Britain. A fund subscribed by the general public gave them a seven-year lease of New House Farm in Essex, but in the face of continuing hostility from local farmers the men and their families emigrated to Ontario.

There was a great spirit abroad during this age, working to ameliorate the conditions in which poorer people lived and died. One cause of death was the infection of the water supply. The rapidly increasing population of towns and villages in the neighbourhood of London not only put a strain on the limited amount of water available from springs, wells and ponds but also led to diseases being spread rapidly. In the 1770s Southend was a growing seaside town quite independent of the old, mother village of Prittlewell. All the new estates on the clifftop and the hinterland were supplied with water brought up from deep in the chalk substratum and filtered to it high standard of’ purity. The Prittlewell people did not want to pay for the connections they would need to this new system. It would mean the digging up of roads and knocking about of their houses to lead the water in.

So the old, laborious task of taking buckets to the pump, or hauling up water from the well, continued right up until 1880. In that year there was such a heavy fall of rain that it flooded the streets and made the primitive cesspools overflow. The sewage seeped underground into the supplies for the village pump and people’s private wells. The villagers were not aware of the calamity until at least twelve of them fell ill with typhoid. The authorities acted swiftly, the village pump was locked up and the use of private wells was strictly forbidden. The Southend Water Company was asked to deliver its water to the village in water carts. Prittlewell people were persuaded that if they had to have the company’s water, they might as well have it through the miraculous pipes which delivered it right into the kitchen sink.

In 1868 the village of Terling lost 44 inhabitants to typhoid fever and at least 300 others were seriously infected. All wells were closed: a new, pure source of water was led from a spring in Swan Pond through 16 standpipes throughout the village. The water was pumped by a water wheel driven by the stream which had caused the infection. This was the village water supply down to 1916.

The established church was beginning to lose touch with the poorer people, while the power of preaching in Nonconformist chapels brought in converts. The most famous Essex preacher of the time must surely be Charles H Spurgeon (1834-92), born at Kelvedon, who was strongly influenced by his Calvinistic grandfather, minister of the Independent chapel at Stambourne from 1811 to his death in 1864. Spurgeon started his ministry in Waterbeach. Cambridgeshire, and then went on to preach at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington Causeway to congregations of 6,000 at a time. For nearly 30 years this huge following stayed faithful to him. It is said that his sermons, circulated in print, totalled some 50 million copies.

Away to the southeast of the count there was a much more humble and modest flowering of Essex faith. The name of Chapel Cottages in North Street records the chapel of the Peculiar People, a sect now merged into the Union of Evangelical Churches. It started when James Banyard, a humble shoemaker in Rochford, went to listen to a pair of evangelists who were preaching in the town. Their simple message of belief based on the Bible caught his imagination, and inspired him to preach amongst friends and acquaintances. His congregation grew rapidly and they built their own chapel in 1838. They called themselves Peculiar’ in the sense that their set of beliefs was peculiar to their congregation, including healing through anointing with oil and the laying on of hands. The message spread over a small area either side of the Crouch and further chapels were built. Today they are unusual homes in which the owners may still sense the simple faith of those country people. They carried the dishes and bowls containing their Sunday dinners to the Chapel and put them on the chapel stove to warm up while they spent the day in prayers and praise.

The old churches of Essex were admired by Alfred. Lord Tennyson. He often walked the wooded ways of Epping Forest between 1837 and 1840, remembering in In Memoriam how:


‘The Christmas bells from hill to hill

Answer each other in the night.’


and how:


‘A single church below the hill

Is pealing, folded in the mist.’


That church was the abbey church of Waltham Holy Cross.

It is fascinating to see from the history of just one house how Essex has changed. Henry VIII granted the deer park at St Clere’s Hall, Danbury to his brother-in-law William Parr, who sold it on to Sir Walter Mildmay. On this land Mildmay built the house call Danbury Place. Here his heir Sir Humphrey Mildmay, born 1593, lived in great style.

After Sir Humphrey’s death the house passed through several hands and the estate was split up, until Danbury Place was reduced to the status of a mere farmhouse, and dilapidated at that. When John Round bought it, in 1831, he pulled it clown and replaced it with the present house, known as Danbury Palace. He employed the famous architect Thomas Hopper, but his wife Susan also had a lot to do with the design, not only to make it as picturesque as possible, but also to ensure that three staircases were installed, one of them to be entirely of stone, for she had a great fear of being trapped in a fire. Yet she did die in a fire – in a London hotel. Her husband could not contemplate living in the house after her death. He put it up for sale in 1845 and it was bought by the church to serve as the Palace for the Bishop of Rochester, in whose diocese Essex was included. It was sold again in 1892 and the new owner Cut down no less than 429 oak trees, changing the character of the place beyond recognition.

