Billericay in Essex was originally a prehistoric settlement. This book tells its story from those times, through the Roman occupation, its eclipse and its subsequent rise in importance. It describes the change from a rural market town in the mid-nineteenth century to a dormitory town for London after the coming of the railway in 1889. Its associations with the Peasants Revolt and the Mayflower, and its place in the development of non-conformism in Essex are all explained – as are the events of 1916 when a German airship was destroyed nearby. This is the first detailed history of Billericay, packed with original research and a multitude of previously unpublished illustrations from many sources. Author Charles Phillips brings the story right up to date, and his book is an ideal introduction for all the town’s residents, as well as anyone interested in the history of Essex.
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About the Author
Charles Phillips is an Essex man through and through. Educated in Chelmsford, he has lived all his life in the village of Stock – just a couple of miles from Billericay. Charles is the author of four previous books on aspects of Essex history, and he plans to write many more during his retirement.
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The Story of Billericay
By Charles Phillips
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Charles Phillips
All rights reserved.
STONE AGE TO SAXONS
It is not known when the first people settled in the area that is now Billericay, but evidence has been found of Middle Stone Age activity in the shape of some burnt bone, pottery and a flint axe head on the south-east-facing slope less than a mile from the town. Beyond this, which suggests a settlement of some kind, not a great deal is known about Billericay in the Middle Stone Age.
There was definitely a settlement here by the time of the Bronze Age. Two Bronze Age burial mounds were excavated in Norsey Wood from 1865 onwards. Finds included burials and Deverel-Rimbury pottery, dating from 2500 to 1000 BC. This distinctive pottery is in the most characteristic Middle Bronze Age style – globular thick-walled urns, with smooth surfaces and subtle decoration. The number of dead found in these burial mounds indicates that they were used over a long period of time, which suggests a settlement of some importance. Its exact location in relation to the modern town cannot now be determined, as the timber Bronze Age huts, probably with turf roofs, have left no trace. While the burial mound in the south-eastern part of Norsey Wood is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the one near the Norsey Road has had an air-raid shelter, a fish pond and a garage (among other things) built into it at various times since the 1930s.
The arrival of the Iron Age, which ran roughly from 500 BC to the coming of the Romans, brought with it more concrete evidence of a settlement. In pre-Roman times Essex was inhabited by the powerful Trinovantes tribe, whose territory covered an area at least from modern Colchester to the mouth of the Thames. Downham Grange near Billericay is thought to have been an Iron Age fort to protect the area from the south-west, north-east and east. This survived the Roman occupation and was used thereafter by the Saxons. Unfortunately no remains can be found today. From limited evidence, it has been suggested that Iron Age Billericay consisted of about a dozen families living in farmsteads that contained three generations; this led to a tribal organisation. The buildings were large, thatched and circular, made of wattle and daub, and with an opening in the roof for smoke to escape. Wattle and daub construction consisted of interwoven twigs plastered with a mixture of clay, lime, water, and sometimes dung and chopped straw.
Relics from the Iron Age have been found over the years, particularly on the high ground behind the former St Andrew's Hospital. When the cutting for the railway was being dug in the mid-1880s an Iron Age burial urn was found. At Bell Hill in the mid-1970s, during the building of a new housing development, a ditch or stream bed produced Iron Age material and evidence of an area of extensive burning, which possibly dated from the Iron Age. Archaeologists recorded a ditch that produced stratified material from the first century AD, but it is not certain if this was Iron Age or Roman. At some unknown date an Iron Age pot was found in the garden of 5 Chapel Street.
The Romans briefly invaded Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC under Julius Caesar. These invasions were not successful from the Roman point of view, however, and it was AD 43 before they came again. This was the start of the Roman occupation of Britain. They established a military station of the Ninth Legion in Norsey Wood. The headquarters of the Ninth Legion was built at Colchester. Although this was destroyed in the revolt of AD 61 led by Queen Boudicca, it was later rebuilt.
There is definitive evidence of a large Roman settlement in Billericay, although its Roman name is not known, and many vestiges of the period have been found in the town. These include coins, bricks, pottery, brooches and numerous other artefacts, and at Sun Corner the remains of Roman buildings have been found. In 1877, during the digging of a hole for the building of a gasometer at the gasworks in Laindon Road, workmen came across a cache of broken pottery on a platform or pavement of Roman construction. This pottery, on investigation by Mr J.A. Sparvel-Bayley, was found to be cinerary (that is, it contained the ashes of the dead), and other urns including some of Samian ware, one of which bore the word DACMUS. In 1933 part of a Roman rubbish pit was excavated in Norsey Wood. This revealed late fourth-century coins and pottery. The concurrent discovery of late Iron Age pottery was clear evidence that this rubbish pit had been in use for centuries. Excavations in 1987–8 at School Road and Roman Way revealed cremation burials, wells and ditches of the first to fourth centuries AD. A pottery kiln dated AD 43 to 100 was discovered to the south of the school in Buckenhams Field just north of the junction of Laindon and Noak Hill roads.
