Riverside walk raises the spirits

Posted in Heritage, Local History, River Thames, Tilbury Fort tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:45 pm by henrysgauntlet

This week Henry felt in need of some fresh air, so went for a walk along the river bank from the World’s End pub almost to the power station.  It was lovely down there, but hardly anything moving on the river.   In Henry’s other recent forays to Tilbury the river has been very busy indeed, but on this day it was slack water, with the tide just beginning to run in by the time he got back to the World’s End.

As ever, Henry was struck by what a place of contrasts it is.   First the river, its vessels and the people who work them, all of immense interest and attraction to those whose blood contains  a measure of salt. 

Then Tilbury Power Station with its wharf and an attendant ship.  Some of Henry’s friends believe that he is an aficionado of power stations. 

Then the wonderful Tilbury Fort, nearly 500 years old, under the expert care of English Heritage:  the layout of the defensive position which can be only partly appreciated on foot, but which, from above, shows the geometric star-shaped bastion with its double moat;  the second world war guns mounted on the seaward rampart, of several different varieties some of them more likely to have been on a warship, and looming over the seawall footpath;  and the magnificent water gate and gatehouse, a gem of Charles II restoration architecture.   

Then some nondescript fields with a few cows and horses chewing at the meagre grass of the marshes.

And finally, the landscape spoilt by the many modern commercial and industrial sheds and warehouses.   They form part of the regeneration of Tilbury, and are necessary to the economy of the area, but it is a pity that they could not have been more hidden.   As it is they form a quite out of character backdrop to the Fort.

The situation is saved by a couple of features only partly visible from this end, but which complete the sweep of the circuit.   There is the bridge leading down to Tilbury Landing Stage, which that day was packed with cars.   Some had people just enjoying the good weather, and others belonged to passengers who had taken the ferry which buzzes busily back and forth to Gravesend.   And then the 1930s passenger terminal, dating from a time when the great liners used the port, right up to the ‘fifties and ‘sixties when the Orient Line ships took their load as emigrants from the old country to Australia.   The building does not show its age, and now has a second life as a Cruise Terminal.   

A good outing, which raised Henry’s spirits and made him realize yet again how pleased he is that he lives near a river, and not just any river but the mighty Thames.



A Whale at Wivenhoe

Posted in Local History at 9:06 pm by henrysgauntlet

Here’s how some of our Essex ancestors wrote about seeing a whale in the 17th century.

 On the 23rd of this present month April, the neighbouring inhabitants to a fair river in Essex, known by the name of Wivner River (whose mouth opens to the sea) perceived a great disturbance in the water. Country men threw down their shovels and spy’d the back of a fish of an extraordinary size who seem’d to quarrel with the river for more elbow-room.  She sometimes threw her prodigious head above the waves, at other times, with her spreading tail, shovelled the sands so high, that part of them fell on the spectator’s heads. While she floundered, they beheld the greatest part of her body, and with the ponderous squelch of her large bulk falling into the water, she made the depressed waves out-swell their banks and threaten an over-flow of the Neighbouring meadows. In this discontented motion she continued to go up the river till she came within six miles of Colchester, where the sands being washt away by the proceeding tide, she was fain to struggle for life in a low water. With her extraordinary endeavour to quit herself, she brake off part of her tail and with a deluge of blood, coloured the whole stream.

“At length, for want of both breath and blood, she dyed in the water, being of so large a bulk that the river could not cover her. Her body strutted out of the waters like a hill, and when she was drawn out of the river and came to be measured, she was found to be no less than fifty foot in length, and twenty eight in thickness.” 

Author  –  Christopher Thompson 










Some immigrants to our area

Posted in Local History at 7:24 pm by henrysgauntlet

Immigration is a recurrent issue of political concern to modern governments. Widely differing views are held on how to tackle the question depending on the standpoint of those worried by the phenomenon. But immigration is not a new issue, whether it originates from other parts of this country or, indeed, from other parts of the world. Our parish registers, which for several centuries recorded births, marriages and deaths, provide ample evidence of this.

