The Abbey Church from Highbridge Street
|Post town:||Waltham Abbey|
Waltham Abbey is a market town of about 20,400 people in the south-west of Essex. It stands on the Greenwich Meridian, close to where Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex meet. It is between the River Lea in the west and Epping Forest in the east.
The town takes its name from the Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross, which was prominent in the early history of the town — the ancient parish covering Waltham Abbey being known as Waltham Holy Cross. The town across the Lea in Hertfordshire is Waltham Cross.
The River Lea, which forms the county border with Hertfordshire, is also the town's western boundary, and the eastern boundary runs through Epping Forest. The border of Middlesex lies just to the south of the town.
The land rises gradually from the marshes and meadows by the river to the plateau of London clay in the east, capped by the sand and gravel of Epping Forest. To the south, occupying the former course of the River Lea, is the King George V Reservoir, opened in 1913. Cobbins Brook, a tributary of the River Lea, crosses the parish from east to west. In addition to the town, the parish includes the villages and hamlets of High Beach, Holyfield, Sewardstone and Upshire.
The M25 motorway runs to the south of the town, and can be accessed at Junction 26 by way of the A121.
The meadows by the town are well watered by a multitude of streams and rivers flowing down into the River Lea, including:
- Cornmill Stream
- Old River Lea
- Millhead Stream
- River Lee Flood Relief Channel incorporated into the Horsemill Stream
- River Lee Navigation
- Small River Lea
The Cobbins Brook flows through the town from the east.
Name of the town
The name "Waltham" is one of very few place names found in Old English with an identical spelling. Although today the town's name is pronounced [wɔlθəm], the "th" was once pronounced just as a "t" as the name has two elements "walt+ham". The name appears to derive from weald ham; "forest homestead".
The suffix "Abbey" is from the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham, dissolved at the Reformation, and distinguisghes Waltham Abbey from Waltham Cross, across the river in Hertfordshire.
The name of the ancient parish as a whole is Waltham Holy Cross, but the use of the name Waltham Abbey for the town seems to have originated in the 16th century. There has often been inconsistency in the use of the two names.
There are traces of prehistoric and Roman settlement in the town. Ermine Street lies only three miles west and the causeway across the River Lea from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire may be a Roman construction. A local legend claims that Boudica's rebellion against the Romans ended in the neighbourhood, when she poisoned herself with hemlock gathered on the banks of Cobbins Brook.
The recorded history of the town begins during the reign of King Canute in the early 11th century when his standard-bearer Tofig the Proud, founded (or rebuilt) a church here to house the miraculous cross discovered at Montacute in Somerset. It is this cross that gave Waltham the earliest suffix to its name; Holy Cross. After Tofig's death around 1045, Waltham reverted to the King (Edward the Confessor), who gave it to the Earl Harold Godwinson (who was later king). Harold rebuilt Tofig's church in stone around 1060, in gratitude it is said for his cure from a paralysis, through praying before the miraculous cross.
Legend has it that after his death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold's body was brought to Waltham for burial near to the High Altar. Today, the spot is marked by a stone slab in the churchyard (originally the site of the high altar before the Reformation).
In 1177, as part of his penance for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II refounded Harold's church as a priory of Augustinian Canons Regular of sixteen canons and a prior. In 1184, this was altered and Waltham became an abbey with an abbot and twenty-four canons, which grew to be the richest monastery in Essex. To the abbey's west and south, the town grew up, with a single High Street as late as 1848. The town's dependence on the Abbey was signalled by its decline after the Abbey was dissolved in 1540, the last monastic house to be dissolved. (It was also known to be King Henry VIII favourite place for resting and finding peace, this is why it was the last working Abbey, torn down only after all the others in the country had been destroyed.) In contrast to other towns which has been dominated by their monasteries, Waltham did not thrive when freed from that heavy hand but declined through loss of custom.
In the 17th century, a gunpowder factory was opened in the town, no doubt due to good river communications and empty marshland by the River Lea. The factory was sold to the government in 1787 and was greatly expanded during the next century, becoming the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills. In the 19th century, searches began for more powerful and reliant propellant explosives, and guncotton was developed here by Frederick Abel, starting in 1863. Cordite production began in 1891 and the site was enlarged several times.
The site was an obvious target during Second World War, and a German V-2 rocket landed near the factory in Highbridge Street on 7 March 1945, causing considerable damage to property and large loss of life. The factory eventually closed in 1943, and the site was developed into an explosives research establishment.
There was also a fulling mill at Sewardstone around 1777 and a pin factory by 1805. Silk and calico printing were also important industries. The River Lee Navigation was also improved, a new canal cut across the marshes was opened in 1769, bringing more trade to the town. Outside the town, the parish is largely rural and agriculture has been an important occupation. In the first half of the 20th century, the area was extensively covered in glass-houses and market gardens. Gravel extraction has also long been a major industry in the Lea Valley, leaving a legacy of pits now used for recreation and an important wildlife habitat. In the early 1970s, the population of the town increased by the development of housing estates and has developed into a dormitory town with pockets of light industry. The town now continues to grow due to its proximity to London and the high value of property in the area.
Buildings in the town
- The Welsh Harp in the Market Square is a half-timbered inn, mostly dating from the 15th century. The Lychgate passage beside the inn leads to the churchyard.
- A former inn, at the corner of Sun Street and the Market Square, is now a shop. A carved wooden bracket in the form of a hermaphrodite holding a jug supports the projecting upper storey.
- The Town Hall in Highbridge Street, dating from 1904, is a fine and rare example of an Art Nouveau public building.
- Two notable 18th century buildings are Essex House in Sewardstone Street and St. Kilda's in Highbridge Street.
- At Upshire is a group of cottages known as the Blue Row. They are weatherboarded and with bark still visible on the roof. 
Places of interest
The mediæval Waltham Abbey Church is now used as the parish church. In addition there are a few other remains of the former abbey – the gatehouse, a vaulted passage and Harold's Bridge – all in the care of English Heritage.
Waltham Abbey is notable for the reputed grave of King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.
Also in the town, housed in a building dating back to 1520, is the Epping Forest District Museum, which tells the story of the people who have lived and worked in this part of south Essex from the earliest times to the present.
On the site of a former gunpowder factory another museum illustrates the evolution of explosives and the development of the Royal Gunpowder Mills (an Anchor Point of ERIH, The European Route of Industrial Heritage) through interactive and traditional exhibitions and displays. The site hosts living history and battle re-enactment events most summer weekends and also offers a self-guided nature walk that shows visitors the nature that has reclaimed much of the remaining 175 acres.
The former gravel pits in the Lea Valley and parts of the former Abbey Gardens are now in the care of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority for recreation use and nature conservation.
The Epping Forest Conservation Centre in High Beach provides information, maps, books, cards, displays and advice for visitors to the area.
- Waltham Abbey FC
- Eton Manor FC
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about Waltham Abbey)
- Waltham Abbey Town Council
- Waltham Abbey Historical Society
- Royal Gunpowder Mills
- Lee Valley Regional Park Authority
- Abbey Genealogy Enthusiasts (Search our Records)