The Palace, with its own private chapel, continued to be lived in right down to the Second World War, when the owners put most of the rooms at the service of the government for a hospital. At the height of the Blitz many a London mother-to-be was brought here to have her baby in the safety of the old Bishops Palace, which served as a maternity hospital throughout the war. It was finally bought by Essex County Council to serve as a management training and conference centre, so the park and the pleasant lakes and copses are now sure of preservation for public access.

From big houses to small. We see the growing concern of Victorian employers for their workers demonstrated by the Courtauld family. Samuel Courtauld founded a silk-weaving factory in Braintree, and trebled its size in 1817 before moving on to Bocking, where the watermill provided all the power he needed. Here he introduced the manufacture of crape much used in Victorian funeral and mourning dress. So successful was he that he was able to buy and convert the Town Mill in Halstead to make crape on contract. He soon doubled his work force – good news indeed for the many people who had lost their jobs on the land through mechanisation and falling farm prices. Courtauld built houses for his workers, many of them still bearing the firm’s monogram worked into their gables. Samuel Courtauld once said, ‘When I die. I should like to have written on my tomb. He built good cottages.”‘ By the time he died in 1881, in his 88th year, he was held in the highest esteem by his employees. He and his wife, it was said. ‘… looked after the welfare of their workpeople, and were untiring in their efforts for the education, amusement, sustenance and good housing of every man, woman or child whom they employed.’ Those work people responded in 1846 by arranging a special dinner in a huge marquee next to the family’s home at High Garrett in Rocking Street. During the course of it they presented him with a silver medallion and an illuminated address. It was estimated that some 5.000 people filed past, four-abreast, workers and their families come to honour their employer. It is unlikely that such a sight will ever be seen again in Essex.

Despite the agricultural depression there was money to be made from the soil, as seedgrowers showed. Around Coggeshall and Kelvedon there were many seedgrowers but perhaps the most unusual flowering of this Essex industry occurred at Saffron Walden. The town famed for the cultivation of the saffron crocus was equally famous in the middle of the 19th century for hollyhocks. Charlie Baron, a shoemaker, started it all. After a day bent over his last, he was glad to get out in his garden and tend his hollyhocks. He crossed and re-crossed his plants to produce wonderful new forms and shades of colour. He passed on his plants and his knowledge to William Chater, a professional nurseryman.

In 1847 Chater issued what was then the most comprehensive catalogue in the world of named varieties of hollyhocks. He revised it every year until 1873, when disaster struck – a terrible infection called simply the hollyhock disease spread through his nurseries and killed off every one of those rare varieties. Only the common, hardy plant survived, and the work had to be started all over again. But William Chater triumphed over tribulation. Before he died in 1885 he passed on his stock to Webb and Brand who could claim, in 1900, that they were the largest growers of hollyhocks in the world.

On May Day 1831, Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition. That wondrous palace of glass, within which is spread, as it were, a universe of human industry.’ The list of contributions from the county is too long to reproduce here, but it included Bentall’s agricultural implements made at the Maldon works, Coleman’s of Chelmsford, Warren’s of Heybridge and Jordan’s of Billericay, all showing their latest implements. Fred Chancellor, the Chelmsford architect, showed his model of an improved farm and its yards, including a tramway for easy transport. Mr Mechi, celebrated innovative farmer of the Tiptree Hall estate, showed his ‘Farmery’ as an eight-feet-by-four model. All these exhibits demonstrated that modernised, mechanised farming was very much alive in Essex and there were many more examples of Essex art and craft.

All the while the last vestiges of the great Essex forest at Epping were being eroded. Trollope gives one reason for this in The Three Clerks, published in 1857: ‘It is very difficult nowadays to say where the suburbs of London come to an end, and where the country begins. The railways, instead of enabling Londoners to live in the country, have turned the country into a city. London will soon assume the shape of a great starfish. The old town extending from Poplar to Hammersmith, will be the nucleus, and the various railway lines will be the projecting rays.’

