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United Kingdom
Pretty Ugley, Essex - - 141759.jpg
Ugley, Essex
Flag of Essex
[Interactive map]
Area: 1,542 square miles
Population: 2,999,248
County town: Chelmsford
County flower: Common poppy [1]

The County of Essex is a large shire; one of the home counties, stretching between the packed urban conurbation and the lonely marshes of the North Sea coast. The county town is Chelmsford.

It is a county which was once a kingdom; the Kingdom of the East Saxons, and these East Saxons (Eastseaxe) give us the name of the county today.

A large county for the south of England, it is also one of the most populous counties in the United Kingdom, much of its south-west swallowed within the conurbation spreading out from London. The county has borders with Middlesex and Hertfordshire to the west, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north, and Kent lying over the River Thames and its great estuary to the south.

Essex is a county of great contrast between town and country. From the county border on the River Lea out to Romford, townscape stretches almost unbroken until curbed by the Metropolitan Green Belt. Along the north shore of the Thames estuary is a string of towns given over to industry or leisure, as far as Shoebury, and among and to the north of them are the new developments built to take London overspill and developed often into the identikit housing estates so reviled by media and cultured milieu; these are the towns satirised for their "Essex Girls".

However Essex is a large county and most of Essex by area is free of this development and free of the lazy stereotype; it is rich farmland with pretty though practical villages, linked by winding roads over the hills and country lanes, land eyed eagerly by house-builders but for the most part surviving nevertheless. The Essex coast is yet another aspect, where the land is flat and so carved by many rivers and tidal creeks that it is broken off with islands and vast flats where the only voices are the curlews.

The lie of the land

Upper Green, Langley

The highest point of Essex is Chrishall Common near the village of Langley, close to the Hertfordshire border, which reaches 482 feet.

Essex is bounded to the south by the broad River Thames and its estuary, across which lies Kent. The border to the east is the River Lea as far upstream as the River Stort and thereafter up the Stort, across which are Middlesex and Hertfordshire. The northern border with Cambridgeshire is the foot of the scarp of the hills, marked by the Icknield Way and then with Suffolk the border follows the River Stour to the sea. The county's eastern edge is the sea.

The pattern of settlement in the county is diverse. The south-western portion of the county has been swallowed into the metropolitan conurbation, and though some character remains of its individual towns such as Stratford, East Ham, Ilford, Dagenham, Barking, Leyton and Romford, nevertheless there are few spaces in between but endless strings of houses. The Metropolitan Green Belt has effectively prevented the further sprawl of London into the county and Epping Forest too acts as a protected barrier. Nevertheless, Essex contains its London-substitutes in such towns as those which have grown along in the south of the county, such as those spread in an effective continuum along the A127; Basildon, South Benfleet and others out to Southend-on-Sea, with Billericay, an old town grown large, off to the north of the group. Basildon and Harlow were developed deliberately as new towns after the War, originally to resettle Londoners whose homes were lost in the Blitz, though they have since been much expanded. The privately developed towns here have done much better than the concrete planned towns.

Finchingfield in northern Essex

Because of its proximity to London and the economic magnetism which that place exerts, many of Essex's towns and villages, particularly those on or within driving distance of railway stations, function as dormitory towns or villages where London workers raise their families.

To the north of the green belt, with the exception of major towns such as Colchester and Chelmsford, the county is rural, with many small towns, villages and hamlets largely built in the traditional materials of timber and brick, with clay tile or thatched roofs.


The Hundreds of Essex

Essex is divided into 19 hundreds:



Additionally, parts of Haverhill, otherwise in Suffolk; and Bishop's Stortford, otherwise in Hertfordshire, extend into Essex.


Lakeside Shopping Centre, Thurrock
Dagenham Docks

The Lakeside Shopping Centre at Thurrock was one of Britain's first out-of-town shopping centres, and remains popular despite congestion on the nearby M25 motorway and direct competition from Bluewater Shopping Centre across the Thames in Kent.

