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Essex, England, UK

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Situated towards the southern end of the east coast of England, with approximately 350 miles of coastline, Essex borders Hertfordshire to the west, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north and Greater London to the southwest, with Kent lying on the other side of the River Thames to the south. One of the benefits of Essex's location is its closeness to London, the capital city of England. The easternmost inhabited island in the UK, Mersea Island, is situated just off the Essex coast1.

Thurrock in Essex is linked to Dartford in Kent, on the far side of the River Thames, by the Dartford Crossings. This is how the Crossings are signposted, shown on maps and referred to by locals, even though the bridge's official name is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge2. The bridge carries the southbound traffic into Kent while the Dartford Tunnel (actually two tunnels) carries the northbound traffic underneath the River Thames into Essex. Tolls are charged for the use of both tunnels and bridge.

Essex County Council

Covering an area of 3,674 square kilometres (1,419 square miles), Essex encompasses 17 UK parliamentary constituencies. According to the 2001 Census, on the 29 April that year the population of Essex was 1,310,922.

Essex is the sixth most populous county in England with the second-largest population of any non-metropolitan county after nearby Kent. The biggest towns in Essex are: the county town of Chelmsford; Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town; and the seaside town of Southend. At the time of writing, there are 14 borough councils in Essex, two of which are unitary authorities3.

  • Basildon District Council
  • Braintree District Council
  • Brentwood Borough Council
  • Castle Point Borough Council
  • Chelmsford Borough Council
  • Colchester Borough Council
  • Epping Forrest District Council
  • Harlow District Council
  • Maldon District Council
  • Rochford District Council
  • Southend-on-Sea Borough Council (Unitary Authority)
  • Tendring District Council
  • Thurrock Borough Council (Unitary Authority)
  • Uttlesford District Council

Over the years there have been a number of boundary changes, resulting in parts of Essex being incorporated into the Greater London region. Somewhat confusingly, towns such as Upminster and Romford still have Essex as part of their postal address, even though they are no longer officially part of the county. These areas may continue to move across the boundaries with future boundary revisions and so, as with some other areas mentioned in this entry, are included here for completion's sake.


Essex is an ancient county, rich in history, much of which can be found in its towns and villages, or in the castles, stately homes, listed buildings and forts which have become tourist attractions, some of them open to the public. The following are just some of the events which have contributed to shaping the county of Essex.

Land of the East Saxons

Essex was founded by the Saxons around 500AD: the name means 'Land of the East Saxons'. The Saxons' main weapon, the seaxe (a short curved sword), was later used on the county's coat of arms, which was granted by the College of Arms in 1932, with the official wording describing it in the following terms:

Gules, three Seaxes fessewise in pale Argen, pomels [knobs] and hilts [handles] Or, pointed to the sinister and cutting edges upwards.

St Osyth Priory

The building of St Osyth Priory began in 1118 and it became one of the greatest Augustinian Abbeys in Europe. The priory was built in honour of St Osyth, the daughter of a King of East Anglia. In 663AD she was beheaded by Danish invaders for refusing to worship their idols. Legend has it that, after being beheaded, Osyth picked up her head and walked up the hill to the church door, where she collapsed and died. Shortly afterwards, a spring bubbled up on the spot where she had died and the area became her shrine.

St Peter's Chapel

St Peter's Cathedral was founded by St Cedd in 654AD on the site of an old abandoned Roman fort. Originally constructed from wood, in 655 stone from the fort was used to build a more permanent structure after the style of churches in Egypt and Syria. St Peter's was so successful that later in the same year St Cedd was ordained Bishop of the East Saxons. During its long existence the building has also been used for, among other things, storing farm supplies and cattle. During Georgian times the deserted chapel was used by smugglers to store their liquor and lace. The smugglers played on the beliefs of local villagers that the chapel was haunted, by burning coloured lights inside to keep snoopers away. It was restored in 1920 for use as a chapel.

