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The A-Z of Curious Essex
By Paul Wreyford
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Paul Wreyford
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The A–Z of Curious Essex
* ABBERTON *
All shook up
There is perhaps no better place to start a tour of curious Essex than with an event that shook the county – literally.
In fact, it shook most of the country.
Many people are not even aware that the UK has suffered from a severe earthquake. Even fewer know that the most destructive on record in England took place in rural Essex in 1884. The epicentre of the Great British Earthquake – as it is now known – was an area south of Colchester. Abberton Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Essex, now conveniently marks the spot on a map of the British Isles. It is said that every building in neighbouring Abberton and Langenhoe was damaged when the earth shook just before 9.20 a.m. on 22 April. It is fortunate that the epicentre was in what is still a very rural part of the county. Even today the villages of Abberton and Langenhoe are sparsely populated. There are often more visitors than residents. The reservoir (built in the 1930s) is now a popular nature reserve, and still a haven of tranquillity.
It was far from tranquil when the earthquake struck on that fateful April morning, however. It is said that the tremor lasted some 20 seconds in Abberton. In those 20 seconds, more than 1,200 buildings were damaged within a radius of 150 miles. The shockwaves were felt over an area of 50,000 square miles, as far north as Cheshire and as far west as Somerset. The earthquake was even felt on the Continent in Belgium.
Locally, hundreds were made homeless and the church at Langenhoe was virtually destroyed. Some believed the earthquake to be a sign of the end of the world.
What is perhaps curious is that the number of people killed is much debated. Mercifully, there were only a handful of casualties, if any at all. Some reports at the time claimed there was no loss of life. However, others talked of a child dying after being hit by falling rubble, while a pensioner is said to have died of fright.
Today, quiet Abberton – with its reservoir now serving what is the driest county in England – seems the unlikeliest place in the world to have been the scene of so much devastation. It is perhaps no surprise that even some residents are blissfully unaware of what happened here more than 125 years ago. One can only assume that newcomers to the parish are a little shocked when they are told – though certainly not to the extent of those who experienced that incredible morning in April.
* ABBESS RODING *
The spy who loved Cromwell
It is no secret that one of the greatest figures in British intelligence was born at Abbess Roding, north of Chipping Ongar. However, few residents today are aware of the fact that Oliver Cromwell's celebrated spymaster spent his early life in their village. Even the name John Thurloe means little or nothing to most.
Some historians have suggested that the country has never had a more efficient or effective secret service than when Thurloe was in charge of intelligence. As Cromwell's right-hand man, Thurloe was one of the most powerful individuals in England.
Thurloe, who was the son of a former rector of Abbess Roding, was born in 1616. He took little or no part in the Civil War, but rose to prominence within Cromwell's government. Thurloe was the man responsible for signing the letters sent out to sheriffs ordering them to proclaim Cromwell as Lord Protector.
It was in his role in charge of the intelligence department that he earned his reputation, however. Thurloe was so successful in detecting and thwarting plots against the republic that it was remarked that Cromwell carried at his belt the secrets of all the princes of Europe. Thurloe was able to keep his master informed of all the plans of foreign governments. Thanks to his many spies and agents, he was always able to keep one step ahead of the enemy, of whom there were many. He uncovered numerous plots.
Thurloe even had spies in the exiled royal court, and it is said that Cromwell could tell Royalists returning from abroad what had been said to them during their secret interviews with Charles II himself. And even when the Royalists returned to power, many of the king's supporters were nervous, as it was said that Thurloe had information that would have sent more than a few to the scaffold as traitors.
Thurloe was arrested at the Restoration, but released on condition that he helped the new government when required. It is said that Charles II even offered him a similar position, such was his reputation, but Thurloe chose to retire from public life. He said he could never serve the new king, as he had done Cromwell, whose rule, he remarked, was 'to seek out men for places, and not places for men'.
Thurloe was devoted to Cromwell and remained faithful to him until the last. It appears he had little intention of helping the new government under Charles II, as, upon Thurloe's death in 1668, a false ceiling was discovered in his London home. Stored there were many state papers and intelligence reports; Thurloe presumably determined to ensure his many secrets went with him to the grave.
* AUDLEY END *
Too grand for a king
Visitors to Audley End – one of the finest houses in England – would think it was fit for a king.