The Roman settlement stretched in an arc from near the site of St Mary Magdalen's Church in the High Street to Norsey Wood. This position provided a defensive view over surrounding forests. Some sources think that during the Roman occupation an additional outpost, possibly a fort, was built at Blunts Wall, near Tye Common and west of the High Street. From the evidence that has been found of a Roman road that went from Norsey Wood to Stock, it seems that the main road through Roman Billericay ran from the Roman settlement at Chelmsford (Caesaromagus) to the Thames. Other evidence of a Roman road was found during building work at Billericay School.
It is worth remembering that the Roman occupation of Britain was just that: an occupation. Although it lasted from AD 43 to 410 and there were Roman buildings and Roman towns throughout much of Britain, there was not the same assimilation that occurred in France or Spain. Billericay at this time, for example, consisted of a Roman occupation force existing side by side with the indigenous population. Roman law and a few other habits of life were imposed on the inhabitants, but they were essentially free to go about their own business. There is evidence that some in the higher echelons of society adopted a Roman way of life, living in Roman-style buildings but remaining essentially British; Romano-British. Humbler folk remained British even in the style of their buildings, but no doubt some of their number understood and were able to read and write a modicum of Latin. Co-operation and collaboration took place. It is possible that there were liaisons between the occupying forces and local inhabitants, and that some male inhabitants joined the Roman army as auxiliaries, that is non-citizen corps.
By the end of the fourth century AD the Roman Empire was coming under attack along its fringes, including Britain, and in 383 the Roman army began to withdraw from its British territory. This withdrawal was completed in 410. Essex was eventually settled by Saxons from Lower Saxony, in what is now Germany. Records from the period are scarce, so we do not know how long their conquest of the area took. From the evidence of a wheel-turned pot of Roman ware found at Billericay, there is a suggestion that the Saxon conquest might have taken place over a long period, commencing some time before the withdrawal of the Romans. The pot, which contained human ashes, indicates that there was a gradual intermingling of Saxon and Roman cultures: it has Saxon decoration (a cruciform pattern, lines and dots and a swastika) and a fourth-century Roman jar as its lid.
Eventually Roman Billericay was deserted. The reason for this was that the Saxons associated cemeteries with ghosts, and in the Roman settlement there were cemeteries. The Saxon invaders settled at a new site, now Great Burstead. This had an impact on Billericay which lasted for centuries: it was not until 1844 that Billericay was finally separated from Great Burstead, and became a separate ecclesiastical parish.
Norsey Wood is where Billericay began, but what of the place itself? It is a mixed coppiced woodland of 165 acres, varying in height from 197ft to 302ft above sea level. The wood comprises plateaus of sandy soils overlying clays, producing four valleys that lead into a principal valley. The steep-sided but well-vegetated valleys radiate in a northward direction from the south-west corner of the wood, and during the winter and wet periods contain southward flowing streams. These eventually lead into the River Crouch. The higher plateau areas are reasonably flat and well drained and gently slope northwards. In the north-east the gravels become thinner, and the underlying clays support small springs, although with today's warmer climate these have largely become redundant. For such reasons there exist three apparently artificial ponds in the north-east of the wood, and one in the south-east. The gravel plateaus mainly support sweet chestnut coppice, and in the south and east areas of hornbeam, oak, birch, rowan and aspen. The marshy valleys support alder, ash and willow coppice with areas of pendulous sedge, sphagnum moss and buckler fern. The soils in Norsey Wood are very acidic.
There is a well-defined system of 'rides' in the wood. The primary one is believed to date back to Iron Age times, if not to the Bronze Age. By the end of the sixteenth century the major rides were sufficiently established to appear on a map of the area; this dates from 1593. In more recent years a series of footpaths has developed.
The main historical features that are easily visible are the Bronze Age burial mound, medieval deerbanks (protective boundaries consisting of a massive ditch and bank, a formidable barrier for animals) and First and Second World War trenches.
Before the early 1930s the area of the wood was about 200 acres. It included within its boundaries a second Bronze Age burial mound. However, housing development in 1931 to 1933 reduced the wood to its present size – and, as mentioned elsewhere, a house was built on the other Bronze Age burial mound. This housing development also destroyed a large part of the northern section of the medieval deerbanks.
The whole of Norsey Wood is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and it is also a local nature reserve.CHAPTER 2
THE NORMAN CONQUEST AND THE MEDIEVAL TOWN
In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) successfully invaded England. As King William I he commissioned a survey in 1085 of all the land that he had acquired. This was known as the Domesday Book, and was compiled between 1086 and 1087 by commissioners who travelled around the country, which was divided into seven circuits. It was not a population census but a land and property census: King William wanted to know who held what land, the number of working persons there were, what animals there were and what money he could expect to receive from the land. Although it contains a wealth of information, the Domesday Book omits certain places: there are no records specifically relating to the City of London, for example. It also mentions only working people: no attempt is made to record their spouses or children.