Greenstead Church

Greenstead Church, near Ongar, is said to be the oldest wooden church, possibly even the oldest wooden building in the world. Though little of the original structure remains, the church was built from split oak logs, one of which has been dated back to 1060AD. The name Greenstead is believed to derive from the clearing (stede) in a nearby forest, the location of a Saxon settlement.

In the churchyard is a 12th-Century Crusader's grave, tucked into the corner against the church next to the entrance. Over the years the markings on the flat tombstone have worn away: now bearing a plaque, the grave is surrounded by railings to protect it.

The Peasants' Revolt

In 1381, when King Richard II imposed a poll tax upon England, Wat Tyler's famous Peasants' Revolt began in Brentwood. With the revolt spreading quickly, Tyler and his followers joined forces with rebels from Kent to make up a formidable combined force that marched to London to confront Richard. Although he agreed to repeal the tax, the 14-year-old king soon went back on his word. On 16 June, London was stormed by the King's men and Wat Tyler was killed. The protesters were pushed back to Billericay where another 500 Essex men died. It would be a further two hundred years before a British monarch (Henry VIII) would attempt to impose a poll tax.

Witch Trials at Chelmsford

A piece of legislation 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes' was passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and became known as the 1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act. This led to a number of witch trials being held in a secular court at Chelmsford, the first of its kind in England.

The very first trial took place in 1566. The accused were Elizabeth Frances, Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan Waterhouse. Elizabeth confessed to using a familiar cat called Sathan in order to harm various people; she had given the cat to Agnes and Joan. Agnes was found guilty and became the first woman to be hanged for witchcraft. Elizabeth was jailed for one year and Joan was found not guilty. In 1579, Elizabeth Frances was again accused and put on trail for witchcraft; this time, she was found guilty and hanged.

Those accused of being witches were often old, poor and single women, many of whom had a cat for company and no man to defend them against accusations of witchcraft. Any inexplicable ills that befell a village tended to be blamed on witches.

The Spanish Armada

In 1588 as the Spanish Armada made its way up the English Channel, both Harwich and Tilbury were made ready for battle. Tilbury, the most likely location for the invasion, had a 12,000-strong garrison. It was here that Elizabeth I gave her famous speech, intended to rally her army and unite her country. The Spanish Armada was defeated, an important stage in England's rise as a European power.

Bradwell Nuclear Power Station

The British Nuclear Fuels power station at Bradwell started operating in 1962, using two first-generation Magnox reactors, the earliest design built in the UK. In 1999 it was decided that the proposed cost of upgrading the power station made it no longer economically viable and a decision was made to close it on the expiry of its operating licence in 2002.

Essex Smugglers and Highwaymen

At a time when smuggling was common along the Essex coast, highway robbery was rife inland. Epping Forest was a favourite haunt for many highwaymen, an ideal place for accosting travellers to and from London.


From the middle of 17th Century into the 18th Century, the town of Paglesham4 was a notorious smugglers' haunt in Essex. In the later part of the 17th Century William Blyth, known as 'Hard Apple' to his friends, led a smugglers' gang mostly made up of members of his large family of fishermen. By day Blyth was a respectable member of the community; he was a member of the Parish Council, a shopkeeper, an oysterman, a constable and he may have been a magistrate too. On dark nights when the weather permitted, Blyth and his fellow smugglers would launch their cutter, the Big Jane and head across the sea to Dunkirk, where Frenchmen would be waiting with contraband.

Some smugglers preferred to risk navigating the treacherous sandbanks to the north of the Thames estuary, where the low-lying coastal land was criss-crossed with dykes at Foulness Island and Crouch. It was at Crouch where the Stambridge smugglers used an ingenious way of outwitting the authorities and keeping locals away, by spreading rumours of a ghostly wagon that was said to haunt the roads bordering the Crouch. When the gang transported their illicit goods from the shore, they muffled their horses' hooves and the wheels of their cart with thick white cloth. The cart, called the 'Ghost Bus' by the smugglers, travelled unheard in the dead of night and it is said that those who glimpsed the ghost bus galloping along silently ran away in terror.


