A Topographical Dictionary of England (1831) by Samuel Lewis

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“COLCHESTER, a borough and market-town having separate jurisdiction, locally in the Colchester division of the hundred of Lexden, county of ESSEX, 22 miles (N. E. by E.) from Chelmsford, and 51 (N. E. by E.) from London, containing 12,005 inhabitants, and, including the parishes of Bere-Church, Greenstead, Lexden, and Mile-End, which are within the liberties, 14,016.

The name of this place, which by some antiquaries is supposed to have been the Camalodunum of the Romans, is derived from its situation on the river Colne, and its history may be traced to a period of very remote antiquity. It was by the Britons called Caer Colun, and appears to have been a town of considerable importance prior to the invasion of the Romans, who, according to Tacitus and other historians, having, under the conduct of Claudius, subdued the Trinobantes and taken possession of this town, garrisoned it with the second, ninth, and fourteenth legions, styled by him the conquerors of Britain, and named the place Colonia. Claudius having reduced the adjacent country to a Roman province, appointed Plautius his propraetor, and returned in triumph to Rome. After his departure, Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, taking advantage of the absence of part of the Roman legions, attacked Camalodunum, which, after a feeble resistance, she entirely demolished. According to Pliny, and the evidence of Roman coins and other ancient inscriptions, it appears to have been soon rebuilt with increased splendour, and to have been adorned' with public edifices, a temple to Claudius, a triumphal arch, and a statue to the Goddess of Victory. Constantine the Great is traditionally said to have been born in this city, which continued to flourish as a primary station of the Romans till their final departure from Britain.

The Saxons, by whom it was afterwards occupied, gave it the name of Colne-ceaster, and it retained its consequence as a place of strength for a considerable time, but began to decline in proportion as London rose into importance. On the irruption of the Danes it became the residence of that people, who, by treaty with Alfred, were established in the city and country adjacent; but commencing their barbarous system of plunder and devastation, Edward the Elder took the town by assault, and, putting them all to the sword, re-peopled it with West Saxons; according to the Saxon Chronicles he repaired the walls in 922, at which time he is. stated to have erected the castle, now falling to decay, but the remains of that edifice are evidently of Norman character. Colchester was a considerable town at the time of the Norman survey, but suffered greatly in the wars of the succeeding reigns. During the turbulent reign of John, Saber de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, having assembled an army of foreigners, laid siege to the city in 1215, but, on the approach of the barons, who were advancing from London to its relief, he drew off his forces and retired to Bury St. Edmund's; he afterwards got possession of the town, and, having plundered it, left a garrison in the castle, which, having been invested by the king, was compelled to surrender; it was subsequently besieged and taken by the troops of Prince Louis, whom the barons had invited into England to their assistance, and who, thinking the opportunity favourable for conquest, kept possession of it for himself, and hoisted the banner of France upon its walls; but the barons having submitted to their new sovereign, Henry III., retook the castle from the prince, and expelled him from the kingdom. In the reign of Edward III., the town contributed five ship's and one hundred and seventy mariners towards the naval armament for the blockade of Calais.

The inhabitants, during the attempt to raise Lady Jane Grey to the throne, steadfastly adhered to the interests of Mary, whose cause they supported with so much zeal, that very soon after her accession, that queen visited the town, for the express purpose of testifying her gratitude; her majesty was received with every public demonstration of joy, and, on her departure, was presented with a silver cup, and £20 in gold. During her reign many of the Protestant inhabitants were put to death on account of their religious tenets.

In 1648, the town was besieged by the parliamentary forces under Fairfax; after a close blockade for eleven weeks, during which period it was gallantly defended by the Earl of Norwich, Lord Capel, Sir Charles Lucas, and Sir George Lisle, the garrison, reduced to the extremity of want and suffering, surrendered to Fairfax, when Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were shot under the castlewalls.

The town is built on the summit and northern acclivity of an eminence rising gently from the river Colne, over which are three bridges, and occupies a quadrilateral area enclosed by the ancient walls, within which the. houses, to the south and south-east are irregularly disposed; the streets are spacious, and the High-street contains many excellent houses; the town is well paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with water by an engine worked by steam.

The theatre, a neat and commodious edifice erected in 1812, is opened annually by the Norwich company of comedians. A literary and philosophical society was established in 1820, the members of which in rotation deliver a lecture at their monthly meetings; attached to it is a museum of shells, fossils, and natural curiosities. A botanical society was instituted in 1823; there is a medical society, established in 1774; and there are a private subscription library, and a musical society of amateurs.

