Extracts taken with kind permission from Denys Harrison’s book “The Story of a Waterside Community”
The location chosen for a canal to connect with the river Blackwater was at Borough (corrupted from Borrow ) Marsh, an inhospitable place sometimes used to graze sheep but frequently flooded. Located on its east side was a salt office (salt pans ) together with a windmill water pump. To the north scattered farms of Chigborough, Hall and Jacobs as well as Heybridge Hall, occupied by the Rev. Herring (hence Herring Point at the end of the reach), but owned by the Dean and Chapter of St. Pauls, London, and included the majority of the local land and marsh.
A need for a canal and safe haven to unload cargoes was becoming an urgent requirement to sustain the development of Chelmsford in the late l700’s. The bulk of the coal and other commodities were being shipped to Maldon or Heybridge Creek and then transported in horse drawn carts over dirt roads and Danbury Hill, often impassible in winter, at a cost of 8/-( 40 new pence ) per ton.
Merchandise was regularly brought from London to Maldon by sea although difficulties were arising due to the depth of water at the Universal British quay in Maldon. The Directory, 1793-1798 quotes , “three corn vessels take shop goods from Wharf Harrison’s (alongside Tower Bridge), but not regularly on account of the moon, a s they endeavor to get home near the new and full moons on account of the tides. “Ships making this journey are listed as:-
John Sadds’ “Hopewell”, Cpt. Nicholls , William Wards’ Hoy, “William & Thomas”, Cpt. Abbott and John Edwards Hoy, “Neptune”, Cpt. Perring.
Other directories over following years continued to report ships making this passage including the Post Office Directory of 1862 which listed Sadds’ Packets, “Hawk”, Cpt. H. Raven and” Fox”, Cpt. Broomsbury.
Silting of the river at Maldon was becoming a serious problem together with an increase in the size of ships resulting in either reduced loads reaching Maldon or cargoes being partly unloaded further down the river. Hoys drawing 7ft. to 9ft. were obliged to reduce their loads from 27 to 18 chaldrons (1 chaldron = 1.28 tons) and could reach the Fullbridge only at spring tides. For a long time ships bringing coal from North East ports had often laid in the reach, hence its name “Colliers Reach”.
Heybridge Basin – The Port
On April 23″‘. 1796 the Brig “Fortunes Increase”, (Cpt. Robert Parker ) arrived from Sunderland with 150 chaldrons ( 188 tons ) of coal. Its cargo was taken as far as Little Baddow in a lighter called “Peace”, built by “Teapin” Woodcraft at Heybridge Basin. About the same time 150 sacks of flour were brought from Holm Mill to H.B for London. The final length of the navigation was completed the following June, 1797. Transport and tolls to Chelmsford now amounted to 4/6 per ton, a worthwhile saving of 3/6 (17.5 p). Under the Parliamentary Act the Navigation Co. was not permitted to own or operate lighters, which encouraged several local entrepreneurs and companies to compete with their own lighters. When a ship was known to be due tenders would be submitted to an agent to shift the cargo.
So Heybrldge Basin came into existence as a small port, primarily to serve Chelmsford and the surrounding district with cargoes, mainly of coal and timber brought in Brigs, Brigantines and Schooners, as well as English coasting ships including Hoys and Sailing Barges Much of the coal was brought in little black Brigs, called “Billy Boys” and the timber came from Scandinavia.
There would have been very little for the crews of the earlier ships to see here. The “Jolly Sailor” pub offered its hospitality and refreshment and the newly constructed Granary storehouse, on the north side of the basin, waited for goods. On the south a small salt pan operated. Even this sparse scene may have been a welcome haven for the ships crews, as many of the colliers coming from North East ports without navigational aids, we take for granted , and weather forecasts based on the captains intuition suffered horrendous losses. On the 30th. October 1789, 23 ships had foundered and 20 ran aground on the Norfolk coast in one night with the loss of 600 lives.
Within the next three years the Old Ship pub (now Myrtle Cottage ) was opened. The licensee, Richard Tovee, who was also a barge master and sawyer in Maldon, leased a plot of land alongside the lock in October 1796 from the Navigation Co. and built four cottages. These were to accommodate shipwrights, sailmakers and others attracted by work from the increase in ships arriving. The end cottage became the “Chelmer Brig” pub. Some of the construction work was probably undertaken by “Teapin” Woodcraft and other local craftsmen, using timber retrieved from ships which had been broken up. Their handywork remains in excellent condition today. A further plot alongside the lock was leased in 1798 to John Nelson of Heybridge who built the second row of cottages.
The Early Years
By 1799 a hamlet had been established with, maybe, 30 inhabitants and 3 pubs. The next few years were a period of steady consolidation within the Lock/Basin area, as the number of ships arriving gradually increased. The Navigation Co. purchased more salt marsh from the Dean and Chapter of St. Pauls, who identified its increasing market value with increased charges of £50 per acre, which by 1807 had escalated to £91-4. These purchases enabled wharves to be enlarged and more premises to be built, including a boat builders workshop on the south side of the lock, rented by John Cooper of Maldon. John Smith, licensee of the Chelmer Brig set up a foundry alongside the pub. Most men in the village took on more than one job. A rope walk 50 rods (275 yards) long, with a dwelling and out buildings is recorded in 1808 although its location has not been traced. A brewery was built in which Robert Chaney, one of the earliest families to settle in the village was killed in an accident. It was converted into dwellings at a later date.