Industry is largely limited to the south of the county and the majority of the land elsewhere is given over to agriculture. Harlow is a centre for electronics, science and pharmaceutical companies, while Chelmsford is the home of Marconi (now called telent plc), Basildon home to New Holland Agriculture's European headquarters and Loughton is home to a printing facility for British and foreign banknotes. Ford Motor Company has its main plant at Dagenham and its European headquarters in Brentwood. Chelmsford has been an important location for electronics companies since the industry was born, and is also the location for a number of insurance and financial services organisations. Business otherwise in the county is dominated by light engineering and the service sector.

Stratford was the centre for the 2012 Olympic Games. The "Olympic Legacy" after the mere fortnight of sport is a new town of mixed employment and residential.

The Port of Tilbury is a major sea port on the Thames, having inherited the trade which would once have continued upstream to the Port of London.

Colchester is a garrison town, and the local economy is helped by the Army's personnel living there.

Parts of Eastern Essex suffer from high levels of deprivation. The most highly deprived parts are in Metropolitan Essex and outside it in Clacton and Southend.[1]

South West Essex outside the metropolitan conurbation is a mostly affluent place, part of the London commuter belt. These towns have a heavy middle class component and the area is widely known for its Independent schools. In 2008, The Daily Telegraph found Brentwood and Ingatestone to be the 19th and 14th richest towns in the United Kingdom respectively.[2]


Æscwine, first King of Essex, from John Speed's 1611 Saxon Heptarchy

The County's flag is a banner of the ancient arms attributed to Essex, and which has been granted to Essex County Council. The shield shows three Saxon seax knives (although looking rather more like scimitars) arranged on a red background.

The emblem was attributed anachronistically to the Kingdom of Essex in Early Modern historiography. The earliest reference the arms of the East Saxon kings was by Richard Verstegan, the author of A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605), claiming that "Erkenwyne king of the East-Saxons did beare for his armes, three [seaxes] argent, in a field gules". There is no earlier evidence substantiating Verstegan's claim, which is an anachronism for the Anglo-Saxon period seeing that heraldry only evolved in the 12th century, well after the Norman conquest. John Speed in his Historie of Great Britaine (1611) follows Verstegan in his descriptions of the arms of Erkenwyne, but he qualifies the statement by adding "as some or our heralds have emblazed".

The Hay Wain by John Constable shows the Essex landscape on the right bank

In 2002, the common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was named the county flower after a poll of residents by the plant conservation charity Plantlife. Another flower asscociated with Essex is the cowslip (Primula veris), locally known as the paigle or peggle, and frequently mentioned in the writings of Essex bucolic authors such as Samuel Bensusan and C H Warren. Samuel Bensusan and others have suggested that if Essex had a county bird, it would be the lapwing (known locally as the peewit) whose lonely cry characterises the Essex marshes known as saltings.

Dunmow Flitch Trials

Every four years, the village of Dunmow holds the Dunmow Flitch Trials. It is an ancient tradition, I which a flitch of bacon is given to a married couple who can prove their devotion to each other, for which purpose a trial is held before Judge and Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors. A flitch of bacon is given if they can satisfy the jury that in 'twelvemonth and a day', they have 'not wisht themselves unmarried again'.

A common claim of the origin of the Dunmow Flitch dates back to 1104 and the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow, founded by Lady Juga Baynard. Lord of the Manor Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife dressed themselves as humble folk and begged blessing of the Prior a year and a day after marriage. The Prior, impressed by their devotion bestowed upon them a Flitch of Bacon. Upon revealing his true identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to the Priory on the condition a Flitch should be awarded to any couple who could claim they were similarly devoted.

