A day on the River Blackwater, 23 November 1891

At present my blog is becoming sadly neglected whilst I concentrate on my other local history activities – such as researching and writing my history books and giving talks on Essex’s past to clubs and societies.  I now mainly write about Essex’s history on my own Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/KateJCole), so in the future, I will be using this blog only for longer articles.

I also now run a Facebook group in connection with the history of Maldon and Heybridge.  If you are interested in this beautiful part of Essex, please do join our Facebook group Maldon & Heybridge Memories / History.  This post, about the River Blackwater in Maldon, is one such post that is too long to put in its entirety on the Maldon/Heybridge Facebook group – so here it is on my blog.  This essay – about the River Blackwater – was written by C R Barrett in 1891 and published in his book Essex: Highways, Byways and Waterways.

Essex Voices Past - A day on the River Blackwater

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Essex Voices Past - A day on the River Blackwater

It was after careful consideration that I selected the estuary of the Blackwater as the subject of a chapter, and my reasons for so doing were as follows :—The mouth of the Stour from Manningtree to Harwich, skirted as it is on the Essex side by the railway, is tolerably familiar to many. Brightlingsea, which is situated at the mouth of the river Colne, is well known as a yachting station, the neighbouring Priory of St. Osyth being one of the shows of the county. Investigation led to the conclusion that the river Crouch, with its network of tributaries and creeks, though out of the way, was uninteresting ; while some account of the comparatively little known estuary of the Blackwater would form a fitting sequel to the previous chapter.

Hence it was that on the morning of the 23rd of November, 1891, at 4.30 A.M., the friendly landlord, according to promise, punctually aroused me. The long wide street of the old town was dark and entirely deserted as I made my way down to the landing-place known as the Hythe, stopping only en-route at a small inn rejoicing in the uncommon name of the “Welcome Home” to pick up the landlord, owner and skipper of the little thirteen-ton boat in which my voyage was to be made. Arrived at the landing place or “hard” we were soon on board, where guns and provisions for the day had previously been stowed away ; and a few minutes after five o’clock we hoisted sail, and with tide and sufficient wind in our favour started on our trip. Ahead everything was shrouded in mist, one twinkling light in the distance alone being visible to indicate the position of the port of Maldon—a cluster of houses and a small dock, situated some way further down on our port bow. Astern some of the town-folk were beginning to wake up, dim lights from upper casements breaking the monotony of the grey dawn ; and the tower of St. Mary’s Church, once a beacon, was pointing upwards with its outline almost lost in the mist. For the rest, Maldon was invisible in the gloom : the silence that reigned everywhere was broken only by the faint ripple of the waters under the bows of the boat.

Essex Voices Past - A day on the River Blackwater

This church of St. Mary, which stands low down in the town near the river, is the oldest of the three churches in Maldon. From an architectural point of view there is nothing in it of any great importance, with the exception, perhaps, of the west door. In the beginning of the seventeenth century the tower fell, and as this tower was then a beacon, much inconvenience was caused to those who navigated the river. On the 16th of January, 1609, Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester, writes from Bishops Waltham to Sir Thomas Lake, to further the petition of John Good, and other inhabitants of Maldon, for the rebuilding of their church. Curiously enough we find the house of this John Good searched for arms on the 3rd of December, 1625, by Sir John Lytcott and Francis Drake, who report thereon to the Council. Three years later a brief was issued by Charles I., authorizing the collection of subscriptions in various specified places in furtherance of the rebuilding. One copy of this brief still extant is endorsed as follows : “Collected in the church of Cowley towards this brief May 3, two shillings. Daniel Collins parson of Cowley.

Now, though I had started with the intention of seeing what there was to be seen on the river and sketching whatever struck my fancy, I had also hope of a little sport. Hence my conversation with the skipper—a clever and experienced wildfowler, by the way—soon drifted to the congenial topics of wild fowl and their habits, fowling in general, and specially as to our prospects of sport that day. Those who have any experience in wild-fowling need not be told that, except in hard weather, sport is always a great lottery ; but one likes to chat about one’s prospects. Shooting “yarns,” too, are for the most part amusing, even when you mentally feel compelled to halve the range, and divide the total of the bag by three. We soon passed Northey Island, after which the real estuary begins, for there the river widens out to a mile or more in breadth. There were now signs of the dawn of day, and the flat, desolate patch known as Osea Island was visible ahead. An old “frank” heron got up lazily from the bank as we glided slowly by, and methodically winged his way along to his next wonted resting-place.