It was not just the railway which threatened Epping forest, it was also the roads carved out of it by landlords greed’ for the money to be gained from developing forest land into dormitory estates for London commuters. Some large land owners had used great tracts of the forest illegally, despite many local expressions of concern which eventually reached the ears of Parliament. One ordinary working man was the pivot of the movement which turned the tables on these developers. The full story has been told in Essex Headlines; suffice to say here that Lord Portman’s Act of 1849 examined all the rights and claims concerning the whole of Waltham Forest, including the Hainault and Epping enclaves. Hainault, sadly, had so far deteriorated that its complete clearance was recommended and a vast estate of houses sprang up almost as thickly as the trees of the old forest. Epping’s preservation was recommended, though in the 25 years before 1875 no less than 6,000 acres had been stolen from it by owners of neighbouring property.

In 1865 Thomas Willingale decided to carry on exercising the ancient right of lopping lower branches of trees for winter fuel. He climbed the fences behind which the forest had been enclosed, where trees had already been cut down on the line of proposed roads, and he was prosecuted, along with friends and relations who went with him. Some of them were imprisoned. Tom was considered too old for such treatment, but the owner of the land had him evicted from his cottage.

Other influential people took up his case, but poor old Tom died whilst it was in process. This case was the catalyst from which grew a public campaign, leading to the Epping Forest Act of 1871. Eventually, the City of London authorities bought out all individual owners through a local act of 1878. The Epping Forest Act of 1880 ensured the preservation of the forest under a ranger and conservators, on behalf of the City. Epping Forest was opened officially and dedicated to the enjoyment of the public at large by Queen Victoria in May 1882.

The Crimean War ended in March 1856 and the valiant British Army was back in its barracks when Prince Albert visited Colchester in May of that year, to be entertained at the Moot Hall and taken on to review the combined militia of the Eastern Counties at Wivenhoe Park. In that same year Livingstone completed his epic journey across Africa. He was feted as an intrepid hero. Whilst training as a missionary, he appeared in a less heroic guise. David Livingstone lived in a room above the archway to the Congregational Church in Chipping Ongar during 1840. He was sent out to Stanford Rivers to preach the sermon as part of his training.

He stepped up into the-pulpit, gulped, and could only croak, ‘Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say’. He hurried out of the church, covered in shame. Thankfully he was given a second chance.

The story of Victorian Essex is so full that events can only be sketched in. There is a wealth of information available in newspapers, public and private records in the county record office as well as resources of Essex Counts’ Library, all available to anyone interested in the further details of the county’s history.

In 1880 the agricultural depression was biting hard, the result of five successive bad seasons and huge imports of wheat from America. The weather was the main topic of conversation. In January 1881, Grays Thurrock had four feet of snow in its High Street, and Essex felt the full force of a harsh winter. In 1884 an earthquake shook a large area of the county, radiating from its epicentre at Abberton. It still holds the record as the worst earthquake in British history. Shocks from it were felt up to 180 miles away. Nearly every chimney in Abberton was demolished. At Colchester the shock lasted eight seconds, and at Chelmsford five seconds. The damage in the immediate vicinity was considerable, but by the time the shock had reached these two towns it was only, strong enough to shake buildings and give the residents a giddy feeling. Despite all the falling masonry at the epicentre not one person was seriously injured.

The outstanding event of 1888, for the nation in general and Essex in particular, was the passing of the Local Government Act. It established that the governing body of a county should be a council elected by the qualified inhabitants of that counts’. The first official meeting of the Essex Counts’ Council was held in the ballroom at the Shire Hall on 2nd April 1889. Only six months before the ancient county town of Chelmsford had at last received due recognition of its importance. The Essex Weekly News of 21st September 1888 reports: ‘Today Chelmsford stands in the proud position of possessing a charter, granting to its inhabitants the highest form of local self-government. The new Borough has welcomed the actual receipt of the Charter in a manner which shows how great is the gratification amongst the inhabitants generally that its complete enfranchisement in matters of municipal administration has at last been effected. Wednesday, September 19th, 1888, will long be remembered as ‘Charter Day’ at Chelmsford.’ But apparently there had been dissent: ‘Although in the opinion of some the town never presented a brighter, cheerier aspect than on Charter Day, it cannot be denied that the decorations were not so general, nor the unanimity of the inhabitants so complete, as on the occasion of the County Agricultural Show last year.’