It was in Epping Forest around 1690 that a group of ruffians known as the 'Waltham Blacks' made their home. Many of them were former Civil War soldiers who, unable to find lawful employment, turned to deer-stealing and highway robbery in order to survive.

By the 1720s the Waltham Blacks, who got their name from their habit of sooting their faces before going out to steal and rob, had become a well-organised community under their leader, King Orronoko. They saw themselves as a separate nation with a kingdom stretching from High Beech to Waltham Abbey.

There were a few eccentric highwaymen in Essex, some of whom used unconventional methods. One of these was John Rann, also known as 'Sixteen-String Jack': he got his nickname from the 16 coloured ribbons that fluttered from the knees of his breeches, part of his flamboyant clothing, which also included top-boots, ruffled shirts and natty crimson waistcoats and his favourite hat was covered with buttons and bound with silver strings. Rann, who also 'worked' in Epping Forest, had what we would call today 'the gift of the gab': he lied so eloquently that he was accused and acquitted at least six times before being found guilty and hanged for his crimes.

Stephen Bunce is reputed to have been one of the most imaginative and amusing of all Essex highwaymen. His antics read like fairy stories, though they were real enough for him to end up on the gallows, being hanged in December 1707. Bunce's antics include the time he was walking to Romford and, on seeing a gentleman riding towards him, quickly laid down with his ear pressed to the ground:

What are you lying there like that for? Asked the gentleman coming up to him.
Ssh! Whispered Bunce, putting his finger to his lips.
But what on earth are you listening to? Said the gentlemen.
Oh! Replied Stephen Bunce, I never expected to hear fairies. This is the most lovely music I have ever heard, and I don't expect to hear such music again.

- from Essex Eccentrics by Alison Barnes

Intrigued, the gentleman dismounted his horse and passed the reins to Bunce for him to hold. As soon as the gentleman was on the ground, with his ear pressed to it listening for the fairies, Bunce rode off on the horse. On another occasion, Bunce was out walking with a friend when they came upon an old farmer leading a donkey. Creeping up behind the donkey, Bunce slipped the bridle off its head and put it on his own, while his friend led the donkey away. When the farmer turned and saw Bunce instead of his donkey, Bunce claimed that he had been transformed into a donkey for committing a grievous sin and, having now having atoned for it, he had changed back into a man. The astonished farmer released Bunce.


A large proportion of Essex is fields, many of which are used for animal grazing and crop growing, including vegetables and fruit. In places such as Tiptree the fruit is used to make preserves.

Expanses of woodland are also common in Essex. The largest of these border with other counties, such as Hatfield Forest which borders with Hertfordshire and Epping Forest, which extends into London. The amount of Epping Forest officially in Essex has dwindled as a result of boundary changes. Essex also has many rural villages which, like its towns, are surrounded by green-belt5 land. The agricultural history of Essex includes its mills and ancient barns.

Cressing Temple

In 1137 Queen Matilda granted the lands of Cressing to the Order of the Knights Templar. The remains of Cressing Temple, situated three miles north of Witham, are set in a fine example of 13th-Century Essex farmland. It has a Tudor walled garden and two of the finest medieval timber barns in Europe. The Barley Barn, a huge timber-framed barn, was constructed in the 13th Century, with the more refined Wheat Barn built 50 years afterwards. Essex County Council owns Cressing Temple which is open to the public at certain times of the year.


In the 1820s and '30s there were approximately 285 working mills in Essex. Due to the introduction of steam-driven roller mills, as well as improvements in sea, rail and road transport by the 1930s, this number dwindled to just a handful and by 1950 the last working mill had ceased production.

Essex County Council was the first local authority in England to take on the guardianship of its county's remaining mills, of which there are seven: four windmills, two watermills, and one steam-driven mill. Five of these - all four of the windmills and one of the watermills - have been restored and the other two are currently being restored. However, there was a delay with the restoration of the steam-driven mill due to the presence of a bat roost inside the mill. Some of the mills are open to the general public, while others only open for educational purposes to special interest groups.

