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The Secret History of Southend-on-Sea
By Dee Gordon
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Dee Gordon
All rights reserved.
A Brief History of Southend-on-Sea
And in the beginning
By the end of the Ice Age, most of south Essex was covered by forest. There was, however, the Thames, an Ice Age river which pre-dated the Boxgrove Man, a human species dating back 600,000 years as evidenced by part of a flint dug up a few years ago underneath the sports pitch at Westcliff High School for Girls. Add to that the discovery of Palaeolithic axes at Rochford and Prittlewell, and the areas surrounding the newcomer Southend reveal some of the most ancient human activity in Britain. There is also evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic era (10,000–5,000 BC) behind what is now the Golden Mile, and Neolithic pottery has been unearthed at Shoebury. Much later, during the Stone Age, came the first settlement around the Prittle Brook – with the Bronze Age represented by the remains of a hill fort (behind Waitrose!) and a cremation site (at Southend Airport ...) – this part of Essex has become the site of one of the largest concentrations of Bronze Age metalwork in England, the raw material having been imported to make the bronze. As for the Iron Age, there is a significant site, complete with cremation pit, on the tip of Shoeburyness.
From at least around 800 BC until about AD 200 (and possibly much earlier) there was a colony of lake dwellers at what is now Thorpe Bay, living in huts which were probably erected on platforms fixed on piles driven into the bed of a long-gone lake. This lake or mere was connected with the sea by two narrow creeks stretching across the existing Southchurch Park and was eventually reclaimed to form the lake in the park's centre. A causeway was constructed around this time near what is now the railway bridge in Thorpe Hall Avenue, with shells from the colony's sea-food deposited at the crossroads in Bournes Green, forming a mound which survived for centuries.
Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans
Roman burial sites have been revealed around Prittle Brook, in what is now Priory Park. Local legend has it that British leader Caratacus was captured by the Romans at Shoebury around AD 50 but there is no hard evidence of this. The River Thames was certainly used by the Romans for transport, and there is evidence that they manufactured salt in the Shoebury area – and that they cultivated oysters.
Regular invasions have been documented during this period from Danes, Vikings and Norsemen. The remains of at least one Danish invader who fell in battle have been found – with an arrow still embedded through the shoulder into the ribs. This was discovered in a burial ground at Shoebury. There was, significantly, the Battle of Benfleet in 894 when the King of Wessex defeated the Danes, and the Battle of Assandun (Ashingdon) in 1016 when Cnut, the Dane, is said to have defeated Edmund Ironside, then King of Wessex, becoming the first Viking King of all England. Saxon settlements appeared at nearby Barling and Wakering ('ing' being Saxon for people), and a Viking settlement at Thorp(e) – meaning village. A Saxon homestead is said to pre-date Southchurch Hall and a high-status Saxon burial chamber ('The Prittlewell Prince') was found near Prittlewell Priory not so long ago, causing much excitement locally.
Around 1110, Robert Fitzsweyne, Lord of the Manor, gave land to the Cluniac Priory to set up Prittlewell Priory, the land stretching right down to the seafront.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Normans introduced rabbits which were farmed on a huge scale by 'warreners' or rabbit keepers, especially around Shoebury.
Hadleigh Castle was constructed by Hubert de Burgh around 1230 during the reign of Henry III, overlooking the Thames Estuary to guard against French invasion. In the 1327 flood, the hamlet of Milton was submerged, leaving Milton Hall behind (near what is now Southend town centre). The 1381 Peasants' Revolt involved men from Prittlewell and Shoebury, with Milton Hall and Southchurch Hall (built earlier the same century) amongst the targets for rioting. A landing stage called Stratende developed south of Prittlewell in the fourteenth century.
Prittlewell Priory was seized during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The name Southende turned up in an official document during this period. However, only these place names appear on a 1576 map:
Essex witch trials involved Leigh-on-Sea 'witches'. From 1700, when the oyster industry was developed, the fishing shacks at the 'South End' of Prittlewell were slowly transformed into regular storage and housing for the oyster fishermen. Before the cultivation of oysters, Southend-on-Sea was truly a secret, i.e. it did not exist!