The breeze now dropped almost entirely, and one seemed to feel the rawness of the early morning far more than at the start. Progress was, of course, very slow indeed, and the general desolation of the scene was increased by a feeling of utter stagnation. However, there were faint sounds in the distance, just as we breasted Osea Island, which were welcome to our ears, and at once preparations were made for a possible expedition. The punt-gun was hoisted out from the little cabin and loaded, and the punt was made ready on deck. Guns, or as they seem to locally term them “hand-guns,” in contradistinction to the big punt-gun, were taken from their cases and cartridges sorted out. Just at that instant, by one of those chances which so add to the charm of wild-fowling, the entirely unexpected occurred. A small flock of five curlew flew by comfortably within range. Handley (the skipper) and I both fired, he once and I twice, missing with my second barrel. The birds fell in shallow water, and it required the services of our little boat astern to get them. Meanwhile a cloud of peewits, curlew, and gulls rose in the distance from the banks of a little creek, and vanished with cries both plaintive and discordant into the mist which hung about the shore. Presently on our port side we sighted in the dim distance a cluster of cottages standing beside a two-sailed windmill. This place is known as Mill-beach, and it furnished me with a sketch on the return journey.

Essex Voices Past - A day out on the River Blackwater

On this side of the estuary, not far inland, stands the village of Goldhanger, and lower down that of Tollesbury. In the former of these there is still a wild-fowl decoy ; how few are now left in Essex ! Tollesbury is celebrated for its oyster-beds, of which more later on. Further inland are the three villages of Tolleshunt, severally designated D’Arcy, Knights, and Major, all of which I should gladly have revisited had it been possible on this occasion, as the churches and the ruins of Beckingham Hall are not a little interesting. Probably the earliest representation of a tulip on glass is, or was, to be found in the church of Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

By this time our thoughts turned towards breakfast, and off Stansgate Priory we “hove to” for that purpose, nothing loth. Our meal was a rough-and-ready one, but none the less acceptable. Breakfast over, I purposed to land at Stansgate to take a look at the remains of the Priory, which could be plainly seen from the water, amid surrounding corn-stacks fringed with trees, about two hundred yards behind the gun-boat hulk, which is now used as a coast-guard station. As a matter of fact, I did not land until my return, for birds were sighted in the far distance, and after scanning them through his glasses the skipper pronounced them to be “good birds.” However, I may as well here say what there is to be said about Stansgate. This was a Clugniac Priory, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, and was a cell to the Priory of Lewes. The house was founded about the year 1 1 76, and at the time of the suppression of the lesser monasteries possessed the manor of Stansgate, together with a water-wheel and mill. Its revenues were granted to Wolsey, and applied by him towards the endowment of his two colleges. The remains of the old Priory are by no means extensive; a- building once seemingly the church, or a part of the church, is used as a barn. Possibly the present farm-house hard by was built with materials from the Priory, but externally there are no evidences of antiquity.

Meanwhile, the birds turned out to be a small bunch of teal, so it was decided to launch the punt, and three teal were the results of the shot, a fourth unfortunately managing to get off, though hard hit. The manoeuvres necessary to circumvent the birds took a little time, for a punt, though neither a slow craft nor unhandy, requires a good deal of management.

Essex Voices Past - A day out on the River Blackwater

Rather lower down on the same side of the estuary we passed what is called Ramsey Island, though, as a matter of fact, at low water a road or causeway joins it to the mainland. Here, on the wide stretch of water, we had the luck to get a few black ducks after some little trouble; so that, considering all things, sport being only an adjunct, we were disposed to be satisfied with the morning’s performance. About noon we found ourselves abreast of a small, narrow, island marsh, known as Peewit Island, which immediately fronts the entrance to the creek leading to the village of Bradwell-juxta-Mare. Bradwell lies some little distance inland, and is, except for its associations, a place of little interest. Mentioned in the “Domesday Survey” as Effecestre, it has also been identified as the site of Orthona. Bede and Ralph Niger speak of Ithancester, and their reference is probably to Bradwell. To have landed at Bradwell would have involved a long walk, following on a long row, for by this time the tide was down ; besides, the Capella de la Val, or Chapel of St. Peter’s on the Wall, could be more easily viewed from the sea.