By the 14th century, the Dunmow Flitch Trials had achieved far-reaching fame. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales it is mentioned, in The Wife of Bath's Tale. William Langland, who lived on the Welsh borders, mentions it in his 1362 book The Vision of Piers Plowman in a manner that implies general knowledge of the custom among his readers.[3]


Most English counties have nicknames for people from that county, such as a Tyke from Yorkshire and a Yellowbelly from Lincolnshire. The traditional nickname for a person from Essex is an "Essex Calf", so named because the county was famous for rearing beef cattle for sale in London meat markets; calves from the county were famed for their large size and known as 'Essex lions'.[4]

Essex is known for being the origin of the political term Essex man, and of the Essex girl joke.[5]


Early history

The area which Essex now occupies was ruled pre-Roman settlement by the Celtic Trinovantes tribe. A dispute between them and another tribe was used as an excuse for a Roman invasion in 55 BC, and they allied with Rome when Claudius returned in 49 AD. Under the Romans, Camulodunum (Colchester) was taken from the tribe and placed under direct Roman authority, becoming the capital of Roman Britain. The Trinovantes later turned against the Romans and fought alongside the Boudicea and her Iceni tribe against Roman rule. As Rome weakened in the fourth century, the Essex shore became prey to raiders from Germania; forts of the "Saxon Shore" were built here. After Rome finally retreated from Britain, the Saxons raids became settlements.

The Kingdom of the East Saxons, Eastseaxna rice occupied territory to the north of the River Thames, incorporating Essex and what soon became Middlesex and Hertfordshire. The royal centre of this kingdom is thought to have been at Ithancestre nowadays known as Bradwell on Sea. However, Bede wrote that Saint Augustine would have placed his episcopal seat in London rather than Canterbury but for the obstinate adherence of the East Saxons to heathenism. As the Mercians expanded in the seventh century, the territory of Essex was driven back to the lands east of the River Lea, which is the county's extent to this day and the Mercians constructed a palace of sorts whereat their kingdom occasionally resided on the north shore of the Thames as Lundonwic, now Aldwych.

Middle Ages

The Essex coast was prey to Vikings, skilled in navigating the creeks, and several of the place-names of Essex are evidence of Danish settlement here. While Danish rule was overthrown in the early tenth century, the Vikings were still on the seas and in service too with ambitious rulers; it was the Battle of Maldon in Essex in 991, recalled in verse, which marked a new onslaught leading to the victory of Swegn and his son King Cnut.

The first Earl of Essex after the Norman Conquest was Geoffrey de Mandeville, a man who received extraordinary authority in Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex through his skilful manipulation of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. He received his title from Stephen, land and offices from Matilda, and charters from both. It was a dangerous game to play; he ended his days as a fenland bandit, leading a rebellious army of plunder through Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

When the Middle Ages calmed down, Essex became a prosperous county. Its farmers produced fine wool and its merchants traded across the seas.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

When Daniel Defoe came this way in 1722, Essex was still a rural county, yet the growth of London was just beginning to have an effect in the very south-western parts:

Passing Bow-Bridge, where the county of Essex begins, the first observation I made was, That all the villages which may be called the neighbourhood of the city of London on this, as well as on the other sides thereof, which I shall speak to in their order; I say, all those villages are increased in buildings to a strange degree, within the compass of about 20 or 30 years past at the most. The village of Stratford, the first in this county from London, is not only increased, but, I believe, more than doubled in that time; every vacancy filled up with new houses[6]

Much of the Victorian development of the county was caused by the railway. By 1843 the Eastern Counties Railway had connected Bishopsgate station in London with Brentwood and Colchester, in 1856, they opened a branch to Loughton (later extended to Ongar) and by 1884 the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway had connected Fenchurch Street railway station in the City of London to Grays, Tilbury, Southend-on-Sea and Shoeburyness. Some of the railways were built primarily to transport goods but some (for example the Loughton branch) were deliberately planned to cater for commuter traffic; they unintentionally created the holiday resorts of Southend, Clacton and Frinton-on-Sea.

Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The plaza of Basildon, a new town

Much of Essex is protected from development around the edges of the London conurbation and forms part of the Metropolitan Green Belt. In 1949 the new towns of Harlow and Basildon were created. These developments were intended to address the chronic housing shortage in London but were not intended to become dormitory towns, rather it was hoped the towns would form an economy independent of the capital. Furthermore, the railway station at Basildon, with a direct connection to the City, was not opened until 1974 after pressure from residents. The proximity of London and its economic magnetism has caused many places in Essex to become desirable places for workers in the City of London to live.