 At Vange, in February, 1711-12, John Tulopp, “a black”, was baptised; in January, 1721-22, a fourteen year old black boy called Joseph, who was servant to Nathaniel Grantham, was similarly baptised in West Thurrock’s parish church. The case of the black man baptised in Grays in September, 1734 was more unusual because we know that he was about twenty five years of age and came from Guinea, presumably on the west coast of Africa rather than from further east. Captain Towers’s negro servant, Francis Spenders, had three prominent local figures as his godparents when he was baptised at Pitsea in August, 1745. And “John, a blackamoor, servant to Mr Phillips, Brewer, at Ratcliffe Cross, London”, who was baptised in Fobbing in July, 1753, must have had some long-standing local connection: he was given the surname “Stanford”.

These examples remind us of the importance of this area as a crossroads for travellers seeking to  cross the Thames to and from Kent and as a thoroughfare for merchants and others sailing to and from London. These factors endure as, indeed, does immigration itself. 

Author  –  Christopher Thompson


Tilbury man shot Norwegian thinking he was German parachutist

Posted in Local History at 8:28 pm by henrysgauntlet

This being the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a splendid website has been started called “1940 Chronicle”,     which highlights each day matters that occurred on that date during that summer of 1940.

Today a splendid piece caught Henry’s eye, when he saw the word Tilbury:-

“Stanley V. Humphrys, 30, of Tilbury, Essex, who shot and wounded a drunken Norwegian seaman who he suspected of being a German parachutist, was sentenced at Gray’s (sic) Police Court to one day’s imprisonment, which meant immediate release.”

Good old Tilbury  –  there was a man rushing to do his duty and arrest a German, but unfortunately he must have mistaken Norwegian drunken ramblings for German ones.   Perhaps a case of don’t shoot first and ask questions afterwards.

Here is the link to the full story, and it is worth bookmarking the website.


Old Grays shops recalled at Thameside exhibition

Posted in Local History at 11:06 pm by henrysgauntlet

If you are around Grays town centre in the coming week do call in at the Thameside Complex and have a look at the Exhibition now on in the foyer.   Entitled “Fond memories of Grays High Street”, it covers the history of shops, shopkeepers and businesses from 1900 to the 1970s.  

Museum Officer, Jonathan Catton, has put together a mix of photographs, advertisements and even some paper bags from the shops, and then there is a powerpoint display of various parts of the High Street “then” and “now”.   People have already shared their memories of the shops, and some of them are highlighted in the display.

When the writer was there, there was a group of about ten people who were chatting happily away together, all anxious to recall their memories of the old shops.

It occurred to the writer how marvellous it would be if owners/managers or their children from the old family businesses, now sadly all gone, could get together and record as many details as possible about those old businesses.

For example, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Convent of La Sainte Union de Sacre Coeur, in those days an independent school for girls from 4 to 18, and boys from 4 to 8, numbered amongst its pupils the daughters, and a couple of sons, from Westwood the tailors, Jordan the chemist, Munt the butcher, Harris the coach company, Gurnett the jewellers, Simons from the Wharf Hotel, Crouchman the hardware shop, Burney the ladies dress shop, Walsham the builders, Eve’s the ladies and children’s dress shops, Baird the bakers, Wisbey the scrap metal merchant, Euin Steele the optician, and more.

The exhibition is really well worth a visit, and it is understood that it could be taken round to, for example, pensioners’ clubs where no doubt many more memories would be jogged.


Mayhem, murder and myth: cricket at Tilbury in 1776

Posted in Local History at 12:54 am by henrysgauntlet

This is one of the great ‘stories’ about cricket in Essex in the eighteenth-century.  It comes from the Gravesend correspondent of the London Chronicle and is dated 29th October, 1776.

“A terrible affair happened this day at Tilbury Fort.  A great match of cricket being to be played between Kent and Essex, the parties assembled on both sides.  When they were met, a man appearing among the former, who should not have been there, the Essex men refused playing, on which a very bloody battle ensued, and the Kentish men being likely to be worsted, one of them ran into the guard-house, and getting a gun from one of the invalids, fired and killed one of the opposite party.  On seeing this they all began running to the guard-house, and there being but four soldiers there, they took away the guns and fell to it, doing a great deal of mischief.  An old invalid was run through the body with a bayonet: and a serjeant who commands at the fort, in the absence of the officer, endeavouring with his four men to quell them, was shot dead.  At last the Essex men took to flight, and running over the drawbridge, made their escape.  The Kentish men then made off in their boats, but search is making after them.” 