Essex Voices Past - A day out on the River Blackwater

So we sailed round till the little chapel was visible, standing on the top of the sea wall. The parish of Bradwell is a very large one, and this spot would seem to be about the north-east corner of it. Originally St. Peter’s was a chapel-of-ease to the parish church, the rector being compelled to furnish a priest to say mass there on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In the year 1442 the date of its foundation was already forgotten, nor had the name of the founder been preserved—this is gleaned from the finding of a jury. then impanelled to inquire into its condition. At that time it had a chancel and nave, with a small tower containing two bells. It was ascertained that at some previous date the chapel had been burnt, the chancel and nave being subsequently repaired by the rector and the parish respectively.

On November 4, 1604, the Manor of Bradwell was granted to Sir Walter Mildmay and his heirs, in fee farm—a fact which is only interesting to us from events which we shall have to mention in another chapter. In 1637 the then rector, Giles Bury or Berrey, D.D., managed to get into trouble in connection with a tithe dispute. It appears that two of his parishioners, William Gaywood and William Byatt, professed that as they had paid tithe in “winter cheese” they were exempt from payment in “tithe hay, milk, and herbage of dry cattle.” A lawsuit followed, and here it may be observed that the previous rector. Dr. Tabor, had already fought and lost the case. Dr. Berrey forwarded a petition to the Council, in which it was afterwards alleged that he had ” aspersed a court of justice,” etc., etc., with result that the Warden of the Fleet received warrant to attach his person. Eventually the unfortunate rector was compelled to eat humble pie, and on payment of all costs obtained his release. It is, however, to another cleric that Bradwell owes what little celebrity it has, and the chief incidents in the career of this remarkable man form a not uninteresting history. Henry Bate, afterwards the Rev. Sir H. Bate-Dudley, Baronet, was born in the little desolate fen parish of North Farnbridge (1745), where his father was then rector. Bate seems to have entered at Queen’s College, Oxford, but it appears open to question whether he ever took his degree. He subsequently took holy orders, and in due course succeeded his father at North Farnbridge. But the retirement at a country rectory suited him but little, and the greater portion of his time seems to have been passed in London. In the year 1773 the “Fighting Parson,” as he was already nicknamed, became notorious owing to his participation in a disturbance at Vauxhall. Next he is heard of as curate to James Townley, the vicar of Hendon, a congenial spirit and the author of ” High Life below Stairs.” Bate became one of the earliest editors of “The Morning Post”, then, as now, a Tory Journal, and in this capacity was celebrated for his contributions to its columns. Quarrelling with the proprietors of the Post, however, in 1780, Bate started in the month of November the Liberal “Morning Herald”, and in the same year two other newspapers, one printed in French, styled “Courrier de l’Europe”, the other “The English Chronicle”. The next year Bate became acquainted with the interior of the King’s Bench Prison, being committed for twelve months in consequence of a libel on the Duke of Richmond which had appeared in his paper. It was now that he bought the advowson of Bradwell for the sum of £1,500. In the year 1784 he assumed the name of Dudley. The absentee rector of Bradwell dying in 1797, Bate-Dudley presented himself to the living ; as a fact, he had acted as curate there for five years previously, during which time he had spent some ;£28,000 on rebuilding the church, erecting a house, and reclaiming land. Unfortunately for him, however, the Bishop of London was able to raise objections on the score of ” simony,” during the settlement of which the presentation of the living lapsed to the Crown. Bate-Dudley was thus robbed of the cash expended and the fruits thereof, for the Crown presented the Chaplain-General of the Army to the living. A similar course had been taken in 1640, when the Crown presented Nicholas More to the rectory. It was certainly a very hard case, and public feeling was much in favour of Bate- Dudley. Some amends seem to have been made him by the gift of church preferment in Ireland, and in the year 1813 he was created a baronet. Sir Henry died childless in 1824. His portrait and that of Lady Dudley, by Gainsborough, until a few years ago, used to hang in the drawing-room of Bradwell Lodge, now the rectory. It is not often that a man can be found at once parson, duellist, journalist, dramatist, and wit, church builder and land reclaimer, courtier, political turncoat, and finally a baronet ! At the time of the mutiny at the Nore an observatory built on the rectory roof was, it is said, of much service to the Government. After passing the Capella de la Val, we turned the boat’s nose seawards, in the hope that perhaps if fortune was gracious it might be possible to fall in with Brent geese. Hereabouts is a favourite haunt of these birds, and on this particular day a flock was visible, though in the far distance, and quite out of reach. Owing to shallows and the state of wind and tide we deemed it advisable to make our way towards Mersea Island. This Island is divided into two parishes. East and West. It is separated from the main land by the oyster-bearing Pyefleet Channel. East Mersea Church, of which the tower stands up boldly, is not of much interest. As to history connected with the island, a few curious particulars may be gleaned from various sources, as well as from the State Papers.