DID YOU KNOW?
Tradition tells of a plague pit at Sutton (north of Prittlewell) in the seventeenth century. In 1666, St Mary's Church in Prittlewell buried more parishioners than usual, no doubt for this very reason.
The Georgians and the Victorians
The oyster industry dominated the foreshore from Shoebury to Hadleigh, its success demonstrated by a 1724 battle with the men of Kent who attempted to pillage the beds, claiming them as common property. In 1760, the South End of the ancient parish of Prittlewell was described as 'merely a poor hamlet of fishermen's huts' – and nine years later it had just thirteen cottages and one house, the latter becoming the Ship Hotel, in a prominent position on the seafront. The first up-market housing development was Grand Terrace, now Royal Terrace, constructed between 1791 and 1793, prompted by a new fetish for sea bathing among the wealthy. Southend owes its origins as a bathing place to a medical man called Irwin, who erected a laboratory (near the site of the Hope Hotel on the seafront) for crystallising salts from sea-water: well done that man. The new craze prompted the first visits from members of the royal family just a few years later and it has been said that Southend owes much to a mad king (George III), a drunken and immoral rogue (his son, George, the then Prince of Wales) and the prince's sulky, dirty and smelly wife (Princess Caroline)! The town's first wooden pier was opened to the public in June 1830.
The town's first railway stations were Leigh-on-Sea and, by 1856, Southend (later Southend Central) resulting in a boom in property construction and visitors. A formal police station arrived in Alexandra Street in 1873 and the first hospital opened in Warrior Square in 1888. Ten years later a family hospital for the soldiers and families of the nearby garrison opened, this is now The Old Garrison in Campfield Road – the road name is a reference to the military tents which were once in evidence. A longer, iron pier was opened in 1890 and in 1892 the town became a municipal borough.
DID YOU KNOW?
That trains were kept away from the seafront by the residents of Royal Terrace, who forced a clause through a parliamentary bill prior to 1866 insisting that 'no locomotive blows off steam within half a mile of Royal Terrace.' This explains the construction of the railway line which swerves away from the seafront just before it reaches Westcliff en route to Southend.
The World Wars
The First World War
The Palace Hotel (formerly the Metropole), adjacent to the pier, was converted to Queen Mary's Naval Hospital for the duration of the war. Prison ships – holding German prisoners – were moored for some time in the Estuary.
Facilities and entertainments for day trippers expanded to cope with thousands arriving from London in charabancs, buses and trains. The town's new hospital opened in 1932 to cope with the growing number of residents.
The Second World War
Southend Pier and Royal Terrace came under the control of the Thames and Medway Naval Control Service. The pier train, usually a tourist attraction, carried troops to and from ships at the pier head. Nearly 3,500 convoys sailed from Southend during the war years. Thousands of locals left the town, and thousands of children were evacuated, but many moved back after just a few years, and the town's population was boosted by the billeted troops.
DID YOU KNOW?
When the first eighty blood donors were enlisted for emergencies in 1939, the blood bottles were supplied by Howards Dairies in Leigh-on-Sea.
Since the War
The iconic pier has suffered a series of fires and collisions since the war, wreaking more havoc than the Germans. The town remained popular with day trippers and holiday-makers until they were tempted away to the Costas. The 1960s brought battles between Mods and Rockers on the beaches but the town is moving away from its kiss-me-quick image to one of culture and the arts, fuelled by its multi-ethnic population and increasing intake of students. Preserving its history will benefit both incoming and long-term Southenders alike.CHAPTER 2
An early alliance which came to grief locally was the one between Princess Beatrice (Henry III's daughter) and Ralph de Binley. The young couple were in the process of eloping to France, awaiting a vessel to take them from Leigh-on-Sea (c. 1255), when they were challenged as they prepared to board ship. The challenger died from a seemingly accidental wound from his own knife. However, it seems he may have first warned the local bailiffs (at Hadleigh Castle) because guards arrived to intervene, and prevent the couple from leaving. Beatrice was arrested and sent back to London and Ralph was imprisoned at Hadleigh Castle until his trial at Chelmsford. He was sentenced to death, but was pardoned by King Henry on condition that Beatrice married John of Brittany and Ralph left the country. They had little choice in the matter, and the story goes that Beatrice stood at the top of the Strand Steps at Leigh until her lover's ship disappeared from view.
