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A Topographical Dictionary of England (1831) by Samuel Lewis

“CHELMSFORD, a market-town and parish in the hundred of CHELMSFORD, county of ESSEX, of which it is the chief town, 29 miles (N. E. by E.) from London, on the road to Yarmouth, containing, with the hamlet of Moulsham, 4994 inhabitants.

This place, which is within a short distance of the Caesaromagus of the Romans, derives its name from an ancient ford on the river Chelmer, near the natural confluence of that river with the Cann, into which its stream is previously diverted by an artificial channel near the bridge. In the reign of Edward the Confessor, and at the time of the Norman survey, it was in the possession of the bishops of London; and two buildings, still called Bishop's Hall and Bishop's Mill, seem to indicate its having been either permanently, or occasionally, their residence. In other respects it was an inconsiderable place till the reign of Henry I., when Maurice, Bishop of London, built a stone bridge of three arches over the river Cann; and, diverting the road, which previously passed through Writtle, made Chelmsford the great thoroughfare to the eastern parts of the county, and to Suffolk and Norfolk. From this period the town increased in importance; and its trade so much improved, that, in the reign of Edward III., it sent four representatives to a grand council at Westminster.

A convent for Black, or Dominican, friars was established at an early period, the foundation of which has been erroneously attributed to Malcolm, King of Scotland: in this convent, of which only the site is visible, Thomas Langford, a friar, compiled a Universal Chronicle, from the creation to his own time: its revenue, at the dissolution, was £9. 6. 5.

During the late war with France, two extensive ranges of barracks, for four thousand men, were erected near the town, both of which have been taken down; and at a short distance from it, a line of embankments, defended by star batteries, was raised to protect the approaches to the metropolis from the eastern coast, of which some traces are still remaining.

The town consists of one principal and three smaller streets, well paved, and lighted with gas; the houses, several of which, on both sides of the town, have gardens extending to the river, are in general modern and well built; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water from a spring at the distance of half a mile, conveyed by pipes into a reservoir, over which is a handsome dome, supported on six columns of the Doric order. It has been much improved under the inspection of commissioners appointed by act of parliament, whose powers were extended by a subsequent act obtained in 1822.

A handsome iron bridge has been recently constructed over the Chelmer; and an elegant stone bridge, of one fine arch, was erected in 1787, over the river Cann, connecting the town with the hamlet of Moulsham, and replacing an ancient bridge erected by Bishop Maurice, which, though calculated to endure for ages, had become too narrow in the improved state of the approaches to the town.

The theatre, a neat and commodious edifice, is opened occasionally: assemblies and concerts take place periodically in the shirehall; and races, which continue for three days, are held, in the latter part of July, on Galleywood common, about two miles from the town, where there is an excellent two-mile course, of which one mile has been recently improved at a considerable expense, and on which a stand has been erected, capable of accommodating two hundred persons.

The trade consists principally in corn, which is sent to London, and in the traffic arising from the situation of the town as a great public thoroughfare: there are several large corn-mills on the banks of the Chelmer. A navigable canal to the river Black-water, twelve miles distant, was constructed in 1796, and has greatly contributed to increase the trade.

The market is on Friday, for corn, cattle, and provisions: fairs are held on May 12th and November 12th, the latter principally for cattle.

The town is within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold petty sessions for the division every Tuesday and Friday; and constables and other officers are appointed at the court leet of the lord of the manor, who also holds a court baron occasionally. The assizes and sessions for the county, and the election of knights for the shire, are regularly held here. The shire-hall is an elegant and commodious structure, fronted with Portland stone, and having a rustic basement, from which rise four handsome pillars of the Ionic order, supporting a triangular pediment: the upper part of the front is ornamented with appropriate figures, in basso relievo, of Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy; in the lower department are the several court-rooms, and an area for the use of the corn market; and in the upper part is a spacious assembly-room, extending the whole length of the building, over which are rooms for the grand jury and witnesses, and other apartments.