From the presence of Roman antiquities, its occupation in those early times is indubitable. Standing as it does at the mouth of two navigable rivers, in the days of Danish invasions Mersea became an important place, and here Alfred is stated to have besieged his natural enemies in 894.

Whether the island was or was not continuously fortified subsequent to that date there are no records to show, but we next read of the place in November, 1558, when the pay of the captain, officers, and men serving in the Blockhouse, East Mersea, Essex, was sadly in arrears. Sixty-seven years later we must suppose that the fortifications, whatever they might have been, were out of repair, for in a document sent by Robert, Earl of Warwick, to the Council, he reports that the county of Essex having paid between four and five thousand pounds towards the maintenance of troops refuses further payment ” of such an excessive and unprecedented charge,” and he advises the “fortification of Mersey.” In the year 1648 the small fort was seized by the Parliamentarians, who placed it under the command of Captain William Burrell, often written Burriall, or Barrell. Burrell was an experienced soldier, and is first heard of twenty-five years before, when he was accused of peculation. The documents referring to Burrell are many and various. Like other military commanders in those times, he found a great difficulty in obtaining money for pay, fortification, and stores. In 1650 he is gladdened by the arrival of two iron guns and one brass one from Colchester.

The next year he receives orders to remove Israel Edwards, Minister, out of the island, and to supply that place with ” another able preacher.” We shall meet with Edwards again. In 1653 the cost of turf for the fort amounted to £17 10s.; but it is recorded by the Governor Burrell, that in addition the inhabitants have, “out of good affection,” supplied much gratis. Under date April 28, 1654, comes a petition from Arthur Ockley, preacher at West Mersea, to the Protector and Council He asks to be confirmed in his place until further orders, as the old incumbent, Mr. Woolace, whose living was sequestrated on account of scandalous conduct, is still alive ; adding, that the parish was six or seven years without a minister, that it is very unhealthy, and only worth £40. Ockley states that he was invited there by Captain Burrell, the governor, two years previously, and that the parishioners desire his confirmation. It would seem that the petition was granted. On the 20th of October, 1655, Captain Burrell, who had been ordered to disband the troops at Mersea and to pay them, informs the Council that he has no money with which to do so, and that the men daily importune him for their arrears. He continues that he has been ordered to demolish Mersey fort and to pay the work men out of the materials ; but that James Shirley, of Clapham, owner of the ground, forbids his taking it down on pain of a common lawsuit. He concludes by asking for orders. How the matter ended we know not, nor what became of the prisoners then there, whose names are given, Henry Lernon of Stanaway Hall, W. Barradill, and Captain Barker, both of Colchester. Documents, however, prove that the island was occasionally garrisoned several years after 1655, viz., by a “company of well-affected volunteers” in 1659, and by a company of foot in 1667. As we have before mentioned, both Mersea Island and Tollesbury are celebrated’ for their oyster-beds—a distinction likewise shared by the estuary of the Colne.

Essex Voices Past - A day on the River Blackwater

Our skipper held strong opinions on the subject of oysters ; and, in addition, could express them with intelligence, and at times with no little force. Science, we are accustomed to think, has added much to our knowledge on most points, but, as far as we can gather by investigation, the report of Sir Henry Marten to the Council, dated July 6, 1638, gives as true a reason for the cause of the scarcity of oysters as could be furnished in the present day. He condemns ” over-dredging,” and the taking of ” broods and spats of oysters, and the shells on which they grow, from off” the common oyster-grounds, and carrying them into private lannes where they die.” He adds that the Mayor of Colchester and the bailiffs of Maldon claim the waters of the Colne and the Ponte (Panta Stream), ” where are the best brooding-places.” That they fish in close season, ” selling licences therefor.” That dredging is a great evil, and that the engrossing of all the produce of the beds into the hands of a few fishmongers is fatal to prosperity. He also states that large quantities are exported, professedly under licence, to supply the Queen of Bohemia and the Prince of Orange. His suggestions are to limit the output to 1,000 half-barrels per week, and that, in addition, no fishmonger should be allowed to buy oysters till they had been brought to the common quay. It is gratifying to read that on receipt of this report the corporations of Colchester and Maldon were severely snubbed. At this period (1637) the duty on a bushel of oysters exported in their shells was 1 2d., while that on those ” pickled ” was 2d. a quart.