The biggest development project on the early twenty-first century has been the Olympic project in Stratford. In creating a new series of Olympic stadia and athletes' accommodation for a fortnight of games in July 2012, a whole new Essex town is being, labelled "Stratford City". The "Olympic legacy" is intended to redevelop the whole area, in a belt stretching across the county border to Hackney in Middlesex.

Historical buildings

The importance of the Anglo-Saxon culture in Essex was only emphasized by the rich burial discovered at Prittlewell (near Southend on Sea) in 2003. The important Anglo-Saxon remains in Essex are mostly churches. St.Peter's straddles the wall of a Roman sea-fort at Bradwell-on-Sea (Othona), and is one of the early Anglo-Saxon, "Kentish" series of churches made famous by its documentation by Bede. Later Anglo-Saxon work may be seen in an important church tower at Holy Trinity, Colchester, an intact church at Hadstock, and elsewhere. At Greensted-juxta-Ongar the walls of the nave are made of halved logs and it was long held that the nave was an early Anglo-Saxon church. It is certainly the oldest church timber known in England, and the church is documented from Anglo-Saxon period, but dendrochronology suggests that the current church is merely early Norman.

Stone quarries arer not found in Essex, but brick-making has abounded since early times and it has many early examples of the mediaeval revival of brick-making. Such as Layer Marney Tower, Ingatestone Hall, and numerous parish churches exhibit the brickmakers' and bricklayers' skills in Essex. A two-volume typology of bricks, based entirely on Essex examples, has been published. Similarly, spectacular early-mediaeval timber construction is to be found in Essex, with perhaps the two Templars' barns at Cressing Temple being pre-eminent in the whole of England. There is a complete tree-ring dating series for Essex timber, much due to the work of Dr Tyers at the University of Sheffield.

Mediaeval gothic architecture in timber, brick, rubble, and stone is to be found all over Essex. These range from the large churches at Chelmsford, Saffron Walden and Thaxted, to the little gem at Tilty. The ruined abbeys, however, such as the two in Colchester and that at Barking, are disappointing in comparison to those that can be found in other counties; Waltham is the exception.

While the truncated remnant of Waltham Abbey was considered as a potential cathedral, elevation of the large parish church at Chelmsford was eventually preferred because of its location at the centre of the new diocese of Essex c.1908. Waltham Abbey remains the County's most impressive piece of mediaeval architecture.

Quite apart from important towns like Colchester or Chelmsford, many smaller places in Essex exhibit continuity from ancient times. Perhaps the most amusing is the Anglo-Saxon church at Rivenhall, just north of Witham. A nearby, ruined Roman villa probably served as a source for its building materials, and the age of this church was under-estimated by Pevsner by about a thousand years.

The villages of Wanstead and Woodford saw the French family setting up a brick making works adjacent to the road from Chelmsford to London, now known as Chigwell Road. This industry closed in 1952.

Cultural references

  • Literature:
  • Ill-fame in modern references:
    • Essex Boys was the title of a 2000 film starring Sean Bean about the demise of a group of Essex gangsters.[7]
    • "Essex Girls" is a derogatory term applied to vain and promiscuous young women supposedly to be found in the Thamesside towns of Essex.
    • The Only Way Is Essex was a low-grade television programme playing on the stereotype of "Essex Girls".

Sights of Essex

Over 14,000 buildings have listed status in the county, and around 1000 of those are recognised as of Grade I or II* importance.[8] The buildings range from the 7th-century Saxon church of St Peter-on-the-Wall, to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club which was the United Kingdom's entry in the "International Exhibition of Modern Architecture" held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932.

Places of interest

Cathedral/Abbey/Priory Cathedral/Abbey/Priory
Accessible open space Accessible open space
Amusement/Theme Park Amusement/Theme Park
Castle Castle
Country Park Country Park
English Heritage English Heritage
Forestry Commission Forestry Commission
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House
Museum (free)
Museum (not free)
Museum (free/not free)
National Trust National Trust
Zoo Zoo
Castle Street, Saffron Walden

Zoo Colchester Zoo

Battlefield Maldon Historic market town site of the Battle of Maldon

Outside links


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