It is a fascinating story, one that was repeated again and again in nineteenth-century anthologies.  The trouble with it is that no other report ever appeared in any other newspaper of 1776:  no one was named as one of the two victims murdered on this occasion and absolutely no one was caught or prosecuted.  No advertisement for the match between Kent and Essex had appeared, indeed there was no place in ‘Tilbury’ where the match could have been played since, apart from the fort, the ferryhouse and a milking shed about a mile away, there were no buildings or settlements there.  The ground around the fort was, moreover, too sodden for any match to take place there, let alone one at the end of the month of October.  Engaging though this story is, that is what it was – a ‘story’. 

Eighteenth-century people, just like their twenty-first century counterparts, enjoyed ‘spoof’ accounts of improbable events.  This one had all the elements – mayhem and murder – to keep it alive for over one hundred years.  Its author would have been proud of that at least.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson


Alfred Russel Wallace and Grays

Posted in Heritage, Local History at 6:55 pm by henrysgauntlet

Alfred Russel WallaceHave you ever walked along a road and wondered how it got its name?   Perhaps you’ve been in the Hathaway Road area of Grays and have noticed Russel Road and Wallace Road.

This week The Times has been rather concentrating on Alfred Russel Wallace, and under the heading “Adjoining shoulders of giants”, has been calling for his name to live on alongside that of Charles Darwin. 

In its leading article on Saturday, here, The Times said that Darwin’s contemporary should be celebrated for his discovery of natural selection.   Marking the 200th anniversary this year of Darwin’s birth, The Times goes on “But Darwin was not a solitary visionary. That his ideas appeared when they did, in the form that they did, was due to the influence of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist 14 years his junior. Recognition of Wallace’s contribution to science is increasingly being urged. Sir David Attenborough described Wallace this week as one of the greatest naturalists who ever lived.”

And here’s the full story.

Today there are a couple of letters on the subject including one from one of the Verderers of Epping Forest who tells us about Wallace’s application to become Superintendent of the Forest.   His application was rejected  –  short-sighted of someone.

Anyway back to Russel Road and Wallace Road  –  the reason for their names is that Alfred Russel Wallace, who was born in 1823, lived at The Dell in Grays for a number of years.   He came to Essex because it seemed that he might obtain the directorship of a museum in the county.   He bought the lease of four acres of land at Grays, which included a former chalk pit, and set about  building a house there in concrete as there was a cement works in the vicinity and a supply of gravel on the site.   Wallace himself designed and laid out the grounds, including the long winding drive, which still exists, up to the house from what is now Dell Road.   He described the grounds as “a bit of a wilderness that can be made into a splendid imitation of a Welsh valley.”   The house, called The Dell, was completed in 1872.

In the event he was not appointed director of the proposed museum, and that, plus the death of his eldest son, made him decide to leave Grays.   So in 1876 the family moved to Surrey. 

A Thurrock Heritage Plaque has been placed on The Dell, the only house built by Wallace which still survives.


The Peasants’ Revolt

Posted in Local History at 11:39 pm by henrysgauntlet

For a very long time local people have believed that the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 began here in Essex. The refusal of the men of Fobbing late in May, 1381 to pay the poll tax approved by Parliament in the previous year was, it has often been claimed,  its starting point. The young King Richard II’s commissioner, John Bampton, was driven away from Fobbing  by force and when the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Robert Bealknap, came down to Brentwood to punish the rioters, the men of Fobbing, Mucking, and elsewhere in Essex set upon him and expelled him and his party from the town  with bloodshed. Within a few days, the peasants of Essex and those of Kent with whom they were in touch had risen in revolt, London was partly taken and the King and his advisers threatened with violence. It took far-reaching concessions from the King to the Essex men and the death of the rebels’ most prominent leader, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield before the worst of the rebellion was over and  good order was restored. 

Many of the details, certainly as far as Essex is concerned, come from the Anonimalle Chronicle compiled by a contemporary. Sadly, careful historical research has shown that these were wrong: John Bampton, for example, was not a member of the Commission appointed to enquire into the payment of the poll tax in Essex and Chief Justice Bealknap was not at Brentwood on the date in question. Neither man could have been the victim of the events the Anonimalle Chronicle describes. However, that does not mean that people from this part of the county were not involved in the revolt. 