The more famous the lover, it seems, the less discreet the affair. You only need to look at the relationships between Henry VIII and sisters Mary and Anne Boleyn (among others) to find two classic examples. The young sisters would have spent time with their grandfather at Rochford Hall, young Mary coming into contact with Henry in her role as lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor. By succumbing to Henry's attentions, and reputedly giving birth to his son in 1524, while married to William Carey, Mary may have harmed her reputation, but kept her head – literally. Moving on to Anne, there are reports of Henry visiting her at Rochford Hall, and of their riding openly together in the local forests and woodland around the area. Thomas Boleyn, the girls' father, was one of Henry VIII's principal advisors, so it would not have been difficult for the couple to maintain contact. Henry was a fan of hunting, and the area provided him with the opportunity to pursue both of his favourite sports – and, it seems, a secret escape tunnel existed from Rochford Hall for discreet exits. Expensive gifts, and the promise of the throne, meant that Anne finally succumbed to the king's demands, and she was pregnant when they were secretly married in 1533, before his marriage to Catherine had been fully nullified. What is left of Rochford Hall forms Rochford Golf Club, and the Anne Boleyn pub is not far away, a constant reminder of this most famous of affairs. There is an incidental story that Anne, when in residence at Rochford Hall, found the clamour of the bells so disturbing that she had them exchanged for Prittlewell market, i.e. Rochford gained a market, and Prittlewell gained the bells (for St Mary's)!
DID YOU KNOW?
Although Hadleigh Castle was – technically – 'gifted' to Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr (three of Henry VIII's wives), Anne Boleyn missed out.
One secret love affair is little more than a legend, although the late, and sadly missed, local historian Sheila Pitt-Stanley has written of the relationship in some detail. It was probably based in fact, but the problems here with regard to our lovers are a) the absence of information about 'Lady Eleanor', and b) the range of aliases of the gentleman/highwayman lover, i.e. his gentlemanly names of Gilbert or Gabriel Craddock, plus his night-time identities as Jerry or Cutter Lynch. Craddock rebuilt Leigh Park House in its 125 acres – sometimes known as Tile Barn Farm or Leigh House Farm – in 1750, although it was renamed Lapwater Hall by locals when he crossly instructed his builders to 'lap water' from the horses' pond (!) after they had complained about the lack of ale they were expecting as part payment. Craddock was apparently no oil painting, being variously described as being as ugly as a bulldog, and with a squint, but he was a bit of a softie when it came to his horse, Brown Meg, who apparently had no ears yet still was not put out to grass. Instead he made her wax ears, which it has to be said was also an effective disguise for his highwayman activities as Cutter Lynch since an ear-less horse would certainly have been rather a distinctive feature.
As Gilbert Craddock, he was a skilled chess player and gave an air of breeding, which obviously attracted Lady Eleanor, and the couple planned a June wedding in Leigh-on-Sea. It was not to be, however, because in May 1751, an injured Cutter Lynch was chased through the highways and by-ways of rural Essex by the Bow Street Runners. The story goes that they shot but did not catch their man, and found him the following morning in the pond of Lapwater Hall. It seems he had hidden among the reeds until he had lost consciousness from his wound and fallen into the water and drowned. Although Craddock, on the whole, seemed to manage to keep his double life a secret from the villagers, it seems Lady Eleanor was aware, because she told his friends that he had promised to give up the road once she had agreed to marry him. Just days before their planned wedding, however, the bride-to-be was in mourning at Craddock's grave in St Clement's churchyard. In later years, the mysterious (from a historian's point of view!) Lady Eleanor is said to have stayed at Lapwater Hall when visiting Leigh, until she made a marriage more suiting her station in life. The hall was demolished in 1947 and Lapwater Close, between where Hadleigh and Burnham Roads now stand, is all that remains as a reminder of the estate.
Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, the wife of the ageing British Ambassador to Naples, probably became lovers around 1798, some years after they had met in Italy and before the Hamiltons returned to the UK from Naples. Emma is said to have met Nelson on several occasions at a Benfleet dwelling (just west of Southend, now the Conservative Club) and also to have stayed at The Lawn in Southchurch in 1801, the same year their daughter Horatia was born. To hide Horatia's parentage from public 'view', a sailor called Thompson was invented as 'father' and the baby was cared for by a 'Mrs Gibson' (See also Chapter Four, Secret Births). These meetings took place at a time when Nelson was commanding a battle squadron defending the Thames Estuary and East Coast. Prior to the existence of a pier, he could have moored at an anchoring ground 3 miles south-east of the new resort, in the Thames, known as The Nore. There is a letter in Southend Central Museum from Emma to Nelson from 'South End', dated August 1803, referring to the sea bathing which had 'done much' for her, and another with a reference to Horatia, firming up the timing of this visit at least. This is around the time when it is recorded that she visited Southend's only theatre where her friend (from their days as servants) Jane Powell was a 'tragic' actress. Just three months before Nelson's death at Trafalgar, Emma was staying at No. 7 Royal Terrace to see if the waters could help her eczema, and it was then (August 1805) that she held a grand dinner and ball at the Royal Hotel in his honour. It is also recorded that Emma took their daughter, Horatia, to stay in Southend in 1805. After Nelson's death, incidentally, HMS Victory lay off Southend en route to Chatham Dockyard to repair the damage inflicted at the Battle of Trafalgar. Unfortunately Emma was ostracised following Nelson's death, and she died, very unromantically, of dysentery while in poverty-stricken exile in Calais. Years after her death, Queen Victoria was still referring to her as 'that woman'. Perhaps that was why this queen, unlike other members of her family, never visited Southend with its Nelson-Hamilton connotations?
DID YOU KNOW?
Frances Cromwell, daughter of Oliver, is said to have received a proposal from Charles II but instead chose Robert Rich of Rochford Hall. Sadly, she was left a childless widow just three months later after Robert died of consumption in 1658. Her father, incidentally, is reputed to have stayed overnight at the historic Porters in Southend during his military campaigns several years earlier.
Princess (later Queen) Caroline, the daughter-in-law of 'mad' King George III, upped the status of Southend-on-Sea from 1803/04 as a result of her visits to take the waters and set up competition for her husband's beloved Brighton. She and her retinue occupied at one visit three houses in Grand Terrace (later Royal due to her presence) – No. 9 for the princess, No. 8 the dining quarters, and No. 7 the drawing room area for after dinner. This particular visit coincided with Captain Manby, known to Caroline, being moored in the Africaine off Southend for a number of weeks. Several servants of the royal household, admittedly not fans of the eccentric Caroline, felt obliged to speak out against her conduct. Robert Bidgood, for instance, insisted that he had seen the princess 'retire with Captain Manby to No. 9 ... I suspect that Captain Manby slept very frequently in the house'. As part of his argument, he said that the princess 'put out the candles in the drawing room at No. 9 and bid me not wait to put them up'. He was not the only servant to have his suspicions, and Caroline, who had a string of alleged affairs, became known as the Queen of Indiscretion, i.e. not too good at keeping secrets. She was tried for adultery in 1820 (with Manby one of a number of named participants ...) as a means of procuring a divorce, but narrowly escaped conviction. The Shrubbery which fronts the re-named Royal Terrace was well known as a haunt for courting couples at a time when there was a charge to enter, so Caroline and Emma Hamilton were only the more famous of its habituees.
Excerpted from The Secret History of Southend-on-Sea by Dee Gordon. Copyright © 2014 Dee Gordon. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: A Brief History of Southend-on-Sea,
Chapter Two: Secret Events,
Chapter Three: Secret Places,
Chapter Four: Secret People,
Chapter Five: Relics of a Lost Age,
Chapter Six: Miscellaneous Secrets,
Chapter Seven: Lost History and Lost Secrets,