Sir Henry Marten’s report induced the authorities to draw up the following regulations :—No oyster was to be taken henceforth off the common grounds in Essex and Kent (Faversham and Whit stable) ” until they have twice shot, and shall have come to wear and half-wear.” Permission to ” barrel oysters ” was withheld from all places in Essex save Colchester, Brightlingsea, and the places where the “best green oysters are bred.” But the loophole for destructive greed was unfortunately left by the clause allowing export to the Queen of Bohemia and the Prince of Orange. The use of trawls had been previously, but ineffectually, forbidden, and the order to this effect appears to have been only partially obeyed, if we may judge from a petition of 500 fishermen of Barking. In this document the Lords of the Admiralty are informed that the petitioners have obeyed the proclamation prohibiting the use of the trawl, but that the fishermen of East and West Mearsh (Mersea), and Burnham In Essex, together with those of Whitstable and Faversham in Kent, still pursue the old practice. The petitioners beg that either all should obey the proclamation, or that none should be forbidden to employ the “said engine.” In the present day no doubt the native oysters are both scarce and dear, the income derived from the beds far less than it ought to be, or under proper management in the past would have been. Precautions are now taken, and we believe strictly taken, to preserve the beds, but it is an open question whether an almost entire prohibition of oyster-dredging for the space of, say, five years would not in the end be profitable.

The other fisheries in a similar manner are over-worked : fish about one-third the proper size—useless as articles of food — are permitted to be taken, or at any rate are taken. This should certainly be put a stop to, for this absolute eating up of capital caused by wilfully and needlessly squandering our food supply might be easily prevented.

By this time the afternoon had well advanced, and the wind, which had been light since the morning, almost entirely died away, thus rendering our progress very slow. Oft Ramsey Island the dredgers were drifting about. In the distance we could see a couple of wildfowlers in their punts, making their way down to some favourite spot for the chance of a shot. Theirs is a hard life indeed, and is rendered all the harder by the reckless way in which people “on pleasure bent” fire at and into all sorts of birds, whether eatable or useless, within range or half a mile distant. The shameful selfishness of such persons, not to speak of the disgraceful cruelty of their proceedings, cannot be sufficiently reprehended. By the promiscuous fusillade to which waterfowl are subjected few, it is true, are killed outright ; many, however, are crippled, and escape only to die, while more still are driven to seek safer asylums afar. Thus- the wildfowler is deprived of his means of subsistence ; the flocks of geese, ducks, teal, &c., each year on the coasts and tidal waters are less and less in numbers.

Essex Voices Past - A day trip on the River Blackwater

We proceeded on our return journey slowly and uneventfully, having ample time to sketch the desolate “Mill Beach” as we sluggishly drifted along, tarrying to land for a few minutes only at Stansgate Priory. Once indeed we took to the small boat and made an excursion up a creek after a large flock of plover, but without succeeding in getting within killing range. Presently we came within view of the port of Maldon, where the little cluster of masts showed signs of mourning, each flag being partly lowered on account, as we afterwards heard, of a death in the little hamlet. And now, when our journey ought to have been speedily finished, alas ! the wind entirely failed, and we were compelled to ” pole up ” the remainder of the way—an operation which was already in progress on board a heavily-laden barge ahead of us. This barge made its way ultimately by the channel along the river, and came to its moorings near the railway station. I took a sketch of it as it was rounding a spit, and on the morrow, finding it moored near to a rather picturesque old lime-kiln, I took the view which forms the etching belonging to this chapter. On the Hythe, from which I started in the morning, I sketched the distant view of the port lying surrounded by creeks, marshes, saltings, and mud. Hereabouts, though the houses are not of the most modern type, yet, as is the case in the whole of Maldon, they lack picturesqueness ; in fact, there is simply nothing to sketch save a peep of the tower of the St. Mary’s Church. Thus, in the gathering twilight, ended my very pleasant day on the Blackwater.

Essex Voices Past - A day on the River Blackwater


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