Foot and Mouth Disease

In February 2001, Essex was at the forefront of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The disease was first discovered in a delivery of pigs at an Essex abattoir during a routine inspection. In spite of efforts to control this highly infectious viral disease, which affects pigs, cattle, sheep and goats, it spread across Britain and as far as Northern Ireland. As the disease took hold, it led to pyres, disposal pits and the virtual closure of the countryside. The crisis lasted for 11 months, during which time there were 2,030 confirmed cases, around six million animals were slaughtered and many farmers lost their livelihoods. It also had a negative impact on the tourist industry and the UK economy as a whole. The infected pigs at the start of the epidemic were traced back to a farm in Northumberland.


Being located so close to London, the prosperous south of England and Europe, many industries have felt encouraged to make Essex their home. These days there is a mixture of old and modern industries, with both multinational companies and local businesses contributing to the industrial make-up of the county.


A relatively new company, Amstrad, an electronics company, was founded in 1968 by its current Chairman Sir Alan Sugar. The name Amstrad derives from the initials of his full name - Alan Michael Sugar - and the first part of the word 'trading'. Amstrad has been at the forefront of many small technological advances. In 2005, television viewers witnessed the extended job interview which was Alan's search for a new manager in the reality show The Apprentice6. This featured 14 candidates being tested: each week one was sacked with the words 'You're Fired!' until only one was left.


The Ford of Britain motor company has a few premises in the Brentwood and Basildon areas including Ford Credit European Headquarters, instrumentation and design offices, a vehicle test track and tractor plant.

In the 1970s the Ford Escort was a popular car in Essex, which may have been partly due to it being built at the Ford factory in South Ockendon. Production of the Escort RS 1600 began in 1970. Motor racing driver Graham Hill drove the first Escort RS 1600 off the Advanced Vehicle Operations7 factory line. By 1975, the production of the Escort had been absorbed by the mainstream Ford factories in Britain and Germany, partly due to the fuel crisis of 1973 - 74. In 2005 the factory closed down. There are currently plans to convert the 30-acre site into a mixed residential and commercial area.

Port of Tilbury

In 1995 a Scottish company, Forth Ports PLC, took over the Port of Tilbury, which is situated on the Thames estuary and is in an ideal location, close to London and the Southeast, with easy access to the UK's motorway network. It is the largest container port for timber and paper products in the UK. The construction of the original dock began on 17 July, 1882 and was completed for its opening on 17 April, 1886.


Chelmsford has a claim to be the birthplace of radio: the world's first wireless factory was established there in 1898. Wireless Telegraph & Signal Co Ltd has been through several name changes since and is now known as the Marconi Corporation plc, after the founder of the company and father of radio, Guglielmo Marconi.

De La Rue

De La Rue, a security printing company in Debden, may not be one of the biggest or best-known companies in Essex, but they do produce the most money. In 2002 they were chosen as the preferred bidder for a seven-year contract to print British banknotes. Producing money is not new to Essex; in the 10th Century there were three royal Anglo-Saxon mints, one of which was situated at Horninduna, later known as Horndon-on-the-Hill.

Wilkin & Sons Limited

Wilkin & Sons Limited in Tiptree have produced conserves, spreads and jams for more than 115 years. Their products are shipped to sixty different countries, and the company holds royal warrants for both preserves and marmalades. The current chairman Peter Wilkin's great grandfather A C Wilkin founded the business in 1885. The company grow their own fruits on a 1,000-acre farm in the Tiptree area.

Extreme Weather

Winters in most of Essex tend to be mild but there have been some notable exceptions.

The Big Freeze of 1895

In February 1895 a prolonged icy cold spell created huge ice floes on the river Thames, affecting one of the wider parts of the river at Grays, where the Thames is nearly a kilometre/half a mile wide. The ice put a stop to most river traffic and even left some of it stranded. However, the biggest effect was at the London Port where lighters and barges on which the port depended on were immobilised and other vital services that relied on the river were also disrupted.