The barracks, with a park of artillery, were capable of accommodating ten thousand troops, but since the conclusion of the war they have been taken down.

The woollen manufacture appears to have been carried on so early as the reign of Edward III., but the weaving of baizes was probably introduced by the Flemings in the reign of Elizabeth, and at that time employed a considerable number of the inhabitants; the baize was subject to certain regulations prescribed by the Baize-hall; but the trade has been transferred to other towns, and is here succeeded by a large silk-manufactory.

The oyster fishery on the river Colne, granted to the free burgesses by Richard I., confirmed by subsequent charters, and for the preservation of which courts of admiralty were usually held on the borough walls, affords employment to a great number of men, and some hundreds of smacks are engaged in conveying to London the oysters dredged from the river, for which there is a very great demand, especially for those of Pyfleet, which are found in a small creek, and are remarkable for their goodness and flavour; the river is navigable for vessels of two hundred tons' burden to the Hythe, where there are a spacious quay and a custom-house.

The market days are Saturday and Wednesday, the former being the principal, on which corn and cattle are sold; a market for meat, fish, and vegetables, is held daily on the north side of the High-street, where a convenient and spacious market-place has been constructed. The corn-exchange, a handsome building supported on columns, was erected a few years since, of which the lower part is appropriated to the corn market, and the upper part occupied as offices by the Essex and Suffolk Insurance Society.

The fairs are on July 5th and the following day, and July 23rd and the two following days, for cattle; and October 20th for cattle, and the three following days for general merchandise.

The borough was first incorporated in 1089, by charter of Richard I., who conferred on the inhabitants many valuable privileges, which were confirmed by succeeding sovereigns, and extended by Henry V. By its charter, which, having been forfeited on several occasions, was renewed by George III. in 1818, the government is vested in a mayor, high steward, recorder, chamberlain, twelve aldermen, eighteen assistants, and eighteen common council-men, aided by a town-clerk, two coroners, a water-bailiff, four Serjeants at mace, and other officers. The mayor, recorder, the late mayor, and four of the aldermen, are justices of the peace for the borough, the freedom of which is inherited by birth, and acquired by servitude within the borough, and by presentation. The corporation hold quarterly courts of session for the borough and liberties, together extending over sixteen parishes, and two courts of pleas for the recovery of debts to any amount, the jurisdiction of which, by Edward IV., was extended to the adjoining parishes of Bere-Church, Greenstead, Lexden, and Mile-End; these courts are held at stated periods; one, called the Law Hundred, for actions against free burgesses, is held on Monday; and the other, called the Foreign Court, for actions against foreigners, or nonfreemen, is held on Thursday; the petty sessions for the division are also held in this town, every Saturday.

The moot-hall is an ancient edifice, originally erected by Eudo, dapifer, or steward, to Henry I., and containing the hall and the exchequer-chamber, in part of which the records are deposited; over these is the council chamber, a spacious room in which the public business of the corporation is transacted; underneath is the town gaol.

The borough first exercised the elective franchise in. the 23rd of Edward I., since which time it has, with occasional intermissions, returned two members to parliament; the right of election is vested in the free burgesses generally not receiving alms, whose number is about one thousand four hundred, but may be augmented at the will of the corporation in common council assembled; the mayor is the returning officer. Colchester is, but upon very disputed authority, supposed to have been the seat of a diocese in the early period of Christianity in Britain; Henry VIII. made it the seat of a suffragan bishop, and two bishops were successively consecrated.

The town comprises the parishes of All Saints, St. James, St. Martin, St. Mary at the Walls, St. Nicholas, St. Peter, St. Runwald, and the Holy Trinity, within the walls, and the parishes of St. Botolph, St. Giles, St. Leonard, or the Hythe, and St. Mary Magdalene, without the walls, all in the archdeaconry of Colchester, and diocese of London.

The living of All Saints' is a rectory not in charge, endowed with £400 private benefaction, and £400 royal bounty, and in the patronage of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford; the church was erected in the year 1309, near the east gate of the monastery of Grey friars, which had been founded by Robert Fitz-Walter in that year.