The Coates brothers, Richard and George, gave up their nomadic lives digging canals and like several others started importing coal, and rented the granary for £15 per year.
Flour was regularly loaded at Goldhangar Bridge (now Wave Bridge ) and John Austin, Bargemaster, was running a fortnightly service to London. In 1801 fast sailings of the brigantine “Danby” from Colliers Reach to Hull and Gainsborough were advertised in the Chelmsford Chronicle.
John Clark was appointed superintendent of the canal to keep records of ships, cargoes and collect lock dues and tolls. He built a house and moved into the village. In his absence ships captains were to leave their dues in a box provided at the granary.
Only the lockside cottages had been added since the first ship locked-in three years previously. A surprising development was the erection of two buildings on the spit of land jutting into the river near the Jolly Sailor. They are shown on early sketches as dwellings and later as boat houses. It is certain they would have suffered some flooding at big spring tides. An outer building remained until the early 1900’s and was known by the villagers as “Rat Hall”. Occupied by one of the local characters, Aunt Dinah”. She was reported found floating on a mattress during the flood of 192.
Now a community was being established the constant threat of flooding was addressed by William Lawrence, who leased part of the demesne lands of Heybridge Hall, and built 8 sea wall from the lock to Mill Beach.
In 1808 Mr Ber tall moved his agricultural manufacturing business from Goldhanger to a site in Heybridge alongside the canal to enable both raw material and fuel to be brought in and completed products exported. Later this would have an important impact on the village prosperity and working habits of many men.
Possibly the most significant event during this early period which would have a lasting effect on the village, was the introduction of the Heybridge Enclosure Act 51 George 3rd (1811). This in effect parcelled previous Common Land into plots which were awarded by the appointed Commissioners to local landowners. It also included a carriageway leading out of the Goldhanger Road called “Boro Marsh Road”, having a breadth of 30ft.
“Commencing by the homestead of James Moffat Brooke it passed by an enclosure called Canterbury Marsh, belonging to Jeffery Ruffel Grimwood, followed the line of an old sea wall by “Boro Marsh”, and on pass another enclosure belonging to The Dean and Chapter of St. Pauls. Then over the said Boro Marsh till it enters Colliers Reach at the first Allotment herein ( close to the Jolly Sailor inn) which was awarded to the Company of Proprietors of the Chelmer Navigation”.
“A second public carriage road of 50ft. breadth called the “Chelmer Basin Road”, branching out of the first road leading to the Wharf and Quay near the Basin”.
The village now had access for carts to come and go on a surfaced track in addition to water transport along the canal The road unlawfully became a toll road between 1823 and 1836 when as reported by the Chelmsford Chronicle, the toll gate was legally sawn asunder” and the road renamed Basin Road. There is not a record of who kept the tolls The village growth continued slowly along with the shipping activity.
South of the Basin the Navigation Cottages were built as two homes and leased by the Coates brothers. This no doubt was convenient for their importing activities at the Basin, although Richard must have been well occupied with his timber and coal yards he had also started in Springfield.
The brewery was converted into several cottages around 1811 and its leasehold sold for 55 years. Possibly the brewing of beer by some pubs as well as larger companies setting up in nearby towns was the cause.
In spite of its remote location and harsh living conditions more people were being attracted by the prospect of work provided by the increasing numbers of ships to be unloaded and supporting activities. Some of the early families to arrive included the Cheney’s from Newcastle Woodcraft’s from Hull and Clark’s from Suffolk. They had large families of some ten more children who intermarried and some of the descendants of the many cousins remain in the village. In some cases seamen seeing a better life ashore left their ships and stayed in the village.
Much of the very early work was carried out by local Maldon and Heybridge men, some of whom moved into the village at a later date as accommodation became available.
Being an isolated community it is not surprising a culture of independence developed with an almost hostile attitude to outside intrusion. Although as many as a hundred seamen of several nationalities and tongues were on occasions in the village , they may have been seen as a temporary part of the community and in some respects responsible for its prosperity and no threat. However, others would be treated with suspicion and caution.
This environment possibly helped to create its reputation for lawlessness, which occasionally occurred, but generally between crews from ships of different nationalities.
One fatal stabbing is said to have taken place and another occasion a sailor pulled a knife on a local and was chased by “Basiners” across the lock and fields as far as Maldon (it must have been low water).
The “Cannibal Island” story was a likely creation from local folklore. The gossip of evil events said to be taking place in the “Basin” was a concern to the good people of Maldon who decided to send a missionary to alter these wayward activities. Nothing being heard of the cleric for sometime a search party was dispatched to the Basin, where after careful enquiry only his leather boots were found amongst kitchen waste. Presumably these were too tough to eat! Two hundred years later a bi-centermial party held in the Old Ship, celebrated with a birthday cake covered in the cleric’s bones, boots and dog collar.
Started in a bleak and cold marsh land, the village had become home and workplace for a community including families from several different locations. As itgrew and prospered a social life also developed, mainly around the chapel, and pubs. Its purpose and identity being largely concerned with shipping and cargoes. It was later able to adjust to changing economic circumstances near the end of its first century, which would become even more rapid and dramatic in the following one.