It is still an enormous and spectacular property, even though it is now only one-third of its original size. Its first owner, Admiral Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, was determined to build the grandest house in the country, and he succeeded. However, even the king appeared to be of the belief it was just a bit too grand.
Howard became a national hero for his role in defeating the Spanish Armada. When James I created his earldom in 1603, Howard no doubt decided he needed a property worthy of a man of his status, and one that was big enough to entertain the monarch and his royal court. Building on his land near Saffron Walden started that same year, but the house was not completed until about 1614. It is said to have cost £200,000, including furnishings, which was a massive figure at the time.
It was also in 1614 that Howard was elevated to the position of Lord High Treasurer. He must have looked forward to showing off his new abode. James appeared to be a little shocked when he finally came to visit, and remarked that Audley End was too great a house for a king, but sarcastically added that it might do for a Lord High Treasurer!
No doubt James was already aware of the rumours circulating that Howard was in severe financial difficulties. The building of the largest private house in England had come at a cost. Soon Howard was struggling with its upkeep. Talk of corruption became rife and, in 1618, James relieved Howard of his duties as Lord High Treasurer when he was made aware of his misconduct in the Treasury.
Worse was to follow for Howard and his wife, who were accused of committing embezzlement, extortion and bribery in a bid to finance their extravagant home and lifestyle. They endured a short spell in the Tower for their misdemeanours, before being allowed to return to Audley End, where they spent their final days out of the public spotlight – and, needless to say, still in debt.
* BEAUCHAMP RODING *
The wise man built his church upon the hill
Parishioners at Beauchamp Roding have to trek quite a distance – uphill – to attend their pretty church.
There is a reason why their place of worship stands in its lofty (well, lofty for flat Essex) and isolated position some distance from the village centre. According to legend, Old Nick himself would not let them build it any closer to their homes.
When villagers decided to construct their church hundreds of years ago, they selected a more convenient location in the village centre itself. For the building materials, they decided to make good use of a great stone that lay on top of the hill. It must have been some effort to drag the huge stone down the hill to where the church was going to be built. However, it appears it was no effort for the Devil to move it back again, as when they woke up the next morning it was found on the exact spot from which it had been taken.
They must have been a determined lot at Beauchamp Roding, for they dragged the stone down again and retired for the night once more. Needless to say, when they woke the next morning it was back at the top of the hill. They must have hoped it would be third time lucky, for it is said they moved it again one more time, with the same result, before giving up.
Some wise villager – perhaps fearing for his back – probably came up with the theory that Old Nick was responsible for the strange goings-on, and who would dare argue with him? It was therefore decided that the church should be built on top of the hill at Beauchamp Roding, north of Chipping Ongar, and there has stood St Botolph's ever since. In the churchyard is a triangular-shaped stone embedded in the ground that is reputed to be all that remains of what was used to build the church.
This tale is not unique. There are numerous stories of the Devil interfering with building works, and the Beauchamp Roding legend echoes many tales across the land.
However, the less romantic have suggested that the hilltop location of St Botolph's (and other similarly positioned churches) was chosen as a compromise. With paganism still rife, those opposed to a Christian church might have insisted that such a building at least be erected on top of a hill – a once common place for pagan worship.
* BILLERICAY *
To be a Pilgrim
Visitors entering Billericay are often surprised to see a ship on the town sign. The town is, after all, quite a long way from the sea and not known for its maritime pursuits. However, that particular ship represents a vessel that is familiar around the globe.
Most know that the Mayflower took the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World, but not so many know that the treasurer of the voyage was from Billericay. Merchant Christopher Martin lived at The Chantry, a timber-framed building still standing in the high street. Under his leadership, a contingent from Essex is said to have met in his home on the night before they joined the ship. It is said that the Mayflower, having set off from Harwich, stopped at Leigh-on-Sea, and it was there that Martin and his associates, including his wife, boarded the vessel in 1620, having walked from Billericay. Martin was responsible for provisioning the ship, and flour for the Mayflower probably came from a Billericay mill.