The living of St. James' is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £11. 10., endowed with £400 private benefaction, £200 royal bounty, and £500 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Crown; the church is a spacious structure built prior to the reign of Edward II. ; it has a fine altar-piece representing the Adoration of the Shepherds.

The living of St. Martin's is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £6. 13. 4., endowed with £800 royal bounty, and £800 parliamentary grant. The Bishop of London, for that turn, was patron in 1825; the church was much damaged during the siege of the town in 1648,; the steeple, which was built with Roman bricks, is now in a ruinous state.

The living of St. Mary's at the Walls is a rectory, rated in the king's books at £10, and in the patronage of the Bishop of London; the church was rebuilt in 1713, with the exception of the ancient steeple, which, becoming ruinous, was repaired in 1729.

The living of St. Nicholas is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £10, endowed with £800 royal bounty, and £600 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford; the church is ancient; the tower some years since fell down upon the nave and the chancel, the latter of which is still in a ruinous state.

The chapel of St. Helen, in this parish, rebuilt by Eudo in 1076, was lately used as a place of worship by the Society of Friends, and is now used for a Sunday school.

The living of St. Peter's is a discharged vicarage, rated in the king's books at £10, endowed with £600 private benefaction, and £600 royal bounty, and in the patronage of John Thornton, Esq.; the church, an ancient structure, was erected before the Conquest, and in Domesday-book is noticed as the only church in Colchester; it was extensively repaired and modernised in 1758, when the tower at the west end was erected, and was some time since greatly beautified at an expense of £3000; the altar-piece is embellished with a fine painting by Halls, the subject of which is the raising of Jairus' daughter.

The living of St. Runwald's is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £7. 13. 4., endowed with £600 private benefaction, and £1000 royal bounty, and in the patronage of C. Round, Esq.; the church, which is small, was erected about the close of the thirteenth century.

The living of the parish of the Holy Trinity is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £6. 13. 4., endowed with £200 private benefaction, and £200 royal bounty, and in the patronage of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford; the church was erected in the year 1349.

The living of St. Botolph's is a perpetual curacy, united to the rectory of All Saints'; the church has been in ruins since the siege in 1648, exhibiting indications of its original magnificence, and of the antiquity of its style, which appears to have been the early Norman, and of the same date as the neighbouring priory; it was built with bricks of extraordinary hardness, supposed to have been taken from the Roman station; in the interior are several plain massive piers and circular arches, and part of the arches of the triforium is remaining; the west front has a central doorway, on the south side of which is a deeply receding Norman arch; over these are two series of intersecting arches.

The living of St. Giles' is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £30, endowed with £200 private benefaction, and £200 royal bounty, and in the patronage of the Devisees of the Rev. J. W. Morgan; the church, a very ancient structure, and formerly greatly dilapidated, has lately undergone a thorough repair.

The living of St. Leonard's is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £10, endowed with £200 private benefaction, £400 royal bounty, and £200 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford; the church is a spacious structure in good preservation.

The living of St. Mary Magdalene's is a rectory, rated in the king's books at £11, and in the patronage of the Crown; the church, which is small, is pleasantly situated on Magdalene Green.

On the site of the chapel of St. Anne, which stood in the parish of St. James, and was formerly a hermitage, a barn has been erected, part of the chapel having been incorporated with the building.

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

The free grammar school was founded and endowed by the corporation, to whom 'Queen Elizabeth, in the twenty-sixth year of her reign, granted certain ecclesiastical revenues for that purpose; the present income is £117 per annum; the number of scholars on the foundation is generally from thirty to forty. A scholarship for boys educated at this school was founded in St. John's College, Cambridge, by the Rev. Robert Lewes, in 1620; two scholarships, founded in the same college by the Rev. Ambrose Gilbert, in 1642, revert to this school on failure of applicants of the surnames of Gilbert, or Torbington; and four founded in Pembroke College, Cambridge, by Mr. Ralph Scrivener, in 1601, on failure of boys from the grammar school at Ipswich. Dr. Harsnet, Archbishop of York, received the rudiments of his education in this institution.

Two charity schools, for the education of fifty-five boys and thirty girls, who are also clothed, were established in 1708; towards the purchase of the school-house Mr. Samuel Rush, in 1711, gave £100, and £50 was given for the same purpose by his widow. Mr. William Naggs, in 1747, gave a freehold messuage and twenty-five acres of land, in the county of Essex, to certain trustees, for the better maintenance of these schools, to which seven other benefactions have been added.