The Flood of 1953

At around 12.30am on 1 February, 1953, a tremendous roar was heard across Canvey Island, the combination of galeforce wind and the surge tide which had breached the sea wall, flooding Canvey almost instantly; 11,500 were made homeless and 58 people drowned.

The storm had started the previous day and had affected other areas along the coast before reaching Canvey. There were at least 300 deaths, and 119 of these were in Essex.

The Big Freeze of 1962 - 3

Essex was just one of the areas in Britain affected by the Big Freeze of 1962 - 63. On Boxing Day 1962, four inches of snow fell, creating a picturesque winter wonderland. A few days later, a further ten inches fell, with the accompanying bitterly cold winds causing snow drifts of up to six feet in some places, bringing life to a standstill. Road and rail distribution and travel were severely disrupted and airports were closed. The River Thames froze over, as did many water supplies and some areas such as Brentwood had to use standpipes. Power cuts caused by the icy weather caused further hardship. Only in March, over two months later, would the snow thaw completely and life return to normal.

The Great Storm of 1987

On 16 October, 1987, Essex (along with the rest of southern Britain) woke up to the worst galeforce storm to hit the UK for around 200 years. The force of the more than 161kmh/100mph winds uprooted millions of trees, tore the roofs from houses and buildings, damaged cars and flattened caravans, tossed small boats and yachts about as if they were toys and brought down electricity power cables. This left some parts of the county without electricity and generally wrought havoc over a wide area. At least 18 people died and the damage ran into millions of pounds.

Essex Today

Essex is a diverse county with a varied landscape, from coastline to marshland to rolling farmland and the peaks of its hills (despite having a reputation for being flat, Essex does have some hills). Its tourist attractions are as varied as the landscape, with something for everyone - the following is just a small selection.

Tourist Attractions

  • Many people claim that Essex has the longest coastline in England, though just as many claim the same for Cornwall. Either way, Essex has several fine beaches including Clacton and Southend-on-Sea, which has the longest pier8 in the world. Southend also has a famous seafront Adventure Island and an annual two-day (weather permitting) airshow.

  • For animals or wildlife there's Colchester Zoo and Old McDonald's Farm. For something wilder and less organised there are many nature reserves throughout Essex: Fingringhoe Wick and Roding Valley Meadows are just two of them.

  • Among the historical attractions are: Colchester Castle Museum, where you can see, hear and touch some of Essex's history; Hedingham Castle, one of the best preserved Norman keeps in England; and Tilbury Fort, the most complete example of its type in England.

  • For something a bit more unusual, Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker is currently the biggest and deepest Cold War bunker open to the public in southeast England.

  • Out-of-town shopping centres include Clacton Factory Shopping Village, where you'll find nearly 50 stores selling named brands of clothing, jewellery and household goods at discount prices and Lakeside Shopping Centre, with nearly 300 stores to choose from. Lakeside offers the only free personal shopper service in a UK shopping centre. In 1998, a six-part documentary called Lakesiders was made by the BBC. It focused mostly on the staff at Lakeside.

  • For those with an interest in motor sport there's Lakeside Karting Raceway, where you can drive karts around the circuit, or you can watch the experts at nearby Arena Essex Raceway.


As well as the usual buses and trains (some of the south of Essex bordering Greater London includes a few London Transport buses and even fewer London Underground tube stations on the Central Line), there is also the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry, which is subsidised by both Thurrock Council and Kent County Council. For longer journeys there's Harwich Ferry Port (officially called Harwich International Port), located on the southern side of the River Stour. The county has two airports: London Stansted, which is actually around 30 miles from London; and - also not in London - the somewhat confusingly-named London Southend Airport.