The old county gaol, a spacious and handsome stone building in the hamlet of Moulsham, was completed in 1777, at an expense of upwards of £18,000: it comprises different departments for the classification of prisoners; in the front is the gaoler's house, and within the walls an infirmary and a chapel; the prisoners are employed in various kinds of work, the profits of which are applied toward the support of the establishment t it is appropriated exclusively to the reception of persons confined for debt, and of prisoners committed for trial. Adjoining the gaol, and incorporated with it, is the house of correction, now used only for convicted female prisoners: it was built in 1806, at an expense of about £7500. The new house of correction at Springfield Hill, on the road to Colchester, is a very extensive and well arranged building of brick, ornamented with stone, begun in October 1822, and completed in 1825, at an expense of £55,739. 17. O¾, and capable of containing two hundred and fifty-four prisoners, of whom two hundred-and eighteen may be confined in separate cells: it comprises seven distinct ranges of building, radiating from a spacious area comprehending, with the site of the buildings, nearly nine acres, in the centre of which is the governor's house, including a neat chapel, and commanding a view of fourteen yards, for the proper classification of the prisoners; in eight of these yards are tread-wheels, together furnishing labour for two hundred and thirteen at one time; in two others are capstans, and, in one, a windlass and machinery for raising water: there are fourteen day-rooms, two of which are used as workshops for shoemakers, eight store-rooms, one of which is used as a work-room for tailors, an infirmary, a lazaretto, a bath, and other requisite offices. Two of the tread-wheels are attached to a mill which grinds corn for the use of this prison, the county gaol, and the house of correction at Barking: the profits of the tread-mill, from the 1st of July, 1828, to the 30th of June, 1829, were £220. 13. 5½.

The living is a rectory, in the jurisdiction of the Commissary of Essex and Herts, rated in the king's books at £31. 2. 6., and in the patronage of Lady St. John Mildmay. The church is dedicated to St. Mary; the body has been lately rebuilt, at an expense of £15,000, the former having fallen down in 1800, from the unskilfulness of some workmen, who, in digging a vault, undermined two of the principal pillars: it is a stately structure in the later style of English architecture, with a square embattled tower crowned with pinnacles and surmounted by a lofty spire. In this church the archdeacon holds his court, and the wills and records of grants of administration are deposited in an office over the south porch. A collection of books, presented by Dr. Plume, of Maldon, for the use of the clergy resident in the neighbourhood, is kept in the chancel, the east end of which is ornamented with a finely painted window, representing the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Saviour, and figures of the four Evangelists.

There are two places of worship for Independents, and one each for the Society of Friends and Wesleyan Methodists.

The free grammar school was founded and endowed, in 1552, by Edward VI.: in addition to the classics, a course of English instruction has been introduced. This school, in common with those at Maldon and Brentwood, has an exhibition of £6 per annum to Caius College, Cambridge: the management is vested in four hereditary trustees. The school-house was rebuilt by R. Benyon, Esq., in 1782, on. the site of a more ancient one erected by Sir John Tyrrell, Bart. Philemon Holland, translator of Camden's Britannia, and a native of Chelmsford; John Dee, a celebrated mathematician; Sir William Mildmay, Bart., founder of Emanuel College, Cambridge; and Dr. Plume, Archdeacon of Rochester, received the rudiments of their education in this establishment. A charity school, for the maintenance, clothing, and instruction of fifty boys, founded in 1713; and a similar school for twenty girls, founded in 1714, are supported by subscription: there are also a Lancasterian, a National, and an infant school, for children of both sexes.

Six almshouses in the hamlet of Moulsham, founded by Sir Thomas and Lady Mildmay, in 1565, were rebuilt by William Mildmay, Esq., in 1758: four almshouses in Baddow-lane, erected by the sale of a barn given by William Davis, in 1520, for the use of the poor, have also been rebuilt, and two tenements added at the expense of the parish.”

From Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of England (1831) - copyright Mel Lockie 2016