The National school constitutes an extension of the original plan of the charity school; the number of children educated is about four hundred, of whom one hundred and fortyeight are clothed. A Lancasterian school for children of both sexes is supported by subscription; there are schools also supported by the several dissenting congregations. A school for the children of members of the Society of Friends was established in 1816, and endowed with a sum of money and an extensive library by John Kendall, to which has been added a legacy 'by the late Francis Freshfield, Esq.; the election of the master is vested in eight trustees, subject to the sanction of the society at their quarterly meeting; in consideration of the dividend arising from the legacies, he instructs gratuitously six day-scholars, sons of members of the society, or, in failure of such, sons of necessitous parents of sober conduct, in addition to the boarding and education of the pupils for whom he is regularly paid.

Mr. Arthur Winsley, in 1726, founded and endowed almshouses for twelve poor men, to which six others have since been added; each of the almsmen receives seven shillings and sixpence per week, and a chaldron of coal annually. Mr. John Wenock, in 1679, erected and endowed almshouses for six aged widows, which number, by a bequest from Mrs. Bardfield, has since been increased to fourteen. Ralph Finch also, in 1552, founded and endowed almshouses for four poor persons. Those erected by Lady Mary D'Arcy, and others situated in Eld-lane, having no endowment, are occupied by persons requiring parochial relief; there are also several charitable bequests for distribution among the poor.

The Essex and Colchester general hospital, completed in 1820 and supported by subscription, is a neat building of white brick, situated on the south side of the London road, comprising a front receding curvilinearly from the rear at both angles, so as to present the appearance of wings.

Of the monastic establishments anciently existing here, the hospital, originally founded at the command of Henry I., for a master and leprous brethren, and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, by Eudo, who had been a principal officer of the household to William the Conqueror and his two sons, of which, at the dissolution, the revenue was £11, was refounded in 1610 by James I., for three poor brethren and a master, who is always the clergyman of the parish.

Of the other ancient establishments, the principal was St. John's abbey, founded in the reign of Henry I. by the same Eudo, for monks of the Benedictine order, the revenue of which, at the dissolution, was £523. 17.; of this only the gateway is remaining, a handsome structure in the later style of English architecture, and, consequently, either rebuilt since the foundation of the abbey, or a subsequent addition to it.

To the south of the town was a monastery of Augustine canons, founded in the reign of Henry I., and dedicated to St. Julian and St. Botolphi by Ernulphus, who afterwards became prior; at the dis-solution, its revenue was £113. 12. 8.; the only remains are its stately church, now in ruins, which was previously the parish Church of St. Botolph. Without the walls was an hospital, or priory, of Crutched friars, an order introduced into England about the year 1244, the revenue of which, at the dissolution, was £7. 7. 8.

The priory of Franciscan, or Grey, friars was founded, in 1309, by Robert Fitz- Walter, the only probable remains of which are the parish church of All Saints.

Of the Walls of which the city was surrounded, and in consideration of repairing which, Richard III is recorded to have exempted the burgesses from sending members to three of his parliaments, only some detached portions are remaining; they were strengthened by bastions, and defended on the west by an ancient fort of Roman construction, the remaining arches of which are built with Roman bricks; and the north and west sides, where the town was most exposed, were protected by deep intrenchments; the entrance to the town was by four principal gates and three posterns, which have been mostly demolished.

The ruins of the castle occupy an elevated site to the north-east of the town; the form is quadrilateral, and the walls of the keep, twelve feet iii thickness, are almost entire; the building is of flint, stone, and Roman brick intermixed, and is supposed to have been originally erected by the Romans, though subsequently repaired by Edward the Elder; the solidity of the structure has frustrated repeated attempts to demolish it for the sake of the materials.

The town and environs abound with ancient relics, among which are, a quantity of Roman bricks in several of the churches and other buildings, tesselated pavements, sepulchral urns, statues, lamps, rings, coins, medals, arid almost every species of Roman antiquities.

William Gilbert, physician to Elizabeth and James I., and author of a work on the qualities of the loadstone, entitled " De Magnate" and Dr. Samuel Harsnett, Archbishop of York, were natives of this place. The late Right Hon. Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons, who was born in the neighbourhood, was elevated to the peerage, June 3rd, 1817, by the title of Baron Colchester, which is now enjoyed by his son.”

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