Colchester Barracks

Colchester has a military history which dates back to Roman times. Today it is the base of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, a major component of the UK's rapid deployment force. This is currently undergoing extensive modernisation, the groundwork for which was laid by the Ministry of Defence in 1977. The modernisation, which will include the building of living and working accommodation for more than 3,500 army personnel and around 700 civilian staff, began in 2004 and is expected to be completed in 2008, at an estimated cost of almost £580million. A large portion of this will come from a Private Finance Initiative, including the sale of a piece of land next to Colchester town centre to a private developer.

Colchester Barracks is also the site of the last remaining military prison in the UK. Built in the 19th Century, now modernised and renamed the Military Corrective Training Centre, service personnel sentenced to detention there serve up to two years, being trained and rehabilitated prior to being returned to active service or discharged into civilian life. The prison regime is much tougher than in civilian prisons, with an emphasis on discipline.

Bits and Pieces about Essex

Essex Universities

In 2004, the University of Essex celebrated its 40th anniversary with a visit from HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. A campus-based university, it was opened in 1965 and has produced such famous alumni as BBC foreign correspondent Brian Hanrahan; Mexico's first and only astronaut, Dr Rodolfo Neri Vela; Tony Banks from the band Genesis; and even former Costa Rica President, and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Oscar Arias Sanchez. At present its campus has expanded from the original site on the outskirts of Colchester and now includes a Southend campus and the East15 Acting School in Loughton. Other universities include Anglia Ruskin University and Writtle, an agricultural College.

Essex Radio Stations

Essex has two main radio stations, confusingly called Essex Radio and Radio Essex. Essex Radio, now known as Essex FM, has been on the air since September 1981. In 1986, the BBC launched Radio Essex (also known as BBC Essex). There are also several smaller radio stations in Essex.

Douglas Noel Adams (1952 - 2001)

The founder of h2g2, Douglas Adams, has a tenuous link with Essex. Though he was born in Cambridge, Douglas's parents divorced when he was seven leading him to board at Brentwood School. He was educated there for 11 years until returning to Cambridge to attend the university. We mention this just to stop the most ardent Hitchhiker fans from pointing it out.

Celebrity Residences

South Woodham Ferrers, one of Essex's more affluent areas, has become a popular district for celebrities and, in particular, footballers with London teams to move to in recent years.

Chelmsford Prison's Porridge

Chelmsford Prison served as the location for some of the scenes of 'HM Slade Prison', the fictional prison in the BBC television sitcom Porridge that starred Ronnie Barker.


During the 1980s, Essex found new fame as the butt of jokes about so-called stereotypical Essex girls and, to a lesser extent, Essex men. This extended to the making of a television documentary, Essex Wives, a 'fly-on-the-wall' examination of the lives of a group of glossy, glamorous ladies from Essex who shared a strong determination to get on in life. Both the jokes and the stereotypes have more recently gone into decline.

Essex's Future

The southeast of Essex is on the verge of major redevelopment. The community project Thames Gateway will involve the building of new towns, shops, schools and amenities. The commercial venture London Gateway is a collaboration between Shell and P&O for building on the site of a former Shell refinery on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. This last will include a business centre and port which are due for completion well before the nearby London Olympic Games are due to be held in 2012. The sports events due to be held outside London include mountain biking, which will take place at Weald Country Park near Brentwood.

1In fact, the island is so close to the Essex coast that - apart from during very high tides - you can walk or drive to it across a causeway called 'The Strood'.2You don't actually see the words 'Queen Elizabeth II Bridge' until you're right at the bridge itself.3Councils responsible for all the services in their areas.4Paglesham is one of Essex's oldest fishing villages.5An area of land around a village or town officially set aside to remain undeveloped and unspoilt.6A TV format imported from the USA, where multi-millionaire Donald Trump had set challenges for prospective employees, with the aim of choosing one to become his apprentice in the business world.7The shell of the car was assembled at Ford's Halewood factory, then delivered to the South Ockendon factory where the production was competed.8Since 1959 sections of Southend's pier have been partially rebuilt at least four times due to fire damage.

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