The religious dissenters put their hope in a new land, where they would be free to worship as they pleased. Under the command of Christopher Jones, of Harwich, the Mayflower – after another stop at Plymouth – reached Cape Cod Bay in what is now Massachusetts. During the voyage, which took sixty-six days, one died and another was born. However, the dream turned into a nightmare and, within a few months, it is thought that about half of the travellers had died due to the harsh winter conditions. Martin and his wife were among them. It was a tragic end for a couple who had tied the knot in Great Burstead Church, just outside Billericay, so full of hope. However, they can at least claim to have done their bit in forming a little part of Essex in the United States that we know today. The new colony, despite the hardships, did survive and Billerica (the 'y' was seemingly lost when they crossed the Atlantic) was among the new settlements named after Essex towns. It still prospers today – another indication that Billericay is well within its rights to proudly display a certain ship on its town sign.
The Ghastly Miller
Those struggling to lose a few pounds might help themselves by following the diet of an eighteenth-century Billericay miller.
When he ballooned to a weight that seriously started to affect his health, Thomas Wood – nicknamed the 'Ghastly Miller' by locals – decided to do something about it.
Slowly but surely he began to perfect what he believed was the perfect diet. And being a miller, it was perhaps no surprise that the chief ingredient in his bid to shed the pounds was none other than flour.
Wood, who was born in 1719, was in his mid-forties when he became subject to all types of ailments, such as headaches, gout, breathlessness and rheumatism. He even suffered from vertigo – though he was so big, one has to wonder how he even managed to climb the stairs in the first place! Wood had no doubt that his problems were due to his love of food and drink. Determined to do something about it, he first cut down his intake of meat and ale. Slowly but surely, he eliminated various foods and is said to have given up drinking liquids altogether, the exceptions being the milk or water he added to flour to produce his own kind of dumplings. So keen was he to stick to his new regime, he carried his ingredients whenever he left town in a bid to avoid the temptation of going back to his old ways. It is said he lived on his homemade dumplings for the rest of his life, though he did admit to occasionally treating himself by pouring gin or brandy over his food – purely for medicinal purposes, of course!
It is believed the miller lost at least 11 stone, though he was too suspicious to sit on a weighing machine. His case became celebrated within medical circles after appearing in Medical Transactions, a publication of the Royal College of Physicians. The article by George Baker suggested Wood, to quote the words of the miller himself, had 'metamorphosed from a monster to a person of moderate size' thanks to his strange diet. People from all over came to Billericay to meet the celebrated nutritionist, and many were inspired to follow his diet in order to improve their own health.
Wood was in his early sixties when he died, a reasonable age for that particular era, and one that he may not have reached if it had not been for his healthy homemade dumplings.
Last stand of the rebels with a cause
If you go down to the woods in Billericay today, you won't be in for a big surprise.
Norsey Wood, on the edge of the town, is like most woods in England. It is a pleasant and serene place to spend a couple of hours. And few who walk among its trees have any idea it is reputedly the scene of one of the most savage massacres on British soil. It is here that the infamous Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was finally put to bed, according to tradition.
The revolt not only finished in Essex, but started in the county too – at Brentwood, where an angry mob, consisting of humble labourers and fishermen from the Thames-side communities of Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford-le-Hope, saw off those who had come to impose a new poll tax on them. Already fed up with their working conditions, riots ensued, and thousands from Essex and Kent joined the rebellion, marching towards London to demand action. King Richard II famously confronted the rebels and promised to meet their demands. When Wat Tyler – one of the leaders of the revolt – was killed, the peasants eventually dispersed, still believing the king would honour his promise. However, Richard – once he had gained the upper hand – later rode into Chelmsford and formerly revoked his earlier pledges.
The leaders of the revolt were rounded up and executed. The remaining rebels were hunted down and the last significant band fled to Billericay, reputedly to Norsey Wood, where they put up one last fight. However, it was not a fair battle and most now refer to it as a massacre. Armed with just the tools of their trade, the peasants had no chance against the powerful army of Richard, led by the Earl of Buckingham. It is believed that about 500 rebels – unable to put up any serious resistance – were slaughtered under the trees.
* BIRDBROOK *
I take you ... and you ... and you ...
There are two people who lie at rest in the parish of Birdbrook who must have known the wedding vows off by heart.
Martha Blewit and Robert Hogan, according to a memorial in the church, had no less than sixteen spouses between them.
Martha, of the Swan Inn at nearby Baythorne End, was the wife of nine husbands successively, the ninth one surviving her. The memorial records the fact that following her death in 1681, the text for the funeral sermon was, 'Last of all the woman died also'.
Excerpted from The A-Z of Curious Essex by Paul Wreyford. Copyright © 2013 Paul Wreyford. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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