As far as is known Billericay does not appear in the Domesday Book. It was suggested by the Rev. George Walker in his book The Story of a Little Town (1947) that the reference in Domesday to land held by the Bishop of Bayeux in Great and Little Burstead acquired since the Conquest relates to Billericay. This land had twenty-eight freemen holding 28 hides (a hide was notionally the amount of land that would support a household) and 5 acres (medieval acres were different from modern acres; they could be used to measure length as well as area). At the time of the Conquest there were sixteen ploughlands, but at the time of the survey thirteen. A ploughland was the amount of land that could be ploughed in one year using a plough and a team of eight oxen. The land had 5 hides of woodland, 23 acres of meadow, pasture for 250 sheep, 54 bordars (a type of peasant), and 4 slaves. It had decreased in value from £20 at the time of the Conquest to £16 at the time of the survey.
For the sake of completeness I will give you details of the rest of the land held by the Bishop of Bayeux in Great and Little Burstead. Before the Conquest the land was held as one manor by Ingvar, who was a thane – part of the king's or a lord's household, or part of a military elite. The land area was 10 hides. Of this land three ploughlands always belonged to the lordship of the manor. Obviously there had been some reduction in land available for ploughing, as before the Conquest the men held twelve ploughlands but at the time of Domesday they only had eleven. At the time of the Conquest there were twenty villagers and five smallholders; at Domesday there were twenty-two villagers and ten smallholders. A villager was a member of the peasant class who held the most land; a smallholder was a 'middle-class' peasant. There was half a hide of woodland and also pasture. The Domesday Book says that there were 150 sheep, 2 cobs, 11 cattle, 106 pigs and 219 sheep; this second reference to sheep is confusing. The land was valued at £20. It may be noted that the area of newly acquired land at Great Burstead was greater than the area called Great Burstead at the time of the Conquest.
At the time of Domesday the Bishop of Bayeux was one Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. In 1082 he was imprisoned for seditious behaviour, and in 1088 raised a rebellion against his nephew William Rufus. The rebellion failed, and Odo was banished from the country. Because of his disgrace the manor of Great Burstead passed to the Marshall family, whose head was the Earl of Pembroke under the second creation of the title in 1189. William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke granted it to Richard Siward, who then granted it to Stratford Langthorne Abbey at Bow. The monks of the abbey were Cistercians.
The first Essex historian, the Rev. Philip Morant (1700–70), says in his History and Antiquities of the County of Essex (1760–8) that 'Billericay is a hamlet in Great Burstead, but so considerable as to be a market town; the only one within this hundred [Barstable Hundred] except the little town of Horndon on the Hill.' Another name for Great Burstead was Burstead Grange – a grange being a monastic estate used for food production, or sometimes the agricultural buildings at the heart of that estate. The Cistercians had been discharged by Popes Paschal II and Hadrian IV of paying tithes on land they tilled themselves, and so in general they did not let out their lands, thereby making themselves liable for the paying of tithes, and had large barns or granges in which to store their crops.
As to when this 'hamlet' of Billericay was first established ... we don't know. We can make an educated guess as to why it was established, though: a settlement appears to have grown up where the road from Chelmsford to the Thames joined the road from London to Wickford on the River Crouch, which in those days is believed to have been navigable as far as Wickford. Today's Chelmsford, however, can only be traced back to about 1100, when Maurice, Bishop of London built a bridge across the River Cam. This theory apparently contradicts George Walker's suggestion that the extra land held by the time of Domesday was the settlement now known as Billericay. Exactly when and why the hamlet was established remains shrouded in mystery.
According to Philip Morant, the first time Billericay is mentioned is in 1343, when Thomas Malegreff is recorded to have held of Humphrey de Bohun, the 6th Earl of Hereford under the sixth creation and the 5th Earl of Essex under the third creation, the hamlet of Beleuca in Burstead as of his manor of Fobbying (Fobbing). Morant says that this name Beleuca is probably derived from the old word Baleuga or Banleuga, denoting territory or precinct round a borough or manor; the French word banlieue, suburb, is from the same root. He says that by 1395 Beleuca had been transformed into Billerica, but he does not know how this transformation came about.
According to Percy Hide Reaney in his Place Names of Essex (1935), however, the earliest mention of Billericay is in 1291, when it was spelt Byllyrica. By 1307 the spelling has changed to Billirica; in 1343 it is Billerica. This contradicts Morant's findings. How to explain the two contradictory names for Billericay in 1343? Perhaps Billerica refers to the hamlet and Beleuca to the territory or precinct around it.
Excerpted from The Story of Billericay by Charles Phillips. Copyright © 2013 Charles Phillips. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
one Stone Age to Saxons,
two The Norman Conquest and the Medieval Town,
three The Reformation,
four Life and Crime: the Sixteenth Century,
five Puritans, the Mayflower and Civil War,
six Glimpses of the Seventeenth Century,
seven Queen Anne to Napoleon,
eight Under Arms,
nine In Decline,
ten Billericay Resurgent,
eleven The First World War,
twelve The Long Truce,
thirteen At War,
fourteen The Post-War Town,
Bibliography and Sources,