In 1897 Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden jubilee. Buildings, clocks, horse troughs, drinking fountains and other memorials were erected in towns and villages throughout the county. There were exceptions. ‘Chelmsford was unhappily one of these places … A section of working men and others were of the opinion that a treat to the schoolchildren … was not a sufficient or fitting recognition of the sixty years’ reign … they demonstrated by indulging in a funeral procession wherein were carried black flags and a coffin which was supposed to contain ‘remains’ of the public library scheme.’ The Act allowing local authorities to provide a library service dated from 1831, but Chelmsford did not get its library until 1906.

The ‘New Century’ from 1901 was greeted in the county newspaper with messages from county personalities, but the excitement was dimmed by the death of Queen Victoria on Tuesday. 22nd January. Her son. Edward VII presided over his first Privy Council on the very next day.

The most conspicuous feature in the history of Essex during the 19th century was the expansion of London into Essex, especially along the Thames where docks were built to accommodate the ever-growing seaborne trade. Factories were built in the immediate vicinity to take advantage of access to transport worldwide. As Kenneth Neale puts it, ‘… all the elements of industrial urbanisation .., encroached on the woods and pastures of what ceased within the span of a man’s life to be an authentic part of rural Essex …’ Only at the end of the century, when modern local authorities were created, did this area receive the attention it needed in the terms of public health, adequate housing and the provision of suitable standards of water supply and other utilities.

The main area of expansion was at West Ham and along the banks of the Lea. Stratford and Silvertown were developed through the enterprise of the West Ham councillors, leading to its creation as a county borough in 1889. Ever outwards spread the tide of industry, with the Thames and the railways as the arteries of transport nationally and internationally. East Ham, Barking, Dagenham, Leyton, Walthamstow, Ilford, Romford; these and other pleasant old Essex villages were urbanised. East Ham was large enough to become an Urban District Council in 1894 and a county borough by 1915.

An interesting example of industrial development even further down the Thames was the establishment of Kynochtown, a place of which most Essex inhabitants have never heard. In 1895 the marshes which spread from Stanford-le-hope along the Thames to the brink of Holehaven Creek were wild and lonely. Then Kynoch and Company Ltd bought the 200-acre Borley Farm and built an explosives factory there, to meet the anticipated demand of the approaching South African war. It was an ideal site, surrounded by water on three sides – the Thames. Holehaven Creek and Shell Haven Creek, well away from human habitation and difficult of access by prying enemies of the state. Huts were erected to accommodate 600 workers, the men and women who made gun cotton, cordite, nitroglycerine and other explosives in huge quantities. Gradually a complete village was built to house the workers and their families. It included 40 houses, a school, an institute and a shop/post office. It was officially named Kynochtown on 18th November 1899. The school opened the following year and its head teacher Edwin Broad stayed until the end of 1927, even though the factory had been closed in January 1919. Cory Brothers took over the site in 1923, and Kynochtown became Coryton, the great oil refinery and storage depot.

An interesting account of the wide variety of industries established in Essex in the late 19th century is given in Industries of the Eastern Counties Business Review which states: ‘The population of the county of Essex in 1851 was 369,318, … and at present numbers about 500,000. An enormous increase is constantly taking place in the number of inhabitants, this increase being chiefly on the side of the county adjacent to the Metropolis.’

The increasing concern over this period for the deprived and under-privileged is represented by the story of Dr Thomas J Barnardo who died in 1905. He lived at Mossford Lodge, Barkingside, within walking distance of the present Gants Hill roundabout. A guide book of 100 years ago tells us that the most important building in that hamlet was ‘Dr Bernado’s Home for Destitute Girls. The inmates, numbering about 600, are accommodated in 30 separate houses arranged in a square. Others are in the course of erection. The matrons are chiefly ladies who voluntarily give their services.’ That shows how famous these homes had become in a mere eight years, for they started as four cottages built in 1873 in the garden of Mossford Lodge. Dr Barnardo, born in 1845, was only 17 when he vowed to spend his life helping less fortunate people. In 1870 he had gained sufficient experience to open his boys’ home at Stepney. In 1873 he adapted part of his own home, Mossford Lodge, to take in 60 girls. In the year of his death 1,300 girls were being brought up in 64 cottages spread around the Lodge’s 300 acres. In his lifetime. Dr Barnardo was directly responsible for the rescue and the loving care of at least 250,000 children. His ashes are buried in the Children’s Church of his village. He summed up the reason for his life’s work with the observation. ‘I have never seen an ugly child.’