03/06/2008

Right Marsh Mutton

Posted in Local History at 4:27 pm by henrysgauntlet

If you travel by train from London via Tilbury to Southend nowadays, you pass large housing estates, oil refineries, industrial buildings and rubbish dumps separated by the occasional open space of marshland.   If, like me, you are interested in what this area was like two or three centuries ago, it is difficult to see what it could have been used for at that time.

But the existence of marshland all the way down to East Tilbury offers a clue.   For the marshes, which were largely owned by farmers and butchers living near to London in the middle of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, were the main grazing area for sheep destined for the London market in the autumn and early winter of each year.

These animals had been driven down from Leicestershire and Lincolnshire and then sold at Smithfield market in the autumn to these farmers and butchers.   Prices were low when the sheep were sold at Smithfield.   The animals were taken to the marshland alongside the Thames not necessarily to fatten them but rather to keep them to sell when prices rose closer to and after Christmas.

‘Right marsh mutton’ was prized because the animals had been fed on turnips and their fat turned yellow after slaughter.   They were, according to one contemporary, “by far the best of any killed for the markets”.

Next time the A13 is jammed with traffic, just think about the sheep who clogged the roads of this part of Essex every autumn and winter two hundred and fifty years ago.   They fed London and helped to make our ancestors prosperous.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson

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