Two of them definitely were. Thomas Baker of Fobbing appears to have played an important role in co-ordinating local resistance to the poll tax without going to London to participate in the dramatic events that brought it to an end in the middle of June, 1381. A little bit more is known about his ally, Robert Berdon of Orsett. Berdon sent his messengers to other villagers in Essex, mainly in Rochford Hundred, to encourage them to rise in support of the revolt. His orders apparently reached Canewdon, Great Wakering, South Shoebury, Paglesham, Stambridge and, further afield, Witham. This shows quite how wide the area over which a late-fourteenth century figure might have contacts. Unfortunately, what happened to the two men in the revolt’s aftermath is not known but the authorities trod very carefully in an attempt not to provoke further uprisings.

It may be disappointing to relinquish local myths but it is better to understand what the surviving records do, in fact, tell us.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson


The Eccentric Curate of West Tilbury

Posted in Local History at 12:10 am by henrysgauntlet

The eccentricities of Church of England clergymen have been and are one of the great glories of English history.   Vicars and Rectors over many centuries have advanced arguments and embraced causes, pronounced judgements and pursued projects that their contemporaries regarded as ridiculous.   They have added greatly to the gaiety of national life without doing any serious harm.

One of these clergymen was William Henry Henslowe, a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, who began his career as Curate of West Tilbury and chaplain to the garrison of Tilbury fort.   With remarkable tactlessness, he preached a sermon  in the mid-1830s to the officers and men of the garrison in which he criticised the practice of flogging miscreant soldiers.   Given the reliance of the British Army of the time on its disciplinary code, this was regarded as an outrage by the officers of the garrison who duly complained to the Bishop of London.   Henslowe refused to apologise and was stripped of his curacy.   He compounded his offence by going on to print his sermon. 

This was only the first of a series of  highly controversial episodes in which Henslowe, who  later secured a benefice in Norfolk, attracted the attention of his superiors in Church and State.   He achieved most notoriety, however, for his denunciation in 1847  of the “unnatural, irrational, unmanly, ungodly, and fatal fashion among Christians” of shaving. Citing copious examples of Biblical injunctions against the shaving of beards, he also appealed to the important physical advantages that came to men from growing moustaches, particularly in sheltering the lips and strengthening the teeth:  in the case of soldiers, in what may have been an echo of his experience at West Tilbury, he argued that, by forgoing shaving, “the teeth are rendered more serviceable for the biting of cartridges, and the use of the mustachio is also a great saving in time at the soldiers’ toilet.”

Henslowe’s Victorian contemporaries reacted as we do now – they laughed.   Ridiculous though his sentiments were, they assured him of a place in anthologies of nineteenth-century writing.   How many other former Curates of West Tilbury could claim as much?

Author  –  Christopher Thompson


Losing the past: Marshall’s Cottages, West Tilbury

Posted in Local History at 9:25 pm by henrysgauntlet

One of the great advantages of being an early modern historian living in a long-civilised country lies in the survival of the art and architecture, the buildings and sometimes the landscapes of the distant past.   But this has its dangers too because these legacies may disappear too.   

Recently, I had to go to my dentist in the south of Essex for some minor work and, after visiting my parents’ grave in Orsett, I decided that I would go to West Tilbury to photograph an early fifteenth-century building I had often walked past in Blue Anchor Lane when I lived a few miles away.  

Marshall’s Cottages (as they are now known) had a well-preserved central range with attics above and two-storey jettied wings.   The house had been studied by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments and was known to have a fifteenth-century mantel beam with elaborate roll mouldings and crown posts supporting the roof.    The last time I had seen it in 1985 it was recognisably an old dwelling house.

I am sorry to report that my hopes were dashed.    The first time I drove past where I thought it had been I failed to spot it at all.    When I had circled West Tilbury’s green, I came back and saw a thoroughly modernised house:  the front and wings had clearly been not just repaired but also given new facings.   The house I had hoped to photograph was no longer there.  

I did regret this because motorists and pedestrians who will pass it in the future will not be able to recognise it for what it is, a part of